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Some of the surgeries were to keep me alive and functional, some to make me resemble the human race again. The physical pain has been almost unbearable, but I can take it.
The second winner of our November 2019 Muse of the Month contest is Namratha Varadharajan.
Holi, present day
The town has donned a carnivalesque hat to welcome spring with a show of colours, as it does each year. Loud music blares from the speakers, children chase each other through the crowd with small water guns, men and women are merrymaking, dancing, squealing, all of them looking like they have been doused by a rainbow. I stand leaning on a nearby tree, watching the ongoing festivities. I lay poised, waiting, for him… for one of them.
The Holi, 8 years ago
I did a little twirl, a smile plastered on my face, as I mounted the bus. The people on the bus looked like tufts of dirty colour clouds, and I expertly stepped around them all to find myself the only empty seat in the middle of the bus. Getting any colour on my school uniform was a big no-no.
I get an eerie feeling like I am being watched from afar, but I dismiss it. I had floored the competition in the debate today, and my triumph had been aired over the radio for the entire city to hear. I had made an excellent case against the policing of dress code for girls in schools and colleges and the judges had no choice but to hand over the trophy to me. I reveled in the joy privy to those who had destroyed their competition.
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned. Then, it stung like a million bees. A blood-curling scream escaped my lips. Then, it went pitch black.
Later, they said, I was lucky, I was alive. They said, the unexpected rain had diluted the acid’s effect even as it washed away parts of my traumatized flesh along with bits of my singed school uniform. They said, an ambulance had reached the spot within a half-hour in peak traffic. They said, I was lucky.
8 months after The Holi
“Please wait outside ma’am, your daughter is safe here. You can sit right outside”, the therapist ushers my mother towards the door.
With a backward glance at me, she slowly goes out, and the world inside seals shut. I don’t look at the therapist; instead, I intently study my hands. My knuckles are white as I am clutching them tightly together. The room is really hot and too bright.
He says something that is indecipherable to me. Is he talking in a different language? Why did he send my mother out of the room? Why did he want me all alone with him? What is he saying? I look up slowly. An avalanche of thoughts bombard my head, my mind tells my eyes this must be the man that ruined my life. He is the one who threw the acid at me, he is one who took everything away. It is him. It is him. I cannot let him get me again, I must get away from him. My heart switches to overdrive, my voice goes numb, my feet quicksand into the floor. And then the world goes black, again.
A year after The Holi
“You think, I have Agoraphobia? I overheard what you told my parents. You are highly mistaken, doc. I looked it up. I don’t have any phobia. My fear is real, my threat is real”, I declare over the phone. I haven’t tried to meet the therapist again face-to-face but have reluctantly agreed to weekly sessions over the phone.
“No, I told them that you are suffering from post-traumatic stress. Ok, let me ask you a question. When was the last time you went out of the house?”, the therapist counters.
“Well, if you must know, I went for yet another one of my surgeries last Thursday. So your diagnosis has been invalidated”, I inform him. I have had many surgeries, thirty-six in all, since that day. Some of the surgeries were to keep me alive and functional, some to make me resemble the human race again. The physical pain has been almost unbearable, but I can take it.
“Ok, when was the last time you went anywhere else other than to the hospital?”, he insists again.
I want to prove him wrong with my words. I want to tell him that I do not have anywhere to go since I dropped out of school. But I keep quiet because I know he is right. The fear of the unknown, it kills me. I did not see who threw the acid at me. Amidst the wet and drying vomit of colours strewn on everyone that day, neither I nor anyone in the crowded bus could identify him. All of them were scrambling to get as far away from the screaming, wildly gesticulating girl and the bus had spilled onto the platform in seconds.
Why did that faceless, hateful, rabid excuse for a human ruin my existence? Was I really the intended target? Why did he hate me so much when I don’t even know him? My only clue was this vague feeling I had in those days prior to the attack that I was being watched, every evening as I got into the bus. But, I hadn’t noticed anyone. I did not think much of it at that time. I did not turn around.
Now, the fear haunts me, every nanosecond of every day. I don’t know who my attacker was. I don’t know the truth. There is never going to be any justice for me. I am going to be an open wound, forever.
I declare into the phone, “Doc, everyone is my attacker”.
