“HM”, “HM”- a ripple of hushed voices opened a gangway through the block of the frozen crowd, looking on in awed silence and doing nothing, but, may be, patiently waiting for him. The small classroom was bursting to its seams. There were teachers, senior students, non- teaching members of staff and probably a few curious commoners from the vicinity, mainly shop keepers and jobless youths who were not supposed to be present within the compound of the school during this hour on a normal day. But obviously this was not an ordinary day and he wondered if such an inauspicious day had ever dawned in the bygone hundred years of the school’s past.
“…Teach him to learn to lose
…Teach him, if you can,
how to laugh when he is sad…
…Teach him there is no shame in tears…
…also give him quiet time to ponder the eternal mystery of birds in the sky, bees in the sun and flowers on a green hill side.”
A selfish thought crossed his mind like a distant thunder and he cursed his fortune for its unkind blow at the end of his running track. He had only four months to go to call it a day for the final time- the last syllable of his recorded time in servitude, spanning over nearly forty years in teaching. Before joining as the HM only eight months back, nothing sensational or newsworthy had ever happened, let alone during these four months, even during this unduly long stretch of lackluster days aggregating to a continuous period of almost forty years- mostly hard days of near poverty, drudgery, trials and inglorious adjustments. He once again wondered why his fortune could not have spared him this ‘unkindest cut of all’. The President of the Managing Committee was all set to start a privately owned institution shortly, on the model of a public school which was to be selectively expensive and would target the elites of the town as his clientele. The President had approached him to agree to the post of Rector after his retirement, promising a good compensation. He had no reason to disagree and he had made it almost clear that he would be simply glad to accept. It was rather a dire necessity for him also, as the son, youngest of his siblings, would need more some years to start a decent career on his own and to stand by him. The petty pension amount would hardly be enough for their sustenance. He apprehended that this new turn in events at the close of his otherwise clean career might inspire the President to think from a new angle and have a fresh look around.
“Let others having no business here vacate the room”.
“Yes, it is becoming stuffy and stifling and we have a lot of formalities to attend to. The police will be here any moment”.
“ Give him a chair. Don’t keep him standing”.
A few lone but emphatic voices brought him back to the instant reality. The frail and flaccid body of the poor boy lay motionless on a low bench, one of his lean, little hands dangling helplessly downwards, as if his fingers trying ineffectually to clutch at the ground in a last bid to beg for life. He lovingly stroked his hair and softly put back the slinging hand on the bench by the side of his body. The suicide note in a chit of a small fourfold paper could be seen peeping up through the front pocket of his shirt. Someone came close to the HM, took out the piece of paper from the shirt pocket and handed over to him.
“ Sir. Keep it carefully under your custody.
This is very important for you and the entire school Management.
This is a solid proof that the boy chose to kill himself and we had hardly anything to blame. This will absolve us from charges u/s 304 I.P.C ”.
“Nothing to blame! Really?”. He was not assured.
Inaudible to others, this question within lashed his psyche like another atrocious wave of a flickering thought. The boy lying on the ground in front of him was hardly 12 or 13, the cord still sticking up around the flesh of his tender neck. A thin line of blood had flowed down the corner of his lips, but his face looked cool and complacent. “ What might have compelled him to take this fearful decision?”- the HM asked himself.
“Sir, keep this paper carefully. Don’t trust this to anybody”- the authoritative voice banged once more.
The HM for the first time turned around and looked at the person speaking to him. He was Sudhanya Palit, the history teacher, his face glowing with the visible hints of confidence and assured knowledge in criminal legislations. The HM remembered Sudhanya Babu having once told him that he had studied law for some years which he discontinued after getting the present job. The HM was too tired to mention to Sudhanya Babu that it was wrong for him to touch the suicide note before the police came and they might be called upon to explain consequences if things, God forbid, would take a different turn. The parents of the child had not yet arrived. The HM thought it expedient not to brood too much over the wrong deed done.
The HM was sitting still in his office chamber. The police had come and left the school after completing their formalities. The police officer in charge of the investigating team was very polite and did not show any inclination to be exacting in any kind of way. They simply conducted their routine investigation, took some photographs, asked some basic questions and took away the body. They also took along the suicide note in original without, however, bothering to ask if anybody had handled the piece of paper. They were even courteous to leave a photocopy of the note for the school and for the parents if they might ask for a copy later.
Actually the HM and the parents had their legitimate claim to look into the contents of the note which was addressed to three persons separately. He wrote to his mother, his kid sister and the Headmaster of his school.
To his mother he wrote, “ Mom, take care of your health. Take your meals in time”.
The note to his seven year old sister read like an authoritative diktat from a big brother, “Do not forget to water the jasmine plant daily. Let the first flower be offered to Shiva in the temple close to our house”.
The last request of the note was addressed to the HM himself, “Sir, please declare a holiday, when I will be no longer, to condole my death”.
