Pandals (tents) and processions, pandits (priests) and devotees are thronging up and down on the streets of Begusarai – a small district in the state of Bihar in India. This is the month of October – the month of worshiping Goddess Durga – the month of victory over evil. Or, is it? I am sitting near the Karpuristhan temple, making garlands with my mother. We hope to make a good sale today as it is the seventh day of the Navratri , Maa’s (Goddess Durga’s) pat (face) will be unveiled today. Devotees from villages far off will come here to offer their prayers to the Devi.
As I sit with mother, making garlands, I worry thinking about going back home in the evening. I don’t want to face him; I don’t want us to be anywhere near him. Why can’t mother just leave him?
“Geeta!” Mother calls out disturbing my train of thoughts.
“Pace up! Do you want to have dinner or not? People will start coming by the next hour. We have made only 15 rupees since morning. Come out of your wonderland and concentrate on work,” she scolds me.
“Sorry Mother. Can I ask you something?” I look at her while quickly stringing malas (garlands).
“Hmm” she says too busy to look away from work.
“Why don’t you leave father?” I ask in a scared voice.
Mother stops sorting the flowers and looks at me shocked. “Who is teaching all this nonsense to you? Have you been watching TV at the sweet shop again?” she yells at me.
“No. This has nothing to do with TV. He beats you, every day. He doesn’t work and takes all our money to buy drinks. He touches me in ways that…” I break down.
“Geeta, you are just 13 years old. I have seen the world. I know your father is not ideal but where will we go? Who will take us? At least we have a roof to sleep under. Let us be thankful to Maa for what we have and stop complaining about petty things. Now, work.” Mother said in a soft voice.
“Petty things? You have bruises all over your body Maa…”
“Geeta! Stop it or I will slap you now. If you cannot help me, don’t waste my time.”
“I am sorry Mother.” Once again I shut up and continue working. We make dozens of malas and sell them sitting under the scorching sun the whole day. We eat prasad (holy offerings) from the temple to save lunch money. We reach home to find my father lying on the floor – half asleep, almost unconscious. “Great, at least today he is already drunk. He won’t take any more money,” I say smiling at mother.
She goes off to the market to buy some groceries for dinner. We had a good day. I think we may get to eat curry instead of just roti (chapatis) tonight. By the time mother comes back, I clean the house and prepare the choolha (soiled hearth). We prepare rice, chapatis and curry. This is the most awesome dinner lately; finally the Goddess has showered her blessings.
Mother tries to wake father up for dinner but he can hardly move. “How can we eat without him?” she looks at me concerned.
“He drank without us,” I tease.
“Geeta! If he wakes up, he will thrash you.” Mother scolds.
“Aye Jee! Geeta Ke Papa! Wake up!” Her pursuit to wake him up continues as I sit salivating for the delicious dinner.
Finally he wakes up. Mother serves him food and we wait for him to finish so that we can have dinner after. I sit there pouting. “Is something wrong?’ father asks noticing my angry face.
“Many things are wrong.” I lash out.
“Geeta. Shut Up. Let your father eat.” Mother interrupts.
“No, no. Let her speak. She has become too forward these days. What the hell is wrong? Tell me.” Father barks at me gorging up the food that me and mother bought and prepared.
“You smell like piss”, I snort with disgust.
Father wipes his hand in mother’s saree, gets up and holds me by my hair. “What did you say, you bitch?” Mother holds him by his foot and begs him to leave me alone. “Please. She is just a kid,” she pleads.
Father bangs my head on the floor. I cry. He turns towards mother. “Not her!” I scream.
“This is all because of you. You have given her all this freedom. She should be married off by now.” Father lashes at mother and starts beating her up mercilessly. He picks up the food, spills it all on the ground and marches out of the ground. We lay on the ground, crying with all our hard-earned dinner scattered on the ground for what seemed like an eon.
After sometime, I gather myself together and reach out to mother. Her head is bleeding and she cannot move. “I think your arm is broken” I look at her dislocated shoulder. We try to fix it. I tie an old rag around her body for support. She looks at me and apologizes.
