I feel very tired these days.
I finish my class on gene recombination. The blackboard is a collage of DNA strands, mixing here and breaking there- all in technicolor. I am covered in chalk dust; my cream-coloured kurta no longer sporting its original hue. I take one final look at the board. I am happy with what I have accomplished today. It is not an easy topic to explain. I had been up most of last night figuring out all the possible ways to teach my students how everyday our core biochemistry resolves to combine and fuse in new ways, in order to create chimeric genetic templates for the next generation of humans.
I unwillingly erase everything on the board, as a courtesy to the professor who will take the class next. I quickly glance at the clock hanging next to a portrait of Gandhi on the rear wall of the classroom. A sharp spike of anxiety tightly clutches me even before I am consciously aware of my next task.
And then I am intensely aware.
I hesitantly pick up the attendance register kept on the lectern and flip it to the page which has today’s date printed on it. My voice is a bit squeamish and hoarse because I have been talking loudly for the past hour, but also because it may happen again.
The roll call begins.
After a few “Yes Sir” and “Present Sir,” a verbal chain of “Yes, miss” and “Present ma’am” starts. What begins as a giggle here and a snigger there soon coalesces into something darker. It quickly transforms into a chorus of deafening laughter. I feel my heart beating faster. The boys, the backbenchers, punctuate the laughter with asynchronous loud sneers, each word crafted to remind me- lest I forget. Peals of laughter flow from one side of the classroom to the other. I teach sixty students in a class, so it takes me some time to read out and mark the entire list. And this continues throughout.
I keep my head down and let this common ritual play out. I am not absorbing it in real-time because my age-old defence systems have come into action. They try shielding me by injecting an acute sense of numbness. I will absorb it all later when I am sitting in the staffroom. I will let each sound trickle down slowly, masochistically examining each condescension- reflexively trying to find the new words, and possible ways by which I can mentally deflect it the next time it happens. But I already know that these strategies will never materialize into anything tenable. They will hate me for who I am, and I will let them.
The roll call finally ends, and I hastily make my way out of the classroom. I exchange the customary nod and smile with the professor waiting outside. I maintain a delicate composure. This is something I had mastered back in my school days. I give myself permission to break down a little later. I cross a long and busy corridor to reach the staffroom. Classrooms on either side are buzzing with life and activity. I criss cross my way through streams of students, acutely conscious of my existence and simultaneously detached from myself. And a little angry. But I will suppress the anger soon enough.
I reach the staffroom and nearly sprint to my chair.
“Dr. Chatterjee, chai?”
It takes me some time to register the question. I force a smile and say, “Haan, sure.”
An attendant is called and asked to get five cups of tea.
I take slow, deep breaths. I sink into my chair. I blankly stare at the wooden table in front of me.
I realize that the others are eyeing me. They have sharp sensors for distress. They probably have an idea about what has transpired. This isn’t the first time it has happened. Also, students and professors talk. The other professors will, however, not enquire. They are not concerned or planning to help as much as they are savouring this. Schadenfreude.
I sink a little lower into my chair and let it commence. The sluice gates partially open, as whatever force that was keeping me numb till now slowly recedes. I let it trickle in a little at a time, because at this stage I still have some control over it. I know it will not last very long.
The words come first. They always do. I try to match the voice to the student, but this is a futile exercise. The faces are usually blurred. I get indignant- I am their teacher! I say to myself, but I already know that that doesn’t mean anything. I try to replay this latest incident over and over again, examining it in minutiae. I try to grasp each word but simultaneously do not want to acknowledge that those words were shouted at me… infront of so many people. Each acknowledgement opens an old wound; a wound which never really healed in the first place.
I can feel my grip over the thin veil of self-control beginning to slip.
Oh God! It’s happening! No, please…
Each incident is a booster shot. My entire mind sets itself on fire and my brain bloats, ready to explode. I clutch at my chair and bore my eyes onto the table. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
It’s gone. I have lost all control. I am no longer guiding this ship. I will start sinking soon. I start sinking.
I am in school.
I am in the school bus. I am sitting quietly in a corner, wary and apprehensive, like a scared mouse- taking as little space in this world as possible. I can hear those boys and girls laugh somewhere at the back of the bus. I hope they ignore me. I hyperventilate but not too loudly lest I get noticed. My eyes alert to any sudden movements.
I realize that there is a lull. No cackling or merry grunting anymore. I heave a sigh of relief. Maybe I do not need to be afraid today. But at that very instant I feel someone’s breath on me. I don’t even get the chance to turn and face this person. My body is lifted up in the air by my shirt collar and my face crashes into the window next to me. I reflexively yelp out, “NO! PLEASE!” But the hand that is grinding my face against the window does not let go. And there it is- the collective cackle- of girls and boys, all alike, and all united- if for nothing else, but this.
No teacher comes to my aid. The driver and the conductor do not interfere. Kids will be kids.
The thud of the steel chai glass, as it abruptly lands on my table, brings me back, but only partially. Or is this level of presence all that I can muster anyways? I have not been fully aware of my own life for a while now. I sit in my chair obediently, panting. And on-edge. I have not felt this raw in quite some time. I can hear the professors around me having a lively discussion, but I am unable to discern any of the words. It’s just buzzing- a lot of buzzing…
The practical sessions are over for the day. Most of those present are wrapping up some administrative paperwork. I am usually the silent one. Over years, I have learnt not to make others too aware of the space I take up in their lives. I nod and smile whenever required, even in response to the absolute ridiculous drivel they spew. I know they look down upon me, but at least they will not attack me.
They are animatedly exchanging notes on some reality television show- a usual topic of discussion. I have on multiple occasions tried to elicit their views on recent scientific publications but been discouraged by their utter lack of interest. Hence, Reality TV. Syllables and sounds breeze by without me paying any actual attention to them. I, however, realize that the conversation is heating up, and in the midst of it all, Prof. M, sitting right next to me, thunderously yells, “THESE HOMOSEXUALS ARE ALL GODDAMN PERVERTS!”
Some thing freezes in me. Even the meagre buzzing of their words doesn’t reach me anymore. But some thing else stirs inside me. I do not know what it is. I am merely conscious of its awakening. I do not even harbour the delusion of any control over it. I just let it slowly bloom inside me and I witness it gradually explore my insides, take a form I am unable to describe. And then it glides smoothly yet with purpose towards my skin and wants out. I let it out, of course.
All I hear myself say is, “Excuse me!?”
And that is that. Because I do not remember what happened after that.
It is all buzz buZZ BUZZ… Like a muffled voice that is mine but not mine at all…
I try to recollect…
I try recollecting when I realize all the faculty members are staring at me in rapt horror. I try recollecting as the Head-of-Department takes me to another room to make me realize the seriousness of what just happened. I try recollecting on the elevator on my way to meet the Dean. I try recollecting over the orchestra of screams in the Dean’s Office. I try recollecting over the thousand urgent phone calls I receive from the college HR in the evening. I try recollecting as I read the Letter of Warning issued to me over my behaviour. I try recollecting as I pen an apology letter to Prof. M. I try recollecting as the other faculty members pass hushed comments and dart repulsed but scared looks. I try recollecting as I pick up the attendance register at the end of my class. I try recollecting as the students jeer in unison…
But then, something has changed.
And whatever happened, I am not angry at myself.
I feel a little lighter these days.
I feel a little stronger these days.
- Short Story: Yes, Miss - July 25, 2022