And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
Agnes looked fondly at Chaitra.
“I can see that the school is in safe hands, Chaitra,” Agnes said to Mrs. Chaitra Motwani, the new Principal, while handing over charge to her.
“I’ll try to measure up to the high standards set by you, Miss Agnes.”
“I am sure you will, my dear, I am sure.”
“Oh! Miss Agnes, it is time for the farewell. Shall we…?”
“Already!” Agnes sighed deeply. “Let’s go, Chaitra…Oh! No, madam Principal.” She chuckled.
Chaitra smiled and held Agnes’ hand.
Minutes later, they entered the auditorium, filled chock-a-block, to a tumultuous welcome.
The cries of an infant woke Sister Matilda in the dead of night. She switched on a light and opened the front door. On the steps, she found a baby girl wrapped in a coarse cotton cloth. The baby was shivering in the chill of the night and was crying continuously, trying to suck her thumb.
Sister Matilda gently picked the infant in her arms and looked around but found none. She shook her head sadly and took the baby into the Holy Shepherd Home for Homeless Children. The Home always had a small emergency supply of milk. Sister Matilda diluted a little milk, warmed it and fed the baby with a spoon. Hunger satiated, the tired baby fell asleep in the loving lap of Sister Matilda.
“How heartless people are!” Sister Matilda wondered. “I don’t know which faith your mother belongs to…Hmmm. What could be your name…huh? I’ll call you…Agnes. Yes, Agnes…Agnes…”
“Agnes…Agnes…where are you?”
“I am here, Sister Matilda.”
“What are you doing, my child?”
“Hmmm…Doing math! Good. You didn’t hear the bell ring for dinner! Go, go, go…off to the dining hall, dear.”
“Oh! I am sorry, Sister. Here I go…” Agnes scampered to the dining hall and joined other young inmates of Holy Shepherd Home for Homeless Children.
“What do you want to become, Agnes?”
“I want to become a teacher, Sister Matilda.”
“Hmm…A noble thought. Do you know how to go about achieving it?”
Agnes nodded. “Must graduate and then study B.Ed.”
“Right, but it is expensive. How’ll you do it?” Sister Matilda was hiding her chuckle.
“Won’t the church help me, Sister?” There was anxiety in Agnes’ voice.
Sister Matilda laughed. “Of course, dear, the management wanted me to tell you that the entire expenses will be borne by them. You can study in a college funded by them. Happy?”
Agnes hugged Sister Matilda.
Agnes, an intelligent, industrious and studious person, completed her graduation and B.Ed. with distinction. The church appointed her as an Assistant Teacher in a school run by them.
A few years later…
Agnes had been waiting for an audience with Mother Maria of the church management. She was in-charge of the school and the orphanage.
After quarter of an hour, Agnes was summoned inside the large chamber of Mother Maria.
Agnes genuflected and lightly kissed Mother Maria’s hand.
“Sit down, my child.” It was a deep and sonorous voice.
Agnes was wary of what she had to say. She was twirling the sash of her gown for a couple of minutes.
“You wanted to see me, Agnes?” The voice was soft but stern.
“I am listening.”
“Mother Maria, I…I…I want to start a school.”
“What?” If Mother Maria was surprised, she did not show it. “Why? You are already teaching in our school, aren’t you?”
“It is my ambition, Mother.”
“How do you propose to do it, Agnes?”
Agnes hesitated for a moment. “With the help of the church, Mother…”
“You will give up your present teaching job?”
Agnes looked at the carpet silently. Mother Maria was lost in thought for a few minutes.
“Are you firm in your…ummm…decision?”
“You haven’t forgotten the support the church gave you throughout your life, I hope?”
Agnes shook her head. Her eyes brimmed with tears.
“Oh, Mother Maria, I am not ungrateful. I always wanted to be a teacher. I only want to achieve the goal I set for myself when I undertook B.Ed.” She knelt before Mother Maria and repeatedly kissed her hand.
