I was no different from you, when I was where you are today – in a quest for happiness.
“Do people still send these?” quipped Ishita as we explored my newly received greeting card.
“Apparently they do.” I answered. The last time I had seen one of these was over a half decade back when all the fourth class students had to send a Parents Day greeting card to their parents back home. The queue outside the hostel shop wasn’t very different from that outside banks today.
“Well, I think it’s sweet of your grandpa to remember your board exams.” Ishita said.
“Either that or it’s very cruel of him to be reminding me of them.” I replied.
Our board exams were to begin from next week. The first board exams of my life and the most important ones, as I was told. I remember my first day in class nine. The Math teacher had skipped the first four chapters and begun the syllabus directly from Trigonometry. Trigonometry covered most of the Math syllabus for class ten. And it wasn’t the case just in Math, even in Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Economics. A lot of importance was given to topics which were either a part of the syllabus of class ten or stemmed from it. My Physics teacher had taught only three chapters in class nine, all of which were explained in detail the next year. By the time I had passed class nine, I was half prepared for the board exams of class ten. We also had subjects such as History and English, but text books of these subjects were still in mint condition. A few students did rip of the plastic to get a whiff of the fresh new pages.
“What’s happening here?” A voice asked from behind. Our Computer teacher stood over the top of the stairs I and Ishita had occupied.
“Sir, just discussing For loop.” I hesitantly replied.
“For exams equal to true, exams equal to board exams, studying equals to fifteen hours. Does that help you understand For loop Jai?” He asked smiling, admiring his own nerdy wit.
“We will get to it in just a minute sir.” I pleaded. He was one of the few teachers the students could be themselves with. But he was the only one who’d not impose the rules the school had about interaction between boys and girls outside the classroom. At least not as strictly as he was expected to.
He looked at us for a few seconds.
“Just don’t get yourself into trouble, alright? I want to see you in the study room at 6,” he said pointing to me and then shifted his finger towards Ishita, “And I don’t want to see you in there with him.”
Ishita nodded with a smile. The teacher went down the stairs looking for other ‘stray’ students like us. He was supposed to be supervising the study time of the tenth class boys this evening. The thing with managing boys of our age is that, you always have to do more than you’re supposed to.
I looked at my watch. I had to be in the study room in five minutes. Ishita and I looked around; we weren’t within anyone’s eye shot. We moved towards each other, closed our eyes and locked our lips. We parted just after five seconds and without uttering another word, Ishita got up and left. I watched her as she crossed the gate of the building and climbed the steps leading to the street. I admired her waist length, bouncing thick black hair and imagined her smiling behind them as she disappeared around the bend to go to the girls’ hostel. It’s not that I was depressed before, but I had discovered a new layer to happiness now that I had met Ishita. I knew if I had to remain happy, I had to have her with me.
. . .
There was frenzy all around. It was hard to find a head not bowing down to the Gods of Physics, an hour before the first board exam of our lives was about to begin. We’d heard rumours that the slightest movement of our heads would draw harsh attention from the invigilator. Looking anywhere other than the question paper or the answer paper could result in suspension from the exam hall. For the first time ever, nobody was making deals. Nobody following the one hour rule – suspending all discussions and glances of the exam topics one hour prior to the beginning of it.
“All the best.” Ishita said, as she appeared standing before me.
“Thanks,” I answered skimming through the derivation of an equation, “Same to you.”
“What is same to you? Wish me properly.” I liked the childish things she did, but not all the time.
I looked up at her and said, “Like you need it. I know you’d do well.” We’d been over this before. It was best to just give in.
She narrowed her eyes, “But knowing that you wished for it would be nice.”
“All the best Ishita, you’re going to do really well. I just hope I am not trumped by you.” I replied with all the mock sincerity I could muster.
“Aww, don’t worry. There’s nothing to make great of you.”
I deserved it. I had served it on a silver platter to her.
