The sun. So hated for most part of the year when temperatures soar and hot winds do all they can to sap away every bit of energy. So loved in the winters. Such is life. And people who live it. Fickle.
Doe aunty, wrapped in a shawl I had bought for her with my first salary, sat in the garden of our house, on my favorite cane chair, soaking in the Sun. Shanti squatted next to her feet. I had settled in my chair with a PG Wodehouse, my back to them, happily surrounded by people I missed so terribly in Delhi where I was doing MD. I could hear the conversation between Doe Aunty and Shanti. The teacher and the student. Familiar voices. Voices I have been hearing since I don’t know when. The familiar babble made me feel happy as I turned pages of the book in my hand.
Happy…. till I heard the last bit of conversation between the two. My head turned around sharply as my brain registered what my ears were hearing.
Her knitting and Shanti’s English book lay in Doe Aunty’s lap, forgotten. Shanti’s head hung low. Tears were beginning to stream down their faces in a sad unison.
My mum who had just walked in with a plate of hot pakodas and had heard the last bit of conversation too stood rooted to the earth below us. I looked at Mum, she looked heart broken. Angry. Shocked. Furious. Sad. Heart broken.
Doe aunty and Mum are best friends.
Doe Aunty was fingering burn marks on Shanti’s left wrist. Right next to the kalawa, a bit of yellow thread Hindu priests tie around the wrist of worshippers; it protects from the evil. My eyes travelled from Shanti’s wrist marks to Doe Aunty’s swollen eye, my mouth remained open and my throat felt dry. It just made so much sense now. Why had I not seen it?
I felt angry. At myself.
“Oh! That’s nothing, beta! I fell. When you finish your MD you can take care of all my cuts and bruises!”, she had laughed when Mum and I had expressed immediate concern at
her swollen eye earlier in the day.
“Doe Aunty, you fall so often !! You just have to be more careful”, I had exclaimed, pained at the sight of her eye.
“Its not for nothing my husband calls me butter feet”, Doe Aunty had chirped.
The two women in front of me could not have been more different. One educated. One illiterate. One rich. One poor. One an upper caste Brahmin. One an untouchable. Yet .
Shanti was our domestic help with an insatiable desire to study. Doe Aunty was Mum’s best friend, a professor at the most prestigious university in the city with an insatiable desire to teach. Doe Aunty would come home often and each time she came she would spend some time with Shanti. Over the years an inexplicable friendship had developed between the two.
That day’s lesson was to be a typical one. Shanti read out passages from an English book Doe Aunty had brought with herself. As Shanti turned pages, Doe Aunty eyes fell on the scars on Shanti’s wrist
“So you have been cooking carelessly again?”, asked Doe Aunty. Shanti often had these marks and when asked she always said that she had burnt herself cooking.
“Just as you have been falling again”, replied Shanti quietly.
Shanti’s tone first made me sit upright and turn my head. It made my heart skip a beat.
In a bad way. In a way that someone had finally said what my heart knew to be right all along. I turned to face the two.
The two women looked at each other and continued to do so for sometime. I don’t know what passed between the two, but I know that a lot did in the next few seconds. Their eyes watered. Mine did with theirs.
“I don’t know which is worse. When Munna gets his friends along or when he comes drunk” said Shanti quietly. I stood aghast. Munna was shanti’s step dad. Step dad 2 years older to her.
I have known Shanti since she was a 5 year old girl who would come to our house with her mother. Shanti’s dad, a petty thief and a drunkard, left his family some ten years ago. Shanti’s Mum married a man 20 years younger to herself, also a drunkard and a petty thief some 3 years ago.
I could not recall seeing the cut marks on her wrist before that time, my brain sadly registered.
“We don’t have a door. There is just a flimsy curtain. His friends sit outside puff at their bidis and make crude jokes. I cry the whole time”, Shanti said, shaking her head sadly, “ Munna gets cigaretts. He burns my hands with them”.
My eyes wandered to her wrist. Some marks were new. Some old. I cringed at the sight.
“ He hurts me so much that I cry for hours after he leaves. ”
Shanti now stopped speaking. She was looking at Doe Aunty. It was Doe Aunty’s turn to speak. I sensed my Mum stiffen. Doe Aunty did not speak. Her head hung low. Tears chased one another down her fair cheeks.
All was quiet. I could hear Mum’s heavy breathing.
“Vijay Saheb?” asked shanti, referring to Doe Aunty’s husband.
Doe Aunty kept her head low. Mum gasped.
“I don’t know if I can survive it any longer. He hit me here because his tea was too hot”, Doe Aunty broke down pointing to her eyes.
Doe Aunty’s story then came tumbling out. It started with a push during an argument that happened when their last attempt at IVF failed. The next argument ended with Vijay uncle slapping Doe Aunty and the apologizing profusely for his misbehavior. Things just went down hill after that. He would hit her if he felt she had been overfriendly with some male colleague , if she came home late, if she overcooked food, if the house was untidy when he came from office- all the time maintaining the façade of being a happy albeit childless couple infront of family and friends.
Even her best friend.
