12-year-old, for sale
I woke up in the middle of the night feeling a little wet between my thighs. Frightened about what it was that was happening to me, I sensed an uncertain feeling of guilt and shame creep up my spine. I live in a small room with eight other family members, so the first thought, after the panic, that came to my mind was, what if one of them saw me with these marks on my clothes?
I picked up a lantern and rushed out of our bricked, one-room house, into the cold night. A strange sensation in my stomach wouldn’t let me rest. I ran to the back of the little house where we had a small, broken, toilet; the lantern lighting the way. When I was inside, I pointed the lantern towards my clothes to see what had happened and gasped at the sight.
I was horrified and thousands of questions swirled through my mind; do I have some sort of disease? Will I die before I have even lived? I want to get away from this village, I want to live in a city, and I want to become a police officer! Wait, what about my education? What will my parents say? What will my siblings do?
These questions nagged at my brain while I tried to clean myself. It couldn’t be possible. Maybe I have a cut or an injury that burst open. It was all over my legs, but I couldn’t find the source. I washed my shalwar, I scrubbed and scrubbed but I just couldn’t manage to make it clean enough… I couldn’t possibly have worn the same shalwar again, so with trembling legs, I put on a darker coloured shalwar… maybe the stains won’t show through this colour, I thought to myself.
I was shivering in fear when I walked back to the house. I must be very, very ill. Something is very, very wrong. My stomach started twisting into knots of, what I assumed was, anxiety and fear. But the pain kept coming and going in waves – some longer, some shorter.
Should I wake my mother up?
Should I tell father that I am about to die?
The thought of death brought a string of tears to my eyes; I could just feel the light going out of my eyes…
My mind was tired of thinking about the dark cloud of death looming over my head… My eyes had no more tears left to cry and I was physically exhausted. Maybe it was the disease in its final stages, I thought. After an hour of lying on the straw mat, tossing and turning restlessly, to my relief, the sun started rising. I couldn’t take it anymore… this burden was too heavy for my frail, 12-year-old, shoulders. I tiptoed to where my mother lay on the ground, bent down and told Maa I needed to talk to her. Looking at my miserable face, my mother jumped up and asked what was wrong, was I okay? Did something happen?
With tears in my eyes and a clot in my throat I mustered the courage to tell her about what happened during the night. I was convinced mother would drop to the mat, cry and scream in anguish at the prospect of losing her daughter at such a young age. I knew I would have to be brave for her. She was going to breakdown and I needed to be there for her.
But Maa did none of that. In fact, she looked at me with pride beaming through her eyes. She held me by the shoulders, laughed out loud and took me in a tight embrace.
I couldn’t believe it. Had my mother lost her mind? Did she not understand that I was going to die, and that it was probably going to happen very soon? What was there to laugh about?
With an excited whisper she exclaimed,
“Oh, how I have dreamt day and night about you turning to puberty!” Maa exclaimed with joy, “Sardar Sahib will pay us a heavy feast now. We can save food for a good seven days.”
My aunts around the neighbourhood were informed of this ‘delightful news’ and all came to congratulate me. I was made to sit outside our one-room home on a stone mounted chair. I couldn’t have been more confused; what was ‘puberty’ anyway? None of it made sense to me and so my 12-year-old perplexed self, made her way to Maa to find out, but Maa ignored the question. All she kept saying to me was that this was very good news for our family. When I asked her if I was going to die or not, Maa said “Aray pagli” (you silly girl), easing the fear of death gnawing at my heart.
At least, I was not going to die this young.
But the gnawing continued…
As I sat there in the sand blown breeze and under the scorching sun of a shelter-less village, my mind drifted to the days I started going to school, a few years back. I thought back to when some people, who were not affiliated with the government, came and saw the conditions of our village.
It had everything but life.
Yes, we were empty souls.
Our legends tell how barren these lands have always been; no tree has ever grown or flourished. So we got accustomed to the life of brick kilns. From mixing the cement with water to baking the bricks, all the labour was done by us; my people. But no one ever got an education here. A few of our elders, however, sometimes narrated tales from the Gita, our holy book. The rest of us, we just spend days and nights working.
Those men and women who came from the city, told us about how necessary education was. How Sardar sahibs can exploit us and deprive us of our own money, and make us work for free. Since that time, all the children of our village had been going to that small house which they had turned into a school. We had a master sahib, who was very kind and gave us a Fanta candy after every good test. For the rest of it, our lives were almost the same as our ancestors who passed away years and years ago.
I was jolted back from my reverie at the sudden sound of laughing; I saw young girls and women chirping nearby, giggling and talking gleefully. Puzzled, I turned around and asked one of my older cousins, who was standing there,
“What is wrong with these ladies?”
She replied in high spirits,
“Sardar Sahib is coming to meet you, Pari!”
The jovial mood around me made me feel happy. I felt very special, seeing the entire scene. Some important person was coming to meet me. Just me. I felt very privileged.
I remembered the last time that Sardar Sahib came to our village was at the birth of a distant cousin. He had come to bless him with his prayers. Was he going to bless me too? Did he forget to come for me when I was born? Or is it because he thinks I am pretty? Am I pretty?
These questions buzzed through my head.
My mother took me inside to dress up. She gave me an all red skirt, a golden shirt and a huge dark red cloth, sparkling with little golden and silver sequins, to act as a veil over my head.
Why are they dressing me up? I wondered.
Maybe they just want me to look presentable in front of the Sardar Sahib.
