December 6, 2020

Vidya

(c) J. Singh, 2017

Kamal Kaur staggered backwards a few steps, her arms flailing outward, before finally regaining her balance again. She stood there and stared angrily at the bully, the girl who had just shoved her. They were outside the school, in the empty dirt parking lot. A small crowd was gathering.  They were here mostly for the amusement of the spectacle. It was mid-morning, and it was already stifling hot with the sun beating down mercilessly on them. They began cheering when the bully again pushed Kamal, this time succeeding in her attempt. Kamal landed painfully on the ground, her books and lunch box flying out of her schoolbag, a cloud of sand stinging her eyes and choking her.

Laughter arose from the audience, followed by a general round of applause. The bully, satisfied at having demonstrated her dominance, flipped her hair and left. With no more drama unfolding, the remaining students became bored and also started to leave. Nobody stopped to see if Kamal was alright. They left her on the ground with her dirty school uniform and her food and books strewn all over the dirt.

She sat up, rubbing her elbow. She had landed on her side, and her arm was still hurting. She looked around her and then started gathering up her belongings. The food had spilled out of her lunch box and was now lying mingled in the sand and dust. She sighed sadly, looking at the mess. She realized that she wouldn't be eating lunch today.

She stood up and dusted off her white uniform. She was still feeling an ache after her fall. But more than the physical pain, it was the humiliation of being watched and jeered at by so many of her classmates. And nobody thought to help or even console her. That was what really hurt. That was the deeper pain that she couldn't quit get herself to face. So she numbed it, ignored it, pushed it into the back of her mind where she wouldn't have to think about it.

"It will happen again, you know."

She was surprised by the voice. She didn't think anyone was still around. She looked up and saw the old woman standing before her. It was Meenakshi, the seventy three year old school custodian. Everyone respectfully addressed her as "Mataji".

"What will happen again, Mataji?" Kamal asked, hoping that she had not witnessed her humiliation.

"That bully will keep picking on you," Mataji replied, "and when you go to your next school, there will be another one there. And after that, another one. And when you start working at your job, there will be someone there, as well. When you get married, in your new family there will be someone who will pick on you."

Kamal looked away, trying to hide her emotions. But Mataji had said the words out of compassion.

"I have to go to class," Kamal said abruptly, and ran off towards her classroom without looking back.

Mataji's prediction turned out to be correct, as Kamal soon found out. The bully wasted no time in singling Kamal out and again making her the object of her emotional and physical attacks. Each time, it seemed to get worse. Kamal tried to stand up for herself, but her defenses were quickly broken by the bully and her friends. She usually ended up on the ground, hurt, angry and humiliated.

It had become such a regular occurrence that she was praying for the end of the school term to come quickly just so she could have a reprieve from the constant attacks. Nobody else seemed to care, and she was spending so much time just trying to avoid the bully that her focus and attention on her classes was drifting. Her grades began to suffer. School had become an excruciating experience.

It was a few weeks later when she saw Mataji again. She was locking the doors to the classrooms at the end of the school day. Kamal had spent most of the day hiding in one classroom or another. It was one of the rare times that she had successfully managed to elude the bully. Although she didn't suffer and bruises or humiliation that day, she was mentally exhausted and still feeling very trapped and snared by the bully's unwanted attentions.

Kamal approached Mataji and stood in front of her silently.

"You don't look very happy," Mataji remarked, glancing at her as she tugged on the padlock to ensure it was locked securely.

Kamal looked down as tears began streaming down her face.

"I see," Mataji said, and then gathered Kamal up in her arms and gave her a hug. She wiped the girls tears away.

"I just want it to stop," Kamal said, in between sobs.

"Of course it will," Mataji said reassuringly.

"How?"

"I will show you how."

After school the next day, with Kamal's mother accompanying them, Mataji led them to a different sort of school. It was in the village where Mataji had grown up. It was a tiny village, where the roads were still unpaved. In the center of the village was a large building with a handwritten sign posted above the main entrance. Kamal looked up and as she read the sign, the realization dawned on her that this was Mataji's school.

"Mataji, you teach here?" she asked.

"Indeed I do," replied Mataji.

They removed their shoes and entered the building. It had a high vaulted ceiling with rafters made of wood. The walls were lined with weapons of all types. Rays of sunlight streamed in from the open shutters across the entire walls.

Almost as soon as they had entered, children — and some adults — of all ages began streaming in, barefoot. As they entered, they touched the ground and then their forehead, in a token of respect. Then, they formed rows of lines facing the front, where Mataji stood at attention, quietly surveying the assembling class.

She began the lesson by reviewing the postures and movements, the students following along. Then, they moved on to practice open-hand combat, followed by weapons training. Kamal stood and watched in awe as a six-year old girl expertly wielded a talwar.

During a break in the training, Mataji came to speak to Kamal.

"This is the correct knowledge," she explained, "with it, you will not be afraid to walk alone in the streets. You will go where you please, when you please. You won't be restricted. You will be free, and not only that, but you will also have the means to protect others. And nobody will ever raise a finger again to bully or harass you. Do you want to learn?"

Kamal looked at her mother and then nodded earnestly. Mataji bade her take her place amongst the assembled students. And thus, her first lesson began.

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