Soon, rattling noises ensued from the kitchen. “Lord!” thought Anna, as she twisted and turned uneasily in her bed, all thoughts of sleep abandoned, “Why does she have to be so overactive in the morning?” She turned to the other side and cast an envious glance at her sister, Mitchell, sleeping next to her. “The Blessed One,” she thought, angrily. Come hail, storm or hurricane, she slept through it all. Nothing – absolutely nothing – bothered her once she was out.
During the day, Mitchell was a teenager, struggling and grappling with all the nitty gritties of being one, but come night, she turned into the Queen Of Her Bed. She spread herself across the whole of it, lying flat on her back, hands outstretched, legs akimbo, mouth slightly open, and no sheets to contain her. Anna was sure that’s how Mitchell thought about sheets. Fetters trying to bind the Queen! How dare!
Anna sighed…”Whereas, poor me…” Bang! It was her mother opening the door to see if the milk packets were there. Anna shut her ears tight with her hands and tried to bury herself deeper into her sheet. “How I hate the noise!” she thought, miserably.
But as the day progressed, her mother’s shrill, excited voice filled the house, flinging orders at them, scolding exasperated tones for the missing objects right under their nose, coaxing tones to get them to hurry, and diplomatic tones for the servant.
Anna’s mother, Sarah, was a small-made, petite woman, extremely feminine. Her close cropped hair only made her look even more so. One would think she would have broken down when her overprotective husband died a couple of years back, but she had only bounced back with amazing resilience. Bending backward to look after her family, she had to tighten her own belt. Clucking around like a fussy hen, she was too busy tending to everyone else’s needs to bother too much about her own. Unfortunately, she was a bit insensitive and incapable of sensing the atmosphere in the room or reading between lines, and most of the time, she was unaware of any undercurrents.
Today, the house wore an almost festive look. Anna’s Uncle, her mother’s brother, was coming back from America. He had an assignment here, and would be staying with them for a while, in Chennai.
“Anna! What are you doing, standing there, child? Go and see if the milk packets are there.”
“But Mumma, the milk has already come.”
“Oh yes! I forgot! Mitch! Get up! Up, up, up with you.” Slap, slap, slap! Mitch was always woken this way because nothing else worked with her.
“Anna! Stop standing and gaping and get some glasses from Shanti. And ask for some plates too.” Anna was only too happy to oblige, and rushed off to the gardens, where the maid was plucking some vegetables. Shanti, with the sunny disposition. So what if she was a scatterbrain, and so what if some of the best cutlery slipped from her hands from time to time? She was part of the family.
“Madam is very happy today? First time I’m seeing her so happy after Sir died. Otherwise she’s always crying when nobody is watching her.”
Anna felt a pang of guilt. How selfish she was, never sparing a thought for her mother; in fact, it was a startling bit of knowledge that mothers had feelings too.
The day went by in a whirr of activities, cooking, cleaning, and getting ready. Everyone was excited except Anna, but her happy smile and animation belied the fear in her heart. Like most 12 year olds, she could put up a jolly good façade for any gullible grown up who would fall for it. She walked, talked and behaved confidently, showing the world the face it wanted to see, her insecurities and uncertainties perfectly camouflaged. A discerning parent would have seen through, but unfortunately, Sarah was not discerning.
Anna went into the garden, climbed up the mango tree and sat at the junction of two branches, her favorite spot for reverie…
The picture was still so clear, even after all these years. She was four years old, and they were living in an old decrepit house. It was a dappled afternoon, and all afternoons were dappled in that house, for it was surrounded by trees, and as the Sun fought to find a way through the thick foliage, dancing shadows were cast on the walls and the floor. Sometimes the Sun won and it was bright. Sometimes, the wind and the trees won, and then there would be this leaf-shadow dance against the golden Sunlight.
Anna sat next to her mother, very happy and very secure. Only that morning, she had wailed like the police siren as her mother had bathed her, dressed her, and carried her to school. She had felt so insecure away from the familiar surroundings and her mother. But now, she was happy. Her mother was fast asleep and Anna was playing “market, market” by herself. Her father had taken her to the market the day before and Anna had watched with interest the interaction between her father and the shopkeeper. She now enacted the whole scene. Betwixt, she would abandon the game to nuzzle up to her mother. Eventually, she would fall asleep.
