By Sanjana Chandrasekharan
It was late in the afternoon, but already felt like dusk. The street was almost devoid of its usual stragglers and there was a feeling of tranquillity in the air; that ephemeral interlude that precedes the deluge of homebound husbands and wives, all eager to get to their dinner. It was at this twilight moment in the life of the metropolis, that a solitary figure clad in black could be seen striding powerfully towards a tall glass tower.
A striking woman of thirty-six, Shambhavi couldn’t be inconspicuous even if she tried. She was elegantly covered in a dark blue turtleneck and crisp black pants. She wore fashionable boots that clicked when she walked and had a beautiful, long black coat on to shield her from the chilly winter breeze. A model in her heyday, she exuded a kind of regal elegance that fascinated passers-by, but also had a kind of remoteness that discouraged instant attraction, that is inspired by great beauty. Shambhavi was the wife of Rohit Mishra, the CEO of Chankalya Ltd, one of the top twenty companies in India. She had two charming children who were the darlings of anyone that met them. In addition, she was the founder of Aashray, an organisation which helped women who were victims of abuse.
Aashray took in women who were victims of violence and abuse and helped them rebuild their lives. The women who came to Aashray rarely had any belongings with them, so the organisation provided them with clothes and coats that covered them from head to toe. The coats were symbolic of their release; they allowed the women freedom of movement and comfort, while allowing them to hide the indignity that they had suffered. Shambhavi regularly donated her own designer clothes and coats for this purpose. Rumour had it that there was an entire room in Aashray’s headquarters that was full of such coats. In addition to this, Shambhavi spent much of her time interacting with these women, personally. She interacted with new members and even attended calls on the organisation’s helpline. Between her family, society and Aashray, Shambhavi Mishra led a pretty busy and fulfilling life. She let her work speak for her and didn’t have the time to appease journalists or the paparazzi, which always seemed hungry for a few sound bites.
As Shambhavi stepped into the building, a cool wave of air from the air conditioner hit her face. She greeted the receptionist and began walking purposefully towards the elevator with large black doors.
“Mrs Mishra,” came a voice from behind her.
As she turned, she saw a short, chubby man sporting a long scholarly beard, come rushing towards her. Sashank Sharma was the managerial head of Aashray. He had an ever-present nervous energy in sharp contrast to Shambhavi’s poise. He had been a part of Aashray since its inception in 2004, but he never stopped trying to please Shambhavi, who had been his boss for nearly a decade.
“Good evening Ma’am, how are you?” he gushed.
“Hello Sashank,” she said, without breaking her stride. “My chauffeur will be coming in soon. I have some new coats for you today.”
“Thank you very much Madam. The ladies will be so pleased. We’ve been eagerly anticipating your arrival. Shall we proceed straight to your office? I’ve got
some light refreshments ready for you, and…”
“I would enjoy that very much Sashank, but I wish to get to work right away. I need to work on the presentation for tomorrow’s Annual Fundraiser. Is Mr Kunar here?” she asked, walking to the elevator hastily. Sharma had to break into a slight jog to keep pace with her.
“Yes, Madam, he is,” said a dejected Sharma, who was already panting as they reached the tall black doors. Just then, the elevator opened in front of them. Shambhavi entered the elevator and Sharma quickly tried to follow her.
“Oh no,” she said, stopping him in his tracks. “That’s quite alright Sashank. I really shouldn’t take you away from your work. It’s a big day tomorrow and I’m really counting on you to make it happen,” she continued, giving Sashank a gorgeous smile that soothed his disappointment a little. “Of course, I’ll look into it Ma’am,” said Sharma, craning his neck to get a glimpse of her before the door shut, while making animated movements with his hands.
Shambhavi alighted at the third floor and made her way to Akshay Kunar’s office. She saw him typing away furiously at his computer. He looked up as soon as he heard her enter his room.
“Mrs Mishra!” he exclaimed, jumping up from his chair. “Good evening.” He hurriedly went around his rosewood desk and pulled out the plush leather chair for her to sit down. “Please have a seat Ma’am. Give me just a moment.” He turned away and took out a few files from the side drawer of his cabinet.
