I felt my heart go out to her as I hugged Rhea in a tight bear-hug. This young girl in my arms had gone through a lot of problems in the last few days. And no eighteen year old deserved what she was going through. Not even the meanest, most evil person deserved this. And as I desperately tried to comfort her and get her to stop crying, I discovered that I too had begun to cry. And I knew it was useless to convince her to stop crying while tears slowly trickled down my cheeks. I let them flow. I empathised with her. I hurt for her and with her. I just stood there hugging her and cried. There we were, two people – a young woman afraid of life and an older one, bitter with it.

Rhea Kher and her widowed mother had been my neighbours from the time I could remember. We lived in the same wing of the apartment complex in our not so healthy town. Rhea’s father had passed away when she was a baby and her mother never remarried. She said it wouldn’t be fair to her dead husband if she did. No coaxing and threatening from her family would change her mind. And when she could not afford the posh villa they used to live in when they were a complete family, she moved with her baby girl into our apartment complex. Rhea was a toddler of two when they moved to our town. My parents took an immediate liking to this mother and child. And my mom was extremely fond of this little girl – maybe because she realised it was time that I had a sibling and she couldn’t naturally have one after me. Because I destroyed her uterus when I entered into the world and I was always doomed or maybe blessed to be an only child. My mom was so very fond of Rhea that she was like a surrogate daughter to us. And considering the fact I was quite bored being the only child, having no one to play with, I took to Rhea equally well. We had an age gap of seven years. But that did nothing to limit the fun we used to have as kids. Those were the good times. When we were both innocent and undoubting. Then time moved on. We grew up. I wonder where the childhood and innocence disappeared.

After I finished my school, I went to university to pursue my architecture dreams. Rhea continued being the topper in all her school classes. She wanted to become a doctor. It was not the kind of passion children have after their parents force them to do stuff and pursue a particular profession, the most sought after being Engineering and MBBS. Rhea’s mother was one of the kindest and most unassuming people one ever met. She never believed in running after everything the society was after. In fact, she cared nothing about what society demanded of her and her daughter. But we did. Our family of three always was around to take care of Rhea and her mother. When she lost her job, my father found her an equally good job at his firm. My parents offered to pay for Rhea’s school and other expenses. But her mother would have nothing of that sort. She worked very hard to bring her up. Rhea knew it and she worked equally hard to keep her mother happy and do her dead father proud. Even though Rhea or her mother wouldn’t accept any of our monetary help, we helped them in every other way. For shouting out loud, she was like my sister. Correction, in ways more than one, she was my sister.

My father passed away when I was in my 2nd year of college. My super-man was gone. The one person who had my back no matter what, was no more. I was shattered. No, shattered was an understatement. I was beyond shattered. My dad had a heart attack and he died on the way to the hospital. I had spoken to him just one hour before his stroke and I couldn’t believe he was there one moment and gone the next. My mother was in shock and she could not do any of the things that had to be done after the head of the family passed to the world beyond the grave. She couldn’t offer the help and comfort that I much needed. Hold on, she couldn’t comfort herself, then how me? Rhea’s mother was our strong pillar then. Since she had gone through the whole cycle herself, she knew what all had to be done. She helped in obtaining the death certificates and the completed the formalities for a decent burial. She comforted us and co-ordinated the help our relatives offered. And after the procedures were complete and the mourning over, she was more than happy to help in any way that we wanted. My maternal uncles insisted that my mother and I move to our ancestral family. After much thinking and planning, my mother consented. She moved back to her home town. I went back to college and entered a life of rebellion. Life was not fair. My father who was at the peak of his health just was not supposed to die. Now, there was no-one to give me away at the altar. Nobody would walk the aisle with me. I couldn’t go on those long rides with him and hum the old songs of Mohammed Rafi and Jagjeet Singh while he sang in his rich baritone voice. I couldn’t pick fights with him anymore over who would have the last slice of pizza. I could no longer complain about the world to him. I couldn’t goof around at home with him and laugh at the silly Mallu jokes. True, I was close to my mom, but I was always a Daddy’s girl. And now, he was gone. He had no right to leave me and my mom alone and go away all by himself. But he did. There was a Dad-shaped void inside of me and I desperately tried to fill it with all the wrong people. I was into wrong relationships one after the other and each break-up left me drained out and weaker than before. I was a wreck and I knew it. Then Rhea did what she does best. She was just there for me, as my saving grace.

