By Harry Bissoon
Trapped in the viciousness of the persistent poverty and backwardness that plagued her family, the young maiden involuntarily assumed the role of caregiver to her siblings. As children are wont to do, she daydreamed of another life a better life the elusive dream that never came.
Nirmala sat in solitary silence, unmoving, as if frozen and forgotten by time. Her small, slender legs were extended across the narrow ditch in which she sat, her back resting comfortably against the soft embankment that rose just above her shoulders. Nirmala's feet were firmly placed against the opposite side of the ditch, the resulting tension creating a sweet sensation that crept into the stiff muscles of her legs. This was her favorite haunt. She came here whenever her mind was troubled and disturbed, in an effort to escape and hide from the world which existed around her.
Nirmala was eleven years old and loved to sit in her favorite spot, especially when it was dry and sunny, her head resting on the sandy shoulder of the drain, her face tilted towards the sun, so that she felt the warmth of the rays on her flushed cheeks. However, as she now sat with her back against the soft, muddy wall, the rains pounded her face in a steady shower which had been falling all morning. She looked up into the mid-morning sky and felt that God was playing a trick on her. The sun had been playing hide and seek all morning, darting in and out of dark clouds, as if trying to stop the rain. Eventually, the clouds won, as the rains kept coming in a steady downpour. Nirmala felt as though life was a trick, reflecting on her own life and experiences.
The shallow drain, not far from her house, was sweet refuge to her. She sat in quiet solitude, feeling the rush of racing rainwater against her legs, as it sped towards the big canal that was not far from where she sat. Nirmala kept her outstretched legs close to the bed of the drain, stopping the rushing water, only momentarily, in its natural gravitational flow, before it climbed over her tiny legs, in its haste to get to the canal. For fleeting seconds she felt overwhelmingly powerful, stopping the flowing rainwater, lifting her legs, and then allowing it to go stopping allowing stopping allowing. She was in control!
She wanted to do the same with her life, but she was only eleven and despicably poor, with four younger brothers and one baby sister. She had seen, over the years, how the rain had carved out this drain, where there was none, on the gently sloping flat land, in its eager and frantic effort to reach the big canal, as if some kind of strange satisfaction and bounty resided in its placid, swollen waters. Where there was no drain, the rains had created one, and she was sitting in it, controlling the flow of the powerful rain, even if it was for a brief moment. The torn and tattered white cotton vest, which she wore, clung to her upper body with a cold dampness. Small mounds that appeared where her full grown breasts would eventually be, peeped out of holes in the vest, as if seeking the same kind of control and power that Nirmala dreamed of. Her black underwear, torn in several places along the elastic waistband, was momentarily covered by the rising water, as she kept blocking it with her legs. Brown, muddy waters ran off the top of the drain's embankment and over Nirmala's shoulders, under her vest, over and under her underwear, merging with the waters that flowed to the canal.
Nirmala looked around, saw the pretty houses which surrounded the open field where her galvanized zinc and cardboard shack stood, and sighed heavily. With her small hands she dug the soft, brown clay from the bed of the drain, pressed and molded it into a ball, stood up and pelted it in the direction of her house. She missed the shack by several yards, her tiny arms not strong enough to throw the ball that far. She hastily climbed out of her place of solitude and ran towards the shack, shouting with childish anger, "Ma! Ma! Why have you left me? Why have you left me in this misery?"
Nirmala's mother, Parbatie, was dead. She had died just over a year ago, giving birth to her last child, a sickly and underweight baby girl. Since then Nirmala had been forced to assume the responsibility of mothering her four younger brothers and one sister. As she raced back to the house, she could hear the pattering sound of the rain against the rusted galvanized sheets that made up the roof of her shack. Suddenly remembering her baby sister, whom she had left sleeping on a jute bag, spread out on the sand floor, she darted through an opening in the shack, which served as the door. The baby was fast asleep, as if lulled into far off serenity by the pattering on the roof. Nirmala had fed her with the usual morning meal, rice water and brown sugar, just before going to the ditch.
Satisfied that the baby was comfortably asleep, she hurried out into the rain again, in search of her brothers. She had seen them, moments ago, playing in the rain at the back of the house. She heard their voices and went there directly, calling out to Anand, the eldest of the four, "Ano, come here now! You have to help me in the kitchen. Pa will be coming home soon, and his food must be ready." They were all naked. They had left their clothes in the house to be dried, and to be worn again after their rowdy interlude in the falling rain.
Until recently, Nirmala also ran around naked in the rain. But that had stopped. It had happened abruptly. Her body had started to take on new features and one day when her father had returned from work, and found her naked, playing with the boys, he called her aside and said, "Put your clothes on. You are becoming a woman, and you cannot expose your body like that." She had immediately put on the white crew neck shirt, which reached to her knees, and quickly resumed her frolicking in the rain. She never thought about what her father said that afternoon when he came home from work. Several weeks had passed, when, on another rainy day, Nirmala was running to and fro in front of the shack, and was teased by a boy from across the canal. He was a little older than her. He had laughed at her nakedness and said that her nakedness excited him in words that embarrassed her. She had hastened into the house and covered herself. As she now called out to her big brother, she remembered the incident and smiled. Nirmala shouted to her brother, above the pitter-patter of the falling rain, "Come here, now! We have to cook!"
Nirmala had learned to cook from her father, after the death of her mother; now she was teaching her brother. Their kitchen consisted of a fireside and a wooden table on which were placed whatever utensils and cookware they had. The fireside rested on a wooden stand, the top of which was plastered with mud that was about two inches thick to prevent the stand from burning. Below the stand was a supply of firewood. Nirmala's house was so small that everything was just steps away. There were two beds that were made out of wood and built by her father. They were raised slightly above the ground by wooden feet, boxed around the sides, allowing an ample amount of dried grass to be placed on top. Whenever they had clean sheets, they covered the grass on which they slept, but this was rare, and they often lay on the grass. Nirmala's brothers had grown to love the dried grass. She hated it! Sand from the floor always got into it, making her very uncomfortable. Her father's bed was close to the kitchen, while Nirmala and the other children slept on a bed, near to the door which was in the wall opposite the kitchen. Their clothes were either in cardboard boxes, or on a line that was stretched over their father's bed. Nirmala's house had only one window which was in the kitchen, and which served as an outlet for the smoke that came from the fireside. In this small house with a sandy floor, she made lunch.
