She was a beautiful child. Her face was as angelic as her nature. She did not know jealousy and during the days of my childhood in my step-father ‘s large palatial house, she was my only friend. She shared all that she had with me. Or rather, she tried to share. Her mother, actually I should say our mother, tried to keep her away from me. After all, I was only her half-sister. I was a creature of the wilderness. My skin was darker and I climbed trees like a monkey. In return for her niceties, I shared with her all the fruits from the trees I had rampaged. We were both very young then. She was five and I was ten. Our mother often caught us in the garden, rolling in the mud, stained with the colour of blackberries or devouring green mangoes. Of course, I was the one who always got punished. She was the apple of her father’s eyes. Who would dare touch her?
I often wonder if I loved Priya back then. I do not know. Do children love one another? Looking back on those years, I believe I treated her like the doll that was denied to me. I wanted to please her so she would grow to love me. I knew as early as then that Mother didn’t love me. My own father was twenty years older than her and I was born when she was barely eighteen. He had died in an accident before I was born and she caught the eye of an extremely rich man and they were married in no time. I was born six months after my mother’s marriage to her second husband. And Mother made it very clear that the man she had married was not mine to claim even if he was my father on paper.
I can still recall that particular day I was peeking out behind the living room door to watch the family tableau of father-mother-daughter and wishing I was a part of it too. Suddenly, Mother looked back and saw me. She hissed, “Go away. What are you doing here?”
Then Priya and her father turned too. Priya waved and laughed, “Come, Apu1. Can’t she come too, Abbu2?” Her smiling face was radiant with expectation as she looked at her father who also smiled back. “Yes, of course. Come along, Nara.”
Mother glowered, but at Priya’s insistence she agreed to let me join them all on the terrace. I did not sit with them at the tea table of course, but I did hang around them. I watched them contentedly as I had received more than I ever expected.
That was, however, only the beginning.
Up until this moment I only wished that he was my father too. But Mother always made sure that I remembered my place. I was always the other sister, the other daughter, the other girl in the family. From that moment onward, I walked behind Priya as her shadow, taking care of her needs. She depended on me as if I was a second mother. I believe she loved me too because she knew that nobody else loved her as much as I did.
I remember the wedding ceremony of Atushi. Atushi was Priya’s cousin, the only daughter of Farzand Fuppi. Priya was of course, as lovely as a rose. She wore a pink lehenga embroidered with seed pearls. It was outrageously expensive, as her parents always made sure that she had the best of everything. She was still a young girl of thirteen but it was I, the eighteen-year-old Nara, who caused a stir that evening. I was dressed in a peacock blue lehenga that my step-father almost bullied my mom into getting for me.
“I won’t have one daughter wearing the most expensive clothes and another dressed like a pauper,” he had bellowed.
Mother protested, “Nara’s not your daughter.”
He roared, “She’s mine as much as Priya. Don’t you ever say she’s not my daughter.”
Mother cringed and turned pale as a waif. She tried to say something, but could not form a single syllable.
Some young male cousins of Priya were blown away by our entrance and a female relative sneered, “Goodness gracious! Look at Nara! She just sailed in! Fayaz Uncle will have a Draupadi3 in his hands in no time.” I felt overjoyed. As I turned to look at my mother and Priya, I saw contrasting emotions. Priya was beaming, my darling sweet sister. But in mother’s eyes, I saw panic. She looked like a terrified deer and clung to Priya. I could not understand why she was so afraid of her very own daughter. But I was naïve, and I did not know the world as she did. Nor did I know the darkest secret she held in her heart.
They called me princess. From my childhood I was pampered like one and my mother guarded over me with utmost care. I was an only child and the doctors had said that my mother could not bear another. But then I also had Nara Apu, even though everybody called her my half-sister. Technically, she was my half-sister since we had different fathers. Mother always made it clear that she did not care for her at all. And she disliked her even more because I loved her to distraction. In that palace-like prison, she was the only person who truly cared for me. Love shone in her eyes like a beacon and I cannot help wondering how Nara Apu, who got so little love herself, could love me with such abundance.
She had a dark complexion, which made her all the more beautiful. Her eyes were like pools of black water, the only feature she had inherited from our mother. My eyes are of a greenish hue, the eyes that came from my father’s side of the family. When we were children, Father was kind of indifferent toward Nara Apu. But Apu had such an unselfish disposition that it was difficult to remain unresponsive towards her. And even though my father was a busy man, he did notice how much she cared for me. His attitude towards her changed slowly.
