Ahana looked up at the judge. She was a senior woman, about sixty years into her time on Earth, with kind eyes, which crinkled around the corners of her eyes whenever she looked at the girl. Ahana was too scared to look away from the judge and towards the large crowd which had gathered for her case; she knew that the whole world had their opinions on her life, but there she sat, in front of lawyers, clerks and a whole courtroom of unknown people, holding in her words the fate of her happiness and love. So, instead of looking back at the anxious adults, she looked down at the blue dress she was wearing. She almost laughed at the irony of it. Blue used to be her favourite colour. When she was younger, her mother used to dress her only in blue. She said that it complimented her skin and fragility, so, naturally she turned to love everything that was blue, and in the bustling city of Delhi, the only thing that she found was the sky. For some reason that comforted her, a shade so rich that it seemed to hold all of the secrets of the world, so endless that it appeared to envelop the earth repeatedly, so thick that it seemed to drown the clouds. It was something eternal but new at the same time. And that’s exactly how she felt now. The deja vu was kicking in, and the pain was too. And in the end, she was alone, sitting in that chair, feeling the eyes on her; she wanted to just melt away and leave her blue dress as a witness to the crime committed.
Ahana did not utter a word on the stand that day. The judge, feeling sorry for the poor child, told her to speak in court in two weeks, so Ahana went home, alone in her fancy car, to her big house. She sat down to do her homework, craving some sense of normalcy in her recently disrupted life. A loud bang on her desk refused her that opportunity.
She looked up to see her mother's eyes angry and brows joined.
"Ahana, what was that you pulled in court today? I thought you said you wanted to stay with me. Is this a ploy of your father? Tell me, I will —” she began, acutely descending into a more frantic tone.
"I'm sorry, it’s not I promise. I won’t— calm down" Ahana was now at her mother's side and was comforting her.
“I can’t lose you," she said between sobs, “I can’t."
Ahana tightened her grip on her mother and led her to her bed. She slowly lay her mother's head down on her lap and drew comforting spirals on her back. Soon the sobs subsided, and her mother's head shifted from her lap to a pillow, and her mind from distress to the comforts of sleep.
Ahana escaped her large house and the confusing turns life now threw at her by climbing the stairs to her terrace and proceeding upon an iron ladder to a small opening on her roof. It was big enough for her to stretch out the toes but small enough to limit its inhabitance to just her. It was her haven. She found it when a neighbour's cat wound up on her roof and was unable to come down. Ahana had offered to help, and as she tread carefully, on the red-tiled roof, placing her feet only on the tiles which didn't shake, she accidentally stumbled into this abandoned shelter. She had now brought a blanket and pillow to improve her comfort so that she could stay there for a more extended period. Once again returned to her refuge, Ahana smiled as her longing eyes absorbed the city before her.
Delhi was a different city; for as long as she could remember, she was there, yet her physical immobility couldn’t stop her mind from travelling to extraordinary places, some as a result of wondrous writing, some as a result of monotonous classes, and even though her body always stayed with the imaginary walls of the city, she felt like an adventurer. But through her life, she had only known this one city; a city she could still not understand. It was an illusion; huge skyscrapers and monuments blended in a beautiful sort of harmony, almost trapping the people like the gates of a menagerie. As she looked at the colourful people speak their even more colourful words that is what she thought of: a menagerie. It was and is a city full of borders and cages, as the prisons of an archaic mindset blend with the distaste for modern lifestyles, the people in Delhi lie in the peculiar place between the need for modernity and tradition, and even as their lives change, as the cars get fancier and the clothes get expensive, their tastes still seem rooted in traditional memories. Delhi is one of those places that the higher you go, the murkier it gets; it's where the betrayal starts and the blood runs free. So many of Ahana’s friends had broken families, where the mother or father decided the regular lives weren’t their cup of tea and broke free from the societal expectations to create their own paths. These actions would have been perfectly fine if they hadn’t had this epiphany during their mid-forties, but many people seem to think that if they walk away from the world that they built, that it won’t come crashing down. In a society which dictates men to be the rock in families and women to be its love and breath, it is beyond reason for people think they can walk away without causing significant psychological damage to both their children and their spouse. Ahana shook her head. Somehow she always ended up in this scenario; thinking of the abandoned children in luxurious cars and big homes. Thinking of all that happens when a father decides to walk out, and how she was that child. She was the child whose father left, and mother snapped. And now she was that child, stuck in a custody battle, hurting the two people she loved.
