The Sorrows of Shahana
The Sorrows of Shahana17 mins 843 17 mins 843
What would you feel if a doctor told you that in just two days you’ll die? What does death do to us? Does it burn us out of our physical and spiritual existence? Does every situation that makes us feel burnt out make us die a bit every time?
Many times, writing a story for this platform I was saved of the impending doom of losing myself. Writing was a means to save my soul and to save my existence. When life’s questions burnt me out, writing gave me the chance to rejuvenate myself.
So much about myself. Now, let me tell you about Shahana. When I taught the classes in the early days at Hilltop Arts and Science College I was stupefied at the indifference of the students towards me. For my colleagues and I, Shahana was a breath of fresh air. She was attentive in class and always respectful to her teachers, a rare quality these days among students of Hilltop College. She came to class in time, unlike the majority of students who were always late by half-an-hour every day in the morning and after each interval. She kept her uniform meticulously clean and was always punctual at submitting class assignments.
In my third year at the college, Shahana joined. She was one of the brilliant students in the English Literature classroom. Muslim students were the majority at the college. The majority of the boys and girls would always be reluctant to form an emotional bond with those teachers with a non-Muslim background. Shahana was not at all reluctant to listen to us, those with the non-Muslim background.
Muslim organization ran the college. Their premise of running the college was to give education to students of minority communities, which in their radar included only Muslims. Students from other religious communities were the actual minorities at Hilltop Arts and Science College. Kerala was known for its religious harmony in the past. Those were bygone days now. Forces of darkness had crept into the hearts of the people. At the time of joining as an Assistant Professor, I had high hopes regarding my job. My experiences after joining the college made me apprehensive. I never expected such indifference from the students.
One day, Shahana came to the staffroom with a book she borrowed from the library. It was the last day of college, before the week of Onam holidays. She was looking for her class tutor, Ms Sandra. I was the only one present there.
“Ms Sandra is in a class,” I told Shahana and went back to what I was doing.
She paused and looked at the book in her hand.
As I felt Shahana moving closer, I looked up. She was standing near my table with the book in her hand.
“Sir, how’s this book?” she asked me. “I wanted to ask Sandra, ma’am, about it. Is it good? She suggested another book by the same author. But I could only find this one in our library.”
I looked at the book. It was the novel titled “One” by Richard Bach.
“Which book did Sandra ma’am suggest to you?” I said.
“Jonathan Livingston Seagull,” Shahana said.
I groped in my bag and produced a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
“Return that book to the library and instead take this one and read. You’ll be fascinated,” I said.
A smile shone through her face. “Why sir? Is this book that bad?” she said with curiosity raising the library book in her hand.
“Well, no, it’s not bad. But I think Sadra ma’am had a reason to suggest Jonathan Livingston Seagull. You should read it first,” I took One from her hand.
“I’ll return it, don’t worry,” I said.
She took Jonathan Livingston Seagull and went out.
That evening, I saw her in a corner of the college canteen with some of her friends. While her friends were chatting away about some interesting turn of events on the campus, I saw her engrossed in the little Jonathan Livingston Seagull book.
I was always of the belief that my happiness was connected with the act of writing. That was one of the reasons I stuck with my teaching job at Hilltop College. It gave me enough time to tend to my literary passion. I once taught an essay about a woman writer in which she said that literary passion would be much similar to bringing up children. Gradually it would start demanding more time, care, and attention. Those who understood this dilemma often lost their sleep at night. I was not one of them, until now as I was bachelor and answerable to no one. Like most young working people of my age, I too lived with my parents and they were both retirees from government jobs, which rendered them with the facility of drawing a monthly pension.
Immersed in the novella I was writing at the time, I was far from the mundane life at College during the holidays. Due to my ardent efforts, the novella was finished before the completion of Onam holidays.
A sickening absence of student sensitivity made me feel frustrated during the first days of the class. The holidays had only helped to thin out the surface of my callousness. Sadra saw my state and offered to help me by handling some of my classes in the following two days. I didn’t notice Shahana’s absence at first. Perhaps, she was late to reach college, I thought as I hadn’t seen her when I visited their class on the first day. When I didn’t see her with the book on the third day also, I inquired with Sandra. She said Shahana was absent. She hadn’t shown up ever since the classes resumed after the holidays.
Three days after the holidays, Shahana hadn’t returned. That was unusual about her. Sandra told me that she would call her to check why she was absent.
Before we left college that day, Sandra came to me with a grim-looking face.
“Sir, I called Shahana’s house. She didn’t pick the call. The person who picked the call said he was her uncle, Muhammed. He spoke to me rudely. He said what’s the urgency in calling now. He said she will come when it’s time. And the call was cut. Sir, we are not some random people asking for favours. Why would someone behave like that with us? We are doing a job here,” Sandra was visibly upset.
“Don't worry. If she doesn’t show up tomorrow, I will call her myself,” I said. Sandra denied and said she would call Shahana’s house at any cost. She needed to confront the person once again and teach him a lesson, she pointed out. I agreed.
