Camera. Check. Mic. Check. Two hurriedly buttered slices of bread. Check. We were ready for the five-hour-long drive ahead of us to Kulumur, Ariyalur. 261.1 kilometres to be exact. It has been a year since the village had been in the news, a year since 17-year-old S Anitha committed suicide. As I thought of her, the picture of her face immediately popped up in my head. When she died, her banners were on every other street and her photos on practically everybody's timeline.
August 26, 5.10 am
What's your story?
It was not an easy face to forget. No. It was not a face that we dare forget, I remember thinking. So here I was, in pursuit of the memory she had left behind.
Her brother, S Maniratnam, agreed to meet us for an interview and we set up a time and date. As we got closer, I called him up to reconfirm the location and ask for directions. "Anitha nu sonnale, ellarakum theriyum (If you ask for Anitha, everyone will know)," he said. A bit ominous, I thought. As Kulumur came upon us with its lush green fields, we were on the lookout for banners and posters since her death anniversary was only a few days away. There weren't any.
When we approached the rundown little town we slowed down and called Maniratnam again. He tells us we have to drive a little further, "Since they're Dalits maybe they don't let them stay inside the town. Remember Umarani?" my friend tells me, reminding me of a story I did a few months ago about a Dalit artist, who told us about how they were pushed to live on the outskirts of the village.
The Periyar predilection
It's now 10 am. We spotted a huge board with Anitha's picture alongside those of Ambedkar and Periyar. The name read Anitha Thidal. Mani approached us and introduced himself. "Library-ku first polama?," he asked. Confused, I asked him what library he was talking about. "Anitha ku kattuna library," he said leading the way. We decide to quickly check it out, mentally preparing to look at it in more detail later. The building had a statue of the Buddha right outside. Anitha's other brother, Arun Kumar told us later that someone had sent it from Thailand just for the library.
Work was still on in the building, so nothing was really set up but on the far end of the room were four portraits — Anitha, Periyar, Marx and Ambedkar. I noticed how the light from outside fell only on Anitha's picture and stared it for a bit as Mani told me about their plans — it would be one of the biggest libraries in all of Ariyalur and they were setting up four computers and hoped to start coaching classes. Understandably, they were going to inaugurate it on September 1, her first death anniversary.
I told Mani we would come back to the library later, so could we go to the house first? So we walked to their home. When we lost track of him on the roughly-hewn path for a bit, he called out, "Nanba, inge". We made our way to the modest dwelling where Anita was born and where 17 years later she had hung herself to death. Her grandfather sat at the entrance, her brother, Arun Kumar was also there. We sat down, put the mic on Mani, kept the camera in position and began. I asked him to start from the very beginning - March 5, 2000, the day Anitha was born.
"I was in the fifth standard when paapa was born. I remember imagining how when she started school, I was in high school, how when I was in college, she would be in high school. We were so happy to finally have a baby sister at home," Mani said. His parents had longed for a girl child for years and had even visited many temples to pray for one. Four sons still made the house feel empty, so when Anitha, or paapa as the family called her, was born it was one of those rare moments of celebration in a household where poverty was a way of life. And that poverty, was and still is acute, "To this day, we eat only ration rice. Our parents were completely uneducated and they couldn't even sign their own names," he explains.
All the news stories that followed her death narrated anecdotes about her dedication, her passion for studying and school, "Paapa once broke her hand and even her class teacher told her to stay home. But she said that she would have to do nothing when she went to school except listen to the teacher and that was much better than sitting idle at home. We are first generation learners so our parents didn't really ask us about whether we did our homework or how our studies were going. But Anitha was a serious student, always a first ranker from the time she joined school," he said.
As would be expected if you're someone who wants to be a doctor. Strangely, though she was desperate to get that MBBS seat, Mani tells us that she was never really the 'particular' kind growing up, "Paapa never ever asked for anything. We had to always ask her if she needed anything. She was always very timid and barely spoke to anyone, even us. But if it was something to do with school then she never compromised. She would ask for it the minute she got home. She never delayed her fees. She always ensured she paid it on time. She took all the rules seriously. Suppose she was asked not to wear flowers or a bindi, she would follow the rule implicitly. People would always keep telling my father what a studious and obedient girl she was and what a bright future she had," Mani tells me, a slight smile touches the edges of his mouth but quickly fades away.