Akshay had joined the organisation recently. He was young, idealistic and full of zeal, putting his best efforts into helping tortured women who needed help. He was always eager to initiate, analyse and shut cases. Everything was either black or white to him. He didn’t understand that people and situations were not always what they appeared to be. Shambhavi wondered how five years at Law school hadn’t knocked that naiveté out of him. Perhaps it was a lesson he would learn only through time and experience. Just then, Akshay set the files on the table in front of her and sat himself down in the chair next to her. The light from the yellow lamp on the desk fell on his face, sharply etching his high cheekbones and angular features, while revealing defined shadows under his tar-black eyes, a result of long nights of work with little sleep.
“I’m so sorry Mrs Mishra. I suppose Mr Sharma has already spoken to you about tomorrow’s itinerary. Should we go through that first?”
She said: “Akshay, I want to change the structure of tomorrow’s events. I want to invite the press here at around 9:30 am. I was thinking I should talk to them before they leave to cover the rest of the fundraising event.”
Akshay was shocked. Mrs Mishra was asking for a press conference. He’d been after her for months to talk to the press, but Sharma had told him he should stop trying, because she would never agree. Akshay believed him as Sharma had been working with her for about a decade. Akshay was forced to realize that Mrs Mishra was feted enough as a darling of the media and didn’t actively want to court it. She rather preferred her work to speak for her. And it wasn’t just that- she seemed to dislike publicity. Perhaps it was a reaction from her modelling days, when she had spent years under the spotlight, with each move of hers tracked by every TV channel and fashion magazine in the country. The obsession with Shambhavi culminated in a frenzy, when she married Rohit Mishra, a handsome bachelor who was also a young and talented entrepreneur. After she was wed, Mrs Mishra seemed to put an end to that part of her life and assumed the role of a loving wife and a supportive mother. It seemed like she was proud of the fact that Aashray was more popular than she once was.
“Ma’am, a press conference?” spluttered Akshay.
“Yes, Akshay,” she said.
“This is great. Wonderful. Oh that’s…I’ll have to make so many calls. This is phenomenal. The press will be thrilled. Let me…”
“Akshay,” said Shambhavi, again. A slight curve of her lips suggested that she was mildly amused at his display of excitement. He cleared his throat and sat down in embarrassment.
“I’m sorry Ma’am. I let my excitement get the better of me. We should get started…” He paused for a second. “That is, if you’re feeling better. Your secretary did call a couple of days ago to say that you wouldn’t be able to come down to look at the presentation we’d prepared, as you were unwell,” he said, with a questioning inflection in his voice.
“I’m alright now,” said Shambhavi, determination seeping into her expression. Noting it, Akshay quickly picked up his reading glasses and positioned them carefully on his nose.
“Ahem. So like I was saying, I’ve been trying to finish this presentation all week. It was hard to choose the exact cases to include in the presentation, but I think I’ve got the kind of cases you asked for. Would you like to go through the files?” he asked.
“Yes. We should go through everything once,” she said. “I just want to run through it quickly so I can figure out exactly what I want to say.”
Akshay almost ran to get the hard drive that had the presentation. He sat down with a jerk and pulled up the slides on his laptop.
“Here it is Madam. We can start right now if you’d like.”
He adjusted the laptop so that Shambhavi had a clear view of the screen. He did this with an enthusiasm she hadn’t seen before. He was obviously happy about the press conference. She gestured him to begin.
“So, the first case is the one concerning the girl who came here in 2010, after leaving her husband’s home,” said Akshay eagerly.
“This was the girl who was tormented by her husband after she left him, right? He kept coming to her house. Threatened her and even poured acid on her door steps,” said Shambhavi.
“Yes. He was really vicious at that time; showing up at her house at night, drunk no doubt, making death threats. And yes, he was the one who poured acid on the steps of her house.” The young lawyer handed Shambhavi the girl’s file and she began to go through it. He restlessly drummed his fingers on the table.
“How’re the kids, Mrs Mishra? How is Mr Mishra? How is his work going?” interrupted Akshay.
“Oh, they’re all fine,” said Shambhavi, flipping the leaves of the file, her eyes scanning the pages. “Manya has just started sixth grade and she’s enjoying it very much. She’s already becoming quite a handful though. God knows what I’ll have to deal with, a few years from now.”
