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By Sparkian Prakruthi Sundar

Contributory Author For Spark Igniting Minds

A frustrated sigh escapes as Alfina surrenders herself to fall onto her bed. The wall bumped the back of her head. “Ammaa!” she muttered under her breath in pain. Her PG room smelled musty, but Bangalore’s cold, pleasing wind eased the dampness that hit her nose with every breath. On the floor was a slightly tattered duffel bag, half empty; the rest of its contents – like rejected outfits - had spilled over and were scattered on the bed. Her head felt heavily numb, as though filled with static noises. All of this was thanks to the panic attacks she was induced with for the last 20 minutes. With clenched fists in her hair, she breathes heavily looking at the dust-laced ceiling fan, trying to remember where she last saw her lecture notes. Her dream is so dangerously close, this can’t be happening.

She rolls over; probably lying on her stomach will make her feel better. Instead, she hears papers lightly crumbling beneath her and the layers of scattered clothes. Her eyes open wide, her breathing slows down and her heart begins to know peace again. “Maybe today won’t be that bad after all,” she mutters to herself, breaking the silence in the room where she lays alone.

Alfina checks the time on her cracked phone screen. It flashes 8:15. Her limbs and arms start moving faster as soon as she receives this signal. Stuffing her bag with a water bottle, the lecture notes that had noisily moved under her a few minutes ago and an already used textbook that read, ‘Undergraduate Chemistry (Organic and physical) Sem 2’ along with some other essentials.

Before bolting to get out of the room, Alfina gives herself a final glance at the thin and dirty mirror stuck to the iron wardrobe’s door. She notices the lack of sleep from the night before staring back at her as the puffiness under her eyes. Even her outfit is crumpled, but she has no time to care about it. Taking a deep breath in, maintaining eye contact with herself, she exhales and lets out one final,

“Hello guys, I’m Alfina, and I’ll be taking a demo class for you today. And maybe... um... if you like me enough, I would be your future chemistry teacher....”

“Okay! That’s enough,” she stops herself. She forms a knot in between her ungroomed eyebrows, as she wipes off her oily skin right under where her thin-framed spectacles sit. She gives herself one last smile that so naturally belongs to her face, while she gets torn between hope and dread deep in the pit of her stomach.

The crowded BMTC bus comes to a halt, breaking Alfina’s chain of thoughts. She hurriedly jumps off the bus realizing that it is her stop. The college is a 15-minute walk away from the bus stop. She starts walking on the dusty mud path beside a jam-packed road. Looking down on the path she is walking in, Alfina feels her phone vibrate against her hip from inside her lightly stained sling bag. They were notifications from a WhatsApp group with a series of texts that all read “All the best for today Alfina didi!”

That genuine smile framed her face beautifully again. It was the kids from the tuition classes she conducted back home in Calicut, a side hobby that she took on to financially support her family, right from her college days. They were mostly the children of Dalit families. Being from the same community, Alfina knew their hardships. Once in a while, she treated them with chocolates and snacks, taking money out of her own pocket. Biriyani day was the most treasured, where, on Alfina’s request, her mom served the children her special recipe of a delicious Biryani.

To the children, Alfina was their Favourite Didi. Remembering their kind and innocent faces gave Alfina the feeling of utmost comfort amidst Bangalore city’s rush hours.

Her consciousness shifted from her head to her heart, as if a weight dropped inside her chest. All she ever wanted was to be a kind, strong-hearted figure that her kids from the tuition class would look up to. And to be a source of Inspiration to prove to them that if she can do it, so can they. This demo class is too important for her; she can’t afford to let anything go wrong. “I need to make those 30 minutes count” she thinks to herself.

Alfina’s footsteps slow down as she reads out “GITAM (deemed to be university)” looking up at a board nearing her. She checks the time again. It is half past nine, and the demo class has been scheduled for 10 a.m.

Entering the premises, she makes her way through a cemented path with evenly spaced potted palm plants on both sides. She sees students in neatly tucked-in formal uniforms that comprise baby blue shirts and navy pants, ID Cards hanging around their necks, and neatly polished black shoes on their feet. The entire campus is filled with groups of these students sitting or walking around. Some boys are already playing a game of basketball on the court.

As she passes by the students, she can hear them converse in English, “Bro, did you watch the match last night? Man! Sainz made it to the pole, P1 man, Ferrari is finally catching up, it was so crazy,” and the other responded, “I know right! Also do you wanna catch up for FIFA tonight? Gotta put my PS5 to work a little bit.”