“Sir, come to our shop. Why go elsewhere? Everything you want is available here.”
Her father smiled, “How much for the tomatoes?”
“Tomatoes, Sir? Twenty rupees. Good tomatoes, Sir. Hybrid variety.”
“That’s fine, but reduce the price. It’s too high. Sixteen rupees and I will take a kilo.”
“What Sir! You are so adamant! One rupee for each of us. Pay me seventeen rupees. Last price. Take three kilos, it will stay for weeks.”
Her father laughed and said, “One kilo will do.”
Here Anna abandoned the game to nuzzle up to her mother. Somewhere, someone was singing – a thick, gruff male voice – a voice devoid of any emotion or tune. Her Uncle! David had come to stay with them four days ago. He had come with his college friends on a tour, and had decided to stay on for a while. Sarah had been delighted to see him and had made immense fuss over him, just the way she was doing now, hovering over him and coaxing him to eat. Anna did not really understand the relationship then. All she knew was that he was her ‘Uncle’.
For the first few days, he had completely ignored her, talking to her father, mother and sister. But the night before, he had stared across the table at her during dinner time. It was an odd gaze, as Anna remembered. He seemed to be seeing her for the first time. He was taking in her presence. She had stared back at him with the unblinking gaze of the very young and continued to munch her food.
Before going to bed, he had smiled at her and wished her good night. It was a very special smile and she had warmed up to him immediately and smiled back.
Now, as she heard him sing, she left her mother’s side and padded across the corridor to the guest room, where her Uncle was staying. She stood by the doorway and watched him as he sang and arranged a pack of cards on the table. He looked up suddenly and saw her standing there. “Hello! Come in!” She stepped in shyly, and when he reached out a hand, went to him quite willingly.
He picked her up and sat her on his lap. “You heard me sing.” She nodded her head, her thumb in her mouth, as was her habit.
“Did you like it?” She shook her head. “No? Aw, that’s about as much as I can sing, I’m afraid. Did you go to school today?”
Now she removed her thumb, turned to look up at him and said, “Yes.”
“And what did you learn?”
“Ah, the alphabets. You must teach me sometime. I have a gift for you. There, in that box.”
And he put her down and picked a small box from the side table and opened it. Inside was a cake. A lovely creamy cake, fluffy and creamy, with chocolate topping and a cherry.
Anna gazed at it in delight. “For me?” she asked.
“All for you,” he replied. “Will you eat it now or later?”
She knew she should have said later, after asking her mother, but this was a very strong cake indeed! Too strong for the will of a small girl. Even as Anna gazed at it longingly, it seemed to grow softer, fluffier and creamier.
Her mouthwatering, she replied, “Yes.”
“Good” he said, and lifted her up and placed her on his lap, facing him with her legs on either side.
Then he took the cake from the plate and gave it to her. But suddenly, something was wrong. Her Uncle seemed to be to close. Something about his breath on her cheek was not right. Something about the smell of his sweat and shirt was not right. Something about the feel of his hands locked behind her back was not right. Something that pushed against her panties was not right.
But her Uncle did not seem to notice anything amiss. He broke a piece of cake and put it in her mouth before holding her close again. And he watched her eat. Behind him, and to Anna’s view through the window, the leaves swayed in the wind, casting dancing shadows everywhere.
“Nice?” he asked. “Yes,” she said, “I must go.”
“What about cake for me?” he asked. “You eat too,” she said. Suddenly, he had bent forward and licked her mouth. “Ah! Very tasty!”
But Anna was alarmed now. “Let me go!” she said, beginning to wriggle. “Anna!” her mother called, and David unlocked his arms from behind her back and Anna scrambled off his lap and hurried towards the door.
“Anna!” he called to her. “Don’t tell anyone about the cake.” She had not understood. “It’s a kind of hush-hush between you and me. You understand?” Suddenly and instinctively she knew there was something very wrong about what had just happened. But hadn’t she been a naughty girl too? Her mother would scold her if she knew she had eaten the cake without her permission. She had warned her never to accept food from anyone. So she nodded her head and left the room.
