Thursday, April 17, 2014

Chapter II: Normandy

Part 3 & 4 of 4 (Yes, I'm abysmal at counting): The boy suffers serious attrition damage. After Parts 1 and 2, Ashwin is thrown into the post-exam black hole. Is there a way back from here? Read on, folks. 

And do share if you like what you read! Hope you enjoy the beginning of "The Steadfast Tin Soldier?", which is now making rounds in newspapers around the country. Twenty-five hundred people have read the book so far, and I hope you do too. Cheers!

D-Day H-Hour: 26th of May’s ill-fate dawned upon me. Judgement day had come too quickly and I empathized with the Allied soldiers who had landed on the beaches of Juno and Omaha, Normandy (at least they had had a victory) during World War Two. The alarm rang when it read half past six.
And a person who is seldom conscious before the bell tolls 9:00 during the holidays will definitely have troubles waking-up at six-thirty. But today was special – rather, I knew it would be eventful but had I known what was in store for me on 26-05 of that year, I’d never have left the safety of the blanket.

But, as the story goes, I not only managed to get out of my bed, I completed my morning routines and ablutions (which were slightly hindered due to fear and anxiety) and even managed to feel a bit confident. Nevertheless, I convinced myself that there was absolutely nothing to feel positive about and then the strange feelings of self-belief quickly disappeared. I only hoped one thing – the examiners shouldn’t have screwed my marks. The Board exam results were here.

7:20 a.m. and I switched on the ancient Pentium processor and observed the Windows XP booting while the subconscious tried to invoke all the gods and goddesses of Hindu mythology. I begged the deity to forgive my sins; even if he did not and could not completely do that, for I was sure I had sinned a lot, I tried convincing him that today was not the day of punishment. My board results shouldn’t suffer.

7:30 a.m.: Yes, the computer completed booting. Dad was leaving for office; he wished me before he left and told me not to worry. It was more of those talks which felt like – Don’t worry about anything. You would have done well, but just in case you don’t, I want you to remember that I will still be your father and as your father, it is my duty to THRASH THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS OUT OF YOU!

Well, anyway, it was one less person watching over my shoulder while the results were displayed on the hallowed portals of cbse.nic.in. I thanked god for the small mercies, but I pledged to be more grateful for the bigger ones. The minutes seemed to crawl by and, being a believer in the supernatural and beyond, I began to look for perhaps a man who could stop time. Anyway, by 7:40, I decided that the only way to calm my jumpy nerves was to play a good game of football on the computer.

Soon Drogba and Lampard scored and I went 2-0 up over AC Milan. But my success had died away when mom came blasting into the room. “WHAT IN THE WORLD? Is this the time to play? I thought you were checking out your results. Absolutely no sense of responsibility… Blah Blah.” When she’d finished, I told her that the results won’t be up till 8:00 and until then, I had nothing to do.

“But how does young Khanna here have his results?” she said as she left the room, to attend to something burning on the stove which had begun to smell like a mix of paint and old cheese.

I was baffled by this statement and would have denounced her mean practical-joke, as that’s what I thought it was until I saw the lad for myself.

Rohit Khanna was standing in front of me and in his hand seemed to be a printout of some sort. As he waved the sheet at me, his face showed, what I believe was a mixture of contentment and respite. That could be only one thing… The one thing to rule them all…

“Ninety-one,” he said flatly.

“Ninety-one whats?”

“Percent.”

“Ninety-one percent?!”

“That’s what I believe I said.” He looked smug.

“But the results aren’t out till 8:00,” I protested.

Mom’s voice wafted in from the kitchen – “If only you had opened the website and didn’t play that blasted game of yours.”

There was a lot of venom in that ‘blasted.’

“Mom… they said they won’t put it up till 8:00!”

“Well, they did, didn’t they?” Rohit said unequivocally.

I had hurriedly switched off the game which was going so well with Lampard about to score his second goal. Why is he here? I never called him. He may be a friend, but that doesn’t mean he invites himself over. I typed out the roll number and glanced nervously over my shoulder.

