I didn’t. She had a familiar voice but there was no trace of her face in my memory. Other teachers in the staff room giggled as confusion painted my face. I paid close attention to her demeanour hoping that I could remember who she was. She was one of the two new teachers who had just joined our school.
In her late thirties, maybe even early forties, she had glasses on and had tied her hair in a bun. And she was draped in a simple Sari. That’s about it. There was nothing striking about her. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t tell if we had met earlier.
“Don’t worry. I wouldn’t have recognised you either,” she said. “If a couple of teachers hadn’t talked about you earlier, I would have never guessed it’s you. You were still very young when we last met.”
She was not helping. If I was curious earlier, I was anxious now. I couldn’t wait to find out who she was. “I am sorry, how do you know me?”
She smiled then. “Do you remember a ‘Pushpa Miss’?”
Of course! How could I not? What had gotten into me?
“Oho, Pushpa Miss!” My heart swelled with the kind of happiness that takes over you when you find the missing piece of a puzzle. I wanted to embrace her, but I was too shy. As she held both of my hands lovingly, I looked at her again.
It all came back to me so suddenly and vividly. She had probably just come of age when I first saw her seventeen years ago. Back then, her big, bright eyes didn’t hide behind glasses. Full of youth, it was difficult not to fall in love with her. I used to be one of the few students she taught at a school she had started in a basement of a rented house.
I had known her from the time when I couldn’t wipe my own nose. I adored her for who she was and what she did. She had taken underprivileged kids under her shade to ensure they got access to education. She used to teach us so patiently and passionately that I had grown to love the school, even if it only had a few sukuls to sit on and one blackboard to learn from.
She had started the education drive with Kamala Miss, her friend. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have known a single letter. And if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have become a teacher myself.
This one time, I had to drop out of school because I could neither afford the fee nor the books or the stationery to continue. I had given up. But, within two weeks, Pushpa Miss had already come up with a solution. To date, I don’t know what she did or how she did it. But, she made sure I went back to school. She just showed up at my home, talked to my mother, and the next thing I knew, I had textbooks and pencils.
That day my mother had said, “Go to school and work hard so that you can become a good person when you grow up.”
Pushpa Miss was a saviour. She had saved me from the gutter that my life would have been otherwise.
I had learnt early on that both Pushpa Miss and Kamala Miss were working very hard to build a small school for us. They had gone out on a limb to make sure that we had a proper classroom that didn’t reek of deprivation.
We were all looking forward to better days. Until, Pushpa Miss disappeared altogether.
“Pushpa Miss is never coming back,” I was taken aback when Mamata, my classmate who was also a niece to the teacher, broke the news.
I was in grade five then. The news crushed me. It felt like somebody had just squashed my little heart with a huge rock.
“They are marrying her off. Her parents are upset that she doesn’t do household chores and instead works outside, like a man.” Mamata had continued to fill me in, as tears filled my eyes.
It was probably one of the biggest blows of my life. I remember my mother asking me if I had a stomach ache that day. Little did she know it was a heartache.
I had cried and thrown tantrums all night. “Oho, she is of marriageable age now. The sooner she gets married, the better it is,” my mother had tried explaining to me. “What is a woman without a man anyway?”
“She can get married alright. But, why leave us?” I remember asking.
It is funny how time works.
Years later, there we were in the same room, chatting as colleagues. She was now referring to me as “Sita Miss” and as uncomfortable as it felt, it also felt good.
Few days passed by when I jokingly asked, “Are you still the same Pushpa Miss?”
“Of course. I was a teacher then, I am a teacher now. Perhaps, I have only gotten older,” she said, “But look at you, all grown up!”
Two months had passed since the Teachers’ strike began. But it was all directionless. Many teachers had already lost the patience and had decided to go back to teaching. Nobody knew if the demands were ever going to be met. But, there was no giving up.
After the silent protest, we all went back home. So did Pushpa Miss.
She had a speech to deliver to the gathering the next day, but Pushpa Miss didn’t show up at school. The organisers were getting anxious. As we waited, somebody suggested that maybe we should go look for her. I knew where she lived so I volunteered to bring her in.
