It was the end of the visiting hours – from 1pm – 5pm, on the only Sunday of the month, at boarding school, wherein we were allowed to meet our family. A shrill, loud bell had just announced the end of the four hours of visitation rights. Most parents had left by now, and all girls were in the study hall, awaiting the most difficult hour to allot to study; what with a stomach full of our choicest food, our parents had just fed us with. Then we were also loaded with tucks, stationery and supplies, to fill the month ahead. I hovered around in the lobby flanked by the two plush parlours, looking out towards the main door, trying to catch the last glimpses of my parents retreating forms.
My father turned back in time to see me still standing there, looking out at them with the backdrop of the strand and the river that flowed, behind him. He drew my mother’s attention, with a pat on her arm. She turned around, caught sight of me looking at them, and together they walked over, even as I stepped forward in their direction. Now we were all outside the heavy wooden door used by boarders and guests, not in use for regular school hours.
“Ki hoyeche (What’s wrong)?” mother asked, bending low to look into my eight year old eyes, “Why aren’t you going inside? All the girls have gone, and your sister has too. The Sisters are going to be very angry now.”
I remained silent, looking to the ground, fidgeting with my hands as she repeated firmly, “What happened, why are you not going inside?”
“I don’t want to stay here,” I blurted looking at father, my eyes that had welled up by now with mother’s firmness as I had looked at the ground, now spilling out in a silent plea on seeing him.
“But why?” mother persisted, even as father looked away, almost as if he knew why, then she added, “What happened suddenly? You are in class four now and you’re not new here.”
“They don’t give me milk to drink.” I blurted angrily, tears flooding both my cheeks, as I looked at her defiantly, my self-esteem deeply hurt, finding this utterance a good emotional cover to camouflage my acute homesickness and blame my behaviour on the horrid place – in my view.
“Ah! That simple!” she laughed, even as father looked at me quizzically and remained quiet. “I will speak to Sr. Pushpa right now, come with me.”
“No, but I want to go home” I insisted, “I don’t want to talk to Sister.”
“Let’s ask Sister if we can take her home for a few days” father added, “we can tell them she is not feeling well, so we would like to take her for check-ups to a good doctor.”
“No, why…she must not be feeling well as she’s not having milk, so let me just talk to Sister to look into that” mother said. “Also, I will have to drop her back here in a day or two as they will not allow more time than that.”
I looked at mother with all the shock and despair I could muster at that age, wondering how she did not know, how much…how really much, I hated milk; that I often chucked the glassfuls infused with Bournvita down the sink at home when she wasn’t watching. Mother proceeded to talk to Sister who now had been hovering over my head, as I was very late going inside, watching this drama enfold, much to my anger at all the three adults. However, this little skit that was to play a very vital role in my emotional makeup over the years and into my life till not so long ago, ended with my parent’s departure, and my being served an extra dose of the detestable milk daily, to my immense anger and humiliation, after dinner thereafter. I would for long, not venture to tell anyone what and how I truly felt about anything, always protecting my feelings, my views, from my small and restricted world at school and outside on vacations.
After a few years, whenever I tried to tell mother to stop this extra milk I was being served, as I could not tolerate it, she reminded me of this incident. Over the years, it was much of a joke, told to family friends as to how I cried so much, refused to go into school, all for milk. Till date, right up to now, no one knows the truth of this drama. In my growing years, I was painfully shy, never admitted to anyone how I truly felt, even if deeply hurt, as it was a wasted exercise in my view. Those who love you should know and understand you, I always felt, I believed that if I had to tell my feelings to someone, what was the point. This attitude caused me to seem withdrawn, aloof and cold, in all relationships, with my mother complaining the most – on how I was very stubborn, that she couldn’t get a word out of me, so how was she to know what I wanted or thought, if I did not speak up. The more she complained the quieter and distant I grew, actually dodging her.
This evening, a Sunday, in a crowded mall in Salt Lake, Calcutta, I met a woman – a junior from my boarding school, who amidst a group of people overhearing and looking on curiously, loudly introduced me by name, to her husband and grown son a few yards away, as the author of the book they had read – naming it even. I felt as shy as the eight year old girl whose story I just narrated to you and muttered a tiny “thank you!” I returned home with the food I had packed for my mother, to write this and the thoughts which propelled me to do so are: It is this same girl, I, who could not tell her own mother that she was homesick, that she hated milk, didn’t want to stay at boarding school – who is now perceived to be bold, confident, forthright, open about her views – more so feelings, who can now state all of what’s on her mind, just the way it comes as I do so now in writing this.
I have been applauded, even cursed for my forthrightness, throughout my working years. But it has taken years of relentless persistence, plenty of failed attempts, for that eight year old girl to reach this state of openness as of now. But what she nursed was the willingness to try, to give it all she could, till daring to want to be a writer – a job that requires candour of views, ideas and emotions.
“I want to write a novel about silence. The things people don’t say.”—Virginia Woolf