The new house was just behind the Mother Goddess’ temple.
At first, everyone was talking about it – the location of the house. They said prosperity and safety could not have been personified better than this. It was as if the grace of the Mother Goddess fell directly upon the house and its inhabitants.
My second uncle on my mother’s side was married in this house. He was married for a year when the couple was blessed with a baby girl. The baby was born with orthopaedic problems. In her first year, she spent most days in hospital beds than in the house. But, her birth had marked the beginning of the end of the existing familial discord. The long lasting differences between the nuclear fragments at least temporarily disbanded. Everyone – distant and close – came in to congratulate the couple and bless the new born. We were living in a different city, my father having moved there for work. But, that year, during the summer break, my family visited them.
The house but small consisted of two bedrooms and a hall that interacted with the kitchen and the bathroom. The hall was the best part of the house, neat and long – turned into play-area, television-watching area, or family-gossip area. The visitors to the house – cousins and nieces – when they stayed over, slept in the hall.
The windows in the hall opened to the temple’s back wall. In the evening and through the night, one could easily see the gopuram* with the single light on. As the night would fall, all the lights in the house would be turned off. But the light from the temple would enter through the window as a full moon’s – smooth and graceful.
The temple, due to its proximity, easily became part of our routine. My grandmother – then around sixty-five – would take us to the Goddess’ temple, if we exhibited a desire to. She would take a few camphor squares and some money and fold them into the loose corner of her saree. She would then, tie them in a knot. During the minimal walk to the temple, she would advise us to pray to the Goddess, ask of her to protect us, to help us advance in our studies. Inside the temple, we would pray, folding our hands in gentle embrace of the divine Mother and repeat what our grandmother had told us. To protect us from harm, to help us excel in our studies.
Late in the evening, my youngest uncle would come home from work. In his late twenties and still improperly employed, he had a comical take on most things. Being the last child, my grandmother had an unusual affection reserved for him than she had for the other four children. I used to look forward to his visits mostly because it would always matter to him whether I was happy or upset over something. He was funny, kind, and our favourite.
On a particular evening, my mother’s sister and my youngest uncle decided to sleep over at the house. The hall that night had more people than usual – my sister and I, my mother, her siblings, a cousin, and my grandmother. The temple’s light fell dimly in the room.
Closer to dawn, I woke up uncomfortable in my being, as I felt my youngest uncle’s hand groping my breasts. He massaged them kindly, cupping my right breast and then the left. I opened my eyes in disgust and reproachable fear to our shadows performing the action in retrospect.
I pushed his hand away in a thrust, a warning in disguise. Scared that someone would wake up to see this, I shifted a little further, dragging my shivering body away from his. I kept my eyes open, seeing my shadow in the light, and a heart pounding in my chest. Second time––why does he do this—
A while later, his body felt close to mine and his hands reached my breast again. Scared out of my half-sleep, I held his hand and with force twisted his thumb. He was twenty-seven or twenty-eight then and I would not have been a day older than fourteen. But God, I tried.
I was scared, so scared. In the temple’s light, it was all visible, it could all be seen. But, no one stirred, no one tried to wake up, and no one could hear the painful cries that I let out. After he removed his hand, I continued to look at the light falling on the hall’s ceiling. I don’t remember a prayer that I said. I only remembered my uncle’s hands and a deep-seated confusion beginning to take shape inside me.
My grandmother moved in her sleep in the far end of the room. After that I heard my uncle turning over away from me. I was alert but soon realised that he had fallen asleep.
Only then could I close my eyes.
Everyone to whom I told that I lived in a house behind a temple praised the choice of location. They told me how the Goddess’ blessings would reach out to the house without even attempting any sacred rituals. That I was safe under the temple’s shadow.
I did not believe them for even one moment.