After my mother moved back home and I went off to college, there was no reason for us to go back to our old apartment. In fact, we chose not to go there because it reminded us very much of dad and the happy times spent there. It was just too painful beyond words. But Rhea and her mother made it a point that we got together at least once a month. They would come over to our new home in the village and spend a weekend there. We looked forward to these visits and it went a long way in helping us in our long journey of healing. And Rhea, who was thirteen at the time acted in ways which were so mature for her age. In ways more than I could ever say, they were our strong helping hands. And it wouldn’t do Rhea enough justice if I didn’t say that she was my saviour. I went on long monologues about my horrible choices when it came to picking a boyfriend and how very often I ended up with my heart broken into million pieces and my trust and faith in men shattered. Rhea listened. Always. And she had such sound advise that I often wondered that she had the brain and mind of a wise guru in her. After realising that I was looking for happiness in all the wrong people, I knew it was time to call for a time out. I had to be single. It was just too bothersome being in a relationship. And I was slowly and earnestly beginning to believe that I was cursed and jinxed when it came to men. Starting with my dad who left when I still needed him, to my male teachers and long string of boyfriends, I knew I wasn’t meant for any kind of meaningful relationships. And it was high time I faced the fact and stayed aloof. Aloof, but not alone. Rhea was there. As a sister, as a friend, as a sensible voice, as my pillow and strong pillar. My Rhea.

Years moved on. I finished my course and went off to America to do my Master’s. I went back to my earlier ways of being the worst judge when it came to searching for my soul mate. I thought I found my Mr. Right but he was wrong for me on multiple levels. We dated for a year and got secretly married in America. I did not inform my mom or anyone else except Rhea. By now, I had become so very estranged from my mother with all my rash decisions, the latest being my decision to study abroad. And there was no way on earth she would agree to my latest man and even my marriage. And I did what I had to do. I married him in a civil ceremony. Did I tell you that I stopped being a Christian by then? I had. I stopped praying after my dad died. I did not think praying made any difference. I did not have anything worth praying about, except maybe Rhea.

Then the story of my life repeated itself. My husband of 5 months divorced me after I finished my course. And about time too, I had enough of that foreign land. I just wanted to come home. True, I was being a coward who was running away from her problems, but then again, who really cared? America did nothing good for me, except maybe give me a degree. By the time I got back to India, I was worse than a wreck. I was a shadow of my former self. I had lost nearly 12 kgs and my virginity and the little bit of self respect that I had. In ways more than one, I was beyond repair. My mom gave up worrying over me and resigned herself to the fact that I was always going to be a prodigal daughter. My rebellion just added to her love for Rhea and I did not complain. I had accepted her as my very own sister the first day I set my eyes on that little girl and I loved her to bits. So when Rhea graduated high school in flying colours and announced that she wanted to go to Medical School, my mom was more than happy to give her my dad’s savings for her educational expenses.

Rhea continued to be my best friend and saviour. But when she started college, she needed my help in lots of areas. When it came to inhuman sessions of ragging or issues with her teachers, she always turned to me for advice. And the fact that my words of advice seemed to help her was a surprise even to me. Things seemed to go smoothly until the incident. The incident that changed Rhea’s world for good. And mine too, to a degree.

The primary reason Rhea chose to take up Medicine as a career was her way of getting back at fate for losing her dad at such a small age. Her father had been admitted in the hospital with lung infection. And before doctors could correctly diagnose the disease and begin the treatment, he bid farewell to Rhea, her mother and this world. Rhea’s mother had always believed that he died because of the inefficiency of doctors and Rhea who was too small at the time to know the true reason believed what her mother told her and from time immemorial, she wanted to be a doctor. And an efficient one at that. Because of her staunch passion, when she had problems in her hostel with seniors and other issues, she did not inform us in the beginning for the fear of worrying us too much. But there was a limit to how much an eighteen year old could handle. She broke down and called me one day. She asked me to come to her hostel immediately. And I, who had no inclination of the degree of her trouble, went as soon as I got the call. She had  specifically asked me  not to inform our mothers. I did not. After all, we were each other’s secret keepers.

