Twelve years later
…He held her down the stench of his foul breath making her want to puke… he held her wrists above her head and pressed her body down with his weight on top of her. She wanted to move but she was … paralyzed… she just couldn’t. . She wanted to cry but her throat was … she couldn’t make a sound… Then he bit her on the shoulder and there was a ringing sound…..
The shrill ring of the alarm jolted her out of her disturbed sleep. Preeti looked down at her sweat drenched camisole, breathing heavily. She touched her neck as a habit…every time she had the nightmare. She felt the roughened skin the only physical reminder of the terrible experience years ago. Twelve years hadn’t dampened the pain every time she had the nightmare, horror revisited in her mind. The fact that she had been violated immediately got her deep hidden emotions spill up to the surface. Tears fell as she recounted the ordeal… she had lost her brother, a loyal employee of the Sengar household, Sukhi uncle and almost lost her virginity to the monster or monsters… she wasn’t sure how many were there. But she actually had a faced a lot of irrecoverable losses… She was the victim… but she was blamed for her brother’s death. Even today she shuddered remembering her father’s words twelve years ago…
She was in the hospital moving in and out of consciousness. They all had thought she was in a coma but she could hear every word they spoke whenever she wasn’t zoned out.
Soft sobbing… it was her mother… her docile mother who always bent over the whims and fancies of a husband with a primitive mindset. But why was she crying? Her daughter was alive… that means… did something happen to Rohit?
Suddenly there was a hush in the already silent hospital. She knew before she heard his voice, it was her father.
“Enough Priyamvada…”, his voice had boomed in her skull. “… You are needed elsewhere. The rites have to be completed. You have to come home now….” His voice chocked in between. He sounded tired. What rites was he talking about?
“…I can’t lose her… Can’t lose anymore…” Her mother’s soft voice which always acted as a balm to Preeti’s wounded heart was creaking…
“…. Priyamvada, we have lost our only son… Rohit was supposed to take the lineage ahead… I wish it was him who had survived…. Common don’t waste any more time here. The doctors will care for her….”
She had heard the shuffling of a chair and movement. What just happened? What was her father talking about? Rohit… was no more? And… did he wish she were dead instead? She wept…
She remembered being lonely… in her room. No one visited her. Neither her parents, maasa (her paternal grandmother), Uncle , aunt nor her cousins… What was her fault? Just because she had survived?
She felt the hot tear on her cheek… though she couldn’t open her eyes yet. It was then she felt some presence in the room. For a moment she feared if the monster had returned to finish off what he had started… But then she knew it was him… even before he spoke. She felt his heat as he came close. He touched her cheek to wipe the tear away. He came close to her ear and spoke softly, “Don’t worry… I have got you. That bastard was taken care of… No one will harm you anymore. Not now…. Nor, in the future. I promise…” Anxiety left her body and her heartbeats got their rhythm back. How she wished she could see him… her savior, her hero, her…. her heart galloped threatening to get out of her chest but for a different reason now. So this is what it felt like? At his mere touch? The hidden Mills and Boons novels in her room back home had talked about love…was it like this? But she didn’t even see him or know him. For once in her life someone really cared about her besides her mother. For once someone fought for her… but why? Who was he? She could only remember his lovely eyes as she drifted off to sleep.
She struggled to open her eyes but failed miserably. She didn’t know how long she remained in the hospital but she felt his presence daily. He moved her arms and legs which were gradually healing from superficial injuries. He kept talking to her. He told her she had to get blood running well in her limbs. He told her stories of people she had never heard of who had bounced back from coma. She wanted to scream her lungs out that she could hear him…. Feel him. Every day before he left he would kiss her forehead… She realized she waited for this moment eagerly.
One fine day, she wasn’t groggy anymore. She opened her eyes and saw the ceiling. She knew she was in the hospital. She looked around. She realized she had been moved to slightly sitting position by elevating the bed. She was sure he had done it as a part of his treatment for her. Her room was tiny. Her body was sore but she felt much better… she wanted a sip of water… she tried moving her hands. She could only manage to move her right hand fortunately it was close to the side stand. There was a paper cup filled with water and a straw. She took it with trembling hands and slowly got it to her mouth. It felt like she had forgotten to sip… but she managed and the first sip felt like heaven. It was then she saw him. He was in the dark corner of the hospital room. She only saw his form. He was wearing a hoodie with hands in the pocket. But she could feel his stare.
“Welcome back to the world Preeti…” He said softly… causing her heart to flutter.
She tried to smile but every little movement was an effort. She placed the paper cup laboriously in her still left hand and raised her right hand gesturing him to come close.
