"Maana, would you please listen to me? I am not insane to keep hunting for things to keep you safe. Do you think I am doing this for myself? Have you forgotten…?"
"No, Maa. I haven't forgotten her, but you need to understand that I cannot, and I refuse to live in this huge fear."
"Fear? We are talking reality Maana," Naina followed her daughter to the kitchen with a pepper spray bottle in her hand.
"Reality? Really?" Maana rushed to her room to get her satchel. Pouring the contents on the glass dining table, Maana roared with anger, "This is my reality, Maa? This? More than books, I have weapons in my bag." A 30-inch foldable iron rod fell from the table on the floor with a clank. A steel baton, a small knife, a big knife, a razor, and a stun gun lay on the table while the pages of H.C.Verma's Concepts of Physics fluttered.
"And this, the brass knuckle which I wear like an ornament whenever I am outside. Now you got this pepper spray?"
"It is not a weapon. Honestly, I think this is the best first line of defense, and then run away. You don't have to get into a combat with them." Naina tried to persuade them.
"WHOOOO?" For a moment, their eyes met, piercing each other, ready to flood, heart pounding so hard, it could destroy the soul within.
"Who do I need to run away from? Who do I need to save myself from, and why?" Before Naina could utter another word that the doorbell rang. Naina cleared the table, shoving the argument and her anger inside the school bag. Another ring, and Maana hurried to open the door, gulping her tears.
"Maa, Pallavi Aunty, is here," Maana announced and raced back to her room.
"Hi, Naina, what is wrong? She looked angry. Huh…children these days," Pallavi Aunty sighed and plopped on the beige sofa.
"Yeah! Teens and their temper. We were having a difficult conversation. It's okay. You tell me."
"Oh, do you have tamarind paste? I just realized I ran out of mine. Rishi is traveling, and Prateek is too busy on his phone to run the errand for his mom."
"How is he doing?"
"He is good. He and Maana haven't been talking for some time now. He hardly speaks about her. I wonder what went wrong. But then, you know how it is at this age."
"Yeah…17 has been the worst for me. She has her own mood swings."
"They will fight one moment and make up another. Teens, I tell you."
"Hmmm. Why don't you stay for a cup of chai? It's just 7:30 pm. Rishab will come late. He has an overseas client coming over."
"Umm…okay. My best friend's chai is not to be refused ever."
"Haha!" Naina tried to shift the heaviness of her heart and dissolve it in some light-hearted banter with Pallavi. They had been living in the same community for over 10 years now. She met her when they had shifted to their apartment-Ajmera Infinity, in Greater Noida. Prateek was her elder son, and he and Maana attended the same school-Tagore International. They had been buddies since 5th grade, in the same class until 10th. Maana chose the Science stream, and Prateek opted for Commerce.
The aroma of cardamom tea spread in the kitchen as Maana came to take a bottle of chilled water. Naina stared at her as she went back, banging the door of her room. The balcony overlooking her bedroom was wet due to Delhi's infamous showers in July dropping the temperature heavily. One could feel a slight chill in the air due to the incessant rain. Maana let her feet soak in the wetness breathing the cold air to douse the fire within her heart. The clouds floated aimlessly, happy to have shed their burden. Maana came back and sat on the edge of her bed. Switching off the bright tube light, she clicked on the lamplight, which glowed soft yellow. Holding the hair clip in her hand, her eyes stared at the wall adorned with the most beautiful photo frames holding memorable moments with her parents. "This is not love; this is suffocation. I want to run away," she mumbled.
A few minutes passed, and Manna could overhear the chit-chat in the living room. Suddenly, she heard 'the name' again. "Are they talking about her? Again? Why? What happened now?" The questions screamed in her mind, and her eyebrows crinkled in desperation. She drew herself nearer to the door, trying to hear clearly.
"So, finally, they passed the verdict. Good," said Naina sipping the warmth.
"Yes. But life is so tough for girls anyway. You hang them or slit their throat; it doesn't make any difference to the victim. She is doomed for life." Added Naina.
"I agree. That is why we need to make them strong so that they can…."
Before Pallavi Aunty could finish her sentence, Maana dashed out of her room and stood before them with bloodshot eyes.
"What did you say, Aunty?" Her voice beyond the threshold of manners, courtesy, and respect.
“Maana, is that how you talk?” Naina said sternly.
