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Perhaps this was why Naheed had chosen not to confide even in us; she may have thought we would not trust her too and continued to bear the agony alone.
Our Muse of the Month series this year focus on stories that pass the Bechdel test, and are written on inspiration from a new prompt every month. This month, the prompt was “Fearless. Because I’ve Been Afraid”, and the story should pass the Bechdel Test, that is, it should have at least two well crafted, named women characters (we differ here slightly from the classic Bechdel test, in that we require these characters to be named),
The fourth winner of our June 2018 Muse of the Month contest is Seema Taneja.
”Many congratulations for your promotion as DSP, Madam ji. Now you’re going to be the circle officer in a bigger district and this certainly calls for a big celebration”, the all female staff of the Mahila Thana (women’s police station) cheered loudly and broke into a spontaneous dance.
Nimisha had always been immensely popular among her colleagues because of her amiable and empathetic nature. She would always treat her subordinates as her equals and try to boost up their confidence and morale for honest and effective policing. But when it came to dealing with goons and criminals she was a real terror. Wherever she had been posted in the ten years of her job, she had created a close network of informers and relentlessly flushed out criminals from their holes with the help of her team. Her emphatic implementation of the policy of zero tolerance for crime against women had earned her this posting as the station-in-charge of the first Mahila Thana in her state.
Only the last year she had been awarded by the Governor for her swift and successful investigation of a case of gang rape and murder of a five-year old baby girl. Her passion and drive in solving the case had made many of her colleagues wonder as to what had made her take the case as if it was the mission of her life.
She should have been jubilant at her promotion today but she looked pensive. Seeing her boss in an unusually thoughtful mood, Rajni, Nimisha’s sub inspector and confidante rushed to her side and urged her to join them in the celebrations. It was fortunately a lean day in terms of complaints and the last complainant had just left so someone had rushed to the nearby bakery and brought in a cake. Now everybody was just waiting for Nimisha to do the honors before another complainant walked in.
In five minutes the cake was cut and devoured, felicitations chimed in once again and then it was back to routine work in the police station.
Nimisha went back to her table and picked up a file. A lot of pending work had to be completed, case files sorted out and put in proper order before handing over charge to the new incumbent. She didn’t have time to think of anything else.
‘Is there a problem, madam?’ SI Rajni who had come to get a file signed from Nimisha asked hesitantly. ‘You have been given an excellent ACR (annual confidential report) but you don’t seem very happy at your promotion! Is it then the transfer from here that’s bugging you?’
‘No no, I am delighted that my efforts are being recognized and appreciated, Rajni. Don’t worry, I am fine.’ Nimisha tried to assure her that everything was alright but Rajni was not taking it lightly. She knew instinctively that something was troubling her normally ebullient boss. ‘What exactly is that?’ she just had to put all her persuasive skills to test and unravel the reason for the contemplative mood at dinner together.
‘Alright, now tell me what has been troubling you ma’am since you got the news of your transfer to Bulandshahar? It’s your home town, you should be happy’, putting the box of Nimisha’s favorite home made Dum Alu and Pudina Paratha on the table that night, Rajni prodded Nimisha once again. Though she was much younger and quite in awe of her senior yet Rajni had grown quite fond of her in their short tenure together and looked up to her like an elder sister. She was determined to help Nimisha unburden herself by making her speak.
‘Come on, tell me madam. It is something to do with your transfer, isn’t it? You know you can always put in a request for change if you don’t want to go there. SP sir will gladly recommend a more suitable posting for you, She said helpfully.
‘No Rajni, I am not perturbed by my transfer. It’s just that I have some ugly memories of my city’, Nimisha spoke slowly.
‘Please share your memories with me, perhaps it will unburden you. Come, let’s have dinner and then you can tell me all about it’, she coaxed Nimisha to eat because she knew her favorite food will help her relax and open up her heart.
‘It’s a long story, Rajni. You know I was born and brought up in Bulandshahar. I did my schooling there and went to Lucknow for higher studies. I had many friends but Lekha and Naheed were my best friends. We knew one another like the back of our hands and even if we fought sometimes we were back together in a couple of hours. There had never been any secrets among us but when we were in class 12th suddenly Naheed began to appear a bit aloof to us. She was dull and listless mostly. We prodded her several times but she didn’t disclose the reason for the growing distance and silence. Her studies were also beginning to get affected. We thought there may be some family issues and she would reveal it in some time. But when that didn’t happen we visited her home to see for ourselves but there didn’t seem anything amiss in her family. Gradually Naheed’s appearance at school became very infrequent.’ speaking almost inaudibly Nimisha fell silent.
‘Why? What then? Didn’t you try to persuade her to come regularly since it was your class 12?’ Rajni coaxed her to speak again. Nimisha remained silent and contemplative as if she had travelled to days of yore. Rajni waited patiently for her to pick up the threads from her past.
In a few seconds, she began speaking again, ‘We did try Rajni, but she didn’t relent. She didn’t tell us anything but we could see that she was under some kind of stress and fear, we just had no clue why. In a few days we were required to fill our board exam forms and Naheed had come to school that day. While on our way back from school, I noticed someone following us on a bicycle. Initially I dismissed it as just my misconception but when the shabbily dressed man kept on following us, I was alarmed and told Lekha and Naheed immediately. As Naheed looked behind her she was petrified and started running frantically. All of us rushed into a narrow alley and went inside a crowded shop. The man was apparently disappointed at his catch slipping out of his trap. He cycled past glaring at us as if warning us of dire consequences.
