The limo screeched to a sudden halt. ‘You fool!’ Useless fellow, I mumbled under my breath.
‘Sorry, madam Ji!’ The driver’s voice quivered.
‘Eyes on the road!’ I gestured towards the crossroad, and the next instant my fingers ran over the screen.
In a jiffy, my tweet was retweeted countless times. It was hardly an incident, but my followers were raking up the issue of road safety, tagging the mayor, and blaming the officials. The traffic was crawling at a snail’s speed. The vehicles were neck-to-neck. ‘Hurry up, I can’t miss my flight.’
I scrolled the screen up and down. ‘Whoa! Touching a million followers. Awesome!’
‘Madam, we’ve reached.’
‘That’s wonderful! You deserve an award!’ I rolled my eyes. ‘You do know what’s to be done now, isn’t it?’
His blank face registered no reaction.
‘BAGS! TROLLEY!’ I pointed towards the trolleys lined up outside the entry gate.
‘Uh-yes.’ He raced out.
While he arranged my luggage on the trolley, I dug into my LV cross-shoulder bag and found my make-up kit. With a quick touch-up, I was all set to go. My stilettos click-clacked on the tiled surface as I pushed the trolley in through the VIP gate.
With a slight chuckle, I clicked a snap of the cattle-class lined up outside the other gate. Sweat beads on their foreheads. Overstuffed luggage. A pot-bellied uniformed man checking their papers before they could even enter the airport. Wow! An Insta worthy shot!
The blast of cold air was a welcome respite. I ambled towards the business class counter, but stopped as I noticed a passenger engaged in a serious conversation with the smartly dressed staff. Dressed in a beige and blue salwar suit, with her dupatta pinned on her shoulders, she was certainly a misfit.
I grabbed a tissue and covered my nose. There’s no way I’m gonna stand next to her. Never in this lifetime!
I despised such people who lacked class. Even the maids in my house carried themselves better. Only yesterday, WomenInAction, a top-notch fashion magazine, had featured me on their cover page. I had posted a story of my maids receiving a regular supply of beauty and personal grooming products on top of their heavenly salaries. It had become viral and overnight my fan following had increased.
Of course, no one knew the truth!
These supplies were not new. They were discarded after one or two uses. I would pass them on after I got bored with them.
She collected her boarding pass and walked past me. Her face was devoid of make-up. I could see acne marks as big as the potholes on Indian roads. Her hair was tied in a tight bun. She had a brown bag flung protectively across her shoulder. It was a cheap replica of the original I was proudly carrying.
Ew! I muttered as she passed by.
Oops, did I say it out loud?
I blinked in disbelief as she paused next to me – her brown eyes turned a sparkling shade of sapphire. And the next instant they were brown again. Before I could say anything, she vanished.
Is she a hypnotist? Or is she wearing some Chinese contacts?
‘Good morning ma’am. How can I help you?’ An eager voice addressed me from across the counter, as if I had been causing a delay for no reason. I said nothing and placed my ID on the counter.
‘Ma’am, could you please take off your goggles?’
‘This,’ she tapped on her glasses.
‘Oh! You mean shades!’ I let them rest on my head until she completed her formalities.
‘Here’s your boarding pass. Check-in time is –’
‘I know! It’s not my first time!’ snatching my boarding pass, I strolled away.
The glass doors slid open to welcome me inside.
Sipping my sugar-free cappuccino in the business class lounge, I browsed a few magazines to kill time. Most of the people were stuffing their stomachs with the free food – food loaded with fat and sugar. No wonder almost all of them had pear-shaped bodies. My gaze settled on a person who was busy scribbling into a notebook. No eatables next to her. Under regular circumstances, I would have appreciated her for being health conscious, but in this case, I could not.
For it was her again!
A young flight attendant escorted me to my seat. Switching on to airplane mode, I put on my headphones and eye mask. Soon the plane was taxiing on the runway. A sudden movement disturbed me. I took off my eye mask and was surprised to see my co-passenger trembling.
To my utter shock and dismay, it was the same lady. It was highly unlikely of me to indulge in conversations with people like her, but her jittery movements were bothering me.
‘Hey, are you ok?’ I poked her with the inflight magazine. She jerked open her eyes, but no words escaped her mouth.
‘First time flyer?’
‘No didi, but alone for the first time.’
Didi! Such a down-market term! I am sure she is older than me… I wanted to snub her in my trademark style, but let it go as she seemed worried. ‘It’s ok, don’t worry. You’ll be fine.’
‘I’m going to Mumbai to receive an award.’ She answered with childlike enthusiasm, her fears forgotten instantly.
‘Oh! That’s wonderful.’ Though I was desperate to go back to my playlist, for some reason I did not. ‘So what’s this award?’
‘Uh…’ She hesitated for a moment.
‘Tell me. It will help you relax.’
