Thursday, January 22, 2015

Piyasree Dasgupta - Suspended for befriending boy, Bangalore girl kills herself

On 18 January, following an argument with her mother, 15-year-old Monali Mahala rushed to the master bedroom of her upscale, tenth-floor Bangalore apartment. She then locked it from inside and leaped out of the window. Before Monali turns into a forgotten statistic in India's suicide data - presently showing a spike - here's a one line reconstruction of the events that allegedly led to her death. Monali's principal suspended her from school for a day and called her mother to complain about her friendship with a boy from her school, a resident of the same building as hers.
After the initial wave of shock ripples over - the death of a child is never easy to digest, however separated you are from him/her in reality - some of us will  shake our heads, silently ruing the precociousness of children of this generation.
A routine, often-heard argument against kids committing suicide after squabbles with parents will be generously invoked in Monali's case too. "They're your parents. Can't they scold you?" people will say, shaking their heads at the tragedy. But in this case, we perhaps need to slip into a 15-year-old girl's shoes who has just been shamed by her school for befriending a boy.
Belonging to an age group of people usually known to be indiscreet and hasty with slapping labels on each other, Monali would easily and enthusiastically have been slotted as the school 'slut', the girl who got kicked out for being 'friends with a boy'. And since the school took exception to it and summoned her parents, there must be something gravely objectionable about her relationship with the said boy, Monali's school mates would be thinking.
Remember being fifteen-years-old? Remember huddling in washrooms and canteens, rolling your eyes about that boy and this girl, "affairs" and many such things that came with an aura of 'adult-ness' that fascinated you, but you felt compelled to reject and be critical of? Remember being easily hurt, easily shamed? Remember the dreadful feeling of having to face school a day after a rap from a teacher? And this was no ordinary allegation either.
The Bangalore Mirror reports: "Monali had been warned once before by school officials for pursuing a friendship with a boy in her class who also happens to live in her apartments. However, the two continued being friends and, on Monday, the principal saw the two of them together and threatened to suspend them," recalled Appaiah Suresh, who stays on the 13th floor of Alpine block, where the Mahala family too lives. Suresh said soon after the principal spotted Monali with the boy, her mother got a call from the school asking her to pick Monali up immediately because she had been suspended for a day and half."
The first thing that strikes you as odd in this bit of information is the school picking out a girl and a boy and 'warning' them to not pursue a friendship.
Does the school have a right to discipline its students? Of course. And does a girl befriending a boy, even if is in the way of dating, come under the school's discipline dossier? Obviously not. There is no report about the teenagers behaving inappropriately in the school which makes us wonder, what made the school turn into moral guardians and thrust their opinion on the girl and her family?
While a school might be concerned about the sexual behaviour of a student - we are assuming here that's what National Public School construed Monali and the boy's interaction as - the right to intervene over the same rests exclusively on the parents of the child. A school, despite its best interests should never lose sight of the fact that after all, it is a public space with little, or no scope for privacy. A punishment, therefore, is not a personal experience handed down by one person and faced by another with no one else looking on. Being hauled up in school is an experience of public shaming. In some instances, it helps mend the ways of students gone astray. But if used indiscriminately, like in this particular case, it might have severe, fatal repercussions.
One has to add that the school's response to Monali's relationship with the boy was fraught with the same alarmist, disapproving, anxious response that is the hallmark of the middle class society's reaction to an interaction between the two sexes. The overreaction to the students' friendship - calling parents, suspension - reeks of the same self righteous opinions on pre-marital relationships that make police officers rough up couples in public spaces.
It is true that Monali was perhaps too young to be in a relationship. But it is also true that she was 15, the age we credit sexual awakening with. It is not unusual to have crushes, infatuations and relationships at that age and we have all, with some success, waded through it. And most of us were not sent packing off from school for being friends with a boy. A school principal, of all people, should have known how to manage adolescent students and their interests.
Monali ended her life because clearly, she hated what she looked like to others. All of us have known that feeling and it's not an easy one to survive at 15.
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