As he told me the story about his mother, I remembered Anitha's school teacher telling me how Anitha wanted to become a doctor because her mother didn't get the medical help she needed, when she was sick. "Yes, that's true. When we finally reached the hospital, the doctor told us that if we had reached earlier she would have been saved," and added quietly, "We still don't have any hospitals close by."
Raised with reason, self-respect and Periyarism
It's a little before 11 am, but the house is still dark. My eyes sweep the house again as my friend readjusts the camera. I notice how a huge portrait of her's has her name written as Dr Anitha. If not in life, then in death, her family has tried to keep her spirit alive. "Our mother passed away when Anitha was only in the second standard and since then our paati has taken care of us but it's mostly just been us four brothers, our father and Anitha," Mani told me. As a hen coolly makes its way into the room, I glance inside too. I wondered how it would have been to grow up in a house full of men.
Camera set, we start again.
"Being a staunch Ambedkarite and Periyarist, I made it a point to bring up my sister with those values. I would always tell her that Ambedkar is in every grain of rice we eat. Since we are all men, I also made her realise that as the woman in the house she should never feel tied down to any ''female" responsibilities," the brother said. Such as, we wonder? "I would always tell her it's not her responsibility to clean up after us. We all washed our plates. I told her she didn't have to get up when I entered the house. I told her never to act like she was lesser than anybody else," Mani said.
In our cities, we still cover our sanitary pads in plastic covers but Mani spoke to Anitha about menstruation at a young age, "I would buy her sanitary pads and told her she should not hesitate to ask any of her brothers about anything that she might need. I even discussed things like love and attraction, I told her that after the age of 19 she could do whatever she wanted. I would also tell her that she should not hesitate to make friends with boys. But if she had doubts about anything I would tell her to ask me, no matter what it was," he recounted.
When Anitha died, the usual banter on social media began. I recall people were spouting the usual post-suicide psychobabble — "suicide is not the way", the "poor girl had no psychological counselling", "parents put too much pressure" — the world was ready to blame anything except for the impact NEET had on her. Of course, suicide is never the way. But here was a student who had scored 1176/1200 in the exams that she considered the most important in her life. She was the only one in all of Ariyalur to have scored a centum in Mathematics and Physics.
And here I was, having to sit with her brother and talk about how it wasn't nearly good enough. How her marks were not enough for the government to think she was eligible to get a medical seat.
Anitha did everything that she could, everything in her might. And no, she wasn't under pressure from her family, she had all the support she needed. From what Mani said, Anitha had a strong Periyarist-Ambedkarite influence in her life. I remember how in the few videos that she appeared in, she always said, "Jai Bheem" at the end. Like most, I also wondered if she was saying it at someone's prodding or if she was saying it of her own will.
Turns out, this naive-looking 17-year-old knew what she was saying.
Medicine meant a lot to her. But so did money
When he was away studying, the brother and sister would often write to each other, something he suggested because she barely spoke otherwise. They often spoke about how they wanted to bring about a change in their village, "My father would sometimes worry that we might not be able to afford her fees but I would always tell him that we have land and we can always sell. All we needed was education. After that, we could easily earn and pay off the loans we might have had to take."
But it wasn't just the money. Shanmugam was also worried about sending away his daughter alone into the big bad world. "But I would always tell him that she would need the exposure. He was so fond of her. As a brother, the pain I feel over losing my sister is probably not even close to my father's pain.” Mani tells me the story of how Anitha would tell him that no one ever believed that she came from such a poor family because her father would always buy and load her with snacks when he went to her school. Treats that he could scarcely afford for himself or for his sons.