Her father was a smart man, or at least that’s what she chose to remember of him. He used to work late hours in an office an hour away and used to be home one day in the week. Her mother, submerged in blissful marital life, used to while away time in the kitchen, kneading and frying, constantly humming a slow but peaceful melody, an important part of her very repetitive schedule, which began anew every day. She began by waking up to the quiet chirps of the parrots in the trees outside the house and performing the pertinent tasks to what society deems to be necessary of a married woman. She then awakened Ahana from her sleep and dressed her in the dull cloth which adorned her body every day; she then rose her father, prepared their meals and disposed of them through the bus and car respectively, and retreated into her home, her haven, for the day. She was then thrust out of her homely duties when Ahana’s voice came echoing through the front door, signalling her arrival. What followed was Ahana’s mother and Ahana jousting back and forth on whether to study or play. When her father returned home, Ahana found herself back in the charmed circle of love and appreciation, or what some people call family. It was one night during a rare dinner, one of the times where Ahana saw both her parents together, when her father got a phone call. She had gotten so excited seeing her parents together that throughout the dinner that she kept gulping down water so that her parents wouldn’t talk to her but to each other. She had almost swallowed down a bottle of water. She understood her mistake towards the end of her meal when had to run to the bathroom; however, the bathroom was the very place her father had escaped to receive that phone call. She was too afraid to knock, not wanting to spoil this wonderful moment she had been trapped in, so she sat there, unknowingly eavesdropping, listening to her father talking to another woman about how he will leave his family for her— tonight. When his voice said the final words and the call ended, Ahana heard the door creak open; she knew that she should run into another room, that her father would be angry, but she just sat there in silence, staring at the white door, paralysed by the thought of what was to come.
Ahana’s father opened the door to see his little girl look up at him with big, black eyes which were now filled with glistening liquid. He knew that one wrong move would cause them to burst and so, in the fatherly fashion, he picked her up and set her down in his lap. He didn’t want his last words to his daughter to be a lie, so he slowly uttered, “I love you, but I think it’s time for me to love me too. Do you think I deserve happiness?”
Ahana slowly nodded. He kissed her forehead, led her into her room and tucked her into her bed. She saw his shadow leave in the flimsy illuminance of her nightlight. She heard her father and mother talk, which was getting more frantic and agitated by the minute until she heard her mother scream; it was heart-wrenchingly terrifying, but she couldn’t move. She lay there, hearing her mother plead and beg for her father and their love until she heard the slam of the front door and the sobs suddenly subsiding. Ahana, whose immobility had been lifted by the need to know if her mother was alright, hurriedly rose to see what had happened.
But what she arrived to was utterly sickening. All she saw was red. Red was flowing from her mother’s hands; red was adorning the white tiled floor; red was littering the broken glass ornament; red was staining her eyes. It was almost as if red was the emotion painting the walls of the house with her father’s unfaithfulness and mother’s revenge. And there lay her mother, on the living room floor, bathed in glass and bleeding from her wrists. Even though her mother lay still as if her pure soul had finally received that serene ending it deserved, her chest was still rising with every shaking breath, and the blood around began to engulf her completely. Ahana didn’t know whether to scream or cry and settled for a mix of both. She ran to the dining table where her mother’s phone lay and with her trembling hands and shivering voice, she called the police. Within ten minutes, the red and blue lights surrounded her as she and her mother’s body were placed in an ambulance.
She barely remembers what happened after that. All she knows is that this man, her mother’s brother, showed up to the hospital the day after the incident, and took all responsibility for his sick sister and her poor, unfortunate daughter. So Ahana returned to her big house, holding the hand of her uncle, not her father, and thus began the life of misery and grief she lives now. She couldn’t call her father and tell him of the incident, her mother forbade her to. So sitting her place in the roof, her haven, she sometimes remembers what had happened on that fateful night. The night that changed it all. While her mind wanders back into her memories, the eternal blue sky in front of her unseeing eyes had turned and orangish-red and the big yellow sun that was transforming its hue to blood red was almost waving goodbye. It was when the blue disappeared, and the red came in, that her uncle would return home; the roaring red car that pulled up in the driveway signalled just that. Ahana carefully scaled down the ladder and had just landed on the terrace as her uncle entered the house. She silently walked back to her room, where her mother was still sleeping; now, the frantic pain from her face had disappeared, almost as if it was replaced with a blank filler, and returned to doing her homework.
