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The Shadow

The Shadow

16 mins

Kesari had been in labor the whole night.  While her four daughters slept in spite of her loud moans and cries, their father Balwant had been pacing up and down the small room waiting anxiously as the midwife bustled in and out. This was his fifth child to be born and he had propitiated all the Gods in the village temple to bless him with a son this time.

 The sky turned a faint golden red as the sun struggled to melt the fog that enveloped the earth in a thick blanket. The biting cold refused to soften its hold and everything was covered with a layer of frost till the sun came up fully and warmed the earth. With the first piercing ray of sunlight falling on the thatched roof of his hut, Balwant heard the cry of the newborn, feeble and barely audible at first and then loud, shrill and demanding. His heart missed many a beat while his mouth went dry and his hands cold and clammy, as he waited for the midwife to come out. Fifteen minutes later she stepped out, wiping her hands dry, shaking her head sadly while avoiding looking towards Balwant. His face fell and his heart sank as he guessed a fifth daughter had been born.

The tired old woman knowing that even her labor would not be fully paid now, felt cheated at the time and labor spent. She gestured to Balwant to go inside but he walked out instead. Blowing with the iron pipe, he got the dying fire blazing again. As he sat in the open kitchen enclosure in the courtyard, wondering how to console Kesari, he heated some milk adding some sugar and clarified butter, pouring it into a tumbler. Then he put some water in the tea pan to boil as he knew the girls would soon be awake. The midwife too must be tired and cold staying awake the whole night, and would appreciate some hot tea before going home, he thought.

Holding the hot brass tumbler with his muffler, he went inside the room where Kesari and the newborn were tucked inside a tattered old quilt, the tiny infant fast asleep in the crook of her arm. Kesari understood why her husband had not come inside immediately when the midwife went out. She felt deep anguish at having let him down yet again. Gratefully she drank the hot milk, sipping it loudly to avoid looking at or talking to Balwant. She was surprised at the composure on his face for she could fathom his disappointment. Being a gentle and kind man he did not want Kesari to feel guilty because of her failure to present him with a son. They had both prayed and fasted throughout the nine months of her pregnancy. She had also been given a talisman by the old Muslim ‘faqir’ who lived in a small hut outside the village precincts, on the periphery of the cremation grounds. They had been very hopeful this time.

Looking at her with tears in his eyes, he said “Try to sleep. You need to rest.”

Kesari stared at him stonily and said, “Why does God not listen to our prayers?”

“It is our Karma. We have to bow before his will,” he replied letting out a deep sigh.

 The baby started whimpering softly. Kesari pulled the child closer and put it to her breast. Instinctively, the infant bobbed her head all around till she could feel the nipple of Kesari’s breast and latching on to it , started sucking ,first slowly and then a little more greedily.

Just then their eldest daughter Soma, woken up by the infant’s cry, came into the room rubbing her eyes and shuffling her feet, still half asleep. She came close to her mother wanting to lie down next to her as she did daily, but stroking her cheek Kesari showed her that with the newborn baby there was no space left on the narrow string cot. Feeling disappointed but amazed as well, at the sight of the baby, Soma looked at her mother with a questioning glance. Her five year old mind could not comprehend how a baby had suddenly arrived while she slept.

Although, a little sad at her place being usurped by the new born, she said nothing. Quietly she went outside the boundary wall of the courtyard of the hut and finding a suitable place in the adjacent sugarcane field, she finished defecating. Coming back she washed her hands at the hand pump, cleaned her teeth with a piece of charcoal and then removing her ‘dupatta’, splashed water on her face. The freshly pumped water felt much warmer than the sleety wind blowing and she found it comforting. Drying her face and hands with a corner of her ‘dupatta’ she poured some tea for herself. It was sweet and hot and while sipping it she warmed her hands on the brass tumbler. The glass washed, she called out to tell her father that she was leaving for work and hurriedly walked out of the courtyard before she felt tempted to stay back to play with the baby.

