A bubble of hysterical laughter escaped Agni’s lips as she considered the irony of the situation. She looked around her, and the dank cell seemed to shrink around her the more she looked at it. So she didn’t. She leaned back on the wall, trying to ignore the damp stickiness that seeped through to her skin, and closed her eyes. Unfortunately though, it didn’t help drown out the altercation outside. She could faintly hear the security guards trying to beat back the media, the inquisitive journalists, the persistent social workers. So much noise, so much attention, just for her. Agni had never felt so important all her life.
Thoughts rushed at her helter-skelter, each pressing for precedence. So many thoughts, so many memories, happy and sad, ecstatic and fearful. Her life had certainly been eventful, but the proceedings of the past twenty-four hours had been a tad too eventful; even for her liking. She sieved through the memories, trying not to dwell on the bad ones. It would not do to break down after she had been this strong – even though she was alone, even though no one could see her.
Depressing events of the morning assailed her memory; she fought to ignore them. Ah, a good one, finally. The first day of college. Agni remembered the nervous excitement of that day, as she had walked around the pretty campus, resolving to herself that here she would step out of her parents’ orbit, and recreate her goody-two-shoes self to someone… cool. The “cool” older Agni snorted in her dingy cell. It probably would have been better if she’d stayed the little mama’s girl she’d been in school. She wouldn’t have landed up in jail, at the very least. But within seconds of that thought Agni knew she didn’t mean it. If she somehow had managed to turn the clock, Agni knew there wouldn’t be any significant decisions she would have made differently.
Again, immense despair threatened to rise up in her and overpower her calm, pull her under and reduce her to a bawling mess. No, that wouldn’t help her case at all. Agni opened her eyes and the walls seemed to close upon her further. The darkness got darker, and the sounds outside louder. Her chin quivered once, before she hardened her jaw and clenched her teeth. Happy memories. Happy memories. She closed her eyes again.
Sitting in the little coffee shop with Neela, discussing her disastrous film-studies exam. Neela’s, not Agni’s. Agni’s exams were never disastrous. Agni didn’t really remember too much about the conversation, except the fact that it was raining cats and dogs outside, and to cheer Neela up they had decided to throw caution to the wind and run outside the café like little children, and jump in every puddle they saw. Agni grinned with wry amusement at the memory as she remembered the little episode had gotten her down with a 104 degree fever, but Neela escaped unscathed, and further, got an A in her film-studies exam.
Agni sighed. Neela. She wondered what Neela was doing right now. She was probably more crippled with worry and despair than Agni was. What had they gotten themselves into, wondered Agni. Was this fiasco ever going to end? The funny thing about idealistic young-twenties-women such as herself, was that they always believed that things would get better. They were too young to have screwed up their lives. They always, without exception, deserved second chances. But what if she didn’t get any second chances? What if this was it, and the rest of her life just degenerated from this tiny cell with the aluminium door, to a large cage with a hundred screaming, insane women, all proclaiming their innocence like she was? No, she reasoned with herself, it wouldn’t be a cage. These places weren’t quite as inhumane as that. Actually, you have no idea what these places are like, Agni, she scorned herself, you are just a middle-class girl from an orthodox family – what do you know of the world? Of Indian jails? Of madness? The madness she was sure would descend upon her given long enough. Just last semester she had read this book about a woman going insane because she was locked up for a crime she didn’t commit, and everyone else had thought she was mad anyway. Agni shivered. It was cold in here, and they hadn’t even allowed her to bring a shawl. Happy memories. Happy memories.
She remembered the first day she saw Neela. She in her fourth year, Neela just entering college. The protocol informal “ragging” session, where they would ask the freshies to sing, and dance, and entertain them so they could find out who the fun ones were. When it was Neela’s turn, Agni remembered it was Pallavi, her classmate whom she didn’t particularly like, who asked Neela to say something interesting about herself. After Neela’s nonchalant confession, Agni remembered the sudden hush and Pallavi’s incredulous, uncomfortable face. It was then did Agni notice the rainbow insignia plastered over Neela’s ensemble. The rainbow belt, the rainbow badge on her funky tote bag.
Agni had walked over to Neela after the ragging session had concluded. She could sense the other freshmen and seniors alike discreetly tracking Neela’s every move and felt a flush of discomfort on her behalf. “Hey, I thought that was really brave there, what you admitted,” said Agni, hating her shyness even though she was three years senior to this beautiful young girl. “No big deal,” Neela had replied indifferently.
