Sunday, July 05, 2015

Thirteen years and counting

It's strange how casual conversations can induce long and serious thoughts. It's not stranger than realizing how I made it 13 years without something that I'd not have dreamed of living for 13 days. That's about the best sentence structure I could come up with after hundreds of revisions.

Taking the train back to 2001...
Date: 26th March
Time: Around 2:15 PM

My hands were shivering. I was almost about to cry (and after about 2 mins I did). My body was visibly trembling. The worst nightmare I had convinced my paranoid self that wouldn't happen was unraveling before me. All the smart ass quirks and the happy-go-lucky nature that I had always enjoyed weren't going to help me. I did not know the phrase back then, but if it had happened today, I'd have exasperated, "I'm screwed". As the first round of tears rolled down my cheeks, I could feel the heat. I was probably running a slight temperature. I was scared. Drops of tears blotted parts of the text on the paper lying on the desk. I looked again. Nothing! The day had come finally when I did not have a clue about anything in the Biology question paper.

Throughout my school days the only subjects I liked were Maths and English. I'd have read my English books completely within two days of receiving the text books (even before school started), had killer instincts (not knowledge) when it came to English grammar, loved to write my own essays for the non-detail courses and I was allowed to listen to music or watch television when I practiced Maths (which I was prepared to do all day/whenever). I had the charm of sneaking my way through exams even though I never paid attention to any classes in school. How? I'd choose a few topics picked out mostly as samples, read and understand them in a made up way I can remember. I would be able to answer enough to pass and the moment I had the confidence of scoring 60-70 marks (out of 100) in the exam or if someone else was on the verge of finishing the exam (whichever happened first), I'd stop writing even if there were more questions I could answer. I never failed an exam in school (even if it was a class test). Until then!

My mom was a teacher and used to conduct tuition for around 40 students. Her students comprised of the brightest Rank 1 holders to the precious Mark 1 holders (scoring only 1 mark out of 100). She had a terrific record as a teacher. She had enormous success in terms of progress. The progress was not just about marks. It was methodical. She literally created career paths for many of her students. However, there was one student who always failed her. No prizes for guessing - ME! She had tried force, patience, sending me to another teacher, nice words, beatings, shaming etc. I was just not interested. I always thought she was feeling ashamed that her son was not standing up among her super stars. I also thought it was not fair to think that and most importantly, I neither tried nor cared to try. As long as I passed and went on to the next class, I gave myself an "Exceeded Expectations" rating.

But, it was all coming to an end. There I was, sitting for the first annual exam (biology) in my 9th standard. Even if I wrote stories, I wouldn't be able to write 10 terms in biology w.r.t the question paper. There was no doubt I was going to fail that paper, which meant I was going to have to repeat 9th standard. I was sobbing at the thought of this. The invigilator (Mr. Senram) noticed this and patted on my back. He was sympathetic, but there was nothing he could do. He quietly said, "Don't worry ra! Write what you know". It did not help that he had asked the absentees to stand up (for taking count) before the exam started. Even that was not going to help elate me. I did not know anything. My classmates (those who noticed my sobbing) were looking at me, some staring and some amused. After a while, I just filled a few pages (that would have hardly fetched me 20 marks out of 100 as against the 50 marks needed to pass).

Few hours later...

I was riding my cycle home. I was late by 2 hours than usual. I was just sitting by the basketball court trying to find words to explain to my mom that I was going to have to repeat 9th standard again. I was a bit surprised that my mom hadn't come to school by then looking for me. But, I was sure that she'd be standing outside the gate waiting for me. And as I turned in to my street almost 2 blocks away from my house, I saw her waiting. As I came nearer, I noticed her usual body language of when she's tensed, restless and waiting. Her hands clasped behind her, and though I couldn't see them I was sure that her fingers would be moving against and across each other. Her eyes - a bit red and they'd emote that perfect blend of worry and anger. She had expressive little eyes (probably picked them up from being a Bharatanatyam dancer as a teenager), the expression she has passed on to her grand daughters and something that I prominently notice in the opposite sex. Her entire body would scream that she's feeling unsettled. She'd be standing still though, but not straight, she'd lean a bit towards one side. Her foot - the one on the opposite side towards which she's leaning would be tapping incessantly on the ground.

I was confident that it was going to be a double bonanza that day - for being very late without any communication and for coming with the promise of failing an exam.

As soon as I reached she asked softly, "Yen kanna ithara late?" (why are you so late dear). Her worry took precedence over her anger. I quickly explained my situation without the least remorse in my voice. But, she knew right away that I was scared to death. As I prepared to brace for a furious reaction, she ushered me in to the house, took my bag and put in the sofa and went in to the bedroom. Few minutes later, she called me in there and handed me the phone. My dad (who was out of town that day) was on the line. I was taken by surprise because my dad never interfered in my sister's and my education. It was mom's department. On the other end, my dad sounded very concerned. He told me not to worry and to focus on the other exams. Even if I had to repeat a year he said that it was fine. There was no fury or anger. It was pure concern. After I hung up, she told me to change and start preparing for the next exam. It was English.

I was unusually quiet that evening. I did not bother my sister nor did I move around like I always do. I just sat at my study table and kept reading the same line again and again. It just did not register. I was just reading. I was not sure if it was doing so bad in the exam or my mom's silence that was bothering me. It was all very confusing and sad.

After a while my mom broke her silence. The moment she started to speak, I started crying and started apologizing over and over. She did not say much (which was unusual too). She just told me that if I sincerely prepared for all the other 9 exams and gave my best shot, she'd do everything in her power to request my school management to push me in to the next class. She absolutely had no way to do it, but on that day I'd have believed anything she said. The next two weeks were like a movie scene set on a montage. For the first time in my life I cared about studying. I was frightened about exams. I was determined to pull through. And since it was the first time it was too much for me to take. I created the first of many a havoc for not having performed in the exams to my expectations. It was the most difficult two weeks of my life until then. A month later the results were announced and I was promoted to 10th standard. The most surprising event for me was when I requested for my 9th standard annual exam mark sheet (which is not usually published for annual exams) and saw that I had scored a whopping 63 in Biology (I hardly had written for 40 marks). And I had scored very well in all the other papers.

A year and two months later...

I came sixth (among 150 odd students) in my school in the 10th standard board exams. It was the proudest moment for her, as my mother and as my teacher. I can still hear the screeching sound made by the break of the sunny scooter she rode, as she pulled up in front of my school. I was waiting inside for the results and I ran out as soon I heard the sound. She had looked it up online was telling my score to my cousin who was waiting outside as well. The moment I heard the number I blanked out again. All those reactions from March 26th 2001 came back, only this time they were because of happiness.

That day made a huge difference to who I turned out to be. I started believing in hard work and that it can turn around a lot of things that wouldn't have come your way. I realized that my mom never really cared about the results. With her students, it was different - she was being paid to bring about progress which she did diligently and sincerely. She gave it her best shot. With me, it was always about the effort. Her only expectation from me was that I tried my best, gave life my best shot and that's about it.

I've come a long way from that 10th board exam results. But, that would always be my greatest hit because that was the first, only and last proud moment I gave my mom. She passed away a month later.

It's easy to claim our character during times of glory. Whether that character helps during tougher times is something we'll probably never find out. The real test of character comes during harder times and claiming our character then will tell us who we are and what we are capable of. I learnt this from my mom and I'm still struggling everyday to learn the art with which she lived her life. If I turn out to be half as determined, courageous and strong as her, I'd not have anything more to achieve. It's been 13 years says the calendar, it just seems all very fast, doesn't it?

Miss you ma!