“We need to start very young, so that what happened to Anitha wouldn’t happen to more people when they grow older,” says Anitha’s brother Maniratnam.

A library full of books and hearts full of love Anithas family keeps her memory aliveAll images courtesy: Kavitha Muralidharan
news Anitha Thursday, March 07, 2019 - 12:03

On March 5, 2019, S Anitha would have turned nineteen. Proudly donning a white coat, she would have chirpily walked into a medical college – if only her dreams and hard work had been realised. Instead, her memory was sitting as a statue in a library built in her honour, some 400 meters away from her modest home in the village of Kuzhumur.

“She would have been the first doctor from Kuzhumur,” her brother, S Maniratnam says about the young Dalit girl who killed herself almost two years ago, disappointed that she couldn’t get a medical seat despite scoring high marks in her board exams, because of NEET. Maniratnam has now formed a trust in memory of his sister, and runs a library for children. “We call it Dr Anitha Memorial trust and Dr Anitha memorial library. What else could we do for her?” he asks.

Maniratnam says Anitha was very fond of kids and would often babysit children in the neighbourhood. “But also, my interaction with many people including activists like Eniyan after Anitha’s death made me believe that I should start working with children. We need to start very young, so that what happened to Anitha wouldn’t happen to more people when they grow older,” he says.

On March 5, the library hosted a screening of international films for children, to commemorate Anitha’s birth anniversary. Maniratnam says there are plans to do this on monthly basis.

Work and play

It is a refreshing sight in a village like Kuzhumur. At least thirty kids gather every day at the library, and after playing some games, settle down to read. The library has carrom boards and badminton racquets for children to play.

Started in January 2018, the library was set up with support of many well-wishers who donated money and books. Since last year, the library has held many events. From organising literary celebrations for children, to summer camps, the library aims to intellectually engage children of Kuzhumur, most of who study in government schools. “I think these activities, besides reading, will instill confidence in them. Anitha was so focused just on her studies. It took her life away,” Maniratnam says.

Anitha’s family is yet to come to terms with her death. There are days when Maniratnam randomly walks into the house, asking Anitha to give him food. And there are days when the family feels guilty about the pressure on her to study medicine. “We had no idea what she was thinking. Maybe she wanted to give up; maybe she thought the family was struggling too hard to give her something she was so passionate about. Maybe she did not want us to suffer. We had no clue. I was working in Chennai when she wrote to me once that no force can stop her from becoming a doctor. She was supremely confident about it. Her world came crashing down when it did not happen,” Maniratnam says.

She was so studious that when the family insisted on having a puberty function for her in 2016, Anitha had resisted citing classes. The family managed to convince her. “In hindsight, I think she missed our mother. Just as we miss them both now. Probably, it would have been easier if only we had a woman – our mother or sister – to share our grief. Now we cannot even do that with each other,” he rues.

Remembering Anitha

Being the only girl with four siblings, Anitha was the bond connecting the entire family. The family says they struggled to even provide her a decent meal. “We still consume only PDS rice. But pappa had no demands. She had no particular favourite. She would just eat anything she was given, anything we had at home,” says her father Shanmugam.

“I would often tell her that it is her responsibility to keep the family together, if ever there are fights among brothers. In her death, she still does,” Maniratnam says.

‘Not a private affair’

It was Maniratnam who resisted his father’s idea of having a memorial for Anitha close to home. “I thought it should be a private affair,” Shanmugam says, “But Maniratnam pointed out that the money that came for memorial, the trust, and eventually the library, was not a private thing. So it cannot be a private affair. He had a point there.”

Shanmugam says the money that poured in after Anitha’s death was the kind ‘he couldn’t have imagined to earn, even if he had toiled till his death, till the toes on his feet were tied together.’ “It was so huge, and I was a mere labourer, yet I managed to educate my children,” he says, with a tinge of unusual pride. Reality hits him hard the next moment, “Of what use is all this? I toiled night and day, but she left us clueless.”

Carrying forward Anitha’s legacy

There is not a moment the family does not miss her. With Maniratnam’s wedding slated for March 17 at the library, they miss her more. “In our traditions, a sister is indispensable in wedding rituals. It’s a bond that is held together through rituals till death. At every step towards the wedding, we only miss her more,” Shanmugam says.

The father finds it difficult to even hand out invites, because they carry Anitha’s image. “I couldn’t even stand in the library during her birth anniversary event. I was so emotional and had to move away. Whenever I give an invitation, people see her photo and start talking about her. For them, it is an enquiry, the impression of which will last for few minutes. For us, it is the pain of a lifetime.”

The family however is determined to preserve Anitha’s memory, to carry forward her legacy. The library, they say, will survive, even when none of them do. The library will stand tall in memory of Anitha – a light that shone the brightest in their family and outside, even if for a short period of time.

Kavitha Muralidharan is a journalist with two decades of experience, writing on politics, culture, literature and cinema.

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