“It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.” — W. Somerset Maugham in ‘The Moon and Sixpence’
I had just joined a new school, my heart sore in moving from one boarding school to another, in standard two. It was a week since the new session had started in January. In the math class, I was unable to answer a question the class teacher asked me after asking me to stand up. In spite of repeated aggressive threats, taunts, and assertions – as to how and why I was unable to answer this simple question which surely anyone could from this school, I still could not respond. I could not bring myself to tell her I hadn’t learnt the topic yet. I was asked to step in front of the class and a number of questions were flung at me. Each span of my acute silence, with my head bent down low, eyes fixed to the ground to hide the stinging tears of humiliation, was followed by a stinging lash on my hands and back. This was with the thick wooden rulers used back then, over the actual purpose of their make and sale.
After the initial question that I was unable to answer, I didn’t hear any question, as I was swamped by the immense pain of the stinging lashes to my tender skin and bones. So I continued to look down, the tears drying before a single drop had spilled out, a fierce pride and stubbornness taking their place, even as I no longer felt the stinging pain that kept showering all over me with acute velocity. I had shut my mind from the pain I was so ferociously inflicted, my heart already numb from the change in school and then admitted to another lonely life away from home. The teacher kept beating me, in view of the whole class, as I stood like a log, not flinching, no drop of tears on my face now set firm. She kept flinging the questions at me repeatedly, thinking she would break me and get me to answer. But I had shut myself emotionally and physically, too far gone for her to reach me. In exasperation, she asked one of the girls – all looking at me in shock, no emotion on my face, to take me and leave me in standard one, where I was to complete that day of my five year old life.
That evening after school, over the bath in the enormous junior dressing room bath, I stood in queue with others my age, a towel and a mug with a soap dish in it, in hand, in my white petticoat and bloomers – compulsory then. The elderly attendant Vimala Didi suddenly pulled me roughly from out of the queue and turned me all around ferociously, noting the black and blue marks all over my body. She asked my classmates and was given a detailed description of what the new girl – me, had encountered in the hands of the teacher who went berserk. She dragged me out roughly by the hand, out of the bath room with large tanks of water – leaving everyone to help themselves from them, or to go over to the other two attendants. She got me into my frock and marched me to the Principal’s parlour-office at the far end of the campus, almost dragging me in her anger. There she pulled my dress off assertively and showed the Principal the mask of blue black my body, face, ears, was. “The teacher even hit her on the head” she hurled at Mother Superior in rage “The other girls told me. What is going on here?” Then she dragged me back, still in shock, to the medicine room and left me to the care of the Sister in charge.
The next day after class in standard one, I was again marched to the Principal’s office. There I saw my mother standing opposite Mother Superior, nodding slowly, as Mother kept apologizing to her. The teacher, who had mercilessly beaten me monstrously – such that if I was not strong enough could have even died of it, was standing with her head bent apologetically. I looked at all of them with no feeling whatsoever, not even the physical pain – it was all a haze of numbness, I’m not sure if I was given analgesics. I looked at my mother hoping that at least now she would take me home, but all she said, that too without a look at my state – the blue black bundle that I was, but looking at Mother was “Since you have already taken up the matter, what more can I say?” I remember looking at her once, shutting myself to her perhaps forever – as I would never allow myself to open up to her again. I realised my father would never know this incident and he truly never did lifelong and perhaps the reason I wasn’t taken home. I was rather marched back to the games field and left amongst the girls of class two, who rushed to take me back into their fold. The same teacher came back and incidentally minded our games time, never looking me in the eyes ever over the many years she was there.
I might have locked this episode away in my mind, as I did so many painful memories of my life thereafter and those who inflicted them. But a year or so back, much to my shock, this teacher sent me a face book friendship request. I accepted after some thought, as she was so inconsequential now after all, for me to nurse a childhood grudge. What liberated me emotionally from this incident was the day I spent thinking over, forgiving, and then accepting her request. But all of the memories came rushing back, when at a school get together recently, a dear friend – a doctor based in London, with a daughter about five now, suddenly blurted “How could you accept Ms….’s friendship request?” She then recounted to our close boarders’ group who remotely recalled, all the details of this event, as vividly as it was the day before and added “We reported every detail to Vimala Didi, and that is why she pulled you out of the bath queue before your turn.” Then again turning to me passionately she added “After all this, did you have to accept her friendship request? How could you?” The rest of the group lectured me over this too as I kept quiet.
That night, a year back now, that we all spent at a seaside resort, since we’d gone on a trip, all the details of this incident came rushing back to me as if as a slide show. Thinking of my friends’ advice I was glad I had not divulged to them of my other detractors who’d done more harm, and I’d forgiven and allowed them as friends on my face book. They would have thought I’ve actually lost my self-respect and sanity. But it was their love and concern, their passionate anger even now, and the knowledge they had supported me in their little ways back then, that made me cry over an incident four decades later, having kept locked coldly for a lifetime. Over the rest of the days of this trip, I thought about all the trouble I have had a knack of attracting lifelong, without even being a troublemaker in the remotest sense of the word, which could have made me so bitter about life.
But god has given me one thing, even if not the good luck he’s given many I know, that is a positive and optimistic attitude – to tide over all the hurdles, toughen me in the process, without turning me negative and nasty. To me, true emotional strength lies not in not being hurt or not being sensitive to low oxygen levels in life – I’m in all honesty immensely sensitive to pain, in spite of all my bravado, but I can wear a life-saving mask real fast. Toughness truly lies in the ability to fight being suffocated – from pettiness and vindictiveness, emerge positive from the worst experiences. Just because you’re crushed in love you cannot stay lonely forever to protect a breakable heart. If you’ve lost a professional battle, been looked over for a promotion and raise in spite of all your efforts, you cannot stop giving your best, hide in fear of being defeated again. Strength to me is the ability to win over life’s constant endeavour to crush you menacingly, to stay afloat however strong the tide, then fly high with the strong wind of experiences.