Getting Soniya Back to School: Part I

March 2016.

First year of teaching was coming to an end and I was feeling a little relieved. It was a lovely Saturday morning. I was packing my bag for the day – the lesson planning book, folder of worksheets – when my phone rang. It was Soniya’s father.

Namastey Didi, kya main chhutti ke time pe Soniya ko leke gaon ja sakta hun?”

(Can I take Soniya to village during the Summer vacations?)

The final exams were starting soon. Summer vacations would start after that. It was an innocent question. Of course he could take her. However, my school was a summer school site and I knew that the kids would benefit from staying back.

Bhaiyaa, please try to be back in the city by mid-May”, I told him.

He tried to get away with it for some time but then he said he would come back.

Thik hai (Okay)”, he replied and disconnected the call. His tone was a normal one. I thought I had convinced him. I forgot the phone call on my way to school. Only to be reminded by Soniya’s tears in the class.

“What happened?” I asked a little perplexed.

“What have you done, Didi?” she looked at me through teary eyes.

I was not sure what she was talking about.

“My father is taking me to village – and”

I cut her short. “Getting you back in mid-May”

“No. My father is taking me back to village and never getting me back. The only person who could have stopped him was you. Look what you did!” she broke down.

“I don’t understand”, I felt my heart sink lower.

“Last night my parents had a huge fight. My father hit my mother so bad that she is lying on the bed, unable to move an inch. Her face is blue; the left side of her body is immobile. Keeping her in that state, my father has decided to take me and my siblings and go back to village. Didi, it’s all over. ”

The hours and hours of classes, extra classes, conversations, rehearsals, hope, faith, dreams, future were flashing in front of my eyes.

“I will not let you go,” I tried to be reassuring. Deep inside I was shaking. “I will go with you to your house after school. Call your father and tell him that.”

“He will not be there if you tell him you’re coming”, she said.

I called him anyway.

I could only think about Soniya’s father at school. He was around 5’3”, slim and strong. He was almost always drunk with a sweet smile to spare. The same man had hit his wife so brutally that she could not even stand up. What do I tell him? It’s going to be evening by the time I reach his house. Will I be safe there? Can he attack me knowing that I am entering their family matter now?

I had to take a chance to answer these questions. Months later, it still gives me creeps to think about it, but I am glad I did.

I went to Soniya’s house after school. She had changed her house again. It was a house made of tin and it was very small to accommodate all of them.

Her mother was lying on the bed that occupied half the space of the room. For a while I could not recognize her. I wanted to scream, go to the police station and lodge an FIR. She was blue, her face and eyes were swollen. Her eyes twitched in pain when she tried to move on seeing me.

I sat on the bed. The kids surrounded me.

None of us knew from where to begin. I have never had such confrontations before and the stakes were very high.

Soniya ke papa kahan hai?” (Where is Soniya’s father?)

Ghar pe nahi hain. Pata nahi kahan hai,” Soniya’s mother replied, her lips barely moving.

“Wapas kab ayenge?” I enquired. It was almost 6:30PM now.

“Aap ayenge sunke chale gaye hain kahin. Pata nahi kahan.” she replied.

A strange anger flooded my body, the stubborn part of me woke up.

“Koi baat nahi didi, aj main raat bhar rahungi yahan. Kabhi to ayenge wapas.”

I folded my legs and sat comfortably on the bed. Soniya was standing next to me till now. I saw a smile cross her lips. She took her text book and sat down on the floor. I tried having conversations with her mother, trying to know little nuances of the events. Slowly, she told me the entire story.

Soniya’s father worked at a factory. His friends did not work. They used to call him during his work and they would go and steal chickens. Once they got caught by police and Soniya’s father was hit very badly. The police also told him that if the same thing happened the next time, he would be put behind the bars. His father was still loyal to the friends. They would do this in the morning and drink together in the evening.

The day before, Soniya’s mother was in the house when one of the friends came to her. He said that her husband was caught stealing again and he is with the police. Only she could save him this time. It was already late and she would better hurry! He had a car with him and she ran to his car, leaving everything else aside. A few other friends saw her mother getting into the car with the man.

Once she was in the car, the man drove her to a different destination. She pleaded saying she had kids and so did he. She reminded him that he was not like this and he could be a better man there. After a lot of conversations, suddenly he calmed down. He told her that he was really drunk and was really sorry for everything. He requested her to not tell her husband anything. He gave her a 500 rupee note, asking her to tell her husband that she was out working and she received a bonus.

Meanwhile, Soniya’s father came home and could not find anyone. He thought his wife was out working and went to drink with his friends. At the shack, his friends gathered together to mock him telling his wife ran away with a man with car. He was extremely agitated. They told him what they saw exactly and asked him to go verify at the house. He came back home and waited for her. In a few minutes, she came back home, clutching a 500 rupee note in her hand.

