Fridays at school were always fun. The kids were usually in an upbeat mood in lieu of the approaching weekend . It was the last class of the day and the excitement in the air was almost palpable.
“Everyone go through the exercises at the end of the story. I want you to come back on Tuesday with a short write up on any memorable experience that you’ve shared with your family.”
Karen ran her eyes over the earnest bowed heads .The silence in her classroom was occasionally interrupted by the soft swish-swish of pages being turned and whispers of her pupils.
She started browsing through their assignment books. Now, where was it? Yes, Tania Thomas – she opened the assignment, started reading and frowned. There it was again – a clumsy, sloppy write up, not much effort had gone into it – grammatically incorrect at many places and numerous spelling mistakes. She cringed – what had happened to her star student? Her protégé of sorts had suddenly started disappointing her in so many ways the last few weeks – frequent absenteeism, mediocre assignments and a moody, lethargic attitude at all times. Had she fallen into some bad company? “I really hope not. Perhaps a firm, stern chat with the girl might shake her up a bit and bring her around.” Karen thought.
The bell went off and she smiled at her cheerful bunch as they trooped out. Her eyed singled out Tania Thomas – she was shuffling along the midst of her friends, dragging her feet somewhat clumsily. Karen couldn’t help smiling – for a girl in the ninth grade, Tania was not the one for appearances. She paid no attention to her looks to the extent that she always had a dishevelled appearance. It was surprising that she had any friends at all. Karen knew that her ninth graders were at that precarious age when very few things mattered to them and definitely ‘looking awesome’ was on their list. Tania sure had a different list then, she thought and smiled.
‘’Tania, can we talk? Yeah, now,” Karen called out. They walked along to the canteen and sat down at an empty table.
‘’Tania, about the inter school debate competition – it’s on the 18th in St. Xavier’s. You know, I’ve put your name down for it, right? ’’ Karen asked.
“Yeah, about that – hmm. I don’t think I can participate, Ma’am. Sorry,” Tania replied not looking at Karen.
“And why may I ask?”
“Actually, Papa said no.” Still no eye contact.
“I could talk to him, if you want. I’m sure he’ll be okay if I were to take you there and back.”
“No, don’t talk to him, Ma’am!” Tania nearly squealed. And seeing the suspicion in Karen’s eyes continued, “It’s not that he wouldn’t allow me, it’s just that Papa, me and Uncle Jerry are going to Bangalore for a few days.”
“Oh, I see..okay then, I guess I’ll just ask Pranav instead,” Karen said .
“May I go home now, Ma’am?” Tania asked.
Karen looked at the girl for a long minute. Something was wrong, she could just feel it. The girl looked scared. How could a bubbly, enthusiastic and brilliant ninth grader turn into a complete wreck in just a few weeks? What was this girl hiding? And then, it hit her – “Tania, I want to ask you something and I need a honest reply – look at me!” Karen firmly said.
“Tell me, is there a boy? I can totally understand if you’ve been having a secret crush,” she gently asked.
“No, Ma’am. Nothing like that!” the girl was aghast.
Karen could see that it was a genuine denial. “So what’s bothering you? You seem to be in a world of your own. You’re skipping school frequently, distracted in class, your assignments have been sloppy, what’s going on?” Karen saw that the girl was crying openly now.
“Sorry Ma’am. I will be more attentive. I haven’t been feeling well Ma’am, that’s why...” Tania’s voice trailed off.
Karen sighed. “It’s alright dear. Come I’ll drop you home.”
They walked to the parking lot. Karen tied her blue silk scarf around her head and started her Kinetic Honda. Though Karen loved the independence her scooter gave her, she hated her hair getting all messed up and tangled by the wind and the scarf somewhat helped. She adjusted her scarf and nodded towards Tania. The girl got on still looking miserable.
