Dealing with Death

tomb

One among the few blessings of having a nomadic childhood was the shield against facing death of family members. Having spent most of my childhood outside my home-town meant that I did not get to witness the dead body of near and dear ones. The news of someone’s death would arrive in the form of nerve-wrecking mid-night telegrams or mostly inaudible telephonic trunk-calls. As a result, at times, the mourning would be for a hail and hearty relative instead of the actual dear departed. This would also result in mild arguments if it was ‘Khoka Dada’ or ‘Chota Dada’ who had heeded to the heavenly call and made his departure. My participation in the grief and mourning would be to pass on glasses of water to my emotional mother who would genuinely cry her heart out till her nose would turn blood-red and the eyes would almost be ready to pop out! The worse side of the grief would be in the form of eating only vegetarian meals till the period of mourning was over. I suspect, mostly as a compensation for their absence at the side of the grief-struck relatives, my parents would take extra care to organise a bland, vegetarian mourning period. The only treat during this time would be the little memoirs surrounding the departed soul which my parents would share with us. This would be followed by the arrival of a detailed letter from my grand-mother via a blue Inland Letter. A writer that she was, she would pen each and every detail of the days and moments before and after the death – inviting yet another barrage of tears from my mother. This time I too would join in the tear-shedding ceremony . Being an imaginative kid, I would almost see the heart-wrenching final moments being played out before my eyes – tickling my tear glands to shed enough tears.

Looking back, it had it’s own flip side too. Having been away from such mourning and witnessing-the-final-moments, I’ve always struggled to face death as such. As I grew up I found it hard to accept death as a natural process. Every night I would sit to pray, reading out the names of the probable list of relatives whom I would suspect to be counting their days. Then I would pray with all my might to keep them ‘safe, healthy and happy’ for ‘another hundred years’. But God obviously had different plans and most often than not, names would be struck off in random order with alarming rapidity.

The first time I faced death was when I was in sixth or seventh class. We were unfortunately stationed in my hometown for those years. That day it had rained hard. At school we hardly paid attention to our class – keeping our gaze fixed outside the window. It rained incessantly, dollops of black clouds created disarrayed maze in the sky – promising more rains. When the school gave up we made it a point to find out each and every water-filled pothole and waddle into those dirty waters with our canvass shoes. And that would mean travelling by school bus with naked feet –pretending to keep the shoes aside to ‘dry’. That was a strange kind of romanticism – comparing the size of toes with each other, discovering chipped off nail-polish in some of our toes-nails, trying to hide bruises…..

As my school bus halted at my stoppage, I found my cousin sister standing with an umbrella. It was unusual for her to come to pick me up but I happily dangled my wet shoes to the hook of my fingers and hopped down from the bus.

“Come fast, there is a disaster back home”, she pulled me along with a sense of urgency.

The wind has turned tumultuous, making it difficult to keep the umbrella upright. The rain had become fast and nosier. And with my shoes still dangling from my finger, my wet socks in my pocket, I ran with my bare feet. As I entered our premises I saw people and more people. The crowd had gathered not in front of our house exactly, but in front of the next house. Sighting me, my mother came out sobbing.

“Your ‘Gachh Dadu’ is no more”, she hugged me tight.

‘Gachh Dadu’ was my grandma’s sister’s husband. Strict though he was, we had an immense attraction towards him and his garden. He loved gardening immensely and hence we called him ‘Gachh Dadu’ – ‘Tree Grandpa’.

I had met him that very morning – trying to trim off leaves that had turned yellow. How can a man simply die! For my eleven years it was an unfathomable mystery! I tiptoed to the room where his body was kept. There were sound of sobs, wails, murmurs of reminiscing his last moments. I looked at his face closely. He seemed asleep – there was no pain, no anguish. A small dish with two green chillies and a neatly sliced lemon waited for the unfinished meal. I tried to observe if by chance there was any movement in his body. There was none. I waited for tears, I waited for sadness to engulf me but I was too stunned to react. Rather I tiptoed away to his garden. The untimely squall had left his garden in a rummage. The petals of Balsam – once planted in a neat array of colors – lay strewn here, there and everywhere. The rain was incessant. Like a girl possessed I picked up the wet petals – as many as I could- withing the squeeze of my small palms. The petals would slip away every now and then but I wouldn’t give up. Somehow I kept feeling that the garden was mourning it’s master. For a baffled me, that was the only way I could carry on the continuity of the cinema called Life. Looking back, it seems strange what I did but perhaps that was the only way an eleven year old could mourn.

From then on I had witnessed several deaths. Being a part of a joint family meant an alarming regularity in births and deaths. But what I can perhaps never forget is the death of my paternal grandparents. Being brought up by them, I was too close to them. So, the grief is still intact.

My grandfather died few months after the birth of my son. Though he would talk of death often, that Christmas he called everyone –including the ones who worked in our office. From hs little wallet he took out money for each asking them to buy a Christmas gift of their choice.

“This will my last Christmas”, he had smiled.

“Come on grandpa, you are healthy and hearty”, we had laughed.

But true to his words, from Christmas onwards, his health began to fail. He had no disease as such but he gradually became bed-ridden – kind of surrendering to his old age.

Around March beginning he wouldn’t get up from his bed. He would have very little food.

‘He has to be given nutrition, otherwise….”. my doctor uncle had pronounced.

So, we had family meetings every now and then to discuss the different food options. This resulted in the fact that each of his children and grand-children would bring in a variety of food – from fresh fish from the pond to light stew to watery soup. One of us even brought in Spirullina formulation. A quiet and gentle person that he was, he willingly surrendered to the whims of his caregivers. Only the Spirullina was a bit too much for him. Having taken a mouthful, his faced transformed to that of horror till he literally spewed out the contents of his mouth – much to his own dismay.

It was a Sunday. And one of our well-wishers had brought home the priest. “I think we should give him a final communion”, the priest had pronounced. The word ‘final’ hit us hard – my cousin sister and me.

“What does he mean by Final? Whose final?”, my cousin had fumed in anger.

“He will kill grandpa with his words”, I had shot back angrily.

Thankfully we were not within his ear-shot.

Most of us were reluctant but grandma insisted.

“Would you be able to take communion?”, my grandma whispered into his ears.

He smiled and nodded his head in affirmation.

The priest prayed the prayer of Holy Communion, barely audible, grandpa’s lips moved to join in the prayers.  Lying in his death bed, he opened his mouth to take in the Holy Communion. He then closed his eyes with a sort of satisfaction.

That day my mother had cooked a mild stew which he had had to his heart’s content – though just a spoonful or so. That day my mother had also cooked a special sea-fish for us. I don’t know why but I still remember the exact taste – that special garlicky flavour. Almost no one ate that day. But I ate. Contrary to my usual practice, I took almost three heaped helpings of rice. I felt ashamed but I ate. I do not know, perhaps that was my way of finding solace.

At around 2:00 pm, grandpa opened his eyes once. He tried hard to look at the clock.

“What time is it?”, he whispered in the lowest of voices.

“It is almost 2’o clock Dadu”

“Have you all had your food?”, he asked in almost inaudible voice.

