Education

The Many Times She Said Yes: A Teacher’s Note on a Young Suicide

Last month, Sevanthi Murugaiyyan, a final-year student of St. Joseph’s College, Bengaluru, committed suicide. Arul Mani, her professor of English, shares a personal impression of a student who was much more than just her struggle.

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Sevanthi, 19, was the daughter of a security guard and a domestic worker, migrants from an OBC community in Tamil Nadu. She got through school with the support of well-wishers, and in 2013, started a Bachelors in Computer Applications. On March 11, two months before she would have completed it, she was found hanging from the ceiling fan at her home.

The first thing that struck me about her was the way her face changed when she smiled, an unexpected blaze of wattage, a gift for sudden luminousness. I wondered if her first name was actually the Sanskrit for “flower/to worship with flowers,” or the Tamilised form, used for the chrysanthemum, with the emphatic –vva at its heart, but I never got around to asking.

I did notice, the next day, when everybody gave in their write-ups, that she was the only one who had looked up the terms I had suggested: new media, digital, and Tumblr. I asked the class to write what they remembered from the time they had set up their first email IDs. She had the best story in class, featuring fevered negotiations for parental permission and a sense of anti-climax after having arrived at email – there was nobody she could send mail to.

I remembered this later that week. We stream our students for English classes according to their abilities with writing. I have always preferred to do it by looking for some flare of personality in the writing rather than by mere grammaticality. I put her in the stream I was going to teach.

I wondered if this was a mistake, but only briefly. She said very little in class, but would seize every opportunity to write, even as others groaned and moaned. I got her class to run Tumblrs for writing assignments, and over the next four semesters, while everybody only remembered to put in their entries in a rush towards the semester deadline, she and her friend Jerin were the only ones to write regularly, fortnight after fortnight, without reminder. Sometimes, they would be the ones reminding me about a deadline I had happily announced, and forgotten equally happily.

'One among others in this world...' Sevanthi's Tumblr account.

‘One among others in this world…’ Sevanthi’s Tumblr account.

As I look over my own mid-semester reviews, I find her name in every one of my reviews, commended for completing work on schedule, but cited for errors in writing and proof-reading. She wrote a little better than she typed. Both were really only fragments rather than pieces with finish, but like I said, there was always a little flash of something that would cause me to pause, and begin reading again. I couldn’t figure out why her typing was so different. It took me a while to figure out that a good part of what went up on her Tumblr was typed out hastily at cyber-parlours, or on borrowed systems.

I asked them to write about the first television set they were able to remember. “That was a black and white Onida T.V,” she wrote. “It was nearly 12 inches as far as I know. This television set had a tunning object which was used to adjust the clarity of the channel. Since remote was not available to change the channel we was suppose to go near the T.V. and change the channel if required. Since this was the condition I use to sit near the T.V. Tunning and changing the channel. May be this is one of the reason for my spectacles at present.”

“A slow rewind to my past life…”

Since I tend to be a little sold on memory, I got them to write about their first time at a cinema. Many people wrote happily on this one, and reported stories of how they ruined their parents’ evenings out with crying, puking and worse.

Her entry reads: “A slow rewind to my past life nearly ten years back, finely dressed with blue frock, with a hand kerchief on my blue frock, waiting for my parents near the varanda and shouting, ‘Come soon, its time up.’ My dad slowly comes out of our house and locks it. Mom is standing next to me. At last we left our home successfully and reached Ulsoor Adharsha theater. We had planned for evening show and for a Tamil movie. Am not sure about the movie name I think it was “Vedham.” Reason to select this movie was very simple – Dad’s favorite hero’s movie. But I was very happy for one good reason none other than going out with my parents. As we entered the theater lights got offed and projector gets on.”

On most days I’m a hard-hearted grammar nazi, but the picture of a child “finely dressed” and making militant noises outside the house is enough desert sand to topple my battle tank.

“Have you ever been to a tent cinema?” I once asked, and some three hands went up. Never mind, I said, go talk to people who have, and write up what they tell you. She was one of those who raised their hands, and this is what she wrote:

“Tent house – no chairs to sit, full of sand, no cleanliness, is what we commonly know about it.

Here ticket rate is very low in paise count. People make a heap from the sand and sit watch the movie happily, there are even benches put up. Cost for those bench seat would be little high compared to the latter. I have watched one movie in tent house, named ‘Varnajalam’ in Pondicherry. That was really a different experience, sleeping on the bench, u can sit or lye down as you like. As we are getting modernized tent house slowly got changed to theaters and later to multiplexers.