Lunch consisted of boiled rice and fried pumpkin with fish. Nirmala's father, Raghubir, expected lunch when he came home from doing odd jobs within the neighborhood, such as weeding grass and cleaning drains. He never had a permanent kind of work as far as Nirmala could remember. When he got home at 12:30 pm, as he always did, and his food was not ready, he would severely scold her for her laziness, as he saw it, and would tell her that she was just like her dead mother. Nirmala was afraid of him, since he was always drinking cheap white rum, and when he was angry his eyes were red with rage. They never had a storage, or pantry, for food items. Raghubir brought these on a daily basis. Rice he would get from the people he worked for, and the fish she cooked that day, he caught in one of the nearby canals. Nirmala had picked the pumpkin from the pumpkin vine that she herself had planted at the back of the house. The little money that Raghubir made from the odd jobs, he used for rum and marijuana, and for food that he could not barter for.
The pumpkin vine was one of the few joys in Nirmala's life. She had gotten the seeds from a batch that was left by her mother, who had started the kitchen garden, and always had a constant supply of fresh ochro, peppers, bora, boulanger, tomatoes, and pumpkins. Nirmala had continued where her mother had left off, because she had quickly realized that without these greens she and her brothers would have very little food. Her mother had even fenced around the little garden, using an assortment of materials, such as coconut branches, pieces of corrugated galvanized sheets, and black sage branches. As soon as Nirmala got up in the mornings she would scamper out into the garden to look at the pumpkin vine. It filled her with immense pleasure and awe to see the vine grow so much overnight. She would place pieces of sticks where the vines ended on the previous afternoon, and then measure the length of growth the next morning. She secretly wished that she could grow as fast as her pumpkin vine, and to be better able to care for her brothers and little sister. The broad, green leaves felt good when she touched them, and when the vine bloomed with many beautiful yellow flowers she became ecstatic, and would whisper to her pumpkin vine, "I love you, my sweet pumpkin vine."
Nirmala watched the progress of her vine on a daily basis and when the flowers changed into tiny pumpkins, she would jump around the garden with great happiness, rushing indoors to pull her brothers from their bed to come and behold a miracle. "The flowers have changed into pumpkins," she would shout, over and over, waking up her father who always felt that it was too early at 5:30 in the morning to get up and go and look for work. He would shout back at her, "Girl, you crazy or what? What you want them to change into, little frogs?" Nirmala never minded her father's thoughtless remarks when she was so happy, but in her quiet moments in the ditch near her house she would cry silently, hoping that her father would be more kind to her. When Raghubir came home that day at 12:35 pm, Nirmala laid his food on the table beside the fireside, and said, "Pa, its a good thing the pumpkin flowers did not change into frogs, because today we would be eating curried frogs instead of pumpkin and fish." Raghubir smiled and said, "Nirmala, you just like your mother; always trying to make fun out of this wretched life."
Life was wretched indeed for Nirmala. She had lived in poverty all her life and there seemed no way in the future for her to squeeze herself out of this suffocating prison in which she was trapped. When her mother was alive she had said to Nirmala, "Mala," as she liked to call her, "my desire is for you to get out of this shack. I will ask my cousin who lives in the city, and is better off, to adopt you. He will take care of you and see that you have a better life." Nirmala had seen that cousin when her mother was buried, but he did not even wanted to talk to her, and looked at her with scorn. She had never seen or heard from him since then. As a matter of fact no one came to see them. She did not know who her relatives were, even though her father told her that they had many.
Sometimes when she was all sad and lonely, and had put her baby sister to sleep, she would walk across the bridge that spanned the canal which separated her home from the housing scheme on the opposite side. She would wander through the streets, gazing at the beautiful houses with yards which were well kept and full of pretty roses and other flowers. On one such occasion, Nirmala put on her best dress, a red cotton blouse with a yellow flower design, and a black skirt that fell just below her knees. Her best dress was faded and needed ironing, and the blouse was torn at the waist on the left side, exposing just a little of her belly. She was bare footed and her hair was pulled back and tied in a knot at the back of her head. Nirmala had daubed coconut oil on her hands and feet and also her face. Her face gleamed in the morning sunlight, giving her dark complexioned skin the appearance of polished leather. Her black eyes were bright and she held her well-rounded face with such a posture that it betrayed her innocence and shyness. She avoided the stares of people who peeked out of windows and those who passed her on the street. Nobody spoke to her. When she had turned the corner of Rampur Street and was heading towards Hibiscus Street, she heard someone approaching her from behind on a bicycle. Nirmala turned around and saw the boy who had teased her when she was naked, playing with her brothers in their yard. She quickly looked away from him and quickened her steps. A sudden embarrassment filled her chest and she was gripped with fear when he dismounted and started to walk beside her. She felt like running away from him but her feet became heavy and her knees felt weak.
"Hi!" he said. "Your name is Mala?" How does he know my name? As if he read her thoughts, he said, "I look at you and your brothers play in the yard across the canal, and I hear when they shout out your name."
She glanced at him and a smile started to appear on her face. "Yes, my name is Mala," she said, in such a way that he barely heard her. As they walked the fear and embarrassment slowly left her and her feet became her own again. "What is your name?" she asked. Her voice had regained its normal tone and composure.
"Rakesh," he replied.
