Silence engulfed the empty corridors of the hospital. A couple of members of the night-duty staff were manning the reception. Some nurses on night duty were chatting softly at their desks and others were reading magazines.
“Uncle, take aunty and go home. Take rest. You haven’t slept well in a week,” Ramesh said.
“But she’ll be alone, Ramesh,” Subrahmanyam replied. He looked at his wife, Pankajam.
“Don’t worry, uncle, I’ll stay here.”
“But…you were here every night with us!”
“It’s alright. You can relieve me in the morning.”
“She’ll be alright?”
“Uncle, Vidya is out of danger now. They will shift her from ICU to the ward tomorrow. You’ll be needed then. So, go home and get some sleep.”
“If anything is needed…”
Ramesh smiled. “I’ll call you. OK?”
Subrahmanyam and Pankajam picked up their bags and left reluctantly.
Ramesh spoke with the night-duty nurse for a couple of minutes and stretched himself in a lounge chair.
‘This must be hell. Am I dead? What happened? I am burning all over. It’s killing. I want to scratch it away. I can’t. Why are my hands tied down? By whom? Where am I? Help… Somebody help me, please. I beg you. Is anyone listening? Please, untie me. Wait. Who is calling my name? What is it anyway? Hello, I’m here. You hear me? Please help…”
‘Vidya, wake up. Can you hear me, Vidya?’
‘Vidya! Is it my name? Are you Yama? Have you come to take me away? No, no, no, no, I don’t want to die. God, please have mercy. Make the burning go away. It’s hell. Oh God!’
‘Vidya, Vidya, wake up. Look who is here.’
‘Who is it?’
Vidya opened her right eye slowly, adjusting it to the ambient light in the room. She looked around and realised that she was lying on a bed in a hospital room.
“How are you feeling, dear?” asked the comforting voice of her mother.
“Where is dad?” Her voice was a hoarse whisper, like emery paper on metal.
“I’m here, child.” Subrahmanyam moved into her full view and smiled.
She found someone seated on a chair at a far corner. “Ramesh, is that you?”
“Hi, Vidya, how are you?” Ramesh accosted her with a smile.
“Hi.” She tried to smile and winced in pain.
“Hey, take it easy, relax. OK?”
“How long I’ve been here?” Emery paper was at work.
Overcome by grief, Subrahmanyam and Pankajam started crying. Ramesh put his arms around their shoulders and made them sit on the guest bed at the far end of the room.
Returning to Vidya’s bedside he said, “A week.”
She tried to touch the bandages with her right hand. She could not as it was restrained by the drip. Ramesh placed a gentle hand on her right hand.
“Don’t talk so much. Take it easy,” he smiled and spoke softly.
“Thanks.” She held his hand.
A few moments passed in silence.
“Where is Madhu?” she inquired.
Her parents look at each other uncertainly.
Ramesh hurriedly said, “He’ll be here soon. Now, go to sleep.”
Within minutes she slipped into doze.
The female Inspector sat in a chair beside Vidya’s bed. A female Constable waited outside.
“Hi, Vidya. I am Inspector Malar. How are you?”
“Hi, Inspector.” Vidya struggled to speak.
“I know you are in pain but I must ask you some questions. They didn’t allow us all these days as you were in the ICU,” she said looking at the doctor.
“Ten minutes, Inspector. She needs rest,” the doctor said and left.
The Inspector pulled her chair close to Vidya’s bed.
“Tell me, Vidya. Who were they?” She took out a scribbling pad and pen.
Vidya shuddered as a series of surreal images flashed across her mind in a stream of consciousness.
“It was one o’clock in the afternoon…” she spoke despite the pain and burning sensation.
Vidya came out of the computer institute after her class. She was walking on the foot path chatting with her friends. Suddenly, a motorbike screeched to halt beside her after knocking against the kerb.
Arun was driving and Kapil was on the pillion. Kapil got down and confronted Vidya.
“Why are you avoiding me? What’s your answer?” he demanded angrily.
“Let me go, Kapil.” She tried to walk past him.
“You are not going anywhere. We are settling the matter here and now.” Kapil stopped her with his hand on her shoulder.
Vidya’s friends watched the scene in terror.