And there was that one time when she practically saved my life. I jumped into the lake after being goaded by some of my cousins, even though I did not know how to swim. I realised how stupid this was as I gulped down water and I saw my two dumb cousins standing by the shore, gaping at me in horror. I heard a piercing cry and I sensed it was my mother and then there were several splashes. Someone grabbed me by the hand, “Don’t cling on to me,” they said. “Just hold on to my hands.” I flailed and splashed and cried. Then a pair of stronger hands got a hold of me.
As I was lying in bed later with Mother crying beside me, I came to know that I had two saviours—Nara Apu and Shahnewaz Uncle. It was Nara Apu who had reached me first, and Shahnewaz Uncle, a few seconds later had grabbed us both and brought us ashore. From that day, everybody knew that Nara and Priya belonged together.
By the time she was fifteen, Abbu made sure that Mother was not mistreating the daughter from her first marriage. I heard him telling her once, “Salma, do you consider me such a petty creature that I would be jealous of that slip of a girl? You don’t have to treat her so badly, you know, to prove that you love Priya more.”
Mother wept and I could see she was disturbed. But she never really loved Nara. That was a mystery I never understood until years later.
I also formed a close bond with Shahnewaz Uncle. He lived in the same house, but he was always busy painting. He was Abbu’s younger brother, but they were not very close. But he did notice me and sometimes patted me on the head. After this particular incident, he started taking an interest in both me and Nara. He brought us licorice of different shapes and flavours and other delicacies. My favourite was orange, while Apu liked peppermint. He laughed at her, “What an old woman you are!” Nara Apu made faces at him and grinned impishly.
During these times, I also started to note that Mother was actually afraid of Nara Apu. It did not make sense to me at all. But whenever Apu was around either Abbu or Shahnewaz Uncle, she would fidget uncomfortably and say nasty things. Once I heard her grumbling to herself that Nara Apu was out to entice men. Poor Apu was only sixteen years old at that time. Then on her nineteenth birthday Mother suggested that Nara Apu should get married to Rabbi, a poor relative who worked in our village estate. When Abbu realised that she was serious, he suddenly went very quiet. He said in a very low voice, “If you ever utter such nonsense, or if I ever hear that you’ve initiated something like that, I will have you drowned. Daughters of my family don’t marry servants. And from today, she is mine. Forget that you ever gave birth to her, you wretched woman.”
I don’t know what came over her, but Mother fainted.
Mother was always a trouble-maker. In those days I could never understand why she hated me so. Our father (I had started calling him Baba at some point; I did not call him Abbu though) was away on a business trip. And that is when I discovered a terrible secret. I never knew the whole story but I can still recall the strange conversation that night when Priya was burning up with a high fever. I had fallen asleep on the sofa in Priya’s room and the words streamed into my consciousness:
“All these years, I’ve waited. I’ve waited for him to die. Is there nothing you can do? Priya will always be known as someone else’s daughter.” I heard the muffled sound of a woman weeping. She whimpered as she said, “And I have to remember all the time that the child that is legitimate is actually the result of rape. I…I…can never love Nara…I was young and I didn’t want her…I hated that man…why couldn’t she die at birth? Why didn’t you let her die?”
I went numb with pain. Until that moment I had resented the fact that my mother never loved me. There in that nightmarish darkness, in a semi-conscious state, I learnt the nature of the relationship that existed between my mother and father. I knew of course, that he was a lot older than she was. But I never knew that she was married off to him because he had raped her.
Then I heard the voice of a man. The voice was sad but steady, “He’s the rightful son of my father, Salma. I cannot do anything. Even if he dies, I won’t inherit the family property. My mother was only my father’s mistress, you know. Fayaz Bhaiya has been generous enough to let me live here. If his mother were alive, he would never be able to do so. You already know that. And Priya has to be recognised as his daughter, otherwise she will get nothing either.”
I was so shocked that a tiny sound escaped my mouth, and my mother was by my side within a moment. In that semi-dark room, I saw her dark eyes filled with sheer terror. And I knew that a woman in her predicament would not allow anything or anyone to get between herself and the object of her desire. I pretended that I had had a bad dream about Priya. Then we both ran towards Priya’s bed.
