Read part 1 and 2 of the story here –
* * *
I stood in the balcony for a while. It was dark and the city felt dead. I wondered what will happen if the Sun does not rise tomorrow. Everyone will gape at the sky for a while and realize how minuscule their blip of an existence is. Then the world will mould itself around its absence. We are good at forgetting. There is so much misery in the world that it would be foolish to think otherwise.
Her chair was propped at a corner of the balcony. She always observed the world sitting on it, with a cup of tea in her hand and a storm of thoughts in her mind. She travelled sitting on it. It was her time machine. I smiled as I looked at the empty chair. After a while I got tired of standing and I lowered myself on it. It was 4.30 am and I knew that sleep will not come near me now. Like me, she too was scared of my dreams.
Sleep was having a good time with the woman inside. Thank God for that.
* * *
When Shyamli saw my one bedroom house in Chandni Chowk for the first time, she broke down. I still remember the look on her face. She had been waiting for this for so long. All I can remember of her first day in that house is her arms encircled around me while she cried like a broken dam. My shirt was completely drenched from one side by the time she stopped and went to sleep. I took off my shirt and looked at it. I touched the wetness of our past one last time and threw the shirt away.
Shyamli finally completed her school. She was the oldest student in her class. She then went to college and finished her Bachelors. I too did well at my job and was promoted many times in the next few years. We moved in a bigger house. A few months after we moved, Shyamli got a job of a school teacher in a nearby school. The day she got her first salary, she bought me a shirt. It was same as the one I threw away on her first day in the city, the one soaked in her sorrows.
“You should get married,” she said once.
“I won’t. I have to take care of you,” I said.
“Don’t do this. I will not be able to carry this burden.”
“We left all our burdens in the village.”
It never came to me getting married. I somehow couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was scared for Shyamli. I was scared that a slight hint of aloofness would push her over the edge. It was bound to happen if I brought another relationship in the equation. I talked to her about a second marriage but she recoiled at the idea. Maybe it was the rape. Maybe it was the fear of leaving me behind. In the end, both of us found solace in each other’s company. People often mistook us for husband and wife. We laughed them off. Sometimes they looked upon us as a strange pair – a brother and sister living together. Sometimes there were hints of suspicion, hints of our relationship going beyond the limits set by the society. But over the years, we made more friends than enemies. It was a good, fulfilling life. We didn’t have any regrets.
* * *
I went to sleep sitting on the chair. Seconds later, a gentle touch of a hand woke me up. I opened my eyes and Shyamli was standing over me with a smile on her face.
“Shubh, it’s seven o’clock. Come I will make you some tea,” she said.
“It’s seven? I don’t remember the last time I had such a sound sleep.”
“When did you wake up?”
“It was around four.”
“There is a function at my school today. They have invited all the retired teachers.”
“I know. You told me a week back.”
“Did I? I am invited too. Would you like to come?”
“No, you go ahead and enjoy yourself. I will go over to Srini’s for a game of chess.”
I did not go anywhere. As Shyamli left for her school, I switched on the television and watched some news and eventually dozed off. The last thought before my eyes closed was that I would tell Dr. Kapoor that I slept soundly for two and a half hours after the dream. This has never happened before.
* * *
I wasn’t supposed to be there. If I had any idea that the incident would haunt me for the rest of the life, I would have jumped in the pond and hid myself in layers of water. But of course I had no idea. I was a curious three years old.
Somewhere in the nearby hut, the women were wailing, Ma one amongst them. I had no idea why. All I knew was that Ma had a swollen tummy till yesterday and she told me that a baby brother would come out of that. When I asked her why not a baby sister, she hushed me up.
There was a small gap between two of the bricks in one of the walls where all the men were huddled. I saw the nightmare unfold through the gap. Baba lowered the crying newborn into a vessel in which water boiled furiously. My eyes widened as her head went inside. She thrashed for a while as chocking sounds filled the room. I stared from the hole as Baba pulled out his dead daughter from the water. He then took the dead body outside and threw it in the hole that has been dug for her.
That night the dream haunted me for the first time. I won’t call it a dream now. It was as if life decided to play a part of my past again and again to me. It was like a number burnt on the skin of an animal. I had to live with it.
Ma was again pregnant next year. She told me that I was going to have a baby brother this time. The women went into our hut for the delivery and soon a wail rose from there. The man standing outside the adjoining hut started digging a hole. A fire was lightened to boil the water. The crying girl was brought into the hut where all the men were grouped.
I was shivering. Sweat ran down my face mixed with tears as Baba lowered the girl towards the vessel. I got up and ran towards the door of the hut.
“Baba! Please! I want to play with her!” I shouted as I reached the door.
He stopped and looked curiously at me.
“Daughters are a burden on the family. We are poor, son,” he said still holding the crying chid over the steam.
“I will take care of her. I promise,” I said. Baba laughed and took his daughter in his arms. A few men sitting in the hut laughed.
“Don’t forget your promise Shubh,” one of them said.
“I won’t!” I said looking straight in his eyes.
Baba gave the little girl in my arms. She had stopped crying.
“What will you call her Shubh?” he asked.
“Shyamli,” I said. I kissed her and held her tight.
The women were still wailing. A man was still digging the hole. But it did not matter anymore. I had made a promise. I was going to take care of her.
I was completely disturbed when my father told me the story of Shyamli. Murdering a female child is not uncommon in India. We have already killed 10 million girls and haven’t stopped yet. Shyamli somehow got lucky.
The ending of the story is completely true but I have fictionalized the rest of the story a bit. I have changed the decades in which it happened. Also, in reality, Shyamli did get married again. In fact, that is the reason why I am able to share her story with you. She was my great-grandmother.