After college, we joined for tea and snacks at an eatery nearby. I couldn’t eat most of the delicacies as I was observing Ettu Nombu, the eight-day lent commemorating the Nativity of Mary. Most of the delicacies of the eatery were nonvegetarian. Our colleagues also ate with us. The hot topic of discussion was the experience of Sandra. What made it truly harrowing was that it came from the house of someone like Shanana, the one student who was the centre of all our expectations.
The next day, Shahana showed up, half an hour late. I was in class. I felt that something was off about her that day. Her face was dull and her eyes had dark circles around them. I didn’t dare to lose the continuity of what I was discussing. So I didn't talk to her then.
“Everything OK?” I asked Shahana just as the class ended.
She didn’t look at me.
Her friend Meenu looked at me from her bench with concern in her eyes. I decided that I would talk to her friend later that day. She might know what the matter was and would be able to tell me, even if Shahana kept quiet.
I went to the staff room and discussed the matter with Sandra.
“This is unusual about Shahana. I wish I could help her. She is such a nice girl, a fresh breath of energy,” Sandra said.
That was when the office assistant of the college came into the staff room with a notice. It was the principal’s notice that the classes for the rest of the day should be let off. A political party had announced a strike.
I peeked outside through a window and saw that a crowd had assembled outside. Soon, there was slogan shouting and loud protests on police action on students somewhere in the state capital.
“Perfect,” Sandra said. “I wish we could visit Shahana’s house today. We could talk to her parents, you know….”
The idea sounded good to me.
“Shahana looks weak. I think it would be best if we could speak to her,” I said.
“Let’s go and see if she is in the class,” Sandra said.
As we went out of the staff room, we saw a procession of students. They were asking the classes to be closed and shouting at other students to leave who still sat in their classrooms.
As we reached Shahana’s class, we saw Meenu standing on the doorway, bewildered at the crowd of students marching in the procession.
“Where is Shahana?” Sandra asked.
“She went home, ma’am,” Meenu said.
“Do you know what happened to Shahana? She looked so upset and sick,” I said.
“I don’t know, sir. She didn’t talk to me today. When I tried to ask her what the matter was, she started crying. So I let the matter rest,” Meenu said.
Sandra and I looked at each other. The understanding dawned on us that we needed to go to Shahana’s house. By noon, we left college.
From Meenu’s description, we had a good idea about the route to Shahana’s house. We saw a man sitting on the verandah, which was partially covered with a cloth curtain.
Sandra had seen Shahana’s father, during those parents’ meetings conducted at college. This man wasn’t Shahana’s father. He came towards us as we approached. We stopped in front of the house and inquired for Shahana’s parents.
“Shahana’s is not back home yet,” the man announced.
“But the college was let off early today, due to a strike,” I said, bewildered that something untoward had happened to her.
“Yes, she told us. She will be late to get back home. She went somewhere,” he said.
“Oh, and you are?” I hesitantly inquired.
“I am her uncle, the name is Ummer Muhammed,” the man said.
“Can we talk to her parents?” Sandra pushed. He was the man who spoke rudely to her when she called a few days back.
“See, madam, I already told you, she hasn’t been back yet. And this is not a good time to talk,” Ummer Muhammed said.
Sandra and I looked at each other. Then a face appeared on the front door. Just as I looked at it, it vanished behind the darkness that lay beyond. “Is that Shahana’s mother?” I raised my voice.
I stepped up onto the verandah. Sandra suddenly caught my hand. For a moment, her touch seemed to burn my skin because it was unexpected. Her hand was warm and reassuring. Perhaps, I felt it because of the terse scenario and tension was palpable in the air.
Sandra pulled me back. “Let’s go,” she said in my ears.
I didn’t want to argue with her. She was pulling me away. As we walked back to the bus stop, I asked her what the reason for her sudden jump was.
“I heard the man,” she said. “And I remembered his voice. He was the same person who spoke to me the other day on the phone. I cannot forget his voice.”
I looked at her in shock. “And who was that woman who was peering through the door?” I said. “I thought it was Shahana’s mother. I hadn’t seen her before, but I felt that way.”
“What woman?” Sandra said, astonished.
She hadn’t noticed anyone behind the door. It was only when I reached the bus stop that I realized that I was still holding on to Sandra’s hand. In my shock, I withdrew my hand. Until that day wore off in its entirety, I regretted not being able to hold her hand again. There was something between us that I had not realized until that moment at Shahana’s house.
When I shared it with Sandra the other morning, at college, in a rather self-denigrating manner, she told me that in the moments we live for others, we see ourselves better.
I felt taken aback by her openness. I wanted to look at her for a long time. But right then Shahana barged in and shouted at us.
“Why the hell did you not tell me before visiting my house?”
“Shahana, relax, let’s explain,” Sandra said, trying to soothe her.
Shahana was a wreck. Her eyes were red and tears were streaming down her face. The dark circles around her eyes protruded in protest. Her body was shivering from the pressure of her emotional outburst.
