Adventures Of A Cynical Bystander- Excerpt
I just realized that I haven’t told you anything about myself. Up until now, the story has not really been about me, but since I am the one writing this, you need to know my story too.
My name is Prarthna Mukherjee. I am Bengali, but I have never lived in West Bengal. I am practically a kid. I was born less than two decades ago. I live in Mumbai. My favorite color is brown. My favorite actor is Shah Rukh Khan. I love indie-movies.
But you can’t draw any conclusions from the description given above. I am Bengali, but I am fluent in three languages and speak Hindi better than most of my peers. I am a kid, but I have already written four novels (just because I wrote them, does not mean someone reads them). I hate Mumbai because I love Delhi, the place where I spent fourteen years. I rarely ever wear brown. I am not interested in Shah Rukh Khan’s personal life or his feuds with other Bollywood actors.
Officially, my story began on a cold January morning in the mid 1990s, but I don’t remember the first five years of my life, the next five were meaningless and the last five are the ones I will tell you about. But the first ten years are still there, but just as random memories.
Unofficially, my story begins on a hot May day in Mumbai. We had just moved to there, despite all the drama and crying on my part. There were several reasons for me not wanting to come to Mumbai. Sure, I did not want to leave my friends. But that was not it. There were more reasons, which I will tell you later.
New city means new school. New school means admission test. I was going to go to Lambert Academy, whose Christian-sounding name sounded a lot like my old school Prudence Academy (later on I found out that ‘Lambert’ was actually an abbreviation for ‘Lambusingh Berlia Trust’). But it was not the same school. For example, my old school would never have tested us on ninth class syllabus after specifying that the test would be based on the eight class course. I hadn’t exactly breezed past the admission test, but I won’t talk about that because exams given on paper were less important to me than the exams given orally. Given my exceptional track record for putting my foot in my mouth, oral exams were the bigger challenge for me.
We waited with the other applicants. One after the other, the students went in and came out. There was a mom who after emerging from the principal’s room said, “Such difficult questions they ask!” That raised the temperature in the room, and I felt like I was the only unaffected one present. As I have said before, I have limited emotions. When everyone else is tense, I am calm. And besides, if I freaked out like everybody else, I wouldn’t have an edge over them.
“Why are you wearing those shoes?” mom asked me.
I looked at my shoes. They looked like what Forest Gump’s shoes would have looked like if he had after he completed his run across America in them. I could answer my mom’s questions in so many ways. First, I had a weakness for old shoes which feel soft on your foot. Second, this was the first pair I found. Third, I was miserable about us moving to Mumbai and I did not give a damn to what people thought about my freaking shoes.
But what I said was this- “Just like that”.
“You can’t wear those to an interview”, she said.
“Nobody won’tice”. I said that like it was the most practical things to say.
“Wear my shoes”. She took off her shoes and gave them to me. It wasn’t her interview, so she could afford to do this. I took of my flip-flops and gave them to her. Okay, so maybe flip-flops were not the best option for an interview.
It was my dad’s turn to speak. Even my mom’s shoes weren’t all that great. So he asked, “If they ask you about why your mother is wearing these shoes, what will you say?”
I replied confidently, “I’d say that that those are the shoes I had chosen for myself but my mom did not like my choice, so she forced me to exchange shoes with her. So what you are looking at is a good mother’s response to my atrocious choice of footwear. Yes, that is exactly what I would say”.
Dad was already smiling. “Good, good. You can say that.” I don’t think his response would have been that great if I had actually said this in front of the interview committee, something I totally had plans of doing.
“They may ask you something about books and television”, my mom said.
Okay, at this point I think I need to make something clear at the risk of breaking the flow of the story. It’s not that I don’t love my parents. I really do. I would jump off a cliff or get into a fist fight with a grown man for them. But when you love someone everyday, saying ‘I love you’ is like saying ‘What will you have for dinner tonight?” So most of the times, my affection towards my parents does not float on the surface, unlike what they show in Hindi TV shows.
“What about books and television?” I asked.
“Anything. What is your favorite TV show?”
“Hannah Monatana”, I replied. I did not watch Hindi TV shows much. I hated anything which had the words ‘joint family’, ‘honour of the family’, ‘big weddings’ and ‘horrendous villains’ in it.
My mom never watched TV. “Is it appropriate for kids?”
“It’s on Disney Channel”. If a channel is named after the creator of an animated mouse, the shows can never be inappropriate.
My mental dialogue began again. Honestly, I think I like ‘GOSSIP GIRL’ better, but I can’t say that to the principal, can I?
“I wrote in your form that you were a swimmer in your old school. They may ask you something about swimming”, my dad said.
“Why did you write that?”
“You do know swimming, don’t you?” he said.
I know enough swimming to save my life. I think. If they ask me something, I am probably just going to say that swimming is about flapping your arms in water. But I said, “But I have never competed.”
As a kid, I had not been able to learn swimming. I was afraid and I didn’t like the water much. But when all the other kids who had been able to learn swimming early began to give up swimming to pursue their greater interests, such as gossiping and flirting, I dived into the swimming pool and voila! I was swimming in the deep end within three weeks and I had done this without anyone’s help. I was socially awkward, did not have many friends, had been an average student at that time and was good for nothing, but I was a lot like the US after the First World War. During WWI, the European countries were trying to swallow each other. To finance their expenses they borrowed liberally from the US, which transformed US from an international debtor to an international credit. That was when the US became an economic superpower. I was a big fan of History, so I knew that it paid to get a lead when everyone else was going down. But if I had to answer questions, I would be mute. My dad had written about the swimming thing because it would strengthen my application. If I gave my ‘swimming is about flapping your arms’ answer, my application would end up in the trash.
