Gauri smiled as she glanced at the cheesy handbag Mihir had given her. “My heart for you!” he had said extravagantly, pointing to the red heart drawn boldly on it.
It was drizzling. Her parents had gone for a wedding, leaving her with Shyama, her older sister, who had gone to buy groceries.
Was that a knock on the door or a branch hitting the glass window, she wondered. It came again, and she opened the door. Sudhansu, their over-friendly neighbour, stood outside. She was not comfortable with him as he stared at her when he thought she was not looking. As the drizzle intensified, Sudhansu asked her for a cup of tea.
As Gauri began to boil the water, Sudhansu crept into the kitchen, a gleam in his shifty eyes. Before she could react, he pounced on her! She screamed as she felt the cold edge of a knife at her throat.
"Shut up or I'll kill you - and your sister!" he grated. She fell silent out of abject fear. The pain was intense as he violated her, but she could only sob, hoping even in that haze of pain that Shyama wouldn't walk in suddenly. The monster would not spare her either!
The horrific act over, Sudhansu grinned evilly, as he said, "Now be a good girl and keep your pretty mouth shut! Or else I'll finish off your entire family!"
She cowered in a corner, loud sobs escaping her. When Shyama came back, she found her strangely quiet.
Gauri would often wake up at night, drenched in sweat, visions of Sudhansu’s malevolent face driving sleep away. Panic-stricken, she would sob, till slivers of dawn sliced their way through her window. Dark circles appeared under her large eyes as she went into a shell. The haunted expression on her face frightened her family, as they tried desperately to solve the mystery. She began to fall ill. Fever racked her slight frame and she grew steadily weaker as she fought to keep her food down.
"What is wrong, my child?" Her mother would cajole, weeping at the wreck her daughter had turned into. Shyama too tried to break through her defences, but the young girl had created a stone wall around her. Even her close friends backed away, as she lay listless, not meeting their anxious gazes. Life was slowly oozing out of her.
Shyama would bring home goodies to tempt her little sister to eat. Slowly, the pall of gloom began to lift and the sun rays began to enter the closed mind of the girl. The dreadful memory of that day began to fade.
Time slipped by. Gauri regained her spirits and her relieved friends came back to her. However, her health was still a matter of concern. One day, after a particularly feverish night, she was taken to hospital, where she went through a battery of tests.
"Mr. Raman!" The young doctor's voice was grave as he faced her parents. "Gauri has been diagnosed as HIV+!"
The words resounded like a thunderclap! HIV+!
The very word had such deep implications! How could their beloved Gauri have contracted it?
"We will need to run a few tests on you and your wife as well!"
The tests were negative. Now the truth had to be faced.
"Appa, please let me speak to her!" pleaded Shyama. "She will tell me everything!"
Gauri wept copiously as a horrified Shyama took in the immensity of the horror, the ugly truth. "That wretched scoundrel! I could strangle him!"
An arrest was made despite Sudanshu's pleas of innocence. The police, however, couldn't prove anything due to lack of evidence. He was let out on bail. As he walked out of the court, a group of Gauri's friends and supporters booed him. One man even slapped him. "Rapist!" and "Hang him!" echoed in his ears as he made his way home. “Put up pictures of him everywhere, labelling him as a rapist!” said an outraged female voice. “Castrate him.” Had the police not been around, he would probably have been lynched.
Fortunately, a medical examination proved that he was HIV+. Once again the police cross-examined him. “Tell us the truth, or else...!” He finally cracked and confessed to his heinous crime. His reasons were pitiably laughable. "My Guru told me that I would be cured if I had a relationship with a virgin!"
As the incredulous spectators heard him out in disgust, the gory details poured out. "A visit to a red light area got me infected. I wanted to lead a normal life! I was willing to clutch at any straw...!" That straw happened to be his young innocent neighbour!
At court, Gauri related the incident, showing great strength of mind; tears flowed down her cheeks as she relived the nightmare. She received compensation for the mental and physical anguish she had suffered. Sudanshu was sentenced and sent to prison for a very long time. By the time he got out, he would be in no condition to rape anyone ever again!
Gauri continued with her treatment. She had become quite the heroine as people who came to sympathize, stayed to compliment her on her fortitude. She resolved to live the life she had chosen for herself. She counselled rape victims and talked to young girls about her horrendous experience. She always ended, saying, "If only I had had the courage to blow the whistle on my attacker earlier, I would have been saved much heartache."
To parents, she simply said, "Please teach your girls to defend themselves against such attacks. And please, believe them when they tell you that they have been molested in any way! Always remember your child will never lie to you about something like this!"
Mihir’s red heart proved as spurious as it had looked on the bag. He disappeared. But Gauri married Ramesh, who was also HIV+, and had consoled her in her darkest hours. For Gauri, the nightmare was finally over!