Tara looked shocked and horrified. When she looked in the mirror, she saw her face but right behind that face lurked another one. She looked again and the alternate face was still there. It was a face she didn’t want to remember, an accusing face that showed her dark side, a face that forced her to confront her guilt. She took a glass to hit it when the bell rang. With shaking hands and nerves she opened the door. It was old Bhanu, the sewing woman. She delivered the alterations and when Tara paid her, Bhanu noticed her trembling hands. “Memsahib?” asked Bhanu “theek tho hai?” and peered with concern at her distraught face, but Tara only saw those accusing eyes. “Does Bhanu know the truth?” she asked herself. Her thoughts in a whirl, she ran into the open air, hoping to run away from herself and the terrible guilt she was carrying. Suddenly, an oncoming vehicle veered towards her and she fell down on the hard pavement, as she moved quickly to avoid the vehicle.
The next thing she remembered was waking up in a hospital and seeing Manoj. He was questioning, investigating, probing, and drawing conclusions. She wanted to hide or run away from his unending questions and from those ‘eyes’ that were relentlessly pursuing her. But all she could manage to do was to continue to stare with vacant eyes and an open mouth. “Ever since she saw Rani on the local news, she is like this,” explained her friend and neighbor, Radha, who had brought her to a private clinic at the edge of the city. “Besides, I have no idea why she goes berserk when she sees old Bhanu,” she added in a perplexed tone.
Manoj was equally stupefied. “Hmmm…” he thought as he recalled current events. “Rani?” he mumbled as he kept thinking. Then he remembered something about a Rani who had recently appeared in the local news when she was produced before a magistrate. He remembered how she could barely stand or speak. The magistrate had issued orders to immediately provide her appropriate medical care. The order was issued two weeks ago. And at the Jamna clinic, Rani continued to rave incoherently, hurting both on the inside and the outside.
“She was set upon like meat thrown to hungry wolves,” said the magistrate. His voice was quivering with anger. The ‘rapist wolves’ had battered and pounded her body. Her thighs were swollen to double their normal size. Her pelvic hip was fractured. There were bites and wounds all over her body. Poor, eighteen-year-old Rani constantly moaned and groaned with pain. Yet the prison authorities were peddling justice by the use of ambiguous phrases such as “worked on her,” rather than the brutal realistic word “gang-rape.” The magistrate himself opined privately that at least 10 to 15 men were involved, men who were supposed to be the guardians of democracy and justice - police, jail wardens, their political friends, assorted lawyers and even a very corrupt judge. An account of Rani's ordeal had appeared in the newspapers, magazines, and TV. Yet, either due to fear, apathy, or propaganda, there was very little action from the authorities.
“But what is the connection between Tara, Rani and possibly Bhanu?” wondered Manoj. Radha did not know, and neither did Bhanu.
“Tara was very kind to me. She always gave me something to eat and some bakhsheesh. But recently, I think she has started avoiding me. I love her still and don't want to distress her. I'll keep away, babuji,” said Bhanu sadly, wiping her tears.
Manoj soothed and comforted her, “Don't worry, Bhanuji, she is distressed and panicky. Something is eating into her existence. We need to find out what it is. Eventually, I am sure she will come around. I am positive it will all turn out good. So don’t worry.”
Though Manoj appeared optimistic, privately he was worried. He had known Tara since her days in college and had never seen her like this. Was there something in her past that he wasn’t aware of? Was Bhanu involved? He looked at Tara who was motionless, her eyes fixed on the ceiling.
“Tara,” he shook her gently. “What is it? What's bothering you?”
“Speak, Tara,” coaxed her friend Radha, “get it out of your system.”
But Tara was unresponsive. Puzzled, Manoj shook his head and requested Radha to take care of her till he got back. He left quickly, his thoughts were in a whirl, and he was trying hard to find the missing piece of the puzzle in Tara’s life.
Radha took her position on a sofa by the side of the bed and wondered about Tara. She had met her soon after she had moved to the flat opposite hers. Tara had come to ask her about the cable services in the area and stayed over for a cup of tea.
“You live alone?” Tara had asked. And she remembered talking about her husband, his long hours at work as a software engineer, her six-month-old marriage which took place after completing her 25th birthday, her loneliness, and emotional vacuum. She remembered Tara's kind gesture when she patted her hand and the fun-filled times they shared since then.
“Poor girl, hope everything works out for her,” she thought.
“Why don’t you marry?” Radha asked one day while they were watching a soap opera and sipping tea.
“Too old,” Tara replied and abruptly changed the topic.
“Only 26, and you call that old?” persisted Radha.
“I must be going now, too much to do, talk to you later,” replied Tara and left hurriedly. After that conversation, Radha avoided the topic of marriage. Her thoughts turned to Manoj. “He is a very good friend from college,” Tara said, when she introduced Manoj a month after she had moved to the new flat.