Rakesh kept looking back as they walked. He had seen Nirmala when she walked past his house and followed her on his bike, but had waited until he was out of the street where he lived before approaching her. He did not want his parents or anyone else on his street to see him talk to Nirmala, since he was afraid of the wrath of his parents who always spoke of the disgracefulness of the people in the shack across the canal.
"Oh," she muttered.
"Let us walk to the end of this street," he suggested. "I want to show you something."
At the end of the street there was an old, abandoned, Bedford truck, without its wheels, which was resting on its chassis upon the ground. It was also where the housing scheme ended, beyond which there was open pasture land full of black sage bushes and green patches of lush grass where cattle grazed. He felt this was a secluded spot, away from the probing eyes of the inquisitive residents of the scheme. But he did want to show her something. He asked Nirmala to look under the truck, where one of the front wheels used to be, on the side of the truck that faced the pasture lands.
Cuddled against the warm belly of a mixed breed creole bitch were five newborn puppies, asleep with their mother, with a look of contentment on their little faces. Betsy, the name that the dog answered to, had heard the soft, quiet footsteps as Rakesk and Nirmala approached, and had raised her head to look as they came closer to her. She recognized Rakesh who had befriended her in the streets, and wagged her tail. Betsy was a stray dog, without any owner. She was fed everyday by Rakesh whose parents did not want him to keep her at their home. Betsy had made this warm and cozy corner her home, snuggled under the old, abandoned truck. Rakesh had provided the cardboard box in which she now lay with her pups.
"Can I hold them?" Nirmala asked. She was ecstatic. Her eyes gleamed with excitement, and the sight of Betsy and her pups brought a glowing radiance to her face.
"Yes, you can," Rakesh replied. "But let me take the first one, so Betsy will not be suspicious."
He handed her the pup which she gleefully took with both hands, and immediately started caressing it, holding it against her bosom. She did this to each of the five puppies, murmuring soft sounds of comfort and love.
"What will happen to them?" she inquired. "I hope they have a good life."
"I have friends who will adopt them, but I will take care of them in the meantime."
Nirmala felt a quickening urge to ask him for one of the pups, and the words came rushing up to her mouth. She, however, quickly swallowed them when she thought of her father, and whether he would want her to keep it, or not. She looked up at Rakesh and said, "You are a good person."
Rakesh smiled at hearing the compliment and responded, "You are a beautiful person, and I would like to be your friend. I look at you everyday when I pass your house, on my way to school."
She felt a strange sensation that rippled through her body. It was the first time that anybody had asked to be her friend. Nirmala searched for a response, but she became choked with emotion. She blurted, "I would like to go to school."
"You never went to school?"
"I do not have a birth certificate, and my father said that without a birth certificate, the school will not take me. Besides, I have to stay home and look after my baby sister and brothers."
"So, your brothers also do not go to school?"
Rakesh became very contemplative and after a while said, "Do you really want to go to school?"
"Yes," she answered.
"I know a teacher who lives in this scheme, and he gives lessons in the afternoon, after his regular school hours."
"You mean teacher Kash?"
"Yes," he said, surprised that she knew him. "How do you know him?"
"I hear the children call out his name, 'Teacher Kash teacher Kash'," when he rides his bicycle on the way home. He looks like a nice teacher, because he always smiles and waves back at them."
"He is. He is a very kind teacher. I will ask him to teach you."
"But how will I pay? We are very poor."
"Teacher Kash does not take money for his lessons. He teaches free because he said he wants to help children."
"I will tell my father."
"Good. So, can I be your friend? You did not answer me before."
"Yes! Yes! Oh, yes Rakesh!" She looked at him and smiled, touching his hand to give credence to what she said.
Nirmala looked at Betsy, tenderly rubbing the dog's head, and said, "Betsy, now I have two friends. They are you and Rakesh."
That night Nirmala could not sleep. She stayed awake late into the night thinking about the events of the day. When they left Betsy and her pups Rakesh had gone straight to Mr. Kash with Nirmala, not mindful anymore of being seen with her. He told Mr. Kash that she wanted to join his afternoon classes. He was a favorite student of Mr. Kash and felt confident that Nirmala would be readily accepted. His confidence was well rewarded, since the teacher gladly agreed to have her in his class. Mr. Kash said that he himself would go to see her father to discuss the matter. However, she had quickly suggested that she bring her father to see him instead, to which he agreed. The meeting was arranged for the following afternoon.
Nirmala had hurried home to tell her brothers that she will be going to school, and to prepare herself for the discussion with her father when he came home that afternoon. When she got home, her baby sister was still asleep. Anand, whom she had left to watch over the baby, had done a good job. He was sitting beside the baby when she arrived home.
"Anand," she said, breathing heavily, "I met a very nice friend."
"What is her name?" he asked.
"My friend is not a girl." The words rushed out of her mouth. "His name is Rakesh."
Anand looked at her curiously. "You talked to a boy?"
"Yes," she said, with her head lifted high. "He has arranged for me to go to school!"
Anand's face brightened up and was full of surprised excitement. "When are you starting?" he inquired.
"Very soon, but I have to talk to Pa first and get him to agree."
Raghubir got home at his usual time, at 4:30 pm. She heard him at a distance, whistling his favorite tune, and she was very happy. Her father never whistled when he had been drinking. Nirmala was happy because she had been fearful of talking to him when he was under the influence of alcohol. She had hoped and prayed that he would come home sober. His whistling had been sweet to her ears and a sudden gladness filled her heart.
When she had given her father his dinner, and after he had expressed satisfaction and contentment over the way that she had prepared his food, she walked over from her bed and stood beside him. He sat on his bed, sipping a cup of hot tea, which she made as a special treat for him. It was a special herbal blend of lemon grass and locust bark that he liked. She stood there, dressed in a dingy white t-shirt that reached to her knees, and thanked him for the freshly caught fish which he brought home that afternoon.
