This short story is selected as Story of the Month July’2016 and won INR 1000
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
The depths of despair left her in a mindless state and everything that once seemed crystal clear, paled into the murky waters of sadness and the voices that heralded life, slowly nudged itself into an abyss of an eerie silence!
The darkness of the night made it worse for the Guptas as they struggled to come to terms with what had transpired between them and fate. Five years seemed to stretch like a five hundred years as the once chirpy household held itself together with immense difficulty through the once-sweet memories of laughter that helped tether together their lives in hope and peace. Mrinal sipped her tea like a lifeless person as Dharam and Madhulika looked on…
That fateful day wasn’t any different as Mrinal woke up and went about the usual and mundane housekeeping activities like a well-oiled machine. The flurry of steps and the sounds of familiarity from her loved ones kept her on her toes as she gingerly tip toed from one activity to another with an easy calm!
“Mom, I’m going to be late! Is my breakfast ready?” screamed out, her boisterous first-born, Madhulika.
“Mrinal, where’s my wallet?” yelled her bespectacled husband, Dharam, who lived up to his name with his growing biceps and toned exterior.
For a 45-year old, he could easily give youngsters a run for their money at least when they challenged him at the gym where he clocked an hour daily burning off whatever lovely food his wife spread out on the table every night! One might imagine all that Mrinal did was cook and serve and get loved in return; quite a compliment to her as she enjoyed seeing her family gob smack every little thing she made with a lot of energy and love! Her job demanded every ounce of her attention as a Nursery school teacher, with the little ones in runny noses crying as they left the warmth of their mother’s loving arms! Mrinal loved her job as it allowed her maternal instincts of being with the little ones re-surface while she adjusted to teens at home who were on the cusp of rebellious existence.
“When will you all learn to do things by yourself?” yelled Mrinal in a soft and chiding demeanour revealing the fact that she loved being relied and depended on. Born into a middle class family, she did indulge in Literature as much as she did in the welfare of her family.
“Ma, do we need to?” whispered Vikram in her ear as he zoomed into the kitchen on his roller blades and zoomed out almost in the blink of an eye. She saw his reflection on all the steel canisters that adorned most of the shelves in the tastefully furnished kitchen that boasted of a microwave, a double door fridge and a newly purchased washing machine that still had a bit of covering plastic on the top. She immediately reacted by grabbing the sandwiches that were neatly wrapped in an aluminium foil.
“Vikram, stop and grab your favorite sandwiches that I have made for you!” screamed Mrinal as she ran after him. She called his names several times till she saw him vanish into one of the elevators of their 14-storey building in the ever-developing areas of South Bangalore.
“Mrinal, he is not a child! Stop treating him like one! Now it’s time you got ready too; I will drop you on the way like yesterday,” said Dharam with a gentle, reassuring smile.
“But, he’s a growing boy; he needs his nutrition!” protested Mrinal feeling helpless.
Dharam lovingly put his arm around Mrinal and smiled. She smiled and chuckled in response.
“Ma, baba, bye!” said Madhulika and rushed out of the front door totally oblivious to her parents standing right there by the door.
“The children have grown so soon, isn’t it Dharam? Madhulika is such a beautiful 18 year old and the woman in her surfaces every now and then as she stands by my side in the kitchen talking about the womanly challenges that she faces every now and then!” said Mrinal with a subtle pride in her glimmering eyes.
“Yes and yet you treat them like children; especially Vikram! He’s in Class 10 Mrinal…” said Dharam but was interrupted as Mrinal did a show of hands signalling him to stop and bringing the ticking clock to his notice.
She rushed into the kitchen, grabbed two lunch bags and called out to Dharam to take his lung bag from her. He did as obediently as he would every single working day in the past 20 years of their marriage.
“Now, who is going to eat these sandwiches I made for Vikram? I worry what he is going to have for lunch!” said Mrinal with amply evident creases on her forehead.
“Can we leave Mrs. Gupta? I have to stop at the bank and pay Vikram’s fees for the next semester after I drop you and then go to the office. The office hours are still 9.30 am,” said Dharam in a chiding tone that always made Mrinal glare at him like she disapproved not only of the tone but also of what he was saying.
They bolted the door after them completely unaware of what was to yet unfold with the uncertainties of the day.
“Why didn’t he say anything to me? I am his mother! I could’ve done something Dharam. Vikram is a strong boy, these things have never affected him. Do you remember that holiday in Kolkata when he was a little boy and the street boys had bullied him? He dealt with that so beautifully. Maybe it’s all my fault. Being his mother I couldn’t gauge that my boy was undergoing this torture. Maybe I shouldn’t have started working. Maybe if I were at home, things would’ve been different!” screamed Mrinal looking helplessly at Dharam as they were standing in the dimly lit hospital corridor that spoke loudly of the plot that was about to reveal itself.