After I was all dressed, I tried to look at myself in the reflection of our clay water-cooler. I looked sparkly, glittering in a bright combination of colours and my petite figure showed off for the very first time. I felt a little unhinged.
We waited for a few hours. It was evening now, the breeze was getting cooler, the sun was lower and here I was, sitting tidily to welcome Sardar Sahib in all his glory.
And then he arrived. With his procession.
He came in a swarm of black Hummers and parked them all like a parade outside our one-roomed house. I still wondered if any of this had to do with the night before, when I thought I was going to die.
With a crisp white kurta and an orange turban, Sardar jumped off from his huge car. Along with him was his son, who looked cryptic with a curled moustache; he wore the same outfit as his father. I smiled as they walked towards me. My family was standing in a line to serve them. As they got closer, Abba stepped ahead and said,
“Have a seat next to her, Sardar jee”.
That was quite strange, I thought, why would he want him to sit next to me?
Anyway, Sardar Sahib sat. He looked at me anxiously and put his hand on my head,
So he really was here to bless me, I thought.
But he didn’t leave after that. In fact, he kept sitting next to me and even tried to inch closer to me. A little uncomfortable, I tried edging away from him, silently sliding to the other side of the chair.
What happened next, I never expected.
The Sardar Sahib placed one of his hands around my back and pulled me back in place, close to him. I looked at Maa to see if she had noticed what was going on but she looked at me with chilling eyes and I weakened the rising protest in my body. Maybe this is how it is done. After having tea with us, Abba and Sardar Sahib walked indoors and left me alone with Maa. I had so many questions in my mind by now that I didn’t know what to ask first and how to go about it.
But as soon as words were able to find their way to my lips, all I could ask was,
“What is happening? What is going on, Maa?”
Maa came to me and hugged me. She fixed my veil and told me that I looked like a real beauty, just like my Nani Amma. Then she too vanished inside the house, to join Abba and Sardar Sahib in the discussion.
I sat there, not moving an inch. I felt perplexed, like as if something bad was going to happen and no one was telling me what it was. A part of me felt scared, the other was curious. What was it that these people were planning? And why were they not talking in front of me?
But my questions remained unanswered. They came and they went, but I was told nothing.
Had I been a little wiser than I was back then, I would have understood. I would have realised that they were plotting my demise. They were scheming on how to celebrate the murder of my childhood, my innocence. My own parents, the people who were supposed to protect me, were ready to sell my childhood for a few kilos of wheat and grain.
They were fixing the date for a marriage which had already been decided upon my birth. The Sardar Sahib was paying my father back for a favour from years before. When I was told of this, of what had happened and what was about to happen, all I could wonder was why my father had to ask him for a return in this way? Was I money? I am just 12-years-old. I cannot get married, can I? This could not be impossible. Why was I being used as a means to return favours with?
It was hard for me to accept that this man was truly my biological father. He couldn’t be… because, if he was then he couldn’t have been so cold and callous with this own daughter’s life!
After seven heinous days that toppled my life upside down, seven days of constant celebration and endless crying and begging, as I begged them not to make me leave my school or Maa and Abba, I was married off to this 70-year-old man, whom I have always seen as a father figure.
On the night of my ruksati, Maa said,
“Never forget that your father is a respectable man and his honour is all we poor people have…”
She kept on talking but I couldn’t hear her over the hatred that I had developed in my heart for this woman who called me her daughter, her dearest. Or for that man, who had sold me like cattle stock.
Is this how we sell off our dearests? Is this why they had wished for a daughter, so that they could have had a better lifestyle at the cost of my childhood?
None of it mattered now. It was done. I was sold. The business deal had taken place successfully.
In a maroon shiny dress, I was brought to the haveli – the same majestic haveli I was always fascinated about. Back then, I could never have imagined that a house could be this huge. As much as I was awed by the magnificent walls and pillars on which the haveli was erected, I was dreading the thought of facing Sardar Sahib’s previous wives.
No one knew how many they were. There had been a rumour about him marrying a new wife every few months but no one knew the real truth. After spending a few days in the new home, I learnt that some of his wives had died, some were killed out of honour and some were just too sick or old to walk out of their respective rooms.
Every evening, the maids would dress me up, bathe me in scented sandalwood and milk, and make me ready for the Sardar. I was dressed lavishly for my husband to undress me and take away my innocence, bit by bit, while I lay on my back as a lifeless soul. I was still unable to understand. My mind was a volcano of questions, boiling further with every other day that passed.
After spending some obnoxiously ill nights like these, I lost my period. The blood had stopped. Life had changed. While I had gotten used to spending seven impure days of every month like that, I didn’t know what it meant when it stopped.
My stomach started growing and I started feeling different. My body, it seemed, was not my own anymore. The elder women of the haveli noticed the change and one morning, one of the 23 wives asked me if I had been throwing up a lot because I was eating more than usual. I said yes. And her reply was,
“Congratulations, Pari! You’re about to have a child!”
As soon as I heard her words, a stiffening sense of numbness crept over my body.
While she rushed out of the room, through the corridors and down the stairs to announce the good news to everyone, my legs refused to budge.
I could hear loud roars of laughter and excitement. But I didn’t feel a thing.
Everyone was ecstatic. I was lost in thoughts of when my brother was born and how my parents had been happy about it.
I thought back to my childhood. It seemed like it was only yesterday that I was playing under the sun, with all the kids of our village right after we got home from school. I remembered running away after teasing my mother with my mischief, running in the wild, in the open, no boundaries, no one to hide from.
I remembered how I was a happy little child. Just yesterday.
And now, I was going to give birth to one…
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