"Mom, please." Turning her face back to Pallavi, Maana roared, "What did you say? We need to make girls strong. Really? Do you know how strong I am? 'Nirbhaya' happened in 2012, and I am living under the trauma of it in 2018. It is all fresh in my mind as my current breath, courtesy my mum. She doesn't let me forget it even for a second of my life."
"Maana, what are you talking about? What is wrong with you?" Naina spoke furiously.
"Hold on, Maa. I need to talk today. So, Pallavi Aunty, we need to make girls strong. So my mom enrolled me in Taekwondo classes. Then, when I was done with it, I was enrolled in Karate, followed by Kickboxing, and now she has a new self-defense class enrollment form on my table. Do you know for what? My BIG SAFETY."
"Maana beta, I guess you should sit down. We can talk calmly. I understand why your mom is concerned. You don't need to get militant about this. It is all for you."
"No, you don't. You don't know anything neither does my mom. What happened six years back was very unfortunate. Then, I didn't understand, but now, as I do, I find it burdensome to live each day. I am held captive by my mom's fear, so much that I cannot breathe. You want to know…wait, I will come," hollered Maana clenching her teeth, her ears flushed red with anger.
Maana ran back to her room; the door clanked against the wall, the closet door opened and shut, few things dropped while Maana pulled things out of her cupboard. With her hands full of 'FEAR,' she came back, panting, her eyes reigning terror.
"Look at this and this. You see Maa, you see Aunty, my mom buys these XL size T-shirts for me so that my breasts don't show. At an age where my friends wear makeup, cold shoulder dresses, and strut around in stilettos, I am left with a Vaseline in my life. Why? Because I will attract attention, and someone will rape me. Thank god she hasn't yet cut my hair short. She goes around telling Massi-maa that she is lucky she doesn't have a daughter because, in such times, it is a curse to have girls. Thank you, Maa, Thank you." Naina's mouth stood wide open as if her eyes and ears were not enough, swallowing all that was happening before her.
"You see this- a razor, a blade, a brass knuckle, and today a hot pepper spray, my bag is less about my dreams, my future, my happiness, and more about how I save myself."
"You know Maa," Naina held on to her mom's wrist and made her sit down on the beige wicker sofa, "Maa, you are killing me. I cannot live like this. I know you care for me, but somewhere the C, the A, the R, the E has vanished, and all that remains is RAPE and FEAR."
"But Maana … Isn't it all for you? Girls need…' Pallavi tried to explain.
"NOOO….." shouted Maana, "NOOOOOO," the storm in her voice ready to engulf the serenity of life.
"Girls do not need self-defense if boys know how to respect them. It is as simple as this. We are not a problem that needs a solution. Your boys are. Teach your boys to respect girls, women. They are no perpetrators, and we are no victims. TEACH your boy, do you hear Pallavi Aunty. I am more than my breasts and a vagina."
Pallavi raised her eyebrows, outraged at the insolence, "You need some counseling."
"No, your son needs counseling. Do you know what he has been up to? Let me tell you."
"Yes. Hear me. Two weeks back, your son Prateek came to me with a proposal from his best friend, Rajshekhar. "He wants to date you, Maana," is what he said. I ignored him at first, thinking he is just being playful. After all, he has been my friend for a long time. But the story didn't end there. After a week, when it became too much to handle, I retorted back to your son, "Prateek- I don't want this shit in my life. Please do not bother me again." Haha!… a few simple words, and you have no idea what hell has broken on me. It's been 10 days, and some 65 odd boys of my grade, 11th grade, yes, they have got against me. When I walk down the corridor, they stand in a line and clap, calling my name. They follow me to the washroom and stand there. When I am out, they clap again. My girlfriends have started avoiding me because of this unwanted attention that I am being given. You know, my best friend Madhusmita avoids my company, and it tears my heart into pieces. You see, when a girl is on target of boys, the first thing people and friends do is –run away. She did exactly that, lest she got tainted being in my company. I tried to talk to Prateek, and you know what he said- "Maana, you can't reject my best friend. He didn't like it. We all didn't like it". Really Aunty? I was appalled. My mom's best friend's son Prateek, the same Prateek who is my Rakhi brother for many years, the same Prateek on whom my mom showers her Idlis, turns into a monster…all because I said NO to his friend. Huh! Do you want to hear more?"
