Collective Shame – Sunaina Jain, Chandigarh

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158It was a sultry evening. The scorching heat of May stretched itself beyond afternoons to the evenings. The sky had turned crimson and orange around the setting sun. I rested my head against my crossed arms placed on my study table. It was one of the days I wanted to be all by myself, no intrusion, no calls, no study. The crumpled papers were strewn all over the place. I had written and torn many pages but no words could be therapeutic for the immeasurable loss. The loss was personal, the loss was collective too….The day had once again reminded me of Nitika Ma’am…..my favourite teacher. It was an association of three years – years of learning, experience, evolution and growth. Now, as I remembered her, a boulder seemed to choke my breath, leaving tears of anger and frustration. I had tried to keep up the mask of courage in front of the world but my inside was a weak sapling devoid of warmth, freshness and sunshine. Nitika Ma’am’s inspiring words continued to ring in my ears:

“Aditya, you are a promising orator and to be honest, infact, the best in our school. But there are days when you can’t perform to the best of your ability. Don’t judge yourself only in terms of tangible awards. If you could not get first prize in Inter-School Debate, that does not question your proficiency in eloquence. Some days are not as good as others. Always focus on your strength but at the same time, show zeal to learn from your mistakes. I hope and know that you understand”, said Nitika Ma’am, when I faltered and my spirits were low because of not being able to give my best shot.

Nitika Ma’am had the knack of putting across the profoundest thoughts in the simplest words – a quality which was the hallmark of her personality. She had an egg-shaped face, slender-built, wheatish complexion, slightly puffed eyes and some faded marks on her face which looked like blemishes. Crisp cotton saris with broad borders were her signature dressing style.  She had an ever smiling and composed face like the calm waters of the sea which conceal many a storm inside. At that time, I was not mature enough to plumb the depth of those still waters. For me, she was a ray of hope and pillar of conviction which made me look up to her with adulation. Her inspiring words had encouraged many students to shed off their inhibitions, to explore the world around, to develop their reading, writing and speaking skills, to nurture values like discipline and cooperation.

I was lucky, yes I was indeed very lucky…..I was one of her favourite students. I was in class VIII when my family shifted from Faridabad to Gurgaon after my father got a lucrative job with a multi-national company. I had my own apprehensions and doubts whether I would be able to adjust in a new school. Would I be able to make new friends? Would I receive the same warmth I got in my birthplace? I carried along the baggage of my old memories which stayed glued to his heart for many months after moving to Gurgaon. My classmates had labeled me as an arrogant and self-centred boy. Nitika Ma’am, my class teacher called me for counseling.  I entered the room bowed down like a drooping flower head. I had wept a little before. The few teardrops had trickled down and dried up in a while. I had not bothered to wipe them off which drew thin stripes, a shade darker than my skin, on my cheeks.

“Aditya, don’t keep your head down. Look into my face. I am not only your teacher. Consider me as your friend, just a little older than you are”, she said chuckling a little. “Try to come out of your cocoon. You know, the butterfly’s struggle to push its way through the tiny opening of the cocoon makes itself worthwhile when it emerges into this world, spreading its motley wings, ready to fly and suck the sweet nectar from flowers. Without the struggle, the butterfly would never, ever fly. You are like a butterfly ready to come out of its cocoon, just struggle a little and you will be able to soar high and taste the juice of success and friendship.”

At that time, I felt as if those words poured out from a sage residing within her. I opened up my wings and brushed away reticence to witness how fruitful her words were. My classmates now involved me in all class activities. Despite a slow beginning, that year finished off on a note of optimism as I overcame my weaknesses and actively participated in class as well as school activities. Nitika Ma’am hosted many micro level competitions in the class to provide each student a prospect to find his/her latent hidden talent. I can say, without any exaggeration, she was an epitome of dedication and hard work.

