ARIYALUR: “Always be larger than your task,” reads a line in V Vignesh’s neat handwriting on the top of the two sheets of paper pasted to the dark walls of the tiny tile-roofed house he inhabited with his parents and younger brother in Elanthankuzhi village in Ariyalur district. The 20-year-old died by suicide on Wednesday, just four days before he was to attempt the NEET for the third time.
The two sheets are Vignesh’s chemistry notes on the preparation of amines, the header a sign of his determination and ambition. The other line at the top of the page, however, may resonate with the shock and grief of his family and friends who are struggling to make sense of his demise.
“God cannot alter the past, but historians can,” Vignesh has written. Perhaps historians will write of the pandemic, the digital divide and the dreams they swallowed whole.
Elanthankuzhi is about 20km from Kuzhumur in the same district where S Anitha, a Dalit girl who would have gained medical admission if not for NEET, ended her life after a Supreme Court verdict in favour of the entrance test.
On Thursday, as he was cremated, villagers recalled him as a studious youth determined to study medicine. Vignesh’s father Vishwanathan, is a small farmer, his younger brother a Class 11 student. His mother manages the cramped petty shop attached to the house. Despite limited means, the family wholeheartedly supported Vignesh’s ambitions, investing lakhs of rupees in his ambition to become a doctor.
Three attempts and a hefty investment
This year would have been Vignesh’s third attempt at cracking the NEET. After scoring 1006 out of 1200 in his Plus 2 exams two years ago, he attempted the NEET, unsuccessfully, managing around 160 marks. For the next attempt, Vishwanathan borrowed from private lenders at interest and sold a piece of land to raise Rs 3 lakh and enrol his son in a coaching centre in Kerala. Vignesh studied there and managed to score 386 in his second NEET attempt last year. Ahead of this year’s attempt, his father enrolled Vignesh in a private coaching centre in Thuraiyur for a fee of Rs 1 lakh. Vignesh attended the coaching till March 2020 when the lockdown was announced.
Lockdown, digital divide, distress
Vignesh returned home to prepare once the lockdown was announced. Although online classes were conducted, with study material available on the internet, he struggled to keep up with his studies due to a lack of mobile signal in the village.
“He was complaining about how he couldn’t access the study materials sent by the coaching centre because there was no mobile signal,” Solomon, his Thuraiyur coaching centre classmate, said.
According to Solomon, Vignesh got a seat in a BDS course last year but refused to join. “He always wanted to study MBBS. In tests conducted at the coaching centre, he was scoring around 550. I thought he would secure an MBBS seat this time,” he said.
“I do not know why he took this decision.”
Vignesh’s aunt Valarmathi said that the youth was often seen going to the agricultural fields in the village in search of a mobile phone signal. “Vignesh never played on streets along with other boys. Whenever I saw him outside his house or in the agricultural fields, he was studying,” Renganathan, a relative, said.
New clothes, inexplicable end
Vignesh was to write the NEET at the Alpha Educational Campus at KK Nagar in Tiruchy on September 13. He had taken a printout of his NEET admit card. On September 8, Vishwanathan took him to Jayankondam, a nearby town, and bought him new clothes to wear for the exam. That day they visited the temple dedicated to their family deity at Keezhamaligai and prayed for a good performance in the NEET.
On September 9, at 4.30 am as his family slept, Vignesh is believed to have sneaked out of the house, carrying a torchlight. He walked to an agricultural well 1.5 km from his house. Later that day villagers searching for him found his slippers, the torchlight neatly placed on them, next to the well.
Hours after his body was retrieved from the well, locals blocked the village road in a protest led by PMK’s state deputy general secretary TMT Thirumavalavan. They demanded that NEET be scrapped and an ex gratia of Rs 50 lakh and government job be given to a member of Vignesh’s family.
As his body lay at the Jayankondam Government hospital, villagers refused to accept it till their demands were met. Meanwhile, Chidambaram MP and VCK leader Thol Thirumavalavan paid his respects to Vignesh at the hospital.
After Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami announced Rs. 7 lakh and a government job to the youth’s family, police and revenue officials held talks with the villagers who finally agreed to take the body. The body was kept in front of the family’s house for one and a half hours on Thursday. Relatives placed Vignesh’s NEET study materials alongside his body in the freezer box.
A political tussle
As news of DMK youth wing secretary Udhayanidhi Stalin’s arrival spread, the PMK cadres became eager to expedite the last rituals and take the body to the crematorium. The cadres physically stood in the way of the house to prevent the entry of Udhayanidhi and DMK district secretary S S Sivasankar. They did not permit the DMK leaders to place a garland on the youth’s body. While the DMK men waited, the PMK cadres and some of the villagers took the body to the crematorium where the body was cremated amid heavy police security.
Later, Udhayanidhi met Vignesh’s parents and shared his condolences. He also handed over Rs 5 lakh to the family. PMK also announced a solatium of Rs 10 lakh to the family. “We have been demanding the government to put an end to the NEET. The NEET has claimed one more life now,” Udhayanidhi said.
(If you are having suicidal thoughts, or are worried about a friend or need emotional support, someone is always there to listen. Call Sneha Foundation - 04424640050 (available 24x7) or iCall, the Tata Institute of Social Sciences' helpline - 02225521111, which is available Monday to Saturday from 8 am to 10 pm.)