‘If I can’t study, I can’t live’

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    ‘If I can’t study, I can’t live’

    Written by Sukrita Baruah
    , Rahul V Pisharody
    | Hyderabad, New Delhi |

    November 22, 2020 4: 30: 38 am





    This photograph was taken on October 26, a week before Aishwarya’s death, at Telangana’s Kondapochamma reservoir, which she visited with her friend Varshini and her family. She had spent almost all of October at Varshini’s, returning home on November 1. She killed herself the following day.

    For 19-Year-old Aishwarya Reddy, the future glittered with possibilities — her civil service dreams, a scholarship to her name, and trips with friends to Old Delhi and the Taj Mahal. Yet, there was a looming spectre, of financial distress, that she feared would snuff out all else.

    Over a year ago, she had catapulted from the one-bedroom home that she shared with her sister and daily-wager parents in Telangana to the red-brick corridors of a college in the national capital, one of the premier institutions in the country. On November 2, she died by suicide at home, far away from Lady Shri Ram College (LSR) for Women.

    In her final note, she wrote, “I am a burden for my family. My education is a burden. If I can’t study, I can’t live.”


    Her family says she had been stressed about a notice from college asking her to vacate her hostel room, and her family not being able to afford a laptop for her to attend online classes.

    Aishwarya’s family first realised the full breadth of her academic potential when she stood first in her school in Class 10 with a 9.5 CGPA. In recognition of her potential and the family’s financial constraints, she was offered free schooling at the senior secondary level by a private institution in Shadnagar. In Class 12, she stood second in the town with 98.5%. With some push from her teachers and others close to the family, Aishwarya applied for a Bachelor’s degree in Delhi, hoping that it would be a boost for her UPSC preparations.

    Explained

    Systemic gaps

    Aishwarya’s death points to larger systemic gaps in the university and college set-up with respect to students and their wellbeing. In the weeks and months before her death, Aishwarya had sent out several SOS — filled up a college survey, in which she was among 95.5% respondents who said that online classes were affecting their mental and physical health, and even responded to an offer of help by actor Sonu Sood.

    Her high percentage secured her a seat in the B.Sc. (Honours) Mathematics programme at LSR, the second highest-ranked college in the country in 2020, according to the Central government’s National Institutional Ranking Framework.

    At the time of her admission, her father Ganta Srinivas Reddy, a motorcycle mechanic, mortgaged their home for Rs 2 lakh to support her education. Today, he has to pay back the loan with an interest of 24.54% at an EMI of Rs 4,904 till July 2026. Aishwarya’s 16-year-old sister Vaishnavi dropped out of school after Class 7 to let the family accommodate her elder sister’s education. While Reddy says he would have gone to any extent to support Aishwarya’s studies, the truth is he had already given most of what he had.

    Aishwarya’s father Srinivas, a motorcycle mechanic, had mortgaged their home for Rs 2 lakh to support her education.

    In many ways, Aishwarya was part of a shift taking place in some of the top colleges of Delhi University, with their balance of student population now heavily tilted towards students from outside Delhi, a significant number of them from the southern states, and many from families with first-generation college-goers.

    “When she first met me and found out that I’m from Kerala, she immediately said, ‘Thank god I got someone from South India!’ She probably meant it as a joke… I’m not sure,” says Hana Fathima, Aishwarya’s roommate in the hostel at LSR.

    “We were both completely new to Delhi. My Hindi was quite weak and I had trouble communicating. Aishwarya’s Hindi was better than mine though not great. But that didn’t bother her and she spoke with confidence,” she says.

    Aishwarya’s friends talk of her as the front-bencher with a fierce focus on studies, but for whom the campus and hostel had thrown open a world of possibilities.

    “She was a brilliant student. We used to sit in the first row in almost every class… All our teachers knew her. In our first year, we had a maths department festival and she was part of the organising committee,” says Indu, Aishwarya’s classmate and one of her closest friends in college.

    “She was quite childish and even careless sometimes. I remember scolding her once — we were in an auto in a crowded area and she had her phone almost hanging out. But when it came to studies, she was completely focused and tidy. She would study day and night during exam season,” says Hana.