They say that aspirations are often acquired. Or inherited. One of the reasons she wanted to study in med school was because of the things Mani wanted for her. For instance, he was insistent on Anitha moving away because he wanted his sister to live in the hostel, "Here in the village, our women still have to get up at 5 to go into the fields and relieve themselves before the men, because there are no toilets. I wanted Anitha to live in a hostel, so that she can have access to toilet facilities." Mani also wanted Anitha to study for the IAS exam, something he is doing now. "I think she wanted to be a doctor because in our society if someone studies well, you immediately tell them that they should become a doctor. Of course, she wanted to serve people too and that's something she was very certain about," he said.
He even brought Anitha a lot of IAS prep books and applied to many other courses for her. "I had no faith in the system, so I told her it's better to keep our options open. Even in medicine, I told her there are lots of other options like Homeopathy, Siddha and others. She got into an TNAU and TANUVAS. I even told her that she could do this for now and look at other options later," Mani told us.
He even applied for the JIIPMER entrance for her but was shocked to find that it was a computer-based exam, "Sometimes I think the government thinks only the children in the cities deserve a future. Anitha had never touched a computer in her life, so I asked a friend to bring his laptop and showed her basics like what a mouse what and how a left-click and right-click worked. But when she went to the centre, she didn't even know how to switch it on because she hadn't seen a CPU. Who decides these things?"
When the results were bad, Anitha apologised to Mani, "I told her that it didn't matter and that he was only asking her to do these exams so she would be able to have the experience. I told her: See paapa, what marks you get determines your capacity. Being tested on what you haven't learnt is not a determination of your capabilities."
It was astonishing how clear her thought process was, given her limited upbringing. When Mani told Anitha that they could take a loan for her studies if needed, Anitha was adamant that they would do nothing of that sort. "If we take loans then I will be focused on earning enough money to repay those loans. If I don't have that stress then I can serve people in our village without expecting anything. I will only study if I get admission in a government college," she apparently told him. She would also reassure him, “I will do my best in the public exam, don’t worry. Maybe if I get good marks they will take it into consideration.”
We all know that the marks didn't matter in the end.
And not even the Supreme Court showed her an ounce of consideration.
How is this equal?
Some defended NEET by calling it the great equaliser and whatnot. As I thought of this, I recalled all the fancy cars that stood outside the Government Medical College at the Omandurar Government Estate in Chennai during last year's MBBS counseling. Some equaliser that was. At least half of them had cleared NEET after dropping a year and preparing for it. That difference was stark.
For the oppressed, freedom lies in education. In the book, My Father Balaiah, the author talks about how his family would go hungry to bed but would rise up the next day at 4 am just to study. In a way, Anitha and her family were sort of like that. "On the day that her 12th results were announced I was in Chennai and reached the cyber cafe at 9 am itself. I wanted to be the first to tell her the results. I still remember at exactly 10.01 am I took a screenshot and sent it across because I wanted her to hear it from me. I always knew she studied well but I couldn't believe how well she had done. My friends asked me for a treat but I told them I would give them one once she gets admitted to a medical course," Mani said.
That treat never materialised. Instead, there was a funeral.
The face of a state's protest against NEET
By 11.30 am, my friend's hand began to hurt after holding the camera steadily through our long conversation. he tells me he didn't realise how long it had been because we had both been intently listening to Mani. I understood what he meant.
A different angle now. Camera starts rolling again.
If medical admissions that year had been held on the basis of the Class 12 results, as it had been in the past decade, Anitha, having scored a centum in Physics and Mathematics, 199 in Chemistry and 194 in Biology, would have secured a cut-off of 196.75 out of 200.
She was that close.
Philosophers say that protest often comes from conviction. And desperation.
Beyond her studies, she went to every protest, she wrote hundreds of letters, she went all the way to the Supreme Court, "She wrote 250 letters to several dignitaries and leaders in Delhi asking them to scrap NEET. Generally for us, if we have to repeat something more than twice or thrice, we lose interest. Our handwriting becomes bad and we don't pay attention anymore. But if you had seen Anitha's letters, the first and the 250th letter would look exactly the same — only the addresses would be different. That's the sort of dedication she had," recalled Mani.
