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A summer of confrontations and confessions at Altamash Manzil

An excerpt from Shibal Bhartiya's new book, which looks at patriarchy, sexual abuse and humanity through the eyes of an eight-year-old girl living in a small town

Three young girls confide in each other about a family member, who is a sexual abuser, and the attitude of disbelief by some of the grown-ups. Photo courtesy: HarperCollins Children's Books
Three young girls confide in each other about a family member, who is a sexual abuser, and the attitude of disbelief by some of the grown-ups. Photo courtesy: HarperCollins Children's Books

The girls had to get up with the hot sun shining into their faces, drenched in sweat. Still half asleep, they clambered into their beds downstairs, happy that the fans, for once, were working soundlessly.

It was after breakfast that the girls remembered the chakotra. Let’s go steal some from Saamo Phuphi’s yard, Zareena decreed. Bena was fascinated. It was like going into the lion’s den: scary, exciting and incredibly brave. That it was also wrong was conveniently forgotten. The girls walked into the house next door after lunch, knowing everyone was sleeping after the meal.

The sun beat down mercilessly, and Zareena made them take off their slippers as they walked into the house, but no one noticed. Safia got on her hands and feet so that Zareena could climb up on her back and pull at the green chakotra. Nothing happened. They tried a few times, till Safia said she would die if they tried one more time. So it was decided that Bena would clamber up Zareena’s shoulders and try a heave-ho. She did, and failed, but the second attempt was, literally, fruitful.

With a definitive whoosh, the chakotra broke off from the tree and slipped from Bena’s hands to land on the ground with a thud. Arre pakdo, Zareena yelled to Safia who scrambled behind the rolling fruit. Bena tried to get off from Zareena’s shoulders to assist her cousin and landed with a thud.

The commotion was enough to wake up the sleeping dead. Saamo Phuphi was very much alive, and always slept with an ear open to the happenings of the neighbourhood anyway. By the time the girls were scurrying out of her front yard, she had already opened the door and spotted Zareena’s fleeing form.

Zareena, she yelled. Yahan nahi hai, Bena yelled back before. Zareena whacked her hard enough to make her cough and Safia clamped a hand over her mouth. They ran into Altamash Manzil, breathless and thirsty and burnt and scared. But, they had the chakotra.

The girls walked to their favourite hiding place under the trees, and Zareena took out a hidden handful of dried red chillies. Run and get a knife, she told Safia, who quickly complied. It took Zareena a good fifteen minutes of fiddling with the rather blunt knife and a broken brick to split the chakotra open. Its pale pink flesh glistened in the afternoon sun. It’s a grapefruit, said Bena with great conviction, but it’s not pink enough. Of course, nodded Zareena. It’s unripe now! Oh, said Bena, then how will we eat it? Zareena gave her a push, bhaklol ho,unripe is fun!

Safia quietly ground the red chillies on the brick, and the girls scooped out bits of the pale pink grapefruit flesh, mixed a bit of the ground chillies, and popped it in their mouths.

Mayhem. Murder. Chaos. Rampage. Words that define the worst things, and sometimes, raw chakotra mixed with freshly ground red chillies!

It was as if her tonsils and gut and intestines and everything else as yet unnamed and undiscovered by science was on fire. My eyes hurt, said Bena, delightedly. I am sure we will get the loosies, was Safia’s happy verdict. Eat before the churail Phuphi reaches here, counselled Zareena. So the girls sucked on the sour and hot mouthfuls, sure that there was nothing more delicious known to mankind, ever. Do you get this in Sultanpur, asked Zareena. No, Bena vigorously shook her head. Nothing compares to Altamash Manzil summers. Everyone nodded sagely. But every paradise has its serpent, lamented Zareena. Aati hongi Saamo Phuphi.

Bena nodded. I think I hate churail Phuphi, she said, relishing the epithet. But I hate Afshar Bhaiya more, she said. Zareena froze at the name. Why, she softly asked Bena. It was only then that Zulekha Bua entered the garden looking for the three errant children. Their aunt had come in, fuming and hot and bothered. Zulekha Bua hadn’t heard the whole thing, but it involved a robbery and fruits and lots of invocations of the Quran and Rasoolallah. She couldn’t help overhearing the conversation between the cousins. I hate him because he asked me to massage his peepee, and I told Mama and Mama said he is an evil man and no one must ask a child that. Bena spoke with confidence and self righteousness. Zareena began to cry. The girls were shocked. This was Zareena, the queen of all things glorious and forbidden and fun.

What’s wrong, Zareena, asked Safia. The girls waited for her answer. As did Zulekha Bua. He makes me massage his peepee too. He says if I don’t do it, he will die of the infection and become a ghost and haunt me forever. Zareena was still sobbing. I know it’s wrong but I can’t say no. Safia and Bena looked at each other, while Safia put an arm around her sibling’s poor, huddled, sobbing form. Bena finally spoke up. Why didn’t you tell your mom, she asked. I did, said Zareena, but Ammi gave me two slaps and told me to keep my mouth shut or she will brand me with a hot iron. She said I was crazy and horrible and bent on bringing disgrace to the family. Zareena was now inconsolable. Tears, sweat, and snot streaked her tiny face. Her nose was red, her lungs gasping for air. Bena knew she had to do something. I will tell Mama, Zareena, Mama is a good mom, and she can fix almost everything. Don’t tell her I told you this, said Zareena. No I won’t, Bena promised.

It was then that Zulekha Bua realized how wrong she was to beat Mehjabeen up, when the poor little mite had come up to her grandmother with a similar complaint. Hum nahi jayenge Afshar ke ghar ke taraf, hum se saala ulti pulti maalish karne ke liye kehta hai. Mehjabeen had almost been in tears when asked to go to his house. Zulekha Bua had given her a sharp slap. Badi maharani lagi hai re kambakhat te. Bhaag yahan se. You aren’t a queen and I will have none of your tantrums. Zulekha shuddered. If the girls of Altamash Manzil were not safe from his evil machinations, what chance did her little Mehjabeen have? This was her time for redemption, and Zulekha Bua was anything but stupid. Bena, maiyyan, Zulekha Bua said quietly, Mehjabeen ko bhi bolta hai. He asks Mehjabeen too. Bena nodded. Leave it with me until tonight. The next moment, Zulekha Bua remembered why she was looking for the trio. Chaliye, yaad kar rahi hain Chhoti Dulhan aur aap ki Phuphi. The grown ups are waiting. She looked at the remnants of the chakotra and could piece together the events of the day.

The girls were in for a hiding and she wished she could at least protect little Bena. Zareena and Safia had grown up with regular thrashings. Little Bena was like a hothouse flower. She would wilt with even an unkind word. But such was life, Zulekha knew she was powerless. The trio made appropriately sad faces, and Zareena cleaned her face with the hem of her frock, and walked into Altamash Manzil’s cavernous living room, ready to deny any allegations.

Excerpted from Bena’s Summer by Shibal Bhartiya, published by HarperCollins Children’s Books.

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