The Power to Forgive

01 April, 2014

ABOUT THE STORY At its best, fiction can generate a web of delicate and urgent ethical inquiry. In ‘The Power to Forgive,’ Avinuo Kire shows us that the human urge to end conflict and heal wounds can just as well, when appropriated on behalf of another, cause lasting hurt and resentment. Her unnamed protagonist, a young woman, is seen just before her marriage, contemplating the one incident that has defined her life: her rape as a young girl by a family member. Helpless to defend herself at the time, she continues to be reminded of it by the sympathy of those around her as much as by their silence; although we see that she is not vindictive, she has never been able to understand how her father could decide to forgive her assailant. Kire quietly and powerfully traces the shape of a tragedy and its ripples across a self, a family, and across memory and time, asking powerfully and disquietingly: does forgiveness sometimes itself need forgiving?

‘The Power to Forgive’ is taken from Kire’s first collection, The Power to Forgive and Other Stories, forthcoming from Zubaan.

SHE SAT ON BENDED KNEES, riffling through pages of old documents and other papers, some which would remain forever necessary and some which had long fulfilled their purpose. She had never been a particularly organised person. Marksheets, old Christmas and birthday cards, and various outdated church programmes were all jammed inside a single brown cardboard file with the words “Government of Nagaland” on the cover. A page of paper made a crackling sound of protest as she crumpled it into a ball and threw it towards the waste bin.

She was getting married soon. Sorting out her meagre belongings was the first phase of preparation for the new life she would soon embark upon. He had proposed a few nights ago and she had shyly accepted, as they both knew she would. She was twenty-eight and still retained youth’s fresh-faced sweetness. He, on the other hand, was an un-attractive man already well into his mid-forties; but she had no complaints. If anything, she was grateful that he had asked her at all. She had long resigned herself to the likelihood that marital life was not to be part of her destiny. Therefore, it did not matter to her that he was unemployed or that he could seldom hold his liquor. He had asked her to be his and that excused all his weaknesses. A feeling of affection overcame her as she recalled his uncharacteristic solemnity while discussing plans for their impending nuptials. “I shall ask my elder brother and grand aunt to ask for your hand in marriage. You can tell your parents to expect a visit from my relatives this Saturday,” he had promised. To be treated so sensitively, as if she were as pure and untouched as any other sheltered young woman, moved her, endeared him to her. Sometimes she would be suspicious when other men treated her similarly. “Don’t you know?” she would want to ask them.

Shaking free from her habit of ruminating endlessly, she gathered the papers together and tapped them against the floor to align them. As she did so, a newspaper clipping suddenly slipped from between the sheets and fell to the floor. “FATHER FORGIVES MAN WHO RAPED DAUGHTER,” read the headline in bold capital letters. “In a supreme act of Christian forgiveness…” But she did not have to read, did not need to. She had felt the weight of the words even before they hit the smooth mud floor. She had been acutely aware of this clipping while sorting out her papers, and had been very careful to ignore it. Yet there it was, forcing her to confront once again a single devastating memory that clung to her entire past like an overpowering rotten smell, effectively erasing all else. It seemed to her that memory was partial to pain and loss. A torrent of emotions: the old familiar wave of anger, shame and betrayal, a mind-numbing tornado of resentment that always left her with disastrous headaches—all these threatened to destroy her happy mood.

She picked up the tattered newspaper clipping with distaste and tucked it beneath the mattress. She no longer wanted to preserve it in her file. At the same time, she could not bring herself to destroy it. A thought struck her as she resisted her immediate impulse to add the paper to the nearby trash. Perhaps it was quite natural for a person to form attachments to anything. One simply had to live with something long enough.

It happened sixteen years ago, when she was only twelve. Her rapist had been her paternal uncle. To this day, though other details had become vague with the passing of time, she still distinctly remembered the nauseating smell of him—a mixture of sweat together with a faint eggy sourness—and the hot wave of heavy panting. She was alone in the house and her uncle had left hurriedly after committing the crime. He had murmured something to her before leaving but she could not remember what it was. A curious and kindly neighbour had come into their neat three-roomed bamboo house and found her curled up in a corner, dazed and crying. Upon the woman’s concerned questioning, she had told her what had happened.

