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CHAPTER 1

GETTING BORN

T he clock struck thirteen…. No, actually, five (Guess, I’ve been
reading a lot of George Orwell lately). The eyelids of eleven year old
Ashwin Khanna were barely opening. It was his first experience of
getting up so early in the morning. The lights in the neighborhood homes
were still out, one of them which housed little Ashwin’s childhood puppy
crush. With a quick, hopeful glance out the window, he clambered out of his
bed and with a I’m-gonna-throw-you-away-you-little-peace-of-scrap look
towards the poor alarm clock which was giving a ‘now-what-did-I-do?’ sort
of look, he entered the bathroom to answer nature’s call.

You might be wondering and probably even cursing the cause due to which
this poor little boy had been made to get up so early, but, beginning, from
this day, a new chapter in the boy’s life was about to start. A chapter which
would lead him to new frontiers in life and one which would which would
prove instrumental in shaping up his entire career and future. The day
signified the mark of a start, the start of a process which would help
transform the innocent, timid, cute, chubby little boy of eleven into a
fearless, confident and responsible MAN in a mere seven years.
Commencing from today, the boy would become a part of an institution
which would take up the burden of shaping up the child’s personality, a task
which was as difficult as shaping up a pyramid of cards in his case, given, so
stubborn, careless and lazy he was.

The place I’m talking about is neither Alice’s Wonderland nor any other
place of fantasy, but a quiet little campus nestled in the twelfth sector of the
R.K. Puram locality of New Delhi, near the notorious Prince Pan Corner and
Sangam Cinema road crossing. It is a wonder-machine which takes in kids
like Ashwin, grooms and educates them and churns out responsible men and
women citizens of the world, each one with his or her own sense of identity
and responsibility.

It is a place we dipsites call heaven, it is a place the students call a second
home, it is a place of learning and fun……...
It is a place called DELHI PUBLIC SCHOOL, R.K. PURAM.

All right, getting back to Ashwin, inspite of the early morning blues, there
was an air of enthusiasm about him. Today was the day that the boy would
become a part of the prestigious institution. It was a matter of great pride for
him to have qualified through the rigorous entrance procedure, which
comprised a written test followed by a brainstorming interview taken by the
Principal of the institution herself, which had prompted Ashwin even more,
to boast about his achievement inside his friend circle.

His mantra was, “If you have it, flaunt it.”

“Well, OK Ashwin, as you like it, as long as you are doing well,” had said
his parents, which, considering he got through DPS RK Puram, he was.

To add to it his pride, he had even somehow managed to make it to the top
ten. That was because of his excellent scores in the written test. No surprise
actually, given such a master cheat he was.

No offence Ashwin, you still did well in your interview without cheating, or
did you??? Who knows??? Or rather who cares, all’s well that ends well…
eh Ashwin?

DPS RK Puram is one huge institution. And by huge, I mean it. The eleventh
and twelfth standards alone have a whopping forty six sections in total, add
to it twelve sections each of standard sixth to tenth and each section has an
average of forty three students.

All right, for all those who are weak at numbers, stop cursing me, I’ll do the
calculations for you. Thanks to Mr. William Seward Burroughs who
invented the calculator (I bet none of you knew that, ha…), my always
helpful calculator tells me that according to the above figures, the total
student strength of the school is a mind boggling four thousand five hundred
fifty eight...

There are about a hundred teachers teaching simultaneously daily in around
hundred or so classrooms, that is, excluding the numerous laboratories,
library and other miscellaneous rooms that exist inside the enormous campus
area.

With all the support staff and other miscellaneous people included, the total
number of people proudly walking through the gates of DPS RK Puram each
morning calculates to around five thousand.

Ashwin was one of them today. The school bus stopped nearly a kilometer
away from the school gates, a practice which all the students absolutely
H.A.T.E.D. and which Ashwin soon found out why.

He approached one of the seniors who to him seemed like he had eaten too
much daal in his lifetime, “How is he so freakin’ tall?” he thought,
comparing his short and thin demeanor to the huge and bulky physique of
the senior. He was one of those who always have an air of superiority about
them and carry around the, I’m-the-king-of- the-world tag and consider
themselves demi gods.

He had thought twice before approaching him and had also framed the
sentences of what he would ask him, in his mind before he went anywhere
near him.

After gathering all the courage he could muster, he innocently asked one of
the seniors in a very timid manner, “Bhaiya, why do they park the buses so
far off from the school?”

The senior turned back and so did all the people of his group who were
walking along with him. All of them gave him a How-dare-you-disturb-our-
walk look.

“Baccha, you are very small right now, run along and do not disturb us.”

He got the hint and didn’t take any further chances with them.

A teacher was walking behind Ashwin and had overheard his question.

“Beta, , a small walk in the morning makes one’s mind fresh and ready to
digest all the information that will come his way during the day.”
“But, Ma’am, firstly, the walk, by no means can be called small, and
secondly, along with making my mind fresh so that it becomes ready to take
in all the crap that the teachers will fire at me, the never ending walk, or so it
seems, is taking a freaking huge toll on my poor little legs !”
And, phataak, there he had it… his first taste of a tight slap by one of the
strictest and no-nonsense teacher around in the school, Mrs. Kocchar.

Obviously, now he was well acquainted with her and the reason why she was
feared the most.

That was his first encounters with the trademark traits of DPS RK Puram,
i.e., no-nonsense and strict discipline, and he got it pretty early too. Good for
him.

He finally reached the gates and passed under the golden letters of ‘Delhi
Public School RK Puram’. A strange sense of excitement and enthusiasm
gripped him.
But soon, that very sense of excitement turned into confusion. The huge
campus and the huge sea of students on his left, right, back and in front of
him, all decked up in white, chatting along as they walked, intimidated him.
He didn’t have the guts to ask anyone for directions, considering that he had
had two bad experiences right on the first day of school asking questions, it
is quite understandable, that it was justified on his part.

After wandering around for some time, trying to find his new classroom,
dejected and tired, he put his heavy bag, which actually competed with him
in size, aside and sat down hoping for some one to come along, show mercy
on him and guide him to his classroom.

He was whistling away to the tunes of Pink Floyd, when Mrs. Kocchar
interrupted him in his melody and asked him why he was bunking his class.

“Hey, you, what are you doing here? Why aren’t you in your class?”

With ambivalent feelings of fear and happiness that someone would finally
help him find his class, assuring that he didn’t say anything wrong
unintentionally, which would get him in trouble, he stuttered,

“Ma’am, actually… basically… I…., ma’am…”,
“Oh, come to the point, will you”, shouted Mrs. Kocchar losing her patience.

The loud reprimand knocked the wits out of Ashwin and he said,

“Ma’am, sorry ma’am, it is not the way you think, I was not able to find my
classroom as it is my first day in this school, so I sat down here.”

Phataak. There you have it Mr. Khanna, yet again...

“Couldn’t you have asked someone for directions? Which standard are you
in?”

“Ma’am, sixth standard, section G.”

“Well, in that case, I am your class teacher. G section, isn’t that what you
said?”

Ashwin couldn’t believe his ears. How unlucky can a person be in a day!
Well, if there was a Guinness record for it, Ashwin would’ve certainly
bagged the honors for being the unluckiest person around.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Well, then come along with me. Get up now, fast, don’t waste my time.”

“Yes, ma’am”, said he, innocently.

The two marched on towards their classroom.

It was a pretty decent classroom, VI-G, fully equipped with a white board, a
notice board and around forty pairs of desk and chairs. It didn’t have a
strategic location though; bang on in front of the headmistresses’ room.

To his further dismay, he was allotted the first seat by Mrs. Kocchar, right
under the nose of the teacher, and to add to it, his partner of the opposite sex
was the ugliest person he had ever come across. As he sat down, she gave
him a grin through her braces.

“Eeww…” thought Ashwin, I cannot sit with this awful piece of flesh.
“Ma’am, can you please change my seat.”

“Ohhh…You’ll drive me crazy, just keep quiet and sit where I asked you to,”
shouted Mrs. Kocchar on the top of her voice.

The whole room seemed to shake because of the shriek.

His first day was turning out to be exactly an antithesis of what he had
envisioned it to be. Two bad experiences coming into the school, getting
lost, strict teacher, ugly partner, all seemed to be going wrong for poor
Ashwin. The rest of the day was no good, getting into fights with classmates
and being unable to find the toilet when his bladder was screaming to empty
itself further dampened his spirits.

Later that day, while coming home from school in the bus, he wondered
whether he made the right choice coming here, whether this was the right
place for him.

Little did he know that the following seven years would be the best ones in
his entire life…
CHAPTER 2
OF LIONS AND GAZELLES

“In the African savanna, when the sun rises,
a gazelle knows it must run faster than the fastest lion,
if he wants to stay alive,
a lion knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle,
else, he will starve to death,
so, no matter who you are,
when the sun rises,
you better start running.”

“T
assembly.
his very famous Afrikaans proverb was the thought of the day,
now we present our class choir with the song, Aashaein from
the movie Iqbal,” said the compere for the day’s morning

Ashwin was yawning away, he asked the guy in front in the line, “Why do
they have such stupid and boring assemblies in the morning and for god
sake, what was that ‘gazelle and lion’ crap that the speakers on the stage
were blabbering away to glory about, can’t I simply just go to the class and
have a nap?”

And what happened next? Yes, you guessed it…phataak…

There you go again, “Why does this bloody teacher always has to be at the
wrong place at the wrong time?” thought Ashwin holding his cheek which
had gone brick red.

“Ashwin, just keep your mouth shut and watch the assembly.”
“And by the way, where is your belt?”

“Ma’am…actually…basically…Ma’am…”

Phataak…bang in the centre of his other cheek.
Holding both his cheeks, he was led away to the defaulters’ line by his class
teacher.

“Five freaking rounds of the football field, that’s what they made me do as
punishment. Can you believe it? Bloody fifteen hundred meters, are they
trying to cripple us or what?” said Ashwin to his newly made friend in his
class, Saurav.

“Oh, I pity thee.” said Saurav, laughing at his friend’s misery.

“They have given me a detention, now, I won’t be able to play in P.E. today,
shit yaar, I had brought my new studs today to play football, but now, thanks
to our beloved headmistress, I will be arranging the desks and chairs of all
the sections of sixth standard, that’s around twelve freakin’ classrooms
dude.”

“Hey, here comes Nishit sir.”

A tall and bulky man of around thirty entered the classroom and took his
place behind the teacher’s desk.

“Good morning children, sit down, take out your books and notebooks.
Today, we will study about Continental Drift.”

“Yes, I know this, I’ve read about this, come on teacher, shoot your
questions.” thought Ashwin, giving a broad smile at the teacher.

The teacher seemed to have read his mind and the first question came
directly at him.

“Yes, you, stand up, tell me, what was the name of the single supercontinent
that existed when the earth was formed and out of which all the present day
continents came out.”

“Sir, Pangaea. Pangaea is believed to have been a C-shaped landmass that
spread across the equator. The body of water that was believed to have been
enclosed within the resulting crescent has been named the Tethys Sea.”
answered Ashwin.
“Hmmm…impressive, what’s your name child?”

“Sir, Ashwin Khanna.”

“Good, keep it up, sit down.”

“Yes, so as Ashwin so clearly described, Pangaea is indeed believed to have
been a huge C-shaped landmass which broke up due to the internal tectonic
forces of the Earth and as a result of which, our present day continents came
into existence, clear, everyone?”

“Yes sir,” answered the class in unison.

“Good, now open your notebooks and write down the definition of tectonic
plates. Tectonic plates are……”

And so the class was taught all about continental drift and tectonic plates in
the following thirty minutes.

The bell rang for the second period, it was P.E. for the rest of the class, but
not for Ashwin though. He had to stay back in class and arrange all the desks
and chairs of all the sections of the sixth standard.

“Crap.” He said, watching all the other students merrily run along to the
school sports complex for P.E. (Yes, this place even has a separate sports
complex for the students, divine, isn’t it.).

“What happened Ashwin, anything wrong?” asked Nishit sir who had stayed
back in the class.

“Nothing sir, its just that the headmistress handed me a detention for not
wearing the belt. So, now I have to stay back and arrang the furniture of all
the sections of sixth grade. So much for a belt!”

“Hmmm… I can empathise with you, even I went through similar situations
when I was your age, and you bet, I was one of the most notorious boys
around in my school.”

“You were!” said Ashwin, surprised.
“Well, yes…and as a matter of fact, I managed to bunk around half of my
detentions in school.”

“Unreal man, you seem so innocent and not-that-kind-of-person guy, I can’t
imagine you doing detentions, I mean, you are our teacher. Teachers are not
supposed to be notorious.”

“Well, if you want, I can give a few tips on how to bunk your detentions and
not be caught, but only if you promise that you won’t tell it to anyone, will
you?”

“Hell no.” answered the ecstatic Ashwin.

“OK.”

The duo chatted for almost half the period and one could hear Ashwin’s
roars of laughter through the corridoors as Nishit sir recitated tales and
pranks from his good old days.

“Oh, almost half the period is over, it’s a wonder how time flies when two
like minded people meet, isn’t it?” asked Nishit sir.