She dropped her off at the gate and said – “Tania, I know you haven’t been honest with me. Whatever the issue might be, I do not want you to stray away – I see great potential in you and that’s why I hold you dear than other students. I would be really sad if you were to disappoint me. You can come to me anytime you need a person to talk, Alright? Good, see you then”.
Just then Mr. Thomas stepped out and smiled – “Ms Karen, how are you? Hope my daughter is doing okay in class? Please, come in”.
Karen hesitated before answering. As a teacher she was duty bound to inform the parent about any concerns she had, but somehow looking at the timid Tania, cowering beside her stern-looking father, she decided to give her a chance. “She’s one of my best, no doubt. And a pleasure to teach to.”
“Thank you, Ma’am, I’m so happy to hear that from you. Tania speaks a lot about you at home. She really idolizes you!” And looking at how embarrassed Tania looked at his remark he laughed aloud. “Come on, Tani baby! Don’t look so mortified. It’s okay. We must be grateful to Ms Karen for taking you under her wing – at this age a girl like you needs someone like her for guidance.” And continued after a brief pause in a slightly choked voice, “especially since we do not have your mum around anymore”.
There was an uncomfortable silence as none of them knew what to say next. It was broken by Tania’s clumsy, noisy Uncle Jerry who joined them and cheerfully chipped, “Oh its Tani baby’s teacher from school... Now, what trouble have you been causing her, young lady?” He walked up to Tania and playfully punched her. Karen was glad they were past the impasse. She quickly made her exit.
Karen’s house was just a few minutes’ ride from Tania’s. She parked her scooter and unlocked the door and called out, “Amma, I’m home.”
Karen next met Tania at the church that Sunday. The girl was red-eyed and exhausted. After the Mass, Karen walked up to Tania and asked, “Are you not well, Tania?’
“Hmmm...yes Ma’am, I have a fever. But Papa gave me a paracetamol and I’m slightly better.” Tania was all fidgety and eager to leave. She kept adjusting her dupatta that she’d draped over her head which was being blown about by the breeze. Karen’s sharp eyes noticed a bluish welt on the girl’s upper arm and a very disturbing bruise on her neck.
She watched the girl walk away, but couldn’t help worrying about what she’d seen. Her first thought was that Tania was being bullied and hit by her father. She knew that he was a heavy drinker. Could he be hurting her for some reason in his drunken tempers? Then a much dreadful thought came to her – that mark on her neck – she couldn’t be wrong about that – of course , she was married too, once upon a time – could it be that he was physically abusing her , his own daughter? Revolting, as the very thought was, the more she wondered about it , the more it made sense – Tania’s sudden depressed and withdrawn behaviour, excuses about being unwell, poor academic performance .
Karen was in a terrible fix. She fervently wished that she was just being paranoid and that all her theories were the result of an over imaginative brain. But if it were really true, what should she do? Whom should she approach first? The police? The school authorities? And before all that, how would she approach Tania and speak about this to the already distressed girl? Maybe she should take it up first with Sister Antoinette , the Principal – she was a wise lady and would know to tactfully handle the situation.
As she walked to the parking, she saw a sight that changed her mind – Mr. Thomas riding his bike, Uncle Jerry sitting behind and Tania sandwiched in between them. The very sight of the poor girl in close proximity of the monster she called Papa angered her. She quickly tied her blue scarf around her head, started her kinetic and sped after them.
She paused again at Tania’s door to compose herself and collect her thoughts. She could end up being horribly wrong. And what would be the consequences of such serious allegations. She could kiss teaching goodbye and probably be sued for slander. It was her chance to turn back now and handle the issue discreetly. But the decision was taken for her by destiny when the door suddenly opened and she found Mr. Thomas’s cold eyes staring into hers.
“Ms Karen, you startled me!’’ He slowly broke into a smile. Karen resisted the urge to spit on his smug face. “Are you here to see Tania? She must be upstairs, in her room, I’m not sure...I’m in a bit of a hurry now – got a train to catch. Please go ahead. If it’s about any consent form for the school debate, Jerry could sign them for me.’’