“Let go of me, Kapil. Or, I’ll scream and call the police.”
“It is that fool, Madhu, isn’t it? You are rejecting me because of him?”
Vidya dared him, “It’s none of your business. Yes, I love him. Now, leave or …”
Kapil shoved her violently and she tumbled onto the foot path. Even as she was trying to stand up and get a semblance of composure, he took out a small glass bottle from the luggage box of the bike. She looked at him in horror.
“Wh…What…what is it, Kapil? What are you doing?” she shouted. He laughed hysterically.
Arun shouted, “Come on, man, quickly. Lets’ go.”
“It is acid”. He opened the lid of the bottle. Instantly, pungent fumes started emanating from it. “One last time, Vidya. Will you forget Madhu and love me or not?”
Vidya’s friends ran away from the scene in sheer terror.
Vidya started screaming, “No, no, no, no….”
“If I can’t have you, nobody can…” he threw the acid on her face and laughed hysterically.
“Come on, man…” Arun screamed. Kapil jumped onto the pillion, still laughing hysterically. The motorbike sped away from the scene.
Vidya lay on the foot path writhing and screaming in pain.
Vidya began sobbing. The nurse rushed out yelling for the doctor, “Doctor, doctor…”
“What are you doing? She’s just come out of unconsciousness. You’ll have to leave and come back later, Inspector,” the doctor was furious.
“Can’t you see? She is still in shock,” the doctor objected.
“One last question, doctor, OK?”
The doctor glared at the Inspector. “Please, make it quick.”
“Thanks. Vidya, who are those two boys? Can you recognise them?”
“That’s two, Inspector,” the doctor said sarcastically.
“Doctor, I have a duty to perform, too. If I can get some information now, I can nab them. It’s already a week. For all I know, they may have fled the city. Please. I won’t take long.”
The doctor relented. “OK, Inspector. Take it easy, Vidya.” The doctor left the room.
Vidya struggled to speak, “Inspector, I know them. They were my classmates in school.”
Inspector Malar jotted down the details and left in search of Kapil and Arun.
Vidya, Madhu, Ramesh, Kapil and Arun were classmates until a few years previously. Kapil and Arun dropped out and joined some small-time criminal gang. Vidya, Madhu and Ramesh completed their Higher Secondary School. Financial reasons forced Vidya to discontinue her studies and take up a computer course for data entry operators. Ramesh joined BCA and Madhu joined BBA with a view to pursuing MBA. Vidya was simple, good-looking and affable. Madhu publicly disclosed and displayed his love for Vidya. He was flamboyant in style. She was swept off her feet and fell head over heels in love with him. Kapil was infatuated with Vidya. He made numerous overtures to Vidya, declaring his ‘love’ for her in unambiguous terms. Initially, Vidya rejected his overtures politely. When he persisted she told him firmly that she was not interested in him. An enraged Kapil confided in Arun. Arun advised Kapil to teach her a ‘lesson’.
‘Come on, Kapil, let’s go and teach the b***h a lesson.’ He laughed raucously.
The motorbike roared its way towards the computer institute.
After a week’s manhunt, Inspector Malar finally apprehended Kapil and Arun at Kapil’s uncle’s house in Bengaluru, where they were hiding. Intensive interrogation of the parents of Kapil and Arun and tapping of their phones revealed the whereabouts of the culprits. Vidya was made to identify them officially in a line-up. The case generated a huge uproar in public and media. It was assigned to a fast track court and was completed in two months. Under relentless interrogation, Kapil and Arun broke down and confessed to the crime. The judge convicted them and sentenced them to fifteen years’ rigorous imprisonment.
Vidya was discharged after eight weeks of treatment. She had suffered severe burns on the left side of her face – hair, temple, neck, shoulder and upper arm, cheek, chin, ear, lips and left eye. Providentially, she had covered her face with her left hand and turned her head away from the attack, which probably saved the sight in her left eye. The fingers, wrist, and forearm of the left hand bore the brunt of the acid burns.
A year later…
She looked at him incredulously. She adjusted the soft cotton dupatta covering the left side of her face and spoke. When she spoke, the words were slurred.
“What? Are you crazy? You know what you just said?”