"Pa, I want to ask you something," she said, so quietly that he barely heard her.
"I hope it is not money, because I do not have any," he told her.
"No, pa, it is not money. It is about school."
"Mala, school is only for rich people. Furthermore, the school will not take you without a birth certificate. I told you that before."
"I am not talking about the government school. I am talking about teacher Kash's school, over in the scheme."
"You went in the scheme?" he asked, full of surprise.
"And you met teacher Kash?"
"And you left the baby all alone?"
"Anand was watching the baby. I teach him to do everything in the house. He is getting big and he helps a lot."
"But I told you many times not to go in the scheme." There was a touch of anger in his voice and his eyes became wild as he looked at Nirmala.
"I like to look at the nice houses and the pretty flowers in the yards," Nirmala said, not seeing the change of expression in her father's eyes, since she kept staring at the floor.
"But I told you not to go in the scheme!" he shouted at her. His right hand came down across her face with such force that the slap sent her reeling towards the fireside and she fell on the cold, sandy floor with a heavy thud. "You have to stay in this house to take care of you brothers and sister," he screamed. "And why the hell you want to go to school? The school will not teach you to do housework!"
Nirmala held on to the fireside stand and struggled back to her feet, sobbing quietly, with tears streaming down her chubby cheeks. Choked with tears and still sobbing, with short, gasping, involuntary spasms, she answered without any fear of a further beating, "Because I want to learn to read and write, so that I can live a better life than this!" With her left hand she made a sweeping motion, in an arc that covered the house.
"Your mother lived here until she died and never complained."
"She was afraid of you."
"She could have left if she wanted, but she was happy with me."
"You forced her to stay, and she was never happy because of the way you beat her. She told me that if she had left and took us away, you had threatened to kill her!"
Nirmala was surprised that her father did not hit her again. Instead, he rummaged through the bag that he always took to work and pulled out a brown paper bag which was neatly folded. He unfolded it, and took out from the paper bag a pinch of marijuana, which he wrapped and rolled into a cigarette, using a piece of white paper that was also in the brown bag. Raghubir lighted the cigarette and walked out of the house, into the late afternoon, with dusk quickly approaching. Nirmala walked over to her bed where her brothers were huddled against each other in fearful silence. Anand held the baby who was crying at the top of her voice, close to his chest. Nirmala snuggled up to them, spreading her arms in hugging embrace, and said,"Do not be afraid! I will take care of you." She cradled the baby in her arms and rocked her to sleep, and then gently put her to bed. Nirmala crept into bed with her brothers, and together, they fell asleep, thinking of what their father will do when he came back, knowing that the nasty smelling cigarette made him wild and crazy.
Nirmala slept with her arms around her baby sister who clung tightly to her, and her mind drifted off to a dream that she had been having quite regularly, within recent weeks. In her dream she saw a pretty lady who lived in a faraway land, coming to visit her, bringing her nice, colorful clothes, and lots of goodies to eat. The lady was surrounded by a bright misty whiteness, and approached Nirmala as if floating in the air. She stretched out her arms to hug and embrace her. Nirmala ran eagerly to welcome her visitor, and to be hugged and cared for by this lady in a nice, new dress which smelled clean and fresh.
"Please take me away with you," cried Nirmala. "I want to be like you!"
"I will do my best to help you, Nirmala, I will do my best. I will do my best. I will do my best."
In reality, this lady did visit Nirmala and her family. As a matter of fact, she visited them three times within eighteen months. She took clothing and food, and had discussions with Raghubir, concerning the welfare of his children.
"Mr. Raghubir, why don't you get relatives to help with the proper upbringing of these children?"
"They are my children. I will take care of them."
"But you don't have the means to do that. Look at the way they live in this shack with a mud floor."
"This is my house and my children are happy."
They are happy now because I have brought chocolate and new clothes for them. Maybe, you should get people who care, to adopt them and bring them up properly."
"Listen, lady, they are my children, and nobody will take them away from me!"
The lady later learned that Raghubir was an alcoholic and a drug addict, who abused and maltreated his children, and prevented them from becoming closely attached to the neighboring community. He sold the clothing and other gifts he got for the children, to fund his drinking and drug habit. So, having failed to convince Raghubir that he was incapable of giving good care to his children, she took the matter to the people, and to the government of the land.
Breaking News TV, responding to information from this lady, did a close up of Nirmala's family, and that same afternoon, on the 6:00 o'clock news, the footage was shown to the public, highlighting the stark poverty and grim conditions under which her family lived. The close up was used by Breaking News to attack the failure of the Government to alleviate poverty in the country, but did not seek to do an investigative report to uncover the causes, and possible abuse, in the case of this particular family. Not satisfied with the results of this footage, the lady, determined to help Nirmala and her family, went to the Ministry, under which such matters as peoples' welfare and humanity fell. The lady officer whom she met at that office was a stubborn, unconcerned, reluctant, unhelpful stonewall. After relating the plight of Raghubir's children to this officer, the lady was shocked by a response and attitude that made her straightened in her chair, with a tense feeling in her back.
"You people come from overseas and want to tell us what to do, and how to run this country," said the officer, in an authoritative and sarcastic voice.
"I have seen the conditions under which this family lives. All I am asking is that the government investigates, with an intention to help. Furthermore, I am still a citizen of this country, and a lot of us know more of what is happening here than those who are in charge."
The officer became flustered by the forthrightness of the lady and she sought to extend her show of authority by vitriolic callousness.
"You people ran from this country and do not know what the hell is happening. We have hundreds of these cases, and we cannot go out there and try to help all of them."
"We left this country because of inefficiency, corruption, nepotism, and to make better lives for ourselves! We would like to see the same happen to those who are not fortunate to leave these shores! All these cases should be treated as special cases, each in its own right, and efforts must be made to offer these children better lives. I have seen abuse and neglect by Mr. Raghubir, and I am sure that the government can do something."
