Three ‘o’ clock. It was raining I supposed, the Tata Sky dish could not pick up a signal. Hmm. Going up to the terrace in the rain might be fun at three in the morning.
I kept the television on. Switching it off makes me feel more lonesome than usual.
Boring. It was only a drizzle. I had been up there in the midst of a storm a couple of days back so, this was a disappointment. Then I saw it: The house. I didn’t know who lived there. I don’t know my neighbours. When you don’t know people they don’t usually bother you. I liked it that way. Looking up, I saw this little patch of black cloud hovering over this house. That piqued my interest. It seemed to foretell a story of doom.
I made up my mind to go snooping around it in the morning. Can’t do stuff like that at night, you know. Eh. It would be boring in the morning. There would be a wife in a thick, old sari. A few little kids, maybe. The husband wouldn’t be home. He would be out, probably working, probably fantasizing about women who didn’t wear boring saris or at least concealed tantalizing secrets underneath them.
Every household houses secrets, dark secrets that lose their importance as your knowledge of them grows old. Such secrets do not bare their teeth in broad daylight when you knock at their door.
The next night I took my state-of-the-art video camera to the window. When do people sleep around here? Twelve ‘o’ clock at the latest? I switched the camera on and aimed it at the house. Night vision – On. Zoom in, in, in, in, in…perfect. Zero activity. I could make out a bed. There was somebody sleeping on it.
15 minutes. 20 minutes. 45 minutes. This shit is pointless. I should go to bed…OK, just ten more minutes… Wait. The door opened. A man entered. Probably the man of the house, the father, the husband, whatever—he was waking the person on the bed. It was a little girl. Maybe she wets the bed. No, what is he doing? Is he…? Oh my God. No, that cannot be a little girl. Zoom in, zoom in to the face. Oh my God. She is barely…what…eight? And he has white hair.
I could not look away. I looked on as he kissed her. I watched as he kept moving his hands all over her body. Who was this man? No, he was too old to be the father, too young to be her grandfather. Uncle? Yes, uncle.
I watched them for a month. He would not come into her room every night; thrice a week, twice a week, sometimes once in two weeks. It varied with the urgency of his desire, varied with opportunity too, I guess. Then the last night, the last night that I saw them, he completed the deed. I cannot put it in better words. So, understand what you must. She did not resist much. She lay there motionless under his grip, twitching now, flinching then. I could not look away. In her eyes I saw the agony of a woman forced to awaken in the heart of a child.
I had to go away for a week the next day, on an assignment. I am a photographer, did I mention? When I returned the little girl was not there. An old lady resided in her room. And I didn’t pursue the matter much. But it astonished me that I had discovered the secret of the house. I wonder what other secrets would have unravelled had I looked into any of the other rooms…
About roughly two decades later, an old man came to my apartment.
“Hello! My daughter is getting married next month on the 22nd, and since you live in this neighbourhood, you have to come”, he flashed me an amicable smile, handing me an invitation card. Nice old chap he was, very sweet, very friendly.
“Oh, I will definitely try”, I said smiling back. There was no way I was going.
“Oh no, no, you must come! In earlier days, the entire village would be invited on occasions such as these. You happen to be a close neighbour. So, you just have to come. Are you new here? I have never seen you around”, he asked with a mild frown after his chatter.
“Well, uh…yes”, I conceded with a smile. That was easier than going into an explanation. I was already itching to get away from this social rendezvous.
“Oh, welcome to the neighbourhood then! My house is the orange one right there”, he said pointing to the house that had been the object of my sinful curiosity so many years ago. So… wait! The little girl was getting married..? It had to be so! I wanted it to be so. That should be interesting.
“Oh! Okay. I will definitely come”, this time my smile was genuine, “Is the bride-to-be your only daughter?”
“Yes”, he smiled warmly like a bride’s father would, “Life will be different after she’s gone. I mean, it’s not like we have never lived without her. She had studied in a boarding school from the third grade. It was her mother’s wish, not mine. But this time, she’ll never return home to stay”, he kept looking down while he said this.
“Yes, separation is always hard.” So, that was why I did not see her again.
She was beautiful. Her bridal garb made her more so. She looked happy, really happy. And she was lively too. She flashed me a gorgeous smile when I handed her the wedding present. Did she know that this stranger knew her deepest, darkest secret? But everything seemed so unreal. Looking at something from afar through a cam makes it a distant story, something you can’t touch. Touching it breaks the illusion; makes the story surreal.
“Hello, is this seat taken?” I asked a fat, portly woman later, as I carried my share of the wedding feast to her table.
“Oh no, please sit.”
“Are you the bride’s aunt?”
“Yes”, she answered with a broad smile, “And you are..?”
“I live nearby.” It’s idiotic how much you have to smile at social encounters.
“Oh! Are you new here? I haven’t seen you around much. I visit a lot even though I live away.” She smiled through a mouthful of rice, “I’m her paternal aunt.”
“Do you have any other brothers?” I tried to appear conversational and friendly, and not just curiously curious.
“No. No, Sulekha does not have any uncles, only aunts!”
“Oh…” Who was it then, a servant, a family friend staying over..? “Does she have any sibling?” I quickly recomposed my smile.
“Oh yes, Shantanu, an elder brother, quite elder to her, seventeen years, actually. He stays at America now, but he’s here for the wedding. People call him ‘Shanky’—”
The woman’s voice faded away as I turned around and looked at the old man smiling pleasantly and shaking a guest’s hand. All the pieces of the puzzle flew into place. A brother older by seventeen years would make the father quite older for an eight old daughter—too old to be suspected of being the father but not old enough to be considered a grandfather: Just right, like Goldilocks’ bed. The very sweet, very friendly old man caught me staring at him and flashed me a smile. He was Mr. White Hair all those nights.
Voyeurism can be oddly enchanting. I spent so many years looking through my camera at people’s lives that I missed out on observing that of my own. But the camera of life does not stop; it keeps snapping pictures of our misdeeds like Polaroid on a roll. And when those snapshots fell at my feet, the monstrosity in them forced me to break the camera. I did not have to think about it for long. The answer was pretty simple, pretty apt. So, I walked over to my medicine cabinet, took out the bottle of sleeping pills and took a deep breath.
And two for good luck.