Manoj’s work as a marketing executive for a foreign bank kept him busy for days. But whenever he found time he would visit Tara. They would reminisce about old times, their mutual friends, and their future plans. Sometimes they would go out. Radha could not help but notice the strong bond of friendship. It seemed as if they shared something deep and binding.
Tara spoke very little about her family. Yet, bits and pieces of her life floated through the grapevine and the network of servants. She had eloped with her lover who belonged to another caste, and had lived with him for a month before finding out that the blackguard had no intentions of marrying her and was in fact trying to set up a ransom for her safe delivery back home. Furious, she ran out of the place with a few belongings and moved to her present apartment. Manoj, her friend from college, who had helped her elope, also helped her to escape and found her a job with an NGO. She was very grateful and expressed it as often and as best as she could.
Manoj took off a week from his job and decided to find the ‘eyes’ that haunted Tara. “Radha, think back, think hard. Have you noticed anything suspicious or new or out of the ordinary, anything at all, please think”, he pleaded with Radha now at the hospital.
Radha tried hard. She mentally traced back her movements. Tara had gone to work. Tara had tea with her. Nothing unusual. She kept thinking going back and forth, back and forth until the nurse brought the newspaper. Then something struck her suddenly. The newspaper boy had asked her if she would pay him since ‘Tara memsahib was out of town for over a week’.
Radha felt that it was odd that Tara had informed no one. “Well,” she justified, “so what if she had gone for a week. That’s nothing out of the ordinary. People take off suddenly. Except that…”, and Radha could not place it, but something was different about Tara since then.
When she told Manoj about it, he looked puzzled. “Thanks, Radha, thank you so much. This will help,” he said and took off as if he had a plane to catch.
Manoj went to Tara’s office and made inquiries about her last project and found out that she was working on an assignment to rehabilitate tortured women especially those whose rights had been abused in prison. He obtained the name and address of the prison.
The prison officials were tightlipped and uncooperative. When Manoj showed Tara's picture to them, they flatly denied seeing anyone even remotely resembling her. In addition, he was rudely informed, “Sir, you cannot see the Superintendent as he is away on official business, nor can you talk to the prisoners, nor can you come back as there is nothing here that is connected with the girl. So the sooner you leave the better it will be for the general discipline. Otherwise, prisoners get ideas, you know. Goodbye.”
Angry and disgusted, Manoj left cursing under his breath, “I hope someone punches this bloated, arrogant bureaucracy. They eat all our taxes and give us nothing, not even courtesy or respect.” As he stomped out angrily, a beggar woman approached him for alms. He looked irritated but some aspect of the old woman arrested his attention and he reached for a coin in his pocket when he suddenly stopped in surprise. On her outstretched palm, he saw a rough drawing depicting a star. The beggar woman scrutinized him. Her eyes held his with an unspoken meaning. Manoj was perplexed. She opened her palms again. Then it suddenly dawned on him. ‘Tara’ meant star. The woman was using this code so that only those who knew Tara would understand. He nodded. She walked and he followed at a distance. She stopped in front of a hospital and suddenly disappeared. Manoj went in apprehensively.
He made inquiries at the hospital in a discreet manner using his skills in marketing and found himself talking to a nurse who recognized Tara. “The old woman died in Tara’s arms,” said the nurse and left abruptly.
“The whole thing is getting very mysterious, what does Tara have to do with the old woman?” he wondered. He went back to Radha who was waiting beside Tara.
“Did Tara know any old woman who died recently?” he asked her.
“No. Why?” came the response.
“Something very wrong has happened,” he said and sat down to think.
“The answer is in the prison, in the prison hospital, or locked up in Tara’s mind,” thought Manoj. “Going to prison for information would stir up a hornet's nest. It may even get me jailed under false charges and nothing would be achieved,” he concluded. After much thought, he decided to probe Tara’s mind and sought the help of a renowned industrial psychologist of whom he had heard through his marketing network. The psychologist suggested hypnosis. At first, Manoj rejected the idea. However, as he thought of the alternatives available, he forced himself to compromise. “Hypnosis,” he pondered hesitantly, then slowly reassured himself, “I guess there is no harm in trying.”
The hypnotist, a good-natured doctor, liked to help people. He slowly cajoled and sweet-talked Tara until she almost forgot her fears. His brisk manner won everyone’s confidence and after two days, he was successful in obtaining Tara’s consent to start his sessions.
