...Ma is in the University library. She is very fidgety, and it seems she is looking for a book. She would open a book, flip a few pages, and then throw it away. She is going from one shelf to another doing this. I am my younger self, and I am sitting at a desk with a plate in front of me. I could also see my father, who is standing at the library reception and talking to a man. The man is smiling. Then I see a cupboard of books fall. These shelves suddenly seem to grow, like daunting tall buildings. The next thing I see is that all the books and shelves from this library are falling and everyone is shouting and running in panic. Ma starts screaming my name and calls for help. I am looking for her beneath the stack of books but can’t find her. I see her silver bangle lying there and in desperation, I try to move the books to look for her. Then I woke up...
Sunita went silent and kept looking at a photo Mr. Bose had at his desk. This photo was of a woman, and it was hard to say how she may be related to Mr. Bose. His room had minimal furniture and enough space for his client’s dreams to hang in silence and suspense. There was a small window, which was blocked by an adjacent building. Mr. Bose then asked:
“Do you want to talk about your parents’ relationship with each other?”
Sunita got a little defensive and said: “Why do you mean? What about it?”
“No, I just meant that if there is anything you want to share about them. What do you feel about how they were with each other?
“Oh, they were good...like how couples are in the village...sometimes they fought like everyone else...”
“Do you remember any major incident”?
Sunita was silent and kept looking at the woman in the photo frame.
“Once, when I was little, I don’t know...maybe 7-8 years old, Ma went away for a few days.”
“Where did she go?”
“I don’t know.”
“How did you feel about this?”
Sunita remained silent. Mr. Bose did not prod her further. Then Sunita was gone. She did not come for the next session.
Mr. Bose was a psychotherapist with a practice of over 20 years. No amount of twisted behaviour could surprise him anymore. People came, they did the talking, they paid, and they left. Mr. Bose had to be the witness and sometimes work through the pauses and silences of his patients, only to get them talking again. Was Mr. Bose always listening? One can never tell. But he did have the kind of face which made you believe that he was there. As a practitioner, Mr. Bose had a decent career. But his parents did not take his profession seriously. In short, they were a little disappointed in him. They wanted him to be a doctor, in the sense they use the term. So, Mr. Bose always wanted to do more. One of his ultimate dreams was to write a book. All his life he had used concepts that were generated in Europe and the US, and wanted to make original contributions to psychology that emerged from the Indian context. This led him to tantra and other occult practices. It was at a conference, where he presented a paper on witchcraft, that he met Sunita. After the conference, as he was walking back to his car, Sunita walked up to him and started crying. Mr. Bose asked her to see him in his clinic. She started meeting Mr. Bose every other Friday. As a policy, he did six free sessions for students. Mr. Bose firmly believed that people have more benefits of therapy when they pay.
Usually, Mr. Bose had middle-class urban clients, but Sunita was different. The first couple of sessions went into just knowing about her. Unlike his many other clients, it did not take Mr. Bose much effort to make Sunita speak. She would speak in a low grim tone, rarely looking at Mr. Bose. Sunita was from Madhya Pradesh, and both her parents were illiterate. They had a small piece of land and his father had to migrate for their sustenance. Supported by her teachers, Sunita managed to complete her school education. Then, with the support of a local NGO, she managed to take admission to an engineering college in Delhi. Being in the city was a huge economic and cultural challenge. She faced problems with the English language, making friends and simply surviving in an economic sense. But somehow, she had eternal confidence in her abilities. In her school, she had always identified with the stories of people who came from small villages and achieved great things. She knew she had a story and never felt shy to share her journey and aspirations. This only garnered a lot of support for her. Her seniors gave her their college books, one of her professors arranged for an extremely affordable accommodation, and then one of her friends got her into a freelance job that required minimal English. At the right moment and at the right time, people, and circumstances around Sunita, somehow arranged themselves to help her continue. At such moments, she was reminded of her mother’s words: “I could never do it, but you are destined to study.” During her engineering days, she took an optional course in psychology. She was hooked. She gave much more time to reading psychology books than to reading about her core courses. After completing her Engineering, she had a placement offer, but she decided to pursue a master’s in psychology. For her master’s thesis, she was working on the psychology of adharma.