A week later, before Priya had completely recovered, Mother fell down the stairs and was killed. A lot of things started to fall in place. Since she could not have any more children she was very protective and possessive about Priya. She had no choice but to pass her off as the daughter of her husband. She also wanted to remain the wife of the man who was as rich as a king. She had nowhere to go. The man she loved, she could not have. And the other daughter—me—was the child she never wanted. My father, she never loved. Poor woman! What a life!
It was strange in the house after that—two brothers grieving for the woman they both loved. Shahnewaz Uncle seemed to have grown old suddenly. He reminded me of Tithonus bereft of his Dawn. And our step-father seemed distant and gloomy like a thunderstorm. Yes, that’s how I started thinking. He was as much Priya’s father as he was mine. Somehow, the running of the household fell into my hands and Priya became my shadow. She grew to be afraid of the dark. She saw Mother’s shadow in the darkness and I started sleeping in her room. We grew closer than ever. That’s the time when I learnt to love her truly, like my very own sister, without the slightest trace of jealousy.
I saw the woman in a shroud for the first time about two weeks after Mother died. She was sitting in the veranda in the evening. I called out to her without thinking and when she turned toward me, I shuddered because she had no face. I knew she was a woman. I heard a piercing scream and when two arms gathered around me, I realised that it was Nara Apu and that I had screamed. I think I fainted and when I woke up, I was in my bed and Apu was sitting by my side, her eyes clouded with concern.
“I saw her, Apu,” I whispered. “I think I saw Ma.”
Apu’s face paled, but she shushed me, “You saw nothing, darling. It was just a shadow. And don’t worry, I’m here. I’ll take care of everything.”
But I saw the woman again a few days later. She was watering the plants on the rooftop at the break of dawn. I saw her from my window and I knew it was her. Why was she haunting me? And why did nobody else see her?
Nara Apu made sure I was always surrounded by people after that, especially in the evening. At night, she slept in my room. Initially, she slept in a cot, but later at my insistence, she slept in the same bed with me. During those days, Nara Apu was strong. She carried herself with grim determination; she protected me like a warrior-princess. I felt safe when she was around. During the day, things were normal, but as soon as darkness crept in, a feeling of fear rose in my heart. I was afraid of shadows. I realised I had to let Nara Apu in. But how to tell her? I could not give away my secrets; hence I told her only what I could.
That night when we were getting ready for bed, I caught her by the hand and whispered, “Apu, I have to tell you something. Have you seen Shahnewaz Uncle’s mother?”
Nara Apu stared at me in incomprehension.
“I saw her picture in his closet. He said it was a picture of his mother.”
Apu got up very slowly and sat down again. And then she said even more slowly, “She…was…drowned…in a…pond, they say. I wonder…”
I stuttered, “Nara Apu, she looks exactly like…me.”
Nara Apu did not say anything, but just looked at me. And I realised with a jolt that she knew. When did she find out? How come she was still protecting me?
I burst into tears and she held me close like she always did. “Shush, shush, my pretty. You’re safe with me. No one can harm you when I’m here. Shush…” What if she knew the truth? Could she bear it? Could I handle it if she did not?
I had to be strong and brave for Priya’s sake. I could not tell her what Baba had told me. Sometimes I wonder how it was that my own mother never loved me, but I received so much love from a complete stranger. No, I am not talking about Priya, I mean Baba. That rainy afternoon when he called me to his study, haunts me still.
He was standing by the window watching the rain. When I entered, he asked me to take a seat. He did not look at me when he spoke:
“Nara. I have some things to tell you.”
I waited patiently.
“We’re in a strange situation here, are we not? Your mother has died and you are stuck within the walls of a strange house with people whose ties to each other are even stranger.”
I shuffled uneasily. What was he saying? What was he referring to?
“This is a big house. Do you know that the walls have ears?” he continued “There are many secrets this house holds and even I don’t know them all.” Here he turned to look at me. He had smoky eyes—eyes he inherited from his mother. He was a very handsome man even though he was in his mid-fifties. He sighed and said, “I know who Priya is.”
I almost jumped out of my seat and knew my face had lost its colour.
He shook his head. “I have known it for quite some time now. Priya looks a lot like Shahnewaz’s mother. I had not realised when she was younger, but as she is growing, I’ve noticed the resemblance.”
