Trigger warning: Suicide
I remember the first day I walked into my school, with my dad by my side, I mistook it for heaven. Or maybe, that’s how the heaven of a nine-year-old looks like.
It was in the year 2008, mid of May, that my parents were desperately looking for a new school for me. Although we were still in Kolkata, my old school seemed far away from my new home. Hence, it was in the blazing hot days of May that my parents visited four to five schools that were taking in students mid-session.
I remember visiting each of them, striking them off my list the moment, until I stepped into my school. I was awestruck by the marvellous construction in front of me, the glittering swimming pool, the huge tennis court, a lush green field extending to an invisible horizon, and the fresh air, everything allured me like a bee, high on the scent of nectar. I loved my school from the first day I walked into it.
Although that place was a dreamland, my dreams were quite shattered by the school timings. My new home was under construction, with the last finishing touches still ongoing. Thus, we had to rent a flat, but to my great dismay, it was way too far from my school — so far that my bus picked me up first, and dropped me off last. Yes, my home was at the last stop.
It was with great difficulty that my mom pushed me out of my bed at 5 o’clock every morning. My bus left at 6 o’clock and we had a ten-minute walk to the bus stop. That winter felt like a nightmare to me. The nights ended even before I put my head on the pillow. The alarm would ring at what felt like midnight.
Early risers who wake up with 5°C cold outside, let me remind you, I was a nine-year-old kid who loved sleeping. Even though my school was heaven, my one and half hour long bus journey was really painful. I felt like a zombie, high on opium, when I first got on my bus to get to school.
I distinctly remember meeting our bus caretaker for the first time. He was a tall boy, hardly in his late 20s. He had a french cut moustache and two immensely bright eyes. I remember he was loved by every kid on that bus. But there was something different about him. It was this difference that made him stand out. I remember he was a source of constant laughter to the seniors, but he enjoyed it with a smile. He laughed with them and never once did I see him take offence for all that was told to him.
“Arre, Dada! Tumi chul ta r bario na! Ebar binuni kora jabe (Brother, don’t grow your hair longer, you’ll be able to make braids out of your hair now)!,” a senior once told him.
“SHOTTI (Really)!,” he would yell in great pleasure.
“Onek boro hoeche bol! Ebar badha jabe besh(Is it long enough? Ah, now I can tie it up)!”
He would flip his imaginary long hair, like a 90s heroines, making the older boys topple with laughter.
“Ghor e makeup kit rakho naki (Do you keep a make-up kit at home),?” someone would pipe in.
“Rakhtei pari! But ma dekhle khub rag korbe (I can! But mom gets really angry)!,” he used to pout.
Midst all his dreams of becoming a girl, he was strict when someone was hurt, or when a situation arose that needed attention. My zombie demeanour would be partially dissolved by hearing him shouting at kids who misbehaved during his regular discussions of ‘how to become a girl’ with the seniors. But I knew for a fact that even though the older students made fun of him, he was loved by one and all on that bus.
“Meye ta jol er botol nite bhule geche (My daughter forgot to take the water bottle today)!,” a worried parent would call.
“Chinta koro na Aunty! Amar kache spare bottle ache. School e gie bhore nebe (Don’t worry aunty! I have a spare bottle)!”
“Chele ta ke ektu rasta ta par korie de. Aste parchi na aj (Help Aryan cross the road today. I am struck with some work),” another parent would call.
He was always ready to help. Depositing money, crossing the road, helping with a forgotten blazer or a water bottle — every time, he was the one who would rescue us. My parents felt assured when they knew he was on the bus.
It was a foggy winter morning that year when I had the chance to have a proper conversation with him. It was our annual day, and I was all dressed up for the dance drama I was participating in. I was one of the five people on that bus. For some reason, I remember the conversation exactly, as if it happened only yesterday. Maybe because it was the first and last time I exchanged proper words with him.
He came and sat by me, and told me that my hair looked pretty.
“Thank you,” I smiled.
“Tora ki shundor chul bhadte parish (You can tie up your hair so beautifully),” he said.
“Tumi bandho naki (Can you tie up your hair)?,” I chimed with a smile.
His voice dropped to a whisper, “Majhe majhe jokhon ma thake na, tokhon chul badhi, lipstick pori. Dekh ekhan theke bhadhle bhalo lage (At times, when my parents are not home, I tie my hair and put some lipstick on. See, this style looks good on me),” he pulled his hair up in a small ponytail and then laughed at my expression.
“Hain bhalo lage (Yes, indeed it looks good),” I grinned at him.
“Ma dekhle hebbi mare, bujhli. Taai thake na jokhon, tokhon kori (If mom catches me, she beats me up. So I do it when she isn’t home),” he laughed.
Then our conversation drifted off to talking about my dress for the dance, and how to wear a saree nicely. After that year, I shifted to my new house and my bus route changed. Time passed and I grew up to be a teenager in my small heaven. I missed the old faces initially, but my new bus route was shorter. Hence, I never felt his absence anymore.
It never once occurred to me the difficulty faced by this poor boy while growing up in a particularly homophobic society. I never realised the pain he must have went through when his parents scolded him for being what he is. I never realised the weight of that heart that let a small part of its built-up emotion be shared with me, on that foggy winter morning. He laughed away his pain initially, but he was unable to throw it away when society blamed him for “not being normal”.
It was a summer afternoon after four years, when a friend of mine told me that he killed himself. “Now, his job is done by his older brother,” my friend told me. I remember looking at his brother for the first time. He had the same french cut, that same bright eyes. Only now, he was not different, and he did not know me. He was not different, hence he fit in well in society, the society where we have no place for people who think in a way strange to us.
I was too young back then to understand the grievous circumstances that led him to commit such a harsh deed. I took in the news like any other, but deep down, something struck me hard that day. Maybe that is the reason I still remember meeting him for the first time, and on that winter morning when we spoke to me for the last time. I still remember how he looked and the way he spoke. But all the bus attendants after him are blur in my memory.
Finishing my school life, I walked away from my small heaven with a bunch of memories in my bag. Some were good, some bad, and some embarrassing. But even after six years of the incident, I am saddened by this loss of life. Even today, I find myself wondering, why? Why is it that we don’t give place to the extraordinary? Why do we make them feel like they are not needed in society? Why is it so bad to be different from others?
Do we, as individuals, try to answer these questions at all? We don’t. That is why a death like this, doesn’t affect our busy lifestyle a lot. He was unique and that fact will make him immortal in my memory, and in the memory of several kids who knew him. Because, even today, I hope, that maybe, just maybe, in the coming decades, it will be good to be different. It will be good to be unique.
Disclaimer: The story is an original experience and not fictional. Some of my friends might even know the person I spoke about. I didn’t name them because I meant to highlight this as a common issue.