“Yeah, you’re right, sir.”, said Ashwin.

“OK, now you go for P.E. and don’t worry about the detention, just do what
I instructed and I’ll handle the rest.”

“Aye Aye sir.” replied Ashwin and flew down the stairs towards the sport
complex.

He couldn’t wait to tell all this to Saurav. The distance between his
classroom and the sports complex which, on an average, would be covered
in ten minutes, was covered in only five by Ashwin.

“Hey, what are you doing here? You were supposed to be..... OK, OK, stop
jumping dude, what happened?” said he, sensing the excitement on Ashwin’s
face.

“You won’t believe it. Nishit sir hepled me bunk my detention!” said Ashwin
trying to catch his breath after the dash from the class to the complex.
“What! You must be kidding me, that burly man who always has the ‘I’m-
going-to-eat-you-up-if-you-don’t-answer’ look helped you bunk your
detention?”

“Yeah, I know, it’s quite unreal, but I guess we have built an affinity with
each other. I think he was quiet impressed by me in today’s class.”

“Yeah, you bet, you were answering like anything man, you even kinda
challenged his haughtiness, considering that he thinks that students don’t
know anything and that he is god, you sure did melt his ego a bit.”

“Yeah, I know, OK, now can we play a little foootbaaalll?” queried Ashwin.

“Hell Yeah.” Answered the two in chorus. “Joga Bonita homie…”

Ashwin sizzled with the ball. There was no stopping him, he displayed all
the tricks and skills in the book and helped his side win 3-0.

“A comprehensive defeat indeed.” said the football coach who approached
him seeing the potential footballer in him and recognising the bundle of
talent that he was.

“Oh…good morning sir, yeah, thanks.” said Ashwin, blushing.

“Are you into any football coaching academy or something?”

“Ummm…no sir.”

“What’s your name child?”

“Sir, Ashwin Khanna.”

“OK, Ashwin, come and meet me near the canteen in the lunch break.”

“Sure sir.”

“Chalo, bye.”

“See you sir.”
On the way back to class, Ashwin’s joy knew no bounds. He was ecstatic.
“Did you hear what he said?” said Ashwin.

“Yea, come and meet me in the break.” Answered Saurav, trying to fake the
voice of the coach.

“Yeah, that can only mean one thing, right?”

“Yup, that he wants you in the team!”

“How cool is that, just imagine…. Ashwin, centre back, DPS RK Puram…..
sweeeet, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, divine.”

“Yeah, cool… oye, what period is it right now?” asked Ashwin, getting back
to Earth.

“Ummm…I dunno, maths I guess.”

“Oh no, not Kocchar again.” said Ashwin in disgust.

“Only one period dude, it’s break after that.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

They reached the class and found the door ajar. Mrs. Kocchar was already
inside and as expected, the whole class was sitting in pin drop silence, no
one dared to utter a sound in her period.

They knew at once that they were in serious trouble.
Gathering all the courage they could muster, they opened the door and
asked, in unison,

“May we come in ma’am?”

“Oh, it’s you two, I’ve been waiting for you, come in.” said the teacher with
a nasty smile on her face, as she would just gobble them up any time.
They entered and found their names written in bold on the white-board with
the word ‘BUNKING’ captioning them.

“What! Excuse me ma’am, we were not bunking!” said an outraged Ashwin.

“Hey, Ashwin, lower down your voice, don’t make matters worse.”
murmured Saurav.

“Saurav, you stay out of this, I’ll handle it.” Said Ashwin confidently.

“We’re doomed for certain now.” Thought Saurav.

The students could feel the anger in the air. Some of them were scared while
some of them chuckled at the thought of some entertainment being provided
in the normally boring and monotonous maths class.

“Oh yeah, first of all, you come late, and then you have the audacity to argue
with me, what kind of principles and manners have your parents taught you
Mr. Khanna?” shouted Mrs. Kocchar.

Yet again, the walls seemed to quiver under the impact of her voice.

“Ma’am, the previous period was P.E. and we were with the football coach
because he wanted to talk to me regarding my incusion in the football team.”

“Woaaahhh.” Said the class, expressing their amazement.
“Is it true Ashwin?”
“What position will you play Ashwin?”
“When are the matches starting Ashwin?”
“Are there any more sixthees in the team Ashwin?”
“Will you get your own jersey Ashwin?”

The class bombarded questions at Ashwin in chorus.

“Silence here.” cried the teacher, slamming the duster on the teacher’s desk.

The whole class at once reverted back to the same pin drop silence mode.
“I don’t believe any of your nonsense stories. No one from the sixth standard
has ever been included in the school football team in the history of this
school.”

“I swear ma’am, I’m not lying, you can ask Saurav.”

“Yes ma’am, he is right.” Said Saurav, innocently.

“Yeah, you’ll only defend him. Now stop wasting my time and just get out
of my sight, go stand outside the class.” ordered the teacher.

“These kids are just impossible” she muttered to herself.

The two exited the class and stood outside in the corridoor.

“Unbelievable… what does she think of herself?” said Ashwin, his face
going all red with anger.

“Relax yaar, anyways, this is much better than sitting inside her class.”

“Yeah, silver lining.”

“Haha… give me five man.” Said Saurav.

The two high-fived with a loud clap… too loud in fact.

Mrs. Kocchar emerged from the door and asked, “What are you two upto
now? I mean, don’t you have any shame at all?”

“Sorry ma’am.” Answered the two.

She slammed the door on their faces and went inside.

“Hehehe… did you see the look in her eyes, gawd. I bet she would’ve saved
all the money that Steven Spielberg put in for creating all the virtual
dinosaurs in Jurassic Park if she had auditioned for T-Rex’s role! She’s a
perfect fit.” chuckled Ashwin.

“Yeah, you bet.” Agreed Saurav.
“Man, when will the bell ring, it has been an eternity.” Said Ashwin.
The bell rang as soon as he expressed his thoughts.

“Prophetic words, Ashwin.” Said Saurav.

The duo rushed down the first floor stairs and ran to the canteen. The area
was desserted, obviously, considering that they had reached there before the
bell had actually stopped ringing.
But it soon started filling up. In a few minutes, there was a huge ocean of
students occupying the whole Open Air Theatre, OAT as they call it (the
most popular place to hang out and bunk in the whole school, a title
conferred upon by the students in the DPS RK Puram community on the
popular social networking website, Orkut), near the canteen.

“How will we find him in this huge sea of humanity?” asked Ashwin.

“I don’t think it’s that hard to find a tall, burly coach dressed in a black track
suit in a sea of white, is it” replied Saurav.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. We’ll find….”
Ashwin barely finished his sentence when Saurav interrupted him.

“Hey, there he is.” Said Saurav, excitedly, pointing towards the far end of the
OAT. “Let’s go.”

The two jumped from the broad steps of the OAT and meandered their way
through the crowd towards the coach.

The coach’s face acquired a broad smile on seeing them.

“So… you’re here. I hope you didn’t get late for your third period class
because of me.”

The two students looked at each other and smiled.

“Never mind sir.” said Saurav

The coach sensed something fishy but decided not to prod them further.
“OK, you guys must be hungry, so I’ll not take much of your time and get
straight to the point. Ashwin, I saw you playing today and I think that you
are a very good footballer. You do have lots of potential in you and can
prove to be an asset to the school team, that is, if you make it there. But it is
still early days to talk about your inclusion in the shool football team. I have
only seen you play once and I’m afraid that’s not enough for me to give you
a place in the team yet. So, I want to you to work harder and perform
consistently and only then will I be able to give you a spot in the team
No one from sixth grade has ever made it to the school team in the history of
DPS RK Puram, I think you are already aware of that. So, do not let history
intimidate you… rather, make it.
So, I’ll see you in the football ground whenever you have your next P.E.
Bye.”

He walked away, leaving the two boys to do a little bit of thinking, because
things hadn’t exactly turned out the way they had expected.

“Hmmm… I thought he called me to do all the foramlities regarding my
inclusion into the side.” Said Ashwin, disappointed.

“Yeah, but, you should also see it from his point of view also. I mean, he has
only seen you play once. You will have to prove yourself to him by playing
well regularly.” Explained Saurav.

“Yeah, I guess it is rightly said, you indeed shouldn’t count your chickens
before they hatch.”

“Precisely.”
CHAPTER 3
JOOTA POLISH DAYS

A shwin didn’t realize how one and a half months had passed in a
jiffy. It seemed only last week when he had passed through the gates
of DPS RK Puram for the first time. At first, he had thought that it
would be next to imposible for him to survive, let alone excel, in this school,
but things had turned out very differently from what he had envisaged
earlier… except for the frequent run-ins with Mrs. Kocchar that is.

The calendars had been flipped to show the month of May and the
temperatures were soaring, hovering around the fourty two degree mark.

“It’s high time they declared the summer holidays for us.” remarked Manvi,
the topper among the girls in VI-G.

“Yes yaar, I swear, it’s so freaking hot!” replied Sonali, relatively, the
prettiest female of the class.

“Yeah, but not as hot as you are.” thought Ashwin.

During these one and a half months, Ashwin had developed a secret crush on
Sonali, but the girl who lived next door, Ayesha, was giving her stiff
competetion, though.

It was the lunch break on a hot Wednesday morning in school and Ashwin
was sweating it out, completing his Math homework, or rather copying from
Manvi’s. Today was the deadline for submitting the assignment on Fractions,
a topic which Ashwin simply loathed, but as the teacher concerned was Mrs.
Kocchar, he had no choice but to do it.

She didn’t say anything about not copying, did she? She just wanted the
assignment with the correct answers on it, right? And with the source of the
answers being Manvi’s notebook, they were destined to be correct.
“Hey dude, what’s up, what are you doing inside the class in break time?”
asked Karan, a boy with dominant feminist charactertistics and the butt of all
the jokes in the class.
“Not much man, uhmm…, girl, uhmm… whatever you are.” Gimmicked
Ashwin.

“Ohh…cut it out Ashwin.”

“OK, I’m sorry, I was just completing my math homework which we have to
submit in the next period.”

“The one on fractions?”

“Yeah, fractions suck.”

“You sure don’t mean that. I just love fractions. They are so easy, took only
fifteen minutes for me to do the whole assignment……on my own……
without copying.”

“Whatever, now can you please stop mocking me and let me concentrate?”

“Concentrate on copying! That’s a first…”

“Ohhhh… just buzz off, will you.” Shouted Ashwin.

“Relax dude… OK, I’m off.”

He strode off towards the corridors.

“Stupid piece of shit.” Muttered Ashwin, expressing his frustration.

He was on his last question when suddenly Saurav came running into the
class smiling ear to ear and informed him about a notice that had been put up
on the notice board in the corridoors.

“We are breaking for the summer holidays from tomorrow, the government
of Delhi has issued a notice to all schools in the city to close its schools due
to the heat wave.” Exclaimed Saurav.

“You must be kidding me, seriously?”
“Yeah dude, you can check out the notice yourlself. It’s been put up on the
notice board outside.”
“Sweet, the heat was just becoming unbearable man, I wouldn’t have been
coming this week anyways.”

The bell rang and Mrs. Kocchar walked into the class. Ashwin dutifully
submitted his assignment on time and created a somewhat positive image on
the teacher for once.

“Good.” Said the teacher, “Keep it up.”

“Thank you ma’am.” Said he, acknowledging the compliment.

The rest of the periods were spent in restless anticipation for the school to
end.
Sensing the excitement among the pupils towards the last day before the
school closed for the summer break, the Computer teacher, Mrs. Manisha,
who had the last period, granted it free for the class. The class erupted in joy
and thanked the teacher for being so generous, a trait that is less exhibited by
teachers in general.
The students whiled away their time playing all sorts of games. Right from
the very elementary ‘Name-Place-Animal-Thing’ to the more daring games
of ‘Red-hand’ and ‘Truth or Dare.’
Finally, after what seemed to have been an eternity, the bell rang and the
whole class shouted in unison –
“Yaaaayyy…Happy Holidays, Joota Polish days, Happy Holidays, Joota
Polish days.”

The coridoors of all the floors in Blossoms Block were chanting the same
slogan.
Ashwin invented his own – “Happy Holidays.... Khayo Ruffle Lays.”
Yeah, I know, he could’ve done better. But making rhymes and jingles were
not his cup of tea.

He reached home and informed his mother about the notice issued by the
Delhi Government which, for a change, had done something worthwile for
the student citizens of the city by declaring holidays before schedule.
“That’s great news. But I hope you are not planning to waste away these two
months by sitting in front of the idiot box like an idiot and not indulging in
something worthwile.” Warned his mother.

‘That is exactly what I was thinking’, thought Ashwin.

How mothers seem to read our minds when we are thinking of something
bad is a characteristic of all mothers which I have always been intrigued and
scared of. In fact, I’m still having a hard time coping with it. Ashwin was no
different.

“You ought to join some workshop or a hobby course in these holidays to
broaden your horizon.”

“But, mom, I already have loads of Holiday Homework, that would broaden
my horizon enough.” Complained Ashwin.

Holiday Homework is also one aspect of school which I completely loathe.
They virtually take up the whole two months which were supposedly meant
to be holidays, that is, if you actually decide to sit down and do it, which
most wise people decide against.