Having known that we have all had our food, he shut his eyes again.

We all sat surrounding him. One of my cousins who had work elsewhere came rushing. She was the only one remaining to arrive.

My grandpa opened his eyes once again.

“Have you come?”, he asked softly.

“Yes grandpa”. She held his frail hand.

“Praise the Lord”, he used all his might to utter the line that was on his lips forever.

It was 4:00 pm by then. His breathing became softer, scantier. In another half an hour he was gone – surrounded by his ever loving family.

My second aunt held on to me and sobbed, “You know, till I grew up I used to sleep with father. I had this strange habit of tucking my nose in his bosom and sleep. He had a strange soft smell in his body. I used to call that ‘my Baba smell’. Just now, as I was bending down over his body I could still get that smell – my Baba smell”. Of the many things, I have never forgotten this line.

Five years after my grandpa’s death my grandma died. In line with her strong character, she never exhibited emotional outbursts after grandpa’s death. Infact she was the one who had arranged for everyone’s food the day grandpa had died. But somehow, somewhere there was something mildly different about grandma post his death. She clung on to his belongings – his radio, torch, com, diary……She wouldn’t show but she was breaking bit by bit.  Arrogant that she was, she would never have medicines regularly, nor visit the doctor.

“You people don’t have to worry. I am too impatient to suffer. I would simply fall on the road and die”, she had declared proudly.

But contrary to her belief, she spent almost two weeks in the hospital.

When I went to see her at the hospital I wouldn’t believe that my robust, arrogant, know-all grandma would lie so limp and frail in the hospital bed with an oxygen mask over her face. Eyeing me, she signed me to come close to her.

“My diary. Can you get my diary?”

“No, no grandma. They will not allow you to write. Once you go home you can write”, I tried to explain.

“Then can you atleast bring a piece of paper and a pen?”, she struggles as she spoke.

I was not sure why she wanted that but I ran outside to find out if there was any pen or paper available. One of my aunts tore the white part of an envelope and gave me. Another one gave me a pen.

As I took those to her, she seemed visibly happy.

With whatever remaining strength, she pulled up her hand fixed with saline drip. Balancing her hand and the pen somehow she scribbled a message.

“For all of you”, she smiled, handing over the little note.

Already emotional that I was I couldn’t bear to wait any further. I rushed out with the note. I opened the piece of paper. Inside it, were scribbled these words: “May you all be well and happy forever by the grace of God”.

A week after these my grandma passed away. Her umpteen knick-knacks stayed behind – her unfinished pickle in a secret jar, her hair-oil infused comb with a string of her hair still stuck, her numerous diaries, her wild blue-bell plant that she had tried grow in a coke can, the drawings that she had made with my son…..

And among her diaries I found a piece of writing – her own obituary.

On the day of her memorial service , with tears flowing down my eyes I read out the tiny piece of obituary.

“For all my life, amidst the hustle-bustle of a full family of children, grand-children, sisters, bothers, I have waited for my flute-man! Amidst the cries of noisy toddlers, cranky teenagers and robust laughter I’ve waited all my life to hear the soft tune of his flute. I have no regrets about my life – with my great grand child playing with me I have no regrets whatsoever. But there have always been the longing. I’ve been that lover waiting to cross the river to reach to her beloved. As I sit at the banks of the river, I can see my boatman arrive – to help me cross over to my destination. And as I prepare to take that much awaited journey, I can hear the strings of a hymn – faint at first, much louder now……

Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
Even though it be a cross that raiseth me,
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to thee;
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I’d be
Nearer, my God, to thee;
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

There let the way appear, steps unto heaven;
All that thou sendest me, in mercy given;
Angels to beckon me
Nearer, my God, to thee;
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee! “

 

Epilogue:I have lost many, many, many near and dear ones over the years. Some too early perhaps. I’ve grown older, a bit wiser perhaps but this is one reality I have never really come to terms with. I live on with the hope that perhaps somewhere, someday I would still find them – my grandpa sitting with his pet radio, my grandma writing stories with a pillow tucked under her chest, my youngest aunt sitting with her harmonium-her eyes closed in devotion…..

 

 

 

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The hole in the shoe

RIJUL SANTA

It was a tunnel. Or perhaps wasn’t one. It seemed too green to be a tunnel; too illuminated to be a tunnel. It was a long way forward. Too fast and blinding. There seemed a light at the end of the tunnel. But the pain that I felt was way beyond my endurance to actually know the distance between myself and the lightning light. I heard some voices. Damp voices, muffled voices.

“Open your eyes. OPEN your eyes”, one of the voices seemed to command. Or was there a tinge of request? I tried to open my eyes. Though I didn’t want to.

“Mrs. Srichandra. What is your surname please?”, this time there was a definite softness to the voice.

I opened my eyes. My eyes opened to a blank white wall. Somewhere next to the blankness a picture stared at me. My vision seemed too  hazy to recognize the picture. I blinked. The blink took ages to become a BLINK. This time I could recognise the picture. Sri Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa. A sense of contentment was just seeping in when I heard the voice again.

“Your name. What is your name?”

“Srichandra”, I answered. Rather my lips whispered. I seemed to have no control over my lips.

“Perfect. And your full name?”

“Srichandra Venkataramanan”. I took ages to spell out those two words.

A smiling face now appeared within my line of vision.

“Congratulations. It is a baby boy”.

****************************************************

I’ve almost always spoken or written about her daughter. Her trials and triumphs. I’ve hardly ever written about my son. That is because to me my son is more like a friend than my son. When I conceived him I was fresh out of my college. I was too young or more immature perhaps to understand the gravity of my role. So much so that I hardly told anyone that I was pregnant with my first child till it was too visibly obvious in my sixth month. The reason for this was strange. I was too shy to share the news! So, unlike many girls I didn’t have a gala announcement -no balloons and sweets for the announcement, no doctor informing a host of eager relatives-“Mubarak ho, apki bahu/beti maa ban ne waali hai” (“Congratulations, your daughter-in-law/daughter has conceived”). Thankfully I did not even have the usual pregnancy symptoms for others to understand. And it was but natural that my post delivery symptoms bordered on non-motherly mommyhood. I would openly feed my baby which was strongly criticised by many, I would insist on sleeping on leaving my hungry son wailing, I would throw tantrums at par with my child and would feel utterly jealous of the attention showered on him. This went on till in his second year when my little son decided that ‘enough was enough’ and found to his comfort that his grandma was a better mother material than his own mother. So, from then on my mother became his ‘Maa’ and I became his ‘Mummy’.  That is how we almost ‘grew up together’.

Unlike my daughter, he was born in extremely positive situation and circumstances. He got the best gifts, best smiles from relatives and best of attention. On his first birthday we had a huge Dennis-the-menace cake, a baby synthesiser, biriyani, people, smiles, laughter. By the time he was two he had a toy car of his size which he could ride. We would go for weekend trips, taste food from different food courts, go for vacation trips; while he would floor people with his childish laughter. By the time he was four, he had a really, real Casio keyboard. We also employed a private music teacher for him. Life was beautiful. There was everything a child could ask for. And suddenly, one day he had none. None meant nothing. None meant No One.

