It was a dark and stormy night. Expectedly, there had been a power failure in the neighbourhood. A few houses were quiet while raucous singing erupted from others as each little family dealt with the situation in their individual ways. Transistors belted songs from old Hindi films and the sounds and smells of cooking became more prominent over the general quiet that falls when television sets collectively fall silent.
This house was among the silent ones. A child sat by the open door clutching her book. A solitary candle cast shadows on her face as she tried to finish her reading exercise. She was muttering under her breath, reading out lines from her textbook. She could hear her mother in the kitchen, the sharp sounds made by the ladle against the metal pot as she fried pieces of fish. It should have made her hungry, but it only terrified her. She knew that ladle too well. It had cooked more than fish - it had left bruises on her legs. The parents had always agreed that the children must only be hit on their limbs. The morning before, the ladle had made contact with her arm because she had spilled a glass of milk. Her mother had not spoken to her since, using silence as punishment, an art the child would perfect later.
The child sensed her mother enter the room. Her body tautened involuntarily. She heard her mother place bowls on the dining table. At the same time, she heard her father’s bike pull into the courtyard, the dull hum of the engine dying. She knew his footsteps well. Her heart was beating a wild tattoo against her ribcage and she quickly got up and fled into the house to keep her Math books ready. She’d be quizzed on those after dinner and her father disliked her being unready.
Dinner was a quiet affair. The child’s parents mostly ignored her and the family sat at the table and finished their food by candlelight. The child had goosebumps on her limbs and fear rose like bile in her throat. She hoped desperately that there would be no silly mistakes in her quadratic equations. As soon as the dinner table was cleared, she brought her books and placed the candle close enough for her father to see her work. She sat quietly, trembling, while he examined and looked for errors.
The child relaxed. It had been ten whole minutes and the father had not found a mistake yet. She felt she would make it this time. Her heartbeat returned to normal and she looked away from him for a moment. Like a deafening clap of thunder, she heard the slap before she felt its sting. His palm had made violent contact with her skull and she fell off the chair. The mother rushed into the room and raised her voice. The child heard her say that there was no need to be so harsh. She then heard the father’s voice respond harshly, something about making silly, repetitive mistakes.
The mother retreated. The child scrambled back into her chair, wiping tears and clutching at a pencil to fix her mistake. Her father glared at her. She caught a glance at her mother, ladle in hand, also glaring at her. She erased the equation and started again.
Later that night, the child heard her parents talk about how disciplining is a necessary part of growing up. She heard her father confess to the mother that he felt bad about it but it must be done. She heard her mother consoling him. She silently wept herself to sleep.