Every morning she went to work in the landlord’s house who owned the hundred acres of land where her father worked and where their hut stood at the far end of the land. Skipping and jumping she reached the large palatial ‘haveli’ where Puran Chand, the landlord and his wife Parvati lived with a huge retinue of servants. Married for twenty years, they were childless. Some years ago they had given up all hope and brought Ramesh, one of Parvati’s nephews, to live with them. Ramesh a teenager was a distant relative’s son. His father had fallen into bad times because of his vices of gambling and liquor and had died when Ramesh was barely ten years old. The mother was relieved to have one mouth less to feed. Ramesh enjoyed living in such luxury and abundance and took full advantage of Parvati’s tender heart starved for the love of children her own.

Balwant owed the landlord a huge sum of money which he kept borrowing every time a child was born to him, which was every year. The loan kept multiplying due to the interest piling up. While he labored hard in the fields the whole day, Soma worked in the kitchen at the ‘haveli’ and did other odd jobs, paying off a negligible amount and getting to eat the leftovers from the kitchen. Sometimes she was given some food to take home also.

A week later, as the winter set in further with fierce severity, her parents on the suggestion of Parvati, decided that she should stay at the ‘haveli’ and not come home in the cold in the evening. They were already finding it difficult to rear so many off springs and were secretly relieved and glad for Soma when Parvati said she wanted her to live at the ‘haveli’ like family. Torn between filial love and practicality, they chose the latter. For some days Soma was happy living in the large house with a clean, warm bed to herself and plenty of good wholesome food. But soon, she started missing her parents, sisters and thinking of the little baby sister she had hardly played with. Like most poor children she too wanted to live in the familiar dirt, deprivation and cramped proximity of her loved ones. She asked Parvati if she could go home for a few hours. Feeling insecure about the child returning back or not Parvati sent her nephew along. Soma sat on the rod of the cycle while Ramesh cycled down to the hut on the other side of the fields. For three hours she and her sisters talked, played and laughed. She cuddled her baby sister; cooing over her and helping her mother bathe and pat her to sleep after she had been fed by Kesari. By the afternoon Ramesh was ready to leave and she left her family reluctantly, with tears in her eyes and a lump in her throat.

 Passing the fields thick with the maize crop Ramesh suddenly stopped the cycle saying, “Come, I’ll show you something wonderful”.

She followed him into the field. A little further he stopped and holding her wrist tightly so it hurt he whispered, “Come let’s lie down here for a while.”

Dusk was gathering and the biting cold had started permeating through everything. A few birds startled by the sounds of their feet crunching on the ground and the swishing sound that the maize stalks made as Ramesh parted them, twittered sharply and shot skywards in alarm.

Spreading her ‘dupatta’ on the ground, so her new clothes would not get spoiled, she lay down. Above her she saw the long stalks of maize swaying with the sharp wind passing through the fields. Further still she could see the thick canopy of ‘neem’ trees whistling with the wind. The hum of the machine of  the tube well and the sound of the gushing water under the trees combined with the shrill twittering of birds nesting in its branches with the leaves rustling, were the sounds her attention was riveted on when she felt Ramesh’s hands groping her body and tearing at her clothes. He had already pulled open the string to his pajama and it lay aside in a heap. While she wondered why, he started pulling her clothes down too. Before she could open her mouth to speak he roughly clamped one hand on her mouth whispering, “Shh! don’t make any sound. We will have fun just now. You will like it.”