The little Naga village rose up in righteous rage when the incident came to light. The story was reported in the local newspapers and various organisations voiced their strong condemnation of the incident. Never had her little village received so much attention. She remembered her mother comforting her in the hospital while some police personnel wrote down her statements. She also remembered a group of women from some women’s rights organisation who’d come to visit her all the way from Kohima, the capital town. Her mother had made such a fuss over the women, and had described the horrific incident in detail, as though she had been a silent witness. This all happened a long time ago. She had known life before and after the unfolding of these events. It frustrated her, therefore, how those few weeks often seemed to sum up the story of her existence.

Over the years, she had learned to accept what had happened to her. There were moments she even forgot; happy times while gathering water, or washing clothes beside the village river with other girls, when she imagined she was as carefree as any one of them. But such light-heartedness was always short-lived. “People will think you have no shame!” her mother was always quick to remind her. Mother never failed to lament the stigma that had become attached to their family because of her and, at the same time, never encouraged anyone, her least of all, to put the incident behind them. Mother had become a scared woman, always careful to maintain an emotionally detached relationship with her own daughter, fearful that intimacy would lead to indulgent exchanges. Though nothing was ever said, she sometimes felt that her mother blamed her for what had happened. She sensed judgement in her mother’s furtive glances, her thinly pursed lips, her grimaces, the piercing gaze of her narrowed eyes. She thought no one understood the meaning of silences more than her mother; in time she too had learned the language well. She would repeatedly agonise over the events that had unfolded that fateful day; over whether she ought to have been more alert, more wary, fought harder? But above all, her most agonising thought was whether life would have been simpler if she had kept that one day of her life a secret. She often wondered whether things would have been different had her mother discovered her first. Somehow, she knew she could get over the violation of her body; she could bear her shame in private. It only became intolerable when society “shared” the shame.

She had been belatedly informed of her father’s decision to forgive her uncle. It was a few weeks after the uproar had died down that her father came to her room and sat down beside her at the edge of her bed. He said so many things about forgiveness, justice and family honour. He said so much in such a grave voice. But nothing had prepared her for what he announced at the end. He stood up slowly as he spoke, indicating to her that his speech was nearing its end. With an air of parental authority, her father said:

“I have decided to forgive your uncle. But you need never worry about him; you will never see or hear from that man again.”

At his words, a strange and alien emotion stirred deep within her; feelings much too complicated for a child of twelve. Frustrated at being unable to express what she felt, she burst into helpless tears. Her father, a good but undemonstrative man, looked at her uneasily and said in a heavy voice, “One day you will realise that this is the right thing to do. Hatred will only destroy us.” He said something about her uncle being in jail and also being excommunicated from their village. But nothing mattered more than her feeling of anger and resentment towards her own father. She did not realise then that the alien emotion she felt was betrayal. “As if he had been the victim,” she would wonder aloud to herself many times in the years to come.

That night, she had an especially vivid nightmare. In her dream, her uncle’s giant face seemed pressed to her and she could not escape. She tried to scream, but her voice died as the face of the enemy slowly morphed into her beloved father’s worn features.

Sixteen years had passed since. Once a happy and cheerful child, she had now become withdrawn and reserved. She was still a dutiful daughter to her parents but it ended there. Her relationships with other people could be described as cordial at best. Though always polite, she was unable to forge close friendships. She had heard that her rapist uncle was now a free man. He had served seven years behind bars. Seven years in exchange for devastating her life. He had actually gone on to marry, have children and was now living with his family in Dimapur district. She wondered bitterly who had married him. She often broke out in a cold sweat whenever she came across anyone who resembled her uncle. Her biggest fear was the thought of meeting her uncle now, after all these years. This constant anxiety resulted in recurring nightmares. She knew it was illogical but she actually felt ashamed, even of him. As if she had played a role in her own disgrace.