She heard her uncle’s expensive shoes tapping the titles of the staircase as he ascended, approaching her room. She listened to the customary knock, which didn't mean anything because he would enter anyway, and saw her uncle step into the room. Through the corner of his eye, he noticed Ahana’s mother laying on her bed and immediately understood what happened. He slowly picked up the sleeping woman and took her to her room. There he lay her on the bed. She stirred a little and opened her eyes.
“Oh, your back! Finally, I thought you, Ahana and I could go shopping or something.” Her voice was tired and excited at the same time.
“Sure” he replied, “but just drink some water first, you seem like you slept for a while.”
He helped her into a sitting position and handed her a glass. Ahana’s mother gulped it down and was soon lying down again, knocked out cold.
Ahana saw this exchange from the sliver between the door and the frame; once again, her mother would be out until the sun rose tomorrow. Her uncle began to rise from the bed, and she ran towards her room. This time when she sat to do her homework, she did it. Suddenly, she was powering through her homework as if it was a race and her life depended on winning it, and in some twisted way it did, because when her uncle stepped into the room and saw Ahana furiously writing at her desk, he quietly stepped out. When the door clicked shut, Ahana breathed a sigh of relief. Soon, Ahana was roused from her homework, which was now classified as scribbling whenever she heard footsteps, as the maid had prepared her dinner. She sat patiently beside her uncle and ate her dinner. She finished before him and sprinted back, towards her room and, once again, to the chair she had left moments ago.
But her uncle began walking towards her room, this time no amount of work would stop him from doing what he wanted. His footsteps echoed in her ears, and when he clutched her doorknob her ears almost bled; he entered her room slowly, and she felt her shoulders tense up. She felt his breath on her neck. His breath was followed by his salty lips. Her back arched at his touch. Not from dust but disgust. But his hands were already around her waist. He picked her from her chair and threw her on her bed. As he unbuckled his belt, she turned her head, so her view was in line with the window. She saw the orange sky and red moon as her uncle began what had now become a daily affair. As the wind howled outside her window, her mind howled as he defiled her, and her body, too young to know any better, accepted it. In this one hour, she was not his sister’s child, but she was his. His touch left her burnt as if her pure skin was trying to set alight the unholy, damnable touch the serpent left behind, and her tired lungs were begging her to stand up and say something, and as he began to ravish her, she felt pain sliver up from her abdomen. Soon it was all she could feel, and lately its all she ever felt. Because after he thrust the final time, and the last button was fastened on his shirt, he would leave her room and with glistening eyes and a satisfied smile to retreat to his bedroom to have a shower, to wash away any evidence; and she was left with a punishment worse than death. Ahana knew she had to wash it all off, but when she entered the small bathroom, she fell to a corner. She didn’t cry. She had done nothing wrong, but still, her body ached. Every breath she drew against her bruised chest threatened to leave her tired body. But her uncle was careful. Since he began, since the day after he entered her life, he made sure that no one would notice. There were no bruises on her neck, face or arms, simply where her clothes covered her skin. But in the naked light of her bathroom, each bloody bruise came alight. She could see her skin blend into the red, an emotion which once again plagued her; it felt as if her body was a canvas, and he the painter; and when she began to wash her skin, the touch he left didn’t leave. It clung to her skin tighter than the clothes her put on her back, and it was a price she paid every day when another bruise joined the rest. Sometimes she wished her scars were only physical, so people could see them fade, see her heal; but what he did was so much more. Her eyes were filled with constant fear, her mind was filled with demons, and her innocence was long gone, just like her father and her mother’s sanity.
Ahana stepped out of the shower and into new clothes, just like the multiple times she had done, but that night she fell into a deep sleep which could only be compared to her mother's. She was awakened by her maid the next day who ushered her to be appropriately dressed for her school and sent her off before her mother even woke up. But for Ahana, school wasn’t the same any more. The more time she spent in school was more time she spent thinking, and that was more time she spiralled down the rabbit hole into a frenzy of dark thoughts. And that wasn’t it. People were beginning to notice the fact that she had changed. Most of her friends held her hands and told her the stories about how their father or mother left them and that it was all going to be okay; some part of her wanted it to be true, but she knew that it wasn’t. It was during the middle of the school day that the school councillor excused her out of her English class and requested her presence at her office. She questioned Ahana on her newly emerged dark circles and alarming behaviour. Through her words, the councillor was immediately able to detect something was wrong, but due to the absence of visible scars, on her wrists or arms, she was unable to help her administratively; however, she did give Ahana the rest of the day off.