“There is nothing to explain now. Why did you visit my house?” she screamed.
“Because we cared,” I said.
Shahana paused midway and stared at me.
“We care for you, Shahana. We wanted to know what happened to you all of a sudden. You were such a cheerful person. Now, look at you!” I said.
Shahana ran away from the staff room, leaving Sandra and me to wonder what had happened in her life.
I started feeling guilty. Were we too busy in ourselves that we couldn’t make use of the opportunity to get the details yesterday? I shared the concern with Sandra.
“I don’t know,” Sandra said, sitting down on a chair nearby.
The first bell rang and I thought with some consolation that at least Shahana came early today.
She was the same in the class, moody and unresponsive.
I was teaching Macbeth in their class. “Life is more important than our egos,” I said to the class at the end. I saw Shahana look at me with guilt in her eyes. I didn’t mean to make her feel that way. But she did.
She came to meet me after college, in the evening.
“I am sorry, sir,” she said. “I didn’t want to insult you or Sandra ma’am, this morning.”
I felt hopeful in Shahana’s case. “Would you care to tell me what happened?” I said.
“My father had always said that when I got married, he would present me with a property he owns near the highway. This property was his grandfather’s. He received it in patrimony. And he wanted me to have it since I am his only child,” Shahana broke down and started crying. I placed my hand on her shoulder, trying to console her. She looked at me, eyes red.
I saw a shadow pass by the door of the department office. It was Sandra. She didn’t stop or enter the department. I wished she was here to handle this problem. But she was walking away, like something else was more important, elsewhere.
“My father…,” Shahana started sobbing uncontrollably. I asked her to sit down and gave her some water to drink.
“Sir, they arrested my father,” she blurted out among her sobs.
“What?” I asked her in disbelief. I was also occupied with Sandra’s walking away from me.
“Some people came to the property bordering the highway and started using it as their haven for drug use. They used and sold drugs, hiding in the property. It was vacant, only some trees and bushes. My father didn’t take the human activity seriously there at first. The police, in their investigation, found that the property belonged to my father, the same property that he wished me having, as a wedding present,” Shahana paused. She was sobbing and wiping her tears with a handkerchief, quite unsuccessfully.
“It’s Okay to be afraid and cry, Shahana. But it’s a different matter not to speak to anyone about what you are going through. You should have told us about it. Who knows, if we could help you out?”
“Sir, I am sorry, my behaviour was rude, all through. I know… on that day when you both came to my house, I had gone to visit my father in jail. But they didn’t let me see him.”
I thought about offences related to substance abuse and legal procedures. I couldn’t remember if it was a bail less offence. Perhaps, it was.
“Did you approach the court?” I said.
“My uncle said he would do the needful, sir. But what I am worried about is that he sits at home all day, doing nothing. How could doing nothing help in bringing my father out of jail?” Shahana’s voice rose in pitch as if trying to nail down the flying arrows of worries that were haunting her.
“I know an advocate. Let me talk to him,” I said.
Shahana looked at me for a moment. She stood up and said she wanted to leave right then.
I stood up too, caught in surprise at the urgency of her movement.
“Sir, I don’t know if your advocate could help my father come out of prison. Could you please help me, if possible, to see my father? I just need to see his shadow, to make sure he is okay,” Shahana said among her sobs.
How this girl cared for her father moved my heart. I wished Sandra could see this too.
After five minutes of Shahana’s leaving the room, Sandra returned. I was on a phone call with my advocate friend.
He said he would make arrangements for Shahana to see her father the next day itself.
I turned to face Sandra after the call. She was getting ready to leave with her handbag and all.
“Are you just leaving?” I asked.
She stared at me.
“I didn’t want to disturb your conversation with the girl. I thought you were a bit more decent and include me in your conversations too,” she said.
Her words stung like angler hooks. I sensed deep-seated jealousy baring its tentacles in her eyes.
“Don’t talk like that,” I said.
“Oh, you can do what you want. I can’t talk, wow!” she said and walked out.
I decided to leave it at that. Later that week, Shahana came to meet Sandra, her class tutor. Sandra and I were not on talking terms any more.
Shahana paused as she saw me.
She smiled, after a long time.
“Sir, they said the charges on my father would be dropped,” she said excitedly. But I noticed that she was keeping her voice down.
“Sir, please don’t tell this to anyone,” she said.
“Your secret is safe with me,” I said.
She went to meet Sandra. I saw Sandra smile at her. They talked about something and Shahana left the room.
The stigma of the society knowing about a girl’s father being imprisoned on drug charges was too much to bear with. It was a consolation for me that the advocate was talking matters seriously and was doing what he could to save her father.
I still had the book Shahana took from the library, One. It was a strange love story. I walked to Sandra’s desk. Placed the book on her table and walked back without a word.
I felt like I was burnt out. That was when I thought of writing about Shahana’s story.
I picked my phone and texted Sandra, who had now taken the book in her hand and started flipping the pages.
“In the moments we live for others, we see ourselves better.”