The door was half shut. The winter breeze carried with it an earthy smell. From the distant temple of Kasi Viswanath, the sound of the bell was clearly audible. Every now and then Phuli could see against the backdrop of her blistered wall, shadows of people walking by the lane hurriedly. The street light entered briskly through the broken, wooden shutters of her window, into her dark world. There was a game of light and shadow that created various images in her room, perhaps in her mind as well. She was recollecting her last visit to the ‘Mela’ near Dasaswamedh Ghat. Oh, how pretty and shiny the glass bangles were! She stared at her wrists, which contained a red thread, desperately trying to fall asleep, covering her bare body with the bedsheet while her father slept peacefully beside her.
Phuli was now sixteen. The day when her father first taught her the new game, while she was drawing a tree with a chalk on the wall of their kitchen, when she stopped listening to the stories of the witches and magicians from her mother, when she lost her childhood while still a child, was clearly imprinted on her mind. She was just six then.
Phuli woke up to the chants of the Sadhus in the morning. Putting on her clothes, she went to the ghat. Dasaswamedh was already filled with tourists, sadhus and the locals. The wind was chilly and was freezing her nose and lips. The lanes of Benaras being extremely narrow cannot provide two people to walk side by side. The streets are filled with cows and ox, and it is considered to be holy. Every now and then Phuli had to polka dodge the people, the cows and the filthy lanes. It was 8 o’clock and she could already see Bhagirath Chacha’s shop filled with tourists, foreigners and Indians as well. Bhagirath Chacha serves the best kesar jalebis, kachoris and ‘malai cha’. It used to be a must visit for her with her father, every winter morning. But, now she travels to the ghat alone and orders jalebis all by herself. Phuli hurried towards the ghat to fill the bronze vessel with the sacred water of the Ganges as she was needed to reach home early to hand it over to her Mother, who would then start her puja. Treading down the slippery steps near the river, she bent down to fill the vessel. The smoke arising from the burning ghat of Manikarnika impregnated the air with a certain kind of heaviness. Amidst the smoke Phuli saw him- her father, taking dips in the river, facing the sun and reciting the ‘mantras’ sacred to the Hindus. Phuli once heard from her Mother that according to the Hindu scriptures, the water of the Ganges bears the power to purify one’s soul and body. Hence after performing any ill deed if the concerned person washes himself with ‘gangajal’ he is bound to be freed from any guilt. Phuli’s mother believed that Phuli’s father goes to bathe in the sacred water to free him from the sin that he commits every night, performing sexual acts with his daughter.
Since the day her hymen bled, she learned to suppress her tears to save herself from complaining of the pain, while walking or while urinating. Her mother knew it all along but she kept quiet. She knew why her daughter used to moan in pain every night and why she was becoming numb gradually. She remained silent. Her mother warned Phuli against the particular men, thirsty for flesh, waiting to grope young girls, in crowded areas or isolated lanes. But she never asked Phuli to be protective about her body in her own house, or to be careful from her own father, her creator. He touches Phuli, feels her, hurts her, and enjoys her flesh as his meal every night when he comes back home drunk. She remains still on her bed, letting him do whatever he desires, letting him get physical with her even when she menstruates. As the door closes, she shuns herself, lying on her bed immobile as a corpse. She dies every day.
In the kitchen Phuli was busy collecting the broken pieces of the earthen pitcher. Her father kicked it in anger due to her mother’s delay in giving him water after he returned home from the market. He dragged her mother by her hair, closed the door and Phuli could hear her mother’s shrieks. It was a usual day for the family. Phuli had been kicked by her father while still in her mother’s womb. It was as natural an occurrence as it could get for Phuli. She thus kept quiet.
Her mind is a storehouse of dreams and stories. She has seen her best friend Jayanti being happy whenever her father comes back home after a daylong of hard work. She has often seen her express her happiness. Phuli never feels that way. “What is it like to be happy?” she often asks herself. “One should always protest against the evil, and at times uproot the evil if the situation demands”, these words from her last visit to the Satsang constantly hovered in her mind. She doesn’t want to be like her mother. She wants to be like Jayanti, who considers her father as her guardian angel. She seeks happiness. No, she isn’t weak. Yet, she is numb. Every night with her father, she closes her eyes, recites the Chalisa and seeks for the holy water of the Ganges. She desires to take a dip as well, like her father does, to wash off the embarrassment, the dirt, the filth. She felt the same that night as well.
Phuli’s mother walked into room where her father drinks his tea. The morning was chilly, it was stinging. Manohar’s head rested on their half broken table. His mouth was foaming!
Mourners started to gather in front of Phuli’s house, while women beat their chests. Few arrived with garlands and few empty handed but they all seeked for Phuli. She was nowhere to be seen. People pitied on her luck. She became the fatherless child, one without an identity.
She felt the chill of the water arousing her veins and her conscience. She brushed her wet hair with her palms as she rose up from the Holy Ganges. Catching her breath, she took the final dip. She was free from the sin that she had committed. The Ganges purified her soul and her body. From the bosom of the Ganges, Phuli was born afresh.
Sketch By: Sneha Lakhotia