    Even with her focus on studies, it was the hostel which became the centre of her life.

    Her friend Varshini recalls how they first met. She and her parents were in the college queue at the time of admission when Aishwarya’s father heard her family speaking in Telugu. He walked over, introduced the two girls and asked Varshini to look after his daughter. Shy and reticent at the start, Aishwarya went on to spend almost all her time in Varshini’s room.

    “We used to spend a lot of time in the hostel. Sometimes we would hang out until late on the hostel lawns. Most of the time, we just chilled in my room, chatting, studying, watching movies. In fact, we spent so much time there that we told each other that when we came back to Delhi, we must not waste more time like this and must explore the city before we got busy with preparations for competitive exam. We had been to the Mughal Gardens and explored North Campus, but we also wanted to see Old Delhi and maybe even go to Agra to see the Taj Mahal,” says Varshini.

    For all the unevenness of the city and the world outside, the hostel, Varshini explains, was a safe, familiar space for the girls.

    “Many of us from South India have studied in state education board schools, and in our departments and in college sometimes, we can sense that we are considered not good enough. People think state boards mark liberally, which is why we get high marks in Class 12. But in the hostel, there are girls from everywhere and not just elite city schools. Those of us from similar backgrounds formed a really tight group and the hostel was a safe space for us,” she says.

    However in March, close to the end of her first year of college, as students returned to their homes because of the nationwide lockdown in response to Covid-19, Aishwarya’s life upended completely.

    Read: No one should meet such a fate, says Aishwarya Reddy’s father

    Aishwarya was closest to her father Srinivas. Yet, her last few months at home had been filled with arguments, unspoken guilt and resignation. Just before the lockdown, Srinivas, who worked at a bike-mechanic shop in the town, had borrowed money to open his own shop. The lockdown meant that Srinivas’s business never took off and his wife Sumathi’s tailoring work dried up too.

    In August, Delhi University began its third semester in online mode, and Aishwarya’s college began conducting classes from morning till 5 in the evening. As a science student, she also had online practical papers.

    Sumathi says that over the last few months, Aishwarya had been stressed about her online classes and not being able to submit her assignments because she didn’t have a laptop. Besides, she received a message from the college hostel authorities asking her to vacate her room by the end of October. “She wanted to go to Delhi. But we did not have money to afford her train ticket. How could we have got her a laptop?” Sumathi says.

    As per LSR hostel’s policy, only first-year students get accommodation. In the anger provoked by Aishwarya’s suicide, the college authorities said they would consider hostel for second-year students as well.

    Sumathi says Aishwarya had hoped to find private accommodation along with three other friends. “Any private accommodation outside would have cost at least Rs 15,000 a month, apart from a few thousand rupees for food and travel. Besides, we would have had to make a deposit of Rs 30,000,” she says, adding that the family’s monthly earnings never crossed Rs 10,000 even before the pandemic.

    On September 14, Aishwarya even reached out to actor Sonu Sood, after he launched an initiative on Twitter to support students seeking financial assistance.

    “I never expected that a laptop is very important as of now. But due to online classes, the laptop became extremely important to study 2-practical papers. I don’t have a laptop and I am unable to do practical papers. I am afraid I may fail in these papers. Our family is completely in debt so there is no way to buy a laptop… I am not sure whether I will be able to complete my graduation due to lack of financial support,” she wrote in an e-mail to Sood.

    She further said: “I did not apply for a student loan (in the bank) because studying in Delhi University was not my plan from first due to my financial condition but somehow with the encouragement given by my mentors and to pursue my dream (IAS), (I was) admitted in Lady Shri Ram College for Women and now I got into debt….”

    A month earlier, on August 6, Aishwarya had received a provisional offer letter from the Innovation in Science Pursuit for Inspired Research’s (INSPIRE) Scholarship for Higher Education (SHE), offered by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), but was unsure if she would receive the money.

    “I may be able to get SHE-scholarship by next year (processing and not sure), but I am requesting you to help me through this difficult time so that I don’t have to drop out of college,” she wrote in the email to Sood.

    Also Read | No laptop to hostel stay, key concerns were flagged to college admin by students

    Attaching copies of bank statements and other documentary proof, she further wrote: “If you are really willing to help I will show my sincerity through my results.”