As Karen saw him hurry past, she wondered if she was all wrong about him. But she couldn’t turn back now – she needed to see Tania right away and hear the truth, however distressing it might be. Upstairs, she saw two rooms on either side, both closed. She knocked on one and called out for Tania – no reply. She gingerly opened the door – it was empty. She walked over to the next door and knocked twice. Silence – then the sound of something being knocked over – crash – Karen opened the door, even though her instincts warned her of what was going on inside – the sight she saw made her head reel. Tania was being abused by a monster indeed – her ‘Uncle’ Jerry.
Karen would never forget the sheer terror in Tania’s eyes that day. ‘Uncle’ Jerry roughly shoved Karen aside and bolted. Karen ran to the sobbing Tania and held her for a very long time – saying nothing.
Mr. Thomas was informed of the happenings. He cancelled his trip and rushed to be at his daughter’s side. ‘Uncle’ Jerry was absconding, and Mr. Thomas tearfully swore revenge on his evil brother.
It was late evening when Tania fell asleep with Karen sitting by her side. She hadn’t spoken much and Karen didn’t force her into retelling her horrors. She softly shut the door of Tania’s room and went downstairs where Mr. Thomas was pacing the room restlessly.
“Aren’t you going to the police?” asked Karen.
“I’m confused and horrified – I simply don’t know what I must do. The evil that my daughter has endured the past few weeks has ended. He wouldn’t dare to come anywhere near her again. Then why subject her to further torment by bringing in all the world into this?”
“I really don’t think time alone would help Tania heal. She will need a lot of support and understanding from us to come out of this or she may end up scarred for a lifetime. She deserves a chance to speak about it to people who can understand and help her recover. She needs counselling, a lot of it. The poor girl doesn’t even have her mother to turn to. And you want her to heal by herself !” Karen burst out.
“My poor daughter – she’s already in pain. It would be best for her and her future if we kept this between us and not drag everyone into this. And being her father I get to take the final call in this, I believe.”
It was a subtle dismissal .How could she convince this unreasonable man that burying this deep or wishing it away wasn’t a solution for Tania. She needed to boldly face the facts and believe 100% that she was not responsible for what happened – that she wouldn’t be harassed or bullied or judged by family and society for what happened. That was the only way she could begin her life again.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a scream and a crash. They bolted upstairs into Tania’s room. She was there slumped on the bathroom floor her left wrist slashed, blood all over the place. Everything went hazy to Karen after that. Mr. Thomas’s screams, frantic calls to the ambulance. She bent over Tania and kept telling her ‘’Don’t let go Tania, it was not your fault...trust me on this – we make our own destinies in life and I’m sure yours was not this – hang in there, the ambulance is on its way”. She kept talking to her until the ambulance came and took her away.
Karen sat down on the closet and cried – the tears felt like they never would stop. And when they did, she saw the bloody knife lying in a corner, forgotten in all the commotion. Without thinking, Karen wrapped it in her blue scarf and picked it up. Perhaps the police would want it later, but she put it in her handbag anyway and left.
She sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf.
Her phone rang. It was Tania’s father from the hospital. Tania was out of danger. Karen sighed with relief. Finally, Mr Thomas had to get the police involved. He didn’t have a choice. A lookout was on for ‘Uncle’ Jerry.
Sipping her coffee, Karen wondered – why did she hang on to the bloody knife? Was it because she so badly wanted to hunt down the animal and plunge it into his heart? Or perhaps, someday she would hand it over back to Tania, when she had made peace with her past and leading the happy life she so deserved, as a reminder of how she almost threw away her precious life because she was afraid to speak out thinking it was all her fault.
It wasn’t the end, but the beginning for Tania, a journey of healing with hope and Karen promised herself that she would be there for her all along to hold her hand whenever she faltered and stumbled.