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The sky changed from red to black and in that locked darkness innocence lay naked and bloodied, having learnt the most important lesson of her life.
She hadn’t slept at all. An unknown, silent, strange fear had been her companion the whole night. Fear she could not describe in words, fear she could not paint with a brush. But it had been there, touching her with a gentle caress at first, stroking her face teasingly, slowly entering her mind, until it had enveloped and taken possession of her entire being. Terrified, anxious beads of sweat trickled down her face hesitantly, wary of compounding her fear, until they fell on her trembling lips, drop by drop. Yes, she could taste it, she could taste the fear, who had come uninvited and laid claim on her soul and body. She tried to shake it off with all her might, but it held her violently, forcefully, keeping her pinned to the cold bed. She gasped and shivered, until she could fight her companion no more.
She got up from the bed at last, spent and exhausted, and made her way to the window with great difficulty. Every pore in her body ached with the assault her companion had gifted her. The ache was here to stay, she was certain of that. She looked at the sky, a shade of dull red, almost carroty in its hue. Was the sun feeling the fear too, its anxious rays, just outlining the hem of the sky, and not covering its whole fabric, almost willing the day to not make its glorious appearance? As if the day would bring an unpleasant news, of a loss or a death. She sat down under the window, and hugged herself desperately, protecting her terrified shape from the stranger, who had still not left the room and her body.
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Her eyes moved to the other two empty beds in the room. Like every other night since she had been here Lajo and Sharmilee didi had not spent even a single one in their rooms. “We work at night shifts”, they used to tell her lovingly. She hadn’t been afraid even once in their absence, but this night had been different. This night had been threatening, ominous, forbidding, ringing the bell of an impending doom, warning her to run away from this place she had left her home for. Run to her home, where her maa, baba and three other sisters were now living without her.
It had been only one month since her father left her here with this woman whom he called ‘mausi’. Left her here in this gargantuan city, in the promise of a better future with this woman whom she now called “Ammu”. She was “Ammu” to everyone in this locality. But she hadn’t joined any big school yet, and the only thing she did the whole day was watch television and Bollywood songs. Ammu had specifically instructed her to watch and learn the latest dance numbers. It would come in handy in your new school, she had said. But there had not been even a whiff of her going to a school, and even the images of her home and family had started to darken in patches. She tried to remove the black spots from her Maa’s face desperately, hurriedly, fearing that she was going to lose her forever. Hot, hopeless tears burnt her face and her vision, and she gripped her Maa’s hands firmly in a last ditch attempt to stop her, but she had left. The only thing she left behind was a dark blackness.
“Bholi, aye Bholi, get up!”, anxious and worried hands shook her gently.
“Maa, is that you? Please take me home!”, her gloomy eyes opened at once hopefully.
It was not her Maa, but Lajo didi, back from work and poring over her with an anxious look. The small damp room was awash with sunlight but she could sense the dark uninvited stranger still clinging to her back. She shuddered at the feeling.
“Are you alright, re Bholi? And why were you sleeping on the floor?”
“Where are Maa and Baba? Please take me home. I want to go home. Please Lajo didi!”, she clung to her hysterically, her entire body trembling with scared sobs.
And what a miserably heartbreaking embrace it was! A distressed girl clinging to an equally distressed woman, and an impalpable presence clinging to the wretched girl, vowing to never let her go.
“What is the problem here with you two? I cannot even have my paan in peace!”, Ammu entered the room, grumbling in her raspy paan stained voice, but stopped at the sight. One look at the girl, and she saw it. She saw the invisible stranger who was quite at ease with its surroundings. Of course, it had been here before, a number of times, threatening to disrupt the harmonious rhythm of her household. But Ammu was well acquainted with it, and had never allowed it to play havoc with even a single beat.
“Come meri jaan, come to me. Tell me, what is wrong? You can trust your Ammu, you know that, don’t you, my sweetheart? There, there…..sshh…stop crying”, the seasoned matriarch enveloped the girl in her smothering clasp, throwing the weight off her back at the same time.