But he turned around and said, “I am done with my job here… you are fine now… I wish you the best in life… your folks will be here soon once the doctor informs them…”
Oh no… he was going away? And she hadn’t even seen him… she wanted to thank him. She struggled to say, “w…w…wa..it.. Pl…ee..ease …” She was panting with the effort. He halted his steps towards the door of her room.
He stood still with his back towards her. He adjusted his hoodie over his head and turned around. He slowly walked towards her bed, her anticipation raging high… but he neared her bed and she was shocked to see only his chin with his day old stubble. The dim light in the room didn’t help things either. He looked young. But she couldn’t make out for sure.
“Wh…ay… h…ave… y…ou cover…ed … you…ar… fa..face…” (why have you covered your face)
He didn’t speak anything. Just stood at the foot of her bed with hands in his pocket.
She realized he wasn’t going to speak on this topic… She just said, “th…thaaank..you…f…ff..or e…ev..ry…thing…” She was panting with the effort on every sound and syllable she was uttering. He just nodded in reply and was turning to leave… she knew he wouldn’t wait. There was only one resort. She hated herself for it but she didn’t have a choice. She grimaced as if in pain and clutched her stomach… “aaaa…aaaa… it… hh….urts…”
As expected he rushed towards her and held her shoulders. “hey are you alright? Is it painful? Let me call….”
She grasped his hand with her right and struggled, “…no…no…. please…” She felt everything slipping away and the void in her heart expanding. The sand was slipping out of her hands. She lost it and everything she had sheltered in her heart broke the barriers. She started to sob. He sat on the edge of her bed and turning towards her, held her to him. She hid her head in his chest. She cried her heart out. She cried for her brother who couldn’t see his ninth birthday, for Sukhi uncle who lost his life for no fault of his and… for her plight… an unsure future. She had missed her board exams she was sure of it. She had been here for a long time. As he rubbed her back, she moved her right hand and touched his chest. It felt like stone… the man must be hitting the gym religiously she thought… But he quickly stood up and turned away… “When you light a candle you also cast a shadow…you are a brave girl…stay brave… I… I will take your leave now… your parents will be here shortly. Have a great future… Stay away from any controversies and at the earliest finish your studies and get out of Alwar….”
She tried to argue but he continued, “…Don’t tell a soul whatever happened there….just say you don’t remember anything….you were beaten up…that’s all…. NOT A WORD…. if you want to stay alive. The man who touched you is dead but there are others…. So shhhh….” He gestured her to keep quiet.
Before she could comprehend what he said, he was gone. She knew she was going to be fine. She also knew that was probably the last she was seeing him… she didn’t even know him… but why did it feel her heart just got trampled upon?
Preeti sighed… she had to get up from the bed and get going with her routine. Otherwise she would be late for work. Six years in Mumbai and she was still not used to the traffic… and to make things worse, it was monsoon. It was raining cats and dogs. She loved everything about Mumbai, except the horrible travel time and the rains… Her area always got water logged. But somehow she felt safe here…in this locality. Her building was occupied by families and they were against a single woman staying in their building. She remembered arriving one day in the initial week of her stay and her house owner was in a war of words with her neighbors over evicting her. She was scared…not knowing where else to try. She had always thought Mumbai was liberal in its thinking but here there were rules… Rules which said a single woman can’t take up rented accommodation in a family housing society. Strangely the next day everything was settled to her utmost surprise and it was four years and no one bothered her again. She never socialized and kept to herself. Except for a smile here and there no one spoke to her. For last two years she had that feeling of someone watching over her. It wasn’t there when she had lived in a PG accommodation on arriving in Mumbai. But she had that same strong sense when she was in Alwar, after the….incident. It was no different in Mumbai. But it never irked her. She felt safe. Somehow she felt he was around somewhere, her guardian angel as she fondly remembered him.
Professionally she was grateful the city had welcomed her with open arms when she had landed here with just a computer diploma. She had taken up a small job and gradually rose up in rank. Today she was the assistant team leader in her company. She smiled as she remembered it was a colleague’s birthday today and all of them were going out for lunch. That meant she needn’t pack tiffin for herself. She made a mental note of the things to be done today and strode out of her bedroom. She tried to feel happy but like always the emptiness in her heart refused to go away. The same void created when he had left her hospital room years ago… She had always felt it but it was stronger whenever she had the nightmare.
You are a strong girl… his voice always echoed in her ears and gave her the needed strength to pull through the day whenever she was low.
Today was yet another day and she had to go through the motions yet again. She walked into her kitchen… the only vision in her mind this time was the stubble chin under the hoodie…
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