 Forcing himself on her, he repeatedly assaulted her small body violently as she struggled to free herself but was pinned down. Her body bruised and hurt from the rough ground below while he clawed and tore at her small frame, frothing and foaming at the mouth like an animal. With one small eye partially open she saw his quivering nose with a mole on the right nostril, very close to her face. His right eye, a light brown color was smaller than the left one, was what she noticed as she was almost passing out. The odour of his male breath reeking of lust filled her nostrils with their sickening stench. While she choked on her own saliva from swallowed tears and throttled screams, he pulled apart, stood up, straightening his clothes and sharply told her to get up too. Bruised, bleeding and in shock she lay there in a crumpled heap with her clothes torn and her limp body half naked. Seeing her lying almost lifeless and bleeding profusely by then, he panicked and hurriedly put on his clothes. With a vicious kick that rolled her body over revealing a large patch of bleeding seeping into the ground beneath her, he fled, hissing viciously at her, “Come when you want to, if you don’t want to come now. And mind you, not a word of this to anyone or I’ll kill you.”

Reaching back at the ‘haveli’ he went straight to his room while Parvati waited for Soma’s return wondering why the two had still not returned. The girl lay there in shock, bleeding and moaning, chilled stiff with the frost descending fast as the darkness crept up and night started enveloping everything.

 More than an hour later, Balwant walking   past, going home that way, heard the feeble cries of a small child. Parting the sugar cane stalks he searched frantically following the moaning sounds and came upon the small naked body, blue with the freezing cold. In the thick descending fog with the dim light of his kerosene lamp, it took him a few moments to register that it was his own daughter lying in the dirt and congealed blood.

Outraged and devastated, he quickly bundled her up somehow in his blanket and carried her home running all the way with tears blinding him. Covering her daughter with another blanket and massaging her hands and feet to warm them, Kesari tried to question the child as soon as she gained consciousness, all this while changing the cloth between her legs to stem the bleeding.  Half delirious, between choked tears and stifled cries, in a faltering voice Soma told her mother what had happened, hardly being able to describe the act as she herself did not understand what had happened. All she kept seeing repeatedly were those lust filled brown eyes. The acrid odour of the boys scent still assailed her nostrils and she vomited before falling back into a stupor. Numb and hurting, she was too terrified to answer many questions. But it was enough to send Balwant marching to the ‘haveli’ fuming at the monstrous act. His bloodshot eyes and choked voice as he frothed at the mouth and spat on the ground repeatedly, frightened Puran Chand but he listened to him fully and then sent for Ramesh who was nowhere to be found. The boy’s guilt was proved when the gateman said he had seen him leave hurriedly about two hours earlier, with a small bag, his clothes dirty with blood stains on them. The gateman thought he had been embroiled in a fight.

Driving his car himself, Puran Chand along with Parvati, accompanied Balwant and Soma to the nearby city hospital. The lady doctor was personally instructed by Parvati to give the girl the best possible treatment. There were no witnesses. The screams of protest were silenced with a show of kindness and concern, both by Puran Chand and Parvati. However, both of them spent sleepless nights haunted by the sounds of stifled screams. The wretched father was given some money for providing better food to Soma while all bills and expenses were paid for. Her tiny body ravaged by fever, her genitalia repaired but mutilated, Soma the little child had grown far beyond her years during the treatment. The mental trauma was deceptively masked by heavy sedation but left permanent painful scars.

 After a month at the hospital she came home, subdued and withdrawn, feeling defiled and invaded. She became fearful of sounds or touch. Even when her parents tried to be solicitous, she felt betrayed. The incidents of that evening repeatedly haunted her as she spent sleepless nights in fear. When she did sleep, she would wake up screaming and crying as choking nightmares replaced her dreams. After some time her sisters and parents stopped paying attention to her torment and she herself learnt to stifle her cries, not allowing her sobs and screams beyond her throat while her inner child cried silently. Her suppressed misery settled down somewhere in her chest and mind, burning and smoldering like the lava of a dormant volcano.