The exam began on time and consumed every sound except for that of the fan and the periodic turning of the pages. The thickness of the question paper was horrifying but I calmed down after seeing that all the questions were written in two languages. The exam was indeed a government activity. The supervisor looked like a normal human being, giggling within on seeing the grave looks on our faces and the robotic swings of the heads and arms. She didn’t look like a CID officer at all. There was as much a chance of us being caught cheating as there was during any other class test. But what if she was just pretending to be gullible? What if she was an undercover invigilator whose job was to catch cheaters? Well, now that would be a job I’d excel at!
“What are you smiling about”, the lady spoke with a thick Maharashtrian accent, standing at the front of the exam hall “You, yes you, over there.”
I could feel blood draining from my face. All heads had turned towards me. My heart had leaped from my chest to my ears and was playing underground hard-core rock drums.
“N-no-nothing ma’am.” I stuttered.
“Paper is too easy or what?”
“No ma’am.” I replied. Another question and I’d start weeping with the answer. Luckily she looked away and continued her strolls. It took me sometime to compose myself, remind myself of where I was and what I was doing. I resolved to not move my face muscles for the next three hours.
But fate had other plans.
“Jai, seventh one.” A whisper pulled my face to my right. Rohit was looking at me from the corner of his eyes.
I ignored him and resumed.
“Jai, c’mon dude. I’ll flunk, please.”
I turned and found him holding out seven fingers under the desk. I turned the pages of my answer sheet to find the answer to that question. It was a long one. Mouthing wouldn’t help. I found my eraser and began scribbling on it, with an eye out for the movements of the invigilator. Out of the ten points, I put down four on four of the six sides of the brand new Staedtler eraser. I looked towards the invigilator, pretending to be writing at the same time. As she passed from between us,I threw the eraser to Rohit. And fate intervened yet again. The eraser hit the wooden desk, fell on the floor and rolled back towards me. The suppressed thud produced from hardened rubber hitting wood was too loud for the silence in the room. All the heads were towards me again, except for Rohit’s. The invigilator had turned as well.
“Ma’am supplement.” Ishita called from the first row. The invigilator walked back to the table at the front of the classroom which gave me the chance to pick the eraser and hide it. The lady slapped the additional answer sheet of four pages on Ishita’s desk and paced to me.
“Where is it?” She enquired.
“What ma’am?” I asked, pretending to be as innocent as possible.
“You were throwing an eraser. Hand it over.” She spoke sternly.
“I wasn’t throwing anything ma’am. I don’t even have an eraser.”
“This is not my first time invigilation okay? I have seen all the tricks before okay? Now give me that eraser or I’ll ask you to be searched and if anything is found, I will write a red remark on your answer sheet and suspend you from this exam.”
“I am not lying ma’am.” I said. I wanted to say more but I couldn’t.
“This is the last time I am asking okay? You are disturbing everybody.” She said waving her index finger, first towards me then the whole room.
I looked around.
“Okay.” She announced and walked to the door. It was no ordinary door now. The moment she’d step outside, I’d be ordered to be searched by a peon. And if her statements were true, my career would end before a start. Perhaps if I rubbed the eraser a bit, smudged the ink and handed it over myself, she could leave me with a warning. I pulled the eraser out of my pocket and followed my plan.
“Ma’am”, I called out. She turned immediately and walked slowly towards me.
“The eraser.” I held it out in my palm. She paced herself and grabbed it. After examining it for a few seconds, she glared at me.
“This is what you were doing. Cheating, huh?”
“No ma’am that is old ink on the eraser.”
“Oh, is it? Is it from some other exam then?” Now this was a true dilemma.
“No, ma’am, making notes when I ran out of pages in the class.” I was proud of coming up with that answer, more so, in this moment of highest level of stress.
“Stop, stop lying now,” She said wincing. Why was she getting so emotional about it? I hadn’t hurt her personally in any way, had I?
“I am not lying ma’am.” I said, my voice a bit louder to express discomfort from all the allegations.
“I told you, this is not my first invigilation. And I had seen you doing some funny business in the beginning as well. I had warned you then. But not now. I am suspending you for forty-five minutes. Get out.” She ordered.