"We have to have proof of abuse and neglect before steps can be taken. Do you have any proof?"
"I have seen it, and I have heard from people who have seen it. I am certain if you make a little effort to do some investigative work you will see it!"
"Ma'am, go back to the bright lights of your home overseas and leave this country to us."
The officer then dismissed the lady with, "I have to leave now for a budget meeting with my finance advisor."
Of course, Nirmala did not know about this meeting, and the fact that the lady she saw in her dreams was, indeed, trying to help. Even though the meeting was fruitless, since the officer and her government did nothing, the TV newscast was seen by individuals, churches, and other charitable organizations that offered help in various forms, such as food and clothing. But Nirmala and her family continued to live under the same conditions. The lady returned to her home abroad, dejected and despondent, never knowing that Nirmala still saw her as hope for an escape route from the miserable life that she lived in the shack with a mud floor
Nirmala's dreams always gave her hope and something of joy to hold on to and when she woke up that night, on hearing her father's footsteps, it was this same joy that filled her heart. However, this happiness was only transient, and went away with the realty of being awake in her little shack. Raghubir's footsteps threaded lightly on the grassy ground in front of the shack When he stepped into the house, it was as if he brought with him a terror that was lurking in the black darkness which engulfed the night, only waiting for Raghubir's return. In the very instant that she opened her eyes, fear gripped her heart. It felt as if something, or someone, had grabbed her little heart and squeezed on it, because she experienced a sudden tightness in her chest, which made her breathing become heavy and labored. In the darkness she saw her father approach her bed and leaned over. Nirmala closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep, but Raghubir knew she was awake. "Why isn't he mad and angry," she thought. "Waking us up, screaming insults at us, and whipping me with his buckle, as he would normally do when he smoked the nasty smelling cigarette?" His right hand searched stealthily and found Nirmala's tiny breasts, which he roughly caressed, squeezing and releasing them in the process. "What is he doing? He is hurting me!" she screamed within her mind. Raghubir leaned closer to Nirmala, and whispered in her ear, "I know you are awake. Be quiet and I will not beat you. You are going outside with papa." He placed his left hand under her shoulders, the other, under her knees, and noiselessly lifted her out of the bed.
Raghubir stepped out into the night with Nirmala in his arms. She had opened her eyes and stared with hysterical fear at her father. In the darkness she saw the white of his eyes, darting left and right, as if he were searching for something. "What is he going to do? He said he will not beat me if I do not scream!" But she wanted to scream! She tried. No sound came out of her mouth! Her heart was pounding faster and faster now. She could hear the pounding in her head. She could feel the pounding in her throat. "Oh, God, he will beat me out here in the dark! He will kill me! He will kill me!" Raghubir stopped and said quietly to his daughter, "I have missed your mother, Mala. He staggered drunkenly as he stood there, his mouth, a foul smell of the marijuana that he had smoked. "You have become a big girl," he said. "You look just like your mother!" He looked around and then headed for the drainage ditch. When they got there, he put her on the dry ground, at the bottom of the ditch, and told her to lie still. When Raghubir unbuckled his leather belt Nirmala expected a whipping for her adventures in the scheme, but when he dropped his khaki pants, and red and white striped shorts, exposing his aroused nakedness, she screamed, and her scream pierced the night. "No! No, pa! No!" Raghubir became visibly unsettled by Nirmala's response, and in that moment, she scrambled to her feet, with an agility that caught him unawares. She jumped out of the ditch and ran towards the bridge, over the canal, and into the scheme, where Rakesh lived. Raghubir was not as quick footed as his daughter, and in the darkness, lost sight of her, and gave up the chase.
Nirmala's swift and tireless feet took her past Rakesh's house. Her mind was blank! Her feet were in control! She glanced at Rakesh's house as she sped past, and at the corner of the street, she made a right turn and headed for the old Bedford truck, which was abandoned where the scheme met the open pasture lands. Her mind took over, and she knew where she had to go. She will go to Betsy and her pups! She stopped for a fleeting moment, to turn and look if her father was pursuing her, but she could not see anything in the night. She listened, but could not hear anything. Nirmala resumed the flight from her father, and raced towards the old truck. Betsy heard the approaching footsteps. They came with such urgency that they prompted Betsy to rise from the warmth of her young pups, hurriedly sniffing at the air, in an effort to identify the night intruder. She instantly saw Nirmala and wagged her tail in a show of friendly welcome.
Nirmala slumped down beside Betsy's cardboard kennel, exhausted from the long run from her father. Betsy licked at her hands, as she lay on the dry grass, panting in short quick breaths. Her mind was confused. She knew that Rakesh would come at sunrise to feed Betsy. Should she wait for him and tell him what had happened? No! She did not want him to know. She was ashamed! She did not want him, or anyone else to know what her own father had attempted to do to her! She had seen her father doing it to her mother, but that was because she was his wife. Only when people are married and become husband and wife, they can do it. She had heard her mother talk to her father about that. No! It was wrong! How can my own father do it to me! Only my husband can do it. No! I must not tell anyone. I am ashamed and people will laugh at me. I will go back home when my father is asleep, and before Rakesh comes to feed Betsy. "How can my father try to rape me?" she asked Betsy. She snuggled up closer to Betsy, threw an arm around her and fell asleep.
The night was cold and windy, and the wind moaned as it fled across the open pasture lands. Occasionally, a loose zinc sheet from the roof of one of the houses, somewhere in the scheme, creaked and rattled as the wind developed short and sudden bursts of speed. Every time that this happened, Betsy would open her eyes, lift her head off the ground and look towards the source of the annoying sound. She glanced at Nirmala who was sleeping behind her, with an arm thrown across her neck, and then licked Nirmala's fingers with tenderness and affection. Betsy rested her head on the ground and stared into the darkness, with a look in her eyes that seemed to wonder why Nirmala was there, then closed her eyes in sleep, not mindful that Nirmala had come to her.
