The day had begun like any other. Soft rays of the sun made their way in through all possible crevices in the house. The sounds of Azaan at dawn bounced off walls of neighbouring houses, startling birds into flight and beckoning the faithful to pray. Hurriedly covering my head with my dupatta, tucking it neatly behind my ears I continued to attack the mountain of utensils in the sink. “Noorie beta, get ready. We are going on a little trip,” Taiji said in her special, sweet voice. I tried hard to remember the last time she had spoken to me like this and wondered what she wanted from me this time. My antennae went up as I noticed my bag all packed lying at the doorstep.
A few hours later, Taiji and I were well on our way in a rickety bus to Alinagar which was around 100 kms from our home in Bibipakar. As we rattled along on the dusty potholed roads of Bihar, my mind was lulling itself into a state of torpor and a sweet memory played itself out. Of Ammi and I, out of breath with the running and giggling. Playing hide-and-seek with my two little sisters, in our poky little home in a suburb of Patna. Of Eid and the surprising number of things we could buy with our Eidi of ten rupees. Of my kitten, Yasmin, who was adopted from the street. Though we had little, laughter always pervaded our home. Working very hard to stay ahead of the others in school, I dreamt of becoming a vet some day.
Life was beautiful. Until it no longer was.
Ammi left us in forever grief while giving birth to our baby brother. Abba, inconsolable and overwhelmed at the prospect of caring for four children on his own, couldn’t resist Taiji’s offer of taking me with her, just until Abba could find his feet. She made elaborate and convincing promises to Abba that she would care for me as her own, as a little sister to her Tahira. I was left with no choice but to bundle up my meagre belongings and board the bus to Darbhanga with her.
In Taiji’s big house in the dusty hamlet of Bibipakar, she reigned supreme and none dared to argue with her, let alone Tayaji. Her looming height and booming voice only added to her mystique. I missed my Abba, my sisters, Yasmin, my friends at school and most of all, my Ammi. Though I had found a friend and confidante in my cousin Tahira, I longed for my familiar life back at home. The distant gong of a school bell, a whiff of korma from a neighbour’s house, little girls jumping rope, anything could transport me back home.
Everytime I hesitatingly requested that I be sent to school with Tahira, Taiji, eyes darkened. Lips quivering with rage, she hissed,“ Can’t you see how much there is to be done at home? And how can we afford it, now that we have an extra mouth to feed?” Taiji was always angry; with Tayaji, because he was not the kind of man she had wanted to marry, with Tahira, for not inheriting her fair skin, and most of all with me.
After a lot of protest, I resigned myself to the situation and grew much wiser than my years. I didn’t want to add to Abba’s woes by complaining. That year, as Eid approached, there was a flurry of excitement in the household. The house was given an extra dose of cleaning and a lick of paint and it gleamed like a bride.
On the day of Eid, I was asked to join them for lunch and Taiji lovingly heaped chicken biryani on my plate, saying, “Eat well, beta. Look how thin you’ve become.” “What’s up with her?” I asked Tahira with my eyes. She just shrugged in response. Though we had often confided with each other about Taiji’s behaviour, she hardly dared to question her mother, painfully aware of what damage that sharp tongue could inflict.
Taiji handed me a shimmering pink sharara, bedecked with little shining golden stars that took my breath away. I wore it immediately, flouncing the skirt as I walked around the house. It had brought a little ray of sunshine in my bleak life. That evening, Taiji summoned me to the drawing room to meet some guests. I gingerly stepped inside. The ladies exclaimed, “Hai, such lustrous skin, face like the moon and eyes light blue as the sea! Your daughter is exceptionally lovely Saira,” said one of them who would not take her eyes off me. I was perplexed. Taiji said, “All of 12, imagine how she’d look at 15!” I must admit that I enjoyed the attention, little realising how short-lived it was. Minutes after the guests left, I was asked to change into my faded clothes once again and was packed off to the kitchen.
About a week later, mother and daughter went on frequent shopping sprees. I learnt that Tahira was to be married. I was overjoyed. “Can I wear that pink sharara for Aapa’s nikaah?” “We’ll see about that,” came the curt reply.Finally, the much-awaited day arrived. In the afternoon, Tayaji took me to Reshma’s house, much to my confusion and disbelief. Tears welled up in my eyes and I refused to budge. Finally, kicking and screaming I was dragged away. I had spent the whole night crying and only stopped when I could cry no more.
Tayaji came and took me home the next day. Two days later, Tahira arrived, teary-eyed and fuming. “How could you do this, Ammi! He hates me now,” she said, amidst sobs. She refused to speak to me. There were hushed conversations behind closed doors. Tahira’s mother-in-law followed, eyes blazing. Some cash and jewellery was handed over, and Tahira left with the lady, who I recognised as the one who had admired my beauty. As days passed, I slowly put together the puzzle that was Tahira’s wedding. Tahira, dark-skinned and considered without prospects was kept under cover for as long as possible. I was the bait, dressed up in my pink sharara that day.
Bruised and beaten by life, I continued pandering to Taiji’s whims. Months passed uneventfully. Abba visited occasionally, looking more weary and defeated each time. On one visit he mentioned that he had lost his job at the workshop. If he knew of my predicament in Taiji’s household, he probably had come to terms with it, I presumed.
Disillusionment had made me stoic and undemanding. I was then sent to a neighbouring village with some unknown women and was again dressed in finery and presented to a group of strangers. This happened again, and then again. Different people, different neighbourhoods. Taiji’s coup seemed to work and I was “seen” many times. What was exchanged, I’d never know. Every time, a part of me wanted to rebel, run away, kill myself. But I did nothing. I was like the living dead, with no reason to live, to feel. Eventually, my passivity ceased to surprise me.
A rough tap on my shoulder breaks my reverie and jolts me back to the present.Taiji asks me to get off the bus and buy chai from the dhaba where we’d stopped. I am almost 19 now, and it has been about a year since Taiji has stopped sending me away with strangers. Of what purpose was this visit now? Could it be that she’s finally grown a conscience and I’m finally being “seen” as myself, as Noorie? Or could it be something else? A horror every unwanted girl fears? All of a sudden a shiver runs down my spine. And something shifts in me. A dormant spark is rekindled.
My eyes fall on a large carving knife glinting as the sun’s rays fall on it. This is what I need before I get on to the bus. No more will Taiji ever do what she did to me or to anyone else.