It was the third Sunday of the month. The little girl of eight was looking through the open window, and over the high concrete walls of the boarding school in a quiet, scenic town of Uttar Pradesh. Hundreds of fathers and mothers were leaving the school at the end of the visiting day that came once in every month. Yet another month had gone by, but her mother didn’t come, without whom this girl hadn’t spent even a day before she ended up here. She had always wondered why these fathers and mothers put their daughters in here since their early childhood, when all a child wants is the presence of their parents by her side, and their soft caress every night. At least this little girl yearned for nothing more in life!
The Nepali Bahadoor guard of the school started pushing the rusty iron gate. With a shrill squeak, followed by a dull and loud metallic creaking, the gate closed behind the mass of guardians diverging out into their own ways. Most of them took the asphalt road to the railway station, some of them took a paddled rickshaw through the dirt path to the bus stop, while a very few took to wade through the tall grasses of the verdant meadows, painted ochre by the gleam of the setting sun. No one looked back at the eyes of the little girl standing behind the window bars of a three-storied building. She still searched for a familiar face in the crowd. She was standing behind the window, long after everything outside had gotten hushed and frozen, except for the birds singing their homecoming medley, fluttering through the blue sky with streaks of scarlet clouds.
The sun was setting below the horizon yonder. The last amber rays of the day sent a sparkle through the girl’s eyes, and left them shimmering, long after the stars had come up.
She was a girl who cried at the drop of a hat. She spent her days like a recluse sitting in a corner of the classroom, when the other children of the class laughed and played. And since it’s the nature of human beings to irk the good eggs and leave the stinking ones alone, the girl became a victim of bullying, when she was eleven. The bullies were mostly initiated by the boys of the class who considered themselves superior to the girls, and took it for granted that they had the authority to vex them. Thanks to the enlightened social science teacher who used to preach that women should be modest, quiet, reserved and submissive to men, while men could do whatever they wanted. “Why?” Once someone had dared to confront.
“Because they’re men. No further question!” The teacher had said.
It was a prominent English medium institution, where intelligent students from different cities of the country came to study. Yes, she was quite brilliant, and that’s why she had to end up here, cracking the admission test in one go. While the bell for lunch break sent a wave of gaiety among the other students, it annunciated another hour of dismay for her. The girl became the source of entertainment for the whole class, while tears flowed abundantly behind the hands that covered her face. They called her sloppy, they named her a maudlin; but no one ever cared to ask why she shed the tears.
One morning, the girl was weeping, while the class was going on. She put her head down on the bench and buried her face in the small space created by her arms. Probably, she had dozed off, weeping. Sunil sir, who was teaching social science, approached her and pulled her head up forcibly by grabbing her hair. At first, she was startled. Then she winced in pain that was prominent in her face and in those drenched eyes.
“Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” Sunil Sir yelled. “Sleeping in my class?” “Stand up!”
“But, sir…” Her face was still winced in pain, as Sunil Sir pulled her hair with more force. “Sir…” She hesitated and blurted out, “Sir, I want to go to my mother.”
A wave of laughter went from one corner of the class to another.
“Mother!” Suddenly, Sunil Sir’s voice rose. “Did you forget this is a school, not your home?” He shouted. “Stand up on the bench! Stand up, I said!” He pulled her hair with so much force that the girl immediately got up from her seat and stood on the bench. “Hold your ears and stay like this!” He turned around and walked back to the blackboard, murmuring, “Every year I see more and more girls going to schools. Disgusting! When are they going to realize they all belong to the kitchen with their damned mothers?”
Nobody understood her. Nobody was there for her. The girl felt alone amid a laughing crowd that surrounded her. She remained standing on the bench, ashamed to her core, her legs shaking, her eyes closed. Slowly as that day progressed, she lost her will to study anymore, her ambition to read thick books, and speak English like Gavaskar. There was so much more for a girl to get educated, than just having an iron determination to learn.
The evening shadows had just fallen. An immense inferno in the western sky had been put out by silent shadows that enfolded the vast expanse of the meadows. The girl stepped out of the hostel, and into the grassland fed by a vast lake. In its heart, it beheld a moon. It was rippling, just like the moon, stuck in the raven ether, rippled before her eyes that night. A cloud of mist poised low over the lake, erasing slowly the glittering image of the stars. She sat down on a small, flat-topped rock beside the lake, wet with the evening dew. She kept her head between her knees.
