The Swan Song

The Swan Song

“It’s a simple question;
Do we bear monsters?
Or do we create them?” 
― Anthony Neilson, Neilson Plays. 

***

[CUE SENTIMENTAL MUSIC] 

[B/W SHOT OF LETTER WRITTEN BY PARTH AHUJA ON APRIL 20, 1999. CATALOGUED EXHIBIT C IN POLICE CASE FILE No. 7387G]

***

By the time you read this, I hope it’ll be too late. 

I almost didn’t write this letter. But, then, you deserve to know. I know what I am going to do is wrong. But, I have to do it. I have no other choice. 

You might not agree with me; heck, you might even think that I am off my rocker, or delusional or dissociative or anything under the sun. I am sure you will come up with a thousand explanations for my actions, anything really, except the truth. 

Because, that’s what we do; humans, I mean. Truth is usually something that’s the last thing that we come to terms with. Anything else is acceptable, anything else is believable. 

The truth is that I’ve had enough. I have tried to move on, I have tried to seek help, I have even tried to run away. Nothing has worked, nothing has changed my situation; nothing will. And, so, as I see it, I have no other choice. 

I admit I started writing this letter with the intention of absolving you, but I couldn’t. I wanted to say – please don’t blame yourself, it wasn’t your fault. But, that would be a lie. And, what is the point of lying? I have no secrets, at least not anymore. 

All of us know I didn’t get here by myself, don’t we? 

***

April 20, 1999. 08:45 A.M.

Thirteen year old Jhelum woke with a start. Outside her bedroom door, her father was shouting. “Come on, champ. Ride leaves in fifteen minutes! You better get ready.” 

She stared at her alarm clock, 08:45 A.M. She groaned; she must have hit snooze again! Throwing her bed covers to the floor, she rushed to the bathroom. Fifteen minutes later, she was being herded into the backseat of their beat up Maruti WagonR, with her ten year old brother, Roshan. 

Jhelum hated this car. It was the epitome of Indian middle class trying to rub shoulders with the upperclassmen. Her parents didn’t understand her disgruntlement towards the car. To them, it was a perfectly good machine at a reasonable price; to her, it was a bully magnate. 

She asked her father to drop them outside the car park of the school. She didn’t want to be caught dead in the WagonR inside the campus of JCBN International School. Grabbing hold of her brother’s sweaty hand, she said a hurried goodbye to her father, and walked the rest of the way towards the school main entrance. 

“You are pulling too hard!” Roshan cried, his tinny voice echoed in the silence. She checked her watch, it was five minutes past the first bell at 09:00 A.M.; classes had already started. 

“No,” she said, patiently, “you are walking too slow, butterfingers. Come on! Run a little. We’re late.” 

They sprinted down the driveway in an odd sort of jig, with their heavy backpacks thwacking against their backs and water bottles dangling from their necks. About two feet away from the main entrance to their block, they collided with another student who had also been hurrying to the entrance. The children fell down. The older boy glared. 

“Watch where you are going, runts!” 

The boy also wore the school uniform, like Roshan – white shirt and maroon checked pants. Unlike Roshan, however, his pants were full length, signifying that he was a senior. 

“Sorry, bhaiya!” Jhelum helped Roshan up, and shouldered her backpack. The boy watched them. “We’re late to class!” she panted. “Sorry!” 

She turned to go past him when the boy held out a hand. “I think you two should skip school today,” he said.

Jhelum frowned. What? Was this boy for real? She glanced around her, there was nobody outside; if he had decided to pick on them, he had definitely chosen the perfect time. Beside her, Roshan was fidgeting. He did not like the seniors; skinny and naive as he was, they tormented him enough during school hours. Soon, he was going to start crying, Jhelum knew it. 

Bhaiya, if we don’t get to our class, our teachers will discipline us.” She said and tried again to go around him. 

The boy reached out and grabbed her left arm, hard. His grip was so tight, Jhelum thought that soon, her arm would part company from her body.

“I said,” he said, teeth gritted, as if he was the one in pain, “Skip school today. Both of you. Do you understand?” 

