It was autumn, and I was sitting in my office waiting for my next assignment when my phone beeped. It was a message, a government order, and I was transferred. The word transfer is so disturbing, probably because we don’t want to be shifted from our comfort zones or because change is difficult to accept. But I was transferred to a place that I loved so much, the town of mountains characterised by arrays of Poplar trees, strong winds, and, of course, my girl with the charming smile, Baby, who had worked in my home as a domestic help 20 years ago.
This was my second posting after a long gap. I thought of the house where I used to live. It was comfortable and beautiful, built in an orchard. Was that house still there? Was it vacant? Was the owner of the house still the same? All these questions flooded my mind. I called a friend of mine who was the cousin of the owner of the house, Mr. Mubarak. She confirmed that the house was still his property, but she was not sure whether it was vacant or for rent. But she promised to get me the details by this evening.
I was thinking about my new place of posting, the small market, and my thoughts after wondering went to that girl, baby. I remembered how shocked I was to hear that she had married that old and fragile man, who was at least 20 years older than him. I smiled.
After some days, I left for the town in the mountains. The drive was always wonderful; the highway lined up with poppy trees on both sides. Someone had told me that these Popular trees were planted during the regime of Hari Singh because the highway was built through the paddy fields and this tree is capable of absorbing large volumes of water, thus keeping the road free from moisture. After an hour-long drive, I reached the house of Mr. Mubarak, which was my new abode. I had already lived there, so everything was so familiar. Nothing had changed; everything was exactly the same. The house was clean, but the lawn was covered with leaves—the yellow leaves, or hearts of trees, ,as I always call them. The lawn needed cleaning up, and Baby came to mind again. I knew her house was a stone’s throw away, but I was not sure if she still lived there. So, I decided to go there myself and check. They lived in the slum nearby; nothing had changed; it was still the same dirty and stinky. I walked through the narrow lanes, which were lined with small moulds of grey matter, probably taken out of the drains. The smell was awful, despite the fact that some men were sitting near those moulds and gossiping. I noticed that the houses were still the same but more broken and dilapidated, with the roofs covered with Tarpaulin and pieces of old flattened tin, and P-mark was written on these sheets. Finally, I managed to reach the baby’s house. The door was closed. I called out her name, but no one answered. So I pushed the door open and shoved it open. I went inside. I noticed a jute rope stretched across the length of the room, a faded blue kameez salwar hanging on it, a blurred dupatta, and an old torn bra. On the window lay a packet of 302 pataka bidi. I turned around and saw a study woman standing, her face weather-beaten, and her hair gathered on top of her head in a bun. I immediately recognised her. I smiled at her, but she was very serious and did not seem to recognise me.
I told her I was looking for a baby, and all she said was,” I am Saeda.” I was embarrassed. I said, Actually, I am looking for someone to help me with the household chores; I know a girl named Baby; she lives here,” but she did not reply.
I came back home, but all the time I was thinking about her: “Why did she behave the way she did”, This question kept bothering me.
It was a Sunday, and I decided to make paratha and a stuffed omelette for breakfast. I was kneading the dough when the doorbell rang. I went to answer it, and to my amazement, I saw a Baby standing at the door, or was she sada?
She said, “I am ready to work in your home.” I said “Come in” I pointed towards the basket of chillies and onions and said, “Cut these for the omelette; cut them fine”, I knew she was well versed with the job, and I started kneading the flour again when I heard her say, “I am baby Madam ji, your baby “. surprised when I turned towards her. The first time I saw her so keenly, her face had wrinkles; her hair was grey at the temples, and her hair line had receded. There were tears flowing down her cheeks. I asked, “Why are you crying?” She replied firmly, “I don’t cry; it’s the onions, and it is life “. I could understand why she was pretending to be strong. I have not asked her anything now.
After breakfast, she came and sat on the floor opposite me. This time I asked her, Baby, how have you been all these years? Where is your husband?” She started crying bitterly. I got up and hugged her, but she smelled awful. I ignored that and told her that it was alright; she could tell me all this the next time. But she said, “No, Madam ji, I will tell you everything now; I have bottled up everything all these years. I always wanted to meet you. Tell you all”. I said, “Alright, then relax and tell me “. She began, II, and my husband, Basheera, do you remember him, na? My old and wan Basheera, we lived a happy life despite our poverty and childlessness,” she started sobbing. I, as you must be remembering, used to go to collect firewood. I went a little far, towards those abandoned Pandit houses, where these guys came. I don’t know from where they started teasing me.” “Then what happened?” I asked her curiously. “One of them got hold of my hair… and dragged me inside that house, she said, and again she started crying. But this time I was just watching her dumb stuck, and she continued, “They tore my clothes, they gagged my mouth with my dupatta, and they raped me—all of them!” saying that she became still as a stone. I could see the terror in her small eyes. “The world seems bleak, Madam Ji… I realised that I could do nothing about it, so all I did was wait for it to end, but time seemed like eternity. These guys, devouring me like birds of prey, left my cadaver, Ito, to rot. I could not move because every cell of my body was in pain, and I felt unconscious”, Now, I got her a glass of water, and she continued. “I heard the muazzin calling out the faithful for prayers, and I realised that I was still alive and had mustard courage. I got up and tried to cover myself with clothes, which were torn and soiled, lying around.” She was sobbing: “I waited for the night to cover me up and my nakedness; I dragged myself home in the cover of darkness.” “Basheera was waiting for me on the veranda; he was petrified to see me; he held me in his arms… I cried and cried. I told him all about what had happened to me. He said he was always with me. I was devastated, but I was thankful to God that I had him.”
“My superficial wounds have healed, Madam Ji, but my inner ones are still bleeding.” I was speechless. I didn’t have words to console her; all I asked her was, “Then what happened?” She said I couldn’t sleep for so many months. I would wake up terrified. The incident played like a movie in front of my eyes. I had nightmares. Slowly, with time, everything subsided.” One night, Badheera came home drunk. He had two men with him. He pushed me towards them. I was astonished. I asked him, What was all this? He hurled abuse at me and called me a whore. He asked me to entertain these men, as I was no longer good for anything. I understood what he meant and also that I had lost his love and respect. “ I ran and bolted my room from inside. He kept banging on the door and shouting invectives. After some time, he was quiet. I guessed those men had left. In the morning, when I opened the door and came out, he pounced on me like an animal; he kicked me in the belly, called me bad names, and spat on me. “ I tolerated all this for some time, but then I saw a stone lying there. I picked it up and hit it on his head. Blood started oozing out, and soon he was lying in a pool of blood, bleeding profusely. He was taken to the hospital, where he was declared dead. I was taken to jail, and my case was heard in court. I was released on bail because what I had done proved to be an act of self-defence and also because I was pregnant at the time. I delivered a dead baby.”
“But madam ji, people started calling me names, and many wanted to take advantage because of my reputation. I decided to kill the vulnerable girl, baby, that I was and became Saeda, the girl I am today. She smokes bidi, chews pan masala, and says the swear words so casually that they don’t sound like expectives. They fear me.” Saying this, she smiled, but the script on those fallen cheeks had a broken smile forced on it.
The author hails from Baramullah