“One, Two, Three …” he began, and she went into a non-judgmental state of consciousness that knows no inhibitions. Slowly and steadily, the trauma and recent ordeal of her life spilled over in the form of gasps, shrieks, and struggles. Tara started speaking:
I am going to interview a prisoner whose head was almost smashed with a blunt instrument. The guards say I cannot go without permission. I show my credentials. They look at each other and let me pass. The next thing I remember is a big knock on my head and I lose consciousness. I find myself waking up in a prison cell. The cell is dark and damp. There are many figures trying to pin me down. The floor is hard, and my head is hurting. Oh! Oh, it is hurting so much. I find myself screaming, “Stop, let me go,” and trying to push the crouching figures. Soon, I am struggling, choking, and fighting to preserve my body from being ravished. Then suddenly, everybody is gone. The door is open. I run. Nobody stops me. There is a disturbance in the jail, a prison riot. I run as fast as I can. Crouching under the low wall, I watch an old woman bleeding and hurt very badly being taken to the hospital, supported by a younger woman. I run to the hospital and when all the prison staff has left, I summon the courage to go to the room where the old woman lay dying.
“What happened? Why did they do this to her?” I asked. The younger woman told the story in whispering tones. “Her name is Dharma, and true to her name she has fought injustice and oppression in the prison. She was powerless and old. Yet, she did not stop, she fought against all odds. God bless her. When she heard your screams, she knew what was going on. She immediately started throwing things around as if picking up a fight. We all knew that she was up to something and we started fighting amongst ourselves. Hearing the loud noise and shouting, the guard outside sounded the alarm. The jail staff came and started beating us. Dharma saw you running and made even more loud noises to distract the jail staff and let you escape. Even as a blow hit her, there was a smile on her face as she saw you completely free. She saved you, Tara, from the fate of the living dead.
“Why did she do this for me, a total stranger?” I asked. “Because, that’s her philosophy. She believed one should help to the best of their ability, no matter who or whom. Making a difference is her religion. And also, because when it happened to her 34 years ago, there was no one to help her. Her brother-in-law raped her when she was a newly-wed bride of 24. Because she was poor and helpless, no one spoke a word on her behalf. And when she dared to tell the truth, her husband’s powerful family foisted false charges on her and dumped her in this hell of a prison. Sheer wit, hard work, and great courage helped her survive, and helped others like me to survive. Therefore, even though it is risky for me to be talking, I do not care. By her example, she has raised many like her and many more will come until all of us who are powerless to exist will wrench equality, no matter how or what. Look Tara, Dharma wants to say something to you,” and the young woman finished her tirade against the world.
I went to Dharma and held her noble, wrinkled face in my arms, and with streaming eyes, I thanked her. “What can I do for you,” I asked, “please ask, I feel so small and you have returned my world back to me, and rescued me from the living dead.”
She replied in a faint voice, “Pass it on. Help others as you have been helped.” She lay there exhausted as her life slowly ebbed out and kissed death with a peace unfathomable by human minds.
Only those ‘eyes’ stayed focused on me till the last. Those ‘eyes’ told me not to forget. Those ‘eyes’ told me to prevent such incidents from happening again. Those ‘eyes’ told me to use my power. And those ‘eyes’ haunt me. They haunt me when I see Rani’s ravished body. They haunt me when I see Bhanu who looks so much like her. Those ‘eyes’ tell me that I should have done something. I didn’t do anything, only because I did not want to expose my shame. I buried my shame and pretended all was fine. And because I did not raise hell about the prison staff, poor, innocent Rani suffered the fate that I escaped. Those ‘eyes’ share my guilt and shame, and unless I do something, the corroding guilt will devastate my body and mind.”
Slowly Tara was brought to normal consciousness. The doctor and Manoj were looking at her sympathetically. She blinked and looked at them perplexed. Manoj stroked her hair and put his hands on her shoulder and said gently, “You have work to do.”
In response to her questioning eyes, he played the tape that was recorded during hypnosis. He watched her reactions as the tape was played. At first it was alarm, then curiosity, then anger, and finally determination. Her secret and buried shame due to guilt was now out into the open. For some time she did not say anything. She was not sure how Manoj would react. But when he held her hand and encouraged her to fight and when she felt his strong personality supporting her, she felt relieved and was not afraid any more. Dharma’s courage inspired her and her eyes reflected a resolution and fierceness that was willing to take on a lousy establishment filled with the stench of exploitation.
Two weeks later when Rani came to court, she was not alone. Over 10,000 men and women had gathered together in response to Tara’s campaign. Many prominent members and pillars of society had assembled in front of the court. Placards and banners were everywhere. There was anger, there was outrage and there was a unified call for action. Rani's fragile mind snapped back with confidence. It was no longer only ‘her word’ against the established hierarchy of ‘wolves’, but the whole city howled against the corrupt police staff, jailers and politicians. The resultant shakeup was swift and severe, and cleaned up the stinking accumulated rot of over 30 years.
And in prison cells, every particle of matter and air reverberated with new sounds, the resounding sounds of a new legend - a legend called Dharma, who was old, who was powerless, who was in chains, yet managed to break the chains in the minds of many people.