I turned from the blackboard to look at my class who were jotting down the notes furiously. With just three months left for their graduate degree examinations, it was but natural, given how our college bore the reputation of being one of the best in the country.
‘So, who can tell me in a nutshell what are the basic differences in assumptions between Monopoly, Oligopoly, and Perfect Competition?’
The students in the first two benches checked their notes once more before they could raise their hands but, as I expected, I could already see the self-assured hand raised from one of the backbenchers.
She stood up and the sunrays pouring from the window next to her created a strange halo behind her head. In that magical play of light and shadow her face was like a statue signifying the two sides of life--one that went through the storms bearing the scars in the form of twenty surgeries and grafting and the other side still emerging with the smile of a victor.
Her lips painted with a hint of mauve turned up into a cheerful smile, that always preceded her words and then she gave the perfect answer as usual.
It took the class a few months to get used to her. But over the last three years, I noticed how Vinita made her way into everyone’s hearts with her simple charms, her open friendliness, her lack of hesitance, and above all her willingness to help out anyone in need.
I still remember how she taught a few students, who were grappling with some of the concepts of Mathematical Economics or how she would never hesitate to give her notes to anyone who reached out.
The bell rang and I rushed to the staffroom to grab a bite. Vinita came running down the corridor with her questions. Always ahead of her class, she wanted to leave no stones unturned for the upcoming exams. In her Part 1, she’d been a state topper in Delhi University; we were expecting the same from her this time as well.
‘Ma’am please can you help me with a few doubts?’
‘Sure, but my feet are killing me! Can we sit and chat in the staffroom, please?’
The staffroom had the familiar lunch time smell of food from all over India starting from vadas to rajma chawal to mustard fish to dhoklas. My stomach was rumbling especially because of the aroma of the geography professor, Mrs. Kumar’s chicken biriyani. Mrs. Lalita Kumar was the most elderly among us and hence, she’d taken up the motherly responsibility of feeding the rest of us who lived away from our homes and had to satisfy ourselves with the greasy and insipid canteen food.
She came with a bowl towards me. I looked at Vinita who tried hard not to look at it. ‘Vini, lets share the biriyani?’
‘Wait, I’ll get some more for Vini, too.’
‘Ma’am, do you get lunch enough for the entire neighbourhood every day?’ Vinita joked.
Mrs. Kumar let out her hearty laughter. ‘Beta, khana aur khilana is a matter of pride for us, Punjabis, you know?’
I knew the kind woman was giving up her share of food to feed Vinita. The entire staff at St. Sebastian’s College loved Vinita Roy. Not only because she was the star performer in the college but also because of how far she has come based only on her grit and courage.
‘Let’s all share and I’ll order something from the canteen, too.’ I suggested and we all took a small portion of the biriyani in our plates.
‘So, exams are just a few months away, Vinita? How are you feeling? We all know you’ll do very well.’ Mrs. Kumar spoke in between having spoon full of rice.
Vinita face broke out into a lopsided smile. ‘I hope so too, Ma’am.’
‘You must be looking for a job after that? You’ll get some very good offers; you know…these days companies are all about inclusivity….’
Looking at Vinita’s expression changing from cheerful to sombre, Mrs. Kumar stopped her sentence midway.
‘I do not want to be chosen for my ‘condition’, ma’am. I want to be chosen for my merit. After all,’ at this point she touched the left side of her face, the side disfigured by acid. ‘This is not a disability. This is an incident, even though a cruel one inflicted on me by the people closest to me, but it is still an incident. It won’t define the rest of my life.’
Both Mrs. Kumar and I lowered our eyes. To imagine what a twenty something must have gone through to have been tortured like, was something we could not fathom even in our darkest nightmares.
I sighed and looked up. ‘Vini, I think what Mrs Kumar means is that you need to take up a job to look after yourself, no? You’re living in the hostel now, what will happen after graduation?’
‘Ma’am I’ve thought of it all.’ She smiled. ‘I will take up Masters in Economics and I expect to get a scholarship with my scores in the Bachelors. Accommodation in a government college is not so expensive and I have kept some savings for that, too. When I joined college after traveling all the way to Delhi from Kolkata, I had planned for it all. The settlement that I got after winning the case against my husband is enough to see me through.’
I once again looked at Vinita in awe. With no help from anyone else how can she have so much of confidence and courage in her abilities?