“What? Ma’am, I am sorry. I didn’t do anything. Please, I’ll flunk ma’am. I only have an hour and half left. Please ma’am, sorry.” I pleaded.
I went on for two minutes but she didn’t budge. The sneers and scowls from other students weren’t welcoming either, on account of disturbing them. They had all voted for me to exit. Finally, I started my walk. As I passed her, I saw that Ishita’s supplement was inked right to the last line of the last page. I had been trumped.
. . .
I sat there in the study room in the evening with a text-book open in front of me. But my eyes weren’t towards the book. They stared emptily towards the wall, recalling the thick question paper and the four questions which I couldn’t answer. My brain calculated thirty-five marks for the sixth time. How much could I score from the remaining sixty-five that I had answered? Would I even pass? I hadn’t flunked ever in my life. My father had never stood second in any of his classes in school and my uncle was a gold medallist in some Mathematics degree. My father was a successful dentist and had been practicing in his own clinic since eight years now. My mother was the best home maker a family could have. I had been even bought a new desk at home with a built-in lamp, so I could study comfortably during the summer vacations of class nine. That is all that was expected of me, to study and secure the highest marks. And I had done half of that. I had studied twelve hours a day for the last year and when it came to a simple application of all that hard work, I had let everyone down. All I had to do was write the answers to the questions. Why the hell did I have to help somebody else? He wasn’t going to get me my ninety-nine percentage in tenth, he wasn’t going to get me an admission in the best junior college of the country, he wasn’t even going to be a part of my life forever, was he? Answering today’s exam would’ve made me happy, not him.
I had gone straight to my dorm after the exam, meeting Ishita directly in the evening to let her know that I’d not be seeing her for the remainder of the boards. I had to study harder and perform better in other papers to compensate for today’s loss. She had expectedly gotten upset, hell, I had been upset as well but I hadn’t been able to fill supplements with answers, had I?
“The book’s down Jai.” The computer teacher said placing his hand gently on my back.
“Sorry sir.” I replied and pretended to read.
“I heard about today. Don’t think too much about it alright?” He said and continued his supervision.
Well, his ‘comforting’ words weren’t so comforting. Accompanied by all those thoughts of missing out on thirty-five marks, I managed to get through the board exams. I made sure they went uneventfully for the remaining period and kept my resolve of not seeing Ishita until then. On the last day of school, we did meet. We knew it wasn’t exactly a good-bye moment because we were going to be in the same school next year. I just hoped she wouldn’t become my senior, even though it would be cool to date a senior, given that she’d want to continue dating me. Unlike a lot of other students, my last day of tenth wasn’t filled with tears of parting away from friends and teachers. It was filled with embarrassment, regret and a resolve to make up for it.
I reached home in the evening and was given a warmer welcome this time. I didn’t tell anybody about the first exam and assured everyone that I’d be bringing more glory to the family name. But there had to be someone I could talk with about this.
“So you are disturbed by what happened that day?” My grandpa asked as we sat in the garden one fine evening.
“Yes, a little bit.” I answered.
“Okay, that’s normal. So what did you do about it?”
“What could I do? I wasn’t cheating, I was only helping Rohit due to which I was caught. I didn’t want to drag him down with me so I didn’t take his name but I am really angry at him.” I opened up to him. I had to with someone.
“And how is being angry helping you?” He asked.
I was quiet. I tried thinking of an answer. The right answer.
“It was because of him that I was caught.”
“Was it? I heard from you that you threw the eraser and that’s why you were caught”, he continued, “Jai, you are reacting to events in a way that is going to hurt you more, leave alone aid you,” he paused to let me grasp each word, “And let me be clear about how you landed yourself in the situation that you were in. This is how you always land yourself in situations, we all do.”
I listened attentively. I yearned for some formula of life that I thought I was about to be given. A computer program that had been running my life and perhaps I could tweak it in my favour.
