Radhika Singh traipsed through her daughter’s room. Chitra’s favorite talc lingered days after she had left for her marital home as a bedazzling young bride. Radhika only hoped they had done well by her. A teacher by profession, Chitra had opted for a career break as she settled in her new home in a new town. Her parents-in-law were family friends and were accommodating of her choices. They were open to Chitra working and that was beyond Radhika’s expectations. Rubbing a cloth over a framed picture of Chitra and herself she smiled. It was taken during their trip to Matheran a few years ago when Chitra was studying in Mumbai and they had visited her. Radhika beamed at the memories of her darling daughter the epitome of obedience and morals, expected in their conservative household. She had always worried when Chitra had insisted on doing her M.Ed from Mumbai but her husband, Manohar had trusted their daughter and had let her go. True to her word Chitra had returned home after obtaining her degree and loads of accolades and… thankfully without a boyfriend. When Manohar had told Chitra to consider marrying Rahul a dynamic MBA with a multinational, she hadn’t refused.
Radhika’s vision blurred seeing Chitra and Rahul’s smiling picture on her phone taken on the day of the wedding. They made such a beautiful couple. Clad in the sequined red Lehenga choli with the traditional jewelry adorning her pretty face, Chitra looked no less than a royal princess, and Rahul her knight in shining armor. A die-hard romantic, Chitra always believed in happily ever after. Today they were to return from their honeymoon and Rahul had to leave for the US in a week on official work. Chitra was all set to accompany her husband and Radhika couldn’t be happier. All their relatives had fawned over Rahul and had pegged Chitra ‘lucky’ to have landed such a catch despite her plain looks. Chitra wasn’t the quintessential beauty as per their social standards but she was simple and grounded. The Singhs were well off and Chitra was the prodigal daughter after an older son and she was followed by a younger brother.
Chitra had spoken to Radhika only twice since they were in a place with a very poor network but she often texted saying she was happy and having fun… Now though nothing looked amiss, worry gnawed at Radhika and she wished to hear Chitra’s voice for herself once she returned…only then she would be at peace. She was roused from her reverie by the door knock. Radhika placed the photo frame back on the table and rushed downstairs to answer the door before the noise woke up the rest of the family.
The main door creaked open with the tiny metal bells jingling, again Chitra’s choice. She loved wooden carvings and such artifacts. Radhika’s nostalgic smile soon faded when she saw the early morning visitor. A disheveled Chitra stood at the threshold. She had worn jeans and an off-shoulder t-shirt which was half tucked in. Radhika remembered Chitra had included the outfit as a part of the honeymoon shopping… Chitra held the suitcase handle, her grip a pale white as if her life depended on it. The other hand had clutched her purse close to her bosom moving rapidly along with her fast-paced breath bordering alongside dyspnea. Her unruly mane fluttered away to glory forming a wild hallow around her head. The swollen lower lip was split in the right corner and the blood had crusted… even as Radhika took in a quick breath unable to fathom the situation. Radhika’s vision blurred as she saw Chitra’s kohl smudged eyes which were red-rimmed as if she had been crying for ages. The proverbial sindoor had forged its path amidst the sweat beads smearing all over Chitra’s upper forehead. There were… marks on her shoulder… like bite marks and some tiny nail marks with dried blood. Chitra stood trembling like the leaf on the adjoining Tulsi plant and Radhika pulled her into her arms. Chitra let out a painful sob digging her head into her mother’s shoulder.
“…Chitra… what happened bitiya…? Where is Damadji…?” Radhika tried to blink away tears as she looked to check if Rahul was around. She wrapped her shawl around Chitra’s bare shoulders and helped her into the house. The mother-daughter duo made it to Chitra’s room and Radhika immediately shut the door latching it. Chitra strutted ahead and sat on the bed staring at the floor, tears still meandering their way down her cheeks.
Terrified to the core Radhika contemplated the worst possible scenarios. Did someone attack the couple…? Was Rahul OK…? She rubbed a worried hand on Chitra’s back to pacify the young woman but… she flinched. Was the girl hurt even more?
“…bitiya…you are scaring me… what is it…? You were to return from your honeymoon today… was there an accident…? Is Rahul… all right…?” Chitra plonked on the bed to her side and cocooned herself in the fetal position as she continued to whimper.
Radhika’s heart galloped faster threatening to tear out of the thoracic confines. She mustered every ounce of strength and uttered softly. “…Chitra… the rest of the household will be up any moment… we will have to answer the curious questions… everyone will be worried, darling…” Seeing no response from her daughter she continued. “…OK… fine… at least freshen up and let me tend to those… wounds… change into fresh clothes…” That seemed to affect and Chitra moved with a snail’s pace towards her attached bathroom.
Radhika rushed outside to her bedroom where Manohar continued to sleep unmindful of his dear daughter’s condition. She picked up the first-aid box and headed back to Chitra’s room. Chitra emerged from her bath in a daze and changed into fresh clothes that Radhika had laid out for her. Radhika nursed the superficial wounds and helped her settle back on the bed. She then held Chitra’s cold hands and spoke. “…Tell me bitiya… now…”
“…Maa…” Chitra spoke her voice cracking with the emotional overlay. “…Maa… I … I … was raped…” She bent her head forward as a muffled wail tore out of her covered mouth. Radhika’s heart sank… a kaleidoscopic canopy of emotions bombarded her body and mind as dark visuals surfaced in her mind’s eye… the horrifying vignettes that could cause every girl’s heart to capsize in terror.
