“Getting to a place of comfort can be uncomfortable.” – Marcus Samuelsson
The words of the quote make me smile. Looking into the mirror, I see my dimples. I’ve had enough discomfort without knowing where the place of comfort even lies.
“Liya, come for breakfast.”
My smile vanishes immediately. The voice is sweet and caring to others, but I know it isn’t so.
When I lie down on the bed again, I remember what happened nine years ago and I shudder.
I open my eyes to see the rays of the rising sun coming through the window. I can see the specks of dust flying hither-tither. My heart jumps with joy as I remember it is my birthday. I turn thirteen. I’m a teenager now. I hear the door open, and my grandmother comes in. She’s smiling too.
“It’s not every day that my granddaughter turns thirteen, is it?” she cooes, a packet in her hand.
She pulls out a white top with dark blue borders on the sleeves, and a matching long skirt in dark blue. My eyes open wide in surprise as much as joy. She has never before given me a gift. She usually gives money to Maa for buying it. I take it from her, then remember my manners and fall at her feet seeking blessings.
“Liya,” she tells me, “Today is a very important day. I want you to wear this today.”
I nod happily.
I get ready quickly, excited about the day ahead. When I go for breakfast, I see Maa has not kept it on the table like she does every day. Maa gives me a hug and wishes me. She tells me that Papaji has gone out.
“Maa, after breakfast, I will go to Babita’s house and wish her. It is her birthday too.”
My maa always has a surprise gift for me on my birthday. So when I hear her tell something about going back to my room first, I know something is up. She tells me I’ll be called for when everything is ready, and to go to the puja room and pray first. After half an hour, I hear her call, and run upstairs, taking two steps at a time.
I see her standing at the head of my bed, her face serious. Naani sits on the chair near the middle. What surprises me is papaji, who is near the foot of the bed, and a man I’ve never seen before. He smiles at me, and I see his front tooth is missing. I stand there frozen to the spot.
“Liya,” Naani says, “Come. Lie down. This is part of our tradition on the thirteenth birthday.”
When I don’t move, I see Papaji walk toward me and pull me towards my bed. I lie down, not sure what this new tradition is. Papaji takes my legs and pushes them wide. I try to close them, but he’s too strong.
“Papaji!” I protest, but he doesn’t listen. Maa takes my hands and holds them tightly above my head.
The stranger tells me it’s going to be okay. That he’s done it before. He pushes my skirt out of the way and leans inside. I feel his hot breath between my legs, and then something sharp cut away my underwear.
“Maa!” I cry, looking at her standing near me. “I don’t want…”
Naani’s hand on my mouth stops me from speaking further.
“This is not a choice, Liya,” she tells me, the sweetness in her voice now gone. “I will not have another word out of you.”
I see Maa look straight ahead, her expression blank, the grip of her hands tighter than she has ever held my hands before. My eyes are wet, the tears flowing onto Naani’s hand, equally strong. I see the Papaji’s back from the corner of my eyes as he sits at my feet, holding them apart.
“Can’t they see my fear?” I wonder.
I feel that sharpness slice between my legs again, and a pain shooting up. I screw my eyes shut, and my scream is muffled. I struggle against my family, but they hold on tight, leaving me no escape, no way to close myself to the gaze of the stranger. I hear him chant some mantras, part of which my family repeats, and before I know it, he cuts me again. Tears flow out of my eyes like never before. I feel their grip on me loosen, and try to sit up. The world begins to spin, and I lose consciousness.
When I wake, I’m in a small room. From the walls, I realize it is the outhouse, where I’ve hid countless number of times when playing hide and seek with Babita. There is darkness outside the window. I know I’ve been out for many hours now. I sit up, but the pain returns between my legs. I look down and in the dim light, see blood there… on the bed, on my skirt.
I hear a groan, and look beside me. On a bed nearby, I see Babita stirring. I can see blood between her legs too. She lifts her skirt, and I can see where she has been cut. She looks at me, and then starts to cry.
“That’s enough from both of you.”
I hear Naani open the door of the outhouse and come inside.
“You’ll be in this room for a few days. You’re not supposed to be seen outside; or heard. You’ll not be given anything to eat today. If you bleed again, I want you to wipe it with the cloth near your bed. Be happy the both of you are together. Usually, girls aren’t allowed to be together. Since you are cousins, the priest has allowed it.”
Babita and I look at each other silently.
“Why, Naani?” I ask her.
“Tradition,” she tells us, locking the door as she goes out again.
“Liya, come for breakfast, now.”
My mother’s angry voice breaks the chain of memories as she pokes her head in the door and orders me downstairs.
After that day, I had been fearful for a few days. But the more I thought of it, the more determined I became. Other than ‘Tradition’, they didn’t offer me any explanation. I didn’t seek any. As I get up, I hear a beep on my computer and a notification pops up. I click it and read the new e-mail.
I read the letter again quickly. Chennai.
I can hear my family in my head already as I walk downstairs.
“Chennai? No. You’re not going. I won’t have it,” Papaji’s voice echoes.
“You are twenty two now. We allowed you to study, Aaliyah, but that’s that. No arguments,” Maa will say. She never likes arguments. She never argues either. She listens to what Papa and Naani say, and pushes her anger onto me. It has always been so, almost like a tradition.
“It’s not tradition in our family for girls to work.” Yes, that’s going to be Naani’s argument, without a doubt.
I sit down for breakfast opposite to Naani.
“Babita had called. She has got a beautiful baby girl. Both are healthy,” she tells me.
I think of Babita, how she had accepted her parents’ decision to marry her off at nineteen. Maa had wanted me to do that too, but I was adamant. And they had let me study, with reluctance.
“Someone will be coming to see you this week,” Maa tells, coming into the room with the food.
I quickly eat, not speaking a word. As I head upstairs after, I know my mind is made up to take the job.
I know how difficult it will be to get my wish, but I am determined. I was ready and willing to fight for my life before, and I am even now. When I open the diary I’ve filled with my favorite quotes, I see one that assures me I’m right in my stand.
“Get busy living, or get busy dying.” – Stephen King.
(© 11th February 2016)