Horse-carts with people squashed like sardines are hurtling along the village track, billowing dust everywhere. The mercury is rising. Little children in uniform are hurrying to school, clutching their schoolbooks.
“I also want to go to school, mother!” Latika said one day while she looked intently at the children going to school.
“Wait a bit. I’ve taught you more than the school would!” Her mother easily brushed aside the issue.
But Latika’s desire to go to school was rising day by day. One rainy day, she ended up following the children to school. Not wearing the school uniform, she was easily spotted by a teacher. He walked up to her and mentioned school admission, and asked her father’s name. “Bring your father tomorrow for the admission if you want to study,” he told Latika, before asking her to leave.
Latika had never seen her father, nor was she ever told his name. She returned home and, for the first time in her life, asked her mother unambiguously – “Who is my father? What is his name? Where is he?”
Her mother did not give her any exact answer. Instead, she asked, “Can’t you join under your mother’s name?” She was slightly surprised by the fact that her daughter had gone to school on her own. She gave her a smile. But the lines of worry on her face betrayed her. Her voice sounded forced and artificial.
Why do you need your father’s name to join school? Latika didn’t understand it. She felt it strange as to why her mother didn’t seem to know who her father was.
Latika’s mother is counted among the rich and well-to-do people in this small Tarai village. They live in a palatial house. They also have a few servants who live in a small tin-roofed house near their big mansion and work for them the whole day.
Latika is small. But she has become a child who wants to understand her predicament. It’s become essential for her to know about her father’s mysterious absence. She wants answers to questions that have remained unanswered so far. Time has made this small girl conscious and attentive beyond her age.
That day she had gone to play with the village kids in a field nearby. After playing for some time, the kids took a break and were hanging about the field.
“Hey Latika, people say you don’t even have a father. What’s with that?” A child asked.
“Yeah, what is it really?” The others also turned around and asked her.
Latika couldn’t answer her friends’ questions. Instead, many other questions began to grow in her mind. As she got closer to home, the questions kept piling up.
She went home quickly. It wasn’t a long way away. Her mind was feeling restless. As soon as she reached home, she raised the question again – “My friends asked me about my father today. Tell me something about him, please, mother!” She asked, indignantly.
Her mother said nothing. Latika did not repeat the question again; her eyes however still asked this question. Her mother got up and headed to another room, leaving her answer hanging.
As the evening fell, the sound of birds chirping became clearer. Latika felt a certain kind of hurt inside. Her mother’s silence gave rise to suspicions. She started feeling as if she was alone. At dinner, she didn’t raise up the subject. Even though she is a little girl, she looks prudent.
The stars in the night sky were shining bright and cold. From the corner of the balcony, she was taking an aim at the stars. She was asking herself if they could answer her question.
“Latika, come here, my princess!” Her mother’s voice bounced off the door and like a wave reached the balcony. She saw her mother’s face filled with love. It wasn’t even that late into the night. Her mother wrapped her in her sheets, held her against her chest and started singing a lullaby. But her mother’s sense of warmness while singing her to sleep didn’t feel the same that night. Latika couldn’t fall asleep instantly. Her mother felt this.
Many days had passed. But people were still talking about Latika’s father. In fact, it turned into a huge topic of discussion. One afternoon, people started to gather in front of the mansion. Soon, they filled the entire garden.
“Who is this girl’s father?” the priest of the local temple asked Latika’s mother in an unwavering voice, his finger pointed straight at Latika.
“Why do you ask me this question? This is my personal matter. Please leave my own matters to myself,” Latika’s mother pleaded.
“The village has its values. It has been mentioned in the scriptures that a fatherless child can pollute the entire society’s environment,” the priest said adamantly.
“Who’s the one saying that my daughter is fatherless?” Anger appeared in her eyes.
“So who is the girl’s father, then?” the priest asked again.
Everyone in the crowd seemed to silently endorse his question. The whole area suddenly fell quiet. Nobody said anything.
“Won’t you say anything at all?” the priest pressed her.
The air was filled with a sense of tension. Then Latika’s mother began to say what she had to in her defense – “It was the night of the full moon. In those days, I would usually be alone. I would confide a lot with God. I would tell Him of my complaints. Maybe all the helpless are more devoted to God. That night was strange and peculiar. With the force of my prayers, God came to my room. He was filled with pity at the state of my sadness. There was no real need to remind Him that I wanted to change society. After understanding the pain I was going through, he talked about giving me a child. I thought for a while. In a society like ours, it was not even thought about for an unmarried woman to think about having a child. A strange feeling came to my mind. I remembered the astrologer predicting that I would never marry. And, my wish for having a child became stronger. So I accepted God’s offer. Shall I call it my reaction to that astrologer or God’s grace? In this way, Latika was born.” Her reply rippled across the crowd. The crowd stood silent and motionless. Nobody said anything.