“Mrinal, it’s not your fault. He will be fine. I hope…” said Dharam with teary eyes.
“Hope? You can only hope? You are his father, you are supposed to protect him! Do something Dharam!” said Mrinal as she was choking in her own words.
The grimness reeked through every moment at the hospital as the nurses ran in and out of the Emergency Room looking sombre like they had already decided every patient’s fate.
The stocky doctor emerged in a blood soaked apron with his eyes peering into Mrinal’s and Dharam’s eyes. They spelt doomsday said Mrinal many years later while she recounted the horrifying tale.
Mrinal dropped down onto the floor as Dharam stood there swooned and beaten. The uncertainties of the day had knocked at their doorstep and they would not know that it would haunt them till the end of their lives, reminding them that being happy meant an impossible task and leading a normal life meant a distant blurry reality. Their life was to be ridden with guilt and feeling responsible as every breathing moment they forced themselves to dissect the outcome that followed after a confusion between not knowing and not doing.
“What were you all doing? Aren’t you responsible when children are at school? You knew that he was being bullied, then why didn’t you tell us?” screamed Mrinal at the Principal of one of the reputed schools of Bangalore. Nestled in greenery that had become a rarity in Bangalore since the time of the IT boom that saw influx of people accompanied by an increasing number of vehicles on the road and the rage complementing every nerve that people possessed in their bodies. That day at the Principal’s office, Mrinal, who had always admired the carnation display on the Principal’s desk failed to notice that the staff had decided not to have flowers in bloom anywhere in the school as a mark of respect to Vikram.
“Mrs. Gupta, we are sorry about what has happened. But we are not responsible for what happens outside the school premises,” said the demure looking Ms. Glenda Rajkumar as she was fiddling with a pen and weighing every word that came out of her mouth. No one could blame her as the police had done multiple round of investigations the previous day while the other parents and students looked on in fear and insecurity. The reputation of the school was at stake and the celebration of the twentieth year of being in existence was round the corner. The media had already camped outside the school gates flashing their microphones at anyone who went in and out of the school. The incident during Ms. Rajkumar’s tenure probably meant she might have to step down from her erudite and glamorous post. She was due to retire at the end of that academic year marking a wonderful 15 years as the Principal. But after the incident, it seemed like wishful thinking to her as she glared at Vikram’s teachers warning them not to react as they stood in the room when Mrinal was letting out her rage like a volley of bullets.
Dharam held her through all of that as Mrinal was trembling like a wilting leaf waiting to fall off the branch.
“Mrinal, it’s of no use! What can they do?” said Dharam choking and trying to hide his tears.
“Who knew of this? I am sure at least one of his teachers would’ve known, so please tell me,” asked Mrinal now reclaiming her nerves.
The teachers remained silent which only meant that they didn’t want to get themselves into any trouble lest the police turned against them and their job as teachers.
The anti-bullying march was held after a few days and Mrinal led it along with Vikram’s classmates and Dharam by her side. Madhulika refused to go anywhere with them as the trauma of losing her little brother of 15 took a great toll on her. She never left his room since that day; the emotions gushed back into her as she held his favourite football that he left on the floor next to the wooden study table just before he had decided that his life had become worthless and that being scared and living was not acceptable to him. The shame and the failure of it all had seemed too overwhelming to him.
If only he had known how many people were just waiting to shield him and fight on his side against what he was facing. If only he had known what would become of those he was leaving behind as he took that step of plummeting to his death as he jumped off the tenth floor balcony.
The march culminated into a string of beautiful prayers that began as they were seated in the local garden near his home. Vikram was a regular at the garden as he coached some youngsters in football. His passion for football was known to the local corporator who had agreed to let out the garden space that evening for the prayer meeting.
“I didn’t do it! It was not my fault, aunty! Please believe me,” said Siddharth a tall, lanky fellow who happened to be Vikram’s senior at school and also one of the boys who had been party to the bullying in the bus on the way back home.
“You cannot accuse my son falsely! Your son was not strong enough to bear the normal interactions that boys have at this age, Mrs. Gupta!” said Siddharth’s mother as she held her son’s hand by virtue of being short and not being able to reach her son’s shoulders.
“Falsely? Please ask the driver and the other children who were on the bus with him that day; this has been going on since the start of this academic year!” said Mrinal who had by then learned to keep her emotions in check and only spoke when it was warranted or where she thought necessary. She looked at the driver who nodded and feigned ignorance.
“It was an accident and there were others who were also involved, why aren’t you questioning those boys as well?” asked Siddharth’s mother still staying close to her son like a protective mother hen.
