Strength Is A Tiny Bird That Sings A Song Of Hope

She tried to stand up and fell down reeling. She curled up in the foetal position. Some part of her brain registered what was happening to her –she was having a panic attack.

She tried to stand up and fell down reeling. She curled up in the foetal position. Some part of her brain registered what was happening to her –she was having a panic attack.

Content warning: The following short story has descriptions of bullying that may be triggering.

Nandini eyed the slice of chocolate cake and pinched the rolls of fat on her stomach. For a moment, she stood there with a frown, contemplating the unfairness of how the yummiest foods were also the most fattening. Finally, she settled on a compromise. Cutting it, she returned one half to the refrigerator and took the rest with her, to her “work” table.  She promised herself that she would spend an extra half hour on the treadmill to make up for this.

Making sure she had enough water and other things she might need for the next hour, she settled down in front of her laptop, opened her email and read the first one.

Dear Ms Understanding,

A guy in my class asked me if I would be his girlfriend! I really like him and would love to be in a relationship with him. I want to tell him this, but my best friend thinks that I should play hard to get. She says that if we accept too quickly then the boys lose interest or think that we are “easy.” What should I do?


Confused College Girl

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Nandini sighed.  The ways in which people constructed convoluted and baseless “rules” for relationships, that only served to complicate things, never failed to amaze her. She had a no-nonsense approach to life and relationships, which her friends valued. She was their patient ear and shoulder to cry on, and as fate would have it, had become a large part of her professional life too. As an agony aunt columnist (Ms. Understanding) for a popular magazine, she replied to such letters every day. Cracking her fingers, she started drafting her reply.

Dear Confused College Girl,

Let me get Bollywoodish and say, “Har kisi ko nahi milta yahaan pyaar zindagi mein..” Carpe Diem! Seize the day! You’ve found someone who loves you, so why wait? Tell your boy what you feel.

We insist that men learn about consent in relationships and respect the girl’s wishes. But if girls give mixed signals, is it any wonder that boys think that no sometimes means “yes, but only if you keep asking me.” Don’t play hard to get. Be honest and direct. That’s the only way to having healthy relationships.

If he assumes from your directness that you are somehow less worthy, then good riddance to him. He never deserved you.

Be happy,

Ms Understanding

“That was simple,” she thought as she proceeded to the next one.

Dear Ms Understanding,

I don’t know if you can help me. I don’t know if anyone can. I’ve failed as a parent. My daughter tried to commit suicide last week. Luckily, we were able to get her to the hospital in time, and her life was saved, but how do I get back the happy, positive child I used to have?

I should have noticed that she was not happy going to school. She used to do well academically, but recently she has shown no interest in her studies. She used to complain of stomachaches every day and refuse to go, but I forced her, thinking that she was just being lazy. She even told me that her classmates were teasing her, but I told her to just ignore it. I should have listened to her. I should have done something. Maybe then, my daughter wouldn’t have taken such a drastic step.

I have since found out that my daughter has been bullied incessantly by her classmates, not just during school hours, but also online. She has been the target of incessant verbal abuse. I do not want to go into the details of what has been posted about her online or on whatsapp groups, but I will say that I never imagined that children could be so cruel.

My heart is broken. What do I do now? How do I help my daughter? How can I bring her back from this joyless place that she has gone to?

A Distraught Mother

Nandini gripped the edge of her table hard. The face was drained of blood even as she could feel her heart drumming fast. She tried to stand up and fell down reeling. She curled up in the foetal position. Some part of her brain registered what was happening to her –she was having a panic attack.

She took deep breaths. Nothing to do now except to let this pass.  Innnnn…and Outttt…. Innn…and Outtt….

She imagined herself in her “happy place” –on the beach, alone, gentle waves flowing on to the golden sands. She stayed like that for half an hour before she started to feel better.

She couldn’t believe that even a letter with so few details about bullying could trigger her like that. That too after nearly thirty years! Unbidden, her mind took her down memory lane.

It was assembly time. There was some giggling behind her and then came the push. She fell, sprawling across the floor with a loud “aaah”. Everone was looking at her and stifling their laughter. The teachers looked annoyed. The pain of her humiliation far exceeded the physical pain of her scraped knees.

“Nandu the gundu, Nandu the gundu,” the chants followed her to the school bus stop. Gundu, fat, unattractive. Tears welled up in her eyes. She exercised so much. She even dieted. Why couldn’t she be thin and small like the other girls. Why did she have to be so tall and fat?