The wretched girl had managed to hold back her tears by then. There was something soothing about the embrace, its fragrance reminding her of something. Jasmine, yes, it was the smell of jasmine. Her mother used to wear jasmine. She allowed herself to drown in the sweet smell and drink the memories that came with it. Anything to keep that alien presence away.
“Feeling better, Bholi?” Ammu caressed her dark ebony curls.
Bholi nodded slightly, not yet satiated with the fragrant remembrance, but nonetheless asked hesitantly, “Ammu, when will I start school?”
“Ach..chhaa!! All the hungama because of a school! Such a small problem and dekho what a big tamasha you have created. Uff ! You can start school from today. Happy now?” her words chewed in her stained mouth, looking for a place to spit themselves in.
A happy smile arrived at last on Bholi’s waiting face. Bholi looked all around her. The stranger had left her and the room. The smile made another happy journey through the rest of her body, illuminating every stop that came in its way.
“Arre Lajo dear! Help her in getting ready for school, will you? And see that she’s properly prepared for the education. Laal Badshah will be the perfect teacher for her.” Ammu winked at Lajo, patted Bholi’s head patronizingly and left to care for the rest of her family, leaving fresh stains of red.
Bholi looked at Lajo questioningly. “Lajo didi, will I have only one teacher at school? And what a funny name for a teacher, Laal Badshah!”, she dissolved into giggles.
Lajo smiled. Not the smile like Bholi’s but a resigned, helpless, joyless smile. A sad smile, to be precise.
“Come here, Bholi”. Lajo held Bholi’s hand and walked towards her bed. She cradled her tight and close, taking in something for the last time, powerless to stop it from leaving. “No, you will not have only one teacher, there will be many teachers for you, every one will teach you something different, something special. You must know that this is not any other ordinary school you will go to. Because you are so precious and dear to Ammu, she has arranged for teachers to educate you right here, in the comforts of this house. Isn’t that wonderful! No getting up early in the mornings, no burden of homework, no uniforms, no rat race, nothing at all. And don’t worry, Laal Badshah, funny as he may sound, will train you very well. He was my first teacher too.” Lajo tried her best to paint a dreamy tomorrow for the girl, knowing fully that the nightmarish today would wipe away the dreams in one swift stroke. She remembered her own dreams which she had laid to rest along with thousands of worthless tears.
“But…how will I make friends?” Bholi’s innocent words threatened to disturb the tears resting peacefully in their graves.
“Oh! That should be the least of your worries. Ammu will make sure you have plenty of friends.” A hundred births, a hundred burials. Yes, that’s what she was doing so heartlessly, bringing into Bholi’s world a hundred new promises, only to suffocate them moments later. She got up and walked to the tiny window in the room. The ancient fan in the room did nothing to ease the suffocation. It had been witness to teary deaths before, but had done nothing, just whirred noisily like the rest of the world. She needed a release, from her past which she had killed, her present which was throttling her and her future which loomed so dangerously. But she knew she would never be able to fly from this cage, she was a bird wounded beyond healing.
“Uff baba! Is it really so hot today or I am feeling the heat? How many times have I asked Ammu to get this haggard replaced!”
This was Sharmilee, cursing the three winged object on the ceiling with her full mouth and wiping her glistening forehead with her crimson tipped hands. She was a beauty, this Sharmeeli! Bholi stared at her just like always. She was in awe of this woman who looked straight out of a Bollywood movie with her latkajhatkas, her painted face, her fashionable hair dos and sarees to die for. And she loved her because she got her something new everyday.
“Dekh Bholi, what have I got for you today! Jalebis!”, she laughingly held out a packet towards the already excited girl. “Aye Lajo, whom are you admiring from there? Come and have the jalebis while they are still hot,” she called out to the figure still standing at the window.
