The scream kept reverberating in her head. She could not shake it out of her head. She closed her eyes tightly, put her hands on her ears. It was still there, resounding in her head, like the blast of funeral trumpets. She did not want to hear that scream. Yet, she was helpless. It was with her through every waking moment. It was part of every nightmare she had. It had entered her very being. It was coursing through her veins with blood. It was in every breath she took.
Roshni woke up with a start. Her palms were sweaty. Her heart was pounding. Her pulse was racing. Beads of sweat covered her forehead. She could see Neela standing before her. With a trembling hand, she switched on the bedside lamp, certain that Neela would be standing at the foot of the bed. In the light of the lamp, she could see no one. The shadow made by the lamp had an eerie quality to it. It lighted only part of the room. The rest of the room was in darkness. The silence was deafening.
Shaky legs hit the firm floor. Some confidence was restored. Roshni walked out towards the kitchen all the while overlooking her shoulder. She knew that she was alone. Yet, she could feel Neela's eyes boring into her back. She poured herself a glass of cold water and gulped it down too fast. She almost gagged. Coughing out the water which had entered her lungs, Roshni wiped the tears coursing down her cheeks. She knew she had to do something. She could not survive like this. She had to go back and find out the truth. She had to exorcise this screaming demon or else she was certain to occupy the room next to Neela.
Climbing up the stairs, the wrought iron Bannister appeared to scorch her hand. Roshni pulled her hand away with a start. The Bannister was the same. In fact, nothing in the house looked unusual. "Come on Roshni," she berated herself mentally. "Get a grip on yourself girl. You are alone, as you always have been. There is no one in the house. It is all in your head. Shake everything out. Be brave, girl. Act normal, Roshni." The words infused some confidence in her. From the medicine cabinet, she took out two Valium 5 mg, popped them in her mouth and gulped them down with the glass of water she had brought from the kitchen. Lying down on the bed, she started counting sheep jumping over the hedge. She had barely counted thirty-four when her eyes began to droop and she fell into a dreamless sleep.
A piercing shriek woke her. Roshni got up with a start. Disoriented, she looked around. She was alone. The light of the sun was sieving into the room through the net curtains. The dust particles were dancing in the sunlight as if happy to be alive. What a contrast! This was the emotion farthest from Roshni's mind. She looked at the source of the shriek. It was the alarm clock. She put out the alarm. The events of the night came flooding back. A sudden chill ran down her spine because everything appeared so fresh. She could vividly see Neela's face, her empty. lifeless eyes boring into her soul. She knew she had to get to the bottom of this.
Calling in sick to the office, she drove towards the hospital where she had first come across Neela. As she parked her car, she looked at the imposing name: Institute for the Mentally Challenged and Asylum for the Mentally Troubled. It burnt her soul. Yes, she had seen Neela in a 'mental hospital,' as it was commonly called by the people. "Strange," she thought to herself, "the name does not mention rehabilitation. Do such people never get rehabilitated?" With trepidation, Roshni walked inside.
The pungent smell of formaldehyde burnt the nostrils. The thick silence could be cut through with a knife. The echo of her own footsteps had a strange effect on her nerves. Despite wanting to, she could not walk fast. A sigh of relief escaped her lips when she saw Dr. Rohit Khanna's name plate on the door in front of her. She knocked. "Who is it?" came the query from inside. Opening the door an inch, she said, "Its me, doctor, Roshni Dev."
"Please come in Roshni."
Shaking hand with her, Dr. Khanna said, "Do sit down. What brings you to this side of the town so early in the morning? Your palm is sweaty. What is the matter? Are you alright?"
"I could not sleep last night. In fact, I have not been able to sleep properly ever since I saw Neela for the first time. Her scream keeps ringing in my ears. It is not going out of my head."
"Oh!" The doctor seemed lost in thought.
Roshni worked for an NGO, Trishna. Her NGO was looking into the living conditions of Institutes where mentally challenged and traumatized people were being treated. IMCAMT had been assigned to her. All kinds of patients resided here. Some suffered from mental illnesses while some were challenged. None had had an impact on her as had the eight-year-old Neela. The frail frame, clad in a frock, the almost shaven head, tiny thin fingers with chipped nails and the empty, lifeless eyes; all had left an indelible mark on Roshni. Neela was tall for her age. She could easily have passed for a ten-year-old. Yet, there was no innocence of an adolescent on her face.
Shaking her head, Roshni said, "Doctor, please tell me about Neela. I want to know. Have to lay my demons to rest."
"You talk about your demons. You can not fathom the demons that reside within Neela."
"I beg you to tell me."
"I can only tell you what is there in her files. Neela comes from a small village area near Delhi. I can not tell you the name of the village. Professional ethics forbid me to do so," said Dr. Khanna.