I had to cross one galli to reach her home. When the galli opened up to the chowk where her house stood, I noticed a sight that made me deeply uncomfortable. Some people had gathered outside her house whispering words that I couldn’t understand; other people poked their heads out the window, as if to observe a jatra.
My heart thumped. I made my way to the entrance of her house and called for her, without climbing the stairs.
“Pushpa Miss! Are you there?”
All I got in answer was her dog growling at me. At that moment my heart skipped a beat. I thought of making a round-about-turn and going right back to where I came from. But I stayed.
When I listened closely I heard some voices. There was a cold, harsh, relentless voice that hurled nasty words. And there was a soft, trembling voice that begged for pity. “Please don’t beat Ama anymore! She is hurt.”
By this time I had already realised that Pushpa Miss and her husband were fighting and she was being beaten. I could hear things being thrown across the room. I wanted to go upstairs but the angry dog blocked my way.
“Pushpa Miss!” No matter how loud I was, the noise muffled it all.
“No thrashing is ever enough! I could drink all the blood in your body and this anger still would not subside!”
The voice kept getting louder.
“Mark my words, I am going to grab you by that hair, and drag you to the middle of Tundikhel one day. Rights, my foot. It’s all nonsense. For all I care, all you want to do is get into the pants of the policemen in the name of a strike.”
The dog hadn’t stopped barking. The kids hadn’t stopped pleading. And the man hadn’t stopped swearing. The only sound that I struggled to hear was that of Pushpa Miss. As I called for her again, I heard the voice say, “One whore is calling another.”
“Sita, I am on my way.”
I let out a sigh of relief. Her eldest daughter came downstairs, shoved the dog aside, and invited me upstairs. My feet trembled as I climbed up to where the commotion had taken place. The man glared at me with bloodshot eyes and left the room.
Her eyes were swollen, her head was bleeding, and her Sari was torn in places. Yet, her voice didn’t tremble when she said, “I am caught in this hell hole. What can I do?”
I stood there stunned. Asking myself what I was supposed to do. How was I supposed to console her, comfort her?
She cleaned her face with a wet towel, covered the wound with a band aid, and suggested we should leave.
“Let’s not waste more time here,” she said. “I was all ready to leave the house. But the monster blocked my way. I am not involved in something wrong. I am on a mission. He can try all he wants to intimidate me but there’s no stopping me now.”
She instructed her elder daughter to feed the little ones if they started crying as we left the house.
“I haven’t blinked an eye and the two whores are already out on their way,” the man screamed from the room above, drawing in attention from all directions. “Now that you’ve stepped out, don’t you dare step into the house ever again.”
I looked at Pushpa Miss. Even as her eyes swelled with tears, she appeared invincible. I quietly followed her as she took long, determined steps towards our destination. But, I had to address the situation. “Why is it so difficult for women?”
She halted, looked at me and said, “If you want independence, you have to work towards it, and you have to work fast. The problem is deeply rooted in the society, change will only follow once we uproot it.”
She went on to tell me how giving in to her family and the society and getting married to a man she knew was not right for her was the biggest mistake she had ever made. “Everybody was on one side, I was on the other. There wasn’t much I could do. I was scared. But I’m already in the hellhole now and I have already endured the worst. There’s nothing to be scared of anymore. I have sacrificed enough. I have put aside my ambitions for a long time. Not anymore.
“When you get married, make sure he’s a good man. One wrong step and you could suffer all your life.”
We finally reached the protest, but before we could go ahead with the plans, the police charged at us.
We all dispersed.
“We are not giving up until our demands are met, until our rights are…” The police caught Mahendra Sir by his arms before he could even complete his sentence and shoved him into a police van.
I looked for Pushpa Miss everywhere. When I saw her again, she had already been shoved into the same van.
I couldn’t help thinking about her children that probably waited for her. And then I couldn’t help thinking about the man that had screamed, “You don’t ever have to come back.”
As the van passed by me, I noticed an odd aura on her face. In all these years, Pushpa Miss hadn’t changed all that much. She was still the same. She was still fighting for the right. And nothing was going to deter her from the mission she had embarked on.