“No, it won’t. I’ll be getting you enrolled for the English Theatre classes in
the nearby hobby center. They are bringing in a teacher from the National
School of Drama specially for the summer batch and I want you to be a part
of it.” Said mom.

“But mom…..”

“No arguments Ashwin. I have already bought the form. It’s for your own
good. Now stop cribbing about it.”

‘So much for broadening my horizon… bah.’ Thought Ashwin.

So the summer holidays weren’t exactly turning out the way he had
imagined it to be. With the piles of holiday homework and now the
‘broadening-your-horizons’ drama classes awaiting him, his summer was
doomed. “So much for the supposed holidays…” he thought.
The drama classes commenced only a week after the vacations began, so he
had some time for his own and he spent it in the best possible way….. yeah,
the same way that we do….sleeping, watching TV and playing Unreal
Tournament on the PC.
Even after the theatre classes began, he used the time that was supposedly
alloted to do the Holiday Homework, to play Unreal Tournament and
football with his neighbourhood buddies. I must say, “Good thinking
Ashwin.”

The drama classes took place every weekday, from twelve noon to four,
including a fifteen minute lunch break in between. I myself only finish one
chapati in ten minutes, so the students in the cafeteria seemed more to be in
a ‘who-finishes-his-meal’ race rather than ‘who-eats-the-most’…… or
sometimes both.

The much hyped about teacher from the National School Of Drama, Mrs.
Savita Ahuja, had a striking resemblance to a komodo dragon. She was
around five feet five inches tall and seemed to weigh close to two hundred
pounds. One could easily be knocked out cold if he/she managed to
accidentally collide with her, so the students generally maintained a safe
distance from the instructor.
Her face was full of bumps and depressions and her voice was more of a
hiss.
“Sstudentss, pleasssse ssit down on the carpetssss.”
She had a particular difficulty in prononcing the ‘S’ of the english alphabet.
Ashwin was one person who simply hated her pronounciation, unlike others
who found it amusing and used it as a butt for their stupid pathetic jokes. It
killed him when she read out her name during the roll call.

“Asssshwin Khanna.” She shouted out.
“Yessss ma’am.” He answered, mocking her. She never seemed to notice.

They had started their workshop with some basic exercises which Ashwin
found ridiculous, and rightly so. In one of them, the teacher divided the lot
into pairs and asked them to sit down facing their partners. They were then
supposed to keep asking their partners one question while staring right into
their eye – “Who are you?” “Who are you?” “Who are you?”
They were supposed to do this for ten minutes after which the other person
of the two would get his chance to ask the ultimate question.
While doing the exercise, Ashwin thought, “Is this what mom meant by
broadening my horizon.”

Definitely not Ashwin, this is not broadening your horizon, the komodo
dragon just made a monkey out of you, my friend.

Well, after all the ‘making-a-fool-out-of-yourself’ exercises, the instructor
finally started with a play after two days, and much to Ashwin’s dismay, it
was Shakespeare.

They were assigned the play, ‘The Merchant of Venice’. And much to
Ashwin’s horror, he was handed the role of Antonio. Antonio, according to
critics, was a gay as he loved his dear friend Bassanio so much, that he was
ready to keep his life on the line to provide him with money that he needed
to woo the pretty maiden of Belmont, Portia. If you have read the play,
you’ll know that he is always full of references of love to Bassanio and is
even jealous and afraid that if Bassanio manages to woo Portia, he would no
longer pay much attention and importance to him. All these remarks
certainly raise quite a few eyebrows. Thus, Ashwin’s shock was surely
justified.

He was always in a very uncomfortable and awkward situation when it was
his turn to recite the dialogues, considering the suspicious and derogatory
undertones of the lines. One of them goes thus;

ANTONIO:
“You know me well, and herein spend but time
To wind about my love with circumstance.
And out of doubt you do me now more wrong
In making question of my uttermost love for thee
Than if you had made waste of all I have.
Then do but say to me what I should do
That in your knowledge may by me be done,
And I am pressed unto it.
Therefore speak.”

For those unfamiliar with archaic Shakespearean language, here’s the
translation into more readable normal English:

“You know me better than that.
You're wasting your breath.
All of this talk means you have doubts about my love towards you.
That's worse than if you bankrupted me.
Just tell me what to do, and I'll do it. Tell me.”

This clearly indicates the doubtful character and the sycpophancy of Antonio
towards his friend.
Thus, Ashwin was having a really tough time playing Antonio.

One day while returning home from the hobby center on his bicycle, he went
through the idea of bunking the classes, but decided against it as he knew
that the teacher would definitely notice his absence, even if for a day, and
would ring up home to enquire about him. This is so because apparently, she
was really fond of Ashwin’s dialogue delivery and had mentioned that he
had a great on-stage presence and had therefore began to take a shrewd
interest in him.

“You have a potential actor in you.” She had said the other day, much to
Ashwin’s surprise. “Now what made her think that way?” Ashwin had said
to himself after that.

“You should nurture and develop your talent Ashwin.” She advised.

“Yeah, right. I am a potential footballer, a potential actor, but I am never a
potential topper. Only destiny knows what’s in store for me.” Thought
Ashwin.

That day, he complained, or rather pleaded with his mother to let him leave
the workshop by expressing his lack of interest and commitment towards the
hobby classes.

His mother replied,
“I spoke to Mrs. Ahuja the other day regarding your performance and she
reckons that you are pretty good and must carry on with the workshop. She
mentioned that you have an amazing on-stage presence and….”

“Yeah, and my dialogue delivery is out of this world… isn’t it?”

“Yes. How did you know?”
“She said the same to me. But mom, I do not want to do it. I get bored for
whole four freaking hours everyday. Why waste time in something that I
have no interest in when I can rather utilize the same time for some other
productive use.”

“Oh yeah, like what? Watching TV and playing those gory computer games
that are full of bloodshed. You’d rather attend those boring classes than
waste your time in doing your sort of productive work which is anything but
that.”

Ashwin knew he had hit the wrong button. Maybe dearest father would be of
some use.

Ashwin’s father, Mr. Anil Khanna, was a middle aged man of forty who
worked as the ‘Deputy General Manager’ for the steel giants of the country,
‘Steel Authority of India Limited’, SAIL, as he preferred to call it.

At seven thirty in the evening, his dad returned home from office. Ashwin
waited till he freshened up and sat down in front of the TV with his cuppa of
coffee. That’s when he is always in a good mood, when he is sipping his
coffee. Ashwin was aware of that and thus, strategically, popped the
suggestion at that precise moment.

“Dad, you know that mom has put me into the ‘English Theatre Workshop’
which is going in the nearby hobby centre for my whole summer vacations,
right?” said Ashwin

“Yes, so, what about it?” replied his dad.

“Well, it’s just that, I am not really interested in attending these drama
classes and feel that I am wasting my time by going there. It’s just not my
cup of tea, dad. Could you please explain this to mom and convince her to
let me leave the workshop because she refused to comply with my request.”

“But she said that the instructor reckons you are doing a pretty good job. She
mentioned that you have a great stage presence and…..”

“Yeah, I know that she thinks my stage presence is great and my dialogue
delivery is amazing…”
“Exactly, so what is the problem then?”

“Dad, being good doesn’t mean that I am interested in it. I don’t enjoy doing
it. And to add it, she has handed me the role of Antonio of ‘The Merchant Of
Venice’, and the character demands to me play a stupid sycophant who is in
love with his friend. I cannot portray this character, please.”

“OK, OK, I’ll talk to your mother about it over dinner. Have you eaten
yours?”

“Yes dad.”

“You better go off to sleep then. You have to rise up early tomorrow.”

“Rise up early… why?

“Just like that. No more snoring away till eleven in the morning in the
summer holidays. You’ve got to maintain some discipline in your lifestyle…
and it’s good for your health also. So, from tomorrow, out of bed by seven
thirty, maximum, understood?”

“Yes dad,” said Ashwin, wondering what sin had he committed that his
holidays were turning to be so terrible and more of a punishment for him.

Dutifuly, he went to his room, put off the lights, plugged the earphones of
his iPod into his ears and dozed off listening to the guitar of Joe Satriani.

At the dinner table, Mr. Khanna put forward Ashwin’s request to his wife.

“Ashwin had come to me right now. He doesn’t want to go the drama classes
that you have enrolled him into. He says he doesn’t have the interest. He has
been going there for what… more than three weeks now… I reckon we
should give him some time to relax and let him leave the classes,” suggested
Mr. Khanna.

Mrs. Khanna, giving him a ‘I-beg-to-disagree-look’, said, "I don’t think so.
He’d rather attend those seemingly non-interesting classes than just while
away his time playing games and watching TV.”
“Well, I’d suggest you give him some time to unwind and freak out and then
after maybe a week or so, we can put him into some other workshop, you
know, learning a musical instrument, painting or something of that sort.”
Said Mr. Khanna.

“But, Anil, this hobby center has managed to bring in an instructor from
NSD itself and I think it is a great opportunity for Ashwin to learn about
theatre and get some stage-confidence going for him. Only I know how I
managed to get the form. It was an absolute riot there… scores of parents
had lined up for it and only a few managed to acquire the forms because you
know they have only taken in twenty kids. You won’t believe it, but I even
had to bribe one of the staff members there to actually get that form, such is
the demand of this workshop!”

“But dear, our son isn’t interested in it and what use is any workshop when
you aren’t sincere about it and take it more as a pain than as a thing to look
forward to everyday. I think we should let him leave. I’m not saying that you
make him sit at home, but, we can ask him his area of interest and choose an
aprropriate summer workshop accordingly, you understand what I’m trying
to say?

“Well, I don’t know. I am not too inclined towards the idea of letting him
leave this workshop, but…. OK, let’s see if this idea of yours works out or
not.” Said Mrs. Khanna, skeptically.

“Great, I’m glad you agreed…. and by the way, the chicken was delicious
tonight.”

“Oh, thank you so much, Mr. Khanna. Finally, you took the pain of
appreciating my culinary skills.” Replied Mrs. Khanna, laughing.

Both had a hearty laugh together and retired to their room.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ashwin was ecstatic. One whole week, no drama classes, no restrictions on
TV and computer games and unlimited football to play with friends. He
wondered what had gone into his parents all of a sudden.
“Hail the coffee beans.” Ashwin said to himself. “Hail the cuppa of coffee. I
knew it would work.”

And now, there he was, struggling against PSV Eindhoven to get his team,
Arsenal through to the Champions League semi-final in his computer game,
FIFA 2007 in the afternoon and then donning the same mantle as that of
Thierry Henry in the evening to help his team beat the football team of the
neighbouring colony.

Life went on so sweetly through the week, but as soon as Ashwin was
starting to relish the sweetness of it, the week ended. It seemed only
yesterday when he became a free bird, away from the drama classes, but
now, in the blink of an eye, everything was seeming to come back to haunt
him once again. The contracted peiod for doing ‘his kind of relaxation’ was
over.

That day, when he returned home after playing football with his friends in
the nearby park, he was called by his parents in the drawing room.
He knew what was coming.

His mother first broke the silence and said, “Ashwin, you asked us to let you
leave the drama class, we let you do that, we gave you one week to relax, but
now, you must go back to some workshop or course so that your time is not
wasted sitting idle at home. We are not putting you back in that drama
workshop, so don’t worry about that, rather, we would like you to tell us
your area of interest so that we can chose a workshop for you accordingly
and so that you don’t get bored when you go for the classes, fair enough?”

“Well, OK. Yeah, I think that is fair enough.” Agreed Ashwin.

“Is this some sort of a law of nature or something,” he thought, “All good
things tend to come to an end within a jiffy and the bad ones seem to last for
eons and actually even take less time to arrive.”

“So, what kind of course would you like to join?” asked his father. “There
are numerous options availabe in the summer vacations you know… every
school and hobby center is trying to rope in more and more kids by offering
them a variety of choices and thus fill their purses.”
“What kind of course……….well, I had never really thought about what my
interests are, you know….” said Ashwin.
He scratched his head and thought for some time and finally came up with
something. “Hey, I have a wonderful idea! What about guitar. You said I can
learn to play any musical instrument right? Well then, I think I’d love to
learn the guitar. Is that fine with you all?”

“Yes, why not.” Said Mr. Khanna.

“Certainly, no problems with us. Anything as long as you not play those
good for nothing computer games.” Said Mrs. Khanna, supporting her
husband’s statement. “And tomorrow is a Sunday, so we can go the malls in
Gurgaon, they have a lot of music shops, and you can choose your guitar.”

“How cool is that, I cannot believe I’m actually going to get my own guitar”,
he said to himself, picturising himself strumming the love song ‘Everything
I do’ by Bryan Adams to Sonali. “Now, that is what I call a good use of the
summer holidays.”

Next day, after having breakfast, the Khanna family drove off to Gurgaon in
their Hyundai Accent. It generally takes around fourty five minutes from
Dwarka(where they lived) to the malls in Gurgaon, but today, thanks to a
half hour blockage by the Delhi Police due to a ‘Neta (in other words, VIP)
Movement’, the journey took longer than expected. All this much to Mr.
Khanna’s anger, who started venting it out on his spouse.