‘You’ve heard of Veer Bharatiya Sammaan?’
Ew… What a name! I am sure it would be something lame. ‘Veer what?’
‘Veer Bharatiya Sammaan,’ she repeated, emphasizing each syllable as if I was the stupid one.
‘Ah, ok. So why are you getting this?’ Anyway, I have nothing better to do. She might provide me some fodder for my social media.
‘Uh, long story didi.’ I felt her eyes linger on the diamond dial. ‘I have little time,’ she murmured.
‘Well, you can’t vanish before the plane lands, can you?’
The plane was now in midair, and she looked even more worried. ‘Come on, tell me,’ I prodded her.
‘Government is awarding me for my work with girls.’ Her lips parted, exposing her crooked teeth.
She looked at me with a blank face.
How can someone as slow as her get any award?
‘Girls who have been raped.’ She whispered, but there was a conviction in her voice.
‘You work with rape victims?’
‘Not victims didi… Survivors.’
‘W-what work do you do with them?’
‘I work with an NGO. We help families file a police complaint. We take care of their medical needs and arrange lawyers to help fight on their behalf. We also counsel parents and family members.’
She paused, as if waiting for me to say something. But I was tongue-tied. This wasn’t what I had hoped to hear when I had encouraged her to speak.
She continued, ‘Often girls are blamed for being raped. It’s not like they want to be raped.’ Her brows knotted in a disgruntled manner.
‘You seem to be too young.’ I spoke up, having found my voice. ‘Please don’t mistake me, but how old are you?’
Hmm… same age as me.
‘How long have you been involved in this work?’
‘9 years now didi. Our NGO has helped about 30,000 girls.’
The flight attendant interrupted me as she stood in the aisle with her trolley loaded with food and beverage. While I settled for sugar-free juice, she gazed towards the cottony clouds. The juice quenched my thirst, but my thirst for answers grew multifold.
‘If you don’t mind, can I ask you something personal?’
She bobbed her head in response.
She remained mum.
‘Look, I am a social media influencer. If you share your story with me, I can help you get more visibility. Your cause would benefit.’
She stayed silent, as if weighing the options ahead.
I held up my phone for her. ‘See, I have so many followers. I can help you get sponsors and we can raise funds for your NGO. I can even arrange for you to be on TV. Don’t you think it will benefit your cause?’
‘On TV? Me?,’ she smiled. ‘That’ won’t happen! Yes, we need more money, but more than that we need someone who will fight and win for us.’
She began her story —
‘I come from a village in Jharkhand. I was 8 years old when I started working for the big factory. From morning till night, my siblings and I would work in the mines–picking shiny mica pieces. At the end of the day, the manager would pay us based on how much we had collected. It was a tough job. Picking mica pieces. Our backs and legs would hurt. Sometimes the mines would cave in, leaving us injured brutally, but the manager would not even give us any compensation.
One day, he brought with him many phoren ladies with big cameras. They looked so pretty, just like milk. We couldn’t understand their language, and they couldn’t understand ours. One Indian didi was with them. She was very kind and even gave us her name and telephone number.’
I shuddered when she froze in a trance-like state. Thankfully, she came out of it soon and continued.
‘But one day when my life took an unexpected turn. The manager gave me a motichoor laddoo. I was overjoyed as I took a bite. We could never buy such delicious sweets at home. Unfortunately, it was the costliest sweet I had ever eaten, and it cost me everything!’
‘What do you mean?’ I saw flecks of blue again in her eyes.
‘The next morning I woke up with terrible pain all over my body. The room was pitch dark, but I knew something was wrong. I was lying on a soft mattress, unlike the thin mat at home. I shuddered as I realized I was naked.
Trembling with fear, I called out to Ma. But instead of her, a hoarse voice gruntled, threatening me into silence. I heard the sounds of clothes ruffling, and the click of a belt. A bundle of notes came flying on my face, and the stranger walked out banging the door shut.
I wasn’t sure if he was coming back. I waited in silence for as long as I could. Adjusting my eyes to the darkness, I climbed out of the bed. My bare feet touched the cold floor and sent a shiver to my fingertips. My thighs were wet and sticky. I groped for my clothes and found them torn, lying on the floor.
Somehow, I managed to reach home. I still don’t remember how I did it. But what happened next remains unforgettable.’
She clasped my hand. ‘Baba met me at the door. I still can’t forget his eyes. He didn’t say anything, but his silence spoke volumes. I fainted. When I came to my senses, I realized everything had changed. Baba had left us.’
I felt sad for this poor woman. I couldn’t imagine my life without Papa.
‘Didn’t you go to the police?’
‘Na didi. We couldn’t do anything. Ma was in shock. I didn’t even know who my rapist was! Our neighbors and relatives told us to forget the matter. It was only then we came to know, I wasn’t the first one to have faced this.’
‘So, what happened after that?’