    Less than two months later, Aishwarya killed herself.

    While her death has rekindled the conversation around the digital divide and how online learning has widened existing fault lines, it has also thrown into sharp focus the need for colleges to introspect the limits of their structures.

    While questions are being raised about whether LSR did its bit to address the digital gap and if it went too far in implementing its hostel policy given these times, besides larger issues of how well, if at all, colleges are equipped to handle structural exclusivity, LSR authorities have been maintaining that Aishwarya never approached her teachers, the college counsellor, or the administration for help.

    Hostel warden Ujjayini Ray says, “She did not in any way communicate… to the hostel seeking an extension in dates for collecting her luggage, nor communicate her financial problems… Several students had applied for an extension, each application was discussed and a general extension given till November 10. Even after that, extensions have been given to students on genuine grounds like cancellation of trains, illness, etc.” After Aishwarya’s death, the college has indefinitely postponed the hostel vacating process.

    The Sunday Express reached out to LSR Mathematics Department Teacher-in-Charge Monika Singh and another senior teacher, Jyoti Darbari, to ask about Aishwarya’s academic performance and whether the department had been tracking if any of their students had been falling behind with the shift to online mode. However, neither responded to the queries.

    At the end of her first year, Aishwarya had a CGPA of 7.91.

    A mathematics teacher in another DU college said while a 7.91 CGPA would not be at the top end of a competitive classroom, it would still be considered “good, consistent score”.

    Aishwarya’s friends said she appeared to be “satisfied” with her scores.

    While the college has now announced some steps to offer relief to its students, including making hostel rooms available to second-year students on a ‘need’ basis and expediting the process of disbursing income-based freeship amounts, a teacher at LSR, not among Aishwarya’s teachers, said that over and above college-level interventions, Delhi University must also rethink the way it has transitioned to the online mode.

    “Students have approached us saying that they are finding it hard to cope with the long hours of online classes but we have explained to them that there is nothing we can do about that because there are a certain number of credits we need to complete over certain hours of classes. The university has simply sought to transfer whatever was happening offline to the online mode,” the teacher said.

    In September, the LSR Students’ Union had raised the students’ concerns over long online classes by conducting a survey of over 1,400 students. Aishwarya was among the 95.5% respondents who said that the classes were affecting their mental and physical health. The survey found 27.5% respondents without access to laptops, of whom 91.6% responded saying college authorities had not reached out to help with alternatives.

    Union general secretary Unnimaya says the college didn’t do enough to reach out to students. “LSR is structurally a very elite space and students from socially and economically marginalised backgrounds feel alienated… I don’t know how the administration can say that they weren’t aware that this student was having a difficult time when student representatives have been pointing out to them that there were certain issues which were distressing students during the lockdown,” she asks.

    Also Read: After student suicide, LSR announces fee cuts, hostel relaxation

    Aishwarya had spent almost all of October, the month before her death, with Varshini, who lives in a town around four hours from hers.

    “I spent nine days in her house in October and then we came to my house. She was with us till November 1. We celebrated Dussehra together and spent the month in each other’s company since we had met after so many months. At no point did she share that she was so distressed. We even had a plan on how to vacate our hostel rooms — some of us would rent a flat and keep our things there and since Aishwarya was having a hard time, she needn’t have paid the rent till her issues were sorted. My uncle works in a bank and my mother had said she would help her with an education loan.. All that I’m reading and hearing now feels so far removed, so distant, from our last days together,” she says.

    On her last night in Varshini’s house, the two girls had had a chat with Indu — who was at her home in Andhra Pradesh.

    “We had spoken about our practicals but it was a very optimistic conversation. We had spoken about how we weren’t alone in our problems and that our teachers are understanding and wouldn’t force us with submissions we couldn’t do,” says Indu.

    She now often wonders why Aishwarya gave up; she was, after all, the most optimistic among her friends.

    “At the beginning of our first year, there were times when I would feel really low because of how new everything was to me. But Aishwarya would be the one who would encourage me… She would do her best at anything she was part of and she was strong, brave and joyful.”

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