On his fifth birthday his life became different. We had just zeroed in on one of the best schools in the town. Among 300 students applying, he was among the only 30 lucky to be selected. We were almost ready to purchase his school uniform when his father’s professional life received a massive setback. Overnight our lives became different. Tough and different. While his sister had a tough life being born in this phase, his life was tougher because he had to adjust from a situation of ‘Have’ to ‘Have Not’. All of a sudden what was easily available to him, became hard to get. Overnight he had to be admitted to a small, middle class school in a far away corner of the city. We were apprehensive that perhaps the changing situation would be a jolt to him. But what he gave us in return was a surprise to us. Overnight he stood tall. Tall enough to comfort us in turn. He would happily clap at my shaky attempts to make a birthday cake. “My mommy is the best baker in the world’, he would declare triumphantly. He would sync himself with any and every situation. So much so, that by the time his sister grew up, he became my comrade. He would cycle around the neighbourhood for the best deals in vegetables, milk and other household items. One day a neighbourhood shopkeeper called my husband and spoke to him. “Is that your son, Sir?”, he asked. My husband nodded. “In all my life that I have been a shopkeeper, I am yet to find a young boy like him Normally boys of his age would buy chocolates, ice-creams or chips with the spare money; he buys strange items – packets of tea leaves, sachets of shampoo, a small thing or two of household item. Even if I offer him something, he politely refuses, saying he would buy the item if he required it. You are a lucky father”. That day I learnt that sacrifice has no age. As parents we often speak about the sacrifices we undertake for our children, but there are moments when their mammoth sacrifices dwarf ours.

In all his life, he has offered such stunning moments which has made me believe that contentment and virtue comes from within – no money in this world can buy those. Once, after many days of request, I had given him a ten rupee note to buy an ice-cream cup for himself after school. He came back from school – happy and content. “So, are you happy now?”, I asked him. “I am”, he said. “But I am sorry mummy. I couldn’t buy an ice-cream. There was a old lady begging for food outside my school. So I bought two biscuit packets and gave her”. I couldn’t respond immediately except for a feeble pat on his back.

We couldn’t afford his music teacher beyond six months, but he clung on to his passion for music. He tried. He let his fingers play on the reed. He failed. He tried again. But he didn’t give up. That Christmas was a special service by the kids. “I would play the piano”, my son declared. “Would you be able to?”, I was apprehensive. “Ofcourse”, he beamed in confidence. As his turn came I could hear my heart beat. I closed my eyes. He placed his little fingers on the reed. “Silent Night, Holy Night”- the lilting tune wafted from his piano. That silly lump crawled up my throat. I stood up in sheer joy. That day I learnt that money or lack of it cannot affect one’s talent. It is the passion that matters.

As he grew up, he coped with the challenges of an unequal world. Not only did he cope, he coped with his head held high. That December we were trying to tide over a very tough situation. The resources were limited, the wants were many. And amongst this act of balancing we had failed to notice when a small hole in his school shoe became gapingly large. Being one of the School Prefects, it was easy to spot him and his left shoe. The Vice Principal hauled him. “Antariksh, this is too shameful that being a Prefect, you have such a huge hole in your shoe.  Can I expect to see a new pair of shoes tomorrow?”. “I am sorry Ma’am. Not tomorrow. Give me time till Christmas. I shall ask for a new pair of school shoes from my grandma as Christmas gift. Till then, please excuse me Ma’am”. There was perhaps a sense of conviction in his voice. Strangely, the Vice Principal relented. That day he taught me a very vital lesson. Faced with challenges, the best way to overcome is to look straight into the eyes and tackle head on. There can never be anything as convincing as honesty.

With him, my journey became the one of daily learning – of evolving as a stronger human being. He is the one who helped me believe that beyond the story of the hole in the shoe is the story of a new pair of shoes.

So, my dear son, thank you. As you grow up I do not wish you become the richest man or even the most famous one. All I wish is that the dreams you stack up in the attic saying “One day I shall” , come true. For your sake. I do not want you to prove yourself to the world, not even to us or yourself. I just wish you get to live your dreams – however odd or strange those might be. The other day as you pointed to the bright expanse of green, blue, purple, orange on the computer screen, I could see the glitter in your eyes. “Aurora Borealis”, you had spoken in gleeful whisper. I wish one day you stand face to face with your dreams – health facilities for the poorest, a car which runs on green fuel, fusion music band, making movies or even witnessing Aurora Borealis. I wish atleast one or all of these happen to you –  for the immense strength with which you faced the challenges of life, for your immense positivity of believing that the best shall happen one day, for those moments of comfort that you had offered, for giving birth to the strong woman in me and definitely for the sake of the hole in your shoe. Happy Birthday!

 

 

 

The Medal

medal-390549_1280She had the queer habit of paying our school fees first day of every month. If it was school fees, it had to be paid on the 1st. Groceries would wait, electric bills would be kept in the queue, but school fees were ticked off earliest. Even today, my mother ensures that our children’s fees are paid on the 1st of every month. For many minutes she would longingly look at the ‘Paid’ stamp and then tuck away the fee cards in the safety of her cupboard. At times it irritated me, it still does. To which she had just a one line answer, “You wouldn’t ever understand the pain a child undergoes when the parents cannot afford to pay”.

Being the youngest of her sisters and having a paralytic father, she had a very disturbed childhood. While her sisters managed a decent education, she had to struggle with lack of school dresses, books and even school fees.  But she was immensely passionate about her school and studies. She had a single set of school dress which she would wash every evening so that she could wear it to the school the next day.  A lone one that it was, the dress would undergo immense wear and tear. With her small little fingers she would stitch it every now and then, only to discover a new tear somewhere else. But her hard work did pay off. When in her ninth class, she enrolled for the NCC course of her school. Those days they paid a token laundry fee each month to the best cadet. Surprisingly she won the Best Cadet’s award and thus could receive a token ‘laundry allowance’.

“So, you didn’t have to wash your clothes on your own then?”, we asked her once.

She had a smile tinted with sorrow as she answered us. “That was the little contribution I could make towards the family expenses each month. With hardly anything to eat, would I have the luxury of a laundry service?”

Every morning she had the task of washing two bucket full of soiled dresses and bed sheet of her paralysed father, as her mother cleaned the rooms. By the time she finished the washing, it was time to go to school. So more often than not, she would reach her school with incomplete homework and a tired body. But she wouldn’t give up.

It was during an argument with her regarding her nagging habit about paying the fees on time, did she explain why she does what she does.

“Those days my two working sisters could hardly pay my fees along with my brother’s fees. Every month they would call out the names of the students who were defaulters. We were expected to stand for two periods altogether as a punishment. This, alongside the verbal abuses. Some teachers called us ‘shameless’, some called us ‘beggars’. The girls giggled. We stood with downcast eyes. The list of girls who were defaulters changed every month. My name remained constant. That ‘shame’ stings me till date”.

I’ve never questioned her again.

Somehow the hurt of not being able to study as she should have was so huge that she always placed ‘education’ as the top priority for her children.