Except for the youngest, all her other siblings—three sisters and two brothers—had married and relocated elsewhere. She was not particularly close of any of them. The one person in the world she truly held dear was her youngest brother Pele. He was the only one who saw her as she was; without sympathy or judgement, without the shadow of what had happened to her hanging over her head. As incredible as it seemed to her, her sixteen-year-old brother actually looked up to her as an elder sister and she loved him all the more for it. And now, she was finally getting married and was soon to move out of the house she thought she was destined to live her remaining life and die in. A wry smile touched her face as she realised that she was like all women after all. Shifting required a sizeable amount of baggage, although in her case, the bulk of it remained unseen. It had become a part of her; she could not leave it behind.

“Your father will need a new suit,” her mother remarked. She looked at her mother, contentedly picking stones out of the rice while helping her make plans for the wedding. It had been a long time since she had seen her mother so serene. She realised with sadness that she was not the only one who had changed. Her mother, once a warm and somewhat boisterous woman, had developed a quaint meekness, a sort of pessimism about life; she was so unlike the fearless woman she had once been. Her mother, she decided, had developed three different personalities: fierce towards her husband, long-suffering towards her children, and timid towards society in general. A long time ago, she had witnessed her parents quarrelling after a visit to her paternal grandmother. Eavesdropping through bamboo walls, she gathered that her grandmother had blamed her mother for what had happened to her.

“You stood there without defending me while your mother accused me of being a bad mother! How dare she blame me for our daughter’s...” Her mother broke down before she could finish what she was saying. Her father had replied, “You are overreacting! She does not blame you, how could she? All she said was that mothers should be careful not to leave young daughters unattended!” Her younger self did not wish to listen anymore. She put her hands over her ears and faked sleep until it finally came.

Mother poured the cleaned rice into an empty barrel, humming a soft lullaby while doing so. Her mother did not gossip. Perhaps she used to, but not anymore: there was too much at stake. “We each have our cross to bear,” was her mother’s ambiguous response to everything and anything unsavoury she heard about anyone. She sometimes pitied her mother’s naivety in hoping that by not judging others, she would escape being judged herself.

Her silent reverie was broken by her mother’s quizzical glance.

“Girl! Where is your mind, did you hear what I just said? Your father will need a proper suit to walk you down the aisle.”

She braced herself; she had been prepared for this issue.

“Yes of course. Actually, I am planning to ask Pele to walk me down the aisle,” she replied tentatively.

“Nonsense! Your father should have that honour.”

“No, I want Pele to give me away, it’s my wedding after all,” she said firmly.

Her mother gave her a pained look but did not argue. She simply said, “Think about it, your father will be very hurt.”

She felt a savage satisfaction at Mother’s words.

Her brother’s reaction was predictable. “Dear sister! Of course I would be honoured, but don’t you think it should be Father?”

“I’d rather you do it,” she insisted.

“It’s your wedding,” he said.

She did not feel the same satisfaction.

Traditional wisdom discouraged long engagements, predicting that delay gave rise to second thoughts and gossip. And so, a date was fixed quickly and before long the wedding preparations began in earnest. The villagers arrived in droves to help; different groups for different work. The men folk came together to construct a makeshift bamboo pavilion for the reception, and later helped to butcher two cows and a pig for the wedding feast. The women arrived to decorate the reception area and helped with the cooking and cleaning. The villagers felt good about being kind and generous to her; she was their tragic child. As for the bride-to-be, for all her cynicism, she experienced a renewed faith in human goodness. She found it overwhelming that all the fuss and hectic preparations were for her benefit. Also, her once antagonistic relationship with her mother had silently begun to heal of its own accord; the two women had never been as close as they were now. The underlying stress and tension of their relationship had slowly begun to disappear. It was as if the prospect of her becoming a bride had finally released her mother from her unhappiness.

The brief period of her engagement was the happiest time in her life; so much so that she felt a sense of loss as the wedding date drew closer. The only thing that marred her happiness was the niggling unease that persisted whenever she thought of her father. He had calmly accepted that her brother would be walking her down the aisle but she knew he was disappointed.