Mr. Bose did not see many college students, but most of them that came to him had issues of self-worth. They all felt inadequate in their own ways and that bothered them to depression. In Sunita, he saw the opposite. Despite her challenges, she had developed a strong sense of self-belief. She was doing things that people in her position would usually not. Instead of just taking a job after engineering, she pursued her interests. But then her world changed. She got to know that her mother has fallen extremely sick. She wanted to know more, but her father could not explain anything over the phone. The next thing she got to know was that her mother had died. In a state of shock, she returned to her village. Having left for college, this was her first visit back home. It was a place that had terrible memories for her. When she reached, she was told that her mother was taken by occult powers and practiced black magic. Eventually, those dark powers took away her organs and she died. She could not make any sense of all that she heard in the village. Then her father and friends in Delhi advised her to go back to Delhi. She did so but could not concentrate on her studies. She started missing her classes. Her friends eventually pushed her to attend a conference that her college was hosting. There she heard Mr. Bose speak about witchcraft and hesitantly approached him in the parking.
In the fourth session, Sunita shared about her childhood memories. She shared about her life in the village and mostly about her bond with her mother. She shared how her mother was so proud of her education. Towards the end of the session, it emerged that Sunita was feeling extremely guilty. She felt that in pursuing her dreams, she neglected her mother. Drowned in this emotion, she had a lot of difficulties keeping up her freelance work and college. In her fifth session, Sunita just stayed silent for the whole time, which was unusual of her. Then, in the sixth session, Sunita broke her silence and shared a dream she had a day before. She stopped coming to the sessions thereafter. Mr. Bose was left confused. Did she stop because the free sessions were over or were it something he said? It was against his professional ethics to contact his patient, but he went against that to message Sunita, offering her to continue therapy without any fee.
A week later, Mr. Bose received a call from Sunita. Her father had started drinking a lot since his mother’s death and was severely unwell. He was admitted to a local hospital, and she was unsure what to do. Mr. Bose knew that Sunita could not afford to lose her father as that would devastate her career. Mr. Bose encouraged her to go home and get her father treated in a private hospital. Knowing her financial situation, Mr. Bose gave Sunita the money required to manage this situation. Sunita was reluctant and embarrassed, but all these emotions were secondary to the desire to save her father. With the support of Mr. Bose, Sunita went home.
Mr. Bose never heard from her. Her phone was not reachable. Mr. Bose remained concerned but had no way to know her whereabouts. Then, he also got busy. In a couple of years, he completed his book. His book covered two incidents of witch-hunting from rural India. Both these women had extramarital affairs. One of the underlying theses of his book was to show the association between female sexuality and witchcraft. The book release was quite an event for Mr. Bose. He had his parents and colleagues in the audience. His short talk about his book filled everyone with great intrigue. At the post-talk dinner, he ran into Professor Rao, who had invited him for the college conference where he had met Sunita. Mr. Rao was an expert on migrant issues and labour policy. Mr. Bose could not help but ask if he had any news of her.
“Sunita! That psychology student?”
“Yes. Where is she these days?”
“Oh, she is in the US. She is doing her PhD from UPenn.
“Wow. That’s great.”
“Yeah. I wrote a recommendation letter for her. What a story she has.”
Mr. Bose looked at him, nodding, but not quite sure of how much Mr. Rao knew about her tragedy. He was also confused about why she did not contact him again. Just as he was lost in his thoughts, Mr. Rao said:
“Imagine a girl from the village, without parents, and yet has gone so far.”
“Oh, maybe you don’t know, but she lost her parents in an accident when she was 7-8 years old. They were migrant labourers and working at a construction site when the building collapsed. She was there on that site, but miraculously survived.”
Gautam Bisht is the founder of Sinchan Education and Rural Entrepreneurship Foundation, which works on rural youth development. He is also a doctoral student in the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, with a special interest in design based research and language arts.