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Within us lies immense strength to vanquish the demons of our past, says this wonderful story of triumph.
One of the top 5 entries for August’s Muse of the Month writing theme, with the cue “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am”, taken from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.
A reluctant participant at my school reunion, I have arrived early. Ready to slip away, if necessary.
The school playground is unoccupied. Quiet. Memories come flooding back as I walk past the sandpit, basketball court, and swings. Pain, anger, hundreds of humiliations, and a million tears.
I sit down on one of the swings and work the swing, moving back and forth. There is a creak in the joint at the top. Creaaak- crooak. I close my eyes. “Kaali-kalooti-kaali-kalooti.” The creak seems to chant. The Dark One, that had been my name. Incessant, hurtful. I had hated my skin colour, myself, my life; everything, in fact.
I rise from the swing, walk around the corner. Is it still there? The little shed? Yup, still there! The dark interior had been my escape from the taunts outside. Inside, my colour was no longer visible, even to me. I would weave tales in my head. Tales of a world where I was fair-skinned, and universally loved. Or better yet, where everyone was colourblind. But more often, my Rebellious Streak would assert itself after sitting in the dark long enough, and I would emerge blinking, ready to do battle with the world. My attitude bravely proclaiming, “Here I am. Call me anything. But…be my friend.”
There had been paint there, once. White paint leftover from some maintenance work. I must have been about eight, and had daubed it on my arms, desperate to be accepted by my “friends”. I wince at the memory.
I walk across to the school building. It is early. Any crowds for the speeches and general back-slapping would arrive later. But staff members are now bustling around. I receive some friendly smiles and nods. I am puzzled.
I enter my tenth grade classroom, walk to my desk, find the place where I had carved my name into the wood. I remember constantly rubbing a piece of white chalk over the etching, making my etched name white and whiter. A subconscious gesture, repeated over and over and over.
The memory of That Day in tenth grade…someone saying, “If Ragini stands in front of the blackboard, we will not even see her!” Everyone laughing aloud.
Then silence. It was the new teacher, Mrs.Banerjee, who had silenced the class with a single statement, “Ragini does not have to rely on a fickle thing like colour to be noticed. She has qualities that make her shine like a star.” I had been stunned. (The idea that someone could take up cudgels on my behalf? Completely foreign to me! )
She continued, “Ragini, you have incredible talent. Your essays and drawings are brilliant. Have you considered sharing your talent with the world? Taking up writing as a career?”
Ahh, dear Mrs. B….my protector-mentor!
I head to the library, my second refuge during my school years. I need to see something. No librarian; but the door is open. I tiptoe in, feeling like I am twelve again, sneaking in to find solace in the written word.
My heart beats faster as I approach the corner with the bright colours, downsized furniture and cartoon characters painted on the wall; the ‘under-eight’ section.
There they are! As familiar to me as my own self. All seventeen books in the series “Tales Of Kaali- The Little Girl Who Was Fairly Unfair.” are shelved in the ‘Adventure’ section, with more than one copy of some.
I pull one out with trembling hands. Kaali, a dark-complexioned grinning girl with happy eyes is on the cover. Kaali embodies all I wished that I could have been; confident, full of joy. I run my finger over the dedication- “To Mrs. Banerjee- My Guardian Angel and To All The Children In The World Who Are Special.”
The books in the library seem well read, well thumbed, the spine cracking and the pages dog-eared, sticky, softened by turning fingers. I feel a writer’s elation of knowing her work is read by many and perhaps, liked. A placard on the shelf catches my eye. “These books have been written and illustrated by best-selling author, Ms. Ragini Joseph, who was a student of our school.” The adjacent wall has a framed photocopy of my interview with a leading newspaper, after I had received an award for my writing. The wall beneath has a lifesize Kaali painted on it, her ‘un-whitened’ complexion a victory in itself. I touch her face gently and smile.
All the recognition of my present has not taken away my need for respect at the place where I faced the greatest humiliations. I know now that I can face the ghosts of the past.
Taking a deep breath, I stride out, ready for the reunion.
Pic credit: pinksherbet (Used under a CC license)
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