CHENNAI: There is no excitement on the face of Mahalakshmi, the topper of Mahakavi Bharathiyar Higher Secondary School at Pakkam village in Thiruvallur District. Despite having scored 1141/1200 and 198/200 in both accountancy and commerce, there is no twinkle in her eye or spring in her step, on the day the Class 12 Board exam results were announced.
Maybe the lack of excitement is because this slender 17-year-old with long plaited hair knows only two ‘acceptable’ paths lie ahead for her - Either marry a much-older, barely educated relative or study in a nondescript college near her house in Pattabiram, which is in outskirts of Chennai.
While for most students finishing school, studying in a nondescript college is the worst case scenario, it is Mahalakshmi’s only ray of hope which could save her from an early marriage and ending up in a life confined within four walls, just like her mother’s.
Mahalakshmi says she doesn’t know what she wants to become. “I just want to study and hopefully pass on what I learn,” she said, clarifying that she didn’t mean to say she wants to become a teacher.
With her mother unable to do daily wage work because of regular bouts of fits and her father having to travel to the city to find work as a construction worker, it seems like Mahalakshmi has shut-out some words from her life.
When I bounced words like ‘Chartered Accountant’, ‘Digital marketing’, she just smiled and said nothing. When I mentioned colleges such as ‘Ethiraj’, ‘Stella’ and ‘WCC’, where she could easily get an admission based on merit, her eyes lit up but she said nothing.
Even with the Sevalaya organisation which runs the school offering to cover her college costs, Mahalakshmi’s mother Vimala is apprehensive about allowing her daughter continue studies.
“My husband is out for work and I have to ask him,” she said.
However, Vimala isn’t guarded when it comes to discussing her younger son’s future. Devaraj, who the school claims, is just as studious as his sister Mahalakshmi, is awaiting his Class 10 results. “He wants to become a marine engineer,” said Mahalakshmi. Instantly her mother’s face lit up and the conversation drifted towards her son.
The school claims to have started talking to Mahalakshmi’s parents about forgetting marrying her off to her maternal uncle.
“Luckily she is 17 and they can’t marry her off now. Once she starts college, the marriage plans can be halted until she finishes,” said N Muralidharan, the founder and managing trustee of Sevalaya, which runs the 2080-student strong Mahakavi Bharathiyar Higher Secondary School.
A few of Mahalakshmi’s teachers feel that she is forced to mask her confidence.
“She looks down a lot but when you talk to her, she booms with confidence and once the conversation ends she goes back to being timid,” said one of her teachers.
When her dreams aren’t allowed to cross the boundaries of the quiet Bandikavanoor village, it's an adaptation which seems necessary to fit in, regardless of whether you are a topper or not.