She stood by the window and watched them. The playground reverberated with the exuberant chatter and laughter of her children. They had just finished a soccer match and their joyous backslapping enlivened the dull horizon. A smile lit up her face. It waned the next second.
She turned away from the window slowly, a frown clouded her eyes.
For how long would she be able to keep it from them? Sooner or later they would come to know.
The TV blared in her office but she hardly paid attention to it. She was too dazed herself to care for the news anchor’s distressed blabbering.
Do the children deserve this fate? Principal Charusheela hobbled to her chair in despair.
‘Anu, please shut the TV’, Charu was roused from her meditations as her assistant raised the volume.
‘Now there’s no escape, madam. Let’s face the reality with fortitude rather than slipping into denial mode’, she spoke up in a firm voice. Ever since she started working with Charu, she had only been a silent supporter. But today she couldn’t stop herself from blurting out. Madam needed the reality check as much as she herself needed. She tried to keep herself from tearing up even as they heard the news anchor, Tanima speak nervously.
As you can see in this video, a giant asteroid is hurtling towards the earth and according to the scientists it’s going to hit us just 120 days from today. This is not an April Fool’s Day joke, viewers. The scientists have arrived at the conclusion after weeks of focused studies and precise calculations. We are all going to die. The entire humankind and the flora and fauna is going to be wiped out forever. Unless everything is wrong about their formulas and equations and calculations. Unless God wills it otherwise. Unless some miracle takes place.
Let’s forget our disagreements, our conflicts. Let’s unite, irrespective of which God we believe in, which religion we follow and start praying for some miracles.
Droplets of sweat trickled down the news anchor’s brow as he fell silent, panting heavily. The children’s happy babble could still be heard as the staff herded them inside and the sun set on another beautiful day.
The school she had founded in Kherwal, a nondescript village of Jharkhand, was thriving now. Charusheela had arrived at this village some years ago to conduct a study on the resurgence of naxal movement in the mineral-rich state. Charred and dilapidated houses bore testimony to the naxalites’ brutal and mindless violence that had shaken the entire country. Police and district authorities had come, conducted some routine enquiries, clicked pictures and left.
Children with rotund stomachs and gnarled bones sat staring at the setting sun with blank eyes.
There were no adult males left there. And no teenage girls and women. They had either joined the movement of their own volition or had been taken away as hostages and slaves.
Charusheela hugged the children. And that moment marked the end of her entitled, privileged life as a professor.
She fought back the administration which didn’t want her to settle down there. In the name of her security and also the need to maintain peace in the area, they tried to scuttle every attempt of hers to buy land and build the small school. Permissions were withheld at every step until she approached the higher authorities. Even the recurrent naxal attacks couldn’t deter her firm resolve to set up a school for the destitute children.
Today around two hundred children, not only from Kherwal but also from many surrounding villages, were studying in her school. It made her heart swell with pride to see her children win laurels in sports as well as performing arts at the national level. Funds often fell short but God had always been kind to her. Donations from friends, well wishers and even anonymous benefactors kept them going.
Was that fight and effort all for nothing? Was she going to allow herself to die without even trying?
‘120 days. That’s all we have, madam. And our work has just begun! We have so much to teach and learn, so much to give and receive. And now this…’ Anu couldn’t keep up the facade of strength any more. She put down her head in the lap of the feisty woman whom she looked up to as her elder sister. Silent cries made her entire body heave.
Charu patted her hand, holding back her own tears which threatened to spill any moment.
‘How are we going to break the horrific news to the children, madam? They are so young. How will they understand the enormity of the situation. They would be heartbroken, madam.’
‘We will think of something, Anu. Right now we need to calm ourselves down before we break this horrific news to the kids. Always remember that when events happen which seem catastrophic…’
Anu raised an eyebrow…
‘Ahh…don’t give me that look, girl’, Charu retorted wryly. I know it sounds weird but when events happen that seem catastrophic, it’s important that we allow ourselves to come to a place of calmness. Panicking serves no one – neither us nor the people we are trying to help. Perhaps there is a larger purpose which we are not aware of right now.
Let’s sleep over it. We will find a way. Meanwhile, instruct the staff to not let the children get even a whiff of it’.
‘As you say, madam. But day after tomorrow is Children’s Day, don’t you think we should scrap our plans for the sports day? After all no one would be in the right frame of mind for celebrations after this earth shattering news.’
Charusheela smiled, ‘I know what I am going to do. Now you go and grab some food’, she nudged Anu out of her office.
