A Picture is worth more than thousand words… was the tagline used by Gopakumar’s company for the ‘Drawing and Painting’ competition conducted exclusively for the teenage students. The contestants were required to submit their entries through schools or colleges. There was good response. He could easily select and keep aside the prize-winning entries. One particular entry from a school student was really eye catching and stood apart from the rest. He had a genuine doubt whether it was done by the student or anybody else in their name. The clarity of drawing and maturity of thought seemed to be from a deft hand of an adult, rather than by a school student. He wanted to confirm. He rang up the school. As soon as he said he was from ‘Peacock Colours and Paints’, the lady on the other side, was quite excited.
“Are you announcing the results? Has our Sukanya got the first prize? I know she was sure to get it and I have every reason to be proud of her and was eagerly waiting for you to announce.”
He had to interrupt, “What did you say? You have every reason to be proud of …. OK. Does it mean, you had done the artwork and submitted in her name? I have to ensure the credentials and bona-fides of the contestant. I must meet you.”
Before he could continue further, she burst out. “Hello, you are talking to a total stranger and you must have some manners. I was just a catalyst and not an imposter. Understand?”
Saying so, she shut the phone. He had no choice than to go to school and meet the principal. She was serene and calm posed. He explained his purpose of visit. Out of few entries selected, one was from this school. Before declaring the names of winners, it was necessary to ensure that they were bona-fide contestants and deserving teenage artists only. Any elderly person entering the contest, using the student’s name had to be carefully eliminated. So, he had to meet those selected candidates, their parents and mentors.
Principal said, “Sukanya was the only contestant from our school and all details about her, can be had from her class teacher. There is no doubt that Sukanya is an extraordinarily talented girl, but she is an introvert. There is some problem bothering her. I advise you, first meet her teacher and then our student.”
Yashodha, the teacher, on being introduced to Gopakumar, refused to cooperate, saying that the guy had no manners or etiquettes and was accusing anybody, without rhyme or reason. He apologised profusely and said smilingly that, it was a technique. He had deliberately provoked the person to get the truth. The spontaneous reaction of outburst and anger spoke everything openly about Sukanya’s genuineness and her teacher’s. His next probing level now, was her homestead… her parents or relatives.
Yashodha immediately retorted, “Sukanya has none.”
He looked at her quizzingly, ’how can it be?’
She replied, “I am in a hurry. I have classes till evening. We may meet sometime later to discuss the issue.”
He asked, “Can I meet the girl?”
“No. She is part of a dance team, now busy in rehearsal. You can meet her at Ashoka Hotel, after her performance there.”
Gopakumar left. His enquiries about other prize winners were already over. The college student selected for second prize was already undertaking postal tuitions from ‘Shaantanu Drawing School’. Only the entry for first prize posed a problem. That also seemed, almost solved, after meeting her teacher. But there appeared to be something intriguing about her. He decided to go to Ashoka Hotel. He was looking for Sukanya. But she did not know about him nor the purpose of his visit. He entered the banquet hall filled with elite group of men and women. Apart from dance performance, they would surely applaud once he would announce Sukanya winning the competition.
The dance started and picked up momentum. It was a ballet depicting a debate of ‘who was great… Radha or Meera’… love of Radha on one side in a fast track and devotion of Meera on the other with slow paced steps… both appealing to Krishna to accept them. Radha’s team comprised of gopies and gopas and Meera’s team comprised of King and his men troubling her. The decision of whose love was sweeter was left to the audience. Surely, the audience would go by artists’ performances and not by the characters they portrayed. The artist performing as Radha was seemingly beautiful, bubbly, vivid and cheerful, whereas, Meera appeared to be dull, sad, gloomy and slow, all the time evoking sympathy and pining for acceptance.
Gopakumar could not make out what role was played by Sukanya. Going by his intuition, he felt Meera could be Sukanya. He remembered her Principal had casually mentioned about her as an introvert and he found her teacher to be over-possessive and over-protective on matters of Sukanya. One more thing he noticed… Sukanya’s lips. She had cleft lips which, to a great extent, marred her facial beauty. The surgical marks were obviously attention-seeking. He was very sure the girl must be very self-conscious about her uniqueness. For a second, he felt sorry for her parents. The thrill of having delivered a bonny healthy normal baby would have been lost forever to her mother, once she noticed the baby’s cleft lip. Obviously, father also, might have felt sad on the ugly appearance of the baby. Who knows, he would have cursed his wife, as though she was responsible for delivering an ugly baby. The enormous pains taken by the parents in bringing her up, would have been another painful story. He knew that such persons with deformities never wanted sympathy. All they craved for, was recognition and acceptance.