P1? PS5? Alfina feels like she has entered an alien world. Nothing seems familiar; everything is so alien that she almost feels like an imposter, an outcast probably. The voices inside her head get to work: “I don’t belong here” it resounds.

Asking for help from the security guards, she reaches the faculty lounge. A marble floor room, with air conditioner and cushioned couches. The teachers are busy sipping tea and sharing their student anecdotes when Alfina walks in. Her heart is pounding against her chest. The teachers glance at one another at the stranger’s arrival.

“Are you here for the demo?” one lady with a warm smile adorning a yellow printed saree asks Alfina.

“Yes!” she replies with a formal smile.

Alfina can’t muster up any other sentence than just asking where she can get some tea. “That’ll soothe me down” she thinks. 9:50 a.m., the alarm on her phone buzzes. She has to get to class. Trying to gulp down her hot sweet tea, Alfina spills a few drops on her light blue headscarf. “Not now, please!!” she lets out a frustrated moan and leaves the room.

The stain isn’t that evident, but to her, it seems like the worst crime that she can ever inflict on herself. “So stupid, so stupid!” She chides herself while she briskly walks to a washroom on the second floor just 2-3 rooms away from the class she is supposed to teach. She wants to wipe the stain off with water, but she stops herself. Something tells her not to. She knows it will worsen the stain. The 10 o’clock alarm buzzes and Alfina leaves in pursuit of the classroom.

Chatters fill the air in the corridor. An open skylight in the middle of the building to the right and classes with white walls to the left. Alfina enters the class, the dread inside her stomach swelling up when she sees the crowd of students in front of her. Whispers and small giggles that sounded like taunts to Alfina fill the classroom and drop down to silence as soon as they all spot her. It feels like she is suspended with no support.

Alfina tries to find something to lean on and grips the edge of the teacher’s table. The classroom even has a projector dropping down from the middle beam, so fancy! Alfina starts going through her lecture notes for a brief moment and the chatters resume. She notices that in the seating arrangement, there sat a girl on the third bench, with no one sitting next to her, whereas three girls sat together on the next one.

The girl has her hair matted down with oil on her scalp, while the rest of it was tightly tied in braids, with the ends revealing her bushy curly hair. She seems worried, as her hands rustled through her bag.

Alfina clears her throat and the class falls silent again. But the noise of objects clattering coming from the third bench didn’t stop. Alfina clears her throat again and stares at the girl.

“Sorry Ma’am but I can’t find my textbook” she says standing up. Now her face matched Alfina’s line of sight, and she could see her clearly. She has a gentle face, and big eyes, a sense of familiarity hits Alfina.

“Can you please share it with someone for now, and focus” says Alfina. The girl opens her mouth to say something but closes her parted lips to look at her neighbouring classmates, greeted with disappointment, she sits down slowly, her expression of worry not leaving her face. Alfina hears a voice call out to that girl and she looks up to see that a paper ball is thrown at her while a voice from the back calls out meanly, “Hey Rat trap, focus on the new teacher,” and giggles erupt.

Alfina feels disturbed seeing this play out in front of her. She couldn’t afford to make a scene now so walks up to the girl to hand her the textbook she carried with her today. “You can refer to this for the time being” she gently smiles. The girl’s eyes lit up.

Walking back to the front of the class again, Alfina realises it’s time for her to start the teaching, as soon as she faces the crowd of students, her anxiety sets in. All eyes are on her, the feeling of impending doom running through every single blood vessel in Alfina’s body. Scratching the inside of her palms with her fingernails on the table behind her, she thinks “Maybe I should start my introduction”, but her mouth feels so dry and sore, her tongue sticks to the roof of her mouth. So instead, she turns her back towards the students and writes on the board in all capital letters “THEORIES OF HYDROCHEMISTRY.”

She faces the students now, examining their faces. They all seemed very blank yet intimidating. How can she feel inferior to students?

“Hello, umm I’m Alnifa...I- I mean Alfina, and I’m here to teach chemistry.” She speaks feebly and gulps down what feels like a stone. “Alnifa? Alnifa? What did I just say? What happened to the proper sentences I practiced all night?” She chides herself again.

“Can you speak louder?” calls out the same voice from the back. A slim, fair skinned boy with gel making his hair stand, smirked at Alfina.

