I look at his face. Now lined with deep wrinkles; each one a surly witness to a deed committed a long time ago. Deeds? How many of his perverse thoughts had he acted out since then?
I look at his face as he smiles. The gleam of his sins unhidden, unbidden, pierces the atmosphere like flying shards of broken glass. They fall everywhere – treacherous, menacing and so sly. Of course, no one sees them but me. I see each insidious piece as clearly as I remember what happened so many years ago.
I look at the face of the old family retainer. The man who has spent over twenty five years in my parents’ home. My home. The man I have known since I was seven years old. The man who I now detest. But my hate is private. Painfully private. It roils and screams in the most secret recesses of my mind. And my heart keeps pace. Racing, pounding, pulsing with revulsion and frustration. That combination is such an odd one. It sucks the essence out of you. It saps you of your sense of self and leaves you feeling hollow and wretched. You try and pull yourself together and then you’re knocked down again by a flood of ugly memories. The deed was singular, the one and only. But the memory has multiplied, spread like a fungus around the edges of my hippocampus. After thirty years, most times now it lies quietly, unobtrusively. At other times, it flies at me taking over my being. Like now. Because he’s here. In my home.
He has come to pay his respects to my parents. He has done this periodically since his retirement twelve years ago. I look at his face. I look at the ugly caricature of a smile pasted on it. I look around me at the faces of my mother and my father. They are smiling back. I look away. I pull myself together and while I look back at the scene, pretending to not remember, pretending to play along – I have perfected this dreadful deception over the last three decades – my mind is assaulted, attacked with a force that is visceral and raw. The multiplied, grotesquely teeming memories of that day march in with their battering rams.
I was eleven. My young body was just budding. I became aware of that fact on that day. He said he wanted to show me something. He took me into the kitchen. That kitchen is also embedded in my memory like a gravestone. He squatted on the floor and pulled me close. Then he showed me pictures: Naked men and women entwined with one another in black and white, stared back into my bewildered eyes. He pulled me closer. He was saying something to me.
I suddenly became aware of the weight of his arms around my waist. Just a minute ago, he was the trusted old family retainer, a protector, another father figure in the house, someone who was still watching me grow up. Someone who, in our household was given all the respect one does to an older relative. Even in my all-cloaking innocence, I suddenly felt anxious. Afraid. Even though the figments of my apprehension were like unclear wraiths flitting about in my mind, intuition had kicked in. I knew this was not right. And yet, he was Kabeer chacha*; the man who served as the ward and protector of the children of the house – me and my brother – when my parents were not at home. The man who was the embodiment of paternal care and concern. He was now also the man who had in the last few minutes molested my young mind.
I pulled away. My instinct told me to do so. I also somehow knew that I had to behave normally. I asked him where he had got the photos. I remember, he smiled then. Now when I am assailed by the memory, I can see the ugly perversity under his saccharinus smile as he said he had many more that he would show me. I also remember the one and only thing I managed to say to him then: “I don’t want to see any more. I don’t like them”. And that was it. I’m not sure if my sense of being violated could be any more tormenting or distressing if that initial predatory act had been followed by more. I’m not even sure if I consider myself lucky that that was the extent of the ravagement. The only thing I am sure of is that I still carry the brutalising memory and also the overwhelming burden of keeping it a secret.
I look at his face now. I feel an acid revulsion. But I can’t show it. The whole family treats him like one of their own. I’m repulsed by that realization but I can’t show it. I was too young, too naive, too unprepared to have processed the vile act when it transpired. And now, thirty years after it happened, the burden of tradition, shame and the messiness of an aftermath has further paralysed me.
Such is the double edged sword that is the south Asian equation between the young and the old. The right to speak and to be heard is the absolute privilege of the latter. The dutiful acquiescence, the respectful submission of the young, to the gracious, the bizarre and even the evil inclinations that the respected elder might bring to this equation is also absolute.
He suddenly takes my eight year old niece’s hand and pulls her to him. He is sitting on his haunches just as he had done thirty years ago and he’s holding her close, just as he had gripped me thirty years ago. I freeze. But only for a few seconds. The bile rises to my throat followed by the tightening noose of a sob. I choke back both. I can feel my eyes stinging but I smile at little Sania and tell her it is time to bake our brownies. I take her hand and pull her away. Even as I walk away with her, I feel the hot tears as they spill down my face. I wipe them away as fast as they come. No one should see. No one can know. It is still my private affliction and I will live with it as best as I can. But I also know now that I can protect the rest of the children of the family in our home.
I feel a blaze in my heart – cleansing, renewing and strengthening. I look at Sania’s lovely little face shining with excitement and the pure joy of childhood and I grin at her. I kiss the top of her head and we take over the kitchen.
* Chacha: An Urdu term meaning uncle. Also used as a term of respect for an older man.