I was never a particularly bright child.
Life in the charming little town, far from the maddening rush of the city, where smoke billowed from the tiny mud-huts in the cold wintry evenings, offered an inelegant, introverted yokel like me little distraction from my text books. A solitary channel that broadcasted ancient cinemas of the 1980s on the lazy, somnolent weekends, and impassioned parents who often employed accessories ranging from the occasional Eclairs to the only slightly more frequent rubber slippers and slender canes to encourage me, ensured that my childhood was more about test tubes and Bunsen burners than fleeting teenage romances. As such, the only interest I took in matters that captivated my erstwhile classmates, was the compound one. Of course, matters were made worse by my choice of friends – one was as frail as a sick giraffe, while the other spat at people to communicate his displeasure (late into his teens).
Around the time we were still struggling with our multiplication tables, we heard, what we only imagined to be myths, about a prodigy who had already scratched the surface of Trigonometry and was authoring his own formulae. We swiftly dismissed such rabid rumours – more so, because allowing such heresy to reach our parents’ ears only meant prolonged hours of study. Unfortunately, the brokered peace was short lived. Towards the end of 2000 AD, tragedy struck in the form of half yearly examinations.
The results of the gruelling examinations were finally out. This was our first leap into the unchartered territories of adolescence, the life-altering step from primary to middle school. Many, I was forewarned, would be lost to oblivion and mediocrity on this perilous journey into adulthood. Of course, what was conveniently left out was that they would all recover eventually to establish themselves as trailblazers in their own right, scripting history – as entrepreneurs, social workers, soldiers and dreamers; as the last bastion of free thought and rationality in the modern society – rendering the modern Indian education system absolutely fucking obsolete.
We beamed at each other – brothers who’d returned from battle, scarred but victorious. The classroom erupted in cheers, as the first of the names were called out. My close friend rose from his seat, shook hands with his immediate neighbours and made his way towards the teacher’s desk. As he picked up the answer script, a few things seemed to happen in quick succession. The characteristic contented smile vanished instantaneously, leaving behind a pair of bewildered eyes and a gaping mouth. For the next few moments, he looked incredulously between his answer script and the deadpan Math teacher, the ruby red hue draining rapidly from his face. As he turned towards me, I saw his ashen face contort. I expected a cry of indignation, or a ball of spit hurled furiously across the classroom. Instead, I watched him mouth a few incomprehensible words and then grow strangely stolid. Time stood still – fifty pairs of eyes watching him in dread, as he made his way back to his seat. He flopped into his seat, folded his answer sheet neatly on to his desk, and stared blankly at the wall ahead. In the ensuing commotion of indignant screams, intermittent sobs and sighs, I walked over to his desk and asked, “Well, how bad is it?” He looked up at me, and with big watery eyes he replied, “Thirty-seven, man. I failed. I bloody failed. I have to sleep on the streets now.” With that, he broke into ominous howls of laughter.
Incredibly, I was at the top of my class. As someone the rest of the misguided lot looked up to, I had measured a meagrely sixty-five; yet, in the massacre of 2000 AD, I was among the lucky few to have survived. I remember a sea of grief-stricken faces around me – wailing, screaming, swearing and praying, some of which would return the next morning, battered and bruised, an unfortunate by-product of having failed in the Holy Grail of all subjects: Mathematics.
Unfortunately, our suffering was far from over. By the end of the day, when we had just found solace in our collective failures and our impending doom, more ill-tidings floated in about the conjurer who had deceived us all and scored an impossible ninety-five. “It is true!” “The stories are real!” we murmured in fear, as we came to terms with the full implication of the same. Bengali parents always demanded a comprehensive report of one’s performance [which brings to mind Dr Helmut Zemo and his infamous “Mission Report, December 16, 1991”], including that of one’s peers. Their inconsolable grief at our morbid performances in Math was more painful to watch than our own answer scripts. As such, time was of the essence. The next few minutes saw brain-storming of the highest degree, as we began to fabricate our own versions of events. With crossed fingers and beads of sweat running down the sides of our temples – we walked into our respective homes.
Of course, we had hardly foreseen what followed next. It went down as one of the largest collective failures in the history of our class, as our strategies and stories fell flat in the face of unbridled Bengali parental grief.