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Staring at the Square Moon
by Atima Mankotia (Book Preview) | Published On: 15-Nov-2017


Spanning four decades from the mid-1970s to the present day, Staring at the Square Moon tells the story of four women whose lives come together in early childhood. They develop special bonds that always connect them even when their lives get disassociated as each follows her own destiny. Each one of them grapples with her past, sometimes thriving, sometimes floundering, always confronting and struggling with the aftermath and consequences of abuse that lurk just beneath the surface threatening to overwhelm and destroy their lives. 
Will they be defeated by their dark past or will they be able to overcome it? 


Given here is the first chapter from this book, Staring at the Square Moon by Atima Mankotia


Chapter 1

Silver Butterfly, NAYANTARA, Delhi, 1976


Shahebji Shahebji, here is the shalt.’ Nayantara lisped sending everyone into peals of laughter while Hari’s thick lips amiably widened into a grin showing his teeth all crammed together, the size of jumbo Chiclets. His hill accent, with a prominent shsound amused the children with Nayantara mimicking him with her natural aptitude.


Hari, hailing from a village in the hills, was hired a few days before school began. Fair, short, heavyset and in his mid-twenties, he regaled the children by horsing around with a couple of them on his sturdy shoulders and narrating entertaining incidents from his village. A fastidious worker, he wormed his way into the good books of Ram Prasad and befriended the simple-minded Senapati.


‘NattuGudiya, come and sit on my lap.’ Hari patted his thigh cheerfully as she sat cross-legged on the ground during one of the story sessions that were now limited to weekends because of school.


Hesitating for a brief moment, Nayantara plonked herself on his lap. As she listened with rapt attention to her grandmother unfolding a story layer by layer with superb verbal imagery, she felt something pokey and stiff digging into her soft bottom. Uncomfortable, she tried to wriggle away, but Hari’s warm clammy hands held her tight, his hot breath coming in short pants, loud in her ears. She squirmed, adjusting her tiny bottom away from the pokey thing, looking at Hari reproachfully. Hari smiled a secret smile pulling her deep into his lap.


Nani, I want to sit in your lap.’ Nayantara’s voice was a loud childish squeal. Even in her distress and confusion, she had perspicacity to know that something was not quite right.


‘What happened, Nattu? Come and sit with me.’ Kalavati, unaware of Nayantara’s bewilderment, gathered her in her soft lap. Nayantara stole a glance at Hari who looked sweaty and flushed. His mouth widened into a smile that did not come within hailing distance of his eyes. Nayantara stuck out her tongue at him.


‘NattuGudiya does not like sitting on my lap.’ Hari looked rueful with a joke’s-on-me voice, his hollow smile almost menacing.


Nayantara, in the protective circle of her grandmother’s arms, became engrossed in the story, the incident soon fugue-like in her mind.





‘Can I play with you?’ Hari plodded quietly into the room.


Nayantara, who loathed afternoon siestas unable to fathom why adults loved them, gambolled in a first floor room where pigeons sweet-talked in the roof beams, after coming back from school. She read her favourite book of butterflies and played make-believe games where she was a princess trained in the art of warfare fighting victorious wars.


‘You can play only if you become the villain and let me kill you.’ Nayantara was pleased to have a playmate, the earlier episode unremembered.


‘Ok, I will be the bad man.’ Hari agreed with alacrity.


‘You have to die when I hit you with the sword.’


Nayantara clasped a wooden sword in one hand.


When Nayantara poked his chest with the point of the sword, Hari dutifully slumped on the floor pretending to be dead. Nayantara put one foot on his chest and raised the hand holding the sword above her head as a symbol of victory.


Hari suddenly grabbed Nayantara, tickling her playfully. Nayantara collapsed on the floor giggling helplessly. ‘Do you know what this is?’ Hari tickled her thighs with a watery groan, his voice muzzy as his sweaty hand wandered further. ‘I will tell you the secrets of this place one day.’ Hari’s voice was hoarse.


‘I will ask Nani.’ Nayantara felt uneasy, confused thoughts flitting through her mind.


‘You must not ask anyone because it is a secret and they will not tell you.’ Hari’s voice was a deep growl that made him sound like a dog on the verge of attacking an intruder.