I could not almost recognise the girl who greeted me at the visitor’s lobby of the college hostel. Rhea had lost so much weight and her eyes were red and puffy. She looked tired and it was kind of obvious that she had been crying the entire night. Well, I should know, I had enough and more experience wetting my pillow at night with my tears. When she saw me, she rushed to me and hugged me tight and started crying loudly. She was trying to tell me a lot of things but I could not understand any of it because of her crying. I tried my best to calm her down and after multiple attempts, her crying was slower, even though it did not come to a complete stop. I could see that my poor baby girl was suffering and I just wanted to protect her. I took her to the garden outside her hostel and we sat on a stone bench and I asked her to tell me what had happened and why she was so shattered. And the reality of what she said scared me to a degree I had never known before…

Rhea was in the college hostel and she had two roommates. One of them was not a bright student and had gotten a medical seat just through donations and by paying huge amounts of money to the college management. The only way she found to make sure she passed in her exam papers was to sleep with her male lecturers. I was taken aback when Rhea told me this. Because in all my years of messed up living, I had never seen or heard of anything like this. But apparently, it was common practise in her college and the lecturers and professors demanded the girl students of sexual favours. The girls who were concerned about their grades complied unwillingly and the others did it, for the sheer bragging rights. I had trouble digesting that Rhea was talking about a college in India. I asked whether she was faced with any such requests from teachers. She said she was. And when she refused, they failed her in her first term exams. She had not told us any of this and my disgust was slowly giving way to anger. She went on to say that when she refused even after failing in her exams, one of her Sirs with help from her roommates did something to get her to comply. Her roommate left her mobile in the video mode in the room when Rhea was changing her clothes. This went on for a few days. They got videos of my baby girl naked without her knowledge. And the girl handed it over to the lecturer. They made a full length video out of it and started circulating it among themselves and in the boy’s dorm. Rhea still had no idea this was happening. But the day before she called me to her hostel, she accidently stumbled upon this video in one of her class mate’s phone. She confronted him and the story came tumbling out. Rhea was scared and heartbroken at the same time. She asked her other classmates and some of them even had the audacity to say that there was nobody in the hostel who hadn’t seen her in her birthday suit. Rhea couldn’t not take it any longer. She wanted me to take her back. She could not study in that college any more. There was no respect for her there. Someone had told her that her video was now circulating on the internet too. She just wanted to run away from that wretched place. And she wanted me to take her away.

I felt my heart go out to her as I hugged Rhea in a tight bear-hug. This young girl in my arms had gone through a lot of problems in the last few days. And no eighteen year old deserved what she was going through. Not even the meanest, most evil person deserved this. And as I desperately tried to comfort her and get her to stop crying, I discovered that I too had begun to cry. And I knew it was useless to convince her to stop crying while tears slowly trickled down my cheeks. I let them flow. I empathised with her. I hurt for her and with her. I just sat there hugging her and cried. There we were, two people – a young woman afraid of life and an older one, bitter with it.

I felt hurt and bitter and very angry. My Rhea did nothing to go through this. I did not know what had to be done. I was still too young to take such a major decision, more so since it could affect Rhea. I did not want to make any mistake when it came to her. I convinced her that I needed time to think it over. However, I took her home with me. I knew she wouldn’t last in that hell for another night. On our 2 hour journey back home, Rhea was silent in the car. I desperately tried to get her to say something unrelated to her ordeal and failed at many attempts at getting her to laugh at my pathetic jokes. After a while I gave up, I drove home in silence. But even without my knowledge, I found myself praying to the one above for Rhea and to comfort her. There was only so much I could do to help her. The rest, only God could do. I prayed earnestly after nearly 4 years. And tears streamed down my face and I wiped them away furiously before Rhea could see them. But I did not have to worry, she was starring at the outside sights with a blank stare. I took her to my house and phoned Rhea’s mother from home. The four of us had a good cry. I was bitter at whoever did this to my baby girl. The lecturers, her room mates, the people who enjoyed watching her naked in the video. And when I thought of the fact that these were the people who were going to come out as doctors after a few years, my heart sank into my stomach and I felt I had to throw up. It was just too disgusting for words. It really was.