The father of the child was in shambles and his mother who hardly looked like existing, was just sorrow personified. The HM had thought it too harsh to question them in detail about what might be the probable reasons of his deciding to end his life. The boy was never bad in his studies. He was quite popular among his friends and teachers. He took keen interests in the school events like sports and annual functions. He was not the type who stumbles under the pressure of jittery nerves at the time of approaching exams. Then what could be the precise reason? The HM wondered. He was more disturbed over the absence of a credible clue. Was it then the real cause what the father of the child had mumbled in disjointed words like a man talking to himself in his sleep? The cousin brother of the child, a boy of his same age and very close to him had died a couple of months back of kidney failure and he appeared depressed since then, not spending his time in his usual way. His father thought that this might be the cause of a mounting depression which ultimately got better of him. The father was cursing himself for not attending to his state of mind and failing to protect the child with parental care and proper vigilance. The HM was not absolutely sure, but he reprimanded the skeptic within. Any way, he was not an expert in juvenile psychology. Moreover, knowing the exact reason was no more important for him.
The HM met the teachers in a quick meeting and announced his decision for not declaring any immediate holiday which all had expected almost as a certainty. The members present was in a fix about how the HM could be thus heartless not to respond to the last wish of a poor soul.
Today was the first Monday since the last Wednesday, the date of the unfortunate incident. They had waited patiently over this time hoping that good sense for the HM would ultimately prevail. But they could not wait anymore for the sake of sensibility and for humanitarian considerations.
The teachers had just finished their meeting to discuss the HM’s erratic and autocratic decision not to declare an immediate holiday as was customary, honoring the last wish of the poor boy. They unanimously condemned, over and above, his already circulated official declaration fixing a date for a condolence assembly at the school ground after a fortnight which hardly made any sense for them. The Assistant H.M, who was known for his unconditional docility to his boss, tried to raise a lone, feeble protest describing and justifying the HM’s action as ethical in the sense that declaring holiday to focus on a suicide might send a wrong message to other youngsters. His protest was, however, blown away violently with counter opinions and invectives and the good boy of the HM’s cabinet was nearly dragged down to the ground asking him to clarify if his opinion was to be passed on as granted how he could explain the HM’s one sided announcement to hold a condolence meeting which was also liable to equally transmit a wrong signal and above all what was the justification and logic behind the HM’s decision to put up a statue of the boy in the school compound near the gate and that too predictably at the expense of the school’s dwindling reserve fund! The AHM had no reply ready at hand either and chose not to go any further for an utterly unequal duel of words.
“I was regretting the past and fearing the future.
Suddenly my Lord was speaking.
‘My name is I AM’, He paused. I waited. He continued,
‘When you live in the past, with its mistakes and regrets, it is hard.
I am not there. My name is not I Was
When you live in the future, with its problems and fears, it is hard.
I am not there. My name is not I Will Be.
When you live in this moment, it is not hard. I am here.
My name is I AM’ “ – Helen Mallicoat.
All had gathered punctually at the ground at 9 AM today which was the 15th day from the date of suicide by the young boy. There were chairs for the teachers and the guardians on the sides of the slightly raised platform where the President of the Managing Committee and the HM was sitting together with the parents and the sister of the boy. Though not many, quite a few of the guardians had responded to the invitation sent out to them by the HM with a special request to be present on the occasion. The teachers were visibly annoyed and appeared not very keen to hide their discontent writ large on their faces. They considered it to be a gesture of unmixed oppression to summon them at 9AM, two hours earlier than their usual time of school attendance at 11 AM. They fumed within at the thought of being held up till 4-30 PM from 9AM and even then going through their usual schedule of daily drudgeries. They were sure to be asked by HM to go to their classes after the condolence meeting was over as he had made clear already his disapproval for declaring a holiday to observe an act of suicide by one of his students on ethical grounds.
The function opened with the speech of the President which once again confirmed the eccentricity of the HM to his colleagues. Any person having the minimum knowledge of grace and protocol knew that the speech by the President had to come at the close of a function.
The President who was a doctor of repute in the vicinity spoke some formalities, expressed his grief and compassion for the bereaved family and promised assistance for the parents if they would require any in their hours of emotional crisis. This inescapably made open an avenue for some technical jargons on why and how suicides get committed and how they could be prevented and what should be the role of the society on occasions of such crisis. Thankfully he preferred not linger much as he was to rush to his Nursing Home to attend to a prescheduled case of medical emergency. He, however, assured that he was leaving today with the honest idea of holding a seminar shortly on the subject. All looked relieved and pleased, most because the speech had ultimately ended and may be a few at the prospect of the promised seminar.
Before the President left he intimated the assembly that the HM had requested him to permit him to speak at the end as a special exception. He also informed that the entire cost of today’s function and the expenses on the statue of the boy had been borne by the HM himself and he had intimated his willingness for this long before, i.e., on the very next day of the date of the actual incident, seeking his approval.