“I told you that we should leave earlier. Only if you could have hurried up.
Bloody one whole hour in makeup, for god’s sake, we are not going to a
page 3 party goddamnit. Now thanks to you and that bloody good for
nothing politician who coolly zipped by in his Ambassador, we are now
stuck in this mile long traffic mess. It will take a minimum one hour for this
jam to clear. So much for a wonderful Sunday.”

“Anil, relax. You did not prophecy the traffic jam, did you. Stop blaming for
it. Curse that damn MP, not me.” Retalliated Mrs. Khanna.

“OK, fine, now let’s shut up.” He turned on the car music system and tried to
change his mood by whistling away to the tunes of Jagjit Singh.
Though Mr. Khanna had prophesied a wait of one hour, the jam cleared up in
only half that time and so did his anger.

They finally reached the place and searched through all the three malls
which are located at a stone’s throw away from each other for the best deal.
They finally zeroed down on a black Hobner acoustic guitar from the MGF
mall.

Ashwin was thrilled with his new buy. He reckoned it looked quite similar to
the one used by Mark Knopfler himself in the Dire Straits concert at
Bangalore.
He couldn’t wait to get started with his guitar lessons.
His dad knew a pretty good institute for learning musical instruments in the
neighbouring sector so they got him enrolled there. He still had a month to
go before his holidays ended, so he went all out and really dedicated his
heart and soul towards learning the guitar, considering the fact that he was so
keen on trying to impress Sonali with his newly acquired skill.

His guitar teacher, Adrian Charles Lobo, much like Ashwin, was a very
happy go lucky sort of a chap. They became really good friends and struck a
great rapport with each other within a week. It only catalysed Ashwin’s
learning.
Though he had a serious roadblock in trying to learn the F major chord
which actually took him six days to master, Ashwin managed to finish the
elementary part of the course in three weeks flat, i.e., two weeks earlier than
his counterparts. Now while he strummed the chords of ABBA’s ‘I Have a
Dream’, the others watched with envy while trying their best to get their
fingers on the right frets for the C chord.

By the time the holidays finished, Ashwin was all locked and loaded with his
guitar skills, ready to woo any girl of his choice (sorry others, the first
preference would still go to Ayesha or Sonali).

On the last night before school reopened, he lay in his bed thinking, “My
mind is telling me I have forgotten something, what can it be?” he tried hard
to remember what was it that his brain was trying to indicate. Finally, he
realised it.

“SHIT…………..”
Yeah dude, you forgot about that thing called ‘Holiday Homework’….

CHAPTER 4
THE AFTERMATH

He woke up with a feeling of dread. He wasn’t really concerned about the
other subjects, but the paramount factor for his fear was the fact that he had
failed to complete the MATH holiday homework. He knew Mrs. Kocchar
would jump on this opportunity and tear him to shreds when she would find
out about it.

He started considering his options:

“What if I don’t go to school today? Naah, dearest mom won’t let that
happen.”

“Will I have enough time to copy?” He took out his almanac from the bag
and consulted the time table. “Darn, first period Math. Option not
applicable.”

“Should I steal someone else’s?” he pondered… “No way” his conscience
yelled out to him.

Inspite of having considered several other options for nearly half an hour, a
viable solution still elluded him. Now his only option was to hope that either
Mrs. Kocchar meets with a car accident this morning or she forgets
everything about the thing called Holiday Homework, both of which were as
unlikely to happen as girls saying no to my proposals. For all those birdy-
heads who were unable to infer correctly from the analogy, I’d like to put my
point across by specifying that that is highly unlikely.

Hoping, he got ready in a hurry; he had spent half an hour on the toilet seat
trying to think a way out of this problem, so he had little time left to dress
and eat his breakfast. He took the sandwich in his hand and rushed out
towards his bus stop, managing to reach just in time. He occupied his
favourite window seat behind the driver and optimistically, started to probe
his mind for solutuions once again, hoping that something would click.
When nothing suitable occuurred, he fell asleep.

He was awoken by the conductor upon their arrival. He cleaned his drool
and got down from the yellow TATA school bus. Upon reaching the class
after the mile long walk from the buses to his block, he saw all the students
giving finsihing touches to their respective homeworks and showing it off
proudly to each other. Though everyone was verbally appreciating each
other’s works, but within, were envious of the other student’s better project
and another’s state-of-the-art model. Ashwin, for one, was spared from this
false show of admiration, but was feeling much worse than just merely being
jealous.

He came and sat down with Saurav who was busy pasting pictures of The
Jim Corbett National Park for the project on tigers that they had received as
a part of the Geography Holiday Homework. “Hey man, whattup? Long
time.”

Saurav looked up and replied, “Hey, not much man, just brushing up my
Geography Holiday Homework. You say, how were your holidays? Went
anywhere?”

“Nope, was in Delhi throughout. Holidays were okay, first, my mom forced
me into joining one of those stupid theatre workshops where some very
famous teacher from a very famous institute had come to teach us.”

“Sucks!”

“Yeah, I know, thankfully, I somehow managed to persuade my parents to let
me leave it. After that, I bought a guitar for myself and joined a guitar
training centre, dig that.”

“Cool, how much have you learnt?”

“I finished the elementary part of the course which consists of the major and
minor chords in like three weeks and then went on to some songs. Managed
to do two before the holidays ended. ‘I have a dream’ by ‘ABBA’ and
‘Winds of Change’ by ‘Scorpions’.”
“That’s great. Girls better watch out now, I reckon we have a Led Zeppelin
in the making…”

“You bet, wait till Sonali hears my strumming. Its gonna be goooood….”

“Man, you sure made good use of your holidays. Hey, give me your
Geography holiday homework for a few seconds, I need to copy the
bibliography.”

“I haven’t done it.”

“What, even you haven’t done the bilbiography?”

“No, I mean I haven’t done the entire holiday homework itself. In fact, I
haven’t done any of the subjects.”

“You gotta be kidding me, not even one? Geography is fine, I think Nishit sir
will excuse you but dude, not even Mathematics?”

“No, that is the whole problem, the other subjects can be managed somehow,
but I don’t know what to do about math.”

“Dude, you must have a lot of guts for deciding not to do the math holiday
homework. By the way, it is approximately five or six pages, you think you
can do it now?”

“I thought of that but the first period itself is math and that is just ten
minutes away.”

“Then you have no choice but to hope for a miracle.”

“Yeah, I have been hoping for one since morning. Let’s see how much god
likes me.”

The bell rang and soon after, an unrecognised figure walked into the class.
All the students were puzzled on seeing this new face. Sonali muttered to her
friend, “Who is she?”
The woman took her place behind the teacher’s table and answered the
quizzical looks of the students by announcing, “ Good morning children, my
name is Mrs. Sarita Sharma and from today, I’ll be your new class teacher.
Mrs. Kocchar has left the school as she is moving to Canada, so I’ll be
taking over her duties of being your math and class teacher.”

Ashwin couldn’t believe his ears, “Oh baby, I cannot believe this. This is so
unreal, it’s freaking me out. Man, I must belong to god….” He said pointing
towards the sky and delivered a flying kiss to the heavens. “Thank you
lord.”

Saurav was equally ecstatic, “I swear man, this is so damn cool. Imagine, no
Mrs. Kocchar from now on… as sweet as candy.”

“Yeah, even the thought of it makes me want to get up and dance.”

The new class teacher began with her usual duties of the home-room period,
i.e., taking attendance and checking people’s uniform. As she was new to
this school and wasn’t really acquainted with the innovative methods that the
students had devised to save themselves from being caught for wearing
wrong socks or untucked shirts, many students managed to deceive her and
thus, escaped from the punishment which, as Ashwin so vividly remembers,
is five whole rounds of the huge football field.
“It’ll take some time before she can catch up to us.” said a student.
“You bet, she seems so innocent and naïve, she’s going to have a tough time
with this class.” guffawed his partner.

As it was her first time in such a huge school like this, she was quite nervous
herself and in this state of apprehension, completely forgot about the
Holiday Homework, much to Ashwin’s delight. Now he had enough time to
copy the Math Holiday Homework from Saurav and thus prevent himself
from making a bad impression on the class teacher right from the start.
“I can’t go wrong this time.” He thought, and rightly so, he certainly didn’t
want another of those infamous Ashwin-Mrs. Kocchar-altercations with the
new class teacher at least.

As far as the other subjects go… “Who cares! Isn’t it great enough that I
completed one?”

Yeah…. duuuuuude…..
CHAPTER 5
READY, SET…GO

A week had passed since the school reopened after the summer hiatus, but
the holiday hangover still refused to let go of the students. Getting up in the
morning was becoming tougher than ever. Given that holidays are meant to
be a time when students can catch up or rather overcompensate for their lost
sleep of the past two months of school, a sudden change in the sleeping
pattern made early morning rushes to the bus stop and frantic pursuits after
the school bus, trite occurences.
Ashwin was no exception, he had missed the school bus thrice in the past
week, but each time, his plans for a holiday and sleeping in the comfort of
his airconditioned room were thwarted by his father who as always, insisted
on driving him to school, even if that meant that he got late for work. So
much for just eight periods of studies.

The post summer vacation blues were heightened even more when the
students went to school after the weekend. This was because of the
particularly bitter announcement that had been made on the Public
Announcement (P.A.) system in the home room period on Monday. The
students were busy writing the informal letters that they had received as
English homework when the headmistress’ patronizing voice was heard
through the overhead speaker – “Good morning dear students and staff
members.”
“Did you hear that - DEAR students. Now when did we become dear to
her?” said Ashwin sarcastically.
“Ssshhh… listen to what she has to say.” Replied Saurav, agitated.

The announcement continued …

“The summer holidays are over and after the long break, you must come
back to study mode and do your best in your first year in this school. For
continued evaluation of your perforamance and so that you maintain a
proper schedule of regular studying, we will be introducing the concept of
Monday Tests for class sixth from next week onwards. This is a system
under which regular tests of different subjects will be held every Monday. As
this is your first year in this school, we decided to introduce the tests only
after the summer holidays, but in the senior classes, the tests had started as
soon as the new session commenced. This concept has long been part of our
educational system and enables us to judge your performance on a regular
basis and not just rely on your final exam or half yearly exam marks to
gauge your academic prowess. I must tell you that your performance in these
weekly tests is critical as your final aggregate in each subject will include
twenty percent of your marks in the Monday tests. The schedule for the
Monday tests can be found in the almanac. You can consult your seniors or
your teachers if you have any doubts. The first test will take place next
Monday. Thank you.”

The whole class went “ Awwwww……” in unison.

“Duuude, what was that all about? Monday tests?! Every Monday?! She sure
didn’t mean every Monday, did she?” said Ashwin, shocked.

“Well, by the look of it, she sure did.” Replied Saurav, plainly.

“This is so not done man, how can we have a test every freaking week? It’ll
kill us. Imagine, all the weekends… gone, studying Social Studies or
Science or even worse, Math.”

“I swear, this is already freaking me out. But you do have to pay a price for
being in this school, you know, with all the prestige and the renown that this
school has, it isn’t just for nothing, you got to work hard if you want to
stay.”

“But isn’t this asking for too much. I mean, are we supposed to turn into
study machines or something, dealing with tests every week and then giving
the exams and then once again get back to these bloody weekly tests, what
about co-curricular activities? What if I want to play football? What if I get
into the team? They have practices every weekend you know, how will I
study if I am practising football half the day?”

“You got to manage your time, and by the way, you still haven’t got into the
team, so, don’t count your chickens before they hatch. This is what our
seniors have been doing for years, so we aren’t the first ones to do it. You
talk to some of the seniors in your bus and ask them for some tips.”

Ashwin thought upon this idea for a while but the bitter first day memories
led him to decide againt implementing it. “No, I’ll think of something else.”

Their new class teacher had just finished taking the attendance when the
headmistress’ voice once again rang out of the overhead speaker –
“Students, I forgot to tell you that you’ll be doing your tests on special
Monday test sheets which have to be bought by you from the school book
shop. Answers written on any other sheet will not be accepted and the
student will receive a score of zero in that particular test. The tests will be of
fifty marks each. Thank you.”

“But you are not welcome.” Said Ashwin.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Tuesday fourth period was Physics. The short and wiry Physics teacher, Mrs.
Seema Khanna strutted into their second floor classroom. The whole class
stood up to greet the teacher.
“Good morning ma’am.” they chanted in chorus.

“Good morning children, sit down.” She obliged. Everyone was taking out
their books and notebooks when she announced. “Before we start, I want to
make an announcement. There will be an Intra-Section Physics Presentation
Competition two weeks from now. The whole class will be divided into
seven groups with six or seven members each, depending on the strength of
the class. Each group will be allotted a different topic and will have do a
presentation on that particular theme. Every group will have a team leader
who will be responsible for the supervision of his or her group. Each
member of the group has to contribute and the team leader should make sure
make sure that it is a team effort rather than a one-man contribution. I will
be dividing you now into seven groups, randomly. Who’s the monitor?”