“Absolutely,” he replied calmly.
“But, how could you say such a thing to me, Ramesh?”
“I only said what I truly felt.”
“For God’s sake, you can’t!”
“Can’t what, Vidya? Can’t love you or can’t say that I love you and I want to marry you?”
“Vidya, I’ve always loved you but didn’t express it.”
She was surprised at the development.
“I didn’t expect this from you. I thought we are good friends.”
“We were, we are and we will always be.”
“Since when did you …?”
“Can anyone put an exact date or time on these matters?” Ramesh smiled.
“Right from our school days; the first time I saw you.”
“But you never indicated even faintly that you had such feelings for me!”
“I was afraid of losing you; your friendship. You were so beautiful and friendly,” he paused, “and you were in love with Madhu. I silently stepped back; didn’t want to create complications.”
“But now! Of all the times, now! Look at me. What do you see?”
“A girl that I love.”
Vidya started shedding tears.
“No, no, no, don’t say that. You see an ugly woman; an ugly and disfigured woman. How can you love me, now? Oh God!”
Ramesh did not console her. ‘The catharsis is required to release her pent up grief.’
“Have you forgotten what happened to me?”
“Not at all.”
“Then, why, Ramesh? Why are you hurting me?”
“Do you really feel that I am hurting you? Then I’ll never again bring up this topic.”
She was silent for long minutes.
“Don’t be silent, Vidya. Say what you feel.”
A minute later she slowly mumbled. “I never thought that I would survive that attack. It’s almost a year and I am still in pain. I have nightmares. I shudder at the very thought. It’s…It’s…It’s like it happened yesterday.
“Yes, I was madly in love with Madhu. He swept me off my feet. We had great times; the movies, the beach, the roller coaster rides, the dinners. I never looked at you in that manner. You were always there for me; a friend.” She paused. “But, man proposes, God disposes. You know what happened.”
They spoke for a long time, recapitulating and reliving the horror of the past year…
The discussions and arguments spilled over…
A few days later…
Vidya brought a cup of tea for Ramesh and resumed her seat opposite Ramesh. He was looking at her intently.
“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“I am admiring you, your courage; despite the trauma and pain. At a particular stage even your parents wanted to let the case go, so that you’ll at least be peaceful. But you didn’t.”
Her smile was lost in the gnarled and mutilated lips.
“Courage? Me? It’s a joke.”
He looked at her quizzically.
“I was terrified. The scene haunted me every moment of my life; it still does. The burning feeling and the pain were unbearable. I can’t describe them. Even under sedation I used to feel the throb of the injury, the burns. It was alright as long as the bandages were there. But when the doctor removed them…” her voice petered away. Ramesh could see tears in her eyes. He placed his hand on hers in an attempt at consoling her.
“Mom didn’t allow me to look into a mirror for a couple of days. I sneaked into the bathroom one day when mom and dad went home. I couldn’t recognise myself. You were with me.”
“I remember. You screamed. I rushed into the bathroom and found you collapsed on the floor, crying.”
A few more days passed by…
“You know what pained me and hurt me more than the injuries, all those days?”
“Madhu never came visiting even once after the first day or two. He came once more after the bandages were removed.” She paused for a moment. “He ran to the bathroom and puked. After that he never came. Madhu’s reaction – his vomiting – said everything. I was no longer ‘the beautiful girl’ for him. After that, I never tried to contact him.”
“I know. I spoke to him; he wouldn’t respond; stopped taking my calls. I went to his house and was confronted by his parents. He hid behind them.” He paused. “It was no use. I left.”
“At least, he could have honestly told me, Ramesh. I would have understood,” she said.
A couple of weeks later…
She looked at him for a long time. When she spoke her whisper was as gentle as her stare.
“I couldn’t have survived if you weren’t with me.”
“Oh! Come on. I didn’t do anything. It was your parents.”
“Yes, but they were supposed to. But you were there when you need not have been.”
“I am not Madhu.”
“That’s what I am trying to say, Ramesh. There was this man who said he loved me; made promises of a lifetime of companionship but was missing when I needed him most. And here is a man, a friend, who stood by my side when I was passing through physical and mental hell. I can’t recollect a moment when I needed your company and didn’t find you. I wept in pain; your shoulder got wet. I languished in depression; your smile pulled me out of the abyss. My parents needed a moment’s rest; you took over the vigil. The succour you did would give Florence Nightingale an inferiority complex.”