It must have been sometime around 5:00 am that Nirmala was awakened by the steady barking that was coming from Betsy. She glanced about to see if anyone was approaching, afraid that Rakesh might be coming to make a very early visit to Betsy, but, instead, saw a dog coming out of the night. Betsy wagged her tail furiously, hitting the cardboard on which she slept with a repetitious sound of joy. It was the father of Betsy's pups who had come. He sniffed at the pups which were awake, busily sucking and pulling at Betsy's nipples. The dog was friendly and must have known that Nirmala was a friend of Betsy, because he immediately looked at her, wanting to lick her on the face, but Nirmala pulled away, and proceeded to tenderly rub the dog's forehead. Nirmala got up with haste, gingerly stroked Betsy across her back and said, "Thanks Betsy, I will come and see you later." She crawled out from under the truck and walked away from Betsy. Fear filled her innocent mind with what lay ahead, as the earlier events of the night came rushing back to her. She was not afraid of the night and darkness. She had grown accustomed to them. Her whole life was full of living in darkness and gloom. As a matter of fact, Nirmala had developed a likeness for the night and its companion, darkness. She was now afraid of her own father!
Nirmala walked briskly. She took a street that led away from Rakesh's house. She did not want him to see her in her present condition and she silently confided to herself that she would talk to him later about what had happened. As she walked closer to her house, she knew that it had to be about 5:30 in the morning. Her family had never had a clock in the house, but Nirmala had learned to tell time from signs and signals which she saw and felt. The sun, the moon, the wind, the temperature, and the activities of other people were her clock. The lights and voices which she heard coming from various homes told her that it was close to daylight, as people were preparing for the oncoming day. Even the cool, damp, dewy wind was a clear sign that it was close to sunrise. She looked towards the east and saw the faint brightness in the sky, and as she looked in the direction of her house, she saw the night growing into a lighter shade of black. Her father would still be sleeping, because he was always up at about 6:30 am.
When Nirmala crossed the bridge over the canal, she stopped and wanted to turn back. She wanted to run away from the house which now lay before her. She wanted to go back to Betsy and wait for Rakesh. But that would not be of any help! Nobody wanted her, excepting Betsy! And how can she live under a truck, out in the open? Nobody liked her, excepting Rakesh, maybe! People scoffed at her when she walked past them. They looked at her with scorn and spat as she went by. Parents kept their children away from her when she tried to play with them. No! She had nowhere to run to! She must go home! Her father will change. He was only drunk from the cigarette!
The door to her house was always open. It was never locked or bolted. There was no lock, or bolt on the door. Her father never installed any of those. He said that there was no reason for them, because they had nothing of value to attract thieves. So, Nirmala quietly pushed it open and peeked inside the house. Everyone was asleep. Her father lay on his side, snoring in a short, grating sound, as if gasping for air in his sleep. Her brothers slept peacefully on their bed, while her baby sister lay fast asleep in the box which was padded with pieces of cloth that Nirmala had made for her the previous evening. Nirmala crept silently into bed with her brothers, and lay on her back, staring at the ceiling, her little heart pounding with fear, not knowing what will happen when her father awoke.
She was still staring at the ceiling when her father woke from his sleep. Nirmala quickly closed her eyes and pretended that she was asleep, with her arms resting across her chest. He looked across to where Nirmala lay and breathed a sigh of relief. He was glad to see her. He thought that she had run away, never to come back home. She was getting close to people in the scheme, especially Rakesh, and he thought that maybe she wanted to elope with him. She was growing into an attractive and appealing young girl and, with her dreams of becoming a better person, she just might be encouraged to leave home. When she ran away from him last night, he had given chase, but quickly gave up when he crossed the bridge to the scheme, realizing that he did not know in which direction she went. She was way ahead of him and he could not see very far in dark. He had gone home, deciding to look for her in the morning, knowing that if she were not safe, she would immediately return home. Nirmala was so much like her mother that, last night, under the influence of the marijuana, Raghubir had felt an intense sexual craving for her. The question of her being his daughter never came up. He saw his wife in her, and wanted to have sex with her. He had known no other woman since the death of Nirmala's mother. The ladies in the neighborhood despised him for the manner in which he lived and the way he treated his children. Now that he was awake and the effects of the marijuana had abated, he felt angry and ashamed of himself. He looked at Nirmala, her tiny breasts rising and falling as she lay there breathing with fear in her heart. However, it was different from last night. He now saw his daughter. He abruptly turned away in disgust, got off the bed, and pulled on his pants, which hung on the line over his bed. He had a job to cut grass in a yard about a mile away, so he busied himself making tea, and packing his lunch of roti and fried fish, which Nirmala had made on the evening before. As he did this he struggled with the fact that Nirmala might leave his home one day, never to come back. When he had finished sipping his tea, he stood over Nirmala's bed and called out to her, "Nirmala, Nirmala, wake up!" without any anger. "How long were you in the scheme? Where did you go? Did you go to that Rakesh boy?" She opened her eyes, but did not respond to him. "I do not want you to leave this house again," he said with threatening firmness. "I do not want you to go to the scheme anymore!"
Nirmala started to cry, and meekly replied, "But I like to go to the scheme."
"You will not go anymore!" he shouted. The baby woke with a start, and began to cry.
"Anand, wake up and take care of the baby!" Raghubir hollered. "I will teach your sister a lesson for not listening to me."
Raghubir knelt on the floor and pushed his hands under his bed, pulling out a length of dog chain, about two yards long. Nirmala saw the chain and her sobbing grew into a hysterical scream.
"Do not beat me, Pa. I will not go to the scheme", she said, with tears streaming down her cheeks.
"I will not beat you," he said. I will tie you to your bed until I come back home. I do not trust you anymore."
