“Naina, Naina… Are you up yet? You have got a call. It’s from Mel.”
“I’m coming. I’m coming.” Naina yelled back to her mom. She rushed downstairs to the phone in the living room.
“Hello, Mel! ….. Yes, I will email you back. Yes , let’s meet up at the same place. Okay, see you then. Yeah, phone was switched off. Sorry. Bye.” I kept the phone and smiled.
Mel, short for Melissa was my best friend since, what, kindergarten. We somehow managed to be in the same classes till grade 10, until we shifted cities for college studies. We were based in Mumbai.
Now, we were on our holidays. Oh yeah, I’m a content editor plus freelance writer working in Mumbai. Not the steady income but I managed to be content.
I was to meet Mel to finalize our plans for our high school batch reunion next week. I so was looking forward to it. Most of our school friends agreed to meet up in Mumbai. I was surprised that majority of them agreed to come all the way to Mumbai. Well, that’s also because I pestered that it could be an opportunity to explore a new place, catch up on old times in a new place.
“What a line!” Dia, my former classmate joked.
“Yeah, you’re making us all emotional.” Danny laughed.
We had all been in a conference call about six months back. “Okay, so are you guys upto it ?” I pleaded to all.
“I am in.” One by one, all of them had agreed except few who had prior engagements.
Fast forwarding to the present, here I am all ready to finalize our venue & rehearse the agenda with Mel.
After a quick shower and bite of cheese sandwich and boiled eggs , I rushed to meet Mel.
Thank God, my brother didn’t use my bike today. I reached our meeting place, the mall, parked and walked inside. Mel was pacing up and down, window shopping and glued into her music. I grinned to myself. She never goes anywhere without those. I knew she was in a hurry to finish and head off to meet her boyfriend. She still didn’t understand why I so obsessed with this reunion. That’s probably because I am yet to tell her.
“Hey, looking cute.” I waved , shifting my bag and helmet over to my other hand.
“Girl, let’s hurry up. I am hungry. No breakfast. Let’s go up.” She is always cheerful when it comes to food.
After ordering at the restaurant inside the mall, we went through the agenda, finalized the schedule and confirmed for the venue and accommodation for our friends.
“Hey, girl do you like have some weird crush for any of our guys from school?” Mel blurted out, as she sipped her iced tea.
My eyes widened. “What? Oh my, no way. Why do you ask?”
She looked away, gazing at the other shoppers. Stretching, she turned towards me and asked, “Why else would you be so obsessed with this reunion?”
“Ha, plenty of reasons actually. It’s fun stuff, wanting to catch up with all, probably learn something new and create memories for the future. Told you, got all this feeling since I started work on my first novel.” I defended back, politely.
“Hm, were you really close with all of them?” She leaned in and paused at the last word.
“No, but that’s the point. We can meet up even if we aren’t close buddies. It’s being simply friends, no other lines in between and having a genuine good time.”
I wasn’t about to let her win on this one. I laughed. ” You are going to have a blast. You know that.”
“Nothing. I gain with food, dance and a night out. Okay, I was just curious. But you hated school. You were put down by teachers. Low grades. Not active. The quiet one. So coming from you, it surprised me. ”
So she remembers. “But that’s the past. We don’t always remain the same as we were in school. I still liked school and tried so hard to fit in.” I was a bit angry.
“Yeah, I didn’t mingle well too. But I didn’t mean to remind you that. It’s so common to remember someone from their past actions. Sorry, a default reaction, girl.” Mel softened a little.
“Anyway, we are done here. Let’s go girl.” I smiled and stood up to take our things.
I grabbed my cup of juice and checked if we had taken all our belongings. We said our byes and last minute reminders after I dropped her off at her place. I suddenly recalled that mom’s relatives were coming to our place in the evening for the prayer meet. I didn’t mind the prayer meet but not our narrow minded folks. The prayer meet was for aunt Mary. It’s has been three years since we lost her to cancer.
Aunt Mary was more of my friend than my aunt. She knew my deepest fears , even before I wrote them down in my diary.
Pausing for a moment of loss, I stopped walking and just stood there, lost in thoughts. My watch warned me that it was better to ponder on my remaining thoughts at home. I rushed home to reach before my cousins and relatives.
I ran to my room and hid my personal diary. My cousins couldn’t be relied upon.
The clock stuck 3 by the time I was ready.
It was 12am, midnight. By this time, almost everybody had checked in to their hotels the previous evening.
I lay in bed, reading a novel.