When we finally reached home and were inside Naheed’s room, we pestered her to come clean. With tears streaming down her cheeks, she disclosed that she had noticed the man first in a community gathering. He had snuggled close to her from behind and was nuzzling her back with something. Disgusted and scared, she had quickly moved away but apparently the man had been stalking her since that day. Once he had even stood outside her home waiting for her to leave for school but when she spotted him, she had chickened out. And since that day the evil man had been harassing her day in and day out. She would go to the market to run some errand and he would be there, smiling lecherously at her. She would go to her rooftop and he would be staring at her from a nearby roof. She felt as if the man had been keeping track of all her movements. It was only then that she had started coming to school when somebody would accompany her.
When we asked her if she had confided in her parents she smiled helplessly. Her family being conservative people, wouldn’t accept that it wasn’t her fault. They would rather accuse her only for inviting the man’s unwanted advances and immediately put a stop to her education.’
‘This is atrocious ma’am. How can any parents be so callous?’ Rajni was aghast. ‘But why didn’t you inform her parents, ma’am?’
‘How could we dare go to them Rajni, after what Naheed had told us? They would refuse to understand. And if our parents had come to know such a thing, perhaps they would also have reacted in a similar manner.’ Nimisha added grimly.
‘Disheartened and scared beyond belief, we returned home and as decided among us we also didn’t tell our parents what we had faced that day. I couldn’t sleep a wink that night. Every time I shut my eyes that evil glint in that pervert’s eyes would begin to torment me. For the first time in my life I had terrible nightmares and every time I woke up I thought of Naheed. She had been under so much trauma for so many days and yet she didn’t have anyone she could talk to. Not her family. Not even us, her best friends!’
‘Absolutely true, ma’am. This is the saddest truth of our life…the very people we are otherwise closest to would refuse to believe us when it comes to matters of molestation and sexual abuse. Who can we turn to for help if not them?’
‘You’re so right, Rajni. Perhaps this was why Naheed had chosen not to confide even in us; she may have thought we would not trust her too and continued to bear the agony alone. That night I vowed to never leave her alone.’ streaks of painful memories clouded her limpid eyes.
‘And you didn’t, I am sure ma’am!’
‘Unfortunately I did, Rajni! The next day when Naheed and I left for school together, Lekha was unwell so she hadn’t come with us, the man followed us again. We walked fast but he caught up with her and blocked our path. He had a bottle in his hand. He asked Naheed to come with him or he would ruin her life. Even though I was also scared to the core yet I asked Naheed to run but she was so petrified that she couldn’t move. With a mocking grin, the oppressor threatened me to move away or I won’t be spared too. By now my false bravado was giving way to absolute fear but I still tried to push him away from Naheed who had been standing like a statue all this while. Enraged, he uncorked the bottle and threw the muddy yellow liquid towards me. A few drops of the stinking acid scalded my arm and I fell on the road in immense pain. Still clutching the hand of Naheed in a brutal grip, the perpetrator advanced towards me menacingly, the bottle still spewing killer fumes. He warned me to keep my mouth shut else I would also have to bear the brunt of his fury.
Scared for my own life now, I gathered all my strength somehow, got to my feet and ran.
Away from that vile man. Away from my best friend Naheed. I abandoned her when she needed me the most!’
Rajni sat staring at her boss incredulously. ‘I refuse to believe this, ma’am. You are not telling the truth. You couldn’t have left her in the clutches of that criminal. You’re not a person who would be afraid of a goonda. Criminals fear you!’
‘I was a child Rajni! I was terrified and I did desert my friend that day. Naheed was found in a forested area the next day in an unconscious state, her beautiful face burnt beyond recognition, her petite frame mutilated. The man had forcefully drugged and then raped her. He had thrown acid on her face to remove all traces of recognition and left her to die. She survived her immeasurable ordeal but didn’t live long enough to give evidence against her oppressor. I chose to remain silent because I feared for my safety.’
‘Naheed was dead. I didn’t want to die like her’, Nimisha spoke almost in a whisper now.
‘Oh, I am so sorry ma’am! That’s so horrible! ‘ Rajni fumbled for words to console her boss who was known to be a tough cookie but was actually broken inside. ‘What about the man, ma’am? Did he harass you also later on?’
‘No Rajni. Thankfully he vanished from there. Perhaps Naheed’s death had frightened him into fleeing for his safety.’
‘That’s a relief though he deserved to rot in hell.’ Rajni spoke through clenched teeth. She could barely hide her anger despite having seen even more brutal crimes during her police job.
‘He did, Rajni. Do you think I got into police to let him escape so easily. I hounded him out of his hell hole within a few months of joining police. He had several similar cases against him and that made my revenge easier. He’s serving life term for his sins.’
‘Then why did you look so perturbed and afraid on hearing of your transfer to Bulandshahar today!’ Rajni wondered aloud.
‘Afraid! Not today, never again, Rajni. Naheed bore the scars of his brutality on her body. I bear them on my soul. Those memories of failing my best friend haunt me till today. But I am fearless. Because I have been afraid.‘
Seema Taneja wins a Rs 250 Amazon voucher, as well as a chance to be picked one among the top winners at the end of 2018. Congratulations!
Header image is a still from the movie Ranjhana
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