Just to teach me and my brother, she would take out time from her immensely stressful work and read through our school lessons before we arrived from school. She would then teach us. Due to my father’s erratic nature of job, we had to change about six schools in different states and with different languages. So, just to help us out she learnt various languages – Kannada, Hindi, English, Bengali. Having had her education in a Bengali medium, it was immensely tough for her to teach us convent English. But she did. She kept her own home copy where she practised Hindi before teaching me.She would read aloud English lessons in her faulty pronunciation, urging father to correct her.

While it was easier teaching me, it was immensely challenging teaching my brother. He was a hyperactive, super-intelligent brat who would never sit quiet. So, my mother made ‘special set-ups’ for him. She fixed a bulb in the terrace and converted that to an open air class-room. She danced, made actions, funny faces and resorted to every trick while teaching him.

She would wake me up at 4:00 am every morning during my exams and ensure a hot glass of health drink and warm toasts as soon as I woke up. And all this after going to bed at 11:30 in the night.

Every star marks that we got, every appreciation that we received was her glory. And every failure of ours would result in a stream of tears from her eyes. Every morning before going to school , she would passionately pray for us and scribble God’s name on our palms so that we may be able to write our best.

“You are overly protective about your children. Why do you spend so much of your energy behind them?”, my grandma would reprimand her.

Quiet that she always is, she would just smile helplessly.

“ One day my children would succeed. And that day would be my success”, she would whisper when alone with us.

**        **      **      **     **    **        **      **      **     **

The banquet hall was packed to the core. The lights beamed from every corner. But I was nervous and hungry. I wanted to go home. The series of lectures by the professors wouldn’t just end. One by one, they would wax eloquent about the institution and the merit of the students. I became restless. I made a quick visit to the washroom. By the time I returned the announcement had begun.

They began from the third position. One of my classmates walked up to the podium to collect his bronze medal. With a black suit, he looked dapper. The second position followed. He was a very dear friend of mine. On his way to the podium he did a ‘high-five’ with me.

The old professor adjusted his spectacles as he read out the name.

“S..Sri..Srichandra Mukherjee…topper of the year. Winner of the Gold Medal ”.

The hall burst into applause. I stood up and walked towards the podium.

As I bent my head a little lower to receive my medal, the five month old foetus inside my stomach wriggled.

“Now turn towards the audience and bow”, my professor whispered.

As I turned towards the audience, I could see my mother in very single corner – occupying every single seat – clapping wildly.

“Only and only for you Ma”, I told myself and my baby.

For some strange reason she didn’t want to come for the award ceremony. She bought a new dress for me to wear to the ceremony, she put her pearl string around my neck but she wouldn’t come.

As I stormed back home with my medal. She clapped, cried, wiped her red nose a thousand times and even took it to every household in the neighbourhood to show them ‘her’ glory.

For all her torn school dresses, unpaid fees, lack of books, she had the medal as an answer.

For her comfort, her son too has climbed the ladder of success one step at a time. Today, not only is he employed with a reputable company as an IT specialist; he is an immensely successful and renowned photographer and blogger.

Each of our success has been her success. And whatever I am or he is , is because of the determination of one hurt school child decades ago.

On my part, frankly, I couldn’t give her anything I wanted to give her. I am too small in front of her immense love and hard work. Only, inspite of much coaxing, I haven’t taken the medal with me to my house. It is still in the locker of her cupboard. It is hers.

Image Courtesy:Pixabay

Fear

 

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If there is any word that I fear the most it is ‘FEAR’. I am afraid and terrified of the numerous and sub numerous ways my fears tend to blossom – projecting their tentacles from deep within my sub-conscious! I’ve been like this always – since the time I was born. Cloudy sky, smell of antiseptic, sound of train travelling over river, morning alarm, moving cars, carbuncles, lizard, furry animals….my list is endless. Surprisingly, the only thing that I should have been afraid of but am not are cockroaches. I’ve surprised myself again and again with the ease with which I’ve held on to their whip-like tentacles and thrown them out of the window. Much to the relief of my screaming mother!

My fear has however provided comic relief to most of my family members time and again.

When I was in the fourth class, one of our Science teachers had spoken in class about the sun and the universe. With total innocence she had explained how everything would eventually come to an end.

“It may so happen that the sun would set and not rise again”, she had explained. That bit of ‘not rise again’ somehow slithered into my mind as my fear factor. I was ofcourse not aware of it.

That evening I watched ‘Star Wars’ on television. The sun, as usual, was ‘westward ho’, sprinkling the leftover orange and purple hues here and there. I just happened to look out of the window and then suddenly, all of a sudden, that small seed of fear that had creeped during my Science class blossomed into a fear foliage!

At first it was a mild tingling of sorrow bubbles bursting here and there. Then gradually the lava of sorrow couldn’t hold itself together. It erupted with a steady stream of tears coupled with loud howling. It took many minutes for my family to realize that my tears and howling were beyond control. Emotions and expressions varied from person to person.

Stomach Ache.

That Star Wars unsettled her. I had warned you all. Insane, creepy-looking beings can unsettle even adults like us.

Hungry. She must be hungry.

My mind in the meanwhile listed all the things I would miss in case the sun would choose not to rise again.Grandma’s stories, my mother’s little fist-balls of rice that she would feed a sleepy me, the black gooseberry pickles sold in front of the school gate, my secret diary, the doll with a damaged cheek, the wicker basket to pick up the Parijat flowers…..

This only increased the tempo of my howling. Every now and then I would look out of the window to setting sun and improve on my vocal chords. Umpteen glasses of water, temptation of an extra sweet, coaxing, warning – absolutely nothing worked to subdue my fear. Till my exhaustion got better of me. Exhausted and hoarse-voiced by now, I surrendered myself to my soft, white pillow – almost whimpering like a hurt dog.

“And now, would you kindly tell us what exactly is wrong with you?”, my grandmother used her ‘thunder’ policy.

“The sun….”, I sobbed.

Everyone looked out of the window in unison.

“What about the sun?”, they were curious.

“What if…”, I sobbed again.

“What kind of disjointed sentences are these. Have you gone totally insane?”

“ What..what..what if the sun sets now, never to rise again?”, I vented out the ultimate puff of fear that was entrapped within me.

The reaction to this was obviously cart full of silence at first, followed by total disbelief.

“And who on earth, told you this?”, my mother tried to question amidst supressed laughter.

“Miss Nandi”, I managed to blurt out. Somehow within myself I was kind of happy to place the high-heel-shoe and pencil-eyebrow Miss Nandi in the seat of a probable vamp!

For the next few days, Miss Nandi became the talk of the town. Or so I thought. Every second person in the larger family asked me about ‘Miss Nandi and her big, bad sun story’. Till the suppressed giggles made me realize that the joke was on me!!

This has been a well known incident in my family. But there is one incident that I have never disclosed to anyone. But now I think I should.