“Why are you sorry mother? It is alright. Everything will be fine.” I try to comfort her.
We are so hungry that we collect the food from the floor and eat it. As we (try to) sleep, distant holy songs dedicated to the Goddess fill the silence of the night.
Next morning, mother’s arm is swollen. I need to cover for her share of the work as well. We leave early to set camp near the temple. When we reach there, someone else has hijacked our spot. “Hey! That is our spot.” I snap at the old woman selling pooja samagri (holy items).
“Is your name written on the street?” she replies irritated.
“Listen old woman, this is our spot. Mother is unwell and we need to make sales today. Just leave.” I argue.
“You are not the only one here with problems. If you want to make some sales, there is still plenty space on the opposite side. Occupy it before someone else takes that too.” The old woman replies in a cold voice.
I almost lose it when mother stops me. “Let’s just sit there” she says pointing in the opposite direction.
“No one will stop here to buy malas, Mother!” I say in an annoyed manner as we set up camp in our new spot, which by the way, is just above the gutter. The day passes by and we sell a few malas—half than what we sold the day before. However, we reach home and I tell mother to take rest. She is in extreme pain by now. I decide to go to the clinic and buy a painkiller for her. We had plenty Prasad that we could substitute for dinner.
When I come back, mother is almost unconscious. I give her the painkiller but she still looks pale. “Should we go to the hospital?” I ask her.
“I am fine. It’s alright. Just let me sleep.”
The next morning mother does not look fine. I suggest that we should go to the hospital.
“Today is Navmi Pooja—The Ninth Day of Navratri – we cannot afford to lose business. You go to the temple. I will stay back. I think I will be fine if I rest today. Don’t worry about me. Just go.”
Mother is right. We need the money. I put together some leftover Prasad for her and leave for work. I spend the first half making garlands and in the second half, I decide to stand in corners and make the sale. I am able to sell all malas by the end of the day. I happily rush to the chemist’s, buy a painkiller and get some chat (Indian snack) packed for mother. I am running happily towards home. On my way, I get caught in the middle of a procession. They are headed towards the pandal in my colony. I take a minute to dance in the procession. Everybody is chanting loudly – Zor se Bolo, Jai Mata Di! (All Hail the Goddess!). I join the chorus.
As I approach my house, I hear some disturbed voices coming from down the lane. I run faster because nothing is clearly audible in the distant sound of the procession. I finally reach home. I stand in front of my house, frozen. I can hear a woman crying out for help and a man grunting. It seems like there is a struggle going on. Every single cell of my body wants to move ahead and open the gate but I am scared as deep down I know what is going on inside. Tears roll down my eyes, I quietly put the snack packet and medicine on the floor, pick up a brick and kick on the door hard. It springs open.
I find my sick mother trying to fight back with all the strength left in her. Her clothes torn, arm-support tattered, lying on the floor and her face drenched with tears. Pounding on her like a ruthless beast is my father. In that moment, I realize what goes through a person’s mind before they kill someone. I want this man dead. I want to murder him with my bare hands. The urge to smash his head with this brick is so fierce that without thinking I run towards him channeling all my rage in a violent scream. I push him off. He falls on the ground. He looks shocked. This was totally unexpected for him. I want to smash his head but mother’s cries distract me. She is bleeding profusely. I cover her with a shawl and pick her up in my arms.
“Where do you think you are taking her?” the bastard yells at me.
I stare at him with eyes as red as the flames of fire and threaten – “Don’t.”
As I carry mother to the nearby Government Emergency Hospital, people standing on the streets look at us as if we are a live circus. They whisper and point but not one person comes ahead to help.
After due medical treatment, I am called in. Doctors tell me that there were glass particles in mother’s genitals, her arm was broken and there were extensive internal injuries. They said this was a case of rape, assault and domestic violence and that we needed to file a report. Mother is not completely conscious so I go ahead with the formalities.
