(You can read Part 1 and Part 2 here.)
Her name was Shalini. I still remember the first time I saw her. She had come to our house holding her father's hand. A child. No more than four or five years old. Sucking her thumb and clinging behind her father. I still remember it so well. And her eyes. Taking everything in. So eager and full of life. That was the first thing that I noticed about her.
She came from a poor family. Maybe that was one reason for her life to be doomed. Her mother passed away when she was ten years old. I remember her looking at me beseechingly at the funeral. She was so young, hardly a few years older than your mother. It broke my heart to see her mourn death at such a young age. The hands of death first touched her then. But her bad luck was just beginning.
A few months after her mother's death, her father remarried. The reason he told everyone was that Shalini needed a mother. She was a growing girl who needs a mother more than her father. The woman looked harmless enough, the few times I saw her. But there was something about her that made her seem like a threat in Shalini's eyes. Who could blame her? She had just lost her mother. And slowly, she felt her father was slipping away from her hands too.
Those days she used to come over here and play. Sometimes with your mother, sharing our meals and your grandmother treated her just like she did her own daughter. She loved listening to my stories. Begging me for more even when it was time for her to go home. She was reluctant to go home. Always.
I saw a new emotion in her eyes then. Fear. Though I tried to reassure her that it was all in her head, that her step mother was only trying to help her, she never said anything. Neither agreeing nor disagreeing with me. She would just watch me.
Once I strung a swing on ropes on this Pala tree, a swing that went to a great height. Your mother was scared initially. But I still remember how Shalini stood fascinated by it. She would wait patiently for her turn and would urge me to push her higher and higher. Till her laughter echoed in our courtyard.
As she grew older, her visits to our house dwindled. She would come once in a while, talk to your mother and grandmother and leave. It was as though she trod around me carefully, now that she was a young woman. I heard that she was still sent to school, but her grades began to suffer. She was a bright girl but there was something that was bothering her.
And that was when the wretched thing happened.
I can still see that day folding in front of my eyes. It still remains fresh in my memory. If only I had another chance to do things differently, I would. I curse myself thinking back. How could I have been so stupid and naive?
It was a cold windy evening, clouds hovering in a grey sky that threatened to fall any moment. That was when Shalini came running to our home. Eyes distraught, her clothes astray, the skin on her hands and legs bruised. She was fifteen years old now, not a mere child who could be punished physically, for whatever the mistakes she must have done. Sobbing down by my feet, she told me everything. The physical abuse that she was subject to by her step mother. How her father was merely a puppet in her hands, that he had no voice anymore in things. The mental torment she was put to, all these years.
And that evening, she had had enough. She didn't want to go back anymore. She feared she would lose her mind. Or do something which she would regret later on. I should have listened to her then. But all I did was ask her to go back home. She was not a child anymore. And I couldn't keep her here, without her father's permission. No matter how hard the decision was for me to take, she would have to go back.
I remember how she turned to look back at me reproachfully one last time before walking home. And that was the last I saw her alive. The night was heavy with rain and thunder. The next morning, the news spread like wildfire. That Shalini was found hanging from a tree in the field.
Some say it was suicide. That she ended her own life because she couldn't take the torture any more. Others say she was killed and hung up. The tree was too tall for her to have climbed it herself. What was the truth? I did not know, my child. I was baffled. But what I knew was this, that I gave her the final push towards her death. Yes, maybe I did not know it that evening. But I will never forget the look she gave me before she left, for as long as I live. It was hurt; that I did not believe her. Or maybe it was regret. For trusting me...
... To be continued.