“Did you hear the news? Really sad.” A message on my college whatsapp group.
“Yes, about Reena….It’s true.” Comes the reply from someone. “She is no more. Committed suicide. Hanging.”
I am stunned. Reena? I have a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. It is past eleven P.M. in the night, when I read these messages.
I am in a movie theatre. The unbearable cold of the movie hall, the stinky smell of the corner seat, the terrible movie that I am watching, all recede into the back ground….It feels like I am in a dark tunnel… I pull myself back.
Not possible…is my first response…. Impossible, in fact.
I know this girl.
Usually a few rows behind me in class. Feisty, energetic, she ties her back in a ponytail, wears kurti and jeans, trim and of average height. Carries a backpack like most other students. At times, proudly wearing a sports jacket with “INDIA” emblazoned on the back; something only National Level Athletes have the honour of donning. A defiant look in her eye, and confident stride, she always appears to be ready to take on the entire world.
That Reena? No. They have it wrong. I dismiss it as a rumour. A common enough name and surname.
“It is on television”, says a fresh message on the group.
I am in denial. So, I push it out of my conscious mind.
Past midnight, when the movie ends, I reach home. Reluctant to face facts, hesitant to confirm it and just afraid to know the truth, I sit quietly for a few minutes.
My “back to school” journey, twenty-five years after my last university exam, was a ‘learning’ experience for me in many ways. Joining a law school and attending classes was a big step. If sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with children half my age felt odd, then matching wits with them and pitting myself against these kids was vastly challenging….and different from what I had imagined!
Not only were they smart, they were also dreamers, strugglers, fighters and thinkers with a zest for life. Opinionated, with strong political leanings even at this age, with no compunction about airing their thoughts on issues. Holding down jobs and rising at the ungodly hour of four a.m. to commute to college and attend class, these class-mates of mine had opened my eyes.
How not having everything on a platter can push you to aspire for bigger things. How life and its struggles can hone you for life, make you sharper, and hungry for success. How to not have doubts about your ability to do great things.
None more so than Reena.
I was first introduced to her when there was fiery discussion about women and their problems. Waiting for a lecturer to arrive and with nothing to do, one of the girls asked me about myself. When I answered that I was doctor and a practising anaesthesiologist, she asked,“Are you married, ma’am?”
Yes, was my answer.
She looked at me, and noticed my lack of the usual signs of a married Hindu woman, namely bindi, bangles, mangalsutra.
“My in-laws are very strict about what I wear and I do. They feel that I am wasting my time here.”She said with a sigh.
The girl sitting next to her said in Hindi, “Ma’am, I am twenty three years old. Hamaare gaon mein, this is considered too old. I should be married by now, my uncles say.”
“Where is your Gaon (native place) ?” I ask.
“I am from Rajasthan. When I go there for my holidays, I have to wear Indian outfits, no western clothes allowed. Ghungat (veil) is still mandatory for married women!” she says resignedly.
“Oh!”, I say sympathetically.
Another girl asks her,“So what do you do?”
She smiles, “Not go there unless absolutely necessary!!! My father is supportive. He wants us to study.”
So, this was my first meeting with Reena, the girl from Rajasthan.
Occasionally, I would bump into her in the corridor, sometimes proudly clutching medals that she had won in the National Level karate championships. Or at times, rushing from college to the karate classes that she taught. This was the Reena that I knew. Pragmatic, determined, hard-working, cheerful.
The second term of Law School required us all to complete a Journal. Some theoretical stuff that had to be written down. A sample will, affidavit for name change, how to be a good lawyer, etc. Simple enough, if you have time and a reasonable command of English. With a couple of days to spare before the Viva, I completed my Journal. And let it be known that it was available if anyone needed “Help” with theirs.
Outside the college canteen, I heard someone call out. It was Reena.
“Ma’am, I haven’t been able to complete my journal. Can I take pictures of yours?”
“Sure”, I said.
We knelt on the lawn and she took pictures of the notes in my journal.
My maternal instinct came to the fore as I asked ( as I had asked my own kid at least a hundred times !), “The exam is tomorrow! Why have you not started on it? ”
“Ma’am, I am so busy. All day, I am either in class here, or teaching Karate to others. I will have time only after ten P.M. tonight.”She said, recounting a schedule that would put most of us to shame.
I was instantly ashamed of my judgemental rebuke. Here was a girl, who was doing things which she enjoyed and was clearly working hard.
“So, what do you plan after Law school?” I continued.
“Pata nahin. I might appear for the entrance to the police academy. Lekin one needs to know good English for that.” She said.
I was impressed. Was I ever this motivated? Did I aspire to break the mould? Was I ever this brave? I wondered.
“That is a great option for you to think of. If you need help with English, I can help you.” I said aloud.
She smiled, “Ok.”
This was my last conversation with her. Sportsperson, budding lawyer, aspiring policewoman. So impressed was I by her, that I repeatedly mentioned her in my conversation to acquaintances and family as someone (among others), in my Law School, who had the potential to go places.
And now this depressing news.
It is past one A.M., when I finally muster the courage to do an internet search.
I wince as the clip appears on You-tube. A news anchor, droning on in a monotone, confirming what I have been dreading. A lively, smart, girl with a dream and places to go is now just a statistic and a photo on the screen.
I have a lump in my throat. I wish she had given herself more time for her hard work to bear fruit. And that she had thought of her dreams for herself. And had reconsidered before taking this final, drastic step.
She had so much to live for.
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