The class monitor, Shourya Mukherjee, a ninety five percenter who also
ranked fifth in the National Science Olympiad, shot up from his chair,
proudly. He was really proud of being a class monitor in this huge
institution. “Yes ma’am.” He said, obediently.

“Give me a class list please.” Ordered the teacher.

“Yes ma’am.”

As if his butt was on fire, he quickly rummaged through his bag and took out
a newly printed class list of VI-G and handed over to the authority in a jiffy.
“Here it is ma’am.”

“Thank you beta.” The teacher said, smiling.

Shourya grinned, ear to ear, knowing that he had managed to impress yet
another teacher.

The teacher took her time to divide the names in the class list into seven
groups and after around fifteen minutes, rose from her chair to announce the
teams. “OK, I have the teams with me. Listen carefully and don’t come
running after me later. Monitor, inform the absentees too.”

“Yes ma’am,” replied Shourya, once again feeling proud of the importance
that the teacher was bestowing on him.

“Alright, team number one consists of, Aakash, Aditya, Suvarna, Manvi,
Hari, Ishaan and Tanya. Your team leader is Manvi.”

No surprise really regarding the team leader. See the beginning of chapter
three if you do not remember who Manvi is. Meanwhile, the teacher was
announcing the second team, and as Ashwin was not on it, he was hoping
that Sonali would not be on it too. For those with a hopelessly poor memory,
you’ll have to once again flip back to the beginning of chapter three if you
do not remember who Sonali is.

The teacher started with the third team – “Team three – Ashwin, Achal…” as
soon as he heard his name, he crossed his fingers… you know why. “Charu,
Farhan, Parul, Saurav and… Sonali.” He almost jumped off his chair, but his
partner, Saurav, managed to pull him back.

“Dude, relax,” insisted Saurav.
“Yeah, sorry, I kinda got carried away,” agreed Ashwin.

“Blown away rather,” corrected Saurav.

“Yeah, whatever.”

“And your team leader is Farhan,” declared the teacher.

Ashwin and Saurav were happy about the appointment of their team leader.
Both of them shared a good rapport with Farhan and looked forward to
working with him.

There were only a few minutes for the period to get over after the teacher
was done with announcing the teams, so the class had the remaining time as
free.
Saurav, Ashwin and Farhan started discussing their ideas on “Gravitation”,
the topic that their group was alloted. They had managed to make little
headway when the bell rang, signalling lunch time.
“Forget it, we’ll discuss it over the phone,” said Farhan.
“Yeah, it’s break-time now,” added Saurav.
“C’mon, I’ll treat you two today at the canteen,” said Ashwin.

We all know why, don’t we?

“Oh yeah, you got to,” agreed the two.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Amidst the pressure of the Monday tests and the Physics Presentation,
Ashwin had to manage his soccer as well. VI-G had two P.E. periods a week
and these two periods were all the time he had to refine his footballing skills.
They had to share the football field with students of sections H to L as well
because sections G to L had their P.E. periods together, (Yeah, class sixth has
sections till L, I told you this school is huge. Wait till Ashwin gets into
eleventh standard, they have sections till W!) so that didn’t help much either
as there were fifty children playing on the same ground, running after a
single football. Poor thing, imagine being kicked around by fifty people for
forty minutes straight. Painful. I pity that poor little inflatable sphere. No
wonder every second week you could see a new football on the ground. It
took only two weeks for a supposedly tough football, which, the makers
guarantee, would last a minimum of two years, under normal circumstances,
that is, to be completely destroyed and reduced to mere sheets of rubber.

Ashwin had made many friends from the different sections who played
football with him, but the huge crowd on the field was of little help to
Ashwin’s school football team prospects. He had promised the coach that
he’d prove himself worthy of being in the team, but as soon as he would get
the ball, twenty defenders of the opposition would run towards him and take
the ball from his feet. Ashwin’s skills were only good enough to trick four or
five of them but he could do little against the other fifteen. The goalkeeper
had nothing to do except just kick the ball to the other half whenever a goal
kick was declared, rarely were his goal saving capabilities tested. It is not
surprising, thus, that the games in the P.E. periods always ended in goalless
draws.

Meanwhile, the date for the physics presentation was approaching fast and
Farhan had assigned Ashwin the job of getting information on Galileo’s
works and prepare a two minute talk on it. His part in the presentation was to
speak on the great scientist’s achievements in the field of Gravitation and
was also supposed to get some pictures of the scientist which, according to
Sonali, would make the talk more interesting as he would actually show the
class whom he was talking about. Ashwin obviously agreed to her
suggestion and even commended her idea by referring it as ‘Fantastic’,
although Saurav and Farhan weren’t too impressed by the same.

“Where will we keep the photo so as to make the whole class see it? There is
no pin or hook near the blackboard or anywhere on the front wall, for that
matter,” questioned Farhan.

“Well, he can hold it in his hand,” answered Sonali.

“I don’t think that’s a great idea, holding the picture during the talk, it’ll
make him look foolish,” said Parul.

“Yeah, exactly,” agreed Saurav.
“I think it’ll be okay guys, I won’t look foolish, besides, the picture will
actually help others see whom I am talking about, as Sonali has already
pointed out,” contradicted Ashwin.

“Keep quiet, lover boy. Let the captain decide,” replied Saurav.

“Lover Boy? Where did that come from,” said Sonali, intrigued, “Ashwin,
you didn’t tell me that you have a girlfriend!”

“No no no, he’s just kidding…stop it Saurav,” said Ashwin, annoyed at his
friend, giving him a stern look which seemed to say – ‘Keep your mouth
shut, idiot.’

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~******~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The day of the presentation arrived and all the teams were geared up to
deliver their best. Farhan’s group was also very excited as their presentation
had, unexpectedly, shaped up very well and all of the team members were
looking forward to presenting it before everyone.
The physics period was right after the lunch break. No student of the class
went outside in the break that day and were instead, busy giving finishing
touches to their presentations. Everyone wanted to win.

The bell signaling the end of the lunch break rang and soon after, Mrs.
Khanna strode into the classroom. The groups were sitting together and were
making their final minute inspections and synchronising the order in which
the members would go forward. The teacher wasted no time and ordered the
first group to come forward and deliver their presentation.
Obediently, Manvi’s team occupied its place in the front of the class and
delivered their presentation on “States of Matter”, splendidly.

“Flawless,” was the teacher’s response, “A job well done. Give them a big
hand please.”

The whole class rang with applause for Manvi’s team. “It really was a super
presentation,” said Charu, “Well co-ordinated and very comprehensive.”
“Yep,” assented Farhan, “tough competition for us.”

The second group came and went, with an ‘OK’ sort of performance,
according to the teacher.

“Next up,”announced the teacher, “is Farhan’s group.”

Farhan acknowledged the teacher’s orders and led his team to the front of
the classroom.
He himself kicked off the presentation by giving the class, a general
introduction on their topic of Gravitation, “Gravitation is a natural
phenomenon by which all objects attract each other. In everyday life,
gravitation is most familiar as the agency that endows objects with weight.
Gravitation is responsible for keeping the Earth and the other planets in their
orbits around the Sun…” he blabbered on till a few minutes after which he
invited Charu to elaborate on the topic.

“Didn’t he elaborate it enough,” said one of the team members of Manvi’s
team.
“Yeah,” agreed his partner.

After Charu elaborated more on the topic, much of what sounded gibberish
to the rest of the students, Saurav came forward and recited the amazing
facts of gravitation that he had learnt. His part was relatively more
interesting for the students than the others’ as the students found it more to
amusing to learn that they would weigh one-sixth of their weight on Moon
than on Earth, rather than listen to Charu and Farhan blabber away about
Newton’s esoteric theories and Galileo’s hard-to-understand experiments.

Ashwin’s part arrived after Sonali finished her talk on Black Holes. He
apprehensively walked towards the speaking area and took out Mr. Galileo
Galilei’s photograph from his pocket. He held it at chest height so that
everyone could see it and started speaking, “Galileo Galilei was an Italian
physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher who is closely
associated with the scientific revolution and who did pioneering work in the
field of gravitation….”

“Who told him to take the photo? We had rejected this idea that day, and he
knew about it, didn’t he?” complained Farhan.
“Dude, don’t tell me you don’t know why he didn’t listen to us?” Saurav
said, hinting, “There are more important people whose points of view are
more significant than ours you know.”

“Oh yeah, I completely forgot about it. I should’ve anticipated this,” said
Farhan, realizing his mistake.

Ashwin finished his part and Parul went forward and concluded their
presentation on Gravitation. The whole class lauded the team for their efforts
though few were able to undrestand what all they had just explained.

“Commendable effort children,” praised the teacher, “ But it could’ve been
better if you would’ve made it less technical, anyways, good job.”

The otherwise boring double Physics period was spent in the presentaion of
the seven groups, so all the students were already feeliong victorious, but the
official winner of the Intra Section Physics Presentation Competition was,
not surprisingly, Manvi’s team.

“After seeing all the presentations,” the teacher said, “I have decided that the
winner, without a doubt, is Manvi’s group. I’m afraid they were simply one
notch higher than the rest. Congratulations to them.”

The whole class clapped for the victorious team, and Manvi couldn’t help
but grin ear to ear, “Thank you,” she said, acknowledging the applause.

There were no official runner ups so Farhan and Co. conveniently assumed
that they were second best. Ashwin happily boasted around to his friends in
the other sections.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~******~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was a mid-September afternoon and the sky outside was cloudy; the dark
clouds were threatening to burst and spill H2O all over the city, Ashwin and
Sonali were walking in the corridoors on their way to the Junior staff room
housed in the CB (Circular Block) block to get their English Monday test
answer sheets from their English teacher, Mrs. Deepa Bhattacharya.
“Do you know that the datesheet for the Half Yearly Exams has been
announced,” said Sonali.

“Yeah, I know, crap datesheet…” replied Ashwin, “They have given no
study leave for Mathematics and two each for Sanskrit and Computers. I
only need half a day to do computers and Sanskrit both, what will I do with
two whole bloody days for each.”
“Well, two days for Sanskrit was definitely needed as far as I am concerned.
I simply suck at Sanskrit. As far as the Math exam goes, we have Computers
before it, so you can probably study for it in the two leaves given for
Computers.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

They reached the staff room to find that the teacher was not sitting at her
alloted table.

“Now where the hell is she?” asked Ashwin, frustrated, “She asked us to
come in this period and now she is nowhere to be seen. How I hate her
casual attitude.”

“Oh, there she is,” informed Sonali, pointing towards the teacher’s canteen
area, “Merrily sipping a hot cup of tea while we rough up our brains trying
to find her. You’re right Ashwin, even I hate her casual attitude.”

Ashwin smiled, ‘For once, she agrees with me,’ he thought.

They approached her and reminded her that she had called them to take their
papers from her.

“Oh yes yes. Sorry, I completely forgot about it, I was just having a cup of
tea as the weather is so good today” she said, “Come with me, I’ll give you
your papers.” She led the duo towards her table and took out their answer
sheets from her cupboard. “Here you go,” she said, “… Ashwin Khanna and
Sonali Chandra… well done,” and handed over their answer scripts.

Ashwin’s script read forty five on fifty and Sonali’s sheet read forty eight.

‘Crap, she beat me again,’ thought Ashwin after surreptitiously glancing
towards her paper and seeing her marks.
“How much did you get?” enquired Sonali.

“Ummm… forty seven point five,” he lied.

“Cool, I got forty eight.”

“Yeah, congrats.”

“You too.”

This was their last Monday test before the Half Yearly exams; only two
weeks remained for them to commence. An announcement was made by the
principal that day that their would be a week long study leave before the
exams and thus, this would be the last working week. The teachers, on
learning about this develeopment, quickened their pace of instruction in
order to finish the syllabus before Friday. Some of them managed to finish it,
while others just gave out printed notes due to the shortage of teaching time,
either of the two strategies which, didn’t prove to be much helpful to the
students.

The week long study leave saw Ashwin slog it out day and night, trying
hard to finish the syllabi of all the ten subjects in time. He had prepared little
before this as he had very conveniently put off his exam preparations to the
study leaves that he knew they would get before the exams. “There’s still lot
of time left,” he used to say, little did he know that he had grievously
undermined the situation, and now, here he was, mugging up definitions of
Physics, while simultaneously trying hard not to forget the characteristics of
Harappan culture. No wonder he was making little headway in either.

First two exams were Sanskrit and Computers. Though Ashwin was a bit
apprehensive before these two relatively easier exams, he still managed to
write well in both of them, thanks to the unexpectedly simple question paper
that the teachers had set up.
“God bless them,” he said to himself, coming out of the examination room
after giving the Computer exam.

Though his computer exam had gone very well, he had little time to
celebrate. They had their Math exam the next day and the children in his bus
had already opened up their Math books on their way home and started their
revision in the bus itself. As far as Ashwin is concerned, let alone revision,
he still hadn’t managed to finish the Math syllabus in the holidays so he
would consider himself lucky if he had any time left for revision if he
managed to complete the chapter on ‘Integers’ in time.
Imitating the rest, he also took out his math book from his bag and started
with the pending chapter, to little avail though, because he soon fell asleep
only to be woken by a senior who also got down with him at the same bus
stop.

