*Eighteen years ago*
There was a stunned silence all around me. The world, as I knew it, had stopped abruptly. The birds had stopped calling, the winds had stopped howling. The animals cowered under the punishing sun, waiting for hell to unleash upon me. The well-meaning neighbours crouched near their doors, their ears pricked and their hearts pounding.
My parents stood ominously, without a word, tightly clutching onto the answer script, now torn in two. The writing was illegible by now, the fountain pen’s ink had blotted out my pathetic attempts at answering the vengeful questions in what could be, by now, a mixture of my tears and sweat. Where the blue ink painfully met the red, a pale outline of a circle was visible – and inside it, the cause of my bottomless grief: a shameful four out of ten.
So here I was, a year later. The elaborate strategies to minimise blood loss had failed as dramatically as the North Korean nuclear rockets. I stood helpless, having mentioned the partially respectful score in English, but before I could quickly move over to the glittering performance in Science – I had been cruelly halted mid-sentence, at exactly the words: sixty five.
I felt my ears go red. This was generally reserved for the most embarrassing moments, ranging from when my mother would force my over-sized (and now, hairless) head into the aptly named, very Bangali aberration called the monkey cap, to when (slightly) disconcerting websites popped up proudly on the giant screen while I presented unfazed to our top brass.
For a long time, there were no words exchanged. Bewilderment was giving way to calmness. At length, the jury spoke: “It is time. You must begin with KC Nag.”
[A Brief History of KC Nag]
“There is a last refuge for the desperate, the unloved and the persecuted. There is a final court of appeal for everyone. When life gets too strange, too impossible, too frightening, there is always one last hope.”
– Sherlock (The Final Problem.)
Also, Bengali parents on KC Nag, when nothing else seems to arrest the precipitous hurtle of their wards in the Holy Grail of all subjects – Mathematics. For generations this has been the last recourse, the last bastion for the young souls lost to the Devil Himself: Arts. Regarded as blasphemy of the highest degree, often a Bengali father, in his white pyjamas, has looked up bewildered from his morning newspaper, and a mother has let her utensils clatter ominously onto the floor when their child has uttered the unmentionable, “Ami Arts porbo” (“I will pursue a career in Arts.”) This is often followed by the full blooded bellow from the mother, “Tor ki matha kharap? Na khete peye more jabi!” (“Are you raving mad? You will die on the streets, alone – a broken, starving man.”)
The only remedy in such a crisis is the ancestral, unfailing KC Nag – an innocuous little paperback that has sucked the blood of aspiring authors and scriptwriters, painters and dreamers alike, beating them into submission over the five timeless volumes. The unassuming little book is a highway to hell, if you do not believe in the commandments of Mathematics. Often found in College Street, the Mecca of book lovers in Kolkata, this book can make William Shakespeare turn in his grave. [It is widely believed by bibliophiles, that even if you lose your primary school text book in Chile, you will find it in College Street – silently drifting out of memory and time, buried away in the sea of books owned over centuries.]
Without any further ado, tickets on the early morning express to Calcutta were booked. The stage was set, for my long affair with Mathematics.