"One-sec Maana…let me understand…." horror-struck, Pallavi tried to absorb each word.
"Call anyone from my school, my girlfriends in this apartment from my class; they will give testimonials to the mayhem I am going through. Two days back, when I was out for basketball, they planted a vulgar letter in my bag. When I am in class, coming out of the door, they push the boys on me so that they can brush against my breast, all intentionally. I have just one friend- Rahul- standing by me. But what can one Rahul do when 100 Prateeks and Rajshekhars have made it their agenda to bully, to harm, to rape. Do you have any idea how it makes me feel? I feel the x-ray eyes piercing my body, 65 pairs of eyes on one girl. What is my mistake? Can anyone tell me? I feel like killing myself but held myself back…Rahul held me back." Maana collapsed on the floor, sobbing, her truth wetting the floor.
Naina rose to cradle her child, "Maana, why didn't you ever tell me."
"Because you are so consumed by your own fear that you don't see anything else. You would rather take me out of the school to save me rather than give it back to the boys and earn my self-respect back."
The living room clock chimed 8:30. The house sank into deathly silence, interrupted by Maana's sobs. Minutes went by, and Naina sat bewildered and disconcerted with Maana in her lap.
"Pallavi----did you have any idea?" She spoke accusingly.
"No, Naina…I have no idea, but it could also be just a prank."
"Prank? Pallavi, 65 boys have no right to play pranks with my daughter. No one does that; not even a single boy has the right to do with Maana or any girl. Today's prank, if let unleashed, can become tomorrow's horror for a girl's life."
"I will talk to Prateek, but you are overreacting, Maana."
"Pallavi," Naina sprang towards her like a tigress and bellowed, "You talk to Prateek today, right now, or else I am coming to school tomorrow. It's not only my job to save my daughter; it is also your job to teach your son. And if your son learns his lesson well, I would not need this pepper spray."
Pallavi fidgeted in her chair, embarrassed. She gave one look at Maana and rose, "I will call you. Let me go."
"Pallavi, when a butcher's child kills an animal for the first time, his hand and heart may tremble for the first time; however, if he keeps slaughtering, the hesitation would disappear, and he may start cutting animals as nonchalantly as if he were cutting vegetables while cooking. You see--- Check your child now before his conscience, his inner voice dies off. I will wait for your call." Naina finished in one go.
Once the door closed behind them, Naina scooped her angel in her arms.
"Maa, it doesn't help if I stay human and others turn monsters. You see. I am tired, Maa. I cannot take this anymore."
Naina sat motionless, holding on to her child and her fear. So much happened, and she didn't have an inkling. When did it happen? How and why? Questions bombarded her mind as she carried the exhausted, fragile body to bed. She made her drink water and covered her daughter with a light blanket.
"I will get some warm milk Maana. Don't worry. Everything will be alright. I am so sorry for all this. You s-h-o-u-l-d h-a-v-e," Naina stammered, caressing her daughter's face. A few minutes later, Naina got her warm milk with turmeric. "Take rest, Maana. I love you, remember that. Everything will be alright. I promise."
As Maana drifted to sleep, Naina switched off the tube light. Standing at the threshold of the room, she wondered at the infirmity which consumed her daughter. A girl, a woman, either says YES or says YES. A NO only brings retribution- acid, violence, rape, and death; as if that NO was a criminal offense. Was it? Who gave this demigod status to boys, to men? Isn't there a woman behind every boy, every man, born from her womb, raised by her? Then where did the malevolence develop in them to trample over her, encroach upon and violate her sanctity? Such cruel indulgence? She recalled reading about the rape of a 3-year-old and a young CBSE student two days back. The helplessness of the situation distressed her. How paralyzed, debilitated one stood in front of this brutal reality? How and why did Prateek and the 64 other boys think that Maana can't say NO? "Tomorrow, I need an answer from 65 boys, and I will get one. Manna deserves to live…I will let her live; the boys will have to let her have her peace," she resolved looking at the family portrait hung on the wall. Closing the door, she headed for the kitchen, dropping the pepper spray in the trash can.
Only if the boys, the men-----RESPECTED WOMEN.
Only if their parents/guardians raised them without saying- YOU ARE A MAN, YOU ARE THE STRONGER ONE, YOU ARE THE POWERFUL, YOU DECIDE.
"Dear Prateek- You don't decide for me."