By Dr. Alpana Ghosh
This article first appeared in the May, 2011 issue of Prabuddha Bharata.
It was a late Saturday afternoon and the college hours were almost over. I was in the laboratory busy overseeing the chemistry practical classes and warning the BSc honors students to finish quickly as the bell was about to ring. The lab assistant brought me a visiting card saying that someone wanted to see me. A bit puzzled, I thought: who could be the visitor at this time, during college hours? I glanced at the visiting card, it read: Lieutenant S. Tirky. I was not able to remember any army personnel I knew; all the same, I went to meet the unknown Lieutenant. “Good afternoon ma’am,” she greeted me. I was astonished; standing in front of me in an olive green uniform and with a broad smile was our ex-student Sunita. Was it a miracle?
I remembered a tall and well-built, introverted girl, but what I saw now was an elegant young lady wearing an impeccable uniform. After we hugged I asked her how did this transformation take place. “I will tell you later ma’am, but I have now come to invite you. My parents would like you to come to dinner at our home tomorrow. Please ma’am, would you come?” I gladly accepted her invitation and led her to the laboratory where I introduced her to the students. The girls looked at her with bewilderment and respect; they could not imagine that someone from their college, who had worked in the same lab where they were now seated, had become an army officer. They excitedly asked her questions. Sunita answered them one by one.
She explained how she passed the Combined Defense Services Examination, what her training was about, and other things regarding her career. She was in Namkum, near Ranchi, and this was her second posting after being promoted from Second Lieutenant to Lieutenant. I kept gazing at her, delighted by the composed look and easy way of talking. I congratulated her again. She smiled and promised to tell me her whole story the next day at dinner. She left in her military jeep. On my way home my mind was flooded with memories of Sunita.
The first time I saw her was in the first year BSc. class, seated in the corner of the last bench. She was a tall, nice looking tribal girl who used to sit daily in the same place and who was never interested in any interactive question-and-answer session. Even when asked a question she used to reply: “I don’t know ma’am.” One day in the teacher’s room I inquired whether anyone had taken notice of her. Almost all the teachers said: “Oh! You are asking about roll number 12; she is a stubborn girl. She never takes interest in any class or answers any question, sits on the last bench without the least motivation for any subject and is not interested in practicals either.” I was surprised to find that every teacher had noticed her behavior in class.
The next day I asked roll number 12 to meet me after class. She came and I took her to a study room where we were alone. I asked her: “What is your name?” “Sunita, ma’am,” she replied. “Can I ask you why you don’t take interest in any class? Do you have the necessary textbooks?” She lowered her head and kept silent. I continued: “If you don’t have the textbooks just tell me; I can them to you. And you also know that all textbooks are available in the library.”
“I have got the books ma’am,” she answered. “Then what is your problem?” I retorted. Then, calming down, I softly asked her: “Would you tell me your problem? I could help you. I would like you to be a good student.” She paused for a long while and quietly took out a photograph from her notebook. It was the photograph of a young boy of about seventeen. She kept looking at the photograph and her eyes became moist. “Who is he?” I asked. “My only brother,” she replied.
She then narrated her plight: One evening she went shopping with her brother and while returning, some miscreants kept teasing her and tried to snatch her purse. Her brother could not restrain himself and started fighting them. They were four and her brother was alone. They hit him on the back and he fell. She was somehow saved by the crowd, which came to their aid. She took her brother to the hospital, but even after a prolonged treatment he could not be cured; he became a cripple forever as his spinal cord was injured.
The whole family was shattered by the incident. She was feeling guilty about it and lost all her self-confidence; she was not able to even speak properly, so she avoided answering questions in class. Obviously, she could not concentrate on her studies due to her constant guilt. She always carried her brother’s photograph and prayed for him. Her father was about to retire from his job and she was the only one to support the family, but she was not able to concentrate on anything or think in any way in which she could help them.
I had no adequate words to console her; I simply said: “What has happened, has happened; it cannot be reversed. But you can help your family by being strong. Do you know Swami Vivekananda’s expression`face the brutes’? There was an interesting incident in the swami’s life, in which he was chased by some large monkeys in Benaras, and the faster he ran, the faster came the monkeys; they even tried to bite him. From the opposite side an old monk shouted, “Face the brutes!” He then turned and boldly faced the monkeys, which instantly stopped, fell behind, and fled. Later the great swami said in one of his lectures: “That is a lesson for all life—face the terrible, face it boldly. Like the monkeys, the hardships of life fall back when we cease to flee before them.”