Her Uncle had left the house the next day, and now, he was coming back nearly a decade later. Anna was now 12 years old, a half-grown child-woman. She was tall and coltish, with a swing in her walk, and showing all signs of growing into a beauty, and she loved wearing short skirts.
David arrived that afternoon and was received with hugs and tears of joy by Sarah. He then turned to the girls, “Hi guys! How’s life?” They grinned back at him, and Anna relaxed. He was handsome, tall and broad shouldered. He had very even white teeth and laughing brown eyes and wavy brown hair, swept back from his forehead. And he was charming. He had remembered to bring gifts for all of them, dresses and scarves and scent bottles. The day passed pleasantly enough, as they sat around the table long after the meal was over, talking, laughing and catching up with the events.
Anna, who was just making a tentative foray into the adult world, chipped in now and then, but some of the topics were beyond her power of comprehension. “Hey!” she said, as David reached out and pinched her cheek.
“You’ve grown up, almost.” She smiled shyly. The day seemed to pass too quickly.
It was the day after David’s return and Sarah had left on some errand and Mitch was off to college. Anna was at home on study leave. “Anna!” It was David calling out to her from the bathroom. “Yes?” she said, walking over. “I’m having trouble with the tap. Please bring me the spanner.” “Okay,” she said. She found the spanner and came back to the bathroom door, “Here it is.” Suddenly, the door was flung open and her Uncle stood there, naked. He reached out for her, but she was screaming and running for her life. She made it to the front room still screaming. But no one followed her, and all was still and silent. She could hear the tick-tock of the clock, the cawing of crows…She slowly moved to the door to unlock it and go out, but he appeared again suddenly, from behind a door where he was hiding, and he picked her up. She was a sturdy girl and she struggled and kicked him and screamed. Unnerved now, he let go of her, and in a trice, she unlocked the front door and ran out.
How could a day seem so normal when such a terrible incident had taken place inside? But it was just so, placid, with cows grazing in the fields, flicking at flies with their tails, young boys lazily dribbling a football, a cyclist making his slow, leisurely way down the lane. Her mother was at the gate, talking to someone. She turned to Anna. “Go in Anna. It looks like it will rain.”
Anna went in and sat down, her legs still shaking and her heart pounding in fear. Her mother came in.
“What’s the matter, child?”
“Mumma, I’m scared of Uncle. Why can’t he stay in a hostel? Why does he have to stay with us?”
Sarah looked startled. “Why, what did he do?”
“He…” Anna was finding it hard to explain. Her mother did not encourage any discussions regarding sex, and bad words were taboo. Besides, Anna was not aware of the term “rape.”
“I don’t like the way he touches me. And he doesn’t wear any clothes.”
To her surprise, her mother laughed, “He’s your Uncle and he’s been away for a very long time. He’s just happy to see you again. Besides, he’s been abroad for a while now. His habits are likely to be more wayward. I’ll talk to him.”
Anna wanted to scream to her mother, “He attacked me! And he wasn’t half-naked. He was naked.” But the words stuck in her mouth. She tried to plead with her mother with her eyes, but unfortunately for her, her mother was not very sensitive to nuances like that.
“Talk to whom, Sis?” asked David, strolling in, cool as ever. There was no trace of the beast that had attacked her just some moments ago.
“To you,” said Sarah, smiling at him, “David, this is request. I know you’re used to a different lifestyle, but could you just keep your shirt on while you’re here? My girls are not comfortable with it.”
David smiled affably. “Sure! Yes, of course!” He turned to Anna, “Sorry babes, didn’t know it bothered you.”
Sarah laughed, “Give her a break, David. She’s at that sensitive age.”
“Is she now?” said David, looking speculatively at Anna. But he turned and followed his sister out of the room.
Life was never going to be the same again for Anna ever again. Never would she think her mother omnipotent anymore. Never would she be deceived by a man’s charming demeanour any more. Never would home be a safe place any more. And never ever had she been as lonely and as vulnerable as she was now.
Apprehension held her in a vice-like grip. She grew wary of her Uncle. Shadows at night bothered her. What if he was lurking around? Sleep became her enemy, for it made her vulnerable. But it was so hard to stay awake and resist sleep’s calm, soothing tones or the rainbow colours of the dreams – that make belief world into which she could escape and pretend to be free and unfettered, flying up, up and away. But the tug of apprehension always brought her back, and she stayed awake.
