My father said he chose Suraiya for me because she was blind. He said she would understand my fears and worries. Maybe that’s why I, too, understand her so well.
She was twelve years older than me and even as I was her master she always called me her little brother.
In just fifteen years my father had transformed his father’s fruit shop into a wholesale franchise that served most of south India. My grandfather chose a good bride for him. They held a festival when she got pregnant. I was meant to be the completion of their happiness. Two days they were the happiest pepole on the planet. It took them two days to notice my flaw and two years to travel the world’s hospitals to find there was no cure.
I was two when they hired Suraiya. I was six when Suraiya told me that her parents repaired and sold second hand sandals and that they could not afford a dowry big enough to find her a husband.
I was eight when she shook me awake in the dead of the night.
“We have to run,” she said. “Quick. Quick!”
“Sister, I’m tired.”
Her voice was shaking, nearly cracking.
“We have to run! Please! Please, quick!”
Her soft hands grabbed mine and she pulled me up.
“Remember how to jump?”
“We’re climbing trees now?”
She pushed the slippers on my feet.
“No!” she whispered. “We have to run away.”
“Is it night?”
“Be quiet,” she said.
Her pulling hands made me stand up and walk after her.
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Why do we have to run away at night?”
“Be quiet,” she said. “They might hear us.”
“Bad people are…”
The shout came from outside.
A voice I knew. The nightguard.
“This is private pro…”
Real shots don’t sound like those on TV. They are louder. They cut through everything. They are like thunders pressed into the fraction of a second.
I heard the servants screaming throughout the house. Then my father.
I don’t remember falling to the floor, but I remember Suraiya pulling my arm.
“We have to run,” she said. “We have to run and hide.”
I was sobbing with my head against the cold floor.
“Please,” she said. “I beg you. We have to run or bad.”
I shook my head and kept my body tightly on the floor.
“I want to sleep,” I said. “I just want to sleep.”
“We have to run. I beg you. Please come. Else bad things will happen.”
I fell to my side and wrapped my remaining arm around my legs.
My answer were sobs.
There were more screams and shots outside my room. Then there were more shots.
I heard the tears in her voice too.
“Okay,” she said. “Okay. Okay. We hide, okay? We stay here and we hide, okay?”
“I want to hide,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “We hide.”
I was still on the floor, but I started crawling when she pulled me towards the wardrobe.
I heard my father screaming my name.
“Be quiet,” she whispered.
The wardrobe doors creaked open and I heard her pull the boxes out. Then she pushed me inside. Her warm body pressed against mine and the front drape of her churidar fell over my head.
My bedroom opened with its soft whistle and one of the servants, Ram, called my name.
Suraiya pressed a hand on my mouth. Her hand smelled like jasmine flowers.
Ram’s feet ran back down the corridor.
“They are all bad,” she whispered. “They are all bad.”
The shots were louder now.
My father was downstairs, I heard him shouting for his rifle.
There were shots and the sound of glass breaking; much glass.
There was another shot and my father screamed. Then there were four more shots and my father stopped shouting.
Two pairs of feet rushed up the stairs.
Suraiya was breathing very fast. I felt something wet on my head and I.
“This room,” said a man.
The feet came in my bedroom.
“No one,” said the man.
“He must be with the girl,” said another.
“Okay,” said the first. “Let’s get out.”
They were back on the corridor when I heard another door open.
My mother screamed. The second man screamed too. There were two shots and then a pause.
“Oh no,” said one of the men.
“Madam!” screamed Ram.
There were many quick shots.
The feet ran back downstairs.
There was more wetness dripping on my head and I wiped it off my hair with Suraiya’s churidar.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
That moment, the smell of jasmine flower and the warmth of her body pressed against me and the softness of her churidar, that was the last moment that I ever felt safe.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “I forgot the time. I didn’t know this would happen.”
There was more wetness on my hair.
“I’m so sorry.”
I heard my mother calling my name. She sounded old.
Above me Suraiya was crying, now loudly.
“Go,” she said. “Go to her.”
Suraiya pressed to the side and I pushed the smooth wood open. I fell and it hurt.
My mother called my name again.
I crawled to the door and through the door and to the right.
The floor was warm and wet.
I heard my mother breathing and when I touched her she was still moving and her face was still moving, but she didn’t say anything anymore. I had my hand on her face and kissed her and cried. She whispered something that I didn’t understand. Then her hand touched mine.
Then she sank to the floor. And she didn’t answer. And she didn’t breathe.
And I sat there, in the warm liquid, and cried.
From inside my bedroom I heard Suraiya crying too.
There were sirens outside, then people shouting.
My mother was still quiet. Suraiya screamed two faint screams.
Many men ran into the house. They shouted “Are you okay, sir?” and then one of them shouted that someone should check upstairs.
They ran upstairs and they screamed at me to raise my hands.
When I raised my hands something warm ran from my hands down my arms and into my sleeves.
“My god,” said one of them.
When they stepped into my bedroom he said it again.
One of my father’s friends picked me up. My uncle came to get me two days later.
For a week I was asked many questions – questions about what happened, questions whether people had followed me in the last days, questions about Suraiya.
My uncle brought me to the U.S. to live with him.
He told me Suraiya hurt herself, but that she would recover. He said she couldn’t come with me.
I was scared without her. Scared even when I slept between my aunt and uncle.
It took them six months to find the men; they were caught while trying to abduct an infant.
They only succeeded because one of the servants had let them in.
They said that someone had also told them about me.
Someone had asked for money in return for helping them to get me.
A servant from our household, they said, a blind girl.
Suraiya was sentenced to twenty years.
All that happened ten years ago, but I told it so many times – to the police, to the courts, to therapists – that it feels as if it happened just now.
And maybe that’s also because I just turned eighteen.
One of the custodians has stolen part of my inheritance, but there was still enough left for me to travel back – with a friend as my guide.
Our house doesn’t stand anymore. The neighborhood smells of car fumes and rot. With the honking cars and the shouting merchants it is a hundred times louder than I remember.
It was hard to go to the prison.
To meet her.
Her face was not soft anymore and not smooth either. Her arms felt like bones wrapped in leathery skin. She shivered when I felt along the long scars on her arms from where she cut herself that night. The scars on her face were still fresh. She said she can’t defend herself against the others. She said she barely eats because they take the food from her.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
“I thought I was your brother.”
“I’m so sorry, I thought nobody would be hurt.”
“I wanted to have a life,” she said. “I wanted to find a husband.”
“But why all that?”
“To pay for the operation,” she said.
Suraiya took my hands, just like that night. But this time mine were big and hers were small and dry and shaking. She pulled me to her face. Gently she placed my fingers against her eyes.
“They are not like yours,” she said. “Mine can be healed.”