The Delhi Diary: 12 hours of Desperate Hope
When Anitha went to Delhi to represent the plight of the students at the Supreme Court, no newspaper or Facebook status said that they were "proud" of the fact that she had gone such a long way. The immediate reaction was suspicion — How did she get the money to go? Are they faking their poverty? If they were so poor, how did they have the nerve to go all the way to Delhi? I remember thinking how these reactions reeked of privilege, of casteism. A 17-year-old girl who had never really stepped out of her tiny village had the guts to get on a plane for the first time and go all the way to the Supreme Court to take on the government but all people cared to know was "How did she get the money?”.
It may as well have been, "How dare the poor enter the portals of the Supreme Court?”
The impact was acute. "It really hurt us. One of the newspapers had said that we had taken a 'jolly trip' to Delhi. I always knew that not everything that was reported in newspapers was completely true but this is when I realised that people had the audacity to make an entire story up. It made me so angry but there was nothing we could do," seethed the brother.
During this controversy last year, I had spoken to Prince Gajendra Babu, the activist at the forefront of the anti-NEET protests. He told me he had funded their tickets. The state government had wanted students who actually suffered because of NEET to give their side of the story to the court. Anitha became the face of that suffering. "I would take her along with me to all the protests. Not really to protest but to see the people who were fighting for Anitha and others like her. We just stood and watched. During one of these protests, a DMK MLA named Sivashankar from Ariyalur spoke to us and asked Anitha to tell her story. That's how we started to interact with leaders and came to meet Prince sir." Mani recalled. The brother-sister duo went on to meet leaders like M K Stalin and even members of the ruling party.
I remembered how when Anitha was meeting political leaders it became a controversy again because people had started to say things like she was being brainwashed.
When the case went to Delhi, the TN Health Ministry called Mani to ask if he and his sister could appear for the hearing. "I told them we were in Ariyalur and would not be able to travel so far but then they asked Prince sir what was the point of yelling on the streets when we couldn't speak up in court. So he told us that we should not be blamed later for not doing our bit. So we went," the brother told me. Since there are no direct buses from the village, the siblings went on the bike to the closest bus stop and then took a bus to Chennai. They got off at the airport and got on the flight at exactly 9 am. At 9 pm that night, they were on a flight back.
It had been their first time on a flight, it became Anitha's last as well. "First times happen only once and I remember thinking how we couldn't even enjoy it. We went all the way to our capital and I couldn't show Anitha anything. I promised myself that I would bring her a second time," he said feeling dejected.
It's a promise that will forever remain unfulfilled.
A dream that was dashed to pieces
After the Supreme Court hearing, everyone in Tamil Nadu began to think that the verdict would go their way. Nirmala Sitharaman said it would, several ministers had given assurances too. The entire state became suddenly hopeful. So why wouldn't the family of the girl who became the face of the NEET protests not feel some hope. "Up until we went to Delhi, I was always pessimistic. I kept telling her to not be hopeful. I had no trust in the government. But after we came back from Delhi and everyone, every single one of the people that we met, assured us that we would win. That is when I finally worked up the courage to say — 'Paapa, nee doctor aayiduva' (You will become a doctor). Perhaps I shouldn't have said that," he said, lowering his head.
When the judgment came, both Anitha and Mani were watching the news. He didn't know how to face his sister, "I was furious but I didn't want to show Anita that I was upset. So I started telling her about all the other options. We decided that she could take up the veterinary course in Chennai. I convinced my father too. We came to terms with it and we thought she did too." he said quietly.
Mani kept getting calls, people enquiring about the library inauguration. So we stop for a while. I feel bad about keeping him away from his duties. He brushes away my apologies but courteously asks how much longer I'll take. I tell him I’ll just another half hour, despite knowing that I'd probably need more time.
Where were you on September 1, 2017?
"I was here. I was in town. She seemed fine," recalled Mani. It is now noon, which is when most of them saw her alive last, a year ago, "I went outside for some work and returned only much later. When it was too late."
