“Manasvi!!!” Maya shrieked with horror looking at the disheveled condition of her daughter. For past four hours, she’d been pacing her modest living room up and down waiting for her 22-year-old daughter who hadn’t come back home yet. Manasvi was in the final year of Law College and was currently interning with a leading Law Firm. She often got late nowadays owing to the work load at the firm but always made it a point to keep Maya informed about her whereabouts. Today was quite an exception. Manasvi's phone wasn't reachable, and the downpour outside wasn't helping to cool her over-active brain.
Just then a car halted with a screeching sound and the front door opened unceremoniously. Maya was shocked to see her daughter piling out crudely before the vehicle pulled away. Manasvi's tattered clothes were telling a story, no mother ever wanted to be told. The terrified look on her face and bruises on her arms were mocking the civility of a progressive civilization, which champions at idol worshipping of Ma Durga and Maha Laxmi but did little to protect the women of flesh and blood.
Maya looked in the direction of the BMW that literally threw her daughter out before zooming out of her vision. A few bystanders were paying more attention to her semi-naked body rather than following or even jotting down the registration number of the car gone by.
She pulled Manasvi to her chest and dragged her into the house before closing the door behind her. She didn’t know whether to attend to her distraught daughter or tend to her very own heart that was splitting into a million pieces. Manasvi didn’t deserve this, no woman does.
Maya dragged her into the washroom and made her stand in the shower peeling off every last bit of the clothing to cleanse her body of each spec of the filth that was sticking to it. Only she didn’t know, if she would ever be able to make her psychosis unlearn the horrific misadventure of the evening that seemed to have stripped Manasvi of her pride and dignity?
Manasvi wore a stony look all the while Maya bathed her and wrapped her in a fresh towel bringing her out into the room. Her ice-cold eyes looked agitated trying to figure out something in her head when Maya put on the fresh clothes for her and tried to make her lie down on the bed.
“I won’t leave him. I…..I need to go to the police station. I can’t let him go.” Manasvi got up abruptly to Maya’s surprise.
Maya stood up, held her by the shoulders and said caressing her cheek.
“We’ll talk about it later, Manu. We will, I promise. Right now, you need to rest.” Maya said cajoling her.
“Are you serious, Mom? I can’t let it go. We need to go to the Police Station and have a medical test done ASAP.” And then thinking about something, she rushed to the washroom. “My clothes. Why…why did you wash me up? These…. these clothes need to be taken as evidence.” She said picking up her wet clothes, moving with a borrowed energy in a state of shock.
“Manu. Stop. We aren’t going anywhere. Do you hear me? We aren’t going and reporting.” Maya said in a raised voice shaking her out of her stupor.
Manasvi sat on the bed with a thud, the initial spurt of energy ebbing as the barrage of her pent-up emotions of despair and helplessness broke with a stream of tears making way to dispel her agony if it ever could. Maya stood beside her, rubbing her back, trying to gulp her own sobs.
“Why Mom?” Manasvi asked when her loud cries had turned into hiccups, leaving the question incomplete for Maya to interpret.
“Who was he, Manu?” Maya asked in response.
“Shashank Awasthi, son of Avinash Awasthi, the Home Minister. He'd proposed to me a while back. I did find him likable and we started seeing each other. But then I found out who he was. Knowing that he belonged to a Political family, a class that you don’t trust or would want to have anything to do with, I started avoiding him. But he kept coming back stating, he loved me too much to let me go. I told him that my mother wouldn’t agree to our relationship and tried convincing him. For a while, he backed off. Seems like he didn’t. He was drunk today and asked me out. He pleaded for me to give him one chance to convince you. But when I didn't give in to his advances, he took it out this way." Manasvi said controlling the tremor in her voice.
“You never thought it right to tell me that before. Why?” Maya asked.
“I thought that I could handle it. I did start to like, in fact love him but knowing your aversion towards the politicians, I preferred maintaining a distance from him. I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to alarm you and I’m sorry now. I wish I had. But now, I want to take him to task. He can’t get away so easily Mom. Please take me to the Police Station." Manasvi pleaded again.
"No Manu. We are just two helpless women, and they are too powerful. They will hush up the case turning the tables on you, on us. You will be the one who will end up being ridiculed and called names. Your self-respect and dignity would be torn worse than your clothes. We don't stand a chance in front of them. Remember, the entire police administration is under him. Consider it as a nightmare. We'll leave this town and go away from this place.” Maya stuttered, her deep-rooted phobias surfacing once again.
