“She would say, ‘Appa (father), I want to become a doctor and build a hospital’. We would all laugh, but she would go on… say the hospital would be free of cost for all patients. She dreamt so much…,” says Shanmugham, talking through his tears. As people poured in to pay their last respects to his “Paappa”, as the family fondly called their youngest and “brightest” member, Shanmugham remembers her as someone who lived for her dreams, while they lived “only for her”.
On Friday, Shanmugham’s daughter S Anitha, 17, committed suicide at her home in Kulumur village in Tamil Nadu’s Ariyalur district, days after the Supreme Court turned down the Tamil Nadu government’s petition that sought a year’s exemption from the National Eligibility and Entrance Test (NEET) for admissions to medical courses. Anitha was a petitioner in the case in the Supreme Court.
Anitha had scored 98% marks in Class 12 and, according to the state education department’s evaluation, scored 199.75 out of 200 for engineering and 196.75 for medicine, which would have ensured her a seat in either stream without NEET. However, according to her family, she scored only 86 out of 700 in NEET. In a recent interview to a Tamil TV channel, Anitha had described how helpless she had felt while appearing for NEET with an unfamiliar national syllabus.
Arun Kumar, 21, the youngest of Anitha’s brothers and an engineering student in a private college in Trichy, says, “Paappa was the smartest in the family. She would study only for a brief while, but when the marks were out, she would have scored the maximum. She had answers for everything and her handwriting was so beautiful…. Unlike other girls her age, she never cared for clothes, makeup or new slippers, though we loved buying her clothes, slippers and bindis,” he says.
Her eldest brother Mani Ratnam, 28, was Anitha’s “second best friend”, after grandmother Periyammal, 75. Ratnam, an MBA graduate who has enrolled in a coaching class in Chennai to prepare for government exams, chose to stay back in the village ever since the Supreme Court denied Tamil Nadu’s demand for exemption from NEET.
“Ratnam chose to stay home for a few days since we knew Paappu was very upset because the Central government hadn’t supported our demand,” says Kumar. “After our mother committed suicide about 10 years ago, it was our grandmother and Ratnam who were her biggest strengths,” he says, talking about how Anitha and their grandmother Periammal would often “quarrel and play” with each other. On Saturday, it was Periammal who was seen consoling her son and grandsons.
A visibly shattered Ratnam, who sat next to Anitha’s body in an open ground where it was kept for people to pay respects, says, “I don’t believe she is gone. She would crack jokes, roam around and fight with little kids in the neighbourhood. Even on Friday, she seemed normal – collected water in the morning, prepared rice and a curry.”
After Anitha’s Class 12 results were declared, Ratnam says, he had rushed to buy her a new cellphone. “I don’t have a cellphone but bought her one,” he says, showing Anitha’s new touchscreen phone, the plastic wrap on its screen intact. “Even our father borrowed money and bought a new TV for Rs 22,000 to celebrate her Plus 2 marks. We did not know that this NEET would spoil our lives,” says Kumar.
While Shanmugham works as a head-load worker at Gandhi Market in Trichy town, about 100 km from home, he ensured his five children did much better than any of the others in the village of mostly farmers and farm workers. Like Kumar, Pandian, the third of Shanmugham’s sons, is studying at a private engineering college, and Satheesh Kumar, his second son, started working as a collection agent for a private bank after his MCom. After her Class 10 at the private St. Philominal Higher Secondary School in her village, Shanmugham had sent Anitha to a residential school in a neighbouring village for her Plus 2.
Fr. K Robert, who taught Anitha English in the village school, says the last time he met her was after her Plus 2 results, when she came with sweets. “How simple she was. I strongly believe that the false promises made by Central and state governments left her depressed,” he says.
Local DMK MLA S S Sivasankar, who made Anitha the face of the struggle against NEET and got her to represent hundreds of rural students, says, “I still remember her brother Mani Ratnam bringing her to a protest we organised at Ariyalur, and seeking my help. I was surprised to hear her marks. Until then, I hadn’t come across anyone from such a deprived background with marks this high. Later, more students approached us and I took them to Chennai to meet party leaders,” says Sivasankar, recalling how Anitha agreed to go to Delhi only because she hoped the Plus 2 marks she had got would be recognised and help her become a doctor.