As the façade that was Doe Aunty’s marriage broke into a million sad little pieces in front my eyes, my Mum took a decision. She went up to Doe Aunty. Placed a hand on her shoulders.
“I am calling the police”, she said simply, “and registering a complaint against Vijay.”
“…and Munna”, my Mum added as an after thought.
With that my Mum turned around and walked to the phone. I followed her into another room. Shanti and Doe Aunty stood where they were, stunned. We did not even switch on the light.
“Mom! What are you doing!”, I screamed at my Mum.
“I am doing what is right. I am doing what should have been done many many months ago!”
“Okay, Mom! Relax, we need to think it through! Please”, I pleaded.
Mom turned to face me.
“Whats your problem!!! You haven’t seen Doe regularly since you left for your MBBS! For Gossake! She was even at the hospital 4 months back. She said she had met with an accident!! Who gets those kind of injuries in an accident! That bastard!”, my mum screamed at me.
“Ok Mum, I am not contesting that. Doe Aunty has herself spoken about Vijay Uncle. What do you intend to tell the police, that’s all that I want to discuss”, I tried to reason with her.
“I am going to tell them about Vijay. Tell them how Doe has just said that she has been physically abused by that man! Get her a divorce! Doe earns enough to keep a family of ten! She has her own house, is financially secure, her parents are very open minded….”, my Mum said simply.
“And what about Shanti?”, I asked.
“Well….I don’t know about her. To turn her step father in would be unthinkable for her. In the society she lives in women are much lower than men. Accepting the fact that she has been raped repeatedly is not a great idea….she will never get married if she does that. People around her wont speak to her. And she knows this, beta. Her mother will throw her out. She will be branded a slut if this gets out! She will not get any work. She will destroy everything for herself”, said Mum exasperated.
“You will not even tell the police about Munna???”, I asked.
“No, I don’t think so”, replied Mum, “ there is no point, it will get her into more trouble”
“Her mother needs to know, Mum!!”, I screamed.
“What makes you think she does not already?!”, said my mum calmly.
“Mum! So we just let her be raped by that man!” I screamed.
“ You tell the police and trust me that girl wont even open her mouth infront of the police! I know these people!!! Do what you want!”, my Mum screamed.
We were both hysterical. We were both screaming. I had not realized this but I had angry tears in my eyes. So did Mum.
With each passing second I was getting more and more hysterical. I was about to turn around and go to Shanti to speak to her again. In my head she deserved a chance. After all she was the one who spoke about Munna first. It takes guts to speak out!
By this time, Mum was already speaking to the police officer.
“Thank you officer”, she was saying, “that’s all.” I had not heard Shanti’s name mentioned.
I had to do something. Time was slipping. I had to make up my mind.
“Give her a chance!!”, a voice in my heart screamed.
“Don’t be a fool! Mum is right!”, a voice in my brain screamed.
I snatched the phone from Mum’s hand.
“Hello, officer, this is Dr. Ruhi Chawla, MD”, I don’t know why I added a degree to my name I had not yet received.
“My maid, shanti, would like to make an official complaint against her step father who has been raping her for many months now”, I said. It felt weird to use the word ‘rape’ in front of a man I did not know.
“Yes, Ma’am. Name of the accused?”, the officer asked.
“Your maid’s name , Ma’am”
“I believe there has been another complaint against a Mr. Vijay Khandelwal from this number?”
“Are both Mrs. Divyani Khandelwal and Ms Shanti at your place right now?”
“Yes, they are”
“In that case my officers will be there in the next few minutes Ma’am. We need to file an F.I.R as soon as we can”
“I have your address Ma’am, I will see you in a few minutes”.
I put the phone down. I looked up at Mom. I had not dared look at her while I was speaking, lest my courage gave way.
“You will make a fool of yourself with the shanti thing”, she said and walked off. At the back of my head I knew that to be true. She had too much to loose, poor thing. But to sleep peacefully at night I needed to atleast try. It suddenly seemed like a selfish thing to do. My head started aching.
By the end of fifteen minutes there were 4-5 police officers in our house. In one room sat Doe Aunty. Her face like stone. Mum was sitting next to her. Comforting her.
“Doe, darling, don’t worry. You are absolutely strong and independent. You have a great career! You will be fine. You need to get away from that man! Now!”, said Mum passionately.
Doe aunty did not say a word as the police officer stepped in.
In the other room sat shanti. Squatting on the floor, like she always did, hugging her knees. Twiddling with her plait. Nervous. Her big black eyes darting here and there.
She looked like a captive animal. I felt nervous. Mum had not been speaking to me since I had spoken with the officer.
I was in the lobby. In rooms on either side interrogation were going on. I could not believe this was actually happening.
"Mrs. Divyani Khandelwal, do you accuse your husband, Mr Vijay Khandelwal of physical abuse?”, asked the police officer, already looking at the next question he was about to ask about the form of abuse.
“Ms Shanti do you accuse your step father, Munna, of raping you?, asked the officer, smirking. He had seen too many such girls. He knew what the answer would be.
“No”, said Doe Aunty. Shamefully. Head hung low. Mum gasped.
“Yes”, said Shanti. Shamefully. Head hung low. I gasped.