Now there was this little shop at the turning of our road. Not a shop exactly, a shanty of a shop. A shanty of a shop that spelled MAGIC!! In that little space which could barely accomodate a seller, Bell Jar after Bell Jar sat the components every childhood is made up of. Crunchy peanuts, shiny ping-pong ball sized lime pickles, colocasia chips, mixtures of various hues…

My special attraction however lay elsewhere. With every purchase of 100 gms of peanuts, the seller, called Bhujiawallah, would pack in two to three pieces of green chilly pickle wrapped in a piece of newspaper. It was that age where everyone who gave an extra or a free item was hailed as demi God. And to me Bhujiawalah was one such special magician.

So in one strange-yellow, summery afternoon I set out to meet my God with a two rupee note. To my utter dismay I found a younger looking man in Bhujiawala‘s seat. Most probably it was his son. But this son was no where near the halo-bearing Bhujiawallah. This one was puff cheeked, with three of his front teeth missing and one jutting outside like a walrus.

“Peanuts for two rupees”, I placed my note over his counter, wishing to wrap up my business as fast as I could.

He definitely was more skilled than his father – he waited till the weighs balanced neatly. Then with acute deftness packed the nuts and handed them to me.

“Chilly pickle?”, I questioned. I hated him. Where was the glory of a free item if one had to actually ask for it?

He paused for a few seconds and then packed four green chillies in a torn newspaper bit and kept it over the peanut packet.

“Fu fu fan fe”, he spoke out in his monotonous tone.

“What?”

“Fu fu fan fe”, he repeated his question or answer or statement or whatever.

“What is it?”, I repeated my question.

“Fu fu fan fe”, he repeated. His teethless mouth would only permit that much. My repeated queries yielded no other answer, till it reached a level of frustration. At one point of time I began suspecting if he would take away my packets. So I grabbed my packets and ran as fast as I could – till I was out of his sight. But then my fear had already gripped me.

Maybe he was asking money for the pickle too. I concluded within myself. From then on things became miserable. I could neither eat the peanuts, nor could sleep at night. Everytime I would close my eyes, a teethless vest-clad figure would appear and say “Fu fu fan fe”.

To me that “Fu fu fan fe” became the curse spelt by the wicked witch. For days and months together I avoided the shop like plague. I rummaged my brain and found out excuses galore to avoid that shop; that road infact. No amount of coaxing from my mother or grandmother would prompt me to go to that shop. The ‘Fu fu fan fe’ fear went on for many days till one day I noticed that the shop had shut. ‘ A big apartment will come up soon, so they have gone back to their village’, someone informed. My ‘Fu fu’ fear remained locked within the tin shutter of the shop forever. Though I still wonder if they had left the innumerable bell jars behind.

But I’ve noticed one thing strange, that if I fear something the most, it is a species called Homo sapiens. I am mighty afraid of people and their expectations. I have tried, failed, tried and failed an infinite number of times to confront the question, “What if…”. I’ve never been able to convince myself that it is okay if I say ‘No’; it is okay if I am not perfect enough to meet people’s expectations; it is perfectly alright to put my foot down once in a while.

When I was in my high school, I had undergone an intense phase of fear and hallucination. I had just shifted from another state and another board, so this change of school, board and atmosphere was a bit tough for me to handle. But worse was the Principal of the school. Every now and then, she would haul me up for a session of reprimand. Round and rotund that she was, her double chin would blow in and out similar to a toad, while she spoke. I am sorry to ever think of a teacher in terms of a toad. But my fear made me hallucinate that a toad was actually speaking to me. I would look down, up and even try to close my eyes, but the vision of the toad croaking wouldn’t shove off my mind. In those two years that I survived, I constantly battled my under water illusion.

But as they say, every fear has it’s share of triumph. The moving figure in the dark would ultimately end up being the shadow of a hanging cloth, sound of foot-steps in the hall would actually be sound of water droplets from the tap and not everyday would the sun set, never to rise again!

The finishing touch to my final fear story is also one such lesson in triumph. In the two harrowing years that I survived in that school, my every day prayer was to see a day when I would be able to answer my Principal. But the day actually came many, many years later – when I was way beyond my schooling years. It was a programme on Women’s Day and our focus theme was ‘elderly women’. A lot of women from different churches, old age homes etc were invited to the programme. Since our organisation was conducting the programme, I was in charge of being the resource person. As I was in the middle of my presentation, there, amidst a group of fragile, wrinkled faces, shone a face that seemed oh-so-familiar. Croak! Something rumbled within my mind. I felt my feet turning icy cold but I didn’t want to give up. I converted my speech to an interactive discussion. All the while, my lub-dub went croak-croak with fear but this time I didn’t want my fear to win.

Programme over. Applause. Applause. Applause. A pair of old hands came my way. “Congratulations Ma’am. You were excellent! In which school were you groomed”, she said. Her voice was soaked in genuine appreciation.

“Oh, in a lot many schools…I’ve been through around seven schools in my life-time”, I laughed.

“Could you help me get down the stairs”, she requested.

“Sure”, I smiled.

“God bless you! Your teachers must have been so proud of you!”, she smiled.

The toad suddenly jumped into the big, bad pond and swam away. In front of me, stood my old, helpless Principal!

I had a good mind to take out my tongue and wag it – Fear, this is for you!

But then, there was this unbeatable feeling of triumph that didn’t smell of revenge. It was a soft, mellow feeling of happiness….one that surpasses every fear!

 

Pic Courtesy: Pixabay

A long way home

SWISS 1Disaster and I have always been Siamese twins. So much so, that I was even inspired to write a story loosely based on the disasters of my life.

If I would be in a queue, it was evident that the “Lunch” board would be shoved at the counter just as I would reach the counter. I am the only girl perhaps whose birthday skirt would be stuck tight at the bummy, inspite of the repeated trials earlier. The only time I actually brought home a huge chocolate cake for my birthday proved to be a disaster as well. The cake turned out to be stale and smelly and a mad rush to the shop for a change greeted us with a closed shutter.

I appeared for an admission test at a reputed convent school. My name did not appear in the list of selected candidates. So sure was my father about my abilities that he challenged the authorities to show my paper. A search proved that out of the 223 that appeared for the test, only, yes, only mine was lost! I was given a special permission to write the test all over again, in front of the principal. It was a different matter that I scored a perfect 100. But the fact remained, that when it came to luck my balances were always tilted towards the disaster side.

So, when I finally made to a course in Switzerland for a few months, my parents were jittery till I finally made a phone call back home, assuring them that I reached safely. My stay was not free of disasters as well. My friendly room-mate turned out to be an alcoholic. One night she even attempted suicide right in front of my eyes! So shattered I was with the incident that I actually had to go to a therapist for nervous breakdown!

But all said and done, those few months gave some of the beautiful moments of life.

SWISS 2

Finally, it was time for me to return home. My return ticket was scheduled in such a way so that I would reach home by 23rd of December – in time for Christmas with my family. It was a three flight back home – from Switzerland to France; from France to Mumbai and from Mumbai to Kolkata.

