Escaping the Mirror by Farah Ghuznavi

Dia was having a good day. Her tea party had been a great success, and her carefully-prepared food had been consumed down to the last crumb. Even the guests had behaved well, despite her concerns about whether they would all get along.


Mixing guests was always a risk. She was aware that her Barbie doll was jealous of her teddy bear, for example. But teddies were special, as everyone knew. Besides, he had been with her the longest, a gift from her parents when she was a baby. So Dia had no hesitation in justifying her preferential treatment of him. On this occasion her Barbie had behaved gracefully, mingling with her other guests, and even at one point chatting to her teddy.


Now, as she packed away all the tea items, and threw away leftover ingredients of leaves, flowers and twigs, Dia was humming happily to herself. Suddenly she felt a slight prickling along the nape of her neck. She stopped singing, and looked around. Minhas was standing at the entrance to the L-shaped veranda, watching her.


Why was he standing there? She hated Minhas! He was always sneaking around, always watching her while she played or was busy with her various activities. Dia didn't know why that bothered her so much, but it did.


Minhas was their driver. He was young and smart, and a great favourite with her parents. He was treated differently from the other staff, and was often heard to say boastfully that he was like a member of the family. Dia didn't think so, and she wondered why he said it. But nobody cared what she thought – after all, she was only seven.


It hadn't always been this way. When Minhas came to work for them the previous year, Dia had liked him. He was fun. He told her stories, and made her laugh – he didn't treat her like a little child. Sometimes, he even brought her presents: a bar of Mimi chocolate or an ice lolly after school.


Best of all were the forbidden goodies he bought her from the itinerant vendors clustered outside the school gates, enticing students to their bamboo baskets full of savoury snacks – jhalmuri that made Dia's mouth burn even as she savoured the delicious snack of puffed rice mingling in a symphony of flavours with chillies, onion, mustard oil and fried lentil-noodle fragments; or peeled amra, the tart green fruit sculpted into a flower shape with ‘petals’ to be snapped off and dipped into a chilli and salt mixture.


Her parents did not approve of her eating these things. So it remained a secret between Dia and Minhas; one that he made much of. ‘Your parents would be very angry if they knew that I was buying you this,’ Minhas often said to her.

‘But who will tell them?’ Dia would reply, determined not to be deprived of the treats that she craved.


‘Well, if you're ever mean to me, perhaps I will tell them!’ was Minhas' teasing response.


‘But why would I ever be mean to you?’


Dia did not know when her feelings started to change. Perhaps it was after Minhas insisted that she sit in the front seat with him when they were travelling alone. Dia's parents had two cars, but her favourite was the big blue American car, the Dodge Dart, which Minhas drove.


The Dodge had black leather seats, with a retractable divider that served as an armrest in the back. When Dia was really little, she had liked sitting on top of the divider, because it made her feel taller and gave her a better view of the road. Even when she grew a little older, the Dodge remained her favourite car – although she was soon too big to sit on the divider.


The drivers who worked for Dia's family had designated cars and duties. Minhas was Dia's father's driver; he was much friendlier than the one who usually accompanied her mother to work – grouchy old Abbas. In any case, it was Dia's father who usually dropped her off at school before heading to work, so she invariably saw more of Minhas.


In Dia's first few years at school, her father used to come home for lunch, and would pick her up on the way. But when her father started staying at office throughout the day, Minhas came by himself to pick up Dia. It was sometime after that change in routine that Minhas suggested that Dia sit in the front seat with him.


Initially, Dia demurred. It wasn't that she minded sitting in front, but she was used to sitting in the back, and it seemed more natural to her. Besides, she liked using the divider in the back as an armrest. The front seat didn't have one; it was a long, sofa-style seat.


But eventually, it became difficult to refuse. Minhas would say ‘It's because I'm just a driver, isn't it? You think you're too good to sit in front with me...’

Dia hated it. She felt funny when he said that.


Her parents had taken pains to make her understand that while some people were born into rich families and others were poor, that was simply a question of luck; all of them were human beings, and it was wrong (and rude) to treat anyone with disrespect. She understood that somehow Minhas was trying to say that she was that kind of person, a bad person. So even though she knew it wasn't true, Dia felt compelled to move to the front, just to prove him wrong.


In the beginning, it was fine. But then Minhas started insisting that she sit closer to him. He said that if she sat on his lap, he could teach her how to drive. Dia told him that she wasn't old enough to drive yet, but Minhas insisted that driving was a lot of fun. It certainly was fun when he made the car zigzag wildly, as he sometimes did, sending her rolling from one end of the seat to the other.