“Get up, lazy bones,” commanded the six foot tall twelfthee.

“Oh…. Thanks,” said Aswhin, yawning.

He trodded home under a cloudy sky wondering about tomorrow’s exam,
trying to chalk out strategies.

*************************

Tomorrow dawned and Ashwin was walking along with the crowd of
students towards the school gate. He entered the classroom and took his
place at the third seat of the first row and started his final minute
preparations.

“Hey,” said Sonali, who had walked up to him seeing the nervous look on
his face, “All set?”

“Oh… its you,” he said, lifting his head up from the book.

“Why, did you expect someone else?”

“No no no…” he said hesitatingly, “It’s just that you never… come to me…
and talk… like this… you know…”

“Anyways, how’s your preparation? All geared up, eh?”

“Are you kidding me, I am failing. Just managed to finish the syllabus on the
bus. I just hope they give an easy paper.”
“Oh… don’t worry, you’ll do well,” she said, reassuring him.

“Yeah, I guess so… thanks,” he blushed.

In the meantime, the invigilator had entered the room and was shouting at
the top of her voice, asking the students to keep their bags outside and settle
down fast. The children were paying little heed to it though, as they
frantically revised that last piece of information or that last important
question and in some cases, that list paper-chit of formulae that would find
its place in the student’s pocket to be referred to later in the toilet, during the
exam.

After about ten minutes of verbal effort, the teacher realised that it was
doing no good and resorted to physical means, picking up the bags herself
and placing it outside the room as the students pleaded for that one last
minute to revise the ‘this-will-definitely-come-in-the-exam’ question.

Finally, when the whole class seemed to have settled down, she distributed
the question paper and the answer sheets.

Aswhin received the question paper and after a quick prayer to the almighty,
opened it and started going through the paper.
Section-A: Ten questions of three marks each. He quickly glanced through
the section and concluded that he knew nine out of those ten. Furthermore, if
luck permitted, then maybe the teacher would give him one mark for
showing some sort of working for that elusive question.
Good enough, so far so good.
Section B: Ten questions of four marks each. Glimpsing through the ten
questions, he swallowed hard. He only knew five, but, optimistically, he
flipped the page to the final Section, hoping that the letter ‘C’ would be
lucky for him.
Not quite, I’m afraid.
Section-C: Five questions… six marks each…
“Holy crap, what kind of questions are these? Do they think I’m
Aryabhatta’s scion?” he muttered to himself, “Have they mistakenly put a
part of the National Math Olympiad here?”
Ashwin was staring at the paper in a state of shock, he only vaguely knew
one of the five questions that were cruelly staring back at him from the last
page of the question paper.
Hoping that Aryabhatta would pity his condition and probably apparate from
the past in front of him to help him in his distress, he started the paper.

Two and a half hours were seeming like ages, after all, he had only
attempted half the paper. He didn’t have a clue about the other half. He
whiled away his time gazing out the window, watching the dog below
happily munching away on a chapati that had been left for it by some
generous, dog loving human.

“What a life,” he pondered, observing the canine, “No Math exams to give…
simply divine I say.”

Amidst gazing at canine creatures and noticing the numbers of the cars that
whizzed by, trying to figure which state they belonged to, the two and a half
hours passed and the bell signaling the end of the exam, rang through the
second floor corridor.

The invigilator started collecting the answer sheets. As she reached Ashwin,
Atulya, who was sitting behind Ashwin begged the teacher to give him just
one more minute to complete his last answer.
‘Wonder what he’s writing,’ thought Ashwin, ‘The last question is simply
unanswerable for our standards.’

The teacher did not relent and simply snatched away his answer sheet
mercilessly. The child started to cry.

“Hey Atulya, it’s OK yaar,” said Ashwin, trying to reassure him, “You
finished almost the whole question. The teacher will only cut one mark at
the most.”

“I don’t know man,” he replied, “I just showed half the working and didn’t
draw the diagram either.”

“Relax dude, take it easy. Think positive.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. By the way, how was your exam?”

“Ummm… not good not bad. OK sorts,” he lied.
“Hmmm… anyways, come on let’s move before the corridors get jampacked
with people.”

“Yeah, took me twenty minutes to descend two floors the other day.”

The duo hurried off out the room and made their way to their respective
yellow TATA buses.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The rest of the exams were a breeze. He was expecting full in Social Studies
and above ninety five in Science. English also went better than expected.

The school was breaking for a week of holidays as Diwali was around the
corner and the exams too had fittingly fnished just before Diwali fever
gripped the nation. Ashwin was looking forward to this week long break
when he learnt about it on the day of the last exam.
After nearly two weeks of strenous studying, he surely deserved it.

He went back home after giving his last exam and was greeted by his mother
at the door, “So, how was the exam?”

He absolutely hated it when her mother asked him this question after every
exam. He loathed talking about an exam after it was over. “It was good,” he
said, irritated on having to do a post mortem of the exam that was.

“How many are you expecting?” enquired his mother.

“I don’t know… maybe above eighty,” he answered.

“I’m afraid that’s not good enough son.”

“Mom, please… my exams have finished today. Can you please not talk of
anything regarding them. I had to deal with enough of your nagging
comments for the past two weeks, now please leave me alone.”
“ASHWIN,” commanded his mother as he walked by her, “Now you are
crossing the limit. Is this the way to talk to your mother?”

“If you will keep nagging at me like you have been for the past two weeks,
I’m afraid, this is the only way I will have to talk to you,” he said and
walked into his room, shutting the door behind him with a loud bang.
CHAPTER 6

Ashwin’s house was getting all decked up with lights two days before
Diwali. Their home was resembling a disco theque with a plethora of
blinking lights on the balconies, on the doors, windows and anywhere else
possible.

That evening, Mr. Khanna came home with a bag full of firecrackers and
another full of Gulab Jamun and Kaju Burfi, Ashwin’s favourites.

“Ashwin,” he called out as soon as he entered, “Come here, I’ve got
something for you.”

Initially, Ashwin was annoyed at having to disrupt his conquest of the
Byzantine empire in his PC game – Age of Empires and respond to his
father’s call, but soon that discontentment turned to delight when he saw the
bag full of his favourite sweets and another full of firecrackers awaiting him
on the dining table.

“Gulab Jamun and Burfi!,” he exclaimed, “And firecrackers as well! Thanks
dad.”

“You’re always welcome sonny,” his dad said, “I knew you would like it.”

Ashwin opened the bag of firecrackers and marvelled at the various sky
shooters and rockets that his father had bought.

“Nice choices dad,” he said, “Glad that you didn’t bring one of those stupid
chakrees or anaars like last year.”

“Yeah, I kept that in mind and bought these for you.”

“Great, I can’t wait for Thursday to arrive.”

He now shifted his attention from the crackers to the bag of sweets.
“Oooo… gulab jamun and burfees, I’m loving it. These ten packets of
mouth watering delicacies are enough to satisfy my sweet tooth for a week
at least,” he exclaimed.

“But you can’t open them now. It is for the puja on Diwali day. You can only
start gorging on it after the puja gets over and I’m afraid you’ll have to wait
two days for that,” reminded his father.

“Ohh… yeah, I forgot about that part. Now the wait will become even more
unbearable.”

The wait was truly unbearable. The boxes were kept on the dining table and
everytime Ashwin passed by the dining room, his hands would itch to grasp
a gulab jamun and satisfy his culinary cravings. But that was not to be, as
his mother had strictly ordered that the first bite would go to the gods and
Ashwin didn’t want to anger the lords by eating into their share, given that
the results of his exams were not out and that it was imperative that he keep
the gods happy.

After an almost endless wait of two days, Diwali day finally dawned. Right
from nine in the morning, Ashwin was out with his friends, and was busy
burning others’ firecrackers and having a good time scaring away
pedestrians on the road outside by exploding diwali bombs right at their feet
when they least anticipated it. He only came home when his stomach
screamed at him to do so, had lunch and then rushed out once again to enjoy
the festive fervor with his friends. Freaking out for them meant blowing up
bricks with Diwali bombs, frightening pedestrians and of course shooting up
rockets in the balconies of the most hated people of the colony.

“Revenge is so sweet, and it doesn’t even have calories,” exclaimed Arjun,
one of his friends, “I just love this rocket idea, whoever’s it was,” he said
after sending up a rocket in one of the colony’s most loathed uncle’s
balcony.

“I just hope that rocket turned into a sidewinder missile,” added another.

“Ha… that would be so sweeeeettt…” said Ashwin.

“You bet, can’t wait to see him get blown up with one of those,” replied
Arjun.
It was six in the evening when Ashwin was called back by his mother and
instructed to take a bath and get ready for the puja. Ashwin obediently
followed his mother’s orders as he knew that testing her mother’ patience
now may result in him losing that box of sweets that he had been eyeing for
two days.
He had a bath and changed into traditional clothes for the puja. The whole
family gathered in the puja room as Mrs. Khanna went about the ritual of
lighting up the diya in front of the gods. After all was done and the family
had sung the aarti in praise of Lord Ganesh and Goddess Lakshmi, it was
time for the prasaad to be distributed. Finally, Ashwin managed to get his
hands on the long sought after gulab jaamuns and burfees. He devoured the
first sweet sphere as a whole, grabbed some more and headed out towards
the park, crackers in one hand and sweets in the other.

“Hey Ashwin, you’re late,” said Arjun, who, along with the rest of the team,
was already outside.

“Sorry people, had to attend the puja,” he explained to the all of them.

“So you finally brought your own fireworks,” said another of his friends,
pointing towards the bag of crackers that he was carrying.

“Yeah, thought that for a change, I should be a little more generous on you
guys,” he replied mockingly.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Yawning, Ashwin got up from his bed at five thirty in the morning and
entered the bathroom. He sat on the toilet seat and started praying. Today
was D-Day for him as the results were coming out. He got ready in a hurry
as he had spent too much time on the toilet seat praying and reached the bus
stop in time.
Every face in the bus was refelcting anxiety, apprhension and nervousness.
Aswhin’s was a mix of all the three.

The classroom was in a state of pin drop silence when he entered it. Not
wanting to break the silence, Ashwin also occupied his seat besides Saurav
silently and decided against saying ‘Hi’ to his friend. The whole class was
nervous regarding the results of their first round of exams in DPS RK
Puram.
The bell rang soon after and Mrs. Sharma walked in with her attendance
register and wished the class a good morning. Some students replied with a
whimper, others didn’t. It surely wasn’t a good morning for them at least.
She announced that she’ll be giving out the Math papers in the Math period
only as she still had to enter the marks in the class list. Only a short reprieve
for Ashwin though, as Math was the second period. But something’s always
better than nothing, at least he now has one more period till he suffers from a
nervous breakdown.

The class got their history papers in the first period.

“Ashwin Khanna,” the teacher called out, “Take your paper.”

“Yes ma’am,” he obeyed and received his answer sheet from her, “Freaking
great… thirty eight on forty.”

He told Saurav about his marks once he reached his seat in the last row.

“Good for you…” he said, “Let’s see what’s in store for me.”

The teacher reached the letter ‘S’ in the class list and ordered Saurav to
come and take his answer sheet.

Saurav took the paper from her hands and grimaced, “Thirty on forty,” he
told Ashwin, “I could’ve done much better than this.”

“Never mind.”

“Now I have to get exceptional marks in Civics and Geography to get a good
score in S.St and that is highly unlikely because I screwed up my Geography
paper. Just hope Nishit sir marks me leniently.”

“You can bet on that.”

The first period ended and Ashwin’s heartbeat grew faster. The result of his
disastrous Math paper was to be declared within a few minutes now. He
could no nothing but cross his fingers and wait for the teacher to arrive.
Mrs. Sarita Sharma walked into the class soon after, clearly struggling under
the heavy load of their’s as well as the other section’s answer sheets that she
was carrying. She put the lot with a thud on the teacher’s desk and took her
seat behind it, wiping a drop of sweat from her brow.

“Settle down children,” she ordered the children who were out of their seats
asking their friends how much marks they got in the History paper, “Come
forward and take your papers as I call out your name.”
This time, she started from the bottom end of the class list, calling Varun
first to take his paper. He scored an average eighty two out of hundred.

“Ashwin Khanna?” she called out, “Come and take your paper.”

Ashwin’s legs were shaking so much, he could barely stand. Braving the
jitters, he went forward to receive his paper from the teacher.

“What happened Ashwin?” asked Mrs. Sharma handing out his paper to him,
“I thought you were a good student. Didn’t you study for the exam? Your
paper is a mess. Anyways, take it.”

He took the paper from her hands and stared at with shock. He had just
managed to scrape through by one mark. The red ink on his paper said –
‘Thirty four on hundred,’ and it was accompanied by a ‘Very Poor’ remark.

Ashwin folded his paper so that no one could peep into it and see his marks
and went back to his seat. Saurav, who had got ninety five, asked him about
his marks.

“Don’t ask, please,” he pleaded.

“You can tell me at least.”

“No man, I can’t, please, let it be.”

“OK fine.”