So there Ahana was, walking home at one o’clock, expecting to find a quiet house, but what she found was the opposite. She entered to what she knew was a screaming fiesta: her mother and uncle were howling at each other over a very serious topic. It did take her too long to understand that the topic was her. She carefully walked to her mother’s room, the grand venue for this event, to hear more about what was happening. But as she walked towards her room, she heard the noise subside; all she was able to see was her mother, while sobbing, signing a document. Then she knocked. She didn’t know herself why she did it. But she knocked. Her uncle and mother looked towards her in surprise, and she stood there, defiantly staring back at them. Her mother tried to smile, but it looked more like a grimace; her uncle didn’t even try. He simply stood, with his signed document, and walked out of the room. Her mother was barely able to get up and limped over to her. She held Ahana’s face in her hands and kissed her forehead.
“I love you, my angel.”
She ushered Ahana out the door and closed it. No one even questioned why Ahana was home at that time.
So Ahana walked back into her room and stared at the wall for a few moments; as her attention shifted to the sky, she felt herself calm down. But before she could begin to lose herself, she heard her mother screaming.
She ran to her room. It was locked. She banged at the door again and again, and now her uncle was there too. He got some chair and broke the door. Ahana looked at the sight before her in complete pain. There was a single rope on the fan which was around her mother’s throat. Her mother was hanging three feet above the ground from her neck. Her face was white. This time, there was no blood and no hope.
For her mother’s funeral, she wore white. Now she understood why they wore it. When a person dies, the blood drains from their body, leaving them white and frail. At least this time, she could see her mother in a better place, away from all who wounded her while she was on Earth. This time when she wore the white sari, with rose petals in her hair, she looked like her previous self, the one before her husband left. And when Ahana set her mother alight, she felt it. Her mother was going to be happy, and that made up for all the pain she felt.
Her father didn’t come to the funeral, but another man did. He was tall and lean, with a wispy black beard and piercing eyes. He wasn’t looking at her mother’s body. He was looking at Ahana. But he wasn’t there in the line of guests who gave their condolences as they left, so Ahana assumed he was not a relative. She boarded the car back to her house with her uncle, her only guardian. That night she feared for the worst. She felt her fight go away and her mind break apart. She had nothing left to fight for and no reason to be silent. So for the first time, she didn’t even try to seem busy in the hope of him coming back later but just lay there on her bed, at seven thirty on the day of her mother’s funeral waiting for her uncle to finish what he wanted her for. And he did. This time it was worse. He was slapping her and pulling her hair. But this time, she screamed.
It went on longer than she expected. He was about to start again when she heard a loud noise followed by an empty space above her. She was momentarily shocked by the man pulling her uncle off her.
It was her father.
He proceeded to punch her uncle until his face was as bruised as her chest and thighs. Her uncle was bleeding from his lips and nose, and his eyes were black and sagging.
“Stop,” she cried, “Please, stop.”
She didn’t stay long enough to see him get arrested. Her father took her to his apartment that night and gave her good food and a warm bed. While they were eating, what she assumed to be the night before’s leftover meal, she asked him a single question.
“Will he go to jail?”
Ahana’s father almost broke. She understood that it was his fault, only his fault. He didn’t only leave his wife but he also left his daughter. If he hadn’t left, the man would not have come in her life, and she would not be sitting here, maybe broken beyond repair, having suffered something he couldn’t even imagine. So he sat there, not eating a bite but rather watching his daughter and the red bruising around her neck, wondering if he could ever be forgiven. So, he did what he was supposed to and tucked his daughter to bed. He then called his lawyer and asked him to send that bloody uncle to the depths of hell he came from. Therefore, next day Ahana, her father and his lawyer went to the police station expecting to give their statement to help imprison her uncle.