He was riding on his own thoughts without even knowing, who among the dancers was Sukanya. But once he would announce her name, certainly he would know. Others too. He was waiting for the programme to get over and the response from the audience, to subside. Then he went to the centre stage, said a few words appreciating the performers and then finally, his purpose of visit, calling out Sukanya the prize winner of his company’s competition. Pin-drop silence prevailed. Nobody turned up. He waited, he again, invited her to the stage. This time, three girls slowly moved towards him. Earlier, the girls had no stage fear for their dance performance, but to be spotted as winner and drawing the focus of audience upon herself, Sukanya needed support of two more girls, who nudged her to forefront. The same cleft lipped girl came up. He asked her a few simple questions about her painting, about the subject, layout, about herself…. Nothing she answered. Probably she was too shy to answer. A refined elite audience would not appreciate such a behaviour. Before things could worsen, he simply cut short saying more details would be shared once the prize distribution ceremony was fixed.
Gopakumar was certainly, disturbed by her silence… no smile, no acknowledgement, no excitement, nothing whatsoever. He bluntly put forth everything to her teacher Yashodha and wanted her to represent the girl on the prize distribution day. He was worried on the eventful day also, Sukanya might stand like a statue and kill the charm of the show. Yashodha agreed that the girl was having a serious problem in communicating with anybody, specially strangers. She was posing a problem to her parents also. Yashodha personally requested him to spare time to listen to her life-story, who otherwise was an excellent girl. On a holiday, she met him at a common place and spoke to him in detail.
Yashodha spotted her drawing skill on her birthday. A boy had written, “Happy Birthday, Ma’am.” Sukanya had circled those words, drew a tree nearby, full of birds singing chorus song and at a distance, a lady with folded hands was shown admiring them. As a legend, she wrote in small letters tree as her classroom, singing birds as her class students and the lady as their teacher. When she wanted to write on blackboard, only then she noticed. All students were eagerly waiting for her reaction. She asked, “Who did it? Stand up.” No response. Again, she repeated… with a stern voice. One boy stood up and pointed his fingers at Sukanya. It was difficult to believe that a silent girl with a serious nature would show off her ability so openly. The girl was praised. Thereafter, whenever there was any competition, or functions requiring any type of drawing or painting work, she was called upon to do the job. Once, it was necessary to obtain her parents’ approval for an interschool participation. For days together, she remained silent on that. After a long provoking, it was learnt that her father was out of station and she was waiting for him to return. When she was told to get it from her mother, she shrunk back and remained silent. It was her friend Krithika who replied, “She does not talk to her mother.”
It was a terrible shock and horror of horrors; a teenage girl would not talk to her mother. Reason? Very funny. Her mother was a beautiful woman whereas Sukanya was not. Yashodha wanted to meet her mother and get full details of Sukanya’s psychotic behaviour. Her mother, Sujata, on the contrary, thought because of Sukanya’s stiff attitude, teacher from school had complaining. When the purpose of visit was made explicit, she calmed down but took time to open up.
Sujata said, ‘there was a marked difference in her behaviour in the last few months. She was getting drifted away from me. My very presence or nearness would irritate her. She would not share anything about her personal or school matters. The only person she considered worth talking to, was her father. But he rarely was available in town. I was really confused by her mysterious behaviour. She was fully aware that she was not our natural biological daughter. We had adopted her as an infant baby and brought her up with utmost love and care. She had now changed and cocooned herself. One day I arranged her bookshelf in her absence. According to her, my touching her belongings became an unpardonable mistake. She shouted at me and accused me saying that I deliberately brought an ugly child from somewhere, so that I may look more beautiful. She strongly believed I used her as a tool to enhance and show off my beauty. This nasty thought had gone so deeply in her, that how much ever we tried to convince her, all fell on deaf ears. Every time she looks at me, she becomes conscious of her ugly appearance. Compare and contrast. I think from the time she saw her photo as a baby with cleft lip, she got badly disturbed and now strongly believes that I adopted her only to boost my beautiful personality. What can I say to a stubborn unwilling girl? I am helpless. Look at my pitiful condition. Her classmate Krithika stays nearby and through her I keep contact with my daughter. I try to keep aloof. My heart weeps, bleeds… but, she does not understand. Very nice to know that she excels in studies and extracurricular activities. But, look at me, I am unable to pat her, praise her openly’.
With a heavy heart, Yashodha left her place.
From then on, Yashodha took extra care on Sukanya and kept motivating the girl. She indirectly instilled in her that the only way to get rid of anger, jealousy, mental agony etc, was to focus on studies and develop inherent talents and be an outstanding student. Yashodha poured out all she had to say about Sukanya. She requested Gopakumar to hold the Prize-Distribution Day, after Sukanya’s father’s return. Mother already ruled out. At least father should be present.
Gopakumar patiently listened to Yashodha without interrupting her. Heavily laden with emotions of a small teenage school girl, he remained silent. Yashodha mistook it as non-approval.