All were surprised when the HM invited none other to speak and guided the kid sister of the boy to her brother’s statue to unveil it. Some one from the assembly of the students came forward and garlanded the statue which was perhaps not prescheduled as the HM had already got back to the podium, ready to speak with the permission of the President who had stayed back at the special request of the HM.
“I chose this day as an occasion specially for a confessional statement on my part before this august assembly”, the HM started to speak in a clear but mellow voice as if talking to himself. All sat up in their seats and the teachers particularly tuned up in extra attention, expecting a scoop involving the HM and the deceased boy.
“There is a provision, as most of you may know” the HM continued, “ in the Christian theology for the sinner to confess a crime or a misdeed before a clergy in a church which, apart from its ritualistic importance, has an obvious emotional bearing on the psyche of the of the wrongdoer, relieving him of the burden of his tormented soul at least to some extent. I know of no such opportunity in Hindu customs. That is the reason I selected this day to launch this function primarily for me and secondarily for others who would like to view this as a condolence meeting. I needed this 15 days’ time to settle things within my own mind, fighting a fierce battle. Also, this time was needed to get completed the statue.
Ethically speaking, I have my objection as the H.M to call this a condolence meeting. Why should we condole the death of a foolish boy who chose to end his life whatever may be the reasons? That is precisely why I abstained from declaring a holiday after his death despite his categorical request which, I know, has raised many eyebrows and condemned my action.”
All looked crestfallen. Had this man really lost all his senses? How else could he utter these non- sense and absolute cruelties keeping seated the poor parents beside him?
The HM stopped and sipped from the glass of water lying placed before him. When he again began to speak, his voice, further mellowed, was quivering.
“Surely, this is a condolence meeting, an occasion to grieve for the untimely loss of enormous possibilities, the loss of a sweet, tender hearted boy who was a beloved son to all of us, particularly us who had the mission to teach him and who failed. I condole his death as a father. But as a teacher and a moral guardian I condemn his action. He had no right to take his life which was awarded to him by Providence through his parents who have been betrayed. This last lesson I want to hand down to my young learners sitting over there. This is my last opportunity in this school to teach them this, which I failed during the last forty years of my career. I have tendered my resignation to the school authority and I have requested them to accept that with effect from tomorrow”.
A spell of absolute silence settled down on all listeners like a flash.
“All must be wanting to know why I took this decision and I feel that I owe an explanation for my choosing to quit when I have still some months to go before my retirement. The explanation is simple. I failed to deliver what I ought to give. The boy was bright and intelligent. I have looked through his progress reports. He was good in mathematics, scoring 98 out of 100 in his last exam. He was good in the Languages. Never achieving below eighty percent. He was equally proficient in all other subjects. He was good at sports, in cultural activities. He was of a loving nature. At his last moments he thought of his mother, his little sister and us. But though he loved, surely he loved not rightly. He loved Death, over and above, which is darkness. He could not love Life, its abundant possibilities, its music, its colors, its never dying aspiration to grow”.
The HM stopped for a few seconds and looked at his audience who were listening in rapt attention.
“ Surely, the boy was not to blame. It is us who failed. May be we taught him Geography efficiently. We guided him perfectly through the intricacies of arithmetic, algebra and geometry. We were very adept in grounding in his brain the basics of general science- how water freezes, how day dawns, how gases turn into solids. We taught him Milton, Rabindranath, Gandhi. But did we check up whether they were really home? We finished our duty requiring him to amplify the quotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost “Every cloud has a silver lining” and we quit with the satisfaction that his answer was grammatically correct and the literal meaning of the line got correctly imparted to him. But we surely did not take care to guide him to dig deep into what Milton really wanted to mean to all of us, to unfold to him the basic charms and beauties of our life, to teach him in his kind of way how and why life should be lived.”
“Finally, I take this opportunity to bid farewell to all of you as I am leaving this school and this place too. No, not to escape the torments of a guilt-ridden soul. A change of place can not guarantee this. I will go back to the small village where I was born, the place of my origin, where the emotional search for my roots can justly begin. I will start there a new journey afresh, trying to learn for myself and impart to who may be keen, the true meaning of life. I will tell them what Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra has wanted to tell us over the years,
“ Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:…..”
The HM stopped finally. Declared that there would be no classes today after this condolence session and requested the President to decide and announce if tomorrow the school should be declared closed, he being no more in the chair of the HM from now on. He raised his folded hands in the gesture of a Namaskar and silently left.
When all had left, Benoy Samaddar, the logic teacher, who had been the most critical during the last few days about the decisions and actions of the HM, slowly strolled up to the newly installed statue of the boy and looked at the epitaph written at the base of it which read,
“ Spare a moment here and pray for his soul. Love him. For, he was one who loved, but loved not wisely”.