Mother Maria wiped her hand dampened by Agnes’ tears.
“I know, my child, I know, but there are some things that even the church will find difficult to support. One of them is funding your school. You are at full liberty to proceed with achieving your dream, my child. Other than funding, if you require any help or guidance you can always depend on me. The blessings of the Lord are with you.”
Mother Maria stood up with finality in her voice.
“Mother Maria, can I continue staying in the orphanage?”
“Of course, dear, as long as you wish. Continue to help Sister Matilda as much as you can. She isn’t getting younger, you know.”
“I will, I promise. Thanks, Mother Maria. Thanks a million.”
Making a decision was the easier part of Agnes’ dream. She had no clue how to proceed about it. For the next several months, she pored over State Government Rules, discussed the matter with officials in concerned State Government Department and compiled a long list of do’s and don’ts. She discussed her goal with her friends and the Principal of the school where she worked.
The next major problem was finance. With strict governmental control, finance from banks was not easily forthcoming. She fought hard, submitted her plan proposals to several banks, most of which rejected them outright. Undaunted, she bulldozed her way into several others. Some Managers received her proposals and promised to “look into” them. She knew what it meant.
Finally, dame luck smiled on Agnes. A phone call from Mother Maria did the trick. Mr. Anilraj, the Manager of a recently opened bank branch, agreed for discussions with her.
The discussions went on for hours on end.
“OK, Miss Agnes. That was good. Your proposals are detailed and thorough. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thanks, Mr. Anilraj.” She paused. “Sir, how long for the decision?”
“Hmmm…May not be longer than a fortnight.”
“What is life without hope, Miss Agnes?”
“Still…can you give me an idea? I promise I won’t hold it against you if your headquarters turns down my proposals. Please…”
The Manager was lost in thought for a few minutes.
“Miss Agnes, proposals come and proposals go. What I find attractive in the matter is your sincerity and implacable dedication to the cause you’ve undertaken. Mother Maria…” Anilraj chuckled and continued, “…warned me about your passion. That’s a huge guarantee for me. I shall strongly recommend your case to our headquarters. Don’t lose hope.”
Agnes’ eyes moistened. She stood up and vigorously shook his hand.
“Thanks you very much, sir.”
“Miss Agnes,” he paused. “I was raised at Holy Shepherd Home for Homeless Children, too. I know what struggle is.”
The hunt for premises for the school and, ultimately, for the children bogged Agnes down inextricably.
“Little drops of water make the mighty ocean, Agnes. Start small; grow slowly and steadily; achieve big.”
Agnes looked crestfallen. “What do I do, Sister Matilda?”
“Don’t tell me you need me to tell you that! You have come thus far on your own, haven’t you? Start teaching one or two children; spread the word.”
Agnes smiled, nodded, and adjusted the white sheet that covered Sister Matilda. Sister Matilda was lying on a bed in a hospital.
“Anyone else wants to say a few words?” Mother Maria paused. “Agnes…?”
“Thanks, Mother Maria.” Agnes rose from her seat. Walked down the aisle, genuflected in front of the large statue of Lord Jesus Christ, turned around and faced the congregation.
The pews of the church were filled chock-a-block. Several persons, church officials and worshippers as well, were standing at the back of the huge hall.
Agnes wiped her eyes with a small handkerchief and looked behind her. There, on a pedestal, rested a coffin.
Sister Matilda was lying inside peacefully with her hand crossed at her heart.
Standing behind the pulpit in front of the mike, Agnes paused for a few moments looking around the congregation. Finally, when she spoke, her voice was soft and laden with sadness.
“Sister Matilda was a Sister in the church hierarchy. She was a mother to me as she was to all the inmates of the children’s home. I don’t remember who my biological mother is. I believe I was left on Sister Matilda’s doorsteps as an infant, in the cold of the night, crying hungrily. Sister Matilda lifted me up in her loving hands and at that moment, she became my mother and father rolled into one.
