The Hindu news report from Coimbatore announced: “Dr Saroja Prabhakaran, Director of Avinashilingam education trust institutions, Coimbatore, passed away on 11 January, 2020. She was 77. She was undergoing treatment for her ailments and died of cardiac arrest.”
For any reader, this news would have hardly evoked any special feelings – but not for the 20-odd Arunachal girl-students studying at the Avinashilingam Institute. For she was our warden, but more than that, a mentor, a role model and a mother far from our homes…
Warden Miss, as we used to address Dr Prabhakaran, had been our former vice-chancellor, and had served the Avinashilingam Institute for Home Science & Higher Education for Women for six decades, starting as a professor of Tamil, and deputy registrar. But she had decided to dedicate the rest of her life as a warden and a guide to thousands of rural and urban girls from all over India who study in this prestigious residential institution in south India.
We saw Miss as someone who always worked hard, dedicated and so focused. She was someone who demonstrated high standards of ethics, ideologies and values. In spite of not being well for many years, she made sure that all the rules and regulations were properly followed by students. She ate the same food prepared for us hostellers. Sometimes, we also called her Hitler Miss, because the ways she dealt with students and parents were unpredictable. She made students cry and everyone silent with her talks. OS Chandran, our local guardian and a retired deputy commissioner in Coimbatore says, “A strict disciplinarian who sometimes courted controversies by her no-nonsense attitude, the safety of her wards was always uppermost in her mind. There can be none who can replace her in her dedication to her tasks.”
We, the students from Lohit and Dibang Valley, have been studying at the Avinashilingam Institute and staying in the hostel for the last five years. All the Northeast girls have always adored Warden Miss, who has always been a great teacher and friend to us. She was one of the strongest women we have ever seen in our life. She always bestowed so much affection on all the Northeast girls. She guided us in the absence of our parents and we truly shared a pure relationship of mother and daughters. She loved, cared for and protected us. She always stood for us through thick and thin. She made sure that none of the Northeast girls faced any difficulties. Our hostel life couldn’t have been easier without her.
There were times when we were not treated well by the mess staff. We went crying to her, complaining about silly things like, “We want curd with sugar,” even though none of the Tamil students take sugar with curd. And from that time she made sure that we get sufficient sugar and we never faced this problem again. Being Northeasterners, we are habituated to having rice for meals and there are days in the hostel when we get idli, dosa and chapatti, and on those days she ensured that we were provided rice too.
The best quality about Miss was that she never discriminated against anyone. It’s almost three years I’m in this hostel and she was the first person who never asked where you belonged to and never treated us like we are from another state. Not that she didn’t scold us at all; she also scolded us until we had tears in our eyes. But we knew in our hearts that whenever she scolded, it was only for our good. She made us laugh, cared for us, and loved us unconditionally. Whenever she scolded she also consoled us by saying, “You all are my daughters, and if you don’t stop crying, I won’t be able to sleep…” And then we used to cry more loudly with tears.
When all the students used to go back to their respective homes during the brief holidays, only the Arunachal girls stayed back, and we tried our best to follow the rules and regulations of the hostel, such as attending every morning and evening prayer – and we sang prayer songs in Tamil. We cleaned the shrine and she was pleased to notice. When all the students came back, she spoke appreciating us, and everyone applauded. The small things that brought us laughter, smiles, tears and anger, that we shared with her, will always remain deep in our hearts.
Sadly, we have a great regret in our life: We wanted to congratulate Miss for having been selected in December 2019 for the lifetime achievement award by our university alumni. Unfortunately, our most beloved Miss entered into glory before it could be conferred. It was too late to express our gratitude and love towards her… and I realize that we should never hesitate to express our affections to anyone who means so much to us.
Indeed, her passing away is a great loss for all the students, especially for us from the Northeast. Our senior alumna, Manisha Halai, says: “Whenever we were in trouble, Miss stood for us like a pillar and always supported us and guided us. Nobody could have handled the hostel students the way she did. She has always been my role model throughout my five years at AWU.” We Arunachal girls salute her for her lifelong free service to the Avinashilingam Trust hostel, in spite of her great health issues.
We still remember her last smile as she bid adieu to us on 21 December, when we were leaving for the winter break and we wished her merry Christmas with love. But who thought it would be our last meeting? Why are goodbyes so hard? Our hearts hurt thinking she is no more with us, but we also believe that now she can be in peace, suffering no more physically.
We will always remember Miss with a warm prayer, immense gratitude and love. I truly believe legends live on forever, and she truly will. So many hearts will always be with her. Warmest prayers, Miss, for you now and always…! (Jeenamsi Ngadong is a final semester BA English student at the Avinashilingam Institute for Home Science & Higher Education for Women, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.)