I woke up to the sounds of thunder at 4 am. I had drifted off. I searched for the book. It was on the table. Lost in sleep, I wondered how did the book reach there.
Failing to remember how, I let sleep overcome me.
My phone rang at 8 am. I took the phone to Tina’s exciting voice. “Wake up sleepyhead! Where are you? Can’t wait to see you !”
Really. I thought to myself. How many would be actually glad to see.
“Yes , I am here. Sorry still in sleep mode. How was your flight? ”
“It was good. Me , Sheena, Jennifer all came together. I am the first one to get up. What’s our program going to be like ? ” Tina squealed in excitement.
“That you’ll have to see for yourselves. Okay, I guess I have to start getting ready. The Host can’t be late. See you all in a while.” I assured her and kept the call.
Well, she did seem excited to see me. Was Mel really right? Would everyone still think of me from the school days , an introvert girl? No, stop doubting yourself. I thought. I promised myself I would never think low of me. Making up till here was a huge struggle , coping with low self-esteem, self-confidence, anxiety till the end of college. Our classmate Xia’s suicide at school made it even more worse for me. I was so coward that I couldn’t cut my own wrists.
Unknowingly, I took out my personal diary from under my mattress. A picture of my beloved aunt Mary , fell through the pages, onto the bed. I picked it up.
I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for her. I wrote for the education column for an online newspaper. My experiences made me write in that column every day. My interests included the status of our Indian education system, role of parents , teachers and fellow students in shaping up a child’s future and the expectations, which we as a society have placed on our children. Why wouldn’t I be in this field? I survived it all , and realized that taking my life wasn’t worth it.
Aunt Mary saved me literally, the day she walked in on me reading about suicide. One look and she understood. She never told on me as I could get overwhelmed. So so took care of me , and secretly took me to a counsellor. I benefitted from those weekly visits, an excuse which was covered up as visit to aunt Mary’s place to learn gardening.
I suffered from low self esteem , confidence and anxiety issues and was on threshold when I got lucky. I couldn’t blame my parents but I do in a way.
Society’s remarks about an below average girl in academics only hardened my parents more. I used to be constantly compared with my cousins, ridiculed by my relatives and teachers and body shamed as I was overweight for my age. Naturally my parents couldn’t withstand against all that, though my mom tried at helping me with studies. But I wasn’t able to confide to anyone about my fears, when I started having low value of myself. Gradually, we let our parents know of my situation. In time, it did make a difference.
Today I owe it to my aunt but she always wanted me to give the credit to myself. A small sign of belief in you from another soul makes a lot of difference. That’s how I came back from the dead. Just look at current rate of student suicides in our country and in the world. Who’s to blame?
I sighed. A tear rolled down. I smiled, whispered a thank you to my aunt and prayed for her soul.
I put my diary in my suitcase under the bed. Man, I really get immersed in thoughts. Rehan, my colleague, once joked that one could get tangled walking around in my brain. I got up, got dressed , ate and rushed to office.
At 3 pm, I reached the hotel for the venue. My teachers and classmates stood in the entrance to the hall. The memories just flowed in all of them.
“Mel”, I called out to her.
“Hey ,so we can move into the hall now. All set. ”
“Okay. Hey..everybody. Hi.. Hello ! great to see you all. Let’s go inside. We are ready to start our function.”
Mrs. Sen, my former class teacher stepped forward and guided everybody inside. I went upto her.
“It’s good to see you. ”
“Dear, it’s lovely to see you too. Ah, you have grown much. ”
“Don’t we all ? ” I joked back. “So, you will join me for the announcement? ”
“Yes dear, and so will our school counselor and Xia’s parents for the inauguration. It’s the best we can do to remember Xia and make changes to help others. Will you ..be okay..to share your side? ”
I touched her hand softly. ” I do want to.”
Mel came up to us. ” It’s time, let’s begin.”
We began the function with most of our classmates and teachers in attendance. It sure was joyful, reminiscing on the joys of childhood friends and school memories. Our teachers also came forward to talk of their fondest moments. There was much applause when they recollected the naughtiest pranks played on them and those in particular stood up to a small ovation.
I went up on stage for the last announcement.
“Friends, it’s been a wonderful time talking about our school days. The one phase of our life that shapes our entire future. These growing days influence our thoughts that help in moulding us later on. I am sure many of you had names that others still remember you by. ” I paused. There were many smiles .