A black speck appeared in the thick evening mist. It started to grow in size, as someone came closer to the girl. Two eyes appeared from an obscuring haze and fixed their gaze on the top of the bowed head of the girl sitting on the small rock beside the lake. Probably the girl still didn’t notice. Leaving a veil of fog behind, a feminine figure appeared. She sat on the wet grass beside the girl. The grass was grey, with a silver gleam of the moonlight recreating on the dewdrops at the edges of the tall grass blades. The grass was grey like the rest of the world bathed in the moonlight; grey like the heart of the girl sitting on the small rock. The newcomer girl placed her hand on the arm of the girl, who was still unaware of her presence.
“Are you crying?”
“Uh… huh?” The girl was startled. She wiped her eyes with the back of her palm. “Uh… Who said that?” She sniffed. “I’m not crying!”
“I know you are!” The newcomer girl sounded quite mature for her unripe age of twelve. “Why are you crying? Tell me…” Her accent was unlike any Indian’s.
“No reason.” She sniffed.
“You’re crying for no reason?” She squeezed her hand. “Are you sure?”
Both of them remained silent for a long time, looking into each other’s eyes, with a pair glistening and rippling in the pale moonlight.
Neither of them knew which one of these happened first: the girl sitting on the wet grass took the other girl’s head on her chest, or the girl sitting on the rock sought refuge in the chest of the other girl. What they know, and will both remember all their lives, is that the girl got up from the rock, embraced the other girl tightly, and…
…and she bled out the murk incarcerated within her…
Audra… She came into the girl’s life, unapprised, like a storm. Rather it was written that they cross each other’s path. ‘Maktub,’ as the Arabs aptly put it. The village girl stood in the midst of desolation and loneliness, while Audra, the Lithuanian girl, came to rearrange the broken pieces of her life.
“Only by securing the top position of your class, you can make everyone stop mistreating you.”
“If you slap a lion, will it remain silent and un-aggressive? Go and stand at the back of a horse and slap its butt. Try to tickle an alley cat and see what happens. See, nothing in nature remains silent if you constantly hurt it, unless it’s created defenceless. So why would you? It should be our natural instinct to protect ourselves from all harm; physically and mentally. Remember, it’s your body, your mind. And you’ve been given the full power and right to defend yourself.”
Although Audra came like a storm, her arrival swept away a ravaging gale from the girl’s life. Audra became her closest friend and roommate. In the hostel room of the girl, where two beds were kept at two far corners of the room, came closer every evening. They would speak their hearts out till late at night, and fall asleep.
As the shade within her heart cleared, there was a faint shimmer of light. Since that very year, the girl secured the top position of her class. The school authorities granted her a scholarship due to her brilliant results while hailing from a poor family. Her father never had to sell any more land beyond the small part he’d already sold, to fund her education. Everyone stopped bullying her, while a few even extended their hands of friendship. But the girl never reached out to hold those hands. She didn’t need a hundred fake-friends, but only a true one.
The green field was filled with boys and girls. A group of boys of the school were playing football with a small, plastic ball that was meant for playing Cricket. Another group was actually playing Cricket with a similar plastic ball, making a small, grassless area on the playground as the pitch. The plastic ball hardly bounced on the soft soil, still the batsman managed to swing his bat and hit the ball that came crawling along the pitch. They had their own rules—cross the blossoming Ashoka tree for two runs, hit the school wall for four, and if you hit very hard, you’re out and you’ll have to bring the ball. Offenders will be ousted from the team. A group of girls played tag, while three gathered a Frisbee and played ‘Monkey in the Middle.’ The tall ‘monkey’ laughed more than she jumped to catch the Frisbee.
If we zoomed out a little, we could see a girl standing on the balcony of the second floor of the school building and looking with distant eyes at the ebullience that reigned over the green playground below. She stood there alone, smiling, lost in the gaiety of which she wasn’t a part.
Startled, the girl turned around. Audra was standing behind her.
“Why do you come here everyday at lunchtime and see them playing? Is it doing any good to you?” She asked.
“See, they’re playing tag.” The girl pointed below. “Will you play with me, Audra?”
“Aw, let ‘em play the same silly games in the same playground.” Audra caught hold of the girl’s hand. “We’ll go explore the world!” She started leading the girl downstairs.
“Wait, wait…” The girl resisted. “What do you mean by that?”
“Come, come, come wimme!” Audra started running, and so did the girl, as she struggled to keep her pace with the tall and athletic Lithuanian girl.