He fastened the chain around her left ankle with a padlock which he pulled out of his lunch bag, and tied the other end of the chain to the bed board at the foot of her bed, securing it with another padlock. Raghubir left home that morning with a word of warning to Anand. "Look after the baby and your brothers. Do not do anything to help Nirmala!"
Nirmala was devastated. In one terrifying, fleeting moment she became trapped in her own home. Manacled in chains she felt as though she was suffocating, and coughed, cried, and then screamed, emitting a sorrowful sound that must have reached across the nearby canal and into the housing scheme. Her baby sister cried in long, piercing notes, as Anand held her closely to his chest. Nirmala's smaller brothers held on tightly to Anand, staring frightfully at Nirmala, as she lay prostrate on the bed. Anand stood beside the bed, gently rocking the baby against his chest, not crying, but confused and uncertain of what to do. "Why did pa do this to you, Mala? What did you do?" unaware of what had happened through the night.
"I want to be free! Free of these chains. Free of this house! Free of this way of living! Please help me get these chains off, Anand".
Anand was afraid to do anything. The words of warning from his father kept ringing in his ears. He knew the severe beatings that can follow from disobeying his father. He was whipped several times before. On one occasion he even fainted after Raghubir took a leather belt and struck him repeatedly for not cleaning the boots which he wore to work.
"I am afraid of pa, Mala. He will be back from work shortly, and then he will take the chain off."
Nirmala sprang off the bed and recklessly started to pull and tug at the chain, but quickly aborted the attempt to free her self, after her foot started to bleed, where the chain was so tightly secured that it quickly bruised her tender skin. She tried to open the lock on the bed board by hitting it with a piece of wood which she found under the bed. Her efforts were in vain. Anand stepped away from her, stood by silently and watched, surprised at her sudden outburst. The baby started to cry again. Nirmala pleaded with him to fetch the hammer which her father kept in a box, under the fireside; she wanted to pound against the padlock, breaking it open. He refused, saying that he might also be tied up if it was discovered that he tried to help her. More blood was coming from the wound at her ankle, and it was becoming painful. She limped around where she stood, in the limited, confined space that had become her prison. Nirmala felt defeated. She sobbed quietly and climbed back into her bed. The baby was still crying.
"Give me the baby," she said to Anand. "You have to make porridge for her."
She took the baby and seemed to forget her predicament as she cooed and played with her, first getting her to stop crying and then to laugh with her as she tickled her under her neck. The baby's porridge always consisted of sweetened rice water which was strained and collected from boiled rice.
"Anand, use the big pot," Nirmala instructed. Fill it half way with water, and when the water is hot, put in two cups of rice."
Anand had done this before. The best part of this was getting the fire started. He was always excited when Nirmala would ask him to help her to start the fire.
"The wood is not so dry today," he told Nirmala. "Maybe the fire will take a long time to get started."
He took short lengths of wood which was previously chopped by his father and carefully packed them in the fireside, crisscrossing them in such fashion that they rested upon each other, at the mouth of the fireside. He then soaked the wood with kerosene oil at this same spot where they crisscrossed, and then struck a match, lighting the wood where the kerosene was placed. Fire flickered briefly and then erupted in a blaze. Anand was pleased. He said to Nirmala, "I will fetch a bucket of water from the tank in the yard," and hurriedly went outside, happy that he was helping his sister.
When he returned he saw that the fire had gone out. Smoke was gently wafting its way towards the ceiling in a tightly held band that seem to slither in the air as one of the snakes he sometimes saw moving in the pumpkin patch at the back of the house. Nirmala had seen the fire go out and was waiting for his return to advice him what to do. But she became engrossed with the playful baby and had forgotten. Anand immediately placed the bucket of water on the floor, grabbed the bottle of kerosene, doused the wood with an excessive amount of fuel, lit a match, and threw it on the wood. The fire erupted in a huge red ball that leaped towards Anand who was bending over the fireside!
The ball of fire struck him in his chest, grabbing on to his shirt, singing his hair, and for a moment, blinded him. His reaction was spontaneous and involuntary. He ripped off his shirt and flung it to the floor, in front of the fireside, knocking over the kerosene bottle which was on the ground. Kerosene spilled unto the dry sawdust on the floor and unto the wood which was stored under the fireside. The fire hungrily followed the trail of the kerosene, and within seconds there was a big blaze in Nirmala's house. When Anand recovered from his momentary blindness and had seen what had happened, he became hysterical and confused. He was burnt on his chest and his hair smelt bad. Nirmala had heard the 'poof' of the fire as if there was some sort of muffled explosion in the kitchen, and when she turned to look she saw Anand struggling to rip his shirt off which was on fire. She shouted to him. "Throw the bucket of water on the fire! Throw the water, Anand!" Anand heard her shouting, but he could not see, and when he got his sight back, he stood frozen for a while, not knowing what to do.
Nirmala shouted again, "Put the water on the fire, Anand! Put it now!"
Anand grabbed the little bucket of water and threw it on the fire which was ablaze under, and around the fireside. But it was too late! The fire was getting bigger. Clothes that were hung on a low wall that separated the kitchen from Nirmala's bed were ablaze! The fireside stand was ablaze! The low ceiling was on fire! The fire was creeping on the sawdust, eating further into the house. The smoke was suffocating!
|"I cannot breathe, Mala. I cannot breathe!" Anand shouted as he backed away from the raging fire.
"Take the baby and your brothers and get outside. Get help quickly, Anand! Call somebody, quickly! Here, take the baby and go! Go, Anand, go!"
When they had left, Nirmala got off the bed in frightful panic. Last night she was running from her father. Today she wanted to run for her life but she was tied to her own bed and could not run. The heat in the house was getting intense and she felt the burning fire on her face. The fire was rushing towards her, in its race to consume her little home. She pulled, kicked, tugged, and even tried to bite through the chain at her ankle. The smoke was stifling her. She suddenly felt faint and fell to the floor, where she discovered that the air was easier to breathe. Nirmala crawled towards the door, screaming.