Minhas had a very good memory. He had learnt large sections of Koranic verse and could recite it at will. Dia found this quite fascinating. She understood no Arabic (neither did Minhas, who had only learned to read the script), but the sounds were intriguing. So sometimes she would ask Minhas to recite for her. He was always very happy when she asked him to do this, saying that she was a good girl, a pure girl.


But Dia had another reason for asking him to do the recitation. She knew that when Minhas began speaking in Arabic, his concentration was focused on the verses. At such times, he did not talk to her about other things, stranger things. He was mentioning those things more and more often. And Dia had begun to find this increasingly disturbing.


Like the time that Minhas had dropped her off at her grandmother's house, one Saturday. Dia was preparing to get out of the car when he suddenly said, ‘Aren't you going to give me a kiss before you go?’


Dia looked at him in surprise. ‘Why should I kiss you?’ she   asked. ‘Don't you love me?’ he countered.


She didn't know what to say. Minhas was her friend, but she didn't want to kiss him! Why was he asking her to? Minhas waited for her answer, but when she didn't reply, he continued ‘If you don't love me, I'd be sad.’ When Dia remained silent, he repeated insistently, ‘If you love me, you can prove it by giving me a kiss. Come on!’


Suddenly, Dia just wanted to get out of the car. But as she reached for the handle, Minhas's long arm shot out and pushed down the lock of the door. He did not remove his arm after locking the door; it stayed where it was, pinning her against the back of the leather sofa-seat. ‘Let me go!’ cried a frightened Dia.


‘Only after you kiss me!’ said Minhas, with a teasing smile.


‘Let me go!’ this time Dia screamed as loud as she could, pushing against him with all her strength. Abruptly, Minhas removed his arm, leaving her to fall forward against the dashboard, as the pressure holding her back disappeared without warning. He had a thunderous scowl on his face.


Dia scrambled out of the car, and rushed into the house without looking back. She was so scared she couldn't breathe. Badly shaken, she locked herself into the bathroom next to the library. Several minutes passed before she felt calm enough to enter Nanima'sroom.


Dia told no one about what had happened that day. She didn't know how to explain it, because she couldn't understand herself why she had been so frightened. After all, Minhas had just asked her for a kiss. He hadn't really hurt her. And it wasn't as if she was going to kiss him.


But the incident changed something in their relationship. Dia could not forget how trapped she had felt, pinned against the car seat. Minhas was so much stronger than her. She knew she couldn't stop him if he really wanted to do something. But he would never hurt her – would he?


After that, Dia avoided being alone in the car with Minhas. Although he pretended that nothing had changed, she knew that he sensed the difference. In any case, it was hard for her to really avoid him; he was still the driver who delivered her to and from school.


And now, Dia never sat in front with him. Even though Minhas made fun of her for sitting in the back by herself, she remained firm. She was well aware that he didn't like it, though.


Something else was different. Minhas had started using the rear view mirror to watch her, as she sat in the back. Dia would move from one end of the backseat to the other, but to no avail. Wherever she sat, he would simply adjust the mirror to ensure that she couldn't escape his eyes.


And each time she allowed herself to look into the mirror she would see him watching her. He made no attempt to hide the fact that he was staring. Even when she refused to look up, she could feel the intensity of his gaze boring, laser-like, into her stubbornly lowered head.


She grew to hate the car that she had once loved so much, and to dread each time she had to ride in it. Years later, she would think to herself ironically that the car was well-named; but no amount of dodging or darting in the backseat made her feel less afraid of that mesmerising gaze in the rear-view mirror.


Gradually, her behaviour began to change. The child who had been famous within her family for chatting to total strangers – to the extent that her parents were constantly worried that she would be an easy target for kidnappers – became increasingly reluctant to meet new people. She was more reserved with others around her as well, only ever relaxing in the company of her parents or close friends. The changes were so incremental that nobody noticed.


Dia had a large bed in her room, but she usually slept on the left side. Now she began sleeping in the centre of the bed, as far as possible from the three open sides. Each night, before she went to bed, she carefully, almost religiously, carried out a detailed ritual. Four of her stuffed toys – the same ones every night – were placed around the bed to guard all four directions. Her teddy sat on the right, her stuffed dog to the left, respectively facing the door and windows in her room. At her feet sat the monkey that her grandmother had given her. And propped up against the headboard was the weakest of the four, the baby kangaroo.