“Bholi is starting her school today,” she replied tonelessly without turning to look at her. She couldn’t bear to look at Bholi, not today.
“Yes, Sharmilee didi! Can you believe it! Ammu herself said that I can start my schooling today, right here, in this house. Maa and Baba will be so happy to hear this. Will you let me call from your phone when I am done with my class, please?” The unsuspecting girl informed Sharmilee of the wondrous development in her life.
“Ohh!” This was all that managed to escape from her jalebi stuffed mouth. Not that she couldn’t say anything, but she couldn’t think of anything to say. Slowly, she walked over to Lajo and clasped her hand tightly. Both of them stood there for sometime, hands held, grieving the loss of another innocence. At last Lajo let out her long stifled sigh, turned to look at Bholi and said, “Let’s get her ready for her class, shall we?”
Morning glided into afternoon and afternoon embraced evening like they always do, not stopping for a moment to reflect upon the lives they metamorphose along with their own. But that evening was different. The sun had decided to play games with red, sometimes sparkling like a ruby, at times appetizing like a cherry, auspicious like vermilion , inviting like scarlet and deadly like blood. And the same evening in a small red room, a girl bathed in these hues, soaking the colour red in its every glory and doom.
“Ammu, look what Sharmilee didi has done to me! Please tell her that I am going for my lessons and not to get married,” Bholi complained to Ammu who had just entered the room.
Ammu looked at the grumpy girl covered in red, standing before a mirror, trying to wipe the red from her mouth. Yes, she was right. She was dressed for her marriage, a marriage of innocence and corruption, of honour and dishonour, of chastity and immorality, of trust and betrayal, of life and death. And she was Ammu, the undisputed priest of these marriages.
“Naa Bholi, don’t do that. How pretty are you looking today, just like a bride! Today is a special day for you, hai naa? And its only proper that you should look special and beautiful. Chal re Lajo, take her photo. Why should her parents miss this occasion? I will send it to them tomorrow, thik hai”, Ammu chanted her usual unholy mantras. “Sharmilee, loosen her hair a little bit more, add some more rouge on her cheeks. Something is still missing. Yes…the red bindi. Aye Lajo take off your bindi and put it on Bholi. Perfect! And bring her quickly, her teacher is getting impatient. Sharmilee, you come with me, another girl has been left here for her education.” And just like that she left the room. Other marriages were waiting her solemnization.
“Are you ready,Bholi? Before you go, I want you to know that you are the bravest and purest girl I have ever met, and don’t ever be afraid of anything. Whatever you learn today, never forget this little piece of advice I gave you,” Lajo kissed her forehead and led her to her sacrifical lesson.
On the way, Bholi spotted the stranger from the night winking at her deviously. It followed her and despite her silent protests, held her hand and walked with her to the room. Ammu took her other hand, handed him over to her teacher, and locked her from outside, along with two other strangers, one of whom a little familiar now.
“Ammu, isn’t Bholi too young for all this? You should have given her some more time,” Lajo turned helplessly to the other woman whose gaze was fixated on the locked door.
“What rubbish! You were ten when you came here, she is twelve now. But chalo, it’s never too late.”
The sky changed from red to black and in that locked darkness innocence lay naked and bloodied, having learnt the most important lesson of her life. That night innocence was murdered, a bloody, agonizing and betrayed death. Its painful cries to be rescued was lost on the world beyond that darkness. A death too trivial to be mourned.
From somewhere in the gully below, a popular Bollywood number filled the room. “Bholi bhaali ladki/ khol tere dil ki/ pyaar waali khidki…”( O you innocent girl/ Open your heart’swindows for my love).
Image Courtesy: english.mathrubhumi.com
(As I write this and as you read this, thousands of Bholis are betrayed, kidnapped, trafficked and sold to many such Ammus across the world, forced into killing their innocence with their own fragile hands, and we continue whirring like the ancient fan)
Published here earlier.
Image source: shutterstock
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