“You’re now probably wondering where God is. I hope there’s no need for me to answer that. While sinners have no way to meet God, those who are devout and pious will always meet Him in their prayers. Who knows this better than you, Mr priest?”
“Absolutely. I always encounter God,” the priest had to say to prove his piety and his faith. He then quickly turned to the crowd and said, “Now the matter has been settled. Let’s go, everyone.”
Some in the crowd were unconvinced but they quietly followed the majority who nodded in agreement.
After some days, Latika’s mother took her to the school for admission.
“What is her father’s name?” asked the school administrator.
“Oh, her father? His name is God,” replied the mother.
The administrator raised his eyebrows and looked at her, and feeling a bit uneasy, scribbled ‘God’ in the space for her father’s details.
“And the student’s full name and caste?” he asked her again.
“Her full name is Latika Almighty,” she replied.
Latika was admitted to the school. But in no time, a rumour began to spread across the school about her background. The issue of Latika’s school admission and her caste became a topic of hot debate in the village as well. The villagers felt a bit uneasy.
There were some people in the village, however, who were saying that Latika’s mother had fooled the entire village, including the ‘wise priest’. However, there were no protests.
In the meantime, some clever and cunning people in the village thought that they could become rich immediately if they could prove that they were Latika’s father.
One day, a man reached the temple and claimed that he was Latika’s father to the priest. This news spread like wildfire in the village. Then half a dozen other people made the same claim.
The priest, who had unwillingly accepted that Latika was the daughter of God, thought he could trouble Latika’s mother once again. So, he called a village meeting on the pretext of deciding the issue.
The villagers gathered under a banyan tree next to Latika’s house. Latika and her mother, too, were summoned there. The priest called Latika to his side and started comparing her face with those of the seven people in order to know who her father was. But he couldn’t reach any conclusion. Then pushing his glasses up a bit, he issued an order – “Ram Khelawan, see and tell us whose face matches the girl’s?”
Ram Khelawan moved a bit closer.
“Wait, you people!” Latika’s mother shouted, “I will find out who Latika’s father is. Who else, other than me, can prove with more certainty who he is?”
Nobody said anything for a while. Then the priest broke the silence – “It’s alright, lady. Now you tell us who Latika’s father is from among these people?”
Latika’s mother moved forward and ordered one of her servants to bring a sword from her house. The servant immediately brought a deadly looking sword.
“Why do we need a sword here?’ a surprised priest asked. The crowd was quiet and confused. The faces of those who had claimed to be Latika’s father turned pale with fear.
Latika’s mother presented her argument – “My Latika is the daughter of God. I don’t have the slightest doubt about this. Her father takes different incarnations. That confuses me as well. Therefore, I want to find out who actually is God or Latika’s father among these people. Latika’s father won’t be injured even when hit with a sword because he is God. He is indestructible and immortal. He who is not injured by this sword is Latika’s father or my husband.”
She looked at the crowd with her big eyes and held the sword aloft.
“Ok, gentlemen! You come to me one by one. He who is not harmed by this sword is Latika’s father. Come on gentlemen, come forward one by one.”
Nobody spoke. It seemed as if everyone had stopped breathing.
“Be quick, gentlemen,” she said in a cool voice.
Those who had claimed to be Latika’s father started to run away. No one tried to stop them. Nobody could say anything. Left speechless, the priest rose to his feet. He tried to keep his disagreements to himself.
“Now you know the truth, don’t you?” Latika’s mother faced the crowd and said firmly. There was a glint of victory in her eyes and an expression of satisfaction on her face. That was the beginning of a strong campaign of emancipation not only for her but also for all womanhood, she thought.
The priest felt embarrassed and ashamed. “Please forgive us!” he said and left the place quickly. The crowd, too, disappeared in a while.
Latika’s eyes were curious and aimed at her mother. Her mother looked up at the sky. It was a clear blue sky. She heaved a long sigh.
Latika is her reality. Her clear present. The curiosity arising from the question as to who her father is, is a curiosity of the past from which she wants to stay away forever. She perhaps doesn’t want to disrespect Latika by taking anyone’s name as her father. She knows that she is not the only woman facing such a situation in a society like ours where even big names –the so-called big shots of society – use women as objects of entertainment to quench their bodily needs. Rather than names, they are a form of attitude. The attitude to keep women as usable objects.
Even changing times cannot change some attitudes. But it is women like Latika’s mother who dare to deconstruct a society that not only searches for but also supports the unknown fathers of the many Latikas.
There is only one being who doesn’t say anything when his name is taken, who doesn’t express any hesitation or happiness, who doesn’t make any claim over her body and property – and that being is God. She is firm in this belief.
“The name of your father is God, my princess.” The firmness in the mother’s voice made the daughter a bit stronger.
A sweet smile appeared on Latika’s lips. She thought her question had been answered.
The writer is with the night desk at Republica. He can be contacted at email@example.com