The school was empty. She had hung back because the most popular girl in class had told her to wait. But why meet in the toilet? She went in and called out the name of the girl who had asked her to wait. Silence. And then, behind her, the door shut with a bang. Laughter echoed from the other side, even as she desperately begged to be let out. It was hours before anyone found her. By then, she had given up and didn’t care anymore. The name “toilet girl,” stuck.

End of the library period. Walking back to her classroom with a stack of borrowed books. Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, Journey to the Center of The Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. A girl mocking her, “What weird books you read! Under the earth, over the moon!” More ridicule. Why couldn’t they just let her be?

Eating lunch alone. Not getting invited to birthday parties. Isolated—not a single friend. Dreading what would happen each day. What new humiliation would she have to face? What was the point of her existing? Would anyone even care if she died?

She hadn’t worked up the courage to use the blade yet, when Amma found her. She stared at Amma through her red-rimmed eyes, wondering what would happen. To her surprise, Amma didn’t scold her.

“Give me the blade, Nanduma”

“Amma, I’m sorry. I don’t want to live.”

“Why da? Tell Amma everything.”

“What is the point of me living amma? No one wants me. No one loves me.”

“That’s not true. I love you. Appa loves you. Tatha, paati, Cheenu, your cousins. Trust me there are a lot of people who love you. And a lot of people who will be really hurt if you take your own life.”

“But I have no friends, Amma. I am so lonely!”

“Nandu…do you know how many people there are in the world. Billions. Your classmates are just 40-50 of that huge number. Somewhere out there is a person who will appreciate you for what you are. You’re feeling this way because now your social life is restricted to these few people that you see every day. You’re different from them—not better or worse than them, but just different. And sadly, people who are different are often made to feel alone and unworthy. But trust me, step out into the world and you will find that there are others like you. People who share your interests. Who understand that you’re an introvert. Who love you for who you are. You will find your people.”

She moved the razor blade away from her wrist. What her mother had said gave her pause.

“Really, amma. Promise?”

“I promise my child. You have a lot of living to do. So much to achieve. And so many people who love you.”

That, Nandini remembered, was the first step to her becoming the bold, confident woman she was today. That one conversation with her mother had changed her outlook. She still hated going to school, where she felt misunderstood and unwanted. But she realized that she was not the problem.  She couldn’t wait to go explore the world, like her mother had said. And how right her mother had been!  She had found her people, as her mother had promised.

She pulled herself up from the floor. She had a letter to reply to.

Dear Distraught Mother,

I can empathize. You definitely have not failed as a parent –the very fact that you are seeking help and willing to do what it takes is proof that you are a fighter. What your daughter and you are going through is a painful experience. But you will make it through this—a step at a time. This can’t be rushed. It will be a difficult process and there will be setbacks. But you can both do this.

Firstly, reassure your daughter that she is loved and wanted. What she needs most now is to know that there is a place in this world for her. There will be those who talk about how people who try to commit suicide have “weak minds”. Tell them to go to hell. They don’t know what your daughter has been through.

Secondly, do what you can to get the bullies to stop. Talk to the school authorities, talk to the bullies themselves, talk to their parents. Sometimes bullies are victims of abuse themselves. That is the sad truth. But ultimately, you cannot control how others feel or behave. The only thing under your control is your own emotional state and behaviour.

So your next step is to help your daughter find the resources within her. Talking to a counselor may help. Trust me; there is nothing wrong in seeking help. A good professional can do a lot to help your child. 

Encourage her to indulge in activities she enjoys. There surely are people out there who share her hobbies and interests and who can understand her. Help her to find them. And most importantly, help her to love herself. Everything she needs is within her.

We often visualize strength as a roaring lion or a charging bull. But strength is not always huge, grand, or rock-like. To me, it is a tiny bird that sings a song of hope. It is a delicate, beautiful thing that lives in all of us. Help your daughter find her song.


Ms Understanding

Author’s Note:  Bullying is often ignored as just “kids being kids”. However, it is a serious problem that has consequences ranging from loss to appetite to depression and isolation. The psychological damage caused by bullying in childhood can have long term effects that affect one’s health and social life even in adulthood. It is time that we start giving this problem the attention it deserves. This article has some statistics and information about bullying.

Editor’s note: This story had been shortlisted for the April 2018 Muse of the Month, but not among the top 5 winners.

Image source: shutterstock

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