Akshay laughed. “Oh, no worries there Mrs Mishra, I’m sure you will be able to handle all that. Nothing gets a girl through her teenage years like a loving and confident mother.”
She gave him an inscrutable smile and Akshay grimaced inwardly. Usually, praising the boss worked, but it didn’t seem to be working now. He’d try again.
“I hope Mr Mishra and the children will be attending the fundraiser tomorrow. I mean, Mr Mishra’s presence in particular will certainly bring in a lot of publicity for our cause.”
Shambhavi laughed and said: “The kids will definitely be there tomorrow. They wouldn’t miss it for the world. All of you pamper them too much. About Rohit, I’m not sure. He may show up for a while, but he will probably leave half way through. He’s involved in several similar causes and events and is always stretched for time between his work and philanthropy. He barely has time for his family, you know.”
Akshay looked awed. He had the expression of a little boy dazzled by tales of his favourite superhero’s exploits. She chuckled at his innocence.
“So, this case..,” said Shambhavi, before Akshay could continue talking about her family: “Case number DL/217/2014. Sonali Agarwal. I remember the organisation taking her in at that time. She’s still here, isn’t she?”
Akshay nodded in agreement. “We helped her get a restraining order at first, and when that didn’t work, we got her legal help. Her husband is behind bars now, serving a three year prison term. Sonali is beginning to regain confidence and she seems a lot happier now. In fact, she just shared with me that she’s stopped looking over her shoulder nervously, every time there is a slight movement behind her. She has a job and she’s really making the most of her life now,” said Akshay, moving on to the next slide. It had a picture of the girl smiling broadly at the camera, revealing her teeth. For one unconscious second, Shambhavi almost smiled like the girl in the picture. Then she caught herself. To hide her embarrassment, she turned her focus to the next file that lay on the desk.
“So what’s the next case?” she said, picking up the file from the table.
“This one is Case DL/218/2014, Madam. Gurmeet Kaur,” said Akshay. “It’s an interesting one. I’m sure you remember the girl. She was very young at that time. Her parents got her married off at the age of eighteen, to this thirty year old man. They were living in Noida and within one year of marriage, her husband had almost broken her in body and spirit.” Shambhavi winced. “The girl desperately wanted to leave that house, but she had absolutely no source of income. Her parents had also refused to take her back, as they felt it would bring disgrace to the family. She wasn’t qualified either. Due to which, she wasn’t able to find a job – at least not one that paid her well.”
Shambhavi looked up from the file on her lap and looked at the young man. “This is the same girl whom we helped with a scholarship to the Delhi University, right? Where is she now?”
“Yes Madam, she’s the one. She’s in Gurgaon, remarried and happy, with a baby on the way. She studied Sociology at college and now works for us.” Shambhavi nodded at this. Akshay took a sip of coffee from his glazed porcelain mug and set it down with a sigh. He moved to the next slide. In this slide, there were two women. On one half was a woman holding a baby in her hands and in the other half was a woman sitting on the front porch of a small hut.
“These two cases are pretty similar- Case DL/219/2014 and DL/221/2014. Both of them wanted to leave their ruthless husbands, but were afraid of being made to part with their children.”
“Is that what would have happened for sure if they had left their husbands?” she asked
“They certainly thought so Ma’am, as that was the bait their husbands used, to threaten them. The poor women endured all the pain and suffering because they were afraid for their children. One of the two had a very young boy, whom she couldn’t even think of leaving alone with her husband. He was a truck driver, who was barely ever around. And when he was, he was drunk and vicious. The other woman was the only breadwinner in the family. She had no idea how her children would be brought up by their father, who was unemployed. It was only when they came to us that they realised that they had legal recourse. They didn’t have anything to worry about. The court usually favours the mother, unless there is a reason to do otherwise. These two women were easily rescued. We even managed to relocate them to some apartments not too far from Pitampura.”
“Are there any more apartments at our disposal?” Shambhavi inquired.
“Oh yes Madam. We have two, four-storey buildings. It was a very good deal. We…”
“That’s fine. Can we move on to the next case?” she said.
Akshay was taken aback. Mrs Mishra seemed to be all business-like and formal. Usually, they would enjoy a few light moments during their work meetings. He thought it was because she was anxious about the upcoming press conference.
