Nitya stayed at home the next day cooped up into her gamut of emotions. She was a brave woman but ever since she had been to Sajid’s home, she had been embroiled with thoughts, an onslaught of emotions from her past which sent a chill down her spine.
She recalled the days of being hounded by the media… ‘the traitor’s family…’ they were called and for a long time they were on the headlines of the local newspapers. Her mother had been depressed and for a while with the help of a few sympathetic neighbours who knew them, they sustained. Her mother had got a job as a Kinder Garten teacher in a private school because they paid very less and didn’t demand a colorful resume. Her mother retained her maiden name and got a job that helped them sustain for a couple of years.
However, another blow hit them in form of her brother’s diagnosis. Her mother who was hanging by a fragile thread of hope for a better life was distraught. The neighborhood got a new terminology added to their string of insults hurled towards the trio. Even the couple of them who supported the Mohandas had made a complete about-turn.
Nitya grew-up overnight. From 5 she was 15. She had to understand everything around her as well as support her brother and the wreck of a mother. There had been instances of that ‘accidental touch’ or a ‘shove’ where a hard hand hit her delicate chest… She knew something wasn’t right but was too young to understand the gravity of it all.
One night when she was about 7 Nitya couldn’t sleep because her brother had been awake till 2 AM before finally sleeping off. She, however, couldn’t and that night her mother had a job to attend. Her mother never mentioned what work she did these days since the KG teacher job no longer existed. But the woman no longer chatted with Nitya and Naman, nor did she cook and clean for them. Nitya burnt her dainty skin so many times before she learned to use the cooking stove. Kamble kaka their new neighbour knew baba hence he helped behind the prying eyes of his suspicious wife. He often slipped in food and money and walked away even before Nitya could thank him.
She often felt reassurance whenever kaka was around. She felt safe. Kaka had also helped her secure admission in a local municipality school. She played with her brother and kept talking to him all the time when she was home, not understanding why he didn’t talk back or respond to her.
That night she stared out of their home picking at the piece of plaster that had joined the series of those coming off the wall. Ever since baba had passed the house had been neglected. This was their other home after they had left the earlier one. Nitya teared up wondering if she would ever meet her baba. If yes, she would want him to explain all this to her. Why were they suffering and why did everyone hate them?
She saw the bright headlights of a vehicle. It didn’t look familiar and Nitya had a strong memory. The strange-looking vehicle reached the entrance of the housing colony and she saw her mother alight from the passenger side. Her mother had worn a sequined saree but when had she changed. And why did aai look frightened?
A tall man emerged from the driver’s side. From her point of vision Nitya only saw his back and extremely short hair. He was taller than any man she had seen in her little life. He walked towards her mother even as she stepped back and held her by the shoulder. He was shaking the woman and her mother looked terrified. Nitya was furious. She wanted to go and hit the man but saw a sleeping Naman and sat back. The man let go of her mother who fell backward on the payment, her saree pallu falling off, revealing the shapeless blouse beneath. But her mother did not attempt to stand even after the vehicle had left.
Nitya didn’t care anymore. She rushed out of the house leaving the door wide open and not bothering about the chill night breeze slapping her bare limbs in the sorry example of a dress. Nitya was yet to remember the last time she got a new dress… that was probably for her third birthday, the last one she had celebrated.
Nitya reached her mother who stared back at her with eyes so haunted, Nitya would never forget in this lifetime. Her reed-thin hands lifted the pallu off the pavement and she helped her mother stand. The mother-daughter duo walked back home on autopilot. Nitya had long learned not to ask questions.
Her mother plonked on the floor as soon as she entered home and lay down, curved in a fetal position. She shivered and began to cry muffling her sobs by stuffing a part of her pallu into her mouth. Her makeup had smudged ages ago…
Nitya brought a wet rag and wiped her mother’s face even as she continued to weep. Little Nitya then brought her a glass of water. Ignoring her hunger pangs due to a skipped dinner of dry hard rotis and watery daal that her mother had prepared that morning, Nitya spoke.
“Aai, do you want to eat something? Let’s go to bed otherwise.”
Her mother stared at her.
“Nitu…” her mother called her with her nickname after years and it thrilled her no end. “…Your baba… he messed up…he destroyed us… we are done for. What will happen to Naman? What will happen to you…? Why did your father do it…?”
“Aai… was baba wrong?” Nitya had never understood.
“I don’t know Nitu… I don’t know anything. Not only did he betray the country… he gave us something too and they… they will kill us all… if… if we didn’t give it…”
“What did baba give us?” Sleep-deprived Nitya was confused. Was this a nightmare?
“I wish I had known… I pleaded with them… I don’t have anything… but they didn’t listen. Said … I was acting… Gave me a week’s time. Nitya…” She suddenly sat up. “…we have to leave this place. It’s dangerous. They will catch us and kill us.” Her mother was panting.
Fear churned her insides and Nitya gripped her mother’s frail hands. Hands which had once been so soft as they caressed her head putting her to sleep a lifetime ago.