On the other side of the city at Avinash Awasthi’s house, the mood was somber as he paced in his enormous living room looking visibly enraged. His wife, Soumya wore the worried look of a mother who sat in one of the high chairs and was continually trying to reach someone on the phone. Right then, the infamous BMW screeched in the porch before halting, and an inebriated Shashank made way towards the inside of the house unaware of the unrest he’d caused to his parents.
"Shashank," Avinash shouted angrily seeing his son. "Where the hell had you been and what have you done?"
“Chill Dad. Nothing that you have to be so agitated for.” Shashank said carelessly sinking into one of the couches.
"Then explain this," Avinash said showing him a forwarded picture of him dragging Manasvi to his car while she struggled hard to get out of his grip.
“Who sent you this?” Shashank’s candid demeanor vanished and he asked looking acutely puzzled.
“Don’t ask questions. Answer mine. Who’s she and what have you done to her?” Avinash asked mincing his words trying to maintain restraint.
"Well, that's one arrogant girl, Dad. Manasvi. I liked her and pleaded her to be mine. She agreed first and then retracted for some weird reason. I tried making her understand, how much I loved her but she won’t budge. She belonged to me, Dad. She was mine-to-be. I just made her mine." Shashank said arrogantly trying to put up a brave front in front of his formidable father.
Avinash came up to Shashank and slapped him tight on the cheek pushing away Soumya who’d come to the rescue of her son. Avinash’s temper was touching the sky.
"You would turn out to be such a scumbag; I didn't know. And mind you, a journalist and not that girl has forwarded this clip. That girl might not say anything first, but once the media sets out to dig out dirt, they will surely find it if there is any and no matter what, that girl would get the voice to speak up if that happened." Avinash said angrily throwing the Vase that lay there on the coffee table and scratched his forehead trying to think of something to tide over the situation at hand. Not even in his wildest dreams did Avinash saw Shashank stooping down so low. Shashank’s aggressive behavior felt like a taint, a roadblock in the course of his political carrier this far.
Shashank had always been an obedient son, a law-abiding person and had never misused the power that came to him through his father’s political positioning. What changed, Avinash thought hard.
“You…you do something Avinash. I can’t let my son go behind bars.” Soumya cried shaking her husband out of his deep thoughts. She loved her son like any mother would and had always prided herself in having groomed him into being a respectful man that he was. It wasn’t like Shashank to harm someone and that too a girl, the way it seemed.
“And I can’t let my nomination slip away for the upcoming elections. Damn you, Shashank. Could you not keep it in, at least till the elections were over? Do you even realize as to how is it going to come to bite us back? In a matter of time, the clip would go viral, and the media is sure to find the girl before the night is over." Avinash shouted with dejection and rubbing his lower lip with his thumb; his mind already working hard to get the situation under control.
“Let’s go to her house right now Avinash and ask for forgiveness. We’ll reassure her parents that we’ll help whichever way possible if they denied any charges.” Soumya suggested desperately begging her very angry and agitated husband. Shashank’s heinous act was about to bring a huge disrepute to Avinash who had always maintained a spotless image in his public discourse.
“And according to you, your son's offense is pardonable. Is it? Would you forgive someone if he came asking for an apology after doing something like this to our daughter, Soumya?" Avinash asked his wife, looking straight into her eyes holding her shoulders and squeezing them till she cried in pain.
“Why are you dragging our daughter in this, damn it?” Soumya shouted back shrugging hurriedly out of his hold.
"That's what it's like, Soumya. A mere mention of anything happening to your daughter makes you shout. That girl, her parents will roar, and we'll be scampering for cover in no time." Avinash retorted, his words spitting acid.
“What if Shukla Ji came to know about it, Avinash? You agreed to his proposal to marry Shashank to his daughter.” Soumya reiterated, suddenly remembering about it.
That had Shashank spring out of his chair.
“What with Shukla Ji? When did that happen? His daughter is barely out of school.” It was the moment of a shocking revelation for Shashank as well.
“We were about to tell you, Shashank. Rhea will turn eighteen in a couple of months, and it will further strengthen your father's position within the party since Shukla Ji is in the Parliamentary Board.” Soumya tried to do the damage control, feeling rather awkward breaking the news to Shashank, the way she did.
"You know, you guys are unbelievable. You won't mind trading your children for your political benefits. That's why I'm the way, I am, and that's why Avni went off to Canada to study so that she could be away from your treacherous ways." Shashank cried, his intoxication wearing away completely.
