Sakshi felt dazed. Did she just see it happen, or was it a sad illusion? Had the old man actually put his hand inside his granddaughter’s dress? Had she seen him withdrawing it? That too, in the midst of a room full of people? She looked up to see the mother of the child, her mama’s daughter-in-law, smiling as her daughter ran back to hug her. Hadn’t the woman noticed anything? Should Sakshi tell her?
Sakshi was visiting her uncle after almost a decade. She had heard from her mother that the uncle’s daughter-in-law was quite unwell and so they all lived together. Was she tolerating this atrocity out of necessity?
Her evening quite spoilt, her bafflement compounded by her confusion about her role in this drama she was not even sure she had witnessed, she went to meet another aunt. She was thrilled to find her older cousin and childhood friend Kavitha also visiting. “Oh my god!” the two embraced joyfully. The visit to the aunt’s house became livelier than she had hoped for.
An hour passed by without her noticing it. They stepped out together after taking leave and decided to spend some time alone in a café. “It has been so long since we got together!” Sakshi complained. Kavitha seemed not interested in keeping touch even on phone or through social media.
“It’s not that!” Kavitha demurred but did not explain the reason.
Sakshi’s mother had two sisters and a brother. Kavitha and her sister Ishani were the daughters of one of the sisters who had died young. The brother had brought them up along with his son. Ishani had died unexpectedly a few days before her wedding. Sakshi was in a different city at that time, pursuing higher studies. She had heard rumours that Ishani, soon after the engagement, developed health problems and died one night in her sleep.
Kavita completed her undergraduation that year and then opted to work, that too, in a different city. Now she rarely visited her hometown, and when she did, she preferred to stay in a hotel.
“I visited mamaji before coming here,” Sakshi mentioned to Kavitha. “Mamiji mentioned in passing that you rarely visit them… That you rarely come here at all!”
“I come here only on work and don’t want to disturb them,” Kavitha replied lightly before enquiring about Sakshi. The conversation turned light but at one point, Sakshi realised that she was bursting to talk about what she had seen. “Can it be possible?” she asked.
Kavita’s eyes glazed over and she seemed to choke on her drink. Coughing into a paper napkin, she remained bowed for a few minutes. When she looked up, her eyes were brimming. With a sinking feeling, Sakshi realised she had been right. An understanding passed between the two, and the truth sounded loud in that silence.
“Ishani…” Kavita said through the tears. “Before her marriage… She was a wreck… She had protected me. I didn’t face much. But she…”
“Why didn’t you tell anyone about it!!!” Sakshi asked, horrified.
“Who will believe two young girls? It was his word against ours,” she said sadly.
“An apology for a woman. Turning a blind eye, blinded by tears… Pathetic! We tried escaping. But two young girls with not a pie between us. If the home was bad, how would the world outside be?”
Sakshi looked at her cousin with a mix of emotions. Anger, sadness, fear… “What about that little girl now?”
“Her mother knows. I told her. But she thinks she is helpless…” Kavita shook her head. “Sorry… I want to go now.”
Sakshi watched her receding figure, bowed down by unpleasant memories that someone else was reliving. Can she confront? Will it rip the family apart? Was family more important than the girl? Was she as much responsible for its perpetration by remaining silent as the man who did it and the others who ignored it?
She buried her face in her hands. She didn’t know the answer.
***Names of all characters have been changed