The Future Shows The Way …

Last week, Tara Tripathi Sarkar performed a big act. In the Straits Times this morning, Rohit Brijnath wrote about it.

You can’t imagine the nausea. Can’t feel the fatigue. Can’t touch the sores in the mouth. Can’t experience the diarrhoea or constipation. Can’t see what this drip of a chemotherapy drug does to the body. Except the hair. Always, in movies, in photographs, we see the hair gone. Falling in clumps from the head, vanishing from the eyebrows. It’s as if cancer leaves you naked, stripping away so much of you. Even vanity.

And so, in an attempt at visible solidarity with cancer sufferers, people shave their heads. It is a bare statement to raise funds for necessary research. It is painless and symbolic, yet I have failed to do it myself, as if the superficiality of vanity and the real absence of courage are stilling me.

My grandfather fell to lung cancer, dying in slow, painful motion, and so, yes, like you probably, I know this disease. I also know Thomas Jefferson’s words: “Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act”, and yet I don’t act.

But Tara Tripathi Sarkar did. And it’s why she’s better than me.

In a friend’s dimly lit study, Tara sits, one leg folded on the chair, arms semaphoring, two gold stars glinting in her ears, the room illuminated by her smile and the light reflected from a head with no hair. She’s healthy, loves dogs, fitness and movies and didn’t know what the word “vanity” means. She’s also shaved her head, cried when her hair fell out, and has raised $4,055 so far through St Baldrick’s Foundation.

Did I mention she’s 13?

At 13, you’re supposed to be unaware, Snapchatting after lights out and dreaming of Justin Bieber. You’re not supposed to be capable of taking a leap over the chasm that separates intent from action. It is the most telling of human acts: to not merely be good, but in fact do good.

Let’s be clear, this is no junior saint at work, no overdeveloped conscience in a precocious head, no child who read deeply on kids’ cancers and felt compelled by a rush of empathy. Discovery of the self is far more complex, it is about the first, tiny steps a person takes beyond his own, safe world.

And so Tara stepped out. And on her own.

Parents everywhere push their children towards virtue. Help a neighbour. Support a cause. But there is a substantial and separate beauty to the act that originates from a young teenager’s self, an idea to try something that is not coerced nor suggested by the parent. Where there is no adult hand to lead – in Tara’s case her parents were supportive – but only a childish one that reaches out tremulously to experiment on its own.

Tara is hardly the only child of her age in this city to shave her head and only representative of a breed. She’d heard about heads shaved for a cause. A friend told her she was going to do it. And she discovered St Baldrick’s Foundation, a charity that funds research for cures for childhood cancers and which has been supporting Duke-NUS’ Paediatric Cancer Research in Singapore since 2011.

So she sat, was shorn, was scared a little (what will people say?), yet emerged as an adventurer who’d made an early exploration into the idea of compassion.

The shaved head, for some, is a defacing of the self and is an idea that can alarm parents. People will stare, they’ll laugh, you’ll be that most terrible of things – different. You’ll stand out in a way we’re not sure you’re ready for. But perhaps we underestimate both the resilience of our children and their sensitivity.

Her head, Tara tells me, is an object of fascination, rubbed like a magic lamp. Respect has come her way, talk of bravery, a contribution from teachers in her school, stares, and yet also the awareness that “it’s OK to be bald if you’re a girl”. In a small way, perhaps not yet entirely digested by her 13-year-old brain, she is starting to appreciate the beauty of difference.

This is surely what we want, children who are sensitive to the differences, of colour, look, privilege, that percolate within a society. No one is advocating schools alive with unfettered self-expression and no boundaries, but blind conformity will suffocate the beautiful bits of individuality that make us so human.

It is where St Margaret’s Secondary School erred last year by chastising the brave girls who shaved their heads for Hair for Hope and did not wear wigs. To cover them up was to miss the point.

Growth as a person lies beyond the degree. As a parent of an older child, I wish for her a fine job, a stable marriage, but if I haven’t stressed the value of decency, the strength of integrity, the ugliness of bigotry, if I haven’t provoked her capacity to care and encouraged a spirit of adventure, then I have failed.

For that, in many ways, is the more real education. As Tara’s father, Mr Jyotibrata Sarkar, says: “It’s not a grand, noble step, but I thought it was a big step and I wanted her to take that step. To know there is a world beyond you and that it’s not always about you.”

Already, at 13, Tara is appreciating the power of the symbolic act, for if she wished to raise $400, now it is 10 times that figure. Already, she is negotiating feelings she is unfamiliar with: “I did feel I was doing something for somebody else. It’s a different kind of happy than doing something for yourself.”

One of the alluring parts of the young is that they are often absent of artifice, carrying with them a simple directness. And so Tara won’t allow us to lift her up as some glittering role model, and says: “It feels good, but it’s not as big a deal as other people make it out to be.” Her hair, she calmly points out, will grow back and, in her most profound moment, she adds: “I can’t say I understand how (kids with cancer) feel. I am not going through all that.”

There is, we’re learning, no prescribed age to make a difference. And a difference is being made. As Professor David Virshup, director, Cancer and Stem Cell Biology Signature Research Programme at Duke-NUS, says: “The survival rate for certain types of childhood leukaemia beyond 10 years from diagnosis is more than 70 per cent compared to less than 10 per cent in the 1960s. These young philanthropists are leading us in the belief that we can do better, and we must.”

For Prof Virshup, and every researcher, Tara matters. All these young kids who take a stand matter. Every fund and dollar matters. But for us it also matters because there cannot be anything more vital than to encourage the humanity that inhabits our children. For in a single act they can understand, and so do we, that when hair falls off, often people grow.

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