The Smile10 mins 236 10 mins 236
The echoing staccatos of gunfire.
The filthy stench of flesh and blood.
The grunting of Pakistani soldiers taking turns to rape her.
She opened her bleary eyes when the cat climbed onto her lap. Like the past many decades, she again woke up from her slumber with a pounding headache. Like the past many decades she again woke up to the realization that at some point in her life, had managed to lose both a tooth and a spouse. She had also lost her three-month-old baby, her family, her home and a country, which she dares not call her own.
A nightmarish flash of the events of that day keep coming back to her even now, 45 years after the incident. She wanted to believe that she had managed to shoo away all recollection of the day. However, they had made a home at the back of her eyelids. Every time she closed them, the day returned with all its horror, shame and pain. At the end of every such episode she would hear the scream - her own, loud, penetrating, unworldly scream on seeing her baby mushed into a pulp of muscle and blood by men in uniform. God knows that her soul, hiding behind her stern countenance, has still been screaming all these years.
Jagadhatri Dutta, 62 years old, was active for her age. She stood tall and straight. Although she coughed more nowadays, old age was not able to deprive her voice of the authority it possessed- the authority of a woman with a purpose. The only thing that age took its toll on was her face. Etched with the crisscross of the most horrific experiences, she looked as hard as a stone. Those that worked with her knew her to be as hard as a stone.
In the year 1971, when Pakistan was torn in a civil war, millions of people from East Pakistan were killed; the earsplitting wails of babies being snatched away from their mother’s nipples, agonized the air; many kids had to witness the bloody affair of their parents being butchered; and many, many women were raped and left to die.
War, without exception, brings the beast out of humans. It takes the most grotesque monstrosity to be able to rape a woman amidst the disfigured corpses of her husband, baby, and mother-in-law. Jagadhatri had been face-to-face with this devil and after that nothing mattered. She was seventeen years old then. The tears that came out of her soulless body wiped every moment of the past seventeen years. For many years to come, she would be a zombie walking the earth; a zombie that still lives within her.
She had been left there to die and rot with her family. However, she was found four days later covered in her own puke, shit, and blood. Manoranjan Kundu, a neighboring Hindu, had found her. Manoranjan himself had seen his father being dragged by the hair and beaten to death. He himself had heard the screams of his wife, at first, and then her subdued sobs while she was being raped and killed. He had hidden in a ditch near the house, holding his dear life close to himself. In the rest of his life, he would never share the secret of his survival. Neither would he forgive himself for living.
On seeing the breathing body of Jagadhatri, Manoranjan had cried. He had cried, not for her, but for himself. He had cried, not out of pain, but out of the relief of seeing a familiar face, which was not dead.
Jagadhatri was not sure of what happened. She constantly fell in and out of consciousness. But days later, she does not know how many, she found herself in a refugee camp in the outskirts of Kolkata in India. She would spend the next ten years of her life in this camp alongside Manoranjan Kundu, who had more or less assumed the role of her husband. He would bring her food and give her protection in exchange for her body. For the next ten years, she would spend her life on a patch of land under a black tarpaulin waiting for death.
Jagadhatri shooed away Shilpi, the cat, off her lap and got up from the armchair. Jagadhatri was to visit the Bankim Chandra Memorial Hospital to visit Durga. This was Durga’s 25th and final medical procedure. Jagadhatri or Jagadhatri Devi, as she is now known, had a humble house with one bedroom, a kitchen, a washroom, and one sitting room. Most of the furniture in her house, including the armchair, came as gifts.
Her closet is mostly empty having only five sarees- three for daily use and two for occasions, two salwar-kameez, which she mostly wore in her home, and the necessary underclothing. Apart from that she also kept her cash in the closet. In one corner of the top-most shelf, she kept a photo. The photo, which had now started to lose its color, showed a smiling Manoranjan and a cheerless Jagadhatri in decent enough clothes.
In their camp, clothes themselves were a luxury, let alone clean clothes. On one particular summer, a gentleman and his wife had visited the camp and distributed clothes. Jagadhatri got a saree and Manoranjan, a pant and a shirt.
Despite Jagadhatri’s protest Manoranjan took her to a studio, dressed in their new clothes, to get a photo clicked. A few days later when Manoranjan brought the photo to the patch of land they had learned to call home, Jagadhatri had experienced happiness. For the first time in three years, joy had sown a seed in her heart and had manifested itself as twinkles in her eyes. On that day of the year 1975, Jagadhatri realized that she had grown fond of Manoranjan. And somehow under a tarpaulin, marred with holes, and in a place bordered with garbage, love had emerged like a lotus amidst mud.