“…Who… who… did that… and where is Rahul…?” Radhika asked after a minute-long reprieve.
Chitra tardily rose her head, her bloodshot eyes further marred with swollen eyelids even as the tears didn’t cease to flow. Staring right into Radhika’s eyes she spoke with a constricted throat. “…it was him, Maa… Rahul… he… raped me…”
Radhika abruptly stood knocking down the first aid box in the process. She looked around and felt her life resonating with the scattered tubes, pill bottles, medicine strips, gauze, and tapes. Gathering them up with trembling hands and clogged throat she sat next to Chitra who looked expectantly at her. “…Bitiya… what are you saying… Rahul…? He is your husband…”
“…But Maa…” Chitra wailed. “…He… raped me…he hurt me bad…I … I… won’t go back ever again… I am done…” She looked away.
“…Chitra… you can’t say all this… its… its unbelievable… they are such good people… we know them…”
“…So… Maa… am I bad then…? Do I deserve this…?” Chitra pointed at her face
“…You don’t get it bitiya… getting together…” She brought her hands together as if to indicate. “…it’s a part of getting married… it’s just there… it’s a part of… bitiya…you are educated and know that…”
“…I know Maa… I know… but… you don’t get me… do you…? He forced himself on me… from the first night… even last night… Maa… it was unbearably painful… and I did not want it…”
“…Bitiya… all that is painful initially… but we get used to it… and that brings the couple close to each other… that’s how you will have children in future…”
“…Maa…what about my wishes…? If I am not a willing participant…? Does it give him a right to… hurt me…?”
“…bitiya… you are being unreasonable… Ok… let us talk later after you calm down… all right…? Rest here while I send you breakfast…”
Radhika couldn’t wait to head outside as an overwhelming sense of foreboding washed over her. What was all that about…? They had doubly checked Rahul’s credentials. He was a caring guy and Chitra had liked him as well. What would happen now…? She walked on autopilot towards the kitchen abuzz with aromas of fresh tea, coffee, and varied breakfast items the Singh family relished. Her co-sisters-in-law were busy making the arrangements and looked up questioningly. Radhika remained silent as she went about adding the finishing touches.
Later post breakfast, Radhika gathered the women and announced Chitra’s arrival and all that had transpired. As expected, they were flustered… everyone giving opinions on the apocalyptical appearance of the daughter back home within days after tying the knot. Like Radhika, they felt Chitra needed time to adjust to the new norms of marital life. Soon Chitra’s mother-in-law called and Radhika heaved a sigh of relief, the lady seemed clueless. Rahul had conveyed to her Chitra missed her folks and would be staying with them for a while. Radhika assured the lady Chitra was fine and would be home soon…
That evening everyone minus the children had gathered in the drawing-room. By now everyone was abreast with the accounts, and Chitra who stayed up in her room till then was summoned. Her cousins got her down. She was in her pajamas and had not bothered with vanity. She sat next to Radhika as her grandmother questioned. “…Chitra bitiya… where are the mangalsutra and sindoor…? You are married now… you should be wearing all that…”
Chitra didn’t respond but stared at the floor clasping her palms in a death grip. Radhika nodded at her husband who spoke. “…Bitiya… you shouldn’t have done this… is this what we have taught you…? Is this out sanskaar…? our morals…? You didn’t even inform your in-laws…?”
Chitra spoke softly. “…Baba… do you think I could have gone like this to ask permission from my in-laws…?” she pointed towards her face. The marks had begun to fade and the lip swelling had almost reduced to nothing.
Manohar cleared his throat. “…We… we have managed the situation for now. But bitiya… your Maa said…” He rubbed his face. “… how can you accuse Rahul of….” He looked up at the false ceiling and sighed. “…Bitiya…it’s all a part of marriage… you know that don’t you…?”
“…Baba…? Does that mean… Rahul can do what he wants…hit me and force me to…?”
“…Bitiya… you are husband-wife… you are supposed to…” Manohar looked alarmed at her argument.
Chitra stood up. She looked around at her folk and Radhika could only stare at her daughter.
“Maa… baba… dadiji and all of you…I know a husband and wife are meant to get close… but shouldn’t the act be of mutual consent… why should the husband… force himself on the wife… just because he has married her…? Baba… you couldn’t even say the word… but I have been through it. Baba… you don’t even know the hell I have been put through all these days…I… I am not going back to that monster again…” Chitra declared folding her arms close to her chest.
The Singh household was stunned to silence. Chitra’s grandmother broke the ice. “…Look bitiya… once you get married you belong to your husband and not your parents… you are Rahul’s responsibility and what you are saying is… that man’s right…”
“…What about my rights dadiji…?” Chitra countered. “…do you remember telling us to beware of the bad wolves out there… to save our virtue… what is the difference here then…? Rape is never consensual… does a marriage certificate give the… consent…?”
