Guilty of Innocence

The minute I entered the classroom, I knew something was amiss. The girls were huddled together in groups, their faces bent forward, discussing something in whispers. This was not new, but strangely enough, even my group – the “Grand Band of Geeks” – was discussing something animatedly. I wondered what common topic had united my group with the rest of the class. The last time my group was this excited, we were debating if Pluto was a planet. It nearly came to blows.

I looked at my friends questioningly. “Sankari is missing,” said Arul. I shrugged my shoulders. Sankari had been absent for the past 2 days. “What’s so strange about that? She probably has a touch of flu.” I scoffed. “Why are you so excited? Is it a new strain of a virus?” I hazarded a guess. “No, you Dodo” hissed Latha. “She is MIA. Missing”.  I must have still looked clueless, for she added in an exasperated tone “She. Has. Run. Away”.

“What’s this?” I thought. We were in the 7th grade, a little too early for boys, desperate love affairs and elopement. “We should ask Fatima,” I suggested. Fatima was our Class Leader. “Did you think of that on your own?” said Arul in mock amazement. For a group of girls had already gathered around a frazzled Fatima. When did Sankari run away? Who informed the school? Have the police been notified? “Girls, girls!” said Fatima, parting the crowds as Moses parted the Red Sea. “Sankari’s father gave a leave letter 2 days ago, stating she had a flu. But today, the Headmistress was notified that she has indeed run away from home. And yes, the cops are on it!”

“Golly! Do you know where she ran away?” asked Geetha. She was a tad slow on the uptake.  We rolled our eyes.

* * * * *

Our visibly upset class teacher, Miss Jacinta entered the classroom with our Headmistress Sister Maria in tow. We immediately simmered down and took our seats. Our Headmistress always had that effect on us.

“As you all know very well by now” said Miss Jacinta dryly “Sankari is missing”. “We heard she has run away from home, Miss” Geetha blurted out. Miss Jacinta flinched as if she had been slapped. “Girls, we don’t know if she ran away or if she has been kidnapped” she said. A hush fell over the class. “Don’t mince words, Jessie” snapped Sister Maria. “They’re old enough to know the truth”. She turned to us and said “Your class-mate Sankari left home in the dead of night 2 days back. She packed 2 sets of clothes and her teddy bear. She also helped herself to Rs 100 from her mother’s purse”.

“But sister, why did she run away?” asked Anne in a tinny voice from the backbench. “That’s what we don’t know,” said Sister Maria, with beads of perspiration on her forehead. “But the priority is to find her and get her back home safe”.

Wagging her finger, Miss Jacinta said, “This is not a hot bit of gossip. Please don’t spread unsavory rumors about Sankari. Gossip can destroy a girl’s life. Above all, don’t talk about this to anyone except your parents”.

Thus admonished, we settled back to thinking about Sankari and what we knew about her.

* * * * *

I knew very little about Sankari. My 1st interaction with her was on a school play. I played a Noble Man (ours was an “All Girls” school) and Sankari played my valet. She would say “I pray thee for leave, My Lord” and I had to say “Of course, Jack. Here’s a purse full of gold coins for your service”. Jack was the hero of the play, so all of us wanted to play Jack. Sankari got that role because she had short hair. The rest of us were sore for a week, eyeing our long tresses with disdain.

Apart from that, our worlds seldom crossed. Well, they crossed occasionally. I tutored her in algebra, her weak subject. We lived in the same neighborhood and we sometimes took the same bus to school. We exchanged pleasantries, talked about cricket and music. She seemed like a cheerful, ordinary, if not an excessively bright girl. What could have caused her to run away?

“Have you seen her family?” asked Fatima. I nodded. They lived in a small, nondescript house 2 blocks away. Their fence badly needed repainting. Her father worked somewhere in an “office”, which is euphemism for “I don’t know what he did for a living.” Her mother was a homemaker. Sankari had a younger sister. Her photocopy.

They went out for a walk on Sundays – Sankari clinging tightly to her father’s hands. Once a month, they ate out in a restaurant – The same restaurant, every month. Sankari sat next to her father. He would feed her morsels sometimes. A normal family, one would say. And boring.

* * * * *

A few days later, Sankari was found, sleeping in an abandoned shed in a nearby village. She had not fought with the police when they found her. She obediently seated herself in the squad car.

We were warned not to probe Sankari – At all. “Don’t ask her why she ran away or where she went”, we were instructed. “Make no mention of the fact that she has been missing for the past 1 week”. Miss Jacinta turned a baleful eye towards us. “And if anyone makes even a causal mention of her disappearance or cuts a cruel joke – They have to contend with me”.

And so Sankari returned to school, 2 days later. She looked cheerful, as always – As if nothing had happened. We struggled, but maintained a normal relationship with her – we kept up the usual banter.

Miss Jacinta took me aside. “I need a favor from you, as you are the hall monitor”. “Yes, Miss?” I added helpfully. “Er, just keep an eye on Sankari without making her nervous. We don’t want her to, ah, do anything dangerous to herself”.  I goggled at Miss Jacinta stupidly, willing her to say more. But she dismissed me with a wave of her hand.

During lunch, our classroom was locked. The Hall Monitor barred everyone from entering the classroom. As you know, I was the hall monitor and here was Sankari trying to sneak into the room. “I just need my medicine,” she explained placidly to me. “I, uh, need to see the medicine” I insisted, following her into the classroom. “I’m the hall monitor”. “Sure” she said and handed me the medicine from her pencil box. It said “Paracetamol”. I wordlessly handed the medicine back to Sankari. Unknown to me, I had her on a suicide watch.

* * * * *

Where did Sankari go? What did she eat? Where did she sleep? Above all – Why did she run away? I never got any germane answers to these questions. Neither did my peer group.

Years later, I was having coffee with a client, who had become a close friend of mine. I was always puzzled by my client’s intense love-hate relationship with her father, though the details eluded me. On that day, she was talking about her sister – Millie. “Do you know, once Millie ran away from home? We found her 10 days later”. I nodded my head sympathetically. “My father – She couldn’t handle what he did”, she said tears welling up. “If only the cops knew, they would have thrown him in jail and lost the keys”.

I was slowly beginning to understand why Sankari ran away.


  1. Quote
    Sreedhar NK said April 3, 2011, 2:56 am:


    I rest my case. You seem bent on making my case for me further and further. Good luck to you.

  2. Quote
    senthil (subscribed) said April 5, 2011, 8:07 am:


    /** Even Wikipedia says “part or whole” is imagined in fiction. It doesn’t say “no part of should be real”. Get Real!

    One classification in wikipedia is “realistic fiction”, where some part of the fiction can be real.. Note: Only some part.. So how much of this post is real decides whether its a fiction..


    /** I rest my case. You seem bent on making my case for me further and further. Good luck to you. **/

    Probably we can look at it in general.. when such incidents happen, the family fears only for its relatives and NOT strangers.. Its natural, and happens everywhere, when something odd happens.. It happens in our office environment too.. and it happens in this sastwingees community too.. (For eg, most people hesitate to participate in discussion for which they are NOT comfortable.. eg religion, caste, etc)..

    We need to acknowlege, the common society too have such kind of hesitations.. they need a solution and mechanism to deal with such odd events, and NOT abuse from us..

  3. Quote

    Senthil – Even if a small part of it is imagined or conjecture, it is fiction. It is “Fiction” if the author says so. Its not the amount of reality that determines if something is fiction.

    You can think anything you want. I don’t have to convince you. I decline to discuss this further. End of discussion.

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