 That night when Balwant carried back home the frail, mutilated body of his daughter, a shadow which had been born just then out of the blood soaked earth, arose along with her body, stretching much bigger than the body or mind of the little girl. The shadow attached itself to everyone that Soma encountered after that, projecting its own dark attributes on to them. All beings including her parents, took on the darkness of the shadow and she could only see and feel the black color of disbelief, distrust, shame, guilt, repulsion, anger and revenge. Her child’s eyes were downcast when she spoke to men but her mind would be seeing much more as she taught herself to live on the edge, ready to spring at the slightest wrong movement. As the years passed, the memory of pain, transformed into a knot of bitterness and hardness towards herself and others. It protected her from vulnerability, but the desire for revenge grew with approaching adolescence and she learnt to distrust all men.

Nature stepped in to undo the damage a man had inflicted. At twelve years of age, the harsh winter of her shame was slowly moving on to the spring of youth and she wished to cast away the heavy cloak of her biggest curse. In spite of the winter’s savagery, her calloused self struggled to throw off the hardened shell, to soften and bloom again. Destiny played its cards once again and she was married to a widower, fifteen years elder to her. He paid off the loan her father owed the landlord and was ready to accept Soma in spite of the limp and scars of that night. The shadow lengthened and when her husband forced himself on her every night, she latched on to the shadow for that had become the reality of her existence.

Her daughter born after a year, was the only joy in her life and yet the cause of much anxiety too. Soma, paranoid about her safety did not allow the child out of sight at all. She took her along where ever she went. The child was never left alone with even her father. A healthy and beautiful girl with the mother’s large eyes and thick long black hair framing her delicate face, Rano looked just like her mother. Soma’s son Vishnu, born two years later resembled the father and was equally good looking. The children grew fast and Soma stayed busy with the house work and looking after them. They were already five and three years old. Though not happy with her marriage she had acquired a certain dignity and composure with motherhood and did not look her old self any more. Youth had filled her body voluptuously and she looked as beautiful as any woman does in the prime of her bloom.

 The children looked forward daily to the afternoons trip with her when she took them along, as she went to cut fodder for the cattle. She picked up the large sackcloth and the rope with which to tie the bundle of fodder, tucking the sickle into the band tied around her waist. Straddling Vishnu on her hip, she started for the fields, holding Rano by the finger. The children were happy to romp around on the edge of the field playing, while she cut fodder. With quick and practiced movements she cut some spent maize stalks, laying them on the sack cloth and then went a little further into the field to cut some millet stalks too. Twilight was descending and the chilling winds whistled through the stalks of millet. Having finished she went back to the edge of the field to tie the bundle. Seeing Vishnu alone she looked around for Rano, when she heard a rustle in the field behind her. Stepping swiftly and nimbly, she went in that direction. Parting the stalks, she saw her daughter standing with a young man. Seeing her, he paled aghast and was further amazed when she smiled at him enticingly. Puzzled, he stopped for her next move as she sidled towards him lustily. Her vivacious looks and slender body mesmerized him and he smiled back at her.

 She spoke to her daughter, “Run along and play with your brother. I’ll come soon.”

The man confused and yet tempted by her lewd gestures stood still. She caught his hand and said, “Let’s go to the other side of the field. No one comes towards the canal side and the reeds are a good cover.”

Standing close up behind him she embraced him tightly, rubbing her body against his. Anticipating pleasure he relaxed, guiding her hand. With her left hand she reached into his pajama while the right hand arced in a swift movement as she dismembered his penis with the sharp sickle, flinging it far into the canal. He gnarled like a wounded animal as blood from the wound spurted on to the ground, his eyes fully dilated with horror. She looped his scarf around his neck dragging him towards the canal. He shrieked with grunts and groans, his body writhing in agony and his face contorted with pain. Heaving with all her strength, breathing heavily, she pushed his convulsing and bleeding body over the edge of the canal into the icy cold water. As she picked a handful of mud and plucked some leaves to clean the blood off her hands she felt avenged and vindicated, having seen the terror of mutilation, in those brown eyes, one smaller than the other, with the mole on the right nostril as it quivered with terror. Soma had reached the end of her pilgrimage.

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