They release her the next morning and we come home. The snacks and medicine from the porch are gone. Of course.
I start cleaning up the house. I find pieces of a broken bottle of liquor on the floor.
“Is this what he tried to insert in your body?” I ask mother horrified.
“I do not want to talk about last night. Your father…”
“Don’t you dare call him that!” I scream. “I am sorry. You need to take rest.”
I clean up the house, throw everything related to last night outside and go out to get some food. When I come back, mother is sitting on the bed terrified. “What is wrong?” I asked
“What’s wrong? What’s wrong with you? You filed a complaint against your own father? As if I don’t have enough problems in life, now I have to deal with these men too!” Mother lashes at me as if I was the one who committed a heinous crime.
“The doctors called the police Maa. And, I thought it was the right thing to do…”
“Just Shut Up Geeta!” Mother bursts into tears.
“Pick up the stuff and go out to work”, she orders
“No. I am not leaving you here until they catch him. He is a monster.” I beg
“Do as I say if you really love me. Today is the final day of the Pooja. Go and earn some money for your mother.” She commands.
I put the food on her bed, grab my things and leave. A million thoughts storm in my mind. Why is she so scared? Why can’t she fight back? After what he did to her, how and why would she protect him? I am angry, scared and frustrated. I wish I were educated enough to know my rights. I wish we had the money to deal with all this in the court. Struggling with my thoughts, I manage to go through half of the day. I decide to wrap up at lunch time.
As I reach home, I see two policemen leaving. I walk up to them and ask “Did you catch him?”
“Your mother took back all charges. Wasting our time like this, you know it is a crime? Now how will you pay for our conveyance and time?
“Please I am like your daughter. Mother is just scared. Help us.” I beg.
“If you are like our daughter, what does it make your mother to us?”
“What?” I look at them in shock.
My father approaches the house. This is the first time we are face to face after last night. The minute he sees the policemen, he turns around to run. “It’s him. Catch him.”
Both constables run and grab my father. They drag him inside the house. I follow. “I took back the charges. Please leave my husband alone.” mother begs.
“No.” I scream.
“You sit down quietly Geeta. Leave this to the elders,” mother pleads.
I sit down defeated. Father is sitting on the floor near the foot of the policemen. Folded hands, tears in eyes – I enjoy watching him like this – scared and small.
“Haan bhai, the case is strong. We have medical reports against you. Your daughter is a key witness. If this goes to the court, you won’t be able to afford a lawyer and you will go down. Assault, rape, domestic violence…”
“Inspector Saab, Please leave my husband. All this is between him and me. We will handle. I do not want court troubles.” mother interrupts.
“FIR has been lodged. We will have to take care of that. And, how will you take care of us for that?”
There is silence in the room for a minute. Then mother gets up and opens a small box hidden behind some utensils. She takes out some old torn notes worth a hundred rupees. “This is all I have. I was saving up for bad times.” She weeps.
They take the money and look at me. “This is not enough. To cover something this big, we need more.”
“Take her”, says my father.
“What? No. I will come. Take me.” Mother offers.
I am numb. I don’t know what to do, what to say. I don’t even feel like fighting anymore. To cover a rape, my parents and the police were discussing who else to rape. Today, the world was celebrating the “victory of good over evil”. They were celebrating the devil Raavan’s death. What was the point when there were so many Raavans roaming around freely among us? Why build effigies and kill a symbolic devil while letting real demons live freely?
“What is left of you to take?” says one of the constables pointing towards mother’s bruises.
I quietly pick up a knife and slit my wrist. I sit there bleeding as they discuss. Father is begging mother to let the constables have me. “Twice won’t make much difference,” he says.
Mother is crying but it seemed she is considering the proposal…I hear a thud; I think my head hit the ground. Someone screams, probably my mother. May be, they see the blood or see me… I don’ know..
Now everything is almost quiet, all I can hear are faint scream from outside my house– All Hail the Goddess… Jai Mata Di!