“Stop taking the high moral ground Shashank. It’s nothing compared to what you have put us through and that girl as well. I feel ashamed to even face that girl and her family. I wish I knew this side of you, the façade you’ve put up so far. I would have reined you in better if I knew and while I could." Avinash shouted gulping the bile that had risen up his throat.
"I love Manasvi, Dad. I wanted to marry her. I didn't mean to hurt her, but she wouldn't relent. She bruised my pride by her consistent drubbing. I'm not proud of what I did, and I'm sorry for that." Shashank said remorsefully this time.
"You could’ve come to me, to us, Shashank. I would’ve asked her mother for her hand. This is no way, no justification to claim your love. However power-conscious we might be, we’ve always taught you to value people and respect women. What kind of love disrobes a woman of her dignity and why should your pride be so fragile that a woman’s refusal can bruise it. ” Soumya said softening her stance.
“I’m sorry, Mom. I really am. I don’t know how to face her now. Help me.” Shashank said regrettably.
“Marry. You want to marry Manasvi. Do you still?" Avinash asked surprised, his eyes shone with likelihood.
"Yes. I do, but I don't know if Manasvi would still. Do something Dad." Shashank pleaded.
“Let’s go.” Avinash said snatching the car keys from Shashank’s hands, “to her house”, completing his sentence when his wife and son looked at him astonished.
“But, Shukla Ji?" Soumya asked worriedly following her husband’s hurried footsteps.
"I'll figure out something," Avinash said opening the door of the sedan for his wife to enter.
At Manasvi’s House
A dejected Maya opened the door. She wasn't expecting any guests neither did she want to see anyone at this point but she sure was in a state of shock looking at a young man with the Minister on her doorstep. Her first response would have been to bang the door close in their faces but then thought otherwise. Maya let them in quietly.
"If I said that I'm sorry for what my son has done, it'd be too little, but I don't know any other way as how best to apologize. He's the culprit, and he's here for you to punish." Avinash said humbly while as Shashank stood there with his head bent.
“You are the lawmaker Mr. Awasthi. You would know how best to punish him.” Maya said, the tremor vibrating through her words.
“He’s your perpetrator Ma’am. The best I can do is give him to police, but that would only call for more trouble for both our families. We are here to ask your daughter’s hand in marriage to Shashank.” Avinash said looking at Maya’s now shocked face.
“Do you realize that you are proposing to punish my daughter for your son’s blunder? Is that your way of making it right by her?” Maya asked.
"If you have a better plan, do let us know. How Shashank did it was wrong and that bends our head in shame. But he loves her and is apologetic. Your daughter did admit that she loved him earlier but retracted later owing to your pressures or prejudices. We are not matchmaking between two random people, Maya Ji. I’ve no doubt that their love will eventually prevail with the blessings of both the families. I’ll watch your daughter like my own if you agree for this alliance. Meanwhile, take your time and think it over. We'll make sure that Manasvi gets to live a dignified life at our home and with time, and with Shashank’s love, she'll get over the trauma. I also am a mother to a daughter, Maya Ji. I understand your dilemma and your concerns. Trust me to make it right for our children." Soumya spoke holding Maya's trembling hands while Maya stayed non-committal.
They opened the door to leave just in time to come face-to-face with the blazing lights and hoards of media-reporters gunning for their bite. Avinash looked at his son and both the women, gesturing them to keep quiet while he handled the press.
“What do you have to say about the clip, Sir?”
“Why are you here, Sir? Have you come to silence the victim?”
“Are you intimidating the victim with your power and position?”
“Tell us what happened, Ma’am. The media and the world will stand with you against whosoever it is.”
Questions came pouring in, but Avinash looked unperturbed and raised his hand to silence them before he spoke.
“I don’t deny the clip. It was a scuffle between the lovers. Shashank shouldn't have done it, and he's here to apologize to his girlfriend and her mother. No one’s a victim here. Please leave my future daughter-in-law alone." He said looking obliquely at Maya's face that bore the mixed expressions of disbelief as well as contentment. Media's scrutiny does unsettle the people who aren't used to it.
Maya went inside after everyone had left dreading to face Manasvi. She always prided herself on her mental strength and lived her life on her terms, but today, she'd felt vulnerable thinking about what lay ahead of her daughter. Would Manasvi be able to accept Shashank as her husband, the man who tore her pride apart? But the option to face law was nightmarish and she didn’t want to go through that route; not once again. She dragged her heavy feet towards Manasvi's room. Manasvi was there looking out of her window into the starlit sky.