“It is your response to situations that decides what happens to you,” he continued, “You may befall all sorts of difficulties, you may be made to make lots of choices but unless you take an action, your life does not change. Yes, sometimes not taking an action is an action too but that is a decision that we always have to make. Sometimes there are no good choices and we have to choose the least worst from the lot. In such cases, all you can do is make a choice, bear the consequences and at a later time when things have settled a bit, reflect over why you landed yourself in that situation.”
“So it was my throwing of the eraser that landed me in that situation.” I said.
“Yes, just like I said.”
“But I just wish that Rohit hadn’t asked for help.”
“Wouldn’t have you, had you been in his place? And so what if he did? That’s how life is. It throws unexpected things at you, things that you wish didn’t happen. Think of it as a football game, because I know you like that sport.”
I gave my agreement with a smile.
“When you are playing, you are aware that it is just a game. In the end, no matter who wins or loses, everybody goes back home having enjoyed some quality time. The result does not decide anything at all other than who scored more goals. It does not affect the course of your life, does it? You know that you will perfom to the best of your abilities for as long as you are enjoying the game. But when you play, you play with all your passion and enthusiasm. You have just one objective, of scoring goals. You do not let yourself get affected by emotions and feelings as it will affect your game. And in the end, if you lose, you decide to practice harder and win the next game. You reflect over why you lost the first one, learn from it but do not dwell in that loss forever, do you? Well, that is life. There is just one difference though. In the game of life, everybody is a player and there are no spectators. One leaves the field only upon death. So the choice is yours. You either play or you just stand in the middle of the field watching others play and score goals.”
We were both quiet again. Things were starting to become clearer and as they did, I regretted what I had asked of Ishita. It wasn’t her fault. I remembered her saying how she had even tried helping by asking for that supplement even though she didn’t need it at that point of time. Even Rohit had tried apologising but I wouldn’t even look at him.
“And the bottom line is, is there anything that you can now do about it? If yes, then take action, if no then move on. Emotions may be a part of us but they are supposed to be reactions to an event not responses.” He added.
“I get it grandpa. Thanks. But doing well in that paper as well, would’ve made me happier. And I wish I hadn’t spoken to Ishita like that, even though I know that I can be happy only with her.”
“That’s rubbish.” He said wincing.
“Do you remember the message I had written on the greeting card I had sent to you?”
“Umm, not really.” I answered embarrassingly.
“It’s okay, I didn’t expect you to”, he said, “It was something like this. I was no different from you, when I was where you are today – in a quest for happiness.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“I know it’s right. I wrote it. And I had hoped that one day I’d explain to you what it means. Today is the day.”
I looked at him attentively.
“I wish I had realised this earlier in my life so that I could teach your father as well, but human minds are like clay. They become harder to mould with time. Your mind is softer compared to your father’s. That’s the problem with grown-ups I tell you. We think we’ve seen the world when the world is changing every day. When there are newer things to learn every day. Just like I did at my age when I’d been thinking I knew all about life.”
“What did you want to teach him?”
“That nothing in the world can keep you happy.” My grandpa began and went on to change me forever.
You think getting good marks in tenth will keep you happy? You think getting into the best schools will do it? Or the best job, a big house and a car? They will not. Your father has a lot of money but is he happy? He wants more, a bigger house, a better car and more of everything. It does drive him in life but it is surely not the way to happiness. So what is? Well, there is no way. There are no ‘ifs’ and ‘whens’ that can bring you happiness. Only you can. People think that they will be happy if they have this, when they do that or there is another person that can bring them happiness. But everything that they yearn for are based on some conditions which can be made and destroyed anytime. The way of life is not to find happiness in something but to be happy. You don’t earn money to be happy, you be happy and then you can earn as much as you want. You don’t fall in love to find happiness, if you’re happy, you fall in love with everyone. To do anything to the best of your ability, you have to be happy first. Being happy is not the ultimate goal, it is the universal pre-requisite to everything.
“So there is no quest for happiness?” I asked.
“I used to think that there is when I was where you are today. But no, there is no quest for happiness. It is from where all the quests begin.”