So, she pleaded, “Please Gopu, for Sukanya’s sake, for my sake. Please…”
He instantly retorted. ‘What! What did you say? Gopu? You know, my astrologer had foretold long ago that ‘Lord Rama placed His foot on a stone and it got transformed to a lady. Similarly, any lesser known lady calling me Gopu means, there will be a big change in my life’. Many years ago, an old lady- a teacher, called me Gopu and I was made to swallow a bitter pill everyday…. she took me for schooling and studies. I was dragged to the school and made to study. Something I never liked. Now, a lady, again a teacher, calls me Gopu. I am so worried. God only knows what may befall on me, this time.”
Yashodha baffled and confused, was wondering what this man blabbering… What was she asking for and what did he reply? There was no connection. Then it dawned on her. He was joking. In order to lessen the emotional heaviness, he was kidding.
She too retorted, “Go to Hell”.
He said, “Oh, yes very gladly…. if you join me.”
She also back-answered him, “I don’t take up any course without proper preparations. I am a teacher to the core.”
The great eventful day also came very soon. Gopakumar planned a mega event by including colourful orchestra of cine music, then prize distribution to the winners by a celebrity or dignitary and finally speeches by winners or parents on their behalf. Hall was full of winners’ principals, their teachers, classmates, parents, staff of the Peacock Company etc. CCTV was also installed. As planned things moved. Starting from consolation prizes, winners came to dais. Their prize-winning entry was shown on the TV Monitor. Compere Gopakumar asked them, what prompted them to participate, who assisted, parents’/friends’/teachers’ role etc. In between he kept strewing old jokes and witty vibes to hold audience’s attention and keep them enthralled. The second prize winner spoke nicely. He dedicated everything to his postal tuition master as his tuitions helped him to bag the prize. He said, in future he wanted to be an art director for films. Earlier one winner said, he wanted to become a cartoonist in magazines. Finally, the much-awaited winner of first prize, was called. Her school mates, friends, teachers, all clapped and greeted. Soon others too joined, as Sukanya, escorted by Yashodha slowly marched towards dais. Her prize-winning entry was displayed on the TV monitor. A thunderous applause filled the hall. Theme chosen was Environment and Climate Change. A farmer’s misery on no-rain (Parched field) and untimely rains (standing crops getting damaged) in one section; fury of floods and fire in another section; high level pollution of land (plastic garbage), water (sewerage discharge) and air (poisonous smoke from vehicles) in another section and in the last, corrupt politicians taking advantages of all. The honourable dignitary was very happy to give her the prize and he patted her and said, ‘lucky are your parents.’ Gopakumar called them to dais. He asked Sukanya, “Who was your inspiration?”
She said, “Krithika.” She came to dais, but she said that she acted upon Sukanya’s mother’s instructions. Sukanya screamed “No, no. My father, my teacher everybody is okay. Not my mother.” There was hush-hush in the audience – ‘what is all this?’
Father, then came forward, patted her, held her close to him. “My innocent daughter does not know her mother. When she comes to know about the troubles undergone and pains taken by her mother to bring up the baby from, what she was to her present status of dainty lady, she would be heartbroken. When we wanted to adopt, we decided to have baby girl. Sujata went a step further and said if possible, a curable deformed baby like squint eye, polio leg, cleft lip… so that more love and care can be showered on the baby. At that time, Sukanya was the only baby available. Thus, she became our proud possession. But the Adoption Centre would not give us the baby right away. They insisted on a compulsory training to mother on how to handle the baby- particularly in feeding, then disfigured teething, unclear speaking, recurring tonsils, her peculiar behaviour as the baby grows further, and many more delicate issues about which, only Sujata knows better. Sujata undertook the training. I still admire her devotion and patience in handling baby Sukanya. Baby had to be fed initially by ink filler drop by drop, then gradually, by spoon. The undernourished and underfed baby was always an aggressive one. Sujata put up with her and the herculean task of handling a difficult baby. After a few years, even after surgery, problems continued. All the time, I was a mere passive observer. My role was limited to cajoling and comforting my precious daughter. I must say I am lucky…. I have the rose in my hands and my poor wife gets the thorny pinpricks… not only now, right from day one of Sukanya’s arrival. Audience clapped and clapped. Some even stood up. Only Yashodha noticed Sukanya’s teary eyes. She brought Sujata closer to Sukanya. She readily hugged her and wept. Gopakumar approached Sukanya, “Can you sketch a few lines for us?” She went to the canvas, drew three boxes, three Goddesses were perched on them… where Jagadamba was ranked first, then Janmabhoomi second and Janani, third. Then she marked them Wrong. Then she drew the same drawing again but with different ranking. Even before she would complete, audience clapped and clapped. The final sketch showed Janani (mother) as first rank, Janmabhoomi (motherland) as second and Jagadamba (Goddess of the world) as third.
Yashodha whispered to Gopakumar, “Mission success.”
Snatching the opportunity, he asked, “Which one? Mission to Hell?”
She replied, ‘Yes. Both.’
He still not convinced, asked, “As a catalyst or partner?”
Her reply, “of course, Partner. Your Partner.”