"Ma, ma, please help me! I am going to die! Rakesh! Betsy! Rakesh! Betsy! Please help me. Oh God, please help me!"
Her foot felt numb where the chain was tied. It was bleeding profusely but she felt no pain, and she kept pulling towards the door, clawing at the ground. The fire was now all around her, and just before she passed out from suffocation and the terrible heat, she saw the flames jutting through the door, out into the open.
The flames had raced across the little house from the fireside, where it had started, and within fleeting moments, had completely engulfed Nirmala's home. The house was like a tinderbox. The dried grass which constituted the two mattresses, sawdust on the floor, cardboard boxes used for storage, and clothes strewn and hung randomly in the house, all contributed to the rapid spread of the raging fire. When it grabbed at Nirmala's dress, and burned into her hair, she did not feel anything. She did not even hear Anand's screams coming from somewhere outside the house. She was unconscious, lying motionless in the burning inferno!
"Mala, Mala! Oh God, somebody, help my sister! She is inside the house!" The flames were reaching towards the sky, taking total control of the little house that stood in the open land. The heat was so intense that Anand, and the people who had come running, had to back away. When Anand had emerged from the house with his baby sister, he had found one of his smaller brothers playing in a ditch, close to the house. He was sitting in the ditch, with his back to the house, making mud balls, quite unaware of what was happening.
Anand hollered out to him, "Our house is on fire and Mala is trapped inside! Come quickly. We have to get help!"
They ran to the edge of the canal. Anand screamed across the quiet and placid waters. "Help, help, our house is burning! My sister is inside! Please help her. She is tied to the bed! Oh God, she will die! Please help her!"
It was early in the morning and children were on their way to school. Rakesh was among them. He took up the call for help as he sped over the canal bridge. Men and women darted out of their houses, with buckets, and followed closely behind Rakesh. An elderly man who was riding a bicycle, jumped off, and ran across the bridge. A bucket brigade was set up immediately and water was thrown onto the fire with such a steady flow that Rakesh felt a tiny ray of hope creeping into his heart. But when the back wall of Nirmala's house, where the fire had started, tumbled down, his heart sank in despair, and tears filled his eyes. The galvanized sheets that constituted the roof crashed into the fire. Within seconds, it seemed, Nirmala's house became a heap of burning rubble, under which she was buried!
A heavy sadness fell upon Rakesh and he withdrew from the dying flames. He walked across the bridge and stood on the street that ran parallel to the canal. He watched the silent bucket brigade as they tirelessly threw water onto the fire. They knew that there was very little hope of finding Nirmala alive, but they continued with that dying hope, to convince themselves that they were doing everything to save her. Rakesh looked on, tears streaming down his cheeks, his mind in a hazy muddle, unclear of what to do, or say. From where he stood, the brigade seemed like a line of zombies with robotic movements, dumping bucketfuls of water on a corpse which they wanted to awaken from death! He surveyed the silent crowd that had gathered around the house, and saw Anand and his brothers being comforted in the arms of consoling neighbors. Anand was crying loudly, hoarse with uncontrollable grief.
Rakesh watched in silence as the fire died slowly. He wanted to leave but as he turned, he saw Betsy running towards him. She was making a quiet, moaning sound, as dogs do when they are in distress. She came where he stood and rubbed against his foot. Betsy looked at the burning house across the canal, lifted her head and howled in distress. How she knew about what had happened, Rakesh had no idea. It must be some kind of instinct that dogs were born with. Betsy sat beside him, and the two of them watched in silence. The flames had died. Someone was turning the charred remains of the house that stood across the canal, with a long pole, searching for Nirmala. "I have found her! Oh God, her face she she is dead!" Suresh sobbed loudly, turned away, and had started to walk back home. Betsy followed him. He looked at Betsy and said, "Nirmala was our friend. I liked her! All she dreamed of was to leave that house, and be somebody!"
He had gone only a few steps when he heard her voice! It was Nirmalas voice! He turned to look from where the sound was coming but did not see anything. Maybe, he thought, his mind was playing tricks on him. Maybe it was his imagination. He heard it again! Betsy heard the voice also because she was jumping with agitated excitement, barking at something that was on the bridge which spanned the canal. Rakeshs grief was overwhelming, tears flowing freely down his cheeks. He wanted to run away from the tragic scene which had unfolded across the canal with such swiftness that it seemed unreal. He did not want to stand there to see the dead body of his friend, Nirmala. He felt a deep emptiness which filled his bosom and a sudden weakness gripped his body with a fierceness that made him sick. He desperately wanted to go home and be alone, not able to face the reality of what had happened. He turned again to walk towards his house. The man who had found Nirmalas body shouted again in dismay and finality as if to confirm what he had said before, Raghubirs daughter is dead! Then the voice called out, Rakesh! Rakesh! Please stay. I am alive. He looked again at the bridge from where the voice was coming and still did not see anything. Betsy wagged her tail with joy at the sound of Nirmalas voice. It was definitely her voice! The voice of her soul! I am free Rakesh! I am free! Now I can be whatever I want to be!
Post script (Invited Comment)
Over the years in Guyana there has definitely been a marked increase in sexual crimes in general, and in rape, incest and sexual abuse of children in particular, to the point where it can now be called a social epidemic.(See Stabroek News, May 5, 2005) That some individuals unfortunately become victim to all three rape, incest and child abuse is even more traumatic, and results in irreparable life-long damage to children. When and where our society, as civilized, sophisticated and westernized as it has become, fails to face this epidemic, the result can be very tragic.
Gokarran Sukhdeo MA. Psych.
Social Work Supervisor
NYC Administration for Children's Services
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