“Aditya, the relationship we have formed is life-long. I may or may not be your class teacher but you can approach me anytime you need guidance or help. You can come to me whenever there is something to share, something to say or even when there isn’t anything to share…..The respect and love I earn from my students is what I live for…….what I live for”, Ma’am said to me with motherly affection. She patted gently on my back trying to pull me out of my sulk. The thought of not being able to study from her was disturbing but her words were like a whiff of fresh air on a scorching summer day.

Her words reverberated in my ears now………..and I reflected upon those words with greater maturity which was lacking in me when those were heard first. I used to a few scars and slight bruises on her face but she used to brush off by making her slight negligence while working responsible for those bruises. Sometimes, she would take a few days off consecutively and she would come back with a black eye or discoloration on arm, neck or face which she tried to conceal though ineffectively. Her usual explanations were – “Oh! I just tripped over the mat on a tiled floor”, “The drops of hot oil spilled on me accidentally”, “The pressure cooker blew up the lid and fell on my arm” and so on. What impelled me, what led me to believe in those stories? Perhaps it was the time when I was crossing the threshold of childhood and entering adolescence. I believed in everything on the surface and never tried to ruffle the placid lies told by her.

“Nitika Ma’am, I need your help. Could you give me tips regarding my intonation and voice modulation? I have to participate in an Elocution Competition and I need to work a little on my style of delivering speech”, I asked. The voice at the other end had sounded tired, yet the answer was predictable. She had never refused me or shown reluctance in any help I needed. I was in tenth standard. The pressure of studies had mounted up. Ma’am was not teaching us any subject but for me, her presence was always reassuring. Since the burden of studies had increased, my visits to Ma’am had become a little irregular.

One day, I overheard something sinister and unpredictable in the school. There was a noticeable tension in the air…it was not normal. After the morning prayers were over, the teachers did not go to their classes. The staff room smelled of disquiet and foreboding. The fretfulness crossed the walls of the staff room and in no time, it spread across the school premises. But we did not know anything…there were murmurs and muffled voices until something unbelievably catastrophic was confirmed. Then, I could witness pallor on the faces of other teachers. The Principal had come to the staff room and had a discussion with the staff. It was announced that the school would not function on that day.

The senior classes were called to the Assembly Hall and then, the heartbreaking news was broken. Nitika Ma’am was no more…..No more…but what did it mean? How could this be possible? There was an uncanny hush inside the hall. The news was too much to sink in…..all were taken aback. But there was something which was not natural, which was mysterious about her sudden death. What was it? The cause was not told to us. Had it been an accident or a serious health problem, we would have been told. It was not talked about…not discussed at all…at least with the students.

It was a setback for the entire school. The hush turned into a cacophony outside the hall where everyone was talking about her. All the students wanted to know what had happened. Some of us mustered up courage and approached some teachers. We could see a certain hopelessness and immense pain in their eyes. We were told she had died of drowning. I had a spate of questions creating a furor in my muddled mind. She was there till a couple of days back and suddenly, she was just a ‘NEWS’. I stood listening to the teachers’ accounts and started feeling a tight noose around my neck. I loosened my tie, my lips were parched, my eyes still, and a lump in my throat barred me from uttering even a word. As children, our lives had revolved around friends, exams, competitions, little quarrels and all the trivial things. An incident of this magnitude had never been anticipated or thought of before. From innocence to experience, it was a journey where time taught me a harsh lesson as soon as I left the cradle of childhood.

The fragments of her life were pieced together and the truth now lay naked in its stark shamelessness. Nitika Ma’am had been having a hard time since her marriage. She was continuously pestered by her in laws as well husband to bring money to help him start his business. Hers was a middle class family and there were two unmarried sisters in row. Her father had tried his level best to please them but the gifts always fell short of her in-laws’ expectations. Within a year of her marriage, she had been sent back to her parents’ house thrice to bring ten lakhs either in cash or gold. The demands were partially fulfilled too but their greed was insatiable. Her life was far from happy since she did not have even her husband’s support. As the truth unveiled, I recalled all the instances when I had seen her bruised face or arm or neck and her efforts to hide those. My soul shuddered at the thought of the pain she must have endured. But why didn’t she complain to the police? The question perplexed me until I got the answer that on more than one instance, she had filed a complaint against domestic violence and dowry demands. Her brother-in-law is an established advocate and has strong political links. So, it was only false assurances she received from the police. Moreover, her brother-in-law had threatened to implicate her father in a false case. She had been forced to keep quiet since then.