It is true what they said in all the newspapers, Anitha was an introvert; quiet and calm. She barely spoke to anyone. The only person she spoke to was Selvi Ramesh. Selvi lived next door. I decide to speak to her, as she was the last person Anitha spoke to. I ask for her. A heavily pregnant Selvi walks in and smiles. The short walk has her sweating, I apologise and tell my friend that we should make this quick and not stress her out, "Don't worry ma, I'm completely fine. Just tell me what I should do," she tells me.
Selvi says she would often ask Anitha why she didn't speak to other children when she was such a bright and intelligent girl herself. "She would just shrug. She only ever wanted to talk to me. She would come home and keep playing with my children. I would plait her hair when I plaited my daughter's hair," she said.
On that fateful day, Anitha was with Selvi. Her daughter too had stayed back because she had been sick. She went to her in the morning and asked her to buy keerai (spinach) for her brother. Mani tells us it was his favourite thing to eat. "I bought the keerai and she started cooking. I asked her why she was cooking it so early and not waiting for her grandmother to come and cook in the evening. She told me her brother would return tired and wanted to keep it ready for him. After cooking, she came home and was playing with the kids. She suddenly asked for ten rupees to buy thaen muttai (sweet). So I gave her the money and she went away," she said before adding quietly, "That's the last time I saw her."
Sometime later, Arun Kumar asked Selvi where his sister was. Selvi said she had gone to the shop.
A while later, Mani also wondered where she was. This time she was worried, "I saw that her seruppu footwear wasn't outside so I assumed she hadn't returned."
Then they found her hanging inside.
As she recalls the day, Selvi breaks down, "She was never the same after she returned from Delhi. She was completely heartbroken. I kept telling her it's okay, she can study something else. But if I had had the slightest clue, I would have never let her be alone that day. I would always see her going and coming out of the house, but that particular day I didn't see her. If I had, I would have checked, I would have asked her. Even if she had the slightest sadness in her face I would noticed and I would have made her stay with me," Selvi said, wiping the tears from her eyes.
Mani has his head bent down, "I don't know who to blame. Whether to blame the government or someone else. I couldn't even grieve properly because her death became such a huge thing. People said some really horrible things too. Now she's not there but NEET still is. From screaming that we don't want NEET, this year they made us say please conduct NEET here," he said with his
Mani is referring to the fiasco that took place during NEET this year. Children from Tamil Nadu were given centres all the way in Rajasthan and like the previous year, this year too it was all uncertain till the very last minute. A parent even died with all the stress that went into rushing here and there at the last minute. This year too, there was another Anitha - Prathipa.
Why are you still holding Dalits back?
This has Mani rankled. "I'm not an influential man but I want to do what I can to ensure Dalit children have the right to study what they want to. No matter what anyone says, it is difficult for first generation learners to be on par with those who have been receiving education for generations. Even before we reach that level, they want to snatch away our education. The government only wants to only help the students who study well, determine their excellence only based on "their standards". Most children in government schools are Dalit and they are in such bad conditions. What does this mean? We continue to deny that section of society quality education? That only means that casteism continues to exist. They want to keep us 'in our place'," he vociferates angrily. His years studying Ambedkar and his time in the SFI have clearly made a lasting impact on him.
The court, however, is not the same as Ambedkar meant it to be. After the judgement, I realised there's a lot of politics involved in it, Mani quietly admitted. "When she died, almost every street had her banner. People said that the last time that happened was when APJ Abdul Kalam died. I will always be grateful to all the people who lent us their support, who came out to the streets. But I feel guilty even when I smile because she's not here. And till the day I die, I will feel her absence but all I can do now is fight against what killed her. But I feel I failed as a brother, as a Periyarist and an Ambedkarite.”
No more Anithas: What they're doing with the funds
Our conversation ended on that note and Mani left, promising to keep in touch. Just as we began to pack up, an older man entered the house. Since there were other neighbours in the house, I assumed he was one among them. He asked us what channel we were from and we told him. It was only while we were putting on our footwear did he ask, "Did you speak to my son?" That is when we realised it was Anitha's father. I immediately apologised for not having recognised him especially since we were told he wouldn't be available that day.
