‘Since what happened,’ by which she meant the reason we were speaking, ‘most of my friends have dropped me. Sometimes one of them, I think because they are feeling real guilty, messages me to see how I’m doing. They say, “Oh, Rana, you are so brave.” And I say, “What would you do?” They ask me how I spend my days. I’m too embarrassed to say.’
What Rana does – it was the last thing she expected – is to read. And in particular about one place, which she would argue, does argue, has the greatest story of all.
Two castaway children, the offspring of a vestal virgin, float down a river in a basket, which snags on some reeds or rushes. The vulnerable babes are approached by a wolf. But the wolf is a she-wolf and instead of devouring them, she lets them suckle. The children, two boys, survive and grow up to found a hilltop town on the site of their salvation.
That town became a city, and that city became Rome. For seven centuries Rome enjoyed unmatched conquest and triumph. Then it paused for breath. The Republic became the Empire and Augustus Caesar relinquished th
e grand plan to subdue the whole earth and prosecute distant wars. The City of the Seven Hills would consolidate. But there was one piece of unfinished business. What Tacitus, one of Rome’s chief chroniclers, describes as a mysterious isle ‘obscured by continual rain and cloud’ – Britannia.
‘I love the pages in Gibbon about your land,’ Rana says. ‘How you got conquered.’
I thanked her for the interest. Later, I looked it up. Gibbon tells us that it took 40 years of blood-soaked war to subdue Britain, a project, ‘undertaken by the most stupid [Claudius], maintained by the most dissolute [Nero], and terminated by the most timid [Domitian]’. These stories, I slowly realised, had not just stimulated Rana, but in a way it’s hard to conceive, they had saved her.
‘And what I found in Gibbon is what he says about hope,’ Rana says. ‘Do you know it?’ I didn’t. ‘It’s the best comfort,’ she says.
Gibbon’s quote in full states that: ‘Hope, the best comfort of our imperfect condition.’ I looked that up too. I knew what Rana hoped for. But it took a long time for us to talk about it. It was too painful. So I was happy in the meantime to read about the Romans in Britain and talk to her about it until she was ready. And then she was.
‘He kept looking at me,’ Rana said. ‘You know how guys sometimes do. A little look, and then when you catch them, they look away. So when I caught him, I would try to smile back at this boy to say, “It’s okay, you’re allowed, yah.” I liked him looking at me for sure.’
Rana is now in her late twenties. All this happened several years ago on the Indian subcontinent. Rana was having a year out before she went to university and was volunteering for an NGO that helped children from poorer backgrounds with literacy. But it wasn’t all about doing good. ‘I was crazy about fashion then, really, really crazy. Nonsense, huh, but it was my life.’
‘Why?’ I ask.
She laughs. It is a laugh with an edge. ‘I don’t have a good answer for this. I just liked beautiful things. That was my life. I enjoyed helping out at the learning centre, but what I really loved was having a good time, looking good, fashion. I was a little selfish, you know.’ She pauses. ‘I mean, I was young.’
‘And the boy?’
‘It was nice,’ she tells me, ‘to be noticed. The best feeling ever. I was never the pretty, pretty one.’
She shows me photographs from just before that time. I have to differ. They depict a young woman with an open, unblemished, gentle face. She is in a garden full of trees.
‘In our home,’ she tells me, ‘we have fruit trees. They flower and fruit every year as I grow up. It is like magic, only magic.’
Due to reasons of confidentiality, which are tremendously important to Rana (as you will soon appreciate), I will not describe her or the location in greater detail. The truth is that Rana doesn’t like to look at those photos. She holds them up for me to see, the image turned away from her, but does not look. They are a torment to her. In fact, she cannot bear it.
‘But then,’ Rana said, ‘as I got to know him a bit more, started to spend time with him, I realised there was something wrong. I mean, he was a very good-looking guy and my friends, they kept saying I was lucky he was interested, but they didn’t actually know what it was like, how he was like when we were together. That’s the thing, one face in public, when there are people there, and then this … other, when we were alone. He kept asking me which other boys I spoke to. How many, when, what about. We were not even in a proper full-on relationship, but it began to make me feel funny. I felt something was wrong.’
She was right. As the time went on, something became very wrong. Her admirer – I’m going to call him Yuvraj – began following her.
‘I would be out with my friends, my girlfriends, and there across the street he would be. Just watching. Sometimes taking photos on his phone. It wasn’t me who first noticed but my best friend. She said, “Why is that boy taking photos of us in his phone?” And I looked up and, you know, it was Yuvraj. There he was.’
Once more he quickly looked away. But now Rana didn’t smile. She didn’t want him to look at her. Not like that. It was not looking; it was guarding. It was devouring.
‘For a few days I didn’t hear anything from him,’ she said. ‘Then suddenly he came to my house. And he was pretending like it never happened. I asked him why he was following me. And he said he was not, that I must be mistaking him for someone else.’
She wasn’t. It happened again. Then again.
‘I sent him a text,’ Rana said. ‘I said, very, very polite, that, please, Yuvraj, please, I don’t think it would work out between us and so, you know, we should not meet any more. So please, don’t visit my house or message me.’
There was a sudden radio silence.
‘The silence was even kind of worse,’ Rana said. ‘I kept thinking, what is going on in his head for him to act like this? But at least I’d told him, not to bother me any more now. That’s what I was trying to say to him, but politely. What I wanted. Why couldn’t I tell him what I wanted?’
It was not what he wanted. Hell broke loose. All of it.