Ashwin put his head down, buried his face in his hands and a few tears
rolled down his cheek. ‘How will I tell my marks to mom’, he thought and
shed some more tears.
He sure was screwed big time as far as Math was concerned.
But the rest of the papers yielded better results for Ashwin. He got ninety
two in Science, eight five in Hindi, eighty seven in English, Ninety eight in
Social Studies and cent percent in Computers which was the highest in the
class.

“Only if I would have managed to get decent marks in that bloody math
paper, my aggregate would have been above ninety,” he said to himself,
cursing the one who set the paper.

Shourya had expectedly topped the class with ninety eight point two percent
and Manvi came a close second with ninety eight percent, such was the close
competetion between them.

At the other end, Sana Aggarwal and Karan Rastogi had failed in three
subjects each, only managing to scrape through in English and Hindi and
had been put in remedial classes for the subjects they had failed in. Ashwin
was scared that he would also be put in the Math remedial classes after his
dismal performance in that subject. He shivered with apprehension just at
the thought of it.

The dreaded D-Day ended as the bell indicating the end of the last period
rang, not quite for Ashwin though as the toughest part of disclosing his
marks to his mother was yet to come.

The bus dropped him off at his bus stop in front of the local market and
Aswhin started the long walk home thinking of ways and ideas to dilute her
mother’s anger when she would see his catastrophic performance in
Mathematics.

“What went wrong with your Math paper?” his mother questioned, “You
have scored exceptionally well in the others, even topped in Computers.”

“I don’t know mom. The paper was too tough, or maybe I didn’t study well
enough. Guess I took it very casually.”

“Only you know what went wrong,” she said, “Anyways, I won’t get angry
or punish you this time because you’ve realised your mistake but you have
to promise me that you will improve on this in the final exams. And
improving means securing above ninety percent marks, you got that.”
“Yes mom, I’ll definitely take it more seriously next time,” he assured.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Two weeks had passed since the results and life had come back to the
routine in DPS RK Puram – studies on in full swing once again, the usual
Monday tests, homeworks, teachers screaming at students to submit
assignments and the odd birthday treat to look forward to.
But the second week of November saw the whole school being enveloped by
a state of euphoria and enthusiasm.

“What’s up with everyone nowadays?” asked Ashwin, “Why is everyone
seeming so excited?”

“Don’t you know?” replied Saurav, “It’s Children’s Day on the fourteenth.”

“So.”

“Arrey, the school organizes a carnival for the students every year on
Children’s Day. The fest boasts of a DJ, game stalls and a variety of food
kiosks as well.”

“Cool, how come I didn’t know about this. Does this happen every year?”

“Yep, and you have to come in casuals that day.”

“Awesome. By the way, what date is it today?”

“Today’s tenth… four more days to go.”

“Can’t wait for it man, it’s going to be so good.”

“Yeah, our first carnival in this school.”

So Ashwin finally had something to look forward to. Every passing day in
school was getting mightily boring nowadays. This carnival made it
somewhat interesting.
‘Finally, the principal does something worthwhile,’ he thought.
It had started raining during the lunch break and Ashwin and his group of
friends decided to go out and enjoy the rain. Half the school had descended
down in the OAT to grab a coke and a hot steaming trademark patty of the
school while enjoying the precipitaiton after a warm morning.

“Get a patty for me Saurav,” Ashwin said, handing him a ten rupee note, “In
fact, get one for yourself also.”

“Oh… from when did you become so generous?” exclaimed Saurav.

“Well, the great weather got the better of me today.”

The group drenched in the rain while taking bites from Ashwin’s and
Saurav’s patty. Another one of them bought a coke and there they were,
having a nice little party in the rain.

“So Ashwin, coming for the Carnival on Friday?” asked one of the boys of
the other section.

“Yeah, definitely. Can’t wait for Thursday to come.”

“Seriously man, I’m going to have a blast at the game stalls,” said Saurav.

“And me at the food stalls,” said another of his friends.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was Wednesday, ten in the morning and Ashwin was lying on his bed,
thermometer in mouth and a thick blanket over him.

“What’s the temperature Ashwin,” asked his mother from the next room.

Ashwin took the thermometer out from his mouth and checked the mercury
inside the glass capillary, “Hundred one,” he replied in a whimper.

Ashwin’s mother came into his room and gave him a tablet.

“Take this and you’ll be fine within a couple of hours.”
Ashwin had been suffering from high fever since two days, thanks to his
little party in the rain. Drinking chilled coke in the rain – no wonder the
thermometer read hundred one degrees celsius.

Due to the fever, Ashwin was almost certain to miss the Children’s Day
Carnival tomorrow.

“Mom, will I be able to get OK by tomorrow?”

“It is highly unlikely. You have very high fever. You need to rest for at least
two days more to be fully fit.”

“Dayum,” he said to himself.

November fourteenth arrived and instead of being in the football field of his
school, dancing away as the DJ played out the latest songs, Ashwin was
lying in his bed, watching Tom and Jerry on his TV set.

“Bah…so much for the Children’s Day,” he muttered.

He returned to school next week. He had insisted his mother to let him rest
one more day as that would mean missing his social studies Monday test, but
Mrs. Khanna sternly refused his idea.

“No way Ashwin, these Monday tests are very important. They are going to
count in your final result and you can’t afford to miss them,” she had said.

Ashwin had recovered from his fever only on Saturday and so he didn’t have
much time to prepare for this test, one whose syllabus was particularly vast –
two chapters in History, two in Civics and three in Geography, plus ten
maps.

After the test finished, Saurav came to him and asked where he was on the
Carnival day, “You were so excited about it,” he said, “What happened?
Why didn’t you turn up?”

“I had fever yaar. Was confined to the bed for four days. Got it because of
drenching myself in the rain the other day, remember?”

“Yeah, and the chilled coke wouldn’t have helped either.”
“Yeah… anyways… how was the carnival, what all happened?”

“It was great, though we were missing you, but we completely freaked out at
the game and food stalls and danced a bit as well. DJ wasn’t as good this
year around. Heard the seniors blabber that last year’s was way better than
this guy.”

“Hmmm… man I missed all the fun.”

“Never mind, just make sure that you don’t get wet in the rain again this
time around next year.”

“Yeah… good advice.”

Children’s Day was history now and the Carnival hangover had fizzled out,
studies were back on track. There were only a few weeks to go before the
winter holidays started so the teachers were once again rushing through the
syllabus, trying to finish their courses before the hiatus. Monday tests were
ruthlessly sapping out all the fun out of the Saturdays and Sundays. The
whole weekend was spent in slogging it out for the never ending Monday
test cycles while the teachers relaxed and went out to dinner parties. Curse
them.

It was the last week before the winter holidays and Ashwin was glad that the
school wasn’t giving any Winter Holiday Homework. Though he had made a
short job of the Summer holiday homework, but nevertheless, this time it
was official that he didn’t have to do any.

Much to Ashwin’s delight as he had missed the Children’s Day Carnival and
as a small compensation for his hard luck, their was a class party in the last
two periods on the last day before the winter break. Everyone had to
contribute by bringing something from their homes. Ashwin’s mom had
obliged by sending a home-made chocolate cake for the party. Ashwin, given
such a fanatic for cakes he was, had gobbled up one half of the cake in the
lunch break itself, generously leaving the rest for the remaining forty two
people of the class. How thoughtful of him!

This time, when the last bell rang, thankfully, there were no outlandish
slogans announcing the start of the Winter holidays.
CHAPTER 7
THE FINAL FRONTIER

Ashwin was sitting besides the open window and his bottle green blazer was
proving to be of little help against the chilly winds that were blowing into
the room through the opening. He leaned himself against the wall and had a
few furtive glances at the answer sheet of Arihant who was sitting in front of
him. After some futile efforts, he turned towards his partner, Astha.

“Hey…” he whispered. “What’s the value of ‘x’ in the sixth question?”

She ignored his query as if she was listening to death metal on her
headphones and paying little attention when anyone tried to communicate.
Ashwin thought against asking her once more as he feared that she would
jump on her seat anytime and complain to the teacher if he dared disturb her
anymore. He arbitrarily assigned the value of ‘x’ as 7.5 and moved on to the
next question.

It was the last Math Monday test of class sixth and Ashwin was in dire
circumstances, trying hard to manage a thirty on fifty in the paper, but his
friends were not helping him to do so.
The winter vacations had passed and DPS RK Puram had called back its
students in the first week of January. The strict discipline and no-nonsense
teaching that the school was famous for, was in place once again.

‘Dayum’, he thought. “I did this question in the morning, why am I not
being able to recall it?” he muttered, struggling with an elusive question of
Ratio and Proportion.

The bell rang. Ashwin raced through the question once he recalled it and
managed to conclude it just in time when the invigilator reached his desk.

“So, how much are you expecting?” asked Astha after the test.

Ashwin felt like tearing her to shreds.
“If you would’ve helped a little bit, I would’ve been getting above forty.”

“Why are you blaming me? The invigilator had her eyes fixed on me
throughout the test. I’m sorry I simply cannot jeopardize my own safety to
help you.”

“HORSE MANURE…” and he walked away.

“Stupid bum,” she cursed.

The class teacher walked in a few minutes later with a pile of notebooks in
her hand and ordered the class to settle down.
The class obeyed and everyone took their seats. Today was Monday and as a
part of the seat rotation policy, Ashwin and Saurav had to occupy the front
row today.

“So… how was the paper?” the teacher enquired.

“It was good,” said Manvi, promptly.

“But it was too lengthy,” added Ashwin.

“Oh… was it. I thought it was a pretty easy and small paper. Why? Didn’t
you manage to finish the test?”

“I did, but just in the nick of time.”

“Well, you got to improve your speed then child. The exams are going to be
much more difficult and lengthy than this…” She then turned towards the
class and announced, “Talking of exams, I want to tell you all that you’ll be
receiving your Math syllabus for the final exams soon so that you can start
preparing early.”

Ashwin gulped with nervousness. He remembered the promise to his mother
and then thought about the comment that the teacher had just made – “The
exams are going to be much more difficult and lengthy than this…”
He shivered with fear.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Ashwin entered the school gates early in the morning in his grey pants and
bottle green blazer, tie firmly in place, wearing perfectly polished black
shoes. The path from the gate leading to the football ground was lined with
Indian tricolour flags. The school was having the Republic Day celebrations
today and had organized a special assembly to mark the occasion. The whole
football field was canopied by tents and a huge stage had been erected. The
entrance was adorned with flowers of the Indian tricolor. A worker sat near
the stage blowing up saffron, white and green balloons which were to be
released into the air at the time of unfurling of the flag.
Ashwin marvelled at the beauty of the whole set up and a sudden feeling of
patriotism aroused in him.

He reached his class and learnt that half the class was absent.
“Where is everyone?” he asked, “Why are so many people absent today?”

“Don’t you know,” informed Shourya, who had never missed a single
working day this session in order to receive the hundred percent attendance
certificate which would add his burgeoning list of achievements. “There’s a
special assembly today and there won’t be much teaching as the function
itself would last for five periods, so most of the students fittingly decided to
take a holiday today. Who wants to attend a stupid function full of never
ending chief guest speeches and bharatnatyam dances anyways.”

“Point…” Ashwin agreed. “By the way, when does the Assembly start?”

“Third period. First period is Library and second and third are SUPW
(Stands for ‘Some Useful Productive Work’, are basically activity periods
which are held every week. Students can choose from a variety of options
like typing, taekwondo, dramatics, aerobics, etc. Are of little use according
to the students and the initials thus are commonly interpreted by most
students as – ‘Some Useful Periods Wasted’) , so no studying periods really.”

“Good.”

Once the students were back from their respective SUPWs, the half strength
class was led by Mrs. Sharma to the football field and were made to take
their places under the shade.
Seating the whole student population of the school in the field was a quite a
task, though the absenteeism associated with the special assemblies always
helped, still, it was a herculean job for the whole staff of the school to ensure
that everything was under control.

The chief guest maintained the long living tradition by arriving late, a well
known trait that is associated with his species. The performers, on the other
hand, utilized the extra time by going through re-runs and perfecting that
elusive dance step or getting the pronunciation of that French-English word
correct.

Ashwin and his group meanwhile, passed the time by plucking grass from
the ground and trying to make shapes out of them. Not a great passtime I
agree, but there was nothing else to do really.
The chief guest finally arrrived one hour after the scheduled time. That can
be still considered early you know, many functions see the chief guests
arrive three to four hours late.

Anyways, the cermonial light was lit and the national flag unfurled. The
students were made to stand up for the national anthem and then they sat for
three straight hours not to be allowed to stand again until only after the
function got over. The cultural extravaganza put up on the stage really
impressed the chief guest – Chairman of the CBSE, which reflected in his
never ending speech that he delivered when the function concluded. His
speech was full of kudos and appreciation for the talented kids of the school.