Any deviation from this routine caused her severe anxiety. The occasions on which the toys were washed, she was in agony, waiting to see if they would dry before bedtime.


Dia also altered her patterns of play. She never went to the garden by herself anymore, because Minhas could usually be found hanging around near the car, which was parked in the garage close by. She also stopped going to the roof alone, although that had been one of her favourite haunts in the past, a wide-open space where her imagination could run riot, dreaming of space travel and pirate ships, costume balls and desert islands.


While she was less likely to see him there, there was only one staircase leading up to the roof. So if Minhas did follow her, Dia knew she would have no way of escaping. Consequently, she only went to these places if there was another member of staff or one of her friends accompanying her. But once again, no one noticed these changes in her behaviour.


Minhas was beginning to get angry with Dia now, and it showed in the increasingly aggressive comments he would make to her during those endless, excruciating car rides. Sometimes he said things like, ‘If I took you somewhere and kept you locked up there, no one would ever know. I could just say that I left you at school, and you weren't there when I came to pick you up. They would never find you!’


Her threats to tell her parents about his menacing comments carried little weight. ‘Do you think that they'll believe you? Of course they won't! When I tell them what a bad girl you are they'll believe me, not you. And they'll be very angry with you!’


‘If you aren't kind to me, I will tell them that you've used bad language with me. Who'll be in trouble then?’ he would say threateningly. And despite Dia's increasingly desperate denials, she couldn't help believing him. It was true that her parents liked him, and it was also true that they became very angry if she ever used abusive language, especially with household staff.


Despite worrying obsessively over her parents' reaction, Dia did try to tell the adults around her what was happening. But she didn't have the words to explain her fears, and Minhas had already begun spreading his poison. Dia's parents were worried that she didn't like him because he was a servant. They had done their best to bring her up to be polite to all adults, and they couldn't understand why she was behaving like this.


Her father tried to reason with her. ‘Sweetheart, you used to like Minhas. Now he says that you are very rude to him. Why don't you like him anymore?’ he asked. The more Dia tried to explain, the less she was able to make herself understood.


In the end, she settled on the one phrase that she kept repeating, to no avail. ‘He looks at me! I don't like the way that he looks at me!’ she would cry.


‘But we all look at people, baby. Why shouldn't he look at you?’ asked her puzzled parents. Dia had no answer for them; at least, none that they could understand.


Slowly, Dia began to believe what Minhas had been saying to her. She was a bad girl, and this was all her fault. Why else would this be happening to her? She sensed, somehow, that nothing similar had ever happened to any of her friends. So she couldn't bring herself to raise the subject with one of them either.


No one believed her, Dia thought despairingly, just as Minhas had warned that they wouldn't. Perhaps if her parents really found out the truth about the kind of girl that she was, they wouldn't love her anymore. After all, they already thought she was a naughty girl to be so mean to Minhas.


One night, lying in bed, with her mother sitting next to her and stroking her hair, Dia asked, ‘Ma, you know how the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) was the messenger of God?’


‘Yes, of course,’ replied her mother.


‘Well then, do you think that I am the messenger of the devil?’ asked Dia hesitantly.


‘Of course not! Why would you say such a thing?’ asked her mother.


‘I just wondered.’ said Dia, longing to make her understand.


Her mother soon forgot about the conversation. But Dia did not.


The years passed, and Dia gave up trying to talk to anyone about the problem. As far as possible, she tried not to think about it. But that was difficult to do with Minhas' malevolent gaze constantly following her around. She became an expert at ensuring that she was never alone. But even the most carefully laid plans can sometimes spiral into chaos.


In the large, open drawing room of Dia's house, a curving stairway led to a corridor on the second floor, which opened onto three adjacent bedrooms. These were occupied by Dia, her parents and any guest who was visiting. Under the staircase, there was a small sheltered corner, hidden from view by a number of potted plants. It was one of Dia's favourite play-spots, and a relatively safe one, because the drawing room was near the kitchen, where one of the household staff could usually be found.


One night, Dia decided to go down to the kitchen to get a drink. She made her way down the staircase and was passing through the darkened drawing room, when suddenly somebody grabbed her from behind. She realised that it was Minhas. He had been standing underneath the staircase, where he couldn't be seen. Perhaps he had heard her voice as she told her parents she was going down, and slipped into the space to lie in wait.


Held tightly against him, Dia could feel the heat emanating from his body. The smell of the cheap cigarettes he smoked was unmistakable, and as she struggled to get loose, he pressed her against himself even harder. In panic, instinctively, Dia bit him hard on the shoulder. More in surprise than pain, he let go of her, and she ran to the kitchen.


