I come home and check my mails. I read the second mail and freeze. My eyes read and re-read the simply worded mail. I go into a trance like state losing all track of time.
I don’t know for how long I have been sitting like that unblinkingly gawking at the screen, when Shreya’s shrill cry snaps me into the present. “Mummy!” she trills. I come back with a jolt. Hurriedly I click on the cross on the top right corner to close the mail. “Mummy why are you sitting staring into the computer?”
How long has she been here? Has she seen anything? I wonder. I bring her head to my chest and run my finger soothingly over her cheeks. That’s our gesture for saying “I am sorry!” She softens instantly. “I am hungry mummy, lets eat!”
We head to the kitchen. I am glad I had already set the table before leaving to take the art class I teach at the nearby college every afternoon. I open the refrigerator and bring out the sandwich that Shreya prefers to eat for supper. I serve my own plate with dal – chawal. How many times I have tried that Shreya too develops a taste for Indian food – “our food” but she detests it. Preferring the sandwiches and pastas of our adopted land.
My mind goes back to the time we were newcomers here. Me, hesitatingly trailing behind anil, holding Shreya’s finger tightly. She was just a toddler then. It had all been so strange to us. The people, the way they dressed, the strange language, even the elevators! It was Anil who had introduced us to this world. Silent, strong Anil. Patiently he had taught me the basics of surviving in America. He taught me to read the road signs, use credit cards and ATM machines, operate washing machines and dryers, and eventually even driving. “In this country you can not survive till you learn driving” he had insisted. It is true, Anil taught me every skill needed to survive in America.
But it was Shreya – My baby Shreya, Who made me feel at home here. She became my link with this strange country. It was Shreya who with her incessant curiosity forced me to explore the innumerable parks, zoos, museums, markets and libraries. It was at Shreya’s school that I met other women, some of who became my friends. If it wasn’t for Shreya I would have never ventured out, except to get the essentials. Barred as I was by my handicap. But Shreya, would have none of it!
Shreya has always been a gregarious child. Forever wanting to do something new. Meet new people, visit new places, try new hobbies . But she was sensitive too. Specially towards me. She never let me out of her sight. Even at three she became my voice. Telling people in her childish lisp what I thought, felt or needed. She was the only voice I had till Anil enrolled me for the classes in sign language.
Sign language! I had been so reluctant to learn it. Firstly, there was the fear of being with strange people for an hour, three times every week. Then there was the awkwardness of sitting in a classroom at my age. But the biggest hurdle was my lack of belief. My lack of belief that there was a language for me. Something that I could use to express myself with instead of the voice god had forgotten to give me.
I had been so wrong! Sign language was miraculous. I discovered there was a way too say almost everything I needed to say. What was even more miraculous was that in America, so many people ‘spoke’ it. I was no longer voiceless! But still, there were things I could not say. Not because I didn’t know the signs for them but because I didn’t think anyone would understand them. Not even Shreya! My baby Shreya! Shreya! who had been with me, since the day she was born. Shreya, My daughter. No! Shreya – My life, my world, the only person I could call my own after Anil’s death. But she wasn’t really mine ! Was she? Coming to a new country, making new friends, finding a new language, living a new life, had made me forget my past.
My past…….How could i think of my past and not think of that day. It was a day like any other. Bhabhi and me had finished winding up the kitchen. She had gone to her room to sleep. I had rolled out my mat in the kitchen like always. But just as I was about to sleep. He had come in. I pretended to be asleep. Ducking under the sheet to cover my face. But he snatched it away. I tried to escape, to get away. But he gripped me hard. His rough hands mauled me, touching me everywhere. I pushed him. He tripped and knocked over a jug filled with water.
Later, I would often think “Why did I resist that day?” It wasn’t the first time he was using me in that way. Maybe I was surprised. Surprised because it hadn’t happened for a long time. Surprised, because I had let myself believe that now that he was married my troubles were over.
How foolish I had been. I should have known I could never get out of his grip. I should have known to never expect to be safe. I should have known better than to resist. If only I had let him have his way quietly. If only bhabhi had not woken up and come to check on me. If only she had not seen the pain in my eyes and the mad power in his. If only she hadn’t tried to save me.
But I did struggle. There was a noise. Bhabhi did see the losing battle I was fighting. She shouted for help but there was no one else in our silent home. Her cries did nothing to stop him. It was then that she picked up the stone lying near the grinder and hit him. He passed out instantly. Bhabhi and I tried to revive him. We sprayed water on his face, patted his cheeks. To no effect. The doctor, when he came, confirmed what we already knew. He was dead. The neighbors who could not hear our cries for help a little while earlier heard of his death soon enough. The police was there in no time.
Throughout her two-year trial bhabhi remained silent. What was there to say anyway? That she had killed her husband to prevent him from raping his dumb sister ‘again’. Shreya was born three months after her father’s death. Bhabhi handed her over to me immediately after birth. She did not want Shreya to spend her childhood in prison.
We tried our best. Bhabhi’s widow mother and I employed a lawyer. A woman’s organisation also took up bhabhi’s cause. That is where I met Anil. The silent strong Anil. He was by our side like a rock. accompanying us on every date. taking us to prison to meet bhabhi on visiting days. We made a strange group – the four of us – Bhabhi’s mother, old and tired, me – young but helpless because of my handicap, the baby shreya and young and handsome Anil. Anil who had come to India to work with an NGO for a few months. Anil, born in India, brought up in America. Anil, the good Samaritan, always wanting to do something for everyone. I often wonder if that is why he married me. Because of his need to help. Or was it that he actually fell in love with me. I was never sure. And now there is no way to ever find out. Anyway it doesn’t matter. He was good to me and Shreya.
Anil was wise and perceptive. If only I had listened to him. He had always urged me to be straight with shreya. To tell her about the past , my past, her past, “our” past. She should know! He had said. She needs to know. “What does she need to know?” I had furiously gestured with my now adept hands. “That her father was a molester and her mother a murderer” “That she lives not with a mother and father like other children around her, but with an aunt and her husband” “Her life is abnormal enough, already. Most of her classmates can’t pronounce her name, they wonder at her skin colour and alien features, at her ‘mom’ who can’t speak.What’s the sense in taking away the one semblance of normality in her life for a future that is many years away “
But the years had slipped quickly by. In the business of raising Shreya and making a new life for us I had forgotten that the clock was ticking. Shreya will be ten next month. Shreya, My baby! No! That’s not right!!! Shreya, bhabhi’s baby. My heart lurched. It must have shown in my eyes. Because Shreya said “Mummy what are you thinking? Why aren’t you eating? Whats wrong?”
“Nothing! beta!” I said. I knew I was lying. But after years of practice it came easily. My mind went back to the mail.
” Mrs. Priya Sharma, will be released on parole in October. ” The mail was from the NGO that was looking after bhabhi’s case. Bhabhi was being released early due to good behavior. She would not be allowed to leave the country for a year at least.
That is all that it said. But I could read between the lines. It meant Shreya would have to go back. It meant I would not be her mummy again. It meant the little game that I had been playing was over. It meant I had to speak the truth.
“Mummy” Shreya said. I am sleepy, come put me to bed.
I smiled at her. Truths could wait
I wanted to be “mummy” for one more night
Bhabhi : Brother’s wife
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