“People would try to console me and my siblings at the children’s home by saying “We are sorry for your loss”. I now realise how inadequate those words are. The loss is irreparable for us. She was always there for me, for all of us children, under all circumstances. With her caring guidance and support, we have become what we are today.
“The passing away of Sister Matilda is not to be mourned but to be celebrated and rejoiced as she has joined the Lord, our maker.
“Amen…” Agnes concluded.
“Amen” a soft chorus rose from the congregation.
In the weeks and months that followed, Agnes unquestioningly implemented the advice of Sister Matilda. She undertook tuitions at the children’s home. Initially, there was no noteworthy success and she was only teaching children of the home. Later, as time passed and word of mouth spread, other children started coming, slowly, ever so slowly.
With the help of Mr. Anilraj and a few other friends in the real estate business, Agnes could identify a small very old two-story building for her school. It had a kitchen, sufficient number of rooms and bathrooms.
“It may seem expensive now, Miss Agnes, but is a very good investment for future growth of the school,” advised Anilraj.
“True, Mr. Anilraj. Some philanthropic persons and organisations have promised me some donations, too. So, money may not be a big problem.”
Bank loan arranged and all formalities completed, Agnes took over the building. A few weeks and some minor renovation later, the inauguration of Agnes’ dream took place in a simple and austere function.
From the dais, in the company of Mother Maria and Anilraj, Agnes christened her dream “ANGELS OF AGNES”.
Agnes went on to say, “The school would initially have nursery and kindergarten sections only. Elementary and higher sections will be introduced in future…”
She paused for a moment, looked around, and continued.
“How can I forget my home, my siblings? The children, no, Angels, from Holy Shepherd Home for Homeless Children will be given free tuition, textbooks and stationery throughout their tenure in the school. The main goal of this school is to offer free education to underprivileged children…”
Agnes let the spontaneous thundering applause subside and continued.
“What more can I say but this: Dare to dream and dream to dare.”
The soft pull on her floral, shin-length, gown jolted Agnes into the present.
“Oh, dear! It’s you Hansika!”
Hansika was an inmate at Holy Shepherd Home for Homeless Children. Agnes had a special bonding with the little girl. Years ago, her mother left the girl on the footsteps of the children’s” home with a brief note. The words were indelibly etched in Agnes’ memory.
“Children suffer for the sins for their parents. I have been betrayed by an unscrupulous man, on false promises. My daughter’s name is Hansika. I have no right to continue living. Hansika will only suffer with me. I am ending my life. I pray, please take care of my child.”
Agnes never let Hansika know about the note.
“Good evening, Miss Agnes.” Hansika was holding a deep-pink rose in her chubby hands.
“Is it for me, darling?”
“Yes, Miss Agnes.”
“Thanks, darling.” Agnes accepted the rose, bent over and planted a soft kiss on the girl’s cheek. Hansika blushed and scampered away.
Agnes sighed deeply and continued with the packing. It was her last day as the Principal of ANGELS of AGNES School.
The entire school – faculty, staff and students – stood in their places and sang “for she is a jolly good fellow…”
Agnes walked slowly towards the waiting autorickshaw, her eyes clouded by sheen of tears, while Hansika walked with her, holding her hand.
Moments later, the autorickshaw sped away through the main gates of Angels of Agnes School.
The shining golden letters of the epitaph engraved on polished black granite headstone read:
(Founder of Angels of Agnes)
Dared to dream
Dreamed to dare
Dr. Hansika placed a bouquet of flowers beneath the headstone, stood up from a kneeling position and slowly walked away. She stopped in her stride, turned around and looked at the grave. Miss Agnes, in her customary floral-printed shin-length gown and a leather belt at the waist, was languorously floating above the grave. She seemed to wave at Hansika.
Hansika murmured, “Thanks, Miss Agnes, for being there for me.”
She smiled, waved back at her Miss Agnes and walked away to her husband and daughter.
Shyam Sundar Bulusu