That night Agni hadn’t been able to sleep. What did this kid have that she didn’t, being able to throw in everyone’s face what Agni herself had been trying to hide for the past year?
They slowly became friends, bridging the three-year gap between them easily. In three months of knowing her, Agni told Neela the biggest secret of her life. Neela had just laughed and squeezed her hand. “Welcome to the dark side, Ag!”
In Neela, Agni found the person she had been too scared to be. She had this innate self-assurance; and this made people accept her more easily. Agni admired Neela tremendously for having the courage to tell her parents, who had, after some trepidation, accepted her confession. No, Neela would not apologize for being different; in fact, Agni thought she sort of revelled in it.
Neela supported Agni as she slowly, gradually, went public about her own “secret”. With Neela by her side, the whole process had seemed easier, the judgemental whispers seemed softer, and the easy acceptance of her in her circle of friends seemed a greater triumph. And then only the final hurdle was left.
Agni was jolted back to the reality of her dim cell as she remembered her parents’ twin faces of shock. The mayhem outside wasn’t even close in intensity to the chaos in her head. Her mom had even hurled the rolling pin at her amidst her abuses of harami, bastard, harami, bastard. At least her father had had a semblance of calm. He’d merely told her to go upstairs and pack a suitcase, for she would no longer live in their house.
It was that night, amidst her hysterical crying in Neela’s hostel room, that something changed between Agni and Neela. Neela’s comforting hugs had a new frisson to them, and that which had seemed most natural to the rest of the world suddenly seemed obvious to them as well. And from that night on, it was the two of them against the world. Agni lived illegally in Neela’s hostel room; they were friends by day, and lovers by night. Neither of them had been in love, or loved before. The happiness that swallowed them both nearly allowed Agni to forget her lack of a family; forget the whispers that followed them more incessantly now – for rumours were bound to crop up in abundance. Her parents continued to pay her fees for college, but never attempted to contact her again. She could have died, and they probably wouldn’t have found out until some body of authority informed them about it. But it was okay – Agni had Neela, and Neela had Agni. Everything was okay. The bubble they lived in had never been so opaque, never been this impervious to the outside world.
That’s probably why they didn’t see it come upon them, reflected Agni. The sun had set now, which wasn’t too much of an improvement on the gloom of her cell. Some of the Judgementals, as Neela called them, had decided to take it upon their God-given duty to inform the police of this blasphemy. And the oh-so-moral police had descended upon them, and taken the two of them away “for questioning”. Neela was furious. This is a free country, she raged. Not for homosexuals it wasn’t, Agni had reminded her. The heavy chain of Section 377 constricted them, squeezing the fight out of them. Neela called her parents, who blew a gasket when they heard she had been arrested. They came, paid the Chief of Police a discreet sum of money and spirited Neela away. Agni could still see the incredulity on Neela’s face when they came to collect her. “But Ma, what about Agni?” And the stiff, stony face of Mrs Mehra as she shook her head once and dragged Neela away. Agni heard Mrs Mehra when she thought she was out of earshot – “Just because we accepted your homosexuality doesn’t mean you put our family to shame like this! Of course I am not going to do anything about that friend of yours – your girlfriend. She can get her parents to bail her out, for all I care.” Later, while Agni still had her phone, she received a frantic text from Neela – I don’t know what to do Ag. They are completely avoiding the subject. I am never to see or to talk to you again, we’re moving to another city apparently. I don’t know what to do…
After that they had taken away her phone and put her in this cell that she was now beginning to get used to. Her parents would have doubtless heard by now. Agni vaguely wondered if they had deigned to feel even a flash of pity, or if she was well and truly dead to them, as they claimed she was on that last horrible day she had seen them.
Suddenly, Agni heard a click as the lock on the discoloured aluminium door was turned. She squinted up against the fluorescent light that streamed through the opening, at the constable who’d brought her a break from the monotony. The yells and protests of release for her benefit from the outside shocked her with their persistence. They had been here all day. Did she have it in her to feel gratitude after all that she had been through? Agni was too weary to ponder over the question, so she left it for another time. She looked up at the policeman. He gruffly informed her that her bail had been denied, and she would be moved to the ladies’ prison at the break of dawn tomorrow. The break of dawn part was probably to avoid the protestors, Agni thought, and felt another surge of importance. Yes, she probably did have it in her heart to feel gratitude.
The door clanged shut and Agni was left alone to mull over its discolouration again, when she emitted a short bark of a laugh for the second time that evening. Here she was, arrested for the act of loving another woman, and she was being shipped to the all-female prison tomorrow. The irony.