Many hugs and sobs and farewells later, I was happy to board the flight from Geneva.  As the flight touched Paris, my heart fluttered in anticipation.Another night, and I would be back with my mom! My flight from Paris to Bombay had a time gap of 2 hours. As I struggled to pull along my trolley bag to check-in for my flight to Bombay, a polite announcement informed helpfully that the flight would be delayed by four hours. The only happiness tagged to this dampening announcement was the lure of a free lunch from the airport lounge at the buffet counter. Food, being always my weakness, I was ready to forgive them. I enjoyed a hearty lunch and even donated a few extra changes to a key-chain seller! “Le beta, aish kar”, I told the bewildered man! I looked at the watch and knew it was time to check-in. I hurried along. There was a huge line already at the check-in counter. I helped an old couple stand ahead of me. Pointing to my protruding tummy under the over-coat they asked when I was due. I gulped. I had to explain to them that it was pouch-belt which was adding to my tummy (I did not dare mention the scrumptious lunch I had, minutes earlier!).

They checked in and waved. I produced my passport and my ticket.

“ Sorry Madame”, the red-lipstick at the counter smiled.

“Sorry? “

“Excuse me? Isn’t this the counter to check in for this flight?”, I waved the ticket in front of her.

“ It is. But, sorry Madame, you cannot board the flight now.”, the red lipstick was as tight lipped as before.

“Why? Do I look like a terrorist?”, I had a good mind to scream back. My hand automatically reached my pouch-belt. Could this be the reason, I wondered.

The people behind me were growing impatient by the minute.

“ Let me explain”, a handsome airport official came to the rescue.

“ Actually we had overbooked the flight and as a rule we have to off-load some passengers.”, the Nicolas Cage look alike ignited the bomb mildly.

“And?”, I wasn’t sure I was hearing what I was dreading.

“And unfortunately, from you onwards we have to offload for the day. You will be put up in a five-star hotel for the night. Food is free. Transport to and fro – everything free. Just this night. And then tomorrow you shall be catching a flight back home”.

The Sardarji behind in the meanwhile threatened to sue the airlines. Nicolas Cage got busy pacifying him, leaving me dazed. I could see Santa swishing away in his sleigh in front of my eyes! Technically it would mean that I would actually land home on Christmas eve!

SWISS 3

The airport authorities at Bombay aka Mumbai airport were more than helpful.

“ You all will be put up in a good star hotel for the night. Relax, have dinner. Just come back in the evening to have your ticket stamped for an early morning flight to Calcutta tomorrow. I assure you – you’ll be home before the crow sees daylight.”, the friendly official explained. He probably could sense the frustration of having to spend yet another night in a Hotel bed, after the Paris fiasco.

And frustrated I was. But perhaps more tired than frustrated, I gave in. Young that I was, I barely had any strength to fight on.

Yet another hotel. Yet another buffet. I was lonely, tired and missing my home. And having been allotted a room on the fourth floor where there were hardly any people, I was all the more lonely.

I decided to have a wash before having my dinner and going down to the airport. I closed the door behind me, it autolocked. I went to the washroom and had a good bath – inspite of the December cold. I just wanted to wash off my stress. Destressed, as I turned the knob of the washroom from inside I realized the rusted goddamn lock was jammed tight and wouldn’t move.

“Relax, calm down”, I told myself, as I went on to turn the round blob of knob again and again. It wouldn’t budge an inch!

“No worries sweetheart. Just use the intercom in the washroom silly”, I chided myself.

I picked up the intercom, only to realize that it was broken and non-functional.

“Okay, now what?”, I asked myself.

The room was autolocked from inside. And within the autolocked room was my washroom which was locked from inside. There was only a mild slit of a ventilator which opened inside the room, not outside. And the room being in the isolated fourth floor, there was hardly a chance of anyone walking past. And even if they did, would they be able to hear me out, even if I scream my lungs out?

I looked around the washroom. There was just a stone ashtray. Just an ashtray! Parched, I drank water from the tap. And then screamed my lungs out. As expected, there was only the noise of silence. I thought again. Then with all my might kept on banging the metal knob with the stone ashtray. It made a louder noise this time.

God, let one man hear atleast, I prayed fervently.

I kept banging till it hurt my fingers. Bang and silence. Bang and silence. Just in case I miss the sound of someone outside.

After many ages, I could hear a faint muffled sound.

My heart stopped for a second.

“Is there someone”, some one’s faint voice wafted in.

I placed my face in the small opening under the door and screamed out.“Yes, yes, I am locked in. Please help me”.

There was no response.

Hallucination!

Tired, I sat down to rest for a while. Then I continued the bang-bang  method for many more minutes till there was sound of a few more voices outside.

“Ma’am , are you locked?”, someone enquired.

No, I am practising Howling Yoga! I had a good mind to scream back.

“Yes, I am”, I answered.

“ Just push the door hard”, another moron offered another insane advice.

“I am locked inside the washroom”, I tried to reason.

“Uh..okay, we’ll talk to the reception and get the spare keys” , a sane soul calmed me.

I was too dizzy by then.

It took another 30 minutes to retrieve me!

As I rushed down to the reception, a pink lipstick smiled profusely.

“Room 404 ? Srichandra ? Your parents have been trying to contact you for over an hour.There was also a call from the airport. You have to get your ticket stamped. Where were you? Another 20 minutes and they will shut the counter”. She gave a bum-chum smile, oblivious to the happenings so far.

“And how do I reach the airport?”, I enquired.

“You can hire a car from here. But ofcourse it would be too costly.”, she smiled sympathetically.

Coming from abroad, I hardly had any Indian currency. And it was too late in the night.

“Else?”

“You can hire an auto from outside. It would take about 30 minutes”

“But you said they would close the counter in another 20 minutes”

“That they would. There is another way out. They are constructing a new fly-over, if you can walk- walk fast that is, you can reach in twenty five minutes – may be. The fly-over is not yet open to vehicles, but people can walk across”.

It was seven thirty in the evening and it was too dark for a December night. I located the fly-over and began my walk, only to realize that my co-walkers were mostly drunkards, looking for isolated spot to finish off their bottles. It was definitely risky. But I had to reach home before Santa. There was a group of college guys. Safer evil perhaps, I reasoned. I shadow-walked behind them, without  making them realize my presence. Once I located the airport from far away, I increased my speed. I almost ran. The boys were puzzled to discover my presence.

“Hey, don’t trip and fall”, one of them smiled.

I smiled back. I felt safe.

I ran with all my might, locating the counter window from far away.

But just as I reached the window, the man at the counter slid down the glass shutter. But just about. I pushed my ticket book through the little slit that was still left.

“Sorry bachha! Rule is rule! It is already 15 minutes past the closure time. And the system is already shut-down. They have also entered the list of passengers. Come tomorrow morning. You’ll be booked in the evening flight tomorrow for sure”.

“Pleaseeeeeeee Uncleji”, I nearly sobbed.

He opened his glass shutter to console me.

I grabbed his hands.

“Please Uncle. I have been suffering this for too long now. My mummy is waiting for me”, I was desperate.

His colleague joined him to explain why it was impossible for them.

My desperation and I joined hands to explain why they had to turn the impossible into a possibility.

That seemed to work. They called up different officials, pleaded with the senior officials. And finally they sealed my ticket. It was 9:00 pm by then!

“Maa, I am coming home”, I sobbed over the phone from the public booth.

