The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, May 13, 2001
Life Ties

Guarding a dreadful secret
By Taru Bahl

SURJEET was Santokh Singh’s fourth daughter. She was also the most beautiful. Long limbed, graceful and blessed with a pearly white complexion, she was the pride of the family. Veer was the eldest child and the only son. He was extremely possessive about Surjeet. Like a protective elder brother, he hovered around her, believing that so long as he was there no harm would befall her.

That was why he never forgave himself for the incident which took place when she was barely 8 years’ old. His uncle was getting married and one of the functions had been organised in their house. His sisters were assisting their mother in the kitchen and he was urged to keep an eye on Surjeet. While playing on the terrace the ball fell over the parapet. He jumped over to retrieve it. She was leaning over the shaky wall of the terrace. Before he realised what was happening, a brick gave way and she hurtled down from the second floor of the house. There was no bleeding or external wound. Cursory check-ups by neighbourhood doctors did not reveal anything serious. However, as the months rolled by, the damage began to show. Her reflexes and mental health became sluggish, her mood swings got severe and her performance in school plummeted. Initially, they put down her memory lapses and behavioural changes to teenage tantrums but were soon forced to acknowledge that something was wrong. She became high strung, violent and abusive. At the slightest provocation she would stage a dramatic walkout. For hours she would be missing. Sometimes neighbours found her sitting on a bench in a park or hanging around aimlessly in the market place and brought her home. Her father tried ‘taming’ her by thrashing her, locking her up and denying her food. When this didn’t help they took her to quacks and witch doctors, hoping a miracle would rid her of the curse.


Their mother, who was asthmatic, had only recently passed away after a severe attack followed by cardiac arrest. The onus of running a chaotic household fell on the young daughter-in-law, Kanta. She knew that she was the backbone of the family and was expected to fulfil her responsibilities towards her unmarried sisters-in-law. Nothing was hidden from her. She knew that resources were limited. There was her father-in-law’s pension and her husband’s salary from the school where he was maths teacher. Veer took tuitions at home, bringing in some extra income which went into building up a balance for the girls’ weddings. The need to find a quick solution to Surjeet’s ‘problem’ was pressing since the elder sisters had to get married. On the advice of an astrologer and with the help of a trusted person they fixed an alliance with a boy from a humble family hoping that marriage would be a solution to Surjeet’s problems. Within one year, her in-laws washed their hands off her and sent her to her father’s home. They said they couldn’t control her. She was completely out of hand, mixing up with the colony’s rowdy lads.

Before Santokh could resolve this dilemma and work out a viable arrangement, Surjeet became pregnant. The child was not her husband’s. The entire family was gripped with panic. She was an unfavourable influence on the children in the house. They got the child aborted and after much trepidation put her into an institution for destitute women. Every week both Santokh and Veer went to see her, taking with them her favourite eats, clothes and knick knacks. Meanwhile, the girls got settled. They had worked hard and had managed to do secretarial courses within their limited resources and landed jobs in government offices. Both had married boys of their choice, in simple registered weddings without dowry.

As the months rolled by, Surjeet’s violent outbursts became worse and the authorities insisted she be put in an asylum because they were not geared to handle her. From here on her mental health took a turn for the worse. Perhaps electric shocks and heavy medication had left permanent scars. There were times when the father-son duo found her without clothes. According to the warden, she used to tear them off. There were times they feared for her safety. They had heard rumours of how the male employees, in connivance with female staff of the establishment, sexually exploited the inmates. They chose to ignore such dark thoughts but couldn’t help choke with emotion when they saw her bruised, sometimes with open sores, sitting in a near-naked state, making guttural sounds like an animal. Gradually, she stopped recognising them. For Veer it was traumatic going to see her, especially on Raksha Bandhan. His favourite sister had been reduced to a lunatic skeleton and he could do nothing to help her. The sad part was that could they neither wash their hands off her nor could they bring her back to the safe cocoon of their home.

For 15 years, they carried on like this. The father and son bore the cross of their burden as stoically as they could, breaking down in the privacy of their rooms, unable to come to terms with their own sense of inadequacy. They dreaded the future for they knew not what it had in store for them. They were summoned to the asylum one morning and told to take Surjeet away. She was completely bed ridden and needed serious medical attention which only the family could take responsibility for.

She was brought home. The shock of seeing her in that pitiable state was too much for the children to bear. Kanta, Santokh and Veer did their best, bodily carrying her to hospitals, hoping to cure her and reinstate her in the asylum. But once they realised that her recovery was a remote possibility and her being with them a permanent option, they got worried. The tension at home was building up and the expenditure on her treatment was mounting.

With a heavy heart they mapped out what they felt was the only possible course of action, if they wanted her alive. They wrapped her up in a clean sheet, made a small bundle which contained basic clothes, money, medicines and her medical file and took her to the city’s biggest civil hospital. In the early hours of the morning when it was still dark and the hospital corridors were silent they stealthily placed a semi-conscious Surjeet outside the general ward. Discreetly they kept checking on her. Around 10 am, when the hospital was teeming with out-patients they saw there was commotion around her eerily still body. The nurses were shouting, trying to find out who was with the sick and dying woman. When no one responded they wheeled her inside for an examination since her condition was critical. At this point Santokh and Veer left. For the next few days, they came and tried checking on the progress of the ‘mysterious patient’ by making unobtrusive enquiries but on the seventh day they found her bed empty. It was as if she had vanished from the face of the earth. They waited for another week and then after much thought lodged a complaint at the police station about their ‘missing daughter’. Soon after they claimed an unidentified body from a mortuary as one of their own, gave it the identity of Surjeet and performed her last rites. It was a way of telling the world that the child who was theirs had finally been laid to rest. Though physically they had freed themselves of the burden, emotionally Santokh and Veer turned into complete wrecks. Veer could never get out of his mind the image of his smiling sister playing on the terrace before the fall changed her destiny. Had they failed her? Could things have been different if she had been given timely medical attention? Did her marriage aggravate her condition? Was the family insensitive to her needs ? Should they have kept her at home instead of putting her in an institution ? These were questions which would trouble Veer’s conscience for the rest of his life.

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