Nayantara sprang up taking Hari by surprise and bolted down the stairs, her heart beating loudly with fright.


She ran straight to her grandmother who was taking a nap and snuggled next to her.


‘Come and take a nap, child. You must be tired.’ Kalavati patted her lovingly.





Hari popping up in Nayantara’s room like a darned old jack-in-the-box when the adults were napping in the hot afternoons became a regular occurrence. Pretending to play with her, Hari touched her in ways that made her uncomfortable but Nayantara was unable to arrange the thoughts clearly in her head.


One afternoon, Hari began stroking her back and head like the massage Nani gave her on Sundays. Then he suddenly pulled down his striped pajamas, rubbing furiously at something that looked like a brownish thick rubber tube. Sweat streamed down his face pattering on the floor, the smell overpoweringly yeasty. Nayantara quivered with indignation, her body jittering and jerking away from him. Hari grasped her powerfully, a queerly empty look on his face that all of a sudden cramped in a rather frightening expression of pleasure.


‘I will tell Nani that you pissed in the room.’ Nayantara’s thoughts were semi-coherent and she was almost on the verge of tears when she saw a white foamy drool drip onto the floor.


‘If you tell anyone, I will tell them that it was you who pissed in the room.’ Hari’s voice was maddeningly complacent yet threatening.


Nayantara was quiet, her head bursting with thoughts of the humiliation she would face on account of such a revelation, the shame yawning at her feet in a clear wide chasm. Nayantara, an unwilling participant in an activity her five-year-old mind could not grasp, did not possess the relevant vocabulary to explain to her grandmother or even to her mother who called her every evening.


The silver-tongued devil, Hari had brainwashed her into believing that she would be scorned and subject to much derision in case she told anyone.


The game soon sprouted ugly tentacles when Hari lay on top of Nayantara panting and rubbing himself furiously till Nayantara felt the disgustingly warm foamy liquid seeping into her underpants. Hari changed her underclothes concealing the soiled ones in some cranny till he had an opportunity to burn them. Nayantara’s mind was screaming but the fear of disgrace held her back from vocalising her despair.




‘I can’t find Nattu. She was in her room but now she is not there. I have looked for her everywhere.’ Hari, a coward under the boisterous exterior, was scared.


Unperturbed, Kalavati gathered the household help and Ram Prasad’s children, setting them the task of finding Nayantara, convinced that the child would be on top of a tree or behind a bush. After searching in vain for more than an hour, an overwrought Kalavati was mulling over whether she should ask Ram Prasad to inform Kripashankar.


As she stood in the courtyard, her head throbbing, her heart thudding with panic, her external calm hiding her deep anxiety, she spotted Nayantara near the Champa tree, her hair and face covered in black soot. Kalavati, letting out a huge sigh of relief, swooped down on the befuddled child. Once assured that the child was unscathed, she twisted her ear sharply. ‘Rascal, where had you disappeared? We have been searching for you for hours. I was about to call the police.’ Kalavati, unable to control herself, slapped Nayantara, her voice shrill with anger and relief. ‘I was in the coal cellar.’ Nayantara did not as much as flinch. The coal cellar, a cupboard at the far corner of the backyard, was a scary place for the children as they believed it was inhabited by ghosts and monsters. ‘What were you doing there?’ Kalavati was perturbed. ‘I was hiding from a monster.’ Nayantara’s voice was small.‘You are a little monster yourself. Why would you need to hide from them? Now come and have a bath and get into clean clothes.’ Kalavati, although still mad, spread her hands on Nayantara’s shoulders in a gesture that simultaneously conveyed exasperation and reassurance. ‘Ram Prasad, put a lock on the door of the coal cellar so that this little devil can’t enter again!’ Her voice was stern. ‘Did you see any monsters inside?’ Gopu was curious. ‘Weren’t you scared?’ Pappu was all admiration. ‘I saw a big ugly monster outside the cellar. I entered the cellar and locked him out. Then I recited the prayer taught by Nani that scared him away.’ Nayantara boasted about her adventure to the boys while being dragged by her grandmother towards the bathroom.



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Atima Mankotia

Atima Mankotia

Written: 0 Story

Member Since: 15-Nov-2017


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