“Others who were also involved? Which means your son also was involved…weren’t you the one to talk to him the last on that day Siddharth?” asked Mrinal fighting back her tears.
Siddharth’s mother was seen glaring at her son almost like she a warning not to open his mouth, finally spoke in a confused manner and said, “Yes aunty! I had spoken to him but it was a normal chat!”
“Normal enough for him to take that step?” Mrinal asked angrily.
“It wasn’t like that aunty…we just called him a ‘girl’ as he hadn’t shown any facial hair! Also he hadn’t scored a single goal for our team since school started!” said Siddharth in all nonchalance.
“So that made him a girl according to you? And you went on and on with it?” asked Mrinal now moving closer to Siddharth.
“Well, no, but…” stuttered Siddharth and moved behind his mother like a little boy.
“Enough, boys this age do all this! Your boy wasn’t strong enough!” said Siddharth’s mother.
“And you don’t think that you should say anything to your son? You encourage this behaviour and he’s going to catch another person and do the same. He gets tremendous pleasure preying on well-behaved and gentle ones,” said Mrinal.
“What do you think my son is?” yelled Siddharth’s mother.
“He’s not a girl certainly, but he is a boy who has no manhood spirit in him and you are a mother who has done no good at raising at her son!” said Mrinal very calmly looking at Siddharth’s eyes that were peering from behind his mother’s short stature.
“How dare you?” screamed Siddharth’s mother shaking and talking at the same time.
“It hurts, doesn’t it? What if I say this to you and your son several times over a period of time that you actually start to believe in each of my words? You will definitely feel hollow within and question your capabilities as a mother and he will believe is a ‘girl’ who is probably more ‘man’ than he probably is at this point in time!” said Mrinal with a new found confidence; there was something in her words and tone that reassured her that she had begun the battle to fight for her lovely son, Vikram.
She continued, “Isn’t it true that the last year at school was anything but pleasant for your son? He has failed in most subjects and was on the verge of being expelled from school. Also that he was caught teasing girls on campus was known to everyone including this driver who fails to acknowledge anything! Isn’t it true that you had to talk to the football coach and threaten him with consequences if he didn’t select your son on the school team?”
“How do you know all of this?” asked the shocked mother.
“My son told me everything that happened in his life, Mrs. Sharma. I knew each of his friends, but for some strange reason he never told me that he was being bullied so badly. It was my folly as the first time he had mentioned it to me, I ignored it and asked him to be strong like he had been when he had been bullied as a child! I closed that channel of communication as I felt he needed to be strong through all of it and then one day just give up!” said Mrinal sadly.
Dharam who was standing with the police and closing the case with them came and stood by Mrinal’s side.
“Let’s go Mrinal! It’s all closed now!” said Dharam.
“Our lives are bound by the torture that we were not there for our son when he needed us the most and nothing can bring him back to us, The days and nights drag on like we have been tied in shackles and the pain is going to be a part of every breath we take and so I feel for your mother…Siddharth, you are free fella…we have decided not to file a complaint. We don’t want to encourage any more of your behavior that might escalate into something worse with each passing day you will might have to spend at rehabilitation if you are proved guilty of murder!” said Mrinal as she turned to leave with Dharam when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned again to see Siddharth’s mother facing her with rage writ all over her face.
“What do you mean murder? It was a suicide! You have the suicide note with you!” said Siddharth’s mother.
“When an act such as Vikram’s is prompted with so much thoughtless and torturous remarks, compassion takes a back seat. Your son was encouraged by his own mother who misused her powers as a DSP’s daughter to mask her son’s behaviour. Every time you went to bail him out of his troubles, the bully in him was fuelled even further. I want him to live with this guilt that he came close to having his life close down on him being the proverbial ‘protected son’! And as for you, you might want to raise a son of whom you are proud of, not of someone who is a product of your guilt trips as an ‘absent mom’ and leave him to the mercy of puberty and its challenges!” said Mrinal as she took a long breath.
The tea went cold and Mrinal placed the cup on the table and picked up a picture of a smiling Vikram and said, “If only he knew he could have talked to us and that we were right there for him; we love you so much beta!”
Dharam came over to her and put his arms around her and said, “You will be late for your meeting at the community hall. Now there are children who are victims who are crying out to you! Go, be there for them…you have another shot through love!”
Mrinal grabbed her handbag and put Vikram’s picture in it and left home turning to smile at Dharam and Madhulika.
As the emotions wax and wane, the grief is sure to stay on as life will match that abyss of darkness and eerie silence with only sweet memories to hold onto in the hope that they will faintly light up the path! Mrinal now heads the ‘Love can save anyone!’ community as she lights candles of hope and fearlessness in the lives of youngsters.