The school library was the quietest place in the school premises. Only a few senior students seldom came here to read the newspaper. Sometimes, the rarest breed of the school, the bookworms, spent their lunchtime here reading storybooks. Of tens and thousands of books behind the glass panes of the bookshelves, Audra took a thick magazine with a yellow rectangular border from the wooden shelf at one corner. “I just discovered this one here!” She said. That was an igniting spark for the dormant, incendiary longing within the girl, who sat beside Audra on a chair in the library. That day, a shroud was removed from before the girl’s eyes. Every afternoon during lunchtime, she found herself turning pages after pages of old and new National Geographic magazines, taking herself on a pictorial journey that spanned the globe. Starting from the azure skies and verdant meadows of Scotland, within an hour, she’d travelled from the searing Death Valley to the blue and white frozen landscapes of the Antarctic permafrost…and from the vast expanse of the sandy moors of Sahara Desert to the evergreen rainforests of the Congo Basin. It was a journey so fast, so profound, that it defied the speed of the fastest vehicle, and defied the clock that ticked on the wall in front of her even beyond the school hours. In the magazines, she finally found her emancipation from the worldly shackles, until a thought crossed her mind,
“You said to me last night that time and tide wait for no man. But how do the makers of the National Geographic magazine freeze time, freeze the turning tide, and freeze the world on a single page?”
“Wow! You ought to be a poet when you grow up! How beautifully you put that!” Audra smiled, her eyes growing wider with pride. “Oh, yeah, they capture the photographs though an instrument called the camera.”
“Yeah, my father has one. He purchased it from Germany a couple of years back.”
”Really?” The girl’s brows lifted up. “You’re so lucky, Audra!”
“Aw, I never get to touch his camera. He says it’s very expensive and fragile, and I’m the one who is adept at breaking everything,” she laughed.
A month later, the whole class went on an excursion to Varanasi. Audra and the girl stood by the riverside, an hour after sunset. The pleasant breeze ruffled their long, flowing hairs—the Indian village girl’s shining, black hair, and Audra’s curly blonde hair. They stood by the shores of the Ganges, watching hundreds of men and women floating their ‘Diyas’ on the flowing river. It was an ambience so serene, so magical, yet so fleeting as the Diyas drifted off along the current, that the girl yearned to alter life by freezing it still in a frame so that she could revisit those moments whenever and wherever she wanted to.
“What’s the name of the contraption again?” She asked Audra, without taking her eyes off the hundreds of Diyas that floated on the water.
“Huh?” Audra turned to her. “Which one?”
“The thing, with which you can take pictures.”
“A camera. Look at that man. ” She pointed to a man wearing a sweatshirt and shorts. He had a black rucksack on his back, had brown hair on his head and was in his forties. Clearly, he wasn’t an Indian. The girl went on looking at the man without batting her eyelids. He was holding a rectangular box with a protruding cylinder before his eyes, which was supposed to be a camera.
Finally she said, “Audra, do you have any idea how much a camera costs?”
“Not really. But the way father takes care of it as if it’s her newborn child, I’ll bet it costs nothing less than a fortune.”
‘Costs a fortune’—it couldn’t snuff out the flame that was burning bright in the hazel eyes of the girl. They still reflected a thousand Diyas, brighter than ever. She wanted to hold still the evanescence of the magic of the world, and lose herself time and again in the golden aura of the floating Diyas, in the wild flower bathed in afternoon shower, in the repeated refrains and in the changing colours of nature.
A camera could be bought for a price. But her dreams were not negotiable.
Audra was an exchange student in this school for four years, while her father, a marine engineer with Nautigal Inc., was posted in India for these four years. But it was enough to transform this Indian village girl’s life in every which way…
“Wear any sort of clothes that make you feel comfortable. There’s nothing so liberating in showing the skin, neither in covering up. Liberation lies in your choice. And feel free to choose.” …
“Who in the world said girls shouldn’t drink?” Audra rolled her eyes. “We are strong enough to bleed for a week every month, still managing to remain alive and outlive men in the long run, we are strong enough to give childbirth, complete all household chores and go to work, still weak enough to drink? Ha-ha-ha-ha!” She finished off with a satirical laughter.
“No, no not An-nee-heel-ate; pronounce it as “An-nigh-let.” …” I’ve told you, it’s An-nay-munn-nee; not An-nee-moan” … “Again Ee-ko? Say, Ā-ko.”
It was hard to believe Audra had just turned sixteen the day they last hugged each other. It was the day the class received their Secondary School certificates through a mini-convocation-cum-farewell ceremony. The girl still remembers she hugged Audra so tight; she never wanted to let her go. But time and tide wait for nobody. But a person wielding a camera is that ‘nobody.’ How she wishes she had one that day!