‘Vini that’s great!’ Mrs. Kumar applauded, ‘But don’t you feel scared doing all this alone?’
Vinita had a faraway look in her eyes. ‘During my childhood, I had an irrational fear of darkness. The child psychiatrist said there was no external cure, only I can help myself. Even after my mother’s explanations and coaxing, I would start crying whenever it became dark due to some reason. One day when I was almost 10, my mother hid herself behind the sofa when there was a power cut. She sat still while I cried for almost an hour. At first I stiffly sat in a corner waiting for some unknown monster to arrive but then nature won. I had to go to the bathroom. I felt a bit more courageous when nothing sinister pounced on me. Then, I quenched my thirst by drinking a glass of water from the kitchen. All this while I realized that the darkness didn’t harm me in any way. Suddenly, my eyes fell outside the kitchen window and instead of feeling petrified I was awestruck. It was so breathtakingly beautiful! All the chamelis, rajanigandhas, and rose bushes in the garden overlooking our kitchen were washed by the shimmery moonlight. I stared at the beauty and forgot all about my fears. I realized I was afraid of an evil that I had created inside my head! Fear is an illusion and only when we face it, do we get to experience the beauty that lies beneath.
A few years later my parents passed away in a car crash. I was only 16 then. My uncle’s family took me in but they hated me for being a burden. Just after my class 12 boards where I scored over 90%, they married me off to a businessman twenty years older to me. I had no say in the matter.
My husband and in-laws tortured me for dowry; they made me work like a slave while giving me two meagre meals. My husband would rape me whenever he felt like. I kept quiet this whole time because once again I was scared that I had nowhere to go.
When they realized that they couldn’t get any more money from my uncle’s family who didn’t care about me, they started planning on getting a more ‘profitable’ bride for their son. All my will to still fight for my existence disappeared the day they poured that bottle of acid on me.’ Her voice choked with tears as she continued. This was the first time we were hearing about what really happened to Vinita. Only the principal was aware of her story, so far.
‘With the flesh melting from my face and body, I was screaming for death. It was because of the kind neighbours and police that I was saved.’
‘The NGO that paid for my treatment gave me a job there. They helped me fight the case and win, putting my husband and in-laws behind bars for years. I became their spokesperson at various events. But I didn’t want to stop there. I told them that I wanted to study further. I have once again found the beauty of life as soon as I stopped being scared. It wasn’t easy at first. People would be horrified looking at my face. I’d feel like a cockroach that everyone wanted out of their sight. But once again, these are all mere illusions in my mind. The day I saw my own beauty, the world also joined me.’
With a concerned voice, I asked her. ‘But Vini what do you plan to do with your life, then? You are almost 30 now, much older than the other students….’
‘Ma’am who says that life is counted in years? I thought that my life ended at twenty-two when I was almost about to die. Years of treatments, legal fights, and overcoming odds later, I’m here today. Each day since then has been a gift to be cherished.
After my post-graduation, I aim to do a PhD in Economics from one of the world’s top universities. And then, I would like to teach in a college. I also want to adopt a child- someone who will be showered with all the love that he or she missed out on like me because of the loss of their parents.’
A melancholic smile fleeted across her lips.
Mrs. Kumar cleared her throat. ‘But, wouldn’t you like to…you know, settle down with a man someday? This incident shouldn’t make you lose all your faith in love, Vini.’
A sense of serenity encompassed Vinita’s smile. ‘On the contrary, this incident showed me the power of love. It was because of those kind neighbours and because of the love given to me by strangers at the NGO that I am back on my feet today. When my own failed me, the world gave me the selfless love of strangers. Love need not necessarily be romantic. That doesn’t mean I won’t be receptive to romantic love if it comes at my door, someday. But till then, I have my friends, I have all you people. Once I start earning, I will spread some of that love to the NGO that helped me. I will give more girls like me the scope to study, to taste the heady intoxication of independence, to once again believe that they can be whatever they wish to be. Please bless me so that I can do it someday.’
The lunch hour was over and we were the only people left behind in the staffroom. It was Mrs. Kumar who first got up and pulled Vinita in a hug. ‘Oh my dear child, you’ll do all this and so much more. I know you will.’
While joining them in a group hug, through my tears I noticed the board on the wall that featured the thought for the day. It said:
‘Courage doesn’t always roar, sometimes it’s the quiet voice at the end of the day whispering, “I will try again tomorrow.”’