“Is this necessary now, Vidya?”
“I was thinking about what you said. You deserve someone better than I.”
“What do you mean?”
After a moment’s thought she said, “Physical beauty means a lot. It is very important.”
He shook his head.
“Look, Ramesh. I am not what I was; can never be. I am disfigured permanently; even after I underwent dozen or so cosmetic surgeries, I don’t look normal.”
“Are you trying to dissuade me? It’s not working.” He smiled.
“Can’t you see reason? Why are you bent on wrecking your life?”
“’coz I love you.”
“Now, more than ever.”
A few more weeks passed by…
“I am sorry but I hate sympathy and pity…”
“It is not pity, you dolt. Sympathy? Maybe, because you suffered hell, for no fault of yours.”
“There is no place for love and marriage in my life anymore, Ramesh…”
“You can’t take me out or introduce me to your friends or take me on social visits or gatherings. What about children? What’ll they think of their mother; especially when they see other children’s mothers, beautiful, well-dressed, and speaking gently and lovingly? Won’t they feel ashamed of me?” she spoke as vehemently as her damaged lips allowed.
“You have a weird idea of love and marriage! Movies, parks, restaurants…are they the definition of love and marriage?”
“Aren’t they essential?”
“May be or may not be. I feel it is a myth, a hype perpetuated by our movies and TV. Love is not infatuation or the initial physical attraction. It grows from within. You want to share your life, everything with that person. Love is togetherness in happiness and sorrow, in success and failure, in ups and downs. Marriage is based on such love. It grows with age. When you are old and are nearing the fag-end of your life, that companionship, that togetherness sustains and supports you.” He paused. “Knowing you as I do, I see such a companion in you…”
“Stop, stop it, Ramesh…” she covered her face in her palms and started sobbing. He held her hand and comforted her.
A couple of months later…
“Look, Vidya, you can’t do this to yourself. You’ve given up the computer course. You don’t go out. You don’t allow friends to visit you. I’m glad you made an exception in my case. You lock yourself up in your room. Agreed, something terrible has happened to you. But you must come out of your shell and start living again.”
“With this face?”
“Hmmm…You can undergo some more surgeries; but I would say ‘yes’; this is the face, which you have to live with for the rest of your life,” he spoke gently.
“I am happy that you are frank.” She wiped tears from her eyes.
“Maybe it is easy for us to advise you but remember we have your welfare in our hearts.”
“I never doubted that.” She smiled.
“So, what is your answer?”
“Ramesh, I haven’t yet come out of that terror. I haven’t yet come to terms with my face. I haven’t yet been able to close the Madhu chapter. How can I…?”
“You must make an attempt, dear.”
“Dear? That’s sweet!”
“That’s ’coz you are.”
“I am what?”
“Sweet.” He smiled.
“Ramesh, listen to me carefully. You are a good boy. You deserve someone better than I. I don’t deserve you, or anyone else, for that matter.”
“I’ve explained myself clearly; it is you or none.”
Long minutes elapsed in silence. Vidya went into the kitchen and made some tea. They sat sipping the tea, dunking biscuits in it.
“Ramesh, any girl would be extremely lucky to have you as her life-partner. I’m pleasantly surprised you thought of me. I can’t and won’t give you an answer right now. But I promise I’ll give it a serious thought.” She paused. “I need time.”
“That’s OK with me.”
“I may take weeks.”
“Or a life-time.”
“At the end of the wait, my answer may still be a ‘no’ …”
“We will be friends for life…”
“And if it’s a ‘yes’?”
“I’ll be the luckiest man on earth.”
“You may regret it, Ramesh.”
“No. Never. You know, I need you more than you need me.”
“Oh God! Can’t I dissuade you at all, Ramesh?” She gave an exasperated smile.
“You need more proof that you can’t?”
Vidya fell silent for a couple of minutes.
“My answer is ‘yes’.”
“Yes what? You need more proof?”
“Not that, you adorable dolt…”
By Shyam Sundar Bulusu