“Okay, tell me the names of all the strokes”, my dad quizzed me.
I remembered the answer from an unsuccessful swimming lesson from when I was seven. “Freestyle, breast-stroke, back-stroke and….dolphin stroke”.
“Not dolphin stroke. That is not there in competitions”.
“But that is the only one I know besides freestyle”. That wasn’t entirely truly, because I wasn’t perfect at either.
“You missed out butterfly”, he told me.
I don’t even know someone who can do butterfly stroke, I mentally sighed. Adults never just tell us that when we haven’thing real to offer, it is better to settle for the half-truth. If they said it, it would make our job so much easier.
My number was called. I got up and walked to the interview room. I don’t think the principal appreciated me walking in before my parents.
I had thought that having an uncharacteristic smile on my face would help, but when I saw the principal’s grim expression, I decided my characteristic don’t-mess-with-me look would work fine too. My parents sat in front of the principal and I sat beside two ladies who later turned out to be the vice-principal and junior-school co-ordinator.
The principal was old, thin and serious. The vice-principal would have seemed pretty in my eyes if she wouldn’t have been the one interviewing me. The third lady barely spoke, so I have no comments.
The first thing the principal said was, “She was a permanent teacher in Delhi”. He was talking about me mother, not me.
I had heard a few rumors about all the good teachers from Lambert Academy going away to a rival school after a teacher from Lambert had been appointed vice-principal there, but that did not make it okay to interview my mom in an interview meant for me.
“Have you resigned?” asked Mr. Principal.
“No. Yes. No. I am about to resign”. My mom was having some difficulty with this decision. If we ever decided to go back to Delhi, she could resume her old job and that was why she had not resigned yet.
I was pretty sure they were more interested in hiring my mom.
Finally, the vice-principal turned to me. “What was your percentage in Class IX?”
“84”. I did not remember distinctly. I gave less attention to percentage than most Indians.
“What have you chosen as your second language? Hindi or Sanskrit?”
“Hindi”. Sanskrit was the only subject I had ever failed.
The principal asked me, “What did you study in Mathematics last year?”
“Polynomials, linear equations…”
The rapid fire began. The principal took the first turn. “If you had to tell your younger brother or sister what a polynomial was, how would you say it?”
He was trying to sound interactive and modern and non-bookish, but at the end of the day, he was just looking for the textbook definition for the word polynomial.
I didn’t know the textbook definition for polynomial.
“A polynomial is a number with constants and variables?”
What an idiot I was. I was good at geometry. I should have said triangles and quadrilaterals instead of polynomials and linear equations.
“What is a zero polynomial?”
“A polynomial with degree one?” My answers sounded like questions.
What were the chances of me getting all the answers wrong? They were pretty high, I had to admit. So, I just decided to take matter into my own hands and speak out. I did not want to be like the girl who had come out of the interview room with tears in her eyes. If I was going down anyways, why go down without fight?
I said confidently, “I would just like to point out that we learnt very little about polynomials last year and the greater portion of it is supposed to be for this year”.
The principal turned to me, “Oh? But you just said that you learnt it last year”.
“Yes, but I didn’t….”
“Okay, so you didn’t do it.”
For an old man, he was pretty much of a challenge.
I replied. “Actually, I have already started reading the portion for this year and I read the chapter for polynomials just yesterday. That is why I have been able to give the answers I just gave”. Translation: just because I don’t remember exact definitions from textbooks does not mean I don’t make enough effort.
He didn’t ask anything after that.
It was the vice-principal’s turn to ask. “What are the difference between homophones and homonyms?”
“Homophones sound the same but have different spellings and meanings. Homonyms sound and spell the same but have different meanings”. The answer sounded so confusing that she wouldn’t have known even if I had made a mistake. Why would anyone want to differentiate two things which were pretty much the same?
“What is the difference between effluent and affluent?” she asked.
“Affluent means rich. I don’t know what effluent is but I can figure it out if it is there in a sentence”. Effluent means ‘sewage’. I knew that, but it did not strike me at that moment.
She asked in Hindi, “Who is an ideal student?”
“An ideal student not someone who is just worried about marks and grades….”
“Who is an ideal student?” she repeated before I could finish. Her expression was like frozen ice. At that moment she looked like that evil boss from The Devil Wears Prada. Sorry, but I don’t have any reference from Bollywood.
“An ideal student is someone who wants to learn”. That was the best I could come up with.
She turned to Mr. Principal. “Okay. That’s all we need”.
My mental screaming began. Listen. I just gave a written exam a week ago which had pretty much the same questions as you asked me now and I thought the textbook questions were done with when the exam got over. This was supposed to be an interview. Ask me something for which different people have different answers. I actually have a great personality. You would know if you asked more personal questions!
My parents did the whole thank-you thing and I was out in a minute. Before I left, I saw the Principal smile and nod once.
I would get in. Unlike Piya, I was boring and had no interesting struggle stories. So, I knew I would get in. But the problem was that is every conversation I had in this school was to be as boring as this interview, I wasn’t going to enjoy my time over here. This was not my sort of place. It was a place where people appreciated bookworms and nail-biting examinees. They were all going to hate me. That was another thing I was sure of.
But come to think of it, that day was the only day when I had seen Mr. Principal smile.