“I…” Maya cleared her throat and tried speaking.
“You did right Mom. If this is the option I have, I’ll make it worthwhile. Now, I’ll teach him what it means to mess with a girl’s honor. He can’t simply redeem himself by offering to marry me. I’ll make his life hell after the wedding.” Manasvi said bitterly.
“If it’s hell, it’s for both Manu. Don’t get married out of revenge. Meet him and marry him only if you think he’s apologetic and that you can forgive him. You did say that you loved him and stopped seeing him thinking about my reaction. Try and see him with the emotions you felt for him before this incidence and maybe, you’ll find a way ahead that is more positive.” Maya said running her fingers through Manasvi’s hair in an effort to cool her temper.
“I’ll meet him but forgiveness, that’s not happening anytime soon.” Manasvi spat.
A day later,
Manasvi went to meet Shashank in his bachelor pad on Soumya’s insistence.
“Congratulations, Shashank Awasthi. You finally got what you wanted.” Manasvi shouted in an empty living room.
“No. We both got what we wanted.” A delighted Shashank came from behind and snaked his arms around her waist burnishing his tall frame with hers kissing her on her head.
“Ouch..” She cried and turned around still in his arms. “It hurts.”
“Sorry. But it had to look real. Does it hurt badly?” He asked, caressing her bruises and gently pulling her closer.
“I feel awful lying to our parents, making you look like a monster and insulting the women who are the real victims. I hate to make Mom relive her past and to take advantage of her insecurities. We could've thought of something else." She said feeling repentant.
"No, we couldn't have. Your mother's unreasonable hatred towards the political class and my father's lust for power, good enough to trade me into marrying a teenager; we could never fight that. This, we could manage. My love for you in times to come will change your mother’s perspective about me. Right now, what matters to me is what you think of me and not the world." He said enveloping her in a protective grip; their faces replete with a sense of satisfaction.
A week later
Maya stood perplexed looking at the beautiful bride that Manasvi made. She hadn't envisioned this for her daughter, a marriage out of compromise to a man who violated her modesty and today she was giving him the license to do that for a lifetime. Manasvi had reconciled and was probably smiling for the public consumption, but Maya’s insides were churning.
She felt powerless to protect her daughter, the way she'd felt when everyone abandoned her twenty-three years ago thinking that she was a mere scum, a gold-digger, leveling allegations of rape on a very powerful politician’s son. She’d believed him, trusted his words and was ready to wait for him, howsoever long it took him to marry her. But he wasn’t looking for a forever. He only wanted her for his pleasure and when she refused to enter into a physical relationship, he’d showed his true colors taking what he wanted by way of force. She still couldn’t figure out, why was it so difficult for men to take a refusal?
She'd fought hard and had thought that being a rape survivor, she stood to garner sympathy but all it brought her was the disgrace. The torment, she underwent the evening of her insult ceased to end and harsh questioning about her intentions kept raping her repeatedly in every court hearing. The pictures of her with her tormentor in their happy times made the matter worse making her look like an extortionist trying to blackmail the very powerful political heir. Her family abandoned her through her period of trial and she had no means to carry on with her fight.
She gave up and disappeared after two months to start a new life far away, where no one knew her only to learn later that she was carrying the stark reminder of that fateful day.
She wondered what the Almighty had in store for her. It seemed like a ‘The End’ of her life. Would her life stop being any more miserable, she‘d thought back then? She'd initially wanted to abort her pregnancy and let her past not shadow her tomorrow, but something within her revolted. She had run away from her people with no one to call her own and her psyche too damaged to ever believe a man or marry one. It was her desolation that made her greedy to possess someone of her lineage, her DNA to live with and Manasvi was born. She was so tempted to take Manasvi to the very court, which had not believed in her, and had a paternity test ordered to throw it in his face. But then she looked at Manasvi’s innocent face. She couldn’t risk her daughter’s fate for her retribution. She did not want even his shadow to touch Manasvi. So long, she'd protected her, but now, she wasn't sure if she was protecting her daughter or putting her in greater misery. However, she wished that maybe Shashank did regret what he did and he along with his family had the courage to own up his mistake. Even Manasvi did admit that she liked Shashank. She prayed that Shashank stuck to his word and someday, his love could make it up to Manasvi once they were wed.
She shook her head to come out of her damning thoughts, swallowed her pride and went outside to receive her guests, most of them being Avinash’s contacts. The Elitist of the political and the social class made a sterling guest list.