“Rohit, thanks for telling me that the results are out. I’ll tell you my results as soon as I get them,” I said.

“No probs man. I’ll wait right here and see them,” said he.

“No dude. This will take some time. With a 256kbps internet connection, it’ll take a long time.”

“I have all the time in the world. I have no problems.”

But you are my problem. I didn’t want anyone peeping over my shoulders when my grades popped up on screen, complicating things that were already bad. I decided to put it straight to him, through his thick skull.

“Actually, I want to be alone, you know. I’ll see my grades and tell ya.”

He laughed, god knows why.

“Anyway you are going to tell me. I may as well see it!”

“I don’t want you around…”

“Look here. You have seen mine, so it’s only fair that I see yours.”

“Mine ain’t gonna be a ummm…” I said glancing at his sheet, “91-85-97-89-91, you know! Why the hell can’t you…”

I was getting livid with the guy when – “Have you seen it yet?”

Mom cried out from the kitchen.

“No, no. Just doing that!” What the hell. I’ll do it. I reluctantly clicked the ‘Check Result Now’ button. I prayed to the lord that my math grade, the subject I had done the worst in, was not too bad.

The judgement popped out instantly. Where’s Maths? Where’s Maths? Ahh there…

MATHEMATICS 86

‘Whoa!’ Not only had I passed, I had done better than the 70 I had expected. I knew there had to be something wrong, seeing that I had attempted for 80 marks only! Well, such things are better left unanswered. Never look a gift horse in its mouth…

Gaining heart, seeing that lady luck was with me, I went on to inspect the other results.

SOCIAL SCIENCE 95 - I rock!

COMM. SANSKRIT 75 - Hmmm…

SCIENCE 92 - This was better than I had ever expected.

I had aced everything (by my standards anyway). English? That - I’d have topped yet again… After all, it was the subject I had consecutively topped the past 5 tests. A smile crept upon my face. Was it 94 or 96? 92 would do actually…

COMM. ENGLISH 82

What in the world? This can’t be… Mom was beside me, now. She patted me on the back and congratulated me for my ‘good’ performance. Couldn’t she read?! My subject! I had fallen in my
own territory.

I refreshed the page twice and checked the grades of fellow classmates. Every other bloke seemed to have an 85 or more… Then why? I hadn’t asked for an exchange deal with the almighty; I definitely did not remember saying, “Give me extra marks in Maths and take them away in English!” No, I had wanted an
outright grant – “Give me marks in maths; period”. Somewhere along the line, someone had gobbled up some of my marks.

I recovered my nerve just in time to see mom leave the room and head towards the phone to probably tell my dad how ‘well’ I had done. Actually, I was indeed beginning to feel happy about the results when Rohit decided to speak again.

“Hey, you know what… You’ve done pretty well. Just think… You’ve got round about 86% man! Exactly 86, in fact…” He could have left it at that. “Just 5 percent less than me… Not bad at all.”

“Why you!” I began. But then I realized that he couldn’t help being the insufferable show-off that he was. It was just him. Just like sugar had to be sweet. Just like a fish was born with gills - to breathe underwater; this guy was born insolent, impudent and supercilious. If he wasn’t that, then maybe he wouldn’t have
been the Rohit Khanna who people knew; maybe people might
have even liked him!

I realized that what he had said was probably meant as a compliment of some sort. He didn’t often compare people with himself. I ended up saying ‘Thank you’ to which he smiled. I had been right.

The next 10 minutes went with me listening to how unfair the invigilator had been to him during the exam as she had taken his answer sheet away from him before the others and how he would so easily have got 10 more marks….

All’s well that ends well – I firmly believe in that.

And so, the English disaster notwithstanding, I felt that more good had come than I had expected. Actually, I had done pretty well. This was Tamil Nadu; No. This was Chennai – otherwise I would (and so would everyone else) have considered my performance par-excellence. Here was a city where students seemed to be born geniuses – India’s best results in the CBSE boards I was told. But surprisingly, Abhi had told me that the state’s performance in competitive exams after 12th like the JEE and AIEEE was pretty bad. After all he should know; he did make it through and so he’d probably know better than anyone else how the crowd was inside.