"I will not ask you to disclose the name."
Roshni's heart started to beat fast. Time had come for her to know Neela's story.She could hardly wait. She waited with baited breath for Dr. Khanna to continue.
"Neela lived with her parents and two siblings, an elder sister and a younger brother. Her father ran a grocery shop and her mother was a seamstress. They lived a comfortable life, not grand but reasonably good. All three children went to the nearby primary school. Neela was studying in Class III when this unfortunate incident happened," sighed the doctor.
"Which incident?" Roshni's heart was in her mouth as she asked.
"Well, the village, where they lived, was raided by members of a notorious gang. They looted many houses and murdered a number of people. Ram Avtar, Neela's father, was witness to this looting,arson, rape and murder. Being the upright man he was, he decided to lodge a complaint against the perpetrators of these crimes."
"It is sounding like the plot for a second-rate Hindi movie," Roshni said disappointingly.
"So it is but in this case there is no happy ending."
"Looking at Neela I can believe that to be true. What happened after Ram Avtar lodged the complaint?" asked Roshni.
"The goons came to Ram Avtar's house. They tied him and his son to a pole. In front of their eyes, all eight of them took turns in raping his wife and his elder daughter, who was fourteen at that time.The young girl's body could not take the trauma of such physical abuse. After the initial assault she began to bleed and continued to hemorrhage through the subsequent assaults. Right before their eyes, Reena bled to death."
"Oh my God! Oh my God! How could they? The animals! The beasts!" wailed Roshni.
"The attackers then pulled Neela's mother by her hair and brought her in the center of the room where both Ram Avtar and his son could watch the heinous act clearly. They assaulted her body again and again, one by one, together. Having had their fill, they butchered her battered body with knives," Rohit's voice was shaking now.
Tears were streaming down Roshni's eyes. She could not move. Her body had turned to stone. Her beating heart was the only indication that she was alive. Her benumbed senses could barely feel the glass of water Dr. Khanna thrust into hand.
"Drink up Roshni, drink up," he said.
Roshni almost choked. She coughed. She almost threw out the water she had sipped. She was surprised how it had managed to stay down in her stomach. She looked up at Rohit. He was pained to see so much hurt in her eyes.
"We will talk about this some other time, Roshni. I am writing a tranquilizer for you. It will help to calm your frayed nerves. Buy these tablets on your way home and take one before going off to sleep. It will do you good," Rohit said sympathetically.
"No, I want to know everything. Please doctor, tell me the rest of it," pleaded a very tearful Roshni.
"If you insist. Having satisfied their lust with the mother and young Reena, they turned to the young boy. They sodomized Rahul till the six-year-old also succumbed to death."
"The bastards! The sons of bitches! Blots on the name of mankind! Weak creatures who could only feel powerful through these inhuman acts!" Abuses rattled out of Roshni's mouth. She seemed possessed. Rohit was certain that she would have torn the man apart there and then, with her bare hands, had any of the rapists come before her. A fire, to take revenge, fueled by anger and revulsion, was burning within her.
There was no turning back. She had to know it all now.
"What did they do with Ram Avtar and little Neela?" asked Roshni timidly.
"They shaved off Neela's head, tore her frock to shreds and killed Ram Avtar before her eyes," Rohit said haltingly.
"Oh God, no! Oh God! Oh my God!" Roshni could only whimper.
"Let me take you to Neela's room. You had seen her from a distance.Let me show you what this has done to her fragile brain. You will witness for yourself the extent of trauma she has gone through and is still going through," Rohit said.
As she walked beside Rohit towards Neela's room, she couldn't help but notice the solemn expression on his face. An unbridled rage burnt inside him, ready to erupt like a volcano at the first given opportunity. Unbeknown to herself, her left hand reached out and held Rohit's right hand. Rohit merely squeezed her hand at first and then held on to it tightly.
"Brace yourself Roshni; for what you are about to witness now may never give you a moment of peace afterwards."
The moment Dr. Rohit Khanna opened the door, Neela began to scream. With every instance the screams grew louder. Then, suddenly, they stopped altogether. Lifeless eyes looking at them, Neela began to tear her frock. Roshni wanted to stop her but Rohit would not let go of her hand. As the frock lay in shreds around her, Neela took off her panty and lay naked on the bed with her legs spread.
Roshni was too shocked to move. Unstoppable tears rolled down her cheeks. Rohit had to drag her out of the room. Two women attendants moved into the room to clothe Neela. The pain on Rohit's face was reflected in the eyes of Roshni.
Rohit said in a pained voice,"The extent of her trauma is such that every time she sees a man in her room, she tears her dress and takes off her her undergarment."
Roshni was not listening. Walking towards her car she knew that The Scream would always remain with her. This was one demon which would never be exorcised.
October 7, 2010 at Pune.