Rahul can’t help but notice something different about the new teacher. With a mischievous smile, he tears out a piece from his notebook and starts sketching and scribbling on it. After he is done, with utter pride in his creation, he passes on the discreetly and neatly folded note to his friend Ishaan. The note is making its way throughout the class. Another boy stands up to say, “Ma’am we’re honestly very bored of theories of hydrochemistry. Can you teach us something else?”

“Wait something else??? This is all I prepared for this whole class. What do I do now?” Alfina thinks to herself in panic, but to the class, she says, “O-okay I suppose, like I will look for son-something.” Fumbling every sentence that she speaks makes her feel really low. She wipes the beads of sweat forming on her forehead and upper lip with her hand and to the sides of her Kurta. “Ew!” she hears a voice.

Alfina notices a note fall near her feet. She picks it up and instantly wishes she never did. Tears prick behind her eyes but she has to move on crumbling the paper aside. She shakes her head.

Alfina walks back to the girl, to refer to the textbook again. Aggressively flipping through the pages of the textbook to find something, she picks it up in her hands. But the book just doesn’t stay still, her hands tremble. The girl being in close quarters with Alfina notices her hands and looks up at her in concern, while the class goes back to chatting.

For a moment Alfina’s vision goes blurry. The mic screeches which forces her to shut her eyes tight. She stood alone in the black auditorium again, the spotlight shone so bright on her that it could blind her. There she was, trembling in front of a crowd like she was 19 again.

She was on the stage for a recitation, but all she could hear was the single sheet of paper fluttering between her fingers. The whole auditorium could just hear the paper too, because no words came out of Alfina. She ran away from the stage with heavy tears rolling down her cheeks that day. That was her first Panic attack. The blackness of the auditorium faded into white plastered walls. She blinked back into reality, realising that she had zoned out for a minute at the very least. It’s been 10 minutes since she walked into the class.

The girl from the third bench stands up and says, “Ma’am, I had a doubt about hydrogen bonding,” in a feeble voice. “Guys, she can speak?” Rahul laughs mockingly. The girl this time turns around and glares at Rahul which causes him to look away.

The girl has a sweet voice. Her uniform isn’t that neatly ironed like the others. Alfina treats herself to a gulp of water. Alfina’s panic eases a little bit at the girl’s question, but the constant thumping against her chest always accompanies her.

“Wh- What do you ahem want to know about hydrogen bonding?” she asks.

“How do they form bonds in water?” the girl replied.

Alfina takes a few steps towards the class in between the benches, still sweating. She says, “Can I get four pencil rubbers and two sharpeners please?”

“Rubber?” A student looks at her confused, “Do you mean an eraser?”

“Ah- oh yes, of course, An Eraser”

Collecting the material, she further steps into the middle of the class, “Suppose the sharpeners are oxygen atoms and the rubber, I mean- Eraser is Hydrogen, every Sharpener is accompanied by two erasers at all times which forms a molecule, but then each Eraser is attracted to the sharpener of another molecule, and thus they form intermolecular bonds in between themselves, A friendship more like.”

The girl creases her eyebrows in doubt.

“Did you get it?” Alfina asks, turning towards her.

The girl nods in obligation. “You don’t have to say yes just because, it’s okay if you say no, the explanation may seem silly” Alfina says

“Could you repeat?” says the girl hesitantly.

Alfina was used to explaining things this way to her tuition kids. She further explains with diagrams on the board, and it all makes sense.

In the middle of the class, the fan cools off Alfina’s sweat and worries. She proceeds to say, “Chemistry, for me, is the study of relationships of friendship and enmity between elements, it’s more fun like that”.

She hadn’t noticed but the supervisor for the demo class had entered the class when she was engrossed in drawing diagrams on the board. She had a positive expression on her face which reassured Alfina.

The class bell rang, and a familiar proud smile appeared on Alfina’s Face. The girl on the third bench had unknowingly helped Alfina with the class.

After the dismissal of the class, Rahul makes eye contact with Alfina and bows his head in shame. She calls the girl from the third bench towards the teacher’s table and asks her name. The girl’s kind eyes squint and small dimples form on her dark cheeks when she smiles and says, “Vemula, Ma’am, Vemula Irulan” and walks away.

About the Author

Prakruthi Sundar is a 19 year old designer pursuing her bachelor of design in Srishti Manipal. Her course and area of interest lie in human centered design. Prakruthi has always had an attraction to narratives and stories. She gets enchanted in the process of character building and loves imagining fictional characters and building their past, present and future. In her free time she gets lost in the world of music and stays there.

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