‘By what time will you be back from college?’ Ma asked, nonchalantly.
Preetha looked up from her books, her stubborn curls falling on her fair cheeks. She knew the purpose of this question. Her whole body wired up for a retort but she lowered her head instead and chewed the end of her blue pen.
She mumbled something and Sunita strained her neck to hear what she was saying. Her daughter was getting difficult nowadays. The bubbling effervescent girl was being shadowed by this new Preetha who was always lost somewhere. She was sixteen, she mused. Is she in love? Sunita patted her daughter’s head affectionately while praying to aiyappa for keeping her safe and happy. Her husband Vinayam was already in office by now, senior accountant in a big law firm of Bangalore. Thirty years ago they had shifted to Bangalore from Sathanur when Vinayam got that job, a quaint little village she still missed. The voice of M S Subbalakshmi floating in the background brought her back to the present and Sunita got busy preparing the afternoon lunch of kuzambu and usli.
Preetha was disturbed. Her young mind was trying to grasp the events of last week. She absentmindedly played with her ebony curls. She had hardly talked to that boy ever and he had just barged in her world unannounced. She was almost always busy solving maths problems either in her yellow diary or in her head but she loved talking and laughing with her friends too. This particular boy wasn’t from her study group. She had noticed him once or twice, looking at her and then she had avoided him. She was not looking for that kind of attention at all. All she wanted was to join the elite club of space scientists one day and nothing could make her deviate from her path. She wanted to talk to Sunita about the boy. Her mother was a very sweet and intelligent woman and she was very understanding too, but she didn’t want to worry her.
Last Monday as she was waiting at the bus stop for her bus, that boy had walked up to her. He was tall six feet maybe, short curly hair with a wheatish complexion and a thin moustache, he had looked at her and said, ‘I study in your college and am senior to you by a year. I have seen you many times and felt like talking to you. I like you.’ Preetha was too shocked for words, there were many people standing around and she was scared of making a scene. This boy had the guts to approach a girl amidst the crowd and make such silly declarations! Preetha said nothing and got on the bus that stopped there after a while. That boy did not get on the bus. Preetha spent the entire day in trepidation and heaved a sigh of relief only after she reached home. Next few days she missed her college.
Sunita was worried now. She tried to coax Preetha to tell her about the issue gnawing at her, making her instead go all tumbled into her shell and Preetha would not talk. After much cajoling by her mother she disinterestedly got ready for her college, dreading meeting that boy again. As she waited near the bus stop, she saw him again, looking at her from a distance. This time she was scared and tears formed in her eyes, unbidden. She hurriedly got into the bus and reached her college. This mental pressure was taking toll on her health. The intelligent girl who enjoyed solving difficult mathematical equations was getting them all wrong and her mathematics teacher, Mr.Dasgupta was startled to see her notebook. He called Preetha to his cabin and asked her if there was any problem. Preetha said nothing and her tears just flowed freely. She was his favourite student and she was moved by the concern he had in his eyes for her but she was not sure how to approach this particular topic with him. After sitting for a while, she got up and left. Mr.Dasgupta was aware that something was wrong and he wanted to solve it for the sake of Preetha. He debated calling her parents but felt that probably he should give the issue a little more time. Maybe just teenage issues, he thought.
This time the boy approached her in the library corridor as Preetha was walking out of it. Preetha had lowered her head as he had approached her. ‘Preetha’ he said. Her name sounded so alien on his tongue, she almost choked on it.
‘Preetha, I really like you. I cannot imagine my life without you. Please don’t say no.’ He implored. The corridor was empty except for the two of them. The lawn mowers were weeding out extra grass in the front lawn and for a moment Preetha drifted apart. Preetha finally looked back at him after a few moments, looking at him firmly, she spoke in a steady and resolute voice, ‘Sir, I am a student and have not finished my education yet. My parents have done lot of hard-work and sacrificed immensely to see me here today. You seem to be from an educated family yourself and I am sure you have been taught to respect the wishes of others. I want to study, learn everything I can here and make my parents proud. I am really sorry but I feel this is neither the right time nor am I the right person for you. Kindly let me finish my education in peace.’ Saying this, she did not walk away; instead she waited for him to walk away. The boy had been stunned into silence by her retort. Probably he was not expecting such a reply. She had been polite yet firm. And then turning his back on her, he walked away.
It was dark outside and her golden wristwatch accusingly told her the time. It was 9 pm, mom would have started pacing near the front door by now, asking dad every fifteen minutes about the time. She had already called her ten times and each time Preetha had calmly told her that she will be late. She was preparing her project report and her project guide had told her to finish the work on that day itself. At 9:30 pm, Preetha got up from her study desk and stretched herself. It had been a long day but now she could finally go home. The project report was complete and she hoped that she could get recommended to attend the conference in Japan for presenting her paper next month. The phone in her jeans pocket buzzed again and she answered in a tired voice, ‘Yes appa! Yes, I have just finished my work and am on my way. No, you do not need to come over to pick me up, I will be ok.’
