Dr Sharma woke up and checked his phone. ’10th October’ read the date. It looked like any other pleasant sunny morning. But for the best psychiatrist in the city, it wasn’t any other date… it was World Mental Health Day. Excitement surged through his heart as his schedule showed four talks at four different places to enlighten the common man and medical professionals on the biggest taboo of society- mental health. But the one that he had waited for with bated breath was the one at his alma mater. It was a talk for medical students on the topic that summed up his entire life and who he was today – Effect of Ragging on Mental Health.
He was waiting backstage for his talk to begin. He glanced again at his topic and not for the first time, those memories began to flash before him. And this time, at the very same spot where it all began…
“Karan Sharmaaaaa!!!” a loud voice bellowed. 18-year-old Karan stood in a line of half-naked boys. The fear was rising to his throat as the number of boys in front of him in the line dwindled as each was pushed forward to perform a derogatory act on the stage… acting like a girl or pretending to be a eunuch or dancing on an item number being the least humiliating thing that could happen! All this in front of fifty senior boys!! Karan pondered over whether the fact that the college warden had told them to not fear their seniors and report any ragging, which was a highly punishable offence on the day of their Dean’s address made any difference to these guys. He wondered what would happen if he just declined to come for what the older guys called ‘bonding sessions’. Being backstage, he couldn’t see any of them perform and hence couldn’t know how many of them had cried on stage or done whatever worse scenarios he could think of. “Karan Sharmaaaa”, the voice came yet again snapping Karan out of his thoughts and despite being in the college for only two weeks, Karan recognized the voice only too well. Jagga was the biggest bully in campus who, more often than not, crossed his limits with ragging. After failing the first year a whopping four times, Jagga had probably felt that the only way to seek validation was from the helpless newbies. All his batchmates had passed out and no junior had dared to ask his real name. And he managed to complete the picture with his outfit and perennially overgrown beard that made him look more like a gangster. But that one thing which could almost be his identification was that he wore four large rings, one on each of his rugged fingers. Each ring had different engravings of lions and was made of gold.
Karan walked up on stage and thanked his stars when all he was told to do was a dance on a popular song. He sighed and walked safely to the other end of the stage almost not hearing the name of the boy next in line. Sunil, his best friend from junior college who was also his roommate walked up to the stage. Sunil was a short fat boy with thick spectacles and was extremely conscious of his appearance. Karan could see that Sunil was feeling much worse than himself about having to take off his shirt in front of the seniors. As a profusely sweating Sunil walked to the centre of the stage, a lewd song began to play from the speaker. “C’mon fatty, start pole dancing, “Jagga hooted from the audience. Sunil stared straight as if in a trance. These sessions had been happening since the first day of college and Sunil had somehow been targeted the most and he had always ended up getting the worst acts to do. Unknown to all the other boys except Karan, Sunil would cry himself to sleep every night. Suddenly whole room erupted in chants “Fatty!! Pole dance!! Fatty!! Pole dance!!” Karan had never seen a person tremble in fear as he saw Sunil that day. But what came then was worse. All that pent up fear gushed out and Sunil threw up on stage. Doctors were supposed to be empathetic but Karan saw quite the opposite that day. When they should have stopped and let the boy go, the chants grew louder intermingled with uproarious laughter, claps and a few body-shaming waves of abuse. Karan looked helplessly at his friend and was too scared to stand up to fifty seniors. Sunil, without even bothering to pick up his shirt from backstage, ran out of the auditorium, crying amidst all the laughter. The ordeal ended an hour later and everyone was returning to their rooms. Karan knocked on the door asking Sunil to open it. He had decided to take Sunil out to a nearby park to help him clear his head. He knocked again this time calling out his name. There was no response. Karan felt his pulse quicken. Yet he tried again. And again… And again… Hoping that Sunil had just cried himself to sleep and nothing else. He gathered his batch mates and all began to bang the door. Finally calling the hostel warden, when they broke the door open, Karan didn’t even know why he was surprised to see whatever he saw. Because there lay the kicked chair, and the rope tied securely to the fan and those feet dangling at eye level… and no signs of any note.
Dr Sharma finished his talk to thunderous applause that he was so used to receiving by now. He could seamlessly blend psychiatry with jokes as well as inspirational messages that made him a much-loved speaker rather than just a doctor. As the question and answer session began, a student spoke, “Sir, have you ever undergone ragging yourself?” With a small tear in his eye and a grin, Dr Sharma replied, “It’s best to not to dig some graves, my son.” The student took the cue and sat down. And then compare spoke on the mic, “I would like to invite Professor Jagannath Shah to felicitate Dr Sharma for his brilliant speech.” A dressed, clean-shaven man walked up on stage. He had drooping shoulders and with many years of experience, Dr Sharma could make out at a glance that this man was depressed. He wasn’t sure but he probably saw a tear in his eye and his face looked familiar too. He gave Dr Sharma a bouquet but as he took his hand to give him a handshake, he felt the man slip a note in his hand. It was only when he looked down that he saw it. Four golden rings with lion engravings on them. And Dr Sharma felt his breath stop …just like old times. As he got into his car, he hastily opened the note. The sight of Sunil’s handwriting blurred his vision with tears. All it said was, “I’m sorry but I’m a coward and a coward cannot be a doctor. Nobody else is to blame.”
And below that was a note in different handwriting in what looked like fresh ink.
“My biggest grief is not that I pushed your friend to kill himself but that he felt I wasn’t even worthy of his last thoughts and let me go instead. I don’t think God can forgive me but I dare to pray to God every day that you may forgive me.
Final year, G.G.M.C, Mumbai