She knew that he was a good father, and in other circumstances, she would have adored him. However aloof, he was an honest, hard-working man and provided for his family the best way he could. An invisible barrier had come up between father and daughter the night her father informed her of his decision. It was the last time they discussed what had happened. She had been angry and had resolutely avoided speaking to him the first few months, and he had let her be. After she entered adolescence, she became too ashamed to ever broach the painful topic. In vain, she waited for him to take the initiative. Considering her father’s reclusive nature now, she knew it had been folly to expect that of him. So then, words that should have been spoken were bottled up instead, feeding the resentment within her. In her subconscious mind, denying her father his right to give her away was her manner of punishing him for taking away her right to forgive a crime committed against her. However, when she saw how calmly he had accepted her decision, she wondered whether he was all that affected by it. Had she managed to hurt him as deeply as he had her? It tormented her, this unfinished business. Finally, she resolved that she would tell him how she felt, how he had let her down. She decided to tell him everything, letting out all her pent-up feelings. Only then would she find the peace that constantly eluded her.

She found an opportunity the evening before her wedding. She had been sent home early to get enough rest and sleep for her big day. Her mother, brother and the rest of her married siblings who had arrived for the wedding with their respective families were still at the reception venue, making some final arrangements. She knew her father was alone at home. She carefully rehearsed her speech, the precise words she would say and how she would begin. Soon, she found herself approaching the house. Her rapidly beating heart compelled her to linger outside the front door for a while. She took a deep breath to steady her frazzled nerves. As she did so, a raw guttural sound from inside the house startled her. She quietly pushed opened the door and stepped inside. Then she heard some unintelligible sounds broken by fervent sobs coming from inside her parents’ bedroom. With her heart hammering against her chest, she looked inside the room. What she saw made her heart stop. Her weeping father sat awkwardly on a chair, elbows on his knees and hands supporting his bent head, revealing a mass of prematurely greying hair. Laid beside him on the bed were his new suit for her wedding and a rumpled copy of the church solemnisation programme. She had never in her life seen her father show any strong emotion, let alone cry. It embarrassed and distressed her at the same time. She was not sure what to do.

Her father was unaware of her presence, and so she silently stepped back and retreated to her room. Feeling numb, she sat on her bed and tried to collect herself. She looked around the bare room, stripped of all belongings but for three pieces of luggage neatly stacked beside her bed. All worldly evidence of her twenty-eight years was packed inside those three pieces of luggage; a worn-out VIP suitcase which had once belonged to her father and two colourful bags. One she had owned for some time, and the other was a wedding gift from her parents. She made a mental checklist of the things she wanted to take to her new life. Her soon-to-be husband had revealed a surprisingly kind and thoughtful nature during their time together. Despite his shortcomings, she knew that he could make her happy if she allowed him to. Her thoughts turned towards the tragic figure a couple of rooms away. Instinct told her that she was the cause of his profound grief. She closed her eyes and her body trembled. She knew then what she must do. For the first time, she wanted to do what she should have done. Her right hand reached under the mattress and pulled out the newspaper clipping, cosseted and kept for too long. For the first time, she felt no dread of the words staring back at her. She had let herself play the victim too long. It was now time to let go. She walked towards the kitchen and threw the incriminating paper into the fireplace. She did not bother to look as the flames consumed it in mere seconds.

With every brisk, purposeful step she took, the carefully constructed wall around her heart began to break; each brick loosened and crumbled, one by one. Emboldened, and with a confidence she had never felt before, she pushed open the final door. Her father looked up and on seeing her, stood up clumsily. He faced her unashamed, a grown man with tears and snot streaking his cheeks. It did not matter who closed the distance; they embraced and he kissed her forehead. In that loving act, the world of words mattered no more.

Tomorrow would bring yet another day and with it would come new challenges. Somehow she knew now that she would be all right. She even thought about the fear that had dogged her; the idea of accidently running into her uncle. This possibility no longer filled her with dread. In fact, she hoped that she did meet him one day. She would hold her head high and look him in the eye and he would know that he did not “ruin” her, that his evil had not tainted her. She revelled in the liberating absence of the bitterness that had long plagued her weary soul. For the first time since forever, she finally felt free.