She looked intensely in my eyes and asked: “How can I ma’am?”
“The first thing is to be strong; you have to look ahead as you are now the pivot of your family. You are tall and well built. Do you have any interest in sports?”
“I was a good athlete in school, but now …” she lamented. I requested her to take part in college sports and to also join the National Cadet Corps (NCC).
Her eyes brightened: “I’ll do it ma’am. I’ll try my best.” Again I quoted another of Swamiji’s saying: “‘Strength is life, weakness is death.’ You have to be strong enough to look after your brother. Only mourning and remaining sad will not bring any good to you, your brother, or your family. You have to take a positive step to help them.” She promised me to properly follow these suggestions.
Henceforth Sunita was seen taking interest in class. She met me several times to solve problems of different lessons and different subjects. Slowly her performance improved. After about six months, in January, she came to me one day with a packet in her hands and said: “Ma’am, please bless me.”
She then opened the packet: it was a medallion. She excitedly explained that she had won it in a speech competition on the National Youth Day, Swami Vivekananda’s birthday. I wondered: this same girl who was so shy and remained sad in class won a prize in a speech competition, and that too on Swami Vivekananda’s life! I blessed her heartily and asked her how was it possible.
She replied: “The story you told me about Swami Vivekananda and the monkeys and how to face life situations made a deep impression on my mind. I told my brother about it and we purchased some books on the Swami’s life. They were so inspiring that the course of our lives has changed since then. My brother has taken admission to the Indira Gandhi Open University for graduation course through distance learning, and though still in a wheelchair he is much better now. He never thinks that life has stopped for him. I have joined the NCC, as you advised me. I had prepared my speech with my brother’s help and went on the stage with full confidence. And see, I won the prize!”
I told her to always remember that it was Swamiji who had helped her to come out of the terrible situation they were in. In my heart I also prayed to Swamiji for their success. Months passed and Sunita met me again after the final BSc results. She graduated with honors, second class. This naturally made her happy and gave her more self-assurance. I asked her, “What next?” and she replied very confidently, “Ma’am, I have fixed my goal and I will not stop till that goal is reached.”
Impressed by her words I asked her, “Do you know whose words these are?”
“Yes ma’am, these are Swami Vivekananda’s words,” and she then quoted the Swami: “Arise, awake and stop not till the goal is reached.” I was deeply touched.
I lost contact with Sunita for years, till that afternoon when she came to meet me in her olive-green army uniform and broad smile. Before reaching her house I bought gifts for Sunita and her brother. The best gift, I thought, was a book on Swami Vivekananda titled My India, the India Eternal. The next evening I reached her nicely decorated home. Sunita was in a simple civilian dress. She introduced me to her parents, then to her brother Joy—a bright young man using a walker. Sunita told me that Joy had taken up the Company Secretary ship course through distance learning and plans to start his own company. This was great news for me that he had started his life afresh. I greeted and handed him the book, which he appreciated very much.
Sunita’s mother came and said with folded hands: “You have saved us from great disaster.”
I replied: “It was not me but Swami Vivekananda. In every step of life we need his guidance.” Then, I quoted Swamiji: “‘Whoever works at a thing with his whole heart receives help from God.’ Your children have struggled and had patience, that’s why the sun has again risen in your lives.” Sunita led me to where there was a big portrait of Swami Vivekananda, just above the study table. Both brother and sister said they read at least one passage from Swamiji’s books every morning before starting their day.
Sunita said: “Ma’am, your words made such a deep impression, and I told Joy about it after coming from college. He too was moved. We started reading Swamiji’s works and got inspiration every day. Gradually, I started gaining confidence and joined the NCC, took part in different sports, and fixed up the goal to become an army officer, which I thought was the best option for me. I failed in the entrance test, but Joy encouraged me to reappear. The next time I succeeded. My first posting was at Jammu and Kashmir, and from there I was posted to Namkum, Ranchi, near my native place, where I am now.”
I asked her: “What is your assignment?” She smiled: “I am looking after Logistics—by now I have learned to `face the brute’ very well. Bless me so that I can always continue on the right path.” I was touched by her success story. We had a nice dinner together with her family. Sunita’s parents were very humble. Joy was a nice boy who talked about his plans for the future with great enthusiasm. All of us enjoyed the meeting. On my way back, I kept thinking of how a whole family was transformed by just a spark from Swami Vivekananda’s life and teachings.