Monday, 7 February 2011
A Skeptic's Truth
Two years ago in a sudden fit of enthusiasm for voluntary social work, I enrolled myself into this NGO. The inspiration came from the certificate that I received for volunteering for the Times of India's "Teach India Program". This one entailed taking communicative English classes for women inmates at a prominent Kolkata Correctional Home (another sophisticated term for Women's Jail). As I have had some experience at teaching communicative English at College, I jumped at the offer.
The day I reached the NGO, I was informed that I have to undergo training of some sort at how to communicate with the women and I was to be mentored by a senior who worked at a nearby Correctional Home, doing the same job for which I had signed up.
The first day I met my senior-cum-trainer-cum-mentor, I knew she was the classic "textbook feminist case"... these types are found frequenting Indian University campuses, wearing "kurtas" of a dark hue, jeans, specs with heavy frames, carrying jute "jholas", heavy silver jewelry... and never lipstick!!! till date I haven't met a single one who wore a lipstick... oh! and dark "kohl" in their eyes...
This one (my mentor-cum-trainer) had all the trademark qualities. She took one look at me and dismissed me as the "non sustainable ones", probably because I was wearing a shocking pink salwar... along with pink lipstick... (what a blasphemy!!!)... however she was pretty cordial and explained all I was supposed to do. This week I was to accompany her to the Correctional Home she taught in and observe her at work. I was also given the liberty to talk to the women so as to familiarize myself with them. After this ten minute intro she shut up. For the duration of the journey that we undertook in the NGO's White Ambassador, I peppered her with enthusiastic questions none of which were answered in complete, meaningful sentence.
After reaching our preferred destination where my mentor was greeted with reverent smiles, she seem to have quite an effect on the inmates, I thought, she took pain to introduce me to everybody present and by their looks I could sense that they also put me into the "non sustainable category".
Undeterred I ploughed further and approached a group nearby. As soon as I started introducing myself, my mentor's voice was heard instructing the ladies to gather where she had set up her black board. The group I had approached left in a huff. Slightly demoralized I wandered further to find a shade from where I was to "observe" my mentor at work.
That was when I spotted her. She was seated on one of the stone seats beneath the shade of a giant tree, in the inmates' uniform, her head covered with a black 'dupatta', her back turned to me. I was slightly taken aback.
'Hello!' I called out, she didn't turn around.
'Why aren't you in the class?', my next obvious question. No response elicited.
'May I sit next to you?' my third plea.
All this while she had studiously refused to even acknowledge my existence. With timid steps I went and sat next to her.
"Hello!" I again repeated, this time my greeting was accompanied by an outstretched palm, to let her know, that she was recipient of the greeting. Slowly she turned around and I gasped, my mouth fell open, shocked...
The face that looked at me was burnt on the right, there were no eyebrow or eyelashes to speak of, infact no eye at all, just a black unblinking iris, it was gruesome... her left eyebrow and eyelashes also seem to be partially burnt. The right of her nose and lips didn't exist. It was the most macabre human face I have ever set my eyes upon. Infact it didn't even look remotely humane. I don't remember how much time had lapsed. All I do remember are those eyes, a black iris on one side and a partial eye on the other looking unblinking at me. I must have looked abysmally foolish with that open mouthed expression and my palms still stretched out. After sometime, she turned away. I withdrew my hand and stood up. There was nothing to ask, really, my mind was still blank.
As I started walking back, I heard a soft voice- " ai je aapni aar ekhane aashben na, eshob aapnar jonno noy"... (please do not come back here again, this isn't your calling). There was no contempt in that voice, no sarcasm, no regret, no nothing, just a mere stating of a fact. I turned and gingerly walked away.
While on the return journey, I narrated my amazing meeting to my mentor.
"Oh! so then you met Sumati, she doesn't attend the classes", my mentor stated.
"Why, what happened to her face... why is she here? why doesn't she attend your classes?" my volley of questions.
"She's quite educated already; she used to teach English at a primary school".
"Why is she here?"
"For murder. She bound her husband and her in-laws to a chair and set them ablaze".
"Why?" I almost yelled out.
My mentor shrugged, "oh! the usual Indian bride's story, you know, cruel torture, daily beatings, bickering over dowry... the usual sort. She got partially burnt by default".
I never went back to teach communicative English. Sumati was correct. I don't think I have the guts to teach countless Sumatis' adverb, adjectives, prepositions...