01IMGihschool3 / 1st September 2001 ( Broadsheet - Sunita's artik ) / Students of Grade 10-A greet their teacher at the first day of school at the Indian High School along Oud Mehta Road. - Gulf News Archive Image Credit:

Their mothers were sisters and they were born days apart. Yet, the cousins were as different as chalk and cheese. The one with the spotlessly fair complexion was a bundle of enthusiasm and every teacher’s dream, while the other who was beautifully dusky was aloof and indifferent, her attitude screaming quiet defiance.

On the first day of school, as excited fifth graders who have transitioned into middle schoolers from the protected confines of primary school, my friends and I had the pleasant surprise of finding the cousins in the same class — our class.

However, the sisters did not share our enthusiasm for they went out of their way to steer clear of each other’s path. While the bundle of enthusiasm steadily picked up a spot as the teacher’s pet, the indifferent one’s silent defiance — that the teachers were familiar with — had ballooned into a sense of cold standoffishness and resentment. After her parents were summoned and after the teachers gave up trying to persuade her out of the shell of unrelenting silence that she had retreated into, she became the mute spectator who sat through every class unnoticed.

Then one day, we noticed her absence — the empty chair in the corner was cold devoid of its quiet occupant.

The sister with a zest for life had disappeared too. When she made a comeback a fortnight later, she appeared frail, jittery and shaken, living every moment through unending pain and perpetually at the brink of drowning into a flood of tears. Even when our hearts went out to her and when our curiosity could hold no more, we kept the flood of questions that plagued our minds to ourselves because by then we knew that the empty chair in the corner would stay empty for the rest of the year and that the quietly defiant sister would never come back.

Unusually quiet classmate

Our little minds could not fathom a reason enough to comprehend what could have led our unusually quiet classmate to take her life. Suicide was an unfamiliar territory and a strange word that suddenly stood dominating and looming dark in our mental dictionary. We held hushed discussions in-between classes and during breaks after the lone sister was gently whisked away by the school counsellor.

The principal, a nun, who was famed for her eloquent speeches and compelling stories, began making frequent appearances at our morning assembly delightfully enwrapping us in riveting tales, each one strengthening the emphasis on the sense of self-worth and value of life. There were exercises where we were made to reflect on our strengths with a reminder to work on our weaknesses. She explained that the one person that we could allow ourselves to be compared with was our own selves for self-improvement was the key to a happy and successful life. The assembly concluded with a prayer that was artfully strung for each one of us whom she believed was made with precious love and care.

Time heals wounds and the fog of loss and despair will evanesce to reveal the path of life ahead for us to move on. The lone sister has moved on and embraced her passion for classical dance. Her enthusiasm is still infectious, but the gaping hole of loss remains for being the best and bringing out the best in her had been a curse big enough to shoulder the responsibility of the weight of another life — her dear sister’s life.

While we tread through the gravelled and otherwise unfair path of competition, comparison and disillusion between the tarred roads of happiness and joy, it is good to take a moment from our meticulously planned inert existence to immerse in a moment of solitude that will shake off the shroud of depression and angst and question your practical mind: Is a failure, an opportunity lost, a mistake, the unrelenting pressures that we forcefully succumb to and the many opinions and words that measure the value of our existence worthy of giving up on life itself?

You will be pleasantly surprised to realise that the answer will always be a NO!

Pranitha Menon is a freelance writer based in Dubai.