I immediately ask him if he would speak to us, "Inge illa, noolagam poi pesalam (Not here, let us speak at the library),” he said shortly.
The clock ticks past 1.30 pm — Camera battery dead. We switch to the phone camera.
As he led the way, I trailed behind, taking snapshots of the house and the village. And then I took a picture of him as he walked away, the man and nature - two out of the three creators of Anita. As we enter, he chases away the puppies wandering inside the library. He asks the workers how the work is going and asks them to clear out so we can talk.
"This is what we did with all the money that we received. We built a library. I told my sons that we could use the money to pay off loans or to build a better house for us. But Mani flatly refused. I even said we can use it for our lives and then the brothers could do something for their sister with the money they earn. But no, they wanted the library. Now I know why," Shanmugam tells me.
My son is right, he said. "Someone suggested that we keep a statue of hers but my son wanted to open a library. So we used the land that we have and bought some more with the money that we got. There shouldn't be another Anitha. Children should have the opportunity to study and they should have computers to study with." They're getting four computers, he added.
The family is living in the same house they were living in when Anita was alive and are eating the same ration rice, "But I can't sleep in peace or eat in peace. You people come here and ask us to speak about her. It makes us sad. But after you've finished your interview, the minute you've hit the road, you forget all about her. But we don't. The sorrow remains. Till the day I close my eyes to die, I will think about her. There's nothing anyone can do. I have to bear this pain for as long as I live," said the daily wager.
For us, it'll probably just be another story. Probably for the ones who read this too.
For Kulumur, Anitha will remain.
While speaking to Mani earlier he told me how he felt he had lost as a brother. I wanted to appease him of that, "I don't know what made her take that step — if it was a split second decision or maybe it was the disappointment of not getting what she dreamed of after almost touching it. We all thought she would win. So maybe when it all came crashing down at the very last second, it devastated her. I will never know."
The anguish gets worse. "Maybe she just could not dream of anything except being a doctor. Maybe she couldn't handle the disappointment. Sometimes I wonder, what if she had attempted the exam the previous year when there was NEET exemption or the year after NEET was introduced. Maybe she could have gone for coaching or maybe we would have decided to do another course. It was just bad timing for us that it happened that particular year," he said thoughtfully.
As we turn to leave, I notice that the brother still keeps a glass of tea and a packet of biscuits beside her portrait, “They would do the same thing for my mother and I would ridicule it because we would anyway end up eating it at the end. Now I always remember to keep that glass of tea,” he said softly,.
Is this the end?
It's 2:15 in the afternoon - We try to capture as much of Kulumur in pictures with our remaining time.
When my friend enters the room of the house, I tell him not to waste our quickly emptying the battery. “Don't take unnecessary pictures”, I said. He nodded hastily and went in. He came out and said, "Seriously, you're telling me not to take a picture of this? Just come here and look!"
So I entered and my friend was right. What I saw was truly amazing. It was dark inside and some of the light that seeped in through the window fell on a portrait of Ambedkar lying in a carton. Next to it was a picture of Periyar. The rest of the room was filled with books. Stacks and stacks of books, just books. Mani told us there were more in the other room. All collected for the library.
Anitha’s spirit remains.
She is ensuring that all the others in her village get to read whatever the rest of the world reads, dream the dreams that everyone else is allowed to dream and achieve them just like everyone else. At one point Mani had said that the amount of distance some people have to travel just to get to the Supreme Court, makes it feel like they did not even have a chance at justice. Our arguments in court, our battles on Facebook, they may all take place in our cities but the revolution will start in our villages.
I am sure of it.
And they will be led by the ideals of Ambedkar and Periyar and they will pay homage to the Anithas, Prathipas, Rohit Vemulas, Shankars, and Ilavarasans of the world. The revolution will come and Kulumur will be in the news again.
This story was originally published in Edex.