It was a sultry June evening when I saw my mother walk down the grim, dusty corridor leading to my cell, escorted by a uniformed guard. She spotted me from the distance, and hung back like an unwelcome afterthought as her companion approached. I could see that in the few weeks we had been apart, she had aged almost by a decade.
When she sat down in front of the cold iron bars separating us, she gripped the wooden handles of the chair so tight that her knuckles turned white. It appeared as if she was concentrating very hard on the cobwebbed ceiling above, but I knew she was only trying her best to hold back her tears. I still remembered the laughter in her voice when she used to hum songs as she stirred her pot in our small kitchen, but when she spoke now, there was only sadness in it.
“You look so thin, son. They are not treating you well, are they?”
“I am fine Ma. Prison just takes a while getting used to.” I forced a smile, but she saw through the fakeness of it.
“Like so many times before, I am urging you –“
“No Ma, I am not having any of that. I am not taking back my confession. I do not care if all this is fair or not.”
“But son, look at what they have done to you,” she pleaded, tracing the deep brown under my eyes with her emaciated fingers. I knew that something in my words had made her unhappy — or maybe everything.
“It is alright; I will be fine. Now listen, I need you to promise me that you will take care of yourself. It has been only three weeks and you look so sick already. If you do not stay strong, who will take care of Sania? She is still too young to understand any of it, and I want her to be sheltered from the horrors she is yet oblivious to.”
Her eyes had welled up by now, but she used the pallu of her white sari to wipe the first drop of tear that started to seep out. “You’re right, son. I will not let the world harm your sister with its taunts and hurting words; and will protect her from the unwelcome stares that might come her way. But son, if only you would let me be here in place of you — ”
“Stop blaming yourself Ma. He was a horrible man and he deserved all of it. I do not have a shred of regret that he lies dead today, and even if I have to stay locked up all my life, I would be happy because you do not have to suffer anymore.”
Pain and fear had shaped my mother’s soul throughout her twenty-five year long abusive marriage, but now all the hurt was over. Everything had ended that rainy night when my father had picked up a leather belt to hurt her, and in fear, she had tried to protect herself with the nearest item she could find — a kitchen knife. I knew my mother still blamed herself for all of it, but that was the only time in her life she had stood up to him — the only time she had cared for herself more than she did for her children.
“Ma,” I continued despite her soft sobs as the guard had gotten up and was starting to approach. “The allotted time will be over soon, but I want you to promise that you will not cry and get weak. You have my word that I will be happy here if you stop blaming yourself.”
“But how can I be happy when I know that you –”
“I told you I’ll be fine here. Please promise me Ma, that you will be happy and take care of yourself; take care of Sania.”
“I love you son, I hate to see you like this,” she wailed.
The guard was just a few paces away from her now. Getting desperate, I begged, “Please Ma, promise me. Give me your word that you will be strong for Sania’s sake. For my sake.”
Before she could utter another word, the guard was upon us and announced that it was time for her to leave. I looked at her with wild helpless eyes as she had to get up and walk away. She had moved only a few steps when she turned back, looked me straight in the eye and said in a faint, yet firm voice —
“You have my word son.”
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