After hours of crying together and talking about it, we decided that Rhea should quit med school. True, it was her dream, but there were higher things at stake here. We did not want her degree; we wanted our Rhea safe and sound. And we could not let anything hurt her. Rhea, who was too tired after all the drama said she wanted to go to bed and retired to her room,. We were concerned for her. My mom, who always had wild imagination feared Rhea would do something stupid at night. She wanted me to sleep in her room. So I did. We talked all through the night. Our roles were reversed now. For the first time in my life of 25 years, I was expected to be Rhea’s saviour. I do not know whether I did a good job at it. Frankly, I do not think so. Neither of us wanted to talk about the big problem at hand. We spoke of random things. Childhood memories, teenage crushes, our mothers, our dead fathers. Then we did something that we ought to have done in the very beginning. We knelt down by her bedside, held hands and prayed. It was heart breaking to see Rhea crying her heart out to the Lord. And watching her, something broke inside of me. All the bitterness that I had in my heart ever since my father passed away seemed to rush at me all at once. My heart kept getting heavy and I joined Rhea in crying to the Lord. It went on for some time and then after a lot of crying, I felt so light. There was some kind of a relief which I could not explain. I did not know when I had fallen off to sleep but when I woke up in the morning, Rhea was all smiles.

“Guess who called in the morning?” she asked with big grin.

“Who?” I was still sleepy.

“ABRAHAM?!!!” She said and smiled wider.

“What?? Why did he call?” Abraham was my ex-husband-of-5 months.

“Why don’t you find out? He is in India. This is his number. Call him. NOW”

I did. Abe wanted to get back with me. It seems he had missed me too much and wanted me back in his life. He wanted a new beginning and couldn’t imagine anyone else to share his life with. He wanted me to move back to America with him.

I was not sure whether I wanted to go back to him. True, in the depths of my heart, I still loved him, but was it that simple? I wondered. My mother wanted me to go back to him. As far as she was concerned, it was better to have a living, breathing husband than stay at home divorced. Well, you couldn’t blame her; the questions from relatives were sharp enough to drive anyone insane. She was sick and tired of answering them on my behalf. Rhea was the happiest for me. For the first time, something seemed to go right in my life and she said it was about time. But I did not feel completely at ease about going back to US. Mainly because I did not want to leave Rhea behind. She needed me and I knew it. But Rhea surprised me and all of us when she announced that she was going to go back to the same college. She said it was useless trying to run away from her problems. She said she knew it was going to be very tough sitting in the same class with her classmates sharing videos of her nudity. But she insisted saying that this is what her father would have wanted. She had always been a strong woman and this I felt was the pinnacle of her strength.

Things moved fast after that. After spending two more days at home, Rhea left for college. She got a single room in her hostel and turned deaf ears to the demeaning comments and taunting of her classmates. I moved back to America and remarried Abraham – this time in a proper Christian manner. I asked my mom to come and stay with us and she did. I landed a good job at a prestigious architecture firm. I became pregnant after a year and when I held my baby daughter for the first time, I did not have to think twice what to name her. She was going to be named after the one person whom I cherished as my own, Rhea.

After struggling her way through medical school, she graduated with honours (no surprises there) and after completing her internship at a prestigious hospital, she got a lucrative job offer from the same hospital. But then with the same ease with which she told us she was going back to college all those years ago, she declined the offer. She then joined a non profit organisation called “Aditi” which works exclusively among rape victims and women with AIDS. Her explanation to the whole thing was that her first year in college had taught her how demeaning and emotionally scarring society’s shunning and taunting can be. Even though Rhea’s mother was not too happy about this career diversion of hers, she said nothing. Rhea had always been a smart kid and she knew she would not mess up now. They moved from the city that had brought us together to a small house near the slums. We keep in constant touch with each other. Rhea met a young social worker and they are getting married in June. I couldn’t have been happier for her. Now, when I look outside my window at my snow-covered lawn, I can see Rhea in my mind’s eye. Doing what she does best. Being somebody’s saviour.