He asked her where she was and she told him that she was out working. Then the beating began. Once she turned blue, she told him the whole story and was beaten further.

I was numb, listening to the whole story. It was Soniya’s mother’s version and I wanted to believe it. She furiously requested me to not tell him anything about me knowing.

“Jaan se maar denge wo mujhe,”  she told me.

I won’t, I told her.

There were two minutes of silence, breaking which Soniya’s father entered the house. He was not alone. He came back with another well-built man and I could smell alcohol on both of them. It was almost 7PM. The sun had set. The street light of the community failed to enter the tiny house. The room turned tense. I broke the silence. (I am translating the later part of the story)

“How are you, Bhaiyaa?” I asked him with a smile.

He looked from me to his wife to his kids, not saying a single word.

“I was waiting for you all this time, where were you?” I tried to sound casual.

“We are changing houses. I went to see it” He smiled back.

I suddenly spotted the prominent cut marks on his hands.

“What happened, Bhaiyaa? You got hurt, Didi here is also hurt!” I was trying my best to stay calm. I knew those marks were from the Police Station.

“We met with an accident yesterday, scooty accident.”

“Well, the marks seem to have dried. Was it yesterday or a few days back?”

My mind was functioning on an automated mode. His smile faded a little, but he caught on. I heard Soniya’s mother telling something to him in Assamese.

“Well,” he said, “Maybe a couple of days back”

“Oh. What had happened exactly?”

“Well, there was a sudden bend and both of us fell.”

“That’s weird, how did she get hurt on the left side and you on your right hand?”

A part of me wanted the other part to shut up but it was too late. I was not a detective.

“It was a bad accident, that’s all”

“Did you go to the doctor? This could be a serious damage.”

Suddenly his face changed.

“How much do you know?”

I was taken aback. “About what?”

He clenched his teeth. How much of everything do you know?”

His eyes narrowed and I saw his nostrils flaring up.

“I don’t really know, you said there was an accident…”

“Soniya’s mother told me that you know everything. You are lying to me. Stop lying.”

I froze on the spot. She made me promise to not tell him anything and she told him that I knew? What was she trying to do here? What would I do? None of my friends or colleagues knew where I was. Some of my students knew, at the max. My heart rate shot up. I knew there was no point lying at his face.

“I know her side of the story,” I was hardly breathing, “I want to know your side”

The other man was standing at the corner of the room, heating something on the gas. I asked the kids to leave us alone. They waited outside. Soniya’s father got up all of a sudden and opened the door of the refrigerator with such force that I half expected him to pull out a revolver. He pulled out a large bottle of water and gave me a furious look. A part of me got ready to defence, expecting the bottle to be hurled at me. He looked away, drank a little water and kept the bottle aside.

I came to the point.

“Soniya calls me Didi and it means a lot to me. She is my sister and I am not letting her go.”

A flood broke inside me. I don’t remember standing up for anyone the way I did for her. Memories hit me hard. Had I told the same statement to another man two years back, I could have saved a life. I could not save her. I got a second chance. This time I’d do anything to protect this sister of mine.

The next half an hour was something I’d never forget.

I pleaded. He resisted. I requested. He resisted. He tried to prove how horrible his wife was.

“I had fought with the entire clan just to marry her. We eloped, they chased me. I hid, I ran, I protected her, I trusted her and now….this?”

I was silent.

“They are still your family. After everything you did to her mother, Soniya still loves you. She wants you all to stay together, as one, that’s it.”

“I should just not see her, I am so angry!”

He raised his hand and overcome by some sudden reflex action, I held his wrist. My frail fingers couldn’t even hold his entire wrist and he looked at me. I wished I were dead. Even if he hurt me and I screamed, no one would come and save me.

He held my wrist fair and square.

“Please,” I didn’t know what else to say, “Don’t take my sister away from me. You, of all people, know how much you matter to me as well.”

He let me go.

“Trust them once again and trust me, everything will be fine. Soniya will look after you one day. She will be the bread earner of the family, helping you, helping her younger brothers”

We spoke for what seemed like ages.

“Will you give them a chance, just one more time?”

I waited with bated breathe.

Thik hai,” he replied calmly. “Bas aapne bola isliye”

It was almost 9PM by my watch. I clicked a family picture of all of them together and promised to give them a copy. I stood out of the house and the neon lights washed over me. I felt very tired but a strange calmness filled me.

I didn’t know if I was ready for the challenge. I didn’t know if Soniya would turn up for school the next day. Everything in her life was so brittle. Desperately I wanted the glass dream to stay, the family to reunite.

January 2017.

I met Soniya’s parents at 6:50am. They had come to drop the kids to school. I waved to them, they waved back and in all the smiles everything seemed ok.

“When are you coming home?” his father asked with a smile.

“Soon,” I smiled back.

Published by Leena Bhattacharya

A researcher who finds solace in social work

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