Instead, they found out that he wasn’t there; that night when the police were called, they found no one at home and assumed it to be a prank call and left. And there was nothing more to say. The person who had raped her walked free, and even though her father’s lawyer filed for him to be found, Ahana left the police station understanding the meaning of powerless. Power was something she never had. She didn’t have it when her father left. She didn’t have it when her mother hurt herself. She didn’t have it when her uncle raped her. She didn’t have it when her mother killed herself. She didn’t have it now. This revelation didn’t help her but instead pushed her down a rabbit hole. She didn’t talk or eat that much. She could barely sit in class, amongst the staring gazes of her classmates; she became a shell: she was empty within.
This all changed three months later when her father received a phone call saying that her assaulter had been caught 'fleeing' the country. Ahana and her father rushed to the police station, where he was being held, to finally give their statement. She imagined this moment in her head: how would it feel to see the man who violated her behind bars. She was almost shaking the entire time she was there and when an officer asked for her to confirm it was the man, she felt that surge of power course through her veins. She finally had the upper hand. A single word from her would imprison him forever.
But when she looked behind the bars, she thought it was some sickening prank. The man in the cage was not her uncle. In fact, she knew who it was. It was the man who attended her mothers funeral. The man with the wispy beard and piercing eyes. She looked towards her father confused, but he seemed satisfied.
“He is the man for sure.” Said he father.
“No, he is not.”
The police station got so silent that Ahana could hear every breath.
“What do you mean?” her father asked, “That is your mother’s brother.”
The man was left free as Ahana began a hysterical fit: she began screaming, as loud as her lungs allowed her, that he was not that man. Not that man who violated her, not the man who unleashed the beasts within her. For some reason, the police officers thought it best to release the imprisoned man at that time, hoping it would calm down the girl. Everything that happened next happened in a blur. The man with the beard, her mother's real brother, walked up to her in a what seemed like forever in the eyes of the people watching. He grabbed her shoulders to stop her from shaking violently. His raspy voice filled the room.
"My sister wasn't a strong woman. Through her life, she relied on other people. First, it was our father; then it became her husband, then it became you. But you, you aren't like that. In you I find a different drive: you never let anyone define your life for you. What some would consider being worse than death you took with such rare strength it is impossible to put into words." He brought his eyes to her level, "Be proud that you survived this and still emerged more of a woman that your mother ever was. No matter what happens today, that man will pay for what he did."
His words gave her momentary comfort, but as the days crept by, she barely slept at night, as her dreams began turning into nightmares. The dark circles under her eyes began to stand out against her skin, claiming, for everyone who could see, her uneasy nights. Her father was fighting a different fight. Every day he went to his company's main office. Every day he sat in the empty reception while big men in fancy coats frolicked around. Every day he had to see the face of a receptionist who was told to send him away. Every day he was treated as someone of lower stance in a place where no one cared, all so his little girl could live a better life. Every day he did this until finally, about five months after he rescued her on that fateful night, the person in charge allowed a meeting. Her father begged for a transfer. He didn't care if it was in some small village in a rural state or a fancy city, all he wanted was to get out of this city which was suffocating his family in more ways than one. His dedication was so touching that his boss looked towards his own sweet little girls, smiling perfectly in the frame on his desk. He stamped the transfer form and within an hour Ahana's father found himself in front of a pensive young girl trying to explain what he just did.
"My company has offered me a position in a different city. It's really important for me to take this job, but I want you to know that it's your choice."
He let her ponder, thinking it would take her least a few days for her to decide to uproot her life and start anew. But her response came quite quickly.
"You know Dad," came the response from the girl, "For the first time yesterday I understood the meaning of colours. I was with my therapist, and she asked me to find a colour I associated with my childhood. I remembered blue. I remembered how the pure and innocent blue I wore as a young girl had been splattered with red; how it had consumed me and it was all I could see."
She stopped for a second, almost lost in thought because for her red was her sin. Red stood out in the transcript of her life in bold slashes. Red stood out on her body in bold marks. Red stood out in her words like warning flags. It was all she could see, but more importantly, it was all everyone else could see.
"You must be asking why this matters. Because I am sick of being defined by everything that has happened here. No one looks at me for who I am but for what other people have done. I need this new start."
Ahana's father was astounded by his little girl, and there she was, a young girl of sixteen, ready to start her life again.
They moved to a small city in the hills, with a population of sixty thousand. For the first time in a while, Ahana was looking forward to school and as she sat there, amongst fresh faces, all smiling at her and wanting to get to know her, she felt content.
Then her teacher turned.
It was him.