‘I had to go back to the mines to work to feed my family. Unfortunately, it was just the beginning of my ordeals. The rapes became a regular affair. The day I turned 18, something changed within me. Baba’s voice in my dreams guided me to escape. He showed me a destination and a person’s silhouette. He said, she will find me when the time is right, but I had to reach the place on my own.’
‘OMG! How is this possible?’
‘Didi, we belong to Sauriya, a primitive tribe. Our ancestors were masters in Chargani (witch-craft), which is passed down to children. Baba was one of those. He feared his fellow masters might object to a raped woman being bestowed with powers. So he disappeared from our lives, but not before secretly making me the custodian of our lineage.’
Her eyes turned misty, and she dabbed at them with the edge of her dupatta. ‘In the dark of night, I slipped away from home. Walking and running through the jungles, I finally reached the main road. By then it was daybreak, and I was far from our village. I was hungry and tired. I didn’t have any money, just a telephone number. I pleaded with the owner of a tea stall to let me make a phone call. Didi picked me up from there. And rest, as they say, is history. Baba helped me see the future.’
Her lips curled up as she took out a brochure from her bag. Tears formed in my eyes as I read her work with various women–women who had been trafficked, raped, and even those abandoned by their families.
‘You are doing so much for others. What about you?’
‘Sadly, I can’t help myself!’
‘Uh.. nothing didi.’
‘How will you get justice? Don’t you know anything about him?’
‘I never saw his face, but he always used to wear a ring. The last time he raped me, he forgot his ring behind. I just grabbed it, and since that night I always carry it with me, hoping to find justice.’
‘Can I see it, if you don’t mind?’
She dug into her bag once again, placed a faded pouch in my palm. My jaw dropped in horror and disbelief as I opened it.
It held an antique ring, with sparkling sapphire in the center and diamonds all around.
My hands trembled, but I held it up for a closer inspection. The engraving underneath the stone was faded, but I could still read it. The stones poked my soft skin, and my knuckles turned white. I clasped my eyes shut, hoping to get away from this nightmare.
‘Are you alright, didi?’
Her calm voice seemed to come from a faraway place.
‘You are lying!’
I screamed at her, but her eyes were lacking deceit. I held on to our family heirloom, which had been lost years ago.
My heart skipped a beat as I remembered everything clearly!
Not just the glinting ring, but the twinkling eyes of the owner, too. Tears threatened to fall as I recalled the gentle smile, the love, and the pampering.
The face which she had never seen was floating in front of my eyes. I knew the one who had marred her for life.
Her perpetrator. My protector!
Her destroyer. My hero!
Her rapist. My father!
Countless voices rang in my ears. Voices that had been shushed and silenced. Gossips which would be extinguished before they could spread like wildfire. Friends who had felt uncomfortable in my home. Maidservants who would forever be undergoing an abortion. Factory workers who would disappear into the darkness.
My luxury had blinded me to the suffering and wrongdoing around.
How can I be silent after knowing who has turned her life upside down?
This was too much to take. I needed some time alone and escaped to the washroom. I let my pent-up tears flow freely as I splashed water on my face. I saw a different me in the mirror.
Lost in thoughts, I returned to my seat. It took me a while to realize I was alone. On the seat next to mine, the sapphire ring sat royally on a bunch of newspaper clippings.
What the hell?! I couldn’t believe what I was reading.
10th June 2023
“Brave daughter puts guilty father behind bars. Helps Roopa, a poor dead tribal girl get justice.”
29th October 2025
“Ms. Antara Kumar establishes RoopaAntaran, an NGO to help rape survivors.”
I pulled open the brochure and was aghast to find my name and pictures inside instead of Roopa’s.
There were countless letters from women who had faced ordeals similar to my co-passenger. But they were all addressed to me!
15th August 2030
“Renowned philanthropist Ms. Antara Kumar awarded with the prestigious Veer Bharatiya Sammaan.”
What’s this crap?
‘Excuse me,’ I called the flight attendant, ‘where is my co-passenger?’
‘The one who was sitting here.’ I pointed to the vacant seat.
‘Ma’am, there was no one seated next to you.’
‘What do you mean?!’ I could feel sweat trickling all over my back, despite the air-conditioning.
‘Ma’am, are you alright? Should I get you a doctor?’ a wave of concern splashed across her face.
I hid my face in my palm and started sobbing. Am I hallucinating? Was she never here?
But the ring?
They were proof enough!
Proof of her pain. Proof of her suffering. Proof of my father’s wrongdoings.
As tears clouded my vision, I saw her angelic face and heard her voice once again. ‘Didi, you found me, just as Baba had said. I have been waiting for years to tell you my story. Now, I can rest in peace.’
Her calm face disappeared into thin air, but not before igniting a spark within me.
I had not found her.
I had found my calling!
First published here.
Awarded Top 5 winner in the contest held in the month of June 2021.