The Exquisite looking Banquet hall was abuzz with incessant chatter and loud music, way out of her league.
She would’ve been happier if all this was out her choice than out of her desperation, she thought. But she knew, she wasn’t going to get anything out of her empty contemplations. She went into among her guests and greeted them before she went back inside to be with her daughter to see, how was she holding up. For the very first time in years, she felt lonely in the want of a family she once had and lost because of the arrogance of an insane man. After many years, she actually cursed him for his deeds; he’d done twenty-three years ago. A while later, she went back inside to call Manasvi, completely unaware of the storm that was about to rock her boat.
A very refined looking middle-aged man made a quiet entry into the hall as the guards stood with renewed attention.
He wished to see the girl who didn’t exist for him till a while back but had the audacity to steal from him what he’d thought to be his. He stood there surveying the Golden Banquet Hall; he wished he’d arranged for and the glitterati that adorned the occasion were out of his efforts. He looked around scornfully trying to keep his temper in check as he made way towards Avinash.
“What was the pressing hurry to get your son married so hastily, so much so that you forgot to invite your friends, Awasthi?” He shouted as all eyes turned towards him, a low-key whisper started among the stoic faces waiting for a moment of confrontation between the two heavyweights.
“Shukla Ji. I…. I’m sorry. It just happened so fast. I thought of coming over to Delhi after the wedding to tell you about it.” Avinash came forward to greet him stung hard by his unexpected arrival. The last thing he would have wanted at his only son’s wedding was Shukla Ji’s presence. The man was spiteful and poisonous and if he wasn’t in the position he held in the party, Avinash won’t want to have anything to do with him. He suddenly felt that he was kind of relieved that Shashank wasn’t getting married to Shukla Ji’s daughter.
“I would’ve appreciated if you’d come earlier. We’re in power positions Awasthi. We could’ve handled it otherwise, even if Shashank had committed a murder. It was a harmless clip that you forgot to mention, and this seems like an unnecessary cover-up." Shukla whispered distastefully.
“It’s not a cover-up Shukla Ji. Shashank is in love with Manasvi and I possibly couldn’t force him to marry your daughter just because I promised you the same. You also know that such relationships don’t last. Though, I’m truly sorry for not letting you know about it before the wedding.” Avinash tried to come clean as much as he could but Shukla Ji was not the one to relent.
Shukla Ji nodded trying to keep his temper in control and said humorously, “anyway, I’ve come to meet the girl that stole the boy, I thought good enough for my daughter. She’d rather be good.”
“She indeed is. After all, she’s Shashank’s choice. Parents can just be the mediators for their children’s happiness. This way please.” Avinash said delightfully and took him towards the room where Manasvi sat dressed in her wedding ensemble and waited till the priest called her out.
Manasvi stood up surprised to see her Father-in-Law-to-be standing with another of his kind at a place she didn’t expect him to be but greeted them nonetheless.
“Good job at whoring up your way to the power circle, girl. Didn’t take you long to forget about your misery and making inroads into our bastion, or was it a mere ploy to trap Shashank.” Shukla said leaving both Manasvi and Avinash shocked while as a stunned Maya who had just entered the room stood still by the door.
"What are you saying, Shukla Ji? Shashank loves her, and we are the ones who proposed to her for marriage." Avinash tried clearing.
"I wasn't born yesterday, Awasthi. So quit feeding me stories that you’ve strewn for public consumption. I only wish to see if her father is just as lecher to pawn his daughter for power and money.” Shukla spat.
“Enough Shukla. I don’t….” Avinash yelled but Maya butted in this time.
“Oh! He is, Pramod or Mr. Shukla. He’s a bigger scoundrel than you think he is and that’s the reason; I raised my daughter away from his ugly shadow. And now if you try to loathe my daughter anymore, you would lose the very ground, you are standing on. This time, it is not an empty threat and I’m sure you’ll trust me, now because I’ve nothing to lose. Please excuse us. I have a Kanyadaan to do.” Saying this, Maya brushed past him almost pushing him aside to hold a startled Manasvi and took her outside.
Shukla looked dumbfounded bitten by Maya’s stinging remarks, the once helpless woman he rejoiced overpowering.
“You, coming, Mr. Shukla, to bless my daughter-in-law. Seems like, I didn’t break my promise after all." Avinash asked smirking patting his shoulder before he left as Shukla stood there motionless, the undercurrents of the newsfeed from twenty-three years ago recollected differently by both the men.