It was after a year and a half of her marriage that her daughter, Shreya was born. She thought of resuming her teaching career after her daughter had turned one. Though reluctant, her mother-in-law agreed to her decision because that meant money pouring in. I was flabbergasted when the teachers told me that her mother-in-law used to give her just enough money to pay for the auto rickshaw. Her salary was transferred to her husband’s account to which she had no access. Her words echoed in my ears – “this is what I live for…what I live for.” The words had a deeper resonance than what I had understood in the first instance. It was not for money that she was working; she was working to gain some respect, love and dignity which were denied at home. Her students were her lifeline.

One of her close friends, Puneeta Ma’am told me that she had been very upset for the last few days. I, who had always seen her smiling face, found it difficult to swallow the truth coming out in bits. She added that Nitika’s mother-in-law and husband were pressurizing her to get money so that her husband could start a new business, the previous venture having suffered losses. Her self-esteem was forbidding her to beg or borrow even from her parents. They had already suffered a lot. The last days before her death must have been so crucial and excruciating for her. She was at a crossroads and could not decide which way to go. Her husband had made life difficult for her but she could not reach out to her parents either for help. She had called once or twice, even visited her parents’ house but could not share her woes. During her last visit, a couple of days before her death, she had left Shreya at her parents’ place saying that she was missing her nana-nani and maasis as well. Her maternal home was a one hour drive from her in-laws’ place.

It was after a couple of days that her bloated body was found from the nearby river. Shreya wanted to talk to her mother but Nitika’s phone was switched off. When her parents called up her husband, he said it cold-heartedly that she had gone to visit them only and he did not know anything beyond that. Wasn’t it his duty to search for the whereabouts of his lost wife? The alarm bells rang. Her parents registered an FIR for their missing daughter. It was the result of that search operation that her drowned body was found. A life precious was lost…..a fate undeserved…..suffering immeasurable….why did she have to succumb? She did not die of drowning. It was a crystal-clear case of forced suicide which had shaken us all from within.

Can we choose to stay numb and be mute spectators of the fire of violence raging in our so-called educated and civilized society? Can we afford to let go the culprits and let them flout all laws with impunity? Yes! The anger surged inside me like volcanic lava because she was my teacher, my most favourite. But another truth was that she was somebody’s daughter, she was somebody’s mother, she was a part of our society. It was the ‘Collective Shame’ of our society that the brutes like her husband and mother-in-law had not been booked. They had fled the house since the news of her death made waves. Nitika’s brother-in-law was well aware of all loopholes and knew how to escape the clutches of law. Promises were made by the police to ensure justice but even after a week of the incident, they only expressed their helplessness at nabbing the criminals.

The school was not the same school anymore. It had changed…..the enthusiasm and verve had given way to frustration, anger and disillusionment with the law system. We had to do something to show our resistance, our dissatisfaction at the unfortunate turn of events. My teachers and school mates raised protest slogans in unison, candle marches were held, black badges were worn by all to register protest. This continued as more and more people joined in, raised their voices and questioned the futility of our judicial system. Though the criminals were booked later on and the charges of forced suicide leveled against them, the case had not yet seen the light of justice.

It had been two years since then and I was in class XII. I attended all court hearings and proceedings since then. Sometimes, there was a flicker of hope as I awaited justice to take its right course. This time, the next hearing coincided with her death anniversary. The soul, who showed the light of hope and knowledge to many, was still groping in the dark valley of injustice and I sat there pondering ……

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