The library corridor was empty, insects buzzing around the tube lights. She locked the door and kept the keys inside her satchel. The librarian had special affection for this hardworking girl and he had given her a spare key for her project work. Her footsteps echoed on the lonely corridor and she felt just a bit scared. Outside it had grown a bit chilly, October was creeping in silently. The parking lot was empty except for her little car. As she walked towards her car, she felt a shadow move. She turned quickly but there was no one. Trembling she quickly opened her car, got inside and locked from inside. She was about to start her car when she saw them. There were two of them. In the dark the faces were not visible. In spite of cosy insides of her little car, protecting her like a mother’s womb, she felt horrified. The men looked drunk by the way they walked and Preetha collected her wits and started her car. But it would not budge. Preetha was scared for herself. Where were the college watchmen?
One of the men broke her window glass and opened the door. The other pulled out a bottle, the smell was familiar to her. Concentrated hydrochloric acid. She looked at them imploringly, folding her hands, tears in her eyes. Their own mouths and hand covered in protective gears, they emptied the bottle on her as the dark, parking lot burnt up with her agonised shrieks. The watchmen came running but the men had already escaped. Preetha writhed in unimaginable pain as her horrified body started to surrender to blind hatred. Pain. Anger. Darkness.
Sunita could not muster enough courage to look at her daughter. Her whole upper body was in bandages. Her lovely face seemed shrivelled with the tight bandages around it, eyes bruised and shut. Sunita was silently fighting with her gods. Why? Her simple mind could not fathom the amount of hatred a complete nobody could have towards her angelic daughter. It broke her to see her in so much pain, the doctors talking in whispers to Vinayam, Vinayam the rock solid foundation of their lives, shattered and broken.
The doctors had given their verdict. Preetha’s vision was gone in her right eye, completely. Her vocal chords were injured and her food pipe needed reconstruction. Overall a happy seventeen year old, bright girl was now a mess. A human vegetable. That day Preetha died not in her body but in her mind. Even in complete pain she saw her vision of joining the elite space scientist club evaporate. Her tears were gone along with her eyes. But what happens to those who do not have eyes? Do they dream? What are their dreams made up of? What gives them the courage to wake up every day and face their demons?
When a baby starts walking, each step they take is a miracle for the parents. They take pride in the fact that the child is completing her milestones on time. For Sunita and Vinayam, the phase which was over ages ago, began again. Every day began with hope. Preetha had to undergo forty reconstruction surgeries. Whatever savings the couple had were spent on them. The house was mortgaged too. But then it was for their only daughter.
Preetha took six months to start walking again. A year to talk, slurred and unintelligibly. Sunita prayed for a miracle every day. Some miracles happen in a day. Some happen over years. Over the next three years, everyone around Preetha, saw a miracle unfold.
Everyone needs a dream that gives them a reason to live. What drives them? What makes them happy or sad. Unless you walk into their shoes, could you ever know? Preetha was a hardworking girl, her determination had been shaken but not diluted. She worked harder every day. As her parents fought every minute for their daughter with the social stigma attached to acid attack victim, societal norms and the society itself, Preetha immersed herself in her education. Her college was very supportive, she was one of their brightest students. She finished her post graduation and then her doctorate with flying colours. But everyday her mirror disappointed her. Her flawless face was all shriveled now, skin congealed at several places. Her curls were partially gone too. People balked at seeing her. She tried to travel covering her face in public transports but nothing helped. As soon as her face was visible even partially, people would recoil in horror, disgust. Children ran away from her. She bore it all stoically. She was not just a face. It wasn’t her only identity. She had always been this stubborn, headstrong girl who always knew what she wanted and she considered these incidents as minor distractions.
It was the day she had worked so hard for. She was excited since morning, sleeping partially through the night. The mail came at sharp 9 am. With trembling fingers, she opened her mail. Sunita could sense her excitement. Vinayam had taken leave that day from his office. Both sat holding hands in the next room. The air itself was impregnated with so much hope. With bated breath they dreamt an impossible dream, looked at each other and prayed.
‘Amma! Appa!’ Preetha’s voice cracked with emotion. Sunita and Vinayam rushed to her room, fearing the worst. Preetha was crying and laughing at the same time. ‘I made it amma! I made it! I am so so happy Appa!’ Sunita and Vinayam broke down, hugging each other. The whole family sat on the floor. Sunita cradled her daughter’s head on her bosom, heaving with relief. Vinayam got up and sat on the chair, he read the mail and then re read it many times. Every time it sounded more and more impossible and yet here it was, their daughter had made it to NASA. She had been accepted as a junior scientist. She was asked to give her consent and also suggest a date of joining. Was it for real? He mused and then saw the attachment which was password protected.
‘Indian origin space scientist, Dr.Preetha Vishwanathan, is going to be posted at the Space station for the next four months. She will be studying the effects of prolonged stay of humans in space.’ Vinayam read the news paper proudly. Sunita sat by his side. Preetha was sitting near the apartment window. The sun poured in and Preetha soaked every inch of herself in it. Years ago someone had tried to erase her. Erase her identity. Erase her life. But that person had not taken into account the resilience of the human soul.
The moment that should have destroyed her, made her stronger instead. She could have given up, everyone expected her to, except her parents. They had been her pillars. She was thankful to god that she had them by her side. She had fought her battle, fought darkness and won it. What was her motivation? She wanted to fight for her parents. She knew how selflessly they loved her. But above all she fought for herself. She refused to be bowed down. Love does conquer all, all fear.