Another half-year later
The thick curtains stand guard, no light can infiltrate them. In this abode of darkness, the light of my laptop is the only one that dares to shine. I am always online because it is better than always being in my head. I log into my online support group, the one that the therapist recommended. My therapy sessions over the phone continue, sometimes I even have a session over a video call. It hasn’t gotten me willingly out of the house yet, but I have gone to the beach a couple of times accompanied by my parents; the open space translates to me having a better view of anyone approaching us. I cracked a joke the other day. The number of panic attacks when I go to the hospital has gone down. Progress?
The online support group consists of girls and women like me. Well, not really like me. The only thing we all have in common is that we have all been attacked viciously with acid. Each one has a horrific tale to tell. Many are here only to share a dip in each others’ pity pools but there are a few diligently trying to row their way towards a future, but with a makeshift paddle. Till now, all it has done is give me a place to be, online.
A new message pops up.
“Help! I was attacked by my ex-husband last month with acid. He hired someone to throw it at me as I entered my apartment, the one I rent since I left him. I filed an FIR, but he has gotten out on bail. Also, he has political influence and is rich. The case is on the verge of being thrown out. Then, I know he will come back to finish the job. I have no way to save myself. Help!”
I had read many such messages before but this one stirred what had lain dormant within me. She was almost as helpless as I was. I wanted to reach out to her. I wanted to help her. That day, I shred my fear as I crossed the threshold of my bedroom, and stepped out of the door.
7 years after The Holi
“The accused has committed a crime that is premeditated as well as vicious. He should be tried as an adult, your honour”, I proclaim, my voice booming across the courtroom. My eyes would have slain that little fiend then and there if I could.
The defence lawyer, a pudgy old man in oversized robes, slowly stands up and drawls, “The defendant is only sixteen, your honour. We have submitted his birth certificate, and even his Aadhar card to the court. The law says he should be tried as a minor, your honour. Also, he has spent the eight months leading up to the trial in a juvenile detention facility. He should be allowed to return to his home and his family as quickly as possible, your honour.”
The judge scrutinizes the documents before him once again. With a sigh, he says, “The documents prove that the defendant is a minor. Hence, he shall be tried as a minor in this case. The next hearing is set for one week from today”.
I walk furiously out of the courtroom. A minor, my foot! The girl who he had thrown the acid on was a year younger than him! If he was tried as a minor, he would be out, back into the world within another year. Is justice really served when she has had her future, her whole life, her identity snatched away from her, but he has his entire life back to live? That little piece of trash wasn’t going to get off that easily if I had anything to do about it! I march into my car and set off towards home.
That message, the cry for help that day had moved me into action. But, the path has been strewn with more boulders than ladders. Initially, I had been helpless and furious that I was helpless. So, I had decided to help myself first. I found that girl within me who thought a debate was a fun sport. I saw that I was intact inside though my outside had been altered for me. My dreams, my hopes had lain hidden, awaiting discovery.
From a victim, to a survivor, to a lawyer, to a women’s rights activist, I have come a long way. But, even now, there are so many cases that get thrown out because the evidence is inconclusive. They hide behind the banner of being a minor. Sometimes, they are never caught, or there are no witnesses. And every time this happens, my list grows, the frustration turns into anger, that all-consuming hatred fills every one of my pores and threatens to burst, but I swallow it whole, make it wait. My time will come.
It is Holi again. My white salwar kameez is starched and spotless. I am ready. I wait. I am the voice, the face, the crusader of the survivors. I am that 15-year old, whose identity was stripped away from her but she rose out of the debris. Not all battles are won in the courtroom. I resurrect every Holi as Maa Kali in white. Bring out your colour, I have my armour! I wait poised in the shadows until I zero in on the next perpetrator in my list, the ones that got away. I hold my fully loaded Pichakari, carefully by my side, as I head through the colours, towards my next victim. They shall know the pain they caused. After all, the punishment must befit the crime.
Editor’s note: In 2019 our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month got bigger and better (find out how here) and also takes the cue from the words of women who inspire with their poetry.
The writing cue for November 2019 is this quote from the poem Lady Lazarus by poet and author Sylvia Plath, whose 87th birth anniversary on 27th October 2019 had a Google doodle, and who was once described in the New York Times Book Review as “one of the most celebrated and controversial of postwar poets writing in English.” Her semi-autobiographical book, The Bell Jar, is a must read for any student of literature and feminism.
“Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.”
Namratha Varadharajan wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: pixabay
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Namratha is an aspiring poet, a lover of the drawing beautiful images with words. She
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