SWISS 4

My heart thumped in joy as I stood in the line for the security check-up for my flight to Kolkata. They put my baggage for screening. And as I was about to collect my baggage, an official from the customs department came.

“Excuse me, can you please step aside”.

My heart stopped. Now what!

They let the other passengers go while I egged my heart to carry on beating for the time being.

Three officers surrounded me.

“ Coming from Paris?”, one of the asked.

“Yeah. But originally from Geneva.”

“ Purpose of visit?”

“Education”.

“ What are you carrying in your baggage, can you give a brief?”

Hashish, Marijuana, Herioine….What not!

“In this particular baggage I have my books – my study materials. A few light clothings. A can of deodorant. Some toiletries perhaps”.

“How many books?”

“ Eight to ten perhaps”

“Can we open and verify?”

I was too puzzled to think rationally. I nodded my head in consent.

They opened, rummaged and took out my books one by one. They nodded and then pushed them back in the bag.

“Have a nice journey”, one of them finally smiled, zipping my bag to rummaged normalcy.

It was only much later that my uncle, who is a customs officer as well, explained that stacks of books often give the semblance of wads of currency notes during scanning. And such smuggling of currency through young students was not uncommon. So as a precaution……

***     ***    ***    ***

By now, destiny too had mercy on me perhaps. The adjacent two seats in the flight were unoccupied. The dawn was yet to touch brightness. I cared a damn! I adjusted myself in all the three seats and curled up to a nap. The flight duration was hardly three hours but my eyes just wouldn’t remain open. I never realized when a kind attendant had placed a blanket over me.

As I was fighting with a group of airport officials in my dream, there was a mild tap on my shoulders.

“Would you not like to have your refreshment?”, a smiling air-hostess whispered.

“Yes, yes”, I nodded my head in genuine eagerness.

I looked out through the little circle. The scene outside was breathtaking. I had never earlier witnessed a sun-rise high up in the sky.

The purple sky mellowed down to a orange hue. And then suddenly – all of a sudden – like a yolk popping out of the egg-shell appeared the orange sun. There seemed a sudden murmur in the surrounding sky and then there was a riot of colors.

“Amen!”, my lips spoke up.

I was suddenly thankful to God for this one Christmas Eve.

***     ***    ***    ***

A warm oil massage and a fish-curry later when I finally woke up in my bed, it was late evening.

“ Get up, get up….we are yet to buy your Christmas dress.”, my mother hugged me tight.

“Mmmm…let me sleep some more”, I urged.

“You don’t want to miss the Christmas fun after so much of adventure, do you ?”, my mother laughed.

“Hmmm…but Ma, why me? Why does it always happen with me.”

“Because you are special.”, my mother laughed.

The Blue Cross

christ-776786_1280

There are times in life when we are at cross-roads of puzzled decision-making. When the going is tough – equally- in each of the paths. We are confused, worried and angry with ourselves. And then we unknowingly get the answer – from a source that we could have never imagined.

Those days we were in distress. Things were as bad as ‘bad’ can be. My grandmother had just passed away, my husband did not have a job, my son was coping up with a new school. And I was mentally traumatised with spiralling cost, home loans and family difficulties. Just then I discovered I was pregnant.

Never! Not at this moment! The very feeling that there was going to be an ‘additional burden’ was a repulsive thought….I did not want the child. But somewhere down there – deep within there was also that nagging feeling – a sense of sin and guilt. Every time I touched my tummy there was a shiver at the thought of a growing life….I was angry with myself. At that moment, when my family had just faced bereavement, I could not confide on anyone…..But I was somehow sure that I did not want the child.

It was my grandma’s prayer meeting that day! The meet was to be at our local chapel. It was 3:30 in the evening. I had taken a huge bundle of tube roses to the chapel for decoration. There was no one in the chapel except the pink evening light and the mellow eyes of Mother Mary with Baby Jesus.That moment was special. Just God and I. I did not want to meet eyes. I was too angry and hurt. “Why God, why?”, I questioned her. “If you have pushed me into this trouble, you’ll lead me to a solution”, I blurted. I was too distressed for words. I did not know if I would receive answers for my silent prayer. I prayed on….all the while arranging the flowers. “Just give an answer Lord”, I demanded. Just then I opened the bundle of tube-roses. And out of no where something fell near my feet. I was curious! I picked it up….It was a blue, plastic cross! A cheap, blue, plastic cross! From where it came, how it came I did not know but I had received my answer! It was enough an assurance for me. I decided to get ahead with my pregnancy!

‘Miracles’ are individual perspective – it is purely based on belief .If we believe it is a miracle, it is! For me the ‘blue cross’ is one of the greatest miracles of my life!

An Ordinary Girl

geralt1

She stood in one corner –shivering. Her blouse was missing; her soiled undergarment lay near her feet.
“There she is!”, the teacher pointed to her near-naked figure. Her eyes were downcast and she definitely looked embarassed.
“ This has been happening for months now. This is the fifth time Mrs.Venkataramanan, fifth day in a row that she has er….”, the teacher fumbled, probably looking for a better word to be used instead of the more child-friendly – ‘potty’. I chose to ignore her and went near my daughter. Tufts of brown hair flew carelessly about her forehead, as if trying to hide her two guilty eyes. She smelt of vomit too.
“Did you vomit?”, I asked her softly.
She shook her head in affirmative and looked up for the first time. A sticky stream of dried-up tears bore witness to the turmoil that she had undergone.
“ Yeah, she vomited too”. The teacher by now had moved closer to us. She was not over with her complaint as yet.“Everyday this is not possible na ? “, she questioned in her faulty English. “ We are a small school. Our cleaning staff cannot clean her every day. And not a single day goes without…..”, she rattled off incessantly.

“We neither punish our children, nor do we beat them, then why does she do this? As soon as we start teaching….. Mrs. Venkataramanan, I think she needs a thorough check-up….may be there is some underlying health problem with her.”, the senior teacher intervened this time, trying to tone down the situation a bit. She knew me for a longer time, having taught my son as well.
“We had her medical check-up done – her reports say she is perfectly alright. And everyday we ensure it that she goes to toilet before she comes to school”.I tried to defend our parenthood; though I had lost count of the number of times I had offered the same explanation. By now I almost sounded like a robot.
While the two teachers continued to confront my explanation, I proceeded to change my daughter’s dress as quickly as possible. By the time they finished with their list of complaints –from being inattentive to not being able to write numbers in sequence to vomiting everyday, I was done and ready to go home with my daughter.
“Now if you permit me Ma’am, can I take her home ?”.
“Oh sure”, the senior one said.
“And try not to send her to school till she is completely well”, the junior one added.
I just nodded my head and picked up my daughter in my lap. She curled up in the cocoon of my lap instantly, resting her tired head on my shoulder.
Little heads popped out from the open door of the unattended nursery classes, giggling at the sight of their friend. I felt a nudge in my arm. I knew my daughter wanted to run away.

