I Too Am There
I Too Am There7 mins 382 7 mins 382
Her deep dark yet sullen eyes spoke…. nothing. No tales to tell, no secrets to reveal. In fact, her eyes said “nothing”. But they conveyed… they conveyed generations of acceptance- willing acceptance- no complaints- just acceptance, acceptance of her lot as a second-class citizen, acceptance of the decrees of a patriarchal society. That was Archana Sood, my 12-year-old student. Her mother Urmila Sood, my colleague in the school, was equally quiet and meek, a simple look and gentle smile, measured words, more of a listener than a talker. It was much later that I came to know of the reality- the same story retold, time and again- a mother of a daughter hence a less favored daughter-in-law, unsure of taking a bold step of bearing another child, lest it should be a girl. But was it meekness alone? No, it was a temptation to remain in the cocoon of the age-old system, survive in its protective fold and even crush one’s identity. It was a fear of taking the risk of protesting against what was visibly wrong, a lethargy-why disturb the calm waters.
It so happened that our free periods coincided, and we started interacting more with each other, spending time checking notebooks, exchanging titbits, narrating, laughing over the pranks of the young students. It was there that she came up with the problem of Maths. “How are you with Maths, Radha Ma’am? My Archana was having problems with her Maths homework and I myself found it a little confusing. Can you help her a little?” I thought to myself, “Frankly, I am an English teacher, but I think I can handle sixth standard Maths.”
I said to her- “I’ll try to help Archana. She can come to me during recess or stay back a little after school.” I continued as an afterthought- “But what about your husband. You mentioned that Maths was his subject.” “Oh no! He spends the whole evening with my brother-in-law’s son- you know- Sudeep Sood of Class X C. He needs guidance and Maths and Science. The family, especially my father-in-law wants him to be an engineer.” “Sudeep Sood of X C!” I shuddered. I knew him so well- a thoroughly pampered, arrogant teen with scarce respect for teachers and fellow students- a leader of the ruffians of the class, one who felt that he had done a great service to the world in general by being born a boy. Now I realized the hand his family had in shaping his personality, his attitude, even his behavior.
Archana started coming to me regularly for guidance and slowly she opened up. “Maths Ma’am is short tempered. Won’t she get angry with me if I approached her with my problems. Besides most of my classmates understand what she teaches. Won’t they laugh at me? Oh Ma’am, I am weak, stupid, good for nothing.”
I had no answer. “No this won’t do.” I realized that I had to bring this little girl out of dejection. But how? I noticed that Archana had few friends and in ‘casual’ talk with the children, I read their attitude towards her. It was the same that she had towards herself. After all the world mirrors your feelings for yourself.
Opportunity knocked at the door in the form of a simple handwriting contest. As a class teacher I had to nominate 10 students from the class. I glanced over Archana’s notebook- passable, nothing spectacular. There were better ones. But I took the step and put her name in the list. As expected, the reactions of “Ohh’s” and “Aahs” came from the class when I read out the list. “But Ma’am, Archana! You put her name.” “Yes, I have”- I said nonchalantly. “But Ma’am, Shinu has a good handwriting, Aditya is also very good. He won a prize last year.” “Yes, Shinu’s is good, Aditya’s is good and so is Archana’s I think. Let us get back to transitive and intransitive verbs.”I ended the discussion.
As luck would have it, I was made the judge for the final round. I had to select 3 students from the group- Class VI, VII and VIII. The nominees had all tried their best. The entries were in my hand. I paused a moment and then did the unpardonable. I pushed aside better entries and selected Archana’s name for 2nd rank in the contest. “Those better ones will in any case be recognized”- I said to myself.
“Thank you, Radha Ma’am,” Urmila Sood pressed my hand when we met in the corridor. “I have never seen my daughter so happy in my life. Yesterday, the whole evening she could talk of nothing else, but the competition and the certificate.”
The Annual Function of the school was coming up in the following months and preparations were in full swing. A dance teacher from outside was engaged for the purpose and there was excitement in the air. One day I saw a group of Class X girls talking excitedly, gesticulating, some even wiping their eyes. I quietly called Shruti, the self-proclaimed leader of the group and enquired the matter. Shruti was an excellent dancer, lissome, light-footed, and graceful, but unfortunately a plain Jane where looks were concerned. But that did not dampen her spirits. “Ma’am” she breathed out fire, “is it fair? The new dance teacher is openly biased. She gave specific instructions regarding costumes to those fair girls- Minu, Shobha, Amrit etc and she just told us- you can wear whatever costumes you want; it won’t make any difference.Is it our fault that we are born dark We are going to complain against her to the Principal.”
I held her hand. No point making an issue over it. The show must go on. I said, “Well, why don’t you five or six girls form another dance group?”
“Can we do that? Wow that will be great. I can get cassettes from home. But we have to take Principal Ma’am’s permission, isn’t it?”
“Yes, you have to.” An idea struck me. “Besides if you form a separate dance group, I suggest you include Archana Sood of Class VI A also. She is smaller than you in stature, but she is an excellent dancer.”
A shot in the dark. I had no idea about Archana’s dancing skills.
The Annual Function went off like a dream. Shruti’s dance group performed beautifully and Archana was all aglow with the excitement of the costumes, the make-up, the appreciation, and the applause. I was not far off the mark. She was a very good dancer.
“And Ma’am,” Archana told me quietly, “my father attended the performance this time – and he even took my photo- and, and he even showed it to my grandparents”- Her eyes glistened. I could see how much it meant for her.
My husband’s transfer orders came without a warning and I had to leave the place, the school and my young students.
Six months passed, or maybe eight. My husband was sent on official duty to the same old place. I tagged along. Why should I waste a golden opportunity to visit my old school, meet my friends, my dear students?
Archana came running to me. I couldn’t recognize her for a moment. She had grown taller. Besides, she was in a grand colorful costume. There was a dance competition somewhere and various schools were participating in it. Archana and the other students were representing our school. The vehicle taking the children would leave in 10 minutes
“How do I look Ma’am? Is my make-up alright? The lipstick has not smudged has it? I think I will ask Shruti didi to help me apply some more.”
Wow! I could never see her as a chirpy, excitable, happy go lucky girl she was now. My mind raced a year back and I could clearly see the Archana of the past. I spoke at length to my former colleagues. Archana’s grades in Maths had not improved spectacularly, nor had her handwriting. But she had. Earlier she had surrendered herself to life. Now she loved life. Earlier she was going through the motions of living, grateful to the world for letting her be. Now she demanded from life. She was like a bird about to take wings.
We often hear of actors and actresses, getting typed or branded as ‘good for comic roles, not for serious roles’ or ‘good dancer, lousy actress.’ But do we ever see the branding that goes on in our classrooms- ‘Student A- good student- smart and talented- ideal representative of the school in interschool competition’ and ‘Student B- Nice boy, hardworking, tries his best but not very confident’ Do we ever think that the right opportunity, a few words of encouragement even false praises, can work wonders on the same child and Student B may go further than Student A.