The housekeeper was surprised to see her, and even more surprised by the child's demand that she accompany her back to the stairs. ‘I'm scared of the dark,’ said Dia, who was not just scared at that moment, but terrified. And perhaps something of her fear communicated itself to the woman, because she walked her back to the staircase without further comment.


Minhas continued to look for opportunities to carry out his peculiar form of psychological warfare. As if the way that he stalked her and the regular episodes in the car were not frightening enough, he kept up his threats to discredit her in front of her parents. And yet, although Dia believed what he said, she couldn't bring herself to consent to the alternative, and give him what he wanted.


On another occasion, things almost went too far. She was walking past the garage entrance, trying not to look in that direction, when the Dodge Dart came to life with a sudden roar of its powerful engine. Before she knew what was happening, she found herself pinned against the wall by the front bumper of the car. She looked through the windscreen to see Minhas grinning evilly at her.


By the time one of the guards came running in response to her cry, Minhas had reversed the car back into the garage. Dia knew that he had done it to frighten her. And he'd succeeded. Her legs were shaking so badly she could barely stand, but there was no physical evidence of what had taken place, and the guard had witnessed nothing.


In subsequent years, Dia's state of preparedness for possible sneak attacks by Minhas became almost second nature. As she grew and matured into a teenager, she also learned better how to hide her fear, cultivating an attitude of cold indifference.


Whether Minhas realised that she would not give in, or whether he had simply grown bored with the game, his focus shifted elsewhere. The one element of his behaviour that remained unchanged though, was his use of that rear-view mirror. And so, the thing that continued to bother Dia through most of her teenage years in spite of her newfound composure was the familiar, sickening sensation of being watched whenever she was in the car with him.


It was nearly a decade after it all started, that Dia was able to put a name to what had happened. By that time, Minhas had long disappeared from their lives; fired, of all things, for stealing petrol. And Dia had invested considerable effort to block out the memories of her childhood trauma.


They might have  remained hidden – if it had not been for a chance remark from her father, after he read  a magazine article about sexual abuse. ‘These Westerners are crazy,’ he said. ‘See, things like this never happen in this country!’


Dia felt as though her head would explode from the sudden, overwhelming rage that swept through her. ‘What do you mean, Abba? How can you say that it never happens in your country? It happened in your own house, and you didn't even see it!’


It took a moment for her to recognise her own voice. Her father had gone pale, as he looked at her in horror, ‘What do you mean, Dia? What are you saying?’


She couldn't stop herself from continuing; it was as though a dam had finally broken – the spider-web of cracks on its facade that she had not even been aware of, simultaneously giving way. ‘You know what I mean, Abba – think about it! I'm talking about Minhas, of course.’


Her father seemed to age before her eyes, as he said, ‘Minhas? You mean, Minhas...’ He couldn't finish his sentence; his voice broke. ‘Why didn't you tell us?.’


Dia was calm now. This reckoning had been a long time in coming. ‘I did,’ she said sadly, ‘I told you in the only way I knew how.’


‘But all you said was that...’ Dia waited for him to complete his sentence, watching the realisation dawn on him, even as he said, ‘...that he looked at you...’


‘But I didn't understand what you meant, Dia! You should have told me...’ her father continued, brokenly.


‘I was seven years old, Abba. I didn't understand what was happening. I just knew that I didn't like the way that he looked at me! What else could I say? And even then, no one listened – you all thought that I was some spoilt, horrible child being mean to the driver!’


And finally, with a tremendous sense of relief, the tears came – the tears that had been held back for so long, blurring her vision as Dia looked at her father, holding his head in his hands.



This story was previously published in Woman's Work, GirlChild Press, USA, 2010, The Monster Book for Girls, The EXAGGERATED Press, UK, 2011 and Fragments of Riversong, Daily Star Books, 2013.


Farah Ghuznavi is a writer, newspaper columnist and development worker whose writing has been widely anthologised in the UK, US, France, Canada, Germany, Singapore, India, Nepal and her native Bangladesh. Her story Judgement Day received an award in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition 2010, and Getting There placed second in the Oxford University GEF Competition. Farah was Writer in Residence with Commonwealth Writers in 2013. She edited the Lifelines anthology, Zubaan Books, 2012, and subsequently published her first short story collection Fragments of Riversong, Daily Star Books, 2013. Her Facebook author page may be accessed here.