I was drifting away into this reverie when I remembered that I must talk with my brother and tell him about the results at once. After all, he was the one person who had kept faith in me all this while even when others didn’t. He should have been home during that time of the year actually but he had that ‘intern’
thing.

I picked up the phone – my ancient transistor type Motorola telephone, a vintage piece which would have gone for a fortune if only it had had its entire set of buttons intact. ‘Abhinav’ - I chose and pressed call. A few seconds later, a grunt from the other side indicated that he was on the line.

“Hey guess what!” I said.

“Yeah what…” my brother went. He seemed a bit distracted.

“I got my…”

“HEY cover me! Bomb site B… FRAGSTER GOT ME! What the fu… Oh sorry, HI. I almost forgot you were there. Tell me, what’s up?” Yeah, he was distracted all right.

“No nothing…. Just that I got my results.”

“Ok that! Ma told me about that. Heard you did well. Congrats keep it up.”

“But…”

“No! Don’t worry about English. They screwed my marks too!”

I knew that he would understand.

“Anyway, I’ll catch you later man. Gotta go now… GOT HIM! Headshot, Fragster! HOW DO YOU LIKE THAT? B…” Then, the click of the telephone.

The results were a thing of the past now. I was feeling pretty glad about them. I had never really liked studying. Bro seemed to enjoy whatever he did. He liked studying when he did. And when he played, he enjoyed that too. I enjoy playing though.

But ever since he had made it through the JEE into an IIT, my teachers openly and my parents discreetly started having not only hopes but great plans for my future. Come on now! I can’t help it if my brother was a frikkin’ genius! Though everyone did say that I was the smarter of the two siblings, I believe in destiny and at that point I felt that I was not destined to achieve things like IITs…. No! That was too much work for me. I liked the way I was, the life I lived. It was easy.

But they wouldn’t leave it at that. Their plans were made and I would achieve what I was ‘destined’ to attain in their views, come what may. So, on the twelfth of May, the year of the lord 2010, I had allowed myself to finally believe that it was a good idea to join evening coaching classes (my brother had – that’s why) to give myself a fair shot at those famed exams after Std XII. The professors (for the coaching classes) had told us to contact them as soon as the results were out. ‘Maybe I should remind mom!’ I had thought.

Just then, “ASHSHWIIIN!!” – went Mom’s sing-song voice which I probably would have appreciated a lot more if I didn’t invariably associate it with nagging and irritation. For some reason, I felt that she was piqued by something.

“YEAH MA,” I had said, “What now?!”

“What do you mean ‘What now’? I don’t appreciate that tone, young man! You are talking as though you’ve already done a lot of work!!”

I decided that she was definitely annoyed with me for some unknown reason.

“Yeah okay sorry…. What was it about?”

“I told you to get print-outs of your mark sheet…. We really must be off!” Mom said.

“Ohhh the profs! I was just going to remind you… I thought that you might have forgotten.”

“You really think?!” She almost scoffed. “Anyway, we must really be off right now! The place will be swarming with people already.”

“By the way ma…. Have you told grandma about the results yet?” I didn’t want her to miss out on informing anyone – especially someone like grandma who would shower me with presents even for a below average performance. This would call for a Five-Star treat in her views. And besides, it was a chance to prove my responsible nature. I was being called ‘callous’ all too often these days. Maybe if she hadn’t told someone and I reminded her, I would be able to regain some lost respect with family folk.

“Of course…. That’s why we are late in leaving. I just finished calling your grandmas and granddads. And of course, Sripriya and Bhuvan (Aunt and Uncle), and Raj (another uncle of mine). I even talked to Vishal (that was my cousin – a toddler, 2 years old he was). And of course I had to tell a couple of my colleagues in school. And I talked to your principal also. She wasn’t too happy though; knew you are capable of more. Then I talked to some more of your teachers…. (Oh that’s just great) I told Shruti too (my favourite cousin)… She herself has got 93 %; she has taken commerce!” The list went on for another couple of minutes.

So the world knew already.

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