“On the other hand, there are names you don’t want to be remembered by. Because it just put you down. Confused? Well, when you loose in a contest, being called loser once can be tolerated. Being called loser henceforth , can be harsh. What’s worse is, as students, these incidents cause huge damage to the child’s self esteem. They simply lack confidence and stop trying to come forward. Friends, to add to this peer pressure, we, as society put in standards for them to conform too. And we don’t leave their parents alone when their children don’t bring in good marks etc. I want you all to consider for a moment on the number of student suicides in our country these days. You all are in process of parenting or yet too. This pressure of living up to others expectations is a huge killer, I must say. Research studies, say so other wise. Depression and other mental health issues are real and our children often suffer from these for years. ” I paused to let the effect of the words fall on my audience.
“Unfortunately Xia was a victim to this issue. Yes, today we are here also to remember our former classmate, Xia. Her parents are here also. Mr. & Mrs. Salander, I request you to come up on stage.” I looked at the couple sitting in the front seats, holding hands.
Many of my friends looked bit shocked. Truly, they never expected this in a reunion.
Xia’s parents came up on stage, with a smile to me.
I continued. ” When the talks for the reunion came about, I had a talk with our teachers. I thought we as adults, could do bit more than just a get together, to make this moment a memorable one. And wouldn’t have Xia wanted to be at such a gathering ? Of course yes. She committed suicide, succumbing to the pressures of depression at very early stage. The point here is not to look at her with sympathy but to ponder why couldn’t she confide in anyone? Where are we as a social system failed ? The extreme point that drives somebody to suicide is not weakness. And I think we as adults can do much for our children and the future generations.
Truth is, I myself too, contemplated suicide in my 9th grade and no, I couldn’t tell anyone until much time passed. I panicked back then when I heard of Xia. I was lucky and found support from my aunt. To make myself fall in love with me again, was no easy task after I loathed myself , the way others saw me. Truth is, not many get lucky. Guess, we require more listeners out there. And small changes like that can bring about ripples to last a lifetime. With this, I call up on Mrs. Salander to say few words on the special occasion we have planned to remember Xia. Thank you. ”
I smiled and nodded to Xia’s mother. I could see many eyes boring into me. But the main issue was not me.
Mrs. Salander looked a bit apprehensive at first. Then she slowly regained her composure and spoke into the microphone.
“Thank you Naina. I feel proud , today, that I could do my bit in remembering Xia, the person she was. We can’t change the past but definitely mend our ways for the future that awaits us. That’s why , we collectively joined in the efforts of starting a counselor’s group at this school. We also taking this occasion to formally inaugurate the Xia Foundation for the youth , it’s activities will be integrated with the school’s counselor group. It will be a formal platform for students to discuss their problems with counselors on a regular basis. And we are also looking forward to tie-up with many other schools in the nearby vicinity. It’s just a start. But me and my husband wish to continue honoring and remembering our daughter.
Lastly , what I wish to tell all of you, as future parents, to be there for your child, not just physically but emotionally and mentally. It makes a huge difference. It opens a gateway to mature, thoughtful conversations with your child, not just academics wise but the tiny little things we have overlooked. I have seen suicide cases in films. I pictured it for the weak. But why my daughter? I thought I gave her everything needed to be that smart, intelligent girl, just as our society demanded from me , or from my parents when I was a child.
This vicious cycle is real and out there. We are so socially connected yet unable to express our fears because of prejudices. You don’t study well, you score less, you score second in class, you excel only in sports, you are offered a low salary , you buy a second hand car, you reduce weight or gain post marriage,… We have come up with things to bite back every time. And our children are going to be doing the same when they grow up. Let’s change the ripples starting from today. I pray , that as a mother, no one should go through the loss of their child, who took his/her own life. Indirectly, I feel that guilt each day when I overlooked things. Today I stand here with a new perspective, me and my husband, both of us and hope to inspire others to understand that it’s okay to feel depressed and that it does not have to be the end. That we do not have to conform to others standards but our own. That we can genuinely care for mental health just like physical health in humans. We look forward to your support towards the foundation. Thank you.”
Everybody clapped in joy, at the words of encouragement they received and felt.
I went over and hugged Xia’s mother and father. Our teachers, principal joined us on stage too. Nobody stopped applauding, until the logo and website for the foundation was formally launched on the big screen .
The reunion started on a common note but ended on a totally different note.
“Naina, gosh..I’m so proud of you girl.” Mel wept and hugged me when we finally got off stage. “I never realized…”
“The point is it can be anyone. Mel. We , as humans, can do much wonders by just listening to the struggling souls. I got lucky.”
I hugged her back. We proceeded to join rest of our gang. Everybody was waiting for us.
“Well, I have never felt so alive and inspired. ”
” Neither have I.”