Audra came like an unapprised storm; she left like a violent tempest that stormed the heart of the girl. And it rained in her heart for the two years that followed. Audra haunted her room in the hostel, although the empty bed was occupied by a girl soon after she’d left. When the rain stopped, the whole of her being had changed. She couldn’t relate herself with that yesterday-old girl of eleven, and today’s girl of seventeen. A rainbow ushered in her heart after the storm had passed. Audra used to say that a pot of gold lies at the end of every rainbow. Yonder, at one end of her rainbow, it was this day; the day of distribution of the High School certificates. And this girl had secured the top position of the school, and had come third from the Board. All the students of the twelfth standard, who’d just passed, filled up the huge auditorium of the school. Every one of them was accompanied by their parents or guardians. But this girl sat alone in a chair at the far rear of the auditorium. All she could see were the back of the heads of people, turning and following each student as (s)he got up from one of the chairs and walked through the alleyway, climbing on to the stage to collect their certificates. Hopes faded long back like a shadow in the waning twilight, still, today the girl was again trying to find a familiar face in the crowd, but the reality had been so indifferent to her, as it had been for so many Sunday afternoons o’er the years.
With a proud smile on his face, the principal called out the name of the girl. But the girl didn’t respond. She was lost somewhere in a reverie. He called her again. Once…twice…
Suddenly, the girl felt a gentle tap on her shoulder, while a slow, musical slideshow playing in her mind, shattered into the existing actuality. She turned around. It was her mother! Her own mother! She hadn’t changed a bit except for the few more wrinkles around her hazel eyes, and near her chin…and a few black hairs turning grey…and a few raised veins on her hands…
Oh yes, she’d changed a lot over the course of nine long years. But to the girl, it seemed as if time for her had paused ever since they were torn apart. Her eyes were still as deep, lovely and shining. She looked into the eyes of her daughter with the same tender gaze that had followed the girl when she was a baby learning to walk. Those were the same eyes that picked her up whenever she had fallen down. Those were the same eyes that lullabied her to sleep every night. But the girl immediately took her eyes off those eyes and walked along the aisle, and towards the stage. Some students started murmuring among themselves, while some laughed, covering their faces with their hands. Probably it was because they were seeing their ‘lesbian’ classmate or because they were trying to hide their dragon-breath of envy.
The girl didn’t say a word to her mother, as she turned back one more time at the huge iron door that guarded the bastion of the school premises. She looked back one last time, as if by magic, the gate would swing open, freeing a storm entombed within…the Lithuanian storm…Audra.
But it was eerily calm.
The girl didn’t speak a single word with her mother and father during the two days, while they travelled towards their village home by a passenger train. The mother tried to speak with her daughter many a time, but she couldn’t pervade the walls her girl had built around herself. It was an aura around the girl, so painfully alienating for her mother. They reached their village home, but the girl didn’t speak much with her mother, except some obvious words that were unavoidable for two people living under the same roof.
But deep inside, both of their hearts were being scalded by the wildfire of their silence fuelled by a plethora of unanswered questions. One evening, the mother came to the girl with an old, half torn doll, with which the girl played in her childhood.
The girl stopped with what she was doing. She pushed aside Wuthering Heights and an uncapped pen, and sat straight up on the bed, while the mother stood near the doorway with her childhood toy. The mother broke the silence,
“Let’s play bride and groom.”
Tears streamed down the girl’s eyes. Finally, the words spilled over her mouth, as if she weren’t speaking, but the words overflowed themselves from a brimming heart.
“Why didn’t you come to meet me?” She sniffed and stuck her index finger up. “Once? At least for once?”
The mother ambled to the bed where her daughter was sitting. The toy got dropped from her hand, and she covered her face as she broke down into tears, her chest heaving.
“I tried. I had tried so many times to go to you. But your father wouldn’t let me meet you. He thinks a daughter doesn’t belong to her parents, rather she belongs to the house in which she gets married.” She refrained from saying that her husband still thought a daughter was a burden, which was clearly evident from his face when the girl was born. It was also evident from him drifting into alcoholism to suppress for a while, the grinding burdens of having a daughter. She continued, “I had left the house so many times without having a particular direction to go. I just listened to my heart, for, it is in my heart that you always are. But unfortunately, I never succeeded. Finally I ran out of my savings one day after changing innumerable buses and trains. It was the police that brought me back here, despite my repeated requests to them that I wanted to go to Uttar Pradesh to meet my daughter.”
The mother hid the fact how badly she was beaten up by her husband every time she wanted to meet her daughter. It was her husband, who never understood what a priceless gift parents are to an adolescent, when her mind and psyche are in the course of their formation. Only parents can make them understand the essence of true and unconditional love, a virtue, which makes all other facets of the world fade into insignificance.
That night, the girl snuggled up to her mother, and embraced her for the warmth she’d missed for so many years.