“…BITIYA…” her father bellowed standing up and the room fell into a pin drop silence with only the grandfather’s clock ticking away without a care in the world. “… you are talking nonsense… we never forced you to marry Rahul… he is a great guy… well educated… good career… very good family… you are fortunate… what is all this…? Can’t you adjust a little…? What do you want him to do…? Look for women outside…? Are you stupid…? Does your education scramble your head like this…? Radhika…” he looked towards his wife. “…Breathe some sense into her… she can stay here for a few days… but after that, she has to go back to Rahul’s house… Chitra, you are having a golden opportunity to visit the US…live independently… how lucky you are…” he shook his head and walked out. Each family member walked back to their rooms, leaving Chitra and Radhika behind.
As Radhika tucked a crying Chitra into her bed, the latter asked. “…Maa… the balance has tilted…? Because I am married…? My wishes and well-being… don’t matter anymore…?”
“…Bitiya… sleep for now… we will talk tomorrow…” Radhika almost whispered and left the room.
The next few days flew in a jiffy with curious relatives and neighbors dropping in to the Singh household with greater frequency. Though the family members were tightlipped about the real reasons for Chitra’s return, such scandalous information often found its way outside snowballing into something different from the original. Radhika tried her best to keep the situation from causing a greater catastrophe… but she wasn’t herself anymore. She had to listen to ‘advice’ meted out from all directions about her daughter being ‘paraya dhan…’ Within a couple of days of Chitra’s arrival, the other women at home spoke about the bad influence on their daughters and the poor prospects for their marriage if the news leaked out. Radhika resumed her hypertension medication owing to the stress that had begun to take a toll on her health. She was torn between the love and belief in her daughter and her duties as the quintessential oldest daughter-in-law who had to uphold the family values and returning of the daughter post-marriage didn’t find a place in the archaic rulebook. Chitra refused to heed to anything or even be open to discussion and had secluded herself in her room all day long. Rahul tried calling on their landline often as Chitra had switched off her mobile but she refused to speak to him.
Finally, five days after Chitra had returned, Rahul dropped in with a bouquet and gifts for everyone. As always, he won them all over with his intellectual talk and anecdotes. Chitra made her way downstairs and sat opposite Rahul while everyone around trod on eggshells. Radhika swarmed over the place trying to maintain every ounce of normalcy but things were easier said than done. Rahul stood up and spoke to everyone present. “…I sincerely apologize to all of you from the bottom of my heart… for all that happened… but it wasn’t intentional… I got carried away… I love your daughter and I would do anything to make things right…” He looked at Chitra and continued. “… come on Chitra… let’s go home…”
Chitra shook her head. “…No Rahul…I am not in the right frame of mind… what happened can’t be erased… I need time to get over…”
“…What the hell happened Chitra… that you are so upset about…? Have I insulted you or your family or have we demanded dowry or imposed anything…?” Rahul blurted out.
Manohar then intervened. “…Chitra… bitiya… Rahul is correct… they have been nothing but wonderful… even now all these days your in-laws were courteous despite your outrageous behavior…”
“…baba… outrageous…? So objecting to someone forcing himself on me is outrageous…?”
“…Chitra cut the crap…you are crossing the lines…” Rahul spoke in a warning tone.
“…Why Rahul…? You could do it to me for days but I can’t even talk about it…?”
“…We are married for crying out aloud… isn’t it… my right to get intimate with my wife…?”
“…Oh, Rahul…it is… but if I am not up to it, I have a right to refuse as well…”
“…We were on our honeymoon… goddamn it…”
“…Rahul…” Chitra wiped the tears streaming down her cheeks. “…I was scared about everything… you knew it… you were experienced but I wasn’t….” Radhika cringed inwardly hearing her daughter but she remained a mute spectator. Chitra needed to vent out. “…Rahul… I adored you… you said you loved me… but do you abuse someone you love…?”
“…You are being ridiculous about this … making a mountain of a molehill… the suite was so beautifully decorated… I got it done just for you and you didn’t… dint even let me touch you…how am I supposed to feel after waiting for months… Papaji…?” Rahul looked at her Manohar who sat in stoic silence, his displeasure evident from the firm set of his jaw and angry stare at the center table. “…Papaji… Chachaji… you can understand my plight…can’t you…? I was married to the woman I love and I wasn’t allowed to even…” He rubbed his face. “…This is so embarrassing… Chitra… let’s just go home and discuss all this…please…”
Before Chitra could reply, Manohar stood up holding his hand up. “…No more discussion in this house… Chitra give Rahul another chance, bitiya… he has apologized to you in front of all of us…”
“…Give him a chance to rape me again…? Is that what you are saying baba…? Like marriage gave him a chance to be a ravenous beast… does my WILL have no say…?”
There was silence all over even as Rahul looked taciturnly around. Radhika looked up at her favorite painting in the living room. The varied hues depicted the dazzling Sun emerging from the clouds announcing its arrival amidst nature’s pomp and splendor. She knew what she had to do and stood next to Chitra. “…My daughter’s will matters… to me…”
Radhika had just announced the arrival of the new dawn…