“Nit… Nitya…” her mother spoke with a faraway look, her voice laced with fear. “…Just pack up. I will hold Naman…”
“Aai… I am sleepy…”
This wasn’t the first time her mother had raised her hand on Nitya. Nitya stayed away from her path and did whatever was expected of her… and the beatings had reduced… almost nil. But today Nitya was stunned.
“You are just like your father… don’t you realise we are doomed? Should I kill myself and rid you off all trouble? Or even better, should I kill you both and then kill myself?”
“Le… lets go aai…” Nitya conceded.
They disappeared late that night struggling along some graveled path. Nitya didn’t know how long they walked with their meagre belongings and for the next few weeks, they stayed at a women’s shelter. Her mother worked as a maid and Nitya doubled up as a helper too. She attended a school for laborer children conducted by some NGO which also fed her well.
She was good in studies and the Aanganwadi tai always said she could work and earn money when she grew big if she studied. So Nitya poured herself into learning. The next few years were tough as she grew in the unsung lanes of Mumbai were her mother attempted menial jobs to earn her keep in the shelter and Nitya barely saved her virtue many times thanks to the aanganwadi tais who worked relentlessly for the welfare of girls like her. Nitya began to train in martial arts at a sponsored program for girls. She took it like fish to water.
Naman was also liked by children around him and though he had meltdowns which troubled her mother driving her into one of those moods, Nitya was alright. Many took pity on the boy and provided food for him. She always protected her little brother whenever anyone bullied him.
As she moved to higher classes she began to tutor other children as well in the shelter and the major trustee funded her education.
Nitya managed to finish her 12th grade with utmost difficulty and by then her mother had already begun to be heavily medicated with depression spreading its tentacles deeper into her soul. Nitya took up a job as a trainer in a gym that didn’t pay much but helped her gain work experience and later she worked as a receptionist in the night shift at a nearby hotel. It assured variety of food once in a while for her brother and other children in the shelter.
Within a year she managed to save up and move to a chawl close to her gym. That saved her travel time and by now her mother had to stop working. Her medication dictated her behaviour. Nitya was OK since her mother could now watch over Naman who was having a tough time coping with hormonal changes that hit him badly. His doctor in charge decided to mildly medicate Naman as well. That helped him have a good sleep and his mood was chirpy during the day.
Life in obscurity was Ok for the next couple of years and Nitya was doing quite well. She had also begun studying for her degree via distance learning. She hoped to get a better job.
However, her mother deteriorated further. One day she accidentally met Kamble kaka after years and he suggested they move to a good community in Bhandup. His wife had passed and son had gone abroad. He promised to help her.
Nitya saw in this an opportunity and was pondering over it when she got an offer from a good gym as an instructor. It was close to where Kamble kaka suggested staying and she jumped at the opportunity. It would also give her a chance to start fresh where no one knew her.
That was a decade ago when they moved here. After shifting about four houses in the colony Kamble kaka helped her secure this one on rent few years ago. She had barely settled when life threw a curveball yet again when her grandfather got in touch. It was a mystery to Nitya but she had doubts on her mother who was in and out of her senses and had a mobile at her disposal. He landed up unannounced at their home and left the ‘parcel’ before leaving. He gave her mother some cash just before he left in a waiting car.
Juggling between jobs and taking care of Naman’s needs and other household tasks barely gave her any time to sit with her mother. Nitya felt guilty about it but it vanished whenever her mother swore at her in those moods whenever she wasn’t medicated.
Nitya didn’t want to call for attention particularly because the mystery about that dark night years ago wasn’t resolved. Her mother hated to talk about it and she didn’t want to create ripples in steady waters.
Today after so many years Nitya feared for her life… her brother’s. She had run enough and had thought she had put her roots here. Now that she was confronted with Sajid and whatever she witnessed last night… What the hell was that?
She was numb to ask that auto driver too. Did the locales know about that minarand its reality? Did she in her quest to give Sajid a piece of mind, expose her and Naman to something grave?
She walked into the bedroom where Naman’s slender fingers flew non-stop on the key board. He had been doing this a lot since the last few days and he barely slept last night. He was awake when she dragged herself home.
She had arranged for another USB keyboard for him after the older one was corrupted. Did this ‘parcel’ have anything left by her father?
“Naman dear?” She whispered.
Naman ignored her and was an epitome of concentration…
She placed a hand on his back. “Naman please talk to didi…”
Naman continued to furiously type and then after ten minutes he stopped. He smiled as his face lit up in the glow of the laptop.
“What is it Naman? Did you… what did you find?”
“Didi… Naman gotcha” He said like he always did whenever he solved a math problem or anything of the sort.
“What did you get?”
“Naman gotcha… round 2 attack… Mumbai”
Her heart skipped a beat. She rushed to close the tiny window and kneeled before him holding his hands in hers.
“Naman what… did… you… find?”
“baba… Mumbai attack round 2… water… ripples. Naman gotcha…” he continued to smile and though nothing that he said made sense to her, she knew they were in trouble…
Deep… deep trouble.