Ode to a little flower

- Shailaja Upadhyaya

Jan 20, 2019-

Ten years hence, a book reminds me of her. She was my favourite student. Not that she showed that she was smart, or that she was smart at all—but something about her always made me like her: her attentiveness.

She always seated herself in the first bench, with her fellow “class topper” friend. They talked only when the Paswan boy spared time from raising his hand, waiting for me to catch him and let him answer, or when he was answering my questions. I can’t remember the guy’s first name. But the smile he passed looking all around the class, just to ensure that everyone heard clearly when I’d very good-ed him, is etched indelibly in my mind and will remain fresh in my eye forever.

But Sanju was all by herself during my classes.

“Write something about your cousin,” I had asked the whole class, and I could not help noticing a deep frown pass onto Sanju’s face. While her fellow bench mate had already managed to scribble a paragraph, Sanju was still strayed. Biting her nails, pressing her knuckles, she kept on looking around her class. Everyone had already started to write.

What is the deal about this girl? Is she that dumb?

I went to her and stood up beside her for a moment, without saying a word. And yes, this worked; she wrote a sentence: “My cousin is Sarada.” Then Sanju took a painful heavy breath and looked up, scared. I decided to move. Bravo! I could see that she had written ‘My mother’.

When I was 16, I would assist some 20 fifth-graders from my dad’s school with their English vocabulary, and I would enjoy it.

I waited silently. “My mother likes her a lot. Sarada is a white girl. She is class first.”

I let out a sigh. Moving closer to her, I enquired, “Do you like Sarada?” In a few seconds, she covered her copy with her hand, took a deep breath, and repeated the same if-only-I knew-what-to-say look. I smiled. She too smiled but she didn’t answer.

I decided to let go. Rudra, a last bencher, to the panic of Paswan, stood up and exclaimed, “Miss, finished.” I shrugged, “Ok everyone, stop writing and Rudra, you read out loud what you have written.”

Rudra passed on a cheesy smile while he moved his bag from his lap, kept it on his desk, picked his copy and started to read. “My lovely is cousin Rohit. He read in class 6. We close friends.”

Two months of English vocabulary class and he gives me a “We close friends”. To my relief, everyone laughed. But Sanju had rotated her head to a full 360 degrees to catch Rudra speak. She had bright eyes, nodding in agreement at every fullstop until a wave of laughter was loud enough to move her. She turned to her benchmate when he said “all broken English” and I asked him to keep quiet. The class had started a big murmur. I cleared my throat, “Rudra, you need to make full sentences, will be back to you.”

During my break time, I called the attendant and asked him to call Sanju to meet me. After a moment, the door behind creaked open.

After having her sit down, I offered her a chocolate, in an attempt to wipe away the petrified daub off her face. “My birthday.” It didn’t work exactly how I’d expected it to. “Happy birthday miss. ”

“Thank you sweetheart.”

“You know Sanju, I gave the chocolate only to you as this was the last one left and you are my favourite student,” I told her. Her eyes examined me, and she said, “Really?” and smiled. “You are always attentive in my class, do not make noise, do all the homework, you have a very nice handwriting.” She showed her teeth. Cute!

“But you never talk! You do not like me huh!”

“No miss,” she said, petrified again.

“Okay then, tell me about yourself.”

“Okay, miss.” She nibbled on her nails and started, “My name is Sanju Chhetri, I live in Biratnagar. I have one elder brother and one father mother.” I realised she had not once looked at me throughout, let alone into my eyes. She was interested on the pattern of her swinging legs more.

“Mm… good, a family of four… ok tell me about your brother.”

“He is 16 years old.”

“Your parents? What do they do?”

“Shopkeepers,” it came very fast.

“Oh, that’s nice. So what do you have in your shop? Can I come by sometimes?”

“It’s far.” Too fast a reply again.

“Where exactly?”

She was getting uncomfortable, but I didn’t want to back out.

“If it’s too far, then I can’t come. But tell me what you sell.”

“Chocolate, Biscuits, Sweaters, Chappals…. sorry… slippers..”

 A superstore? I unwittingly pulled a face! Glad she didn’t notice. The ten minutes long tea break was over, so I let her go.

I met Sanju with one excuse or another almost every alternative day in the week that followed. We talked about her favourite chocolate, her best friend, Dasain, and Tihar.

“Okay, tell me about your mom now.”

“My mother’s name is Rama, she is 38 years old. My father’s name is Shyam Sundar.” She stopped.

“Rama? Nice name. My mother always scolds me, your mother does that to you too? I really do not like my mother.”

“Yes, she says I am too thin…”

“My mother says… I am black”—that came faster than I’d thought but I managed a frown.

“My mom says my face is not beautiful.”

“My mother… also say me…. not to laugh in front of…  all.” She was looking at me. And she continued, “She always say me be like Sarada, be like Sarada… She says to my brother, be like his friend Raju, astinaaai… In a Puja my brother calling his friends, mother always scolding my brother in front of his friend… saying be like him, be like him… my brother shouted my mother at night and my father slapped him.”

I couldn’t collect words. They sounded out of context when put together: “But mom always loves you.”

She was not persuaded. My age failed me.  I ended the conversation on a very bad note. I regretted the whole day for bringing that up.

But these series of conversations with Sanju had opened my eye to something important and neglected. I started to see a reason behind everything she did.

She always listened to everyone quietly and carefully, because she thought everyone except her said important things. She smiled always, but never laughed. Except for that one conversation, she never looked into anyone’s eyes when she spoke. She was always nervous. She copied other’s notes during lunch time, copied her friends’ walking style. Poor Sanju! She also had a Paswan’s laughing tone. I imagined what her conversation with her mom would be like, if they had any. “I am not okay, you are okay.”

I couldn’t help but talk to my father about her. My father, the founder-principal of Little Flower English School, decided, “I shall talk to her mother!”

Days were busy. I could not go to my dad’s school after that.  The plus two results were out and with such nice grades (as my mom exclaimed), I was off to Kathmandu.

Eric Berne in his bestseller Transactional Analysis writes that an analysis of individual psyche, through the theory of personality will show which ego states a person holds while having an interaction. I remember Sanju through his sentence: “The parent represents a massive collection of recordings in the brain of external events experienced or perceived in approximately the first five years of life.”

Is Sanju basically going to do the same to her children, passing on the “I am not okay, you are okay” proposition?

I called my dad the other day. He remembered Sanju immediately. “Yes, I had talked to her mother after a week, she seemed unmoved, was rather worried about her daughter’s grade…they had a meat shop and she did not want her daughter to end up being called a butcher women…mmm I tried to persuade her not to be so hard upon her children,” he explained.

Thomas Anthony Harris compliments Berne’s work in his book I’m OK—You’re OK where he describes three basic life propositions, one being “I am not okay you are okay”, where an individual assumes that the counterpart in a relationship is always better than him. I sigh.

My pregnant belly clenches as I fear my child would be clueless in his life, always impressed by others but himself. The basic compliances of parenthood—safe birth, vaccination, nutritious diet, good education and good future plan for the child—do not seem enough to me. Parenting is a very delicate job to involve into. The way we talk, react upon things, take decisions, make life plans are not only our personal way of life. There are innocent eyes and ears recording our doings to their memory databases. Memories that will have a major impact upon their thinking process throughout life. The traces we leave will be there forever.

Published: 20-01-2019 08:08

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