“Swear to me you’ll keep my secret, Shalu.”
She had. She hadn’t wanted to but Shalini had sworn to her big sister that she would guard her secret.
“Swear to me you’ll not follow me, Shalu.”
She had sworn to that too, but unknown to her sister, she had crossed her fingers behind her back. Secrets were special, something sacred to their sisterhood, but stop following Svi around? As if that was even possible for an eleven year old who adored her teenager sister.
She would try to do what Svi did. She wanted a diary for her thirteenth birthday, even though that was three years away. She wanted to dress in the colors Svi loved, because Svi did it, and Svi knew what was in fashion. She wanted to read the books that Svi read, and be the one to listen to her when she talked about boys. It was impossible for her not to follow Svi. Even if it meant breaking a promise.
It was through a keyhole she saw what she shouldn’t have seen. Having followed Tejasvi to the room, only to find it locked, she peeped through and saw it happen. A chill had passed through her just then.
Svi was in her chemise, siting between the legs of her father, who was fondling her. And she was crying. In a chair behind the two of them was her mother, holding her left eye and watching on in silence. When her father stopped, she saw Svi trying to get up and walk away, but her father moved towards her mother, and helpless, she saw Svi return to his lap.
Later in her room, Shalu was lying down looking at the slowly turning fan when her sister had walked in.
“Remember, Shalu. You have promised me,” she had told, not even looking at her.
That night, she could hear Svi muttering in her sleep.
“I must keep her safe. I must keep her safe,” she had been saying, as she tossed and turned on her bed.
After a sleepless night, Shalu had decided that keeping her sister’s secret meant more to her than her fear of what she had seen. But she couldn’t forget. She couldn’t even try to. She knew she was sinning, but a promise to her sister was everything for her.
It was about two months later that she returned home from school one day to see Svi sleeping.
“Svi, Svi, are you okay? You have fever?” she asked her big sister, but Tejasvi continued to sleep. Even when she shook Svi, there was no reaction. And there was a letter under her pillow. It started, “I couldn’t take it any more…”
“Mummyyyyy. Mummy, come quick, Svi’s not waking up. Svi, Svi… wake up na. Mummmyyyy, where are you?” her screams spilled through the house.
Her mother rushed inside. She saw the still body of her daughter Svi, and then the letter beneath her pillow. She read the letter, and her face turned pale.
“Shalu, you will keep silent. Do you understand?” she said, folding the letter and pushing it inside her blouse. “Making a noise won’t bring Tejasvi back, and I can’t let him leave me.”
She hadn’t understood. Her sister was lying there, dead. Her mother’s eyes were teary too, but they didn’t feel as sad. Why must she be silent again?
“Why, Svi? Why did you make me promise?”
When the police came later, she heard her mother say it was a suicide. Svi had consumed poison. Her father was also telling the same. She looked at them talk to the big inspector with the kind eyes.
“No, Inspector Khan, there was no note near her. I don’t know why Teju has taken this step.”
When she looked at her father, she saw him look at her the way she had seen him look at Svi two months back. But it was her mother’s lie that made her understand the truth at last.
“Sir, there… there was a letter,” she spoke out with as much voice as she could muster.
“Shalu, be quiet,” her mother’s voice cut across, but a stern glance from the inspector silenced her instead.
And the story poured out. When she was done, her parents were taken into custody by the inspector.
“Why, Shalu?” her mother asked as she was led away by a policewoman.
“She kept you safe, Mummy, but you didn’t her.”
“But…” her mother began, but Shalu cut her off.
“I will not be another Svi. I did it for her. If only I had done it sooner.”
(22nd April 2014)