Tears started streaming down her eyes. She felt Roshan’s hand twitch in hers. He was terrified. She nodded. “Yes… Sir.” 

Abruptly, the boy let her go. Jhelum dashed towards the outer gates of the school campus. She did not look back. She had just reached the security cabin and informed the watchman about the boy, when she heard the ear splitting noise behind her. 

***

Present Day – Date: April 20, 2009, Ten years to the event.

[INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT] 

Interviewer: Did you know then?

Jhelum Sarcar: Did I know how close I had come to the end? (shakes head) How could have I known? And, even if I had, what could’ve I possibly done? I was thirteen. I had my ten year old brother on my arm, who depended on me. (silence for a few moments).

Interviewer: Why do you think he told you to leave? 

Jhelum Sarcar: I don’t know. Maybe he wanted to retain some dignity; some control. I just ran. I ran as fast as I could. 

***

April 20, 1999. 09:10 A.M.

Children could be a handful on most days, on some others, they were sheer nightmares. Vidya Vajpai had been only too familiar with this fact, even before she had accepted her first offer letter as a teacher for the fifth grade. 

Fifteen years of service to the GenNext, and now, Headmistress of JCBN International. 

Being the principal of an educational institute was a tough job; being a woman, doubly so. She glanced at her in-tray; a stack of pink slips already rested on top of her other engagements. 

Students to be disciplined, parents to be called. She let out a slow breath. No matter what the faculty did, some children were just too much to handle. But, try telling that to the overly protective, BMW touting, post-modern parents. According to them, their children could do no wrong! 

She glanced at the clock on the far side of her cabin. 09:15 A.M. She picked up the folder containing student evaluation reports from her in-tray and started reading. 

Her phone rang. One glance at the caller ID told her it was the security extension. What could Pandey want now? She was about to pick up the receiver when she heard the noise. It sounded like firecrackers, short, sharp and loud. 

Putt putt putt putt putt…!!!

Her heart froze. Her eyes moved, of their own accord, to the picture frame standing at the corner of her work table. A photograph of her small family; her husband, Aditya, decked out in his Sunday best, and her seven year old, pigtailed daughter, Karina, smiling in all her toothless glory. 

She was in class today.

***

Present Day – Date: April 20, 2009, Ten years to the event.

[INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT] 

Vidya Vajpai: It was my worst nightmare. (deep breath) I stepped into the hallway, and children were everywhere; screaming, running. Books lay strewn on the floor. There were shoes left behind. (Closes eyes and sighs) 

My office is in the Secondary Block. The Primary Block, that’s K.G. to Fifth grade, was at the other side of the campus, connected by a long hallway and two sets of stairs. My daughter was in fourth grade on the other side of that hallway. 

There was blood; so much blood…  (voice breaks with emotion) It flowed from the bottom gap of the classroom doorway to my left. Students were inadvertently stepping in that blood and slipping. 

I don’t know how long I stood in that hallway. I couldn’t go inside. I was terrified. I opened the fire exits and the main entrance and herded the students outside. All I could think was: please let him stay inside that classroom. 

He did. 

***

April 20, 1999. 09:20 A.M.

Inspector Sushil Chahal was not happy. He had been on call the entire night. After attending to a couple of muggings, a drunken argument outside a rundown bar, and settling the domestic shouting match of a homeless couple; he was cranky, sleepy and exhausted out of his mind. 

He banged his head on the steering wheel of his beat up, police issue car. Couldn’t they have appointed me to a city where people actually slept? 

He was making his way back through early morning traffic, to his single bedroom apartment at the Police Colony in Naigoan, when the radio crackled to life. Chahal groaned. 

All units report immediately to JCBN International School, Parel. Location: Yogi Mansion, CTS No. 244, Off Dr SS Rao Marg. Code Red. I repeat, Code Red. 

Come again? Chahal frowned at the stereo. He banged his meaty fist on the machine; maybe it had finally broken down. Maybe now, they would issue a new car to him. Code Red, at a school? 

Received emergency calls at the switchboard about a school shooting. I repeat, it is a school shooting. Suspect is armed and dangerous. Approach with caution. 