During the years in the refugee camp, Jagadhatri had had different jobs. She had been a housemaid, a laborer, sweeper and also a cook. It was in 1979 that she came in contact with Mrs. Eshita Sen Mallick. Mrs. Eshita, 58 years old, was a widow and had no children of her own. However, she did not live alone. Mrs. Eshita, with the help of donors, paid helpers and volunteers ran an NGO- “Saraswati Sanstha”, in her home. The small organization took in abandoned and orphaned girls and took care of them. Mrs. Eshita took it on herself to educate these girls and conducted daily classes. Jagadhatri was hired to help around in the NGO. This job steered her life in a new direction.
In 1982, after Manoranjan’s death, Jagadhatri moved in Mrs. Eshita’s home.
It was a winter night when Manoranjan went to sleep and did not wake up again. Jagadhatri found herself mourning for days. Every teardrop that formed tributaries on her cheek was proof that, despite the hesitation in her mind, love had taken root. Manoranjan, however, was graced with a peaceful death and that gave her an odd satisfaction. A satisfaction, which could only be felt by someone, who had only seen deaths dressed in pain, violence, and screams. She was sad, but not shattered. She was alone, but not really lonely. And in some strange way Manoranjan, even in his death, had given her hope. Manoranjan continues to live within Jagadhatri as her fire of hope and since that day, Jagadhatri has never lost this fire, come what may.
To Mrs. Eshita’s pleasant surprise, Jagadhatri occasionally sat in the classes meant for the orphaned girls. To Mrs. Eshita, that action represented the human curiosity and the desire of an illiterate to get educated and grow. What she did not understand that Jagadhatri was not so much learning as recalling the things that she had once learnt in her maiden home. Jagadhatri’s father, against the trend of the age, championed the cause of education of girls. Jagadhatri was homeschooled and was more educated than any average girl of her demography. When this fact was revealed to Mrs. Eshita, she was furious. For three years Jagadhatri had been carrying out jobs, which made no utilization of her education. That, to Mrs. Eshita, was unacceptable.
Jagadhatri now found herself being mentored by Mrs. Eshita. Jagadhatri was no more just a common help and under her mentor’s guidance, she was more involved in the managerial roles of the organization. Soon Jagadhatri became responsible for the inventory, accounting and also, in part, financing of the organization. By 1992, Mrs. Eshita saw a significant deterioration in her health and Jagadhatri assumed Mrs. Eshita’s role in the organization. She also looked after every single need of Mrs. Eshita until the year 1995, when Mrs. Eshita Sen Mallick died at the age of seventy-four.
Even though she knew it was coming, Jagadhatri took her mentor’s death pretty hard. Jagadhatri had found shelter and warmth in the wisdom of her mentor. Now that she was gone Jagadhatri felt naked and tired - a feeling not unknown to her. Perhaps, she had seen far too many deaths for a woman of forty-one.
By the year 1995, “Saraswati Sanstha” had grown and brought more and more helpless girls under its umbrella. It had also now taken in rape victims, victims of domestic torture and also women who had been “shunned” by the society.
Societies advance, technologies change the face of the planet and yet women-violation keeps reproducing- giving birth to newer and newer ways of wronging women. To Jagadhatri, who had constantly dueled with sadness, this fact was the saddest of all.
Jagadhatri found her way to Durga’s room in the hospital. The nurse had informed her that the operation was over. Durga was their first acid attack victim. In 2014 the fifteen-year-old Durga had acid thrown upon her by a man who had been desperate to get her favorable attention. The acid burnt through her right hand, parts of the right leg and her entire face. Her face was affected the worst. Durga had changed- from a being pretty girl to being a monster. The first time Jagadhatri saw Durga, she could feel the bile rise up to her throat.
Durga had lost the entire skin on her face. It was a miracle that her eyes did not face any damage. Any movement of facial muscle was impossible. For the past three years, Durga had been unable to speak, eat or express any emotion through her face.
Her face was reduced to a pair of eyes staring from between burnt skin, which seemed to have been pulled from one part of the face and glued to the other. Having worked on her hand and leg for over a year, the doctors have now been trying to fix her face inch by inch. Today’s operation would enable to move the muscle in and around the part that once formed her lips.
As Jagadgatri entered the hospital room, she saw, among the "beeps" and "boops" of all the devices, the many girls of her organization- girls that were slowly blooming into strong women under the care of Saraswati Sanstha.
Each one of them with a story equally painful as hers, if not more.
Tears rolling down their cheek. These tears, Jagadhatri knew, were not ambassadors of sorrow but celebration of strength. The strength of a woman to endure all that the world throws at them and yet stand up and move on.
Amidst all of them the acid attack victim, dressed in a bluish hospital gown, sat, making full use of her facial muscle for the first time in about three years.
Durga sat there crowned with a Smile.