Everything looked perfect. Yellow and green, pink and blue braided streamers ran across the ceiling. Few balloons were placed at each corner of the room and others were taped on each side of the banner that read “HAPPY BIRTHDAY.” Tables were moved by the wall to put the snacks and food on. And rest of the room was arranged to accommodate Saakshi’s friends from school and neighborhood.
Meena, Saakshi’s mother was as excited as her daughter. She was a proud mother of a smart, confident young girl, who had just turned thirteen. While putting a natural shade of pink on her lips Meena was crossing off the things of the list she had made in her mind for her daughter’s party.
“How do I look?”
Meena’s chain of thought broke but she was pleased to hear that eager voice. Saakshi was standing before her in pink and white floral new dress. The dress was Saakshi’s choice. Meena couldn’t agree more that she looked graceful and beautiful in that dress. She praised and congratulated Saakshi for her decision. She was overwhelmed by her mother’s remarks but before she could hug her the doorbell rang. Saakshi jumped to look out the window and see who was there at the gate.
Her smile suddenly vanished. Gloomily Saakshi asked Meena, “What is he doing here? Why did you invite him?”
“That’s no way talk, he is an elderly person and you should be respectful of him. Go open the door and welcome him.”
“But Maa,” Saakshi tried to say something but Meena interrupted her.
“No, buts… no nothing… please let him in. Growing up doesn’t mean that you become disrespectful and forget your manners.” Meena said sternly.
Saakshi gritted her teeth and stomped her way out of her mother’s room. She grumbled, “Why don’t you ever listen to me. No one understands me here.” And then she yelled, “Maa, you could never stand for yourself how could I expect you to stand for me.” Saakshi opened the living room door and let Vinayakji in. Without saying anything she slipped into her room.
Vinayakji was a frequent guest in the Agarwal household. He was a sixty-three years old, retired personnel from Indian Railways. Both Meena and her husband Satish respected him a lot. They revered him as father and his wife Ammaji as mother. Meena and Satish had lost their parent early on in their lives. They had always felt the need of filling that empty space. This vacuum began to fill up when year and half back Vinayakji and Ammaji moved into their neighborhood after their retirement.
Meena felt sad by her daughter’s remarks. She knew that her daughter was pointing towards her weakness; her low confidence. She decided to say nothing and once again she let it go and be trampled by someone (after all Saakshi was her only daughter and it was a special day for both of them.) She smiled and went to the living room to greet Vinayakji. She bowed and touched his feet.
Slowly sitting down on the couch he asked, “It’s Saakshi’s birthday but she looked upset. What happened to her?”
Meena was not prepared for this question. She tried to deviate and asked, “Where is Ammaji? Why didn’t you bring her along?”
He quickly said, “She was not feeling too well but I had to come. After all it’s our Saakshi’s birthday. She is a big girl now.”
“That’s the problem.” Meena said nonchalantly.
Suddenly Vinayakji stood up and said, “Don’t worry, I will go and talk to her. She will be happy to see the gift I bought for her.”
Before Meena could say anything he was halfway through the hallway and was about to enter Saakshi’s room. He looked back at Meena, smiled and then slowly knocked at the door. Meena smiled back and went into the kitchen to prepare tea and snacks for the guest.
Soon, Meena heard the sound of music coming out of Saakshi’s room. It was the sound track- “Sheila ki jawaani” from the new movie, Tees Maar Khan. This was the biggest hit of the year and Saakshi wanted this CD for sometime. Meena was assured that her daughter’s mood must have lightened up with the gift she got from Vinayakji. Soon she will be ready to have fun at her birthday party. She pictured a smile on Saakshi’s face and got busy in making dumplings.
Ten minutes had passed since Vinayakji went into Saakshi’s room. A different number was playing on the player. Tea and snacks were ready, so Meena went to her room to call them.
A couple of steps before she reached the door- she froze. Her legs were heavy and she couldn’t walk any further.
The door to Saakshi’s room was not closed completely. From the space between the door and the frame she could see what was going inside. Vinayakji was sitting next to Saakshi and trying to slip his hands under her dress. Saakshi was trying to stop his hands but she looked scared and confused. She was perspiring. Her mouth was dry, she tried to say something but words didn’t come out. After a lot of effort she said, “I don’t like this.”
The old man grinned and said, “you are big girl now, you have to learn to enjoy it… and soon you will thank me for teaching this.” He moved his hands underneath her skirt and began caressing her. Saakshi gathered some strength, pushed his hands away and ran out of the room. Meena quickly moved and hid herself behind the door. Her heart broke to see her daughter go through the agony of being touched by a mature man.
Meena slowly dragged her feet to the kitchen. She knew what it was like when someone marauds ones body and soul. She went through similar pangs of molestation when she was young. She remembered living in the dark shadows of sexual harassment when a distant uncle came to live in their house. He often touched her inappropriately, forced her to give him massages. He even scared her and threatened to tell everybody that she was the one doing ‘dirty things’ to him. Luckily, one day Meena’s father and her uncle had a fight over something and the uncle was thrown out of the house. The assault stopped but by then Meena was scarred for life. She lost her self-confidence. She held herself responsible for letting that happen to her. She lived with that guilt and never spoke for herself. She did whatever others told her to do and kept punishing herself for the crime she didn’t commit.
Vinayakji knocked slightly at the kitchen door. Meena’s face was red and her body was burning with hatred for these sick, vile men. But there was not a single grain of regret or shame on this old man’s face. With great ease he said to Meena, “ I think you should talk some sense into this thankless girl. I got her the gift she wanted and still she doesn’t listen to me. May be I’ll get something better next time.” And he laughed at his own pathetic joke.
Meena pricked her fore-finger with her thumb to suppress her anguish and whispered, “yes, I’ll talk to her …Tea is ready, I will be there in few.”
She boiled the tea twice and poured it into the cups. Meena promised to herself that she will not let her daughter go through same pain and misery that she went through. The crack began to appear on the wall; the wall that she built around herself many years back because of someone else’s misdemeanor started to crumble.
She put the cups on the tray and quickly went to the living room where Vinayakji was sitting and reading the newspaper. He began to fold the newspaper. Meena handed him the hot cup. But before he could grab it, she left and the whole cup of boiling tea fell on his groin.
Vinayakji howled in pain, “You B…i…….” he tried to stop himself.
Saakshi came inside the house to see what was going on.
Meena pretended to help him and quickly escorted him to the bathroom. In the bathroom, she slapped him hard on his cheek and said, “next time your hands tried to touch any girl it wouldn’t be tea … it would be something else. I promise even your wife won’t be able to know if you are a man or otherwise.”
He couldn’t dare to look at Meena. She had broken the wall. Her eyes were blazing, she roared, “Now leave and never ever enter this house again.” And she pushed him out.
Vinayakji quickly limped out of the bathroom and into the living room where Saakshi was standing with the CD in her hands. She quietly moved it in his direction and closed the door behind him.
Meena was washing her face when Saakshi came into the bathroom. She handed a towel to his mother and moaned, “I was wrong, Maa… I am sorry … about what I said earlier … you are so brave Maa… I never liked him because he always tried to touch me …”
Meena held Saakshi’s shoulder and said, “Don’t be sorry … you are reason for my strength … And I am sorry for I misjudged him. At times as adults we forget to differentiate between faith and blind faith on people.”
Then she continued, “Saakshi there’s a famous quote by a great author- Don’t allow your wounds to transform you into someone you are not. You are a smart, confident, creative and happy girl … so be that.”
And then she hugged her daughter and began to cry inconsolably. The years of pain was being washed out of her heart and her eyes.