All units report to JCBN International School…

The message continued in a loop; but Chahal wasn’t listening anymore. The colour drained from his face. Swallowing hard, he switched on the police siren and stepped on the accelerator. 

***

Present Day – Date: April 20, 2009, Ten Years to the event.

[INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT] 

Interviewer: You were the first police officer at the site. What was your first impression, do you remember? 

Inspector Chahal: Oh, I remember everything. It’s not something you can forget. (shakes head)

It took me less than five minutes to reach the school. By the time I parked outside, the stampede was raging. Parents, guardians, PRESS. Everybody was just blocking the exits, shouting; and the students were streaming out of the main entrance and fire exits. They were screaming their heads off. 

Someone in Class 12E had a gun, and he was shooting everyone. 

Another two minutes and I was outside the classroom. The hallway was empty. There was a large pool of blood just outside the classroom door. No gunshots. The Principal was standing at the other side of the main hallway. She just stood there, I don’t think she even saw me; she must have been in shock.

The other units were still a minute away. I couldn’t wait. I pushed the door open and announced my presence. I was sure he would shoot the moment he saw me, but he didn’t. I went inside and I just… (breathes out heavily) 

I couldn’t believe my eyes. Blood everywhere, bodies everywhere. And he sat in a corner, covered in blood. The gun aimed at his head. He looked at me and there was nothing in his eyes. Just Blank. 

(rubs his eyes) Ten steps between us. Ten. He pulled the trigger before I could take even one. Nobody could have stopped him. 

Interviewer: Many say that he should have been arrested, and sentenced; because he killed himself, justice has not been done to those who suffered at his hands. 

Inspector Chahal: (nods in agreement) The kids deserved justice, so did their parents. And, so did Parth.

Ms. Singh, I was a very unpopular kid back in my school days. And, I was picked on, constantly. The usual stuff: heckling, wedgies, head in the toilet bowl. Thankfully, nothing more. That was about forty years ago. I am fifty five now, and I still remember it. The bullying, the humiliation, the helplessness. (shakes head)

On an average, a child spends 6 to 8 hours of their day in school. Parth had been in the same school since K.G. So had most of his classmates. That boy was bullied by the same people, at the same place for twelve years. Relentlessly. 

Where is his justice? 

***

[CUE SOMBRE MUSIC] [Feature sponsors]

[DOCUMENTARY TITLE: DCBN INTERNATIONAL: A DECADE TO THE TRAGEDY] 

[Cut to Documentary Host. Camera zoom. Host Close up] 

***

Today marks a decade of the tragic school shooting at the DCBN International School, located in Lower Parel, Mumbai.  

On April 20th, 1999, Parth Ahuja, a twelfth grade student at the school, entered the school premises with a gun. Once inside, he proceeded to his class, 12E, and started firing at everyone inside. The shooting continued for a total of eight minutes. 

Nineteen, of the thirty students who had been in the class at the time, lost their lives instantly; four others passed away on their way to the hospital. The teacher and seven students survived with major injuries. 

We are here at DCBN International, where friends and families of the deceased have gathered to hold the annual prayer meet.

Ten years later, it is still hard to believe the extent of violence that rained within the premises of this school. Ten years later, there are many across the country, who deem Parth’s actions, as the final, desperate attempt of a lost soul to reach out. The truth; we may never know. 

***

April 20, 1999. 04:45 A.M.

Insomnia was nothing new for Lakshmi Ahuja. An attorney at the Mumbai High court, the things she saw in her line of work, and the people that she dealt with, were enough to keep anyone up at all hours of the night. But, her lack of sleep was not due to her work.

She had lost her mother to cancer at the age of four. The decline of a healthy human body, to that of a skeletal husk after two years of chemotherapy, was something she never forgot. Her thin, diseased face floated in her nightmares like a ghost. 

Six months ago, she lost her husband to a freak accident. A hit and run. The police had never managed to figure out what had happened that night. His ‘accidental death’ remained as another open case in the overflowing cabinets of Maharashtra Police. 