“Sure madam. This is Case…”
He stopped midway, when Shambhavi suddenly stood up and walked to the water cooler next to the door to get a glass of water.
“Ma’am, there’s water for you right here. You didn’t have to go all the way there.”
Shambhavi turned around. “Oh yes, yes….I see it. Thank you.” She walked back to the table and sat down. She seemed visibly distracted. She seemed to have forgotten all about the cup at the cooler. She picked up the bottle and drank straight from it. Akshay got up and walked to the cooler to crush the unused plastic cup before throwing it in the bin. “The press conference is really weighing on her mind,” he thought. “She is usually more composed than this.”
“Sorry Akshay. There’s too much happening in my head today,” she said apologetically.
“The press conference Ma’am?” he asked, sympathetically from the cooler.
“Mm,” murmured Shambhavi.
Akshay came back and sat down. He pushed the laptop towards Shambhavi again, as she made an effort to focus on the screen.
“This is the last case Ma’am. This girl, Antara, was desperate to leave her oppressive family. This is where her case differs from the others. She was a young, unmarried teenager, who was being beaten up by her father. No one would listen to her because her father was an influential man in the village, who owned a factory and was a tyrant. He even had the local police in his pockets. There was no one this girl could turn to, least of all, her family, who threatened to defame her if she went to anyone for help.”
“How did she come to us? How did we manage to help her out?” asked Shambhavi, concerned.
“She called us on our helpline, Madam.”
“Oh yes, I remember. Antara Singhal. I answered her call that day!”
“Yes Madam,” said Akshay proudly. “You sent out a party of policemen to extricate the girl from the situation and even brought the issue to the attention of the media. Far from the girl being defamed, the whole village turned against her father and he is now behind bars. Nobody stands up for a man who goes against his own,” said Akshay, placing the last file on top of the rest. He took a deep breath and sat up straight in his chair.
“That’s the last of the cases, Madam.”
Just then, Shambhavi’s phone let out a shrill ring. Quickly retrieving it from her purse, she gave Akshay an apologetic smile and pressed the button to attend the call. Akshay shut his eyes, welcoming the brief respite. The day had been very tiring. He hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks. All he wanted to do was go home and rest, but there was work to finish. Though he had joined the NGO thinking he would gain some valuable work experience before he moved on to the corporate world, a mere six months later he was pretty sure he had found his life’s calling. In these six months he had seen thousands of cases. Different names, different places, but the same story of torture and violence. These shattered women came from all walks of life, having suffered silently for years. If not for people like Shambhavi Mishra, whom he worshipped, these women would have never come out of their shackles.
Shambhavi put her phone down. “I’m sorry Akshay. That was my mother. She flew in today to support me in tomorrow’s fundraiser.”
“That’s quite alright Madam,” he said. “So, the press conference?”
“Yes, I’ve decided I’m going to talk about a case,” she replied.
Akshay was confused.
“Mrs Mishra, a ten-minute conference won’t be long enough to discuss these cases. Besides, they’re going to cover these stories at the fundraiser anyway, so I don’t understand…”
“Akshay,” she interrupted. “I’m not going to talk about any of those cases.”
“So you’d like to talk about some other case? Is there a particular case you have in mind? Should I pull out a new file?”
“No Akshay, that’s quite alright. I know the case well.”
He reached for a notepad and pen. “But still Madam, shouldn’t we at least make some notes?”
Shambhavi took a deep breath. As he watched her, she sat up straight and slowly pulled off her long black coat, revealing dark purple welts that had been slapped on to her the previous night. Blue-black marks stood out prominently against the porcelain skin of her bare arms. She then rolled down the turtleneck a little, proceeded to gather all her hair with both her hands and held them on top of her head, exposing deep red scratches on the back of her slender neck. Akshay’s mind seized in shock. He stood there, motionless. He wondered how he had missed all the clues so far.
Shambhavi stood up and gave Akshay the same stunning smile she always did; only now, it seemed sardonic and bitter.
Holding out her hand she said: “Meet Shambhavi Mishra. Your next case.”
This is an entry for the Kunzum Short Story Contest ending July 15, 2021. Read the next story here.