January 15, 2015 1:07:51 pm
By Cheshta Rajora
It was my son who carried me softly into rooms I had locked forever.
“Mamma, you have never felt afraid, have you?”, asked my 7-year-old son as he looked at me the way children look at their favourite superheroes in comic series. Perhaps, he took me as one, the one who could solve all his problems, from finding the missing school tie, to advising him how to avoid scuffles with boys in the colony who teased him with remarks like, “You look like your mother”, or “Oh, so now you’ll take us to your mother?”.
“Of course, I have son. Of course I have,” I replied.
His eyes widened with surprise teeming with incredulity.
“Really? When? How? During exams? Did you see a ghost at night? Did your teacher scold you? Were you also a naughty kid, mamma? Tell me mamma”, he prodded.
Without my knowing, and despite all my efforts, why did the word ‘fear’ bring that memory alone? Since when did this word come to be so closely associated, enmeshed and entangled with that feeling?
I told my son a story that day, of which I knew he understood nothing. Yet I made no efforts to help him. At the age of 31, I still struggled with this memory; his eyes, though big and starry, could not have undone the confusions.
Once upon a time, there was a girl of 10. She had unusual likes and dislikes. She liked lying on the swing against her stomach, looking at the ground moving fast back and forth. She liked sipping her soup with glurping sounds without a spoon. This gave her a jolt of exhilaration and she laughed her guts out. It drove her mother crazy, and the feat usually ended in her getting a good scolding and a bashful beating. Somehow everytime she was served soup and her mother went away into the kitchen, she would slurp and gurp and make sounds and enjoy those 5 minutes of the day. Unfortunately, she became so good at it, a child prodigy you may say, that the sound became clearer, more distinct and sharper and made its way to the kitchen, inviting the mother to complete the rest of the ritual.
She loved drawing beautiful girls with big eyes, long hair, a curvy shape, beautiful gown with a fish-tail end, complete with a sparkling tiara. All her school notebooks had these pretty shapes on the last pages. She abhorred sleeping with lights off. It scared her. She felt the darkness too intensely. Her mother and father chided her for some years, but after a while learned to sleep in light.
She grew up, but did not know what to do in life, unlike other girls her age. So she decided to fall in love with the feeling of love. At the age of 17, when girls and boys her age weaved dreams in which they played nurses, police officers, pilots, she enrolled herself for a language course, but did more justice to dreaming about the man who would sweep her off her feet; who will fight her little demons to get inside her own darkness and light it forever, who would convince her that this world is love and her love her world.
So it happened.
She found the man whom she would fall in love with. He was from a city thousands of miles away from hers. He was tall, strong, and knew Spanish better than her and other people in the course. They would start exchanging the secrets of love in Spanish when men in the bus gave them uneasy looks after gawking on their tightly-held hands for long.
She believed in the power of love. She always held it tighter the moment strange eyes fell on them like shadows on walls of a poorly lit room. She never felt afraid of them.
After four years of such little moments of woes, happiness, surprises, that accompany love, her job at a Spanish embassy, her would-be talks of marriage at home, she celebrated her fourth anniversary with him. It was the darkest night she ever witnessed yet the world seemed the brightest to her.
Walking down one of the many narrow streets of the city she had known all her life, holding the hands of the man she loved, suddenly she felt few eyes measuring her up and down; those strange eyes that gave her city a strange air for the first time as if she had never known it; as if she was never welcomed in this forlorn place. They took her to a place no person should ever deserve to go. That place felt darker than her room with lights off. She journeyed through that place, but had shed her sensations at that very spot on the street where she first saw them. And for what reason she knew not, they threw a burning liquid on her face.
The case had been filed long before. Three months later she found herself in the court room. After three months of getting the dates for hearing, filing appeals, joining protests and building solidarity with hundreds of other women like her, the day of judgement came.
They were standing there in front of her, those four men.
Her lawyer came forward to present the files to the District judge. Standing in the dock, facing those eyes, she stood with unflinching eyes.
She was asked to narrate the incident for the final time. She had done it many times before; and by now it almost seemed like a story of some other woman, a woman she knew so closely. The moment of final judgment was close.
And suddenly she felt a rush of tears streaming down her face, whatever little was left of it. For the first time in three months, she poured out a deep yell of fear.
She felt fear piercing through her, son, piercing through everything that belonged to her.
Standing in the dock, she remembered how 24 days after that night she had opened her eyes and they had felt heavier, as if all her skin had come down and settled on her lids.
But she did not feel afraid.
She did not feel afraid opening them, seeing her world swimming in her own pool of tears. She did not feel afraid looking at the man who always told her how she was like the beautiful mermaid of his vast ocean.
She did not feel afraid to step out of her house and enjoy a walk by the lake with him. They all looked at her, all those people, enjoying their own definitions of beauty.
More importantly, she did not feel afraid to look at her own self, her identity, her very being melting away into an insignificant mass of skin.
But now, she was crying like a mad woman, feeling afraid of her own strength.
She had won the case. Those eyes silently slid away from her.
But that fear could never make her laugh like she did as a girl of 10.
This story is a work of fiction yet not away from reality. It deals with what fear would possibly mean for an acid attack victim, and how our moments of strength are also moments of utmost vulnerability.
In April 2013, as a response to the PIL filed by acid attack victim Laxmi, in the Laxmi vs Union of India case, the central government directed all the States and the Union Territories to treat acid as a poison and apply the Poisons Act 1919 to regulate its sale and make the offence cognizable and non-bailable. This meant that shopkeepers would need a licence to sell acid, buyers would have to submit a photo identity card, and sales were banned to anyone under 18 years of age. But how far away are we from reality? Due to the lax attitudes adopted by the State authorities in regulation of the law, the truth remains that even today, you can go and buy acid as easily as you can throw it on the victim’s face to dismember, disfigure and disembody her. Yes, her. Because 98% of the acid attacks are on ‘her’, which made the possibility of the crime easier than ever.
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