Seen: A Short Story
By Milan Vohra
My father didn’t come to see me for three months after I was born. My mother told me this when I was 18. I wasn’t surprised. For 18 years, my father hadn’t really even looked at me. I had lived in that household of men holding forth at the dining table at every meal, wondering if it was because there was something wrong with the way I looked or spoke. “It wasn’t that,” my mother told me much later. “It was because you were born a girl, Manasi.”
No, no, don’t gasp. It was true in India then. At least the India I grew up in. I remember the first time I had added something to the conversation at the table. I had just returned from school, excited about discovering that all those stars in the sky were possibly many different worlds like ours. That many of them had names and satellites like we had the moon.
I was thrilled at the wonder of all this. Until then, the biggest word I knew was ‘earth’. It was only five letters long. But that day I had memorised the spelling of a big magical world. Planet – that was six letters! I had rolled the word around on my tongue all the way back on the school bus.
At dinner, my father asked what we were taught at school. My younger brother spoke about, “This is Jane. See Jane run. Can Jane run? Jane can run.” My older brother talked about learning the five-times table. My father beamed proudly at both of them. Right to left, left to right.
I was sitting in between them. My father’s eyes glazed over when they went past me like it was just wallspace that he saw between his boys. I piped up then about ‘planet’.
“Do you know, Papa, the brightest star we see in the sky is actually a planet!” I had pointed to Mercury through the window with awe. “P-L-A-N-E-T,” I spelled out, feeling a self-conscious pride at taking the spotlight. There hadn’t been even a pause from the men to look at me or in the direction my finger was pointing. I thought then, I must be invisible.
I would never have known any different if it hadn’t been for my friend Aaliya. One day, when I had sneaked back to her home after school, her father had spoken directly to both of us, asking about our day. I had looked around, not sure who he was speaking to. I had started to think maybe it wasn’t just me who couldn’t be seen. My mother, my grandmother, my aunts, all seemed to recede into some other zone when the men in the house were around. With Aaliya, I started to see, felt seen.
But I still didn’t have the courage to confront anyone. Not at home. I just felt grateful that my mother had asserted herself enough for me to keep studying, to meet my friends, especially Aaliya.
Until that historic December of 2019. You girls have of course heard about it from your history coaches. Aaliya and her family were worried sick about all the talk around. The mood in their home was charged with anger. Who were these people to tell them if they belonged or didn’t belong in this country? Why, Aaliya’s grandfather had been among the volunteers who had helped so many refugees through difficult times. Were they now going to be rendered homeless in their own homeland?
Somehow, Aaliya and I had ended up as part of the crowd that kept gathering outside India Gate. It was a scary time to be out. There were reports that the police were lathi-charging protesters. The crowd had started singing a song I had never heard before. We were in a large group of women, of all ages, standing together side by side with men, all holding up their phones, holding hands, forming a human chain that I couldn’t see the beginning or end of, together singing, Hum dekhenge, Hum dekhenge / Lazim hai ke hum bhi dekhenge / Wo din ke jis ka wada hai / hum dekhenge.
That day, when I came home, my father said he had seen me on the news on TV. That he did not want me to repeat this. Ever.
That was the day I knew there was no way anyone was ever going to treat me like I was invisible. I hope, girls, as you’re listening to this, you and the whole world can see me – spacewalking the P-L-A-N-E-T I first ever saw.
~ From the space vodcast of Manasi Kumar, ISRO Mission Mercury, 2030
Milan Vohra is the author of Our Song (Harper Collins), Tick-Tock We’re 30 (Westland), and The Love Asana (Harlequin).
This short story was first published in eShe’s January 2020 issue. Lead image: Vivek Baghel / Unsplash