Since surrounding, safety and entertainment in tent house didn’t meet movie goers requirement slowly there count decreased. Now in Bangalore it is very rare to find such tent house near by our surrounding one such example is ‘Manjunatha’ tent house in Thippasandra main road. This house is razed down.”

Yes, dear reader, this is not particularly good writing. My eye merely snags on one moment that even Clifford Geertz would have been proud of: the chappies making a heap from the sand to watch the film from. I tell the truth when I say that I enjoyed the whiff of washing soda that drifted into the sentence when she says “lye.” The phrase she coins, “paise count,” is Shakespeare meeting Tamizh. And all the translators who laboured over the King James Version have not written a sentence with so much pathos as “This house is razed down.”

I asked the class to write about a photograph of themselves they would like to suppress.

Her entry reads: “One of my embarrissing picture which I always wanted to abort is my school days picture of having my lunch. This picture was taken when I was in standard 6. That was the worst day which I went throughout the academic year. From morning I was busy with my class then I was told to make arrangement for the last day celebration before the lunch break gets over. So after my classes I was left with 10 minutes to have my lunch. So I started to grab it like ‘Bheema’ in Mahabharat. I was wearing my school uniform white chudi with hair plated up with white ribbon. Since I was in hurry my hair was totally in air it was like I didn’t comb for two days. Lunch box was in my left hand and spoon in my right hand. The moment I took food in spoon and opened my mouth to grab it with eyes opened one of my friend Arjun took the picture. I never noticed when my friends took snaps of mine. Worst part was whenever I use to argue and fight with my friends I was blackmailed using this picture.”

I don’t know if you will notice the gentle way in which her Bheema gets upstaged, unwittingly, by some kind of Amba figure, hair in air, open mouth, and enough hands for sundry objects. I don’t know if she did.

“Never give up on life”

“Is there a photograph you’ve taken that you’d like to write about?”

Her response was about home, and about herself, and a fund of worldly wisdom.

“I don’t have any images as inspiring but still there are few images which I often see when I feel bored and jobless. Few images remind my home town which I miss every moment when I’m in Bengaluru.

The above image was taken at Pondicherry beach. Though this place was nearly 99% ruined by Tsunami and Thane cyclone the remaining building, wooden houses for tourist and beach resort are still eye catching even today. Sea shore is one place where I can never take off my eye. The way each time waves hits the rock and move back and also the way sand moves along with sea water into the sea is the best experience and happiest scene that I would like to see throughout my life time. This scene always remind me one basic rule of life that everyone should follow in their life i.e., ‘never give up in life’ . this is the only thought that keeps on going inside my mind. I have also heard from my elders that sea never holds any unwanted things inside it, it will always give it out… This is another reason why I liked this image and often like seeing it…”

I will remember Sevanthi Murugaiyyan for many things. For fire in the belly. For trying. For speaking unexpectedly, out of the silence. For returning the abstract love I attempt to send out to my students through my stories and my questions, never very sure if it is worth anything, with bits and pieces of her own story. She said yes to writing so often, when others were merely unwilling or compelled. I choose to remember her for the many times she said yes, not for the heavy, final no with which she ended her life three weeks ago. Personal reasons, they said.

One newspaper reported it, and even their ungainly terseness is shot through with the compressed pathos of her going. When people you know yap without reservation about merit, and how “they” are taking away what is “yours,” maybe you should remember this girl’s story. Remember, perhaps, the loneliness of those who struggle against odds greater than you can ever know, and how little the abstract mercy of our system can help those who fight hard and grow weary. Practice the small humility that can come from knowing.

Arul Mani is a Reader in the English Department at St. Joseph’s College, Bengaluru.

  • Anna Palmer

    A beautiful tribute to an exceptional young person. How right you were to focus on, and be impressed by, the life in her writing. I wish I could write like that! It’s very depressing to read about her killing herself.

  • Anant Bhushan Nagabhushana

    1. I don’t see any relation between her suicide and your story.. It’s a good heart-warming low-content write-up..
    2. Whatever are her snippets of writing, it seems she is really good at it.. Atleast, you an English professor should not segregate the language on the basis of fancy words and those that aren’t..
    3. What? She wrote her assignments in Cyber-Cafe’s??? Are you mad? Can’t your College arrange a computer..
    4. She has not been rejected by the system in any way, as far as I can see.
    5. Emotive single-incidences are confusing and please make a better case next time for Reservation outside merit, please???