2

“ 4, 5 and then…..”, I prompted again. She stared blankly for a few moments and then slowly opened her lips to utter, “ 8 “. In that same instance my left palm landed on her cheek, leaving a faint pink mark.
“Whoaaaaa”, she cried out aloud. I couldn’t care less. I threw her books, her copies; I pulled her up by her hair and pushed her to the corner of the bed.
My husband came rushing in. “Have you gone insane? Beating a girl of four and half years for no fault of hers….”.
“Yes, I have gone mad. I can’t take it anymore. Every single day, every moment I have to face humiliation because of her”, I spat fire. “Why can’t she be like her brother? She has been an ill omen for me and our family. Just as I conceived her my grandmother died, you became jobless, I had medical complications….I, I…I just wish she was not born at all”. There was no stopping me; I spoke like a woman possessed.
It was then, at that moment, that I happened to look at her. It was an accidental glance but her looks froze me. She had long stopped crying and was staring at me with wide eyes. The pain and pathos in her eyes spoke volumes – it was the kind of look one gives when one discovers her only refuge crumbling into bits and pieces. Her eyes seemed to bear a single question – “You too?”.

3

That night I sat with my parents to talk about my daughter. I wanted to find out the root cause of her ‘strange illness’ at school. I just did not know how to solve the problem.
“ Her fear”, my father spoke slowly, “is the reason why she falls ill in school. “
“ I know that, I can understand that. Infact, just to get rid of her fear we take a detour on the way to the school so that she becomes happy. And the funny part is that she has never protested. She is one of those rare kids who happily goes to school.”
My father smiled. “It is not the fear of her school, it is the fear of failure that prompts her to fall sick. And it happens involuntarily”.
“ Does she pretend to be sick?”, I couldn’t help wondering aloud.
“At the cost of being humiliated? “, he laughed. “Not children! They may be naughty, inattentive and difficult to control but they are not complicated like you and me”.
He ought to be knowing; with years of experience as a social worker working in the field of education he had a fair idea about child psychology.
“ I am clueless”. I was ready to give up.
“ That is not a solution. You have to think what evokes her fear.”
“ Her fear of learning, may be”.
“ What kind of fear ? Does she have a learning difficulty ? Is she having a problem with her eye-sight or may be a problem with comprehending the words”.
“ Her god-damn memory! It is her memory which is the problem.”, I was exasperated. “She just cannot remember things in sequence – whether it is numbers or alphabets.”
“ So if remembering things in sequence is her problem, why force her to remember at all?”. The sheer nonchalance in his voice irritated me.
“ It is a school Dad – they have a system.”, I tried to reason.
“ Then de-school her…..She needs to be de-schooled. Non Formal Education system works and you know that very well. Learning is for knowledge, not for instilling fear”, he signed off.

4

So de-schooling it was! Her father went the next day and struck her name off the school register. And I was entrusted the role of home-tutoring her. Being a working mother with minimal patience I really did not know where to begin from. So on day one I sat with a pile of books and copies strewn all around me – contemplating the right method to teach her. She sat playing in one corner with her bag full of collections – clips, chocolate wrappers and pencils – she had a habit of collecting things of her choice.
“ Have you taken three clips from my collection?” , she asked while arranging her coveted treasures.
“No. Why ?” I asked her.
“ There were twelve clips and now there are only nine”, she replied, almost absent-mindedly.
I was surprised. She can count! This was indeed a new discovery. I wanted to test her again.
“ Ruhu, look here! Tell me – if you have six pencils and I give you four more, how many would you have?”
She kept her wrappers aside, looked straight into my eyes and took six seconds to spurt out her answer, “ Ten”.
I was dumb-struck! Fluke? I couldn’t believe my own ears. I wanted to try again.
“ And, and if your brother has eleven chocolates and mummy takes away four, then?”. I tried a harder one. She took six and half seconds to answer this one. “Seven”, she said softly. I clapped in joy! But how could she? She was not even taught to count in school.
However, it did not matter anymore, I had cracked the code to teach her in a way that she was comfortable in. My father’s words echoed in my mind – “Non-formal education system works”.
5

And for the next one year it was a challenging yet joyous experience for both of us. I understood what my father meant when he said that the functionality of learning was more important than the process of learning. So I taught her the method that she was comfortable with – instead of writing from 1 to 100 I encouraged her to do counting; I taught her word formation instead of learning from A to Z. She excelled in this and learnt to read stories earlier than her peer group.
But the real challenge was in tackling the people around – they were not used to seeing a child being pulled out of school. They had questions laced with sympathy – “Aha, so she couldn’t cope up with the studies?” or expressed their doubts about her abilities altogether – “There are special schools for slow learners….may be she should……”.
At times it did hurt and I would secretly wonder if they were right after all but every time I would give up, her bright eyes would try to decipher a new word. And I would be convinced that the right path are not always the easy ones.

6

“ Aha….so she is ready to attend a big school now! Do you like this school?”, the Principal asked my daughter.
She smiled at him; her eyes fixed at the jar of chocolates placed strategically on his table.
“Would you like one?”, he asked.
She nodded her head in delight. He pulled out two and handed those to her. Then he turned towards us.
“Where was she studying earlier?”
My heart stopped for a second. “A small Montessori school near our house”, my husband answered on our behalf. We exchanged glances. A half-truth for a good cause would do no harm – I comforted myself.
“ Hope she would catch up with the other students. Our standard is pretty high.”, he remarked casually while putting the seal of approval on her admission form.
My heart missed a beat. My own insecurities muddled my mind.Would she be able to cope up with other children in the new school? Afterall she hadn’t been going to a formal school for more than two years! What if her fear crops up again ?
But I knew there was no other way, no other option – we had to take a chance!

7

“ Good Morning!”
“ Mr. & Mrs.Venkataramanan ? A very good morning indeed!”, the teacher smiled at us.
“ How are you both doing ?”, she asked courteously. I was in no mood for pleasantries. It was the first ever Parents-Teacher meeting at the new school and I was curious to know the list of complaints.
Asking us to sit in front of her, she flipped through the series of report cards piled in front of her. How long? And why was she so quiet? I was impatient.
“Ah, here it is”, she pulled out my daughter’s report card. She had a routine glance through it and held it in front of me.
“Your daughter is a champion Mr and Mrs. Venkataramanan. At first she was very shaky; we were not sure whether she was able to follow her lessons. She is a bit slow in her writing. But we are immensely satisfied with her performance. She has done extremely well. Look at her marks, A+ in all the subjects”, her voice oozed with pride.
How much ever I tried to see the writings on the report card I couldn’t – the unruly barrage of tears would again and again put up an opaque curtain in front of my vision! I knew it would look silly if I cried but a drop managed to surpass the rim of my eyes nevertheless. I somehow managed to blurt a ‘thank you’ and got up.
Taking a few steps away from the crowd I hugged her tight while her father pretended to have something fallen in his eyes. She looked surprised. I put up my right hand in front of her.
“High five?”
“High five!”, she giggled and slapped against my hand. Her weak hand barely created a clap but it sounded like a thousand cymbals and trumpets playing together. To me it was the sound of triumph! It wasn’t about the grades,it wasn’t about her marks either.It was all about the victory of the extraordinary power hidden within every ordinary child!

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Picture Courtesy: Pixabay.com