I sat trembling. Was he planning to punish us? Why was he telling me all this?
“Sit, Nara. I am not going to hurt you or Priya for something your mother did.”
A terrible suspicion started to creep into my mind. “Did…you? You didn’t kill her, right?” the words tumbled out of my mouth.
He looked at me sadly, “I did not kill her.” He paused and searched my face. “But why do you ask that, Nara? Your mother died in an accident, did she not?”
I remained silent.
“Nara, I want you to know that I have drawn up documents with my lawyers and divided my property equally between you and Priya. Both of you are my daughters, mind you. I do not care who the birth fathers are, I recognise you as my children. And I want you to take care of Priya, no matter what.” He paused again and asked, “Do you understand?”
I nodded mutely. Then I asked, “But why? I mean, are you going somewhere?”
He seemed lost in thought. But then he raised himself out of his reverie and smiled, “I guess, you can say that.” He paused and then added, “You can trust Shahnewaz. Like me, he loves both of you. I believe that he loves you even more because you are not his child. He has no hold over you and yet he owes you for saving his daughter’s life.” At that moment I realised how much he loved us both. I felt for this man who was more than a father to us, even though he was not our father.
As I was walking out of the room he called out to me, “You’re strong, Nara. Far stronger than any of us. You’ll survive.”
Nara & Priya
There was total chaos in the family after Fayaz Chowdhury’s disappearance. The bulk of the property was left to Nara and Priya with Shahnewaz Chowdhury as their legal guardian. Neither Nara, nor Priya could claim their share until their 25th birthdays. If either of them died before that, their share would pass on to Shahnewaz. Fayaz Chowdhury’s sisters could not make head or tail of their brother’s wishes. Why did he leave half of his property to Nara? Even though she was adopted, she was not related to him by blood. Naturally, none of them could accept that she had suddenly been elevated to the status of a princess.
Priya’s problem at this point was that she still saw the shadow of a woman periodically. But by now, they had both accepted that Priya would keep on seeing her. She became more and more dependent on Nara.
On that particular afternoon, Nara was making tea in the veranda. Priya was sitting on the small sofa, “Apu, do you know that you are the most beautiful girl that ever lived?” she asked with an unnatural fervency.
Nara raised her dark eyes and laughed. “What’s gotten into you, sweetie? If I’m the most beautiful one, what are you?”
Priya smiled in spite of herself. “Apu, will you leave when you get married?”
“I’ll never marry,“ Nara suddenly went sombre.
“I don’t trust men,” came the simple reply. She paused and then proceeded to say, “Our poor mother! I feel so sorry for her.”
“Why do you feel sorry for her? She was a selfish bitch!” There, it was out in the open, thought Priya. It still bothered her that the wretched woman never learnt to love her elder daughter.
Nara shook her head. “No, Priya, she was just a miserable woman. She could not have the man she loved and had to deal with two other men.”
Priya’s eyes stung as the words tumbled out, “You loved her?”
“She was my mother.“ said Nara matter-of-factly. “What she did was done out of her own miserable state of mind. I can’t help loving her.”
Priya’s face went as white as chalk. “Apu, I killed her,” the whispered confession was as soft as the first snow. Nara went still. When she turned to look at her sister, she said with a sadness that only tremendous love for a child can produce, “I know. Baba knew too, I believe.”
Priya cried with an abundance that knew no limit. “She hated you. That wretched woman! She wanted to kill you when you were born. Did you know that? Shahnewaz Uncle did not let her. Those two men—they had so much love for that wicked woman. And you love her too? How can you love her? Sh…she was…a witch… an evil witch… I can never forgive her. Never. Do you know she planned on killing you again? She…she had come to suspect that you knew the secret of my birth. I p-pushed her d-down the stairs. I would n-never let anyone harm you. Never…” by this point Priya was hysterical.
Priya was still screaming when they took her away. She had completely lost her mind. She was certainly not a criminal. The weight she had shouldered throughout the two years after her mother’s death overwhelmed her completely. When Fayaz Chowdhury finally returned home, it was once again a strange household—two fathers held together by a daughter who belonged to neither. And yet, she was the daughter of the woman they both had loved. It is strange that Nara’s mother never loved the child begotten through rape and abuse, and yet Nara had so much to give. That made all the difference.