As the school choir ended the prayers, Charusheela took the mic in her hands which were surprisingly very steady. Her face reflected not an iota of stress even though she had hardly shut her eyes the whole night. She gathered all her inner strength and started speaking. ‘My dear children, I am sure you are all gearing up for the annual sports day and I have a surprise for you. We are dedicating this whole week to you, the children. We have planned a series of fun-filled events for you; a movie, a play, an excursion and a grand feast are just a few of them.’ She spoke to a resounding applause and cheers from the excited children.
‘But you have to promise that you won’t neglect your studies as you have your term-end examinations the next month’. The applause faded out. The teachers looked at one another in consternation as if to ask if the founder madam had gone nuts at the thought of the apocalypse. What was the use of studies and examinations when the world was going to end in 119 days?
Three days later
‘Why are you insisting on holding classes, madam? What’s the point in teaching them Mathematics, Science and English now? What use is maths and science when they can’t help protect the mankind? Why shouldn’t we let the children enjoy to their heart’s content before the asteroid…’ the young teaching assistant, barely out of her teens, burst out crying.
‘Anu, please explain to her what my thoughts and tell them all to get back to their classes’, Charu’s voice held no traces of her inner turmoil and fears. She couldn’t afford to be weak now.
Seven days later
Monday morning, the school bore a festive aura with buntings and flags still adorning the premises. But as Charu entered the gate she could sense a pall of gloom hang around the school. The cheerful and noisy school was oddly solemn that day. Bereft of the children’s joyous banter, the playground looked barren. She braced herself to face the inevitable…the deserted classrooms.
On Friday, a child had found out the news of the impending catastrophe when the television was mistakenly left switched on. The frightening news had spread throughout the school like a ravenous wildfire, ready to devour everything around it. The teachers had been inundated with questions; many children had broken down while many of them had been too shocked to react.
Charu madam had been sent frantic summons from almost all classrooms. She had decided to take the bull by the horn. She had called the students in the playground for a heart to heart talk. A barrage of furious questions and emotional outbursts erupted from all corners. The teachers struggled to pacify the traumatized children while holding on to their own sanity. Somehow, Charu’s soothing words managed to have a calming effect on the distraught children. But for how long? the elders had wondered.
Some of the children had then left for their weekend visit to home. ‘Perhaps to never return, madam’, the teachers had been blunt, ‘others will also leave sooner than later’.
‘We should also go home. Don’t we deserve to be with our loved ones in our last days? Why should we be toiling when everyone of us is going to die? It’s fruitless, madam. No use at all.’ The ruthless voices were almost unanimous.
Charu had heard them out with patience. ‘Show me your hands’, she asked in a plain voice.
They were flustered but held up their hands.
‘So some of you have empty hands while some of you are holding your mobile phones. Now tell me what you are going to take with you when you breathe your last?’
‘Nothing!’ they smirked.
‘Exactly! One wise man once told me that we must empty ourselves before we leave this world. Do you know what that means?
‘To leave out worldly possessions here and depart with empty hands’.
‘Yes and no, my dears. It also means that one should leave all their goodness in this world only. Pour out the innate goodness you are born with and make the lives of your fellow beings happier.
You remember the sermon that Sri Krishna imparted to Arjun in Bhagvad Geeta? Karmanye Vadhikaraste maa phaleshu kadachan, Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani which tells us to do our work irrespective of its outcome. Always remember that God has sent you on this earth with a purpose. Your best obeisance to your God would be when you leave the earth with empty hands.’
With those words, Charu had walked out of the room. Without a backward glance.
As she dragged herself to the nearest classroom now, she could hear a strange hum and screech. Had some pigeons got into the classroom?
As she opened the door, a wondrous sight greeted her. Not only the children but many of their parents were also sitting inside.
‘Good morning, madam!’ the sing-song greeting had never given her more joy than today. But what are the parents writing in those new notebooks? she was perplexed.
‘We are here to study, madam. Asteroid or no asteroid. We never valued education when we had the opportunity. We blamed the governments for our poor condition and chose to tread the path of crime and violence. Even though we quit the path of rebellion but still we never thought of resuming our studies. Today we wish to correct that, madam. We want to learn everything that we had once despised.
‘But why now when we have less than four months to…’
‘If not now then when, madam?’ One of them retorted. ‘Isn’t it said that we learn the value of something only when we fear losing it. We have already lost a lot of time but we can’t lose this last opportunity that God has given us. Better late than never, right?’
‘You will let them study and play with us, ma’am?’ a child whispered, anxiety writ large on her face.
‘Of course my child!’ Charu bent down to envelope the child into a tight hug. Tears of unbridled joy streamed down her cheeks.
The apocalypse was still 113 days away.
Photo By: Rene Bernal from Unsplash
This is an entry for #Countdown, a Beaks and Claws Club exclusive event. Check out the event guidelines here: https://writers.artoonsinn.com/room8/countdown/
Room8 appreciates your rating the story out of 10 in the comments.