But there were no further incidents and Anna began to slowly relax and feel more normal again. One night, she fell asleep. In her dreams, she was travelling in a train. On and on it went towards an unknown destination. Finally, it came to stop at a station and she got off and walked towards a gate. Beyond the gate was a maze and she walked on, taking turns as they came. Suddenly, she was confronted by an old man with a pair of scissors in his hands. Old, withered and shriveled like a dry grape, with white, flowing hair and a flowing beard.
“Hullo, Lady, I’m a tailor,” he said in a quavering voice, “Come, let me stitch you a dress.”
But suddenly, his eyes were not old. They were young, lustful and craving eyes that devoured her. “I’m sorry, I must go.” She said and started walking, but the old man easily kept pace, with the scissors in his hands, and he was moving faster and faster, and she was moving fast too, and then, she was running.
She woke up from her sleep, and instinctively, she turned to the door. Yes, there was a shadow behind it of a person standing there. She got up and switched on the light, and the shadow moved away. Choking with rage, she flung open the door and padded over to David’s room. He was there in bed, pretending to be asleep. She spat on him in rage. He opened his eyes and said, “Go back to sleep, girl. You’re wasting your time.”
And as suddenly as she had been angry, she broke down and tears rolled down her face. She went back to her bed. “Mitch! Mitch! Get up.”
Mitch did not wake up, but growled, “Yes, what is it?”
“I hate Uncle!”
“Okay, don’t go near him.” And Mitch went back to sleep.
Anna woke up late the next day and was late to school. Her sleepless nights were taking their toll and she found it difficult to follow the lesson. Physical activities were tiring and her eyes burned.
“Anna, check this book out.” It was her friend, Sumita. “It’s about a girl who was raped.”
Anna looked up, “What’s that?”
Sumita looked surprised, “You don’t know what rape means?”
Anna shook her head. Sumita explained. Now, Anna was interested. “What does the girl do?”
“She kills the rapist. She kills him with a knife.”
Anna was quiet. “Anna?”
There was a strange light shining in her eyes, “Good. He deserves it.”
Days passed and then it was already a month since David’s arrival. They had been playing games, a whole group of children, in the ground beyond the front yard of Anna’s home. Screams and laughter and yells rant the air as the ball was passed from one player to another. Anna was completely engrossed in it. She was a good dodger, and she could aim well too.
“Hey, I’m taking a break!” she called out, and ran to the house. Her throat was parched and her frock clung to her slender body. She knocked on the door. David opened it. “What do you want?”
The laughter died out of her eyes. “I want to drink water.”
He moved aside and she went in. Once in the corridor, she looked about, suddenly aware of the eerie silence. Nobody was home except David. She turned to him, “I’m going out. Open the door.”
But he blocked the entrance. “Go and get that glass of water,” he said, and cold fear gripped her.
She stared at him. Then she went to the kitchen, which was on the other side of the corridor and overlooked the backyard. She drank water and wiped her mouth with sweaty, shaking hands, and then turned to go out. But David was there at the kitchen door, blocking her path.
But now, her hands were steady, her eyes fearless. “Get out of my way.” He only smiled and stood there, a demonic smile playing about his lips, but there a flicker of uncertainty in his eyes now.
Anna looked incredulously at him. Did he not get it yet? This was it, the end to all his games.
She walked up to him till she was close and eye to eye with him. And then her eyes changed. They were no longer the eyes of a child. They were the eyes of the Goddess Kali as she went on her killing spree, chopping heads and hanging them as a garland around her neck. They were the eyes of a cold hearted killer, the eyes of a tiger as it relentlessly ran down its prey. They were eyes that held the promise to destroy completely.
Instinctively, David moved back, closer to the wall and gripped it. And still glaring at him, Anna left the room, opened the main door and was out!
She stared at the scene in front of her. Screaming children! Laughing children! Happy, carefree, gay children! Children! Only a moment ago, she had been one among them. But now…
“Anna, come soon! It’s your turn!” The screams grew louder, calling her.
She stared at them. The she shook her head and smiled. And she picked up the ball and went back to the game – pretending to be a child again.