Lakshmi threw the sheets off her and sat up in bed, her back resting on the headboard. The digital clock on the side table glared 04:45 A.M. at her, in large, red, digital letters. The sky outside her second floor apartment window was an inky black. There was no point going back to sleep now, it wouldn’t come and Lakshmi knew it.

Quietly, she walked to the kitchen and started up the coffee machine. She noticed an empty plate and bowl by the sink. Sonu is up already? 

She tiptoed to her son’s room. The door was slightly ajar. She peeked inside. Moonlight filtered through the open window beside the bed; it was neatly made up. It was also empty. Her eyes widened in surprise. Had he actually followed through on his promise of going for morning walks? 

She smiled to herself as she picked up her phone and called him. The ringer sounded from his bedroom. He must have forgotten to take his phone. That boy! 

She had told him to carry the phone with him, always. After Mihir’s accident, she didn’t want to let him out of her sight for a single minute. If he was in an emergency, he was to call her immediately. She made a mental note of reprimanding him when he returned. 

Lakshmi did not see the note that her son had left on the bedside table. The note surfaced six hours later, just as she was starting to panic, and three policemen broke down her front door. 

It was the worst day of her life.

***

[Present Day – Date: April 20, 2009, Ten years to the event.

[INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT] 

Lakshmi Ahuja (Parth’s Mother): (stares at the camera) My son was taken from me. (Raises hand to stop the Interviewer from interrupting) I am not denying that he killed all those kids. He did. And, he killed himself. I also know that he was in pain, a lot more than he could handle, and I couldn’t help him. I wish I had been able to. 

(Fidgets with a wrist watch, presumably belonging to Parth)

Every year, they hold prayer meetings at the school for the kids who lost their lives. I lost my boy that day, too. But, I am not welcome there. (smiles ruefully) They blame me. (shrugs) My son can’t take their blame; so, I must. It’s okay. I feel so sorry for all those parents. I know what it’s like to lose a child. 

But, my boy was just as much a victim as those other kids. There are no prayers for him. 

I just wish that after he… (breaks off and wipes tears). After that day, I wished, I hoped that something would change. 

Oh, I know about the increased security checks and the metal detectors. But, do you really think, if someone decides to walk in the school with a gun, those machines would stop them? I don’t. 

Is this the sort of world that we worked so hard to build? We are sending our children to school, like we send young men to war. (shakes head. Looks at the wrist watch) 

The threat will not come from outside. It’s already inside. It’s in what we teach our children, it’s how we treat them; how we protect them from others and themselves, and, how we fail

***THE END***

Glossary:

Bhaiya: brother, a term used to address a boy older to oneself, either cousin or friend. 

*The Swan Song: A swan song is the final performance of an actor, singer, composer, poet, or the like. According to folklore, swans sing most beautifully before they die, and hence this phrase came to be used to describe someone who is leaving, or saying goodbye. 

Author’s Note:

On April 20th, 1999, at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, United States; Twelfth grade (senior) students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, murdered 12 students and one teacher. Ten students were killed in the school library, where the pair subsequently committed suicide. At the time, it was the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. The crime has inspired several copycats and “Columbine” has become a byword for school shootings.

This story is a fictionalised take on the tragic massacre. My humble attempt at drawing attention to this evil of Bullying. 

The majority of a child’s development happens during the early years; at home, in school. And it is the responsibility of parents, teachers and all those who work with children and around children to empower them to call out bullying.

If we want a better society, we need to work on children. We need to provide a safe environment and at the same time ensure that children understand and call out negative behaviour and stand in support with those who are being bullied. Calling out inappropriate behaviour will lead to questions, and only questions can lead to answers. 

***

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2 thoughts on “The Swan Song

  1. Highly disturbing just like any story that reflects truth. I am at a loss of words. I am lucky enough to have not ever tasted bullying. But I’ve known a classmate who was bullied and who retaliated in a bad way… Thank you for taking this up. The story was of course very very good.

  2. Bullying has become so prevalent these days in schools especially in the U.S. When kids go to school, we are always in fear until they come back. Your story resonates with the reality of schools these days. Very aptly described.

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