By: Sobia Abdin
I must have been holding the photograph for several minutes in my left hand, staring at it pensively, my head heavy with the weight of my thoughts. Ten years had elapsed since the photograph was taken. Lakshita was a little girl in the picture, smiling wildly at the colours and the life that surrounded her in the fair where I would always take her. And I stood next to her, holding her hand, taking care of her as I was supposed to like a teacher. I remember vividly every hour that I had spent teaching her, each mistake that I had patiently corrected, every formula that I had made her learn- all of it from the day I first saw her eleven years ago to the present moment where I stand with the knowledge that I might never see her again. So much had passed in the span of a decade that to recount to you my each memory of Lakshita, I would first have to sink in a chair and light a cigarette.
It was a Sunday morning when she first came to my house, a tiny girl of around eight or nine. It was the sound of her jumping trying to reach the doorbell that announced of her arrival. And what an innocent thing she was! I can never forget the expression on her face, an amalgamation of quietness and curiosity divided by a fine line of fear. She gazed intently on my nameplate, forming the letters of Sanjay Srivastava in the air with her small forefinger. Her big black eyes were lit by a flicker of hope which gave light to the dreams within them. When she spoke, her soft babyish voice was controlled and her words precise.
‘Namaste Sir ji. I am Lakshita. I live in the slums across the road. My mother works in the house next to yours. I wanted to ask you,’ she fidgeted with her skirt for a second before saying the next words, ‘if you can teach me? I mean for free. No! I mean if you have free time. But also for free like without money.’ A gush of pride crossed her face as she finished successfully what I guessed was a well-rehearsed monologue. She then stood there, giving me a nervous smile and an eager expression as if confident of a positive response. In the ten years that followed, I asked myself several times why I agreed to teach her. But I guess that is the one thing I cannot remember.
We slowly built a teaching routine. She would come to my house around four in the evening, wearing the same nervous smile and eager expression on her face. By that time I had returned from my school, eaten and rested and she was free from her shift at a tea shop where she cleared tables and washed dishes. I would teach her for two hours, sometimes less if I was bored or tired, and she always complained that why her being bored or tired was given less importance than mine. Then she would make tea for us, and we would sit and talk for hours on end. I would tell her stories from my childhood and school days and she told me stories about the people who came to have tea at her shop. She sometimes talked of her father, whatever little she remembered of him. We talked until her mother came to pick her up after having had finished her night shift in my neighbour’s house. And with a quick reminder of the homework I had assigned her, I would let her go.
The custom of going to the annual fair started on the day she turned eleven, when I took her there as a birthday surprise. By this time many other customs had swept into our routine. The one where Lakshita would make dinner for us every Sunday which we ate sitting at our usual spots, I on the sofa near the door of the apartment balcony and she on a wooden chair across the coffee table, was started by her to practice cooking. She would give me a list of the vegetables she needed on Saturday evenings and I would go to the market on Sunday mornings to buy them. I think I started the custom of lending her all the books in my personal library one by one and then discussing them after she finished reading. I was surprised at how quickly she had learnt to read and to encourage her I would sometimes take her to the bookshop in the city. I remember once when she climbed up a shelf and dropped a dozen books, the manager complained about her to me thinking that I was her father. (She was always dressed in the used but lovely clothes her mother’s mistress donated her).
But on that day, when the world looked at us as father and daughter, what did I know that a day like this would come. I distinctly remember the day it had happened on but what I cannot recall or understand is if it started on that day, or did it exist much before that and I simply became aware of it. It was around nine in the morning when Lakshita rang the bell of my house to find the door open. We were supposed to go submit the form for her to take her high school examinations privately. She found me sitting in my habitual place, in front of me on the coffee table was an ashtray full with freshly stubbed out cigarette buds. She came to the sofa and kneeled down beside me and I don’t know if it was the innumerable cigarettes I had smoked or the light that poured from the open balcony door, but at that moment, for the tiniest fraction of a second, Lakshita looked different than she normally appeared. She was no longer the little child who came to my house every evening to study. She was a young girl of fifteen who was here to give me solace and for the first time I saw everything about her in a completely new light. Her big eyes which I once thought resembled billiards balls, where once dreams inhabited were now brimming with the promise of sensuality. The innocence on her face had been replaced by a woman like glow and her tender dusky hands now shined like they were lined with stars. She had grown up, and I had noticed only now.
Without her even asking, I told her what had happened.
‘I had a fight with my wife.’
‘You have a wife!’ she sounded as astonished as she looked.
And then I told her everything. The things I had never spoken about with anyone, the days of my life I had forgotten having spent, the realities I denied existed. I told her how I met my wife Nazia in college, and how I fell in love with her. I told her how we bunked classes to meet in the cafeteria behind our college and how I was able to pass in the examinations only because she helped me. I told her how we eloped to get married, came to this city, started a new life, how Sheilja and Imran were born and then how slowly we fell out of love with each other, for the same reasons that had made us fall in love in the first place. I told her how we separated after seven years of marriage and Nazia moved back to the hometown of her parents, how my parents never forgave me for marrying her and I was not even allowed to visit them one last time before they died, and how my children never spoke to me because they considered me responsible for the separation and how I was guilty of having failed both as a son and a father. I told her how last night my daughter had called me to apologise, crying because she was scared that I might no longer wish to be her father. I cried with her until I heard Nazia’s voice shouting into the phone, asking me to stay away from my own kids. I looked at her and drew a deep breath as I finished telling her my story.
And then she began telling me her story, about how her father abandoned them when she was six year old, about how her mother cursed her every night for being a girl, about how men teased her at the eatery where she worked but she still woke up each morning to go there and clean tables, only because God had created a stomach that needed food instead of a heart that needed love, to survive. It was then that I learnt that behind every face is a story, inside every heart a wound and no two compare, and lingering behind, with every shadow is a truth too tormenting to look at.
This was the day when the truth of my life took shape which torments me as I tell you this story. From that instant onwards, I could never look at Lakshita and see the child I had taught. She was now a woman who was gently filling the void in my life, and I was a lonely man, twenty two years older than she was, a man who could have been her father but who was walking willingly towards the light that she emitted. And she was walking too but in another direction. She no longer looked at me like a teacher but she had taken my dirt smeared self and placed it on the pedestal that she had kept vacant for a father, an honour I did not deserve. Thus began the most persecuting and devastating four years of my life, years which I could have rather spent in hell.
For she came to my house every day like she had been coming for the last seven years, with books in her hands and a smile on her face. But now she also came with beautiful hair that caressed her ears and dupattas that hung around her exquisite bare neck. And I would sit there trying to focus on mathematical formulas and historical dates, fearful that she might read my devilish thoughts in my eyes and throw me down the fatherly pedestal, now standing on loose sand. I was stuck between the darkness of my shadow and the sacredness of my soul, between my empty human heart and the holy values of my role.
Today, when I tell you this story my heart aches for Lakshita and my mind curses me to die. She will be here in a few hours, ready to go to the fair with me, excited about riding a camel and buying bangles. But I will be gone when she comes, to another city, another life, remembering in my eyes the eight year old child and cherishing in my heart the gorgeous woman of nineteen, my Lakshita. I know I love her but not if I have sinned by doing so, for she is the beauty of my life. She is the dark truth lurking in my shadow that torments me and the dusky light of my soul. ‘I love her as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret, between the shadow and the soul.’