Once the function finished, it was a maddening rush at the exit of the
football field. Five thousand kids, wanting to get out through a single gate
barely a few feet across and line up at the water cooler to soothe their
parched throats. A stampede was only narrowly averted.
The teachers were also very tired after the long function and so the rest of
the day witnessed no studies.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Only one and a half weeks remained before the week long study leave before
the annual exams started. First exam was Math and Ashwin was already
feeling the jittters.
The class, split up in groups of three students each, was sitting in the
computer lab, busy giving finishing touches to their websites. Every group
was supposed to design a basic web site utilising all the concepts of HTML
that they had been taught throughout the session. This was a part of the
internal assessment concept that the school had introduced recently. The
project was for five marks and would be added in their final score, so no one
could take it lightly. Arihant, Ashwin and Astha constituted the fourth group.
They, or Arihant and Ashwin rather, had already finished their website titled
– Test Your I.Q. which consisted of quizzes on many different topics ranging
from Mythology to Current Affairs, so Arihant and Ashwin were chatting
while Astha pretended to study Physics and thus, look busy.

“Man… Math is the first exam,” Ashwin said. “But, in a way, it is good. It’s
always better to get the bad ones out of the way first.”

“Yeah…,” Arihant agreed, “But dude, what happens to you in Mathematics.
I mean you score so well in the other subjects, you know. You even aced the
Computer paper. What goes wrong with Math?”

“I really don’t know myself. It seems as if I’ve studied enough before the
exam but the question paper seems as if it has been made on a completely
different syllabus. I mean I manage to do almost all the questions of the
book, but I get too nervous during the exam and end up spending a lot of
time on questions that merit only a few minutes. So ultimately, there is little
time left for the last section which carries the maximum number of marks.”

“So why don’t you start with the last section?”

“I tried that too. Didn’t work.”

“Well, you better find out an effective strategy soon. Imagine, if you could
get good marks in Math, you may even end up topping the class, if not be in
the top five. You get great marks in all the other subject, only Math brings
you down.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ve even made a promise to my mother that I’ll secure above
ninety percent in mathematics in the finals.”

“Then you really have to do something about it now.”

“Yeah, I’ll give it all I’ve got.”
The last working day of the sixth standard arrived and the teachers could be
seen running to and from the photocopy room or employing students to do
so in order to get photocopies of the revision assignments which, according
to them, were assiduosly made by sacrificing their leisure time at home and
insited that the students should be grateful for that.
Fair enough I’d say.

The Biology teacher had also bought a bundle of such revision assignments
for the class and had it distributed.

“I want you all to do this before the exam,” she advised. “This is a very
comprehensive worksheet. Do it as a mock test after you’ve finished with
the syllabus and mark out your trouble areas so that you can improve on
them.”

“Yes ma’am…” chorussed the whole class.

“This time, no one should get below twenty five on thirty three in the
biology exam. Is that clear?”

“Yes ma’am…” once again chanted the whole class in a most ‘who-cares’
sort of tone.

Ashwin and Saurav had once again occupied the last seat and were
discussing their study plans for the final exam instead of completing the
other worksheet which the teacher had given out to the children to be
completed in the current period.

“It only seems yesterday when the half yearlies finished,” remarked Saurav,
“And now we have reached the end of our first year in this school.”

“Yep, this year passed by in a flash,” said Ashwin, remembering his
disastrous first day in the school, “So little time seems to have passed since
the first day.” His voice seemed to quiver as he spoke the last two words.

“So, what all have you finished for the exams?” enquired Saurav.
“I am focussing completetly on math right now. Just have to get above
ninety in it. Will give three or four days in the end to all the other subjects.”

“Yeah, you seriously have to do something about your mathematics dude. I
mean you could even top the class if you manage to get decent marks in
math.”

“Yes, Arihant and me were also discussing about this the other day. I’ve
promised my mother that I’ll get above ninety in math.”

“Then you have to be even more careful.”

“I know...” ‘Damn’, he thought, ‘Why did I ever make that promise.’

The ring of the bell echoed throughout the corridors indicating the end of the
last day of the session. All the students formally exchanged all-the-best’s and
best-of-luck’s for the exams with each other. A general feeling of
nervousness could be felt while walking with the students in the corridors
and on the stairs. The general enthusiasm and excitement that was associated
with the last day before a week long break was replaced by an air of
apprehension.

Ashwin reached home, freshened up and at once sat down to study ‘Areas
and Perimeters’, the vow still ringing in his mind. He got up from studying
only at nine in the night when he remembered about the movie that he had to
watch on HBO.

Ashwin’s mother feared her son’s sanity as she had never seen him working
out math problems so assidously. She approached him during the
commercial break in the movie.

“Ashwin,” she addressed, “Can we talk for a minute.”

“Yes, but make it fast.”

“What’s up with you nowadays,” she queried, “I’ve never seen you study
like this before. Is everything alright?”
“Perfectly fine mom,” he answered. “What’s the problem? If I don’t study
then you complain and when I study, you say that I’m studying too much.
What’s wrong with studying?”
“There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just that I thought I should check up
whether you are stressed out or under any sort of pressure.”

“Well, as a matter of fact, I am. Thanks to the stupid promise you made me
commit.”

“Oh, so you are worried about not getting good marks in your mathematics
paper.”

“Bingo.”

“Well, son, I made you promise me that only because I wanted to make you
realize your mistake and not because I wanted to pressurise you or anything.
OK, now forget everything about the promise and just make sure that you
give it your best shot. Can you promise me that?”

“Oh no, not yet another promise!”

“OK. If not to me then make this promise to yourself.”

“OK Fine, I got it,” he said impatiently as the movie resumed after the
sponsors’ messages.

He surely did seem to get the point as the rest of the week, Ashwin barely
budged from his study table, trying to perfect the seven chapters that were
part of the syllabus. He had reserved the weekensd for the remaining
subjects as he was quite confident that he’d do well in them, too confident
actually.

It was the night before the math exam and Ashwin was doing the last bit of
revision before he retired to his bed. There were thirty odd formulae to be
learnt and Ashwin was having a hard time memorizing them.
“Damn it,” he said, after wrongly recalling the formula for the area for a
triangle, “I forgot the half before the product of the base and the height.”
After a dozen such instances, he finally cocncluded that he had succesfully
registered all the formulae correctly in his memory and went to sleep hoping
for an easy paper tomorrow.
The alarm rang at five thirty in the morning, Ashwin, habitually, snoozed it
and carried on sleeping before his mind reminded him that today was no
ordinary day. He quickly got down from his bed and checked the clock. The
hands of the clock indicated that there were still twenty five minutes for the
bus to arrive. “Thank god,” he muttered.

Once Ashwin boarded the bus, he took out his math NCERT book and
started to revise the important questions, ones which, according to the
teacher, were bound to appear in the question paper. The teachers in this
school had a particular knack of predicting questions that would feature in
the exams and Ashwin knew that, a lot of kind seniors had told him about
this.

The school bus docked at its usual place, miles away from the school gate.
Ashwin got down, book still in hand, revising the questions as he made his
way to D-Block.

“Hey Ashwin,” called out Arihant from the other end of the class, “You’re
seat is here,” he said, pointing to seat two places behind him. “The roll
numbers start from here this time.”

Ashwin was glad that he no longer had to sit by the broken windows as
during the half yearlies when the roll number wise seating started from the
other end of the room.

“Great,” he replied, “No more chilly winds.”

“Yeah, and this row is relatively far from the teacher’s desk so we can… you
know.”

“I sure do!”

By the way, I’ve made all out attempts to ensure that this is a clean book and
so, the derogatory thoughts that just crossed your perverted mind after
reading the last two sentences are nothing more than perverse
representations of your immoral thoughts and which would only result in
eternal damnation of your soul. Well, I’d still like to make it clear by
explicitly mentioning that the two were only talking about cheating and not
what you earlier thought.
Anyways, everyone settled down without much protest to the teacher this
time and tried to relax their minds before the exam began. Ashwin went one
step ahead and recited the Gayatri Mantra to ensure that the gods were on
his side.

The questions papers were distributed, Ashwin got his head down and
without caring to have a quick glance through the paper to have an idea as to
what all was there in the paper, he raced through the first section. He knew
all the worth-three-marks-each questions of the first section so he finished
the part early.
“Good start to the paper,” he said to himself. “One (section) down, two to
go.”

The paper was going really well for him and he finished fifteen minutes
before time was called. He used up the time to re-check all the calculations
and corrected the mistakes that he discovered. He found seven of them,
which if left uncorrected would’ve reduced his score by five marks at least.
‘So that’s why the teachers always insist on revising,’ he thought.

Yeah… even we should take a cue and revise our papers instead of just
watching the invigilator dig his/her nose and pick his/her teeth if we finish
the exam before time. It pays you see.

The teacher called time as soon as Ashwin corrected the error on the final
question. She ordered the ever honest Sourya to collect all the papers from
one half of the class while she did the same from the other half. This time,
Ashwin gleefully submitted his answer sheet, with a broad smile on his face.

Once all the papers were collected, the teacher sat at the desk, counting the
papers to ensure that everyone had submitted their scripts. Ashwin marvelled
at the teacher’s immense concentration. Counting papers amidst all the
hullabo that had reigned over the class once the exam finished was no easy
task.

“Hey, how was your ‘so important’ paper?” asked Arihant. “Topping?”

“Could’ve been better,” he replied enthusiastically. “Actually finished fifteen
minutes before time.”
“Good for you. Yeah, it was a relatively easy paper, though I didn’t finish
before time, right on the clock actually, but expecting good marks
nevertheless.”
“Got to do good on the rest of them as well. It’s Science next, only one day
holiday. You think you can manage to do finish Physics, Chemistry and
Biology in one and a half days?”

“Yeah, I’ve already done the syllabus once. Just need to revise.”

“Good for you man. I just did Physics once in the holidays. Got to study Bio
and Chem from scratch. Will have to burn the midnight oil in order to
finish.”

“All the best man. Got to go now. My bus leaves early. Stands right next to
PPC (Prince Paan Corner, the notorious paan corner that stood a few
metres away from DPS RK Puram), so have to walk quite a bit to get there.”

“I’m luckier in that regard, mine stands inside the school. OK man, see you
day after tomorrow. Study hard.”

“You too,” and he strode off down the stairs towards his bus.

Exam days were half days and the buses plied as soon as the exam got over,
so Ashwin reached early by around twelve and for the first time in a week,
decided to relax a bit and kick asses in his PC game Counter-Strike for a
change.

The biology section of the Science exam was a bit of a hiccup as he didn’t
have enough time to finish the biology syllabus before the exam. He got
addicted once he had started playing the game on his computer and his study
hours were dotted by the temptation of playing that odd game or two of
Counter Strike and thus, his Biology exam went under par.

The rest of the exams were relatively average performances , if not slightly
better. There were two weeks of holidays before the new session began.

Those two weeks saw Ashwin in a state of bliss like never before. No
weekeds ruined studying for Monday Tests, no more scrounging the internet
to find information for that internal assessment project and no more
remembering math formulae. He was happy that sixth had got over and was
looking forward to his next year in the school. He retrospected and vowed to
himself to make amends and improve on all the mistakes that he commited
during the year. There was also one more thing on his mind…

“Centre backs of the school football team…make way… the lord is coming
to grace the pitch…”
The Second Year
Chapter 1
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Ashwin took a deep breath and let the air of his new classroom, VII-G, fill
him in. He liked the new classroom. It was on the top floor of the D-Block,
far away from the prying eyes of the headmistress on the ground floor and
one could get a bird’s eye view of the entire school from the window. Even
the sports complex was visible from there. Ashwin decided that this time, the
window seat will be his.
For him, a major advantage of getting into grade seven was that now, he was
no longer the junior-most in the school and was licking his lips at the
thought of asserting his seniority on the newly inducted sixthees. Apart from
the tougher and more rigorous syllabus, graduating to a senior class did have
its benefits you know.

The batch of children of VII-G were more or less the same. Only a few
minor changes were made which, according to their new headmistress, were
– “for the benefit of the students only.” Three children from his section were
put into other sections and two students from section A were made a part of
the G section. Much to Ashwin’s delgiht, his snobbish and unhelpful partner
during Moday tests was shifted to the neighbouring section, and now,
Arihant would be his new Monday test partner.

“Duuude…” said Ashwin, gesturing at his eyes. “You see the sparkle in my
eye.”

“Yeah,” replied Arihant, “So?”

“Don’t you want to know the reason behind it? Bet your eyes will acquire
the same once you learn about it.”

“Huh? Why are you acting so weird today… Anyways, tell me the reason
why your eyes have acquired that unearthly glow” he said mockingly.

“Astha has been shifted to another section,” Ashwin exclaimed, brimming
with excitement.
“So…Big deal…You made me curious for this. I’d expected something
more significant and worthwile you know. This ain’t news.”

“Don’t you get it piggy-head. Now with that idiotic creature in another
section, we’ll be sitting together in the Monday tests man.”

“Oh… That is news. Great news in fact. Just imagine man, we’d be topping
the class now.”

“Yeah… Bring ‘em on I say.”

By the way, the excitement of Ashwin and Arihant regarding their sitting
together should not be taken in the wrong way. You know what I mean!
Those of you who still don’t, flip back a few pages and re-read the
disclaimer I had mentioned in the previous chapter regarding this being a
clean book.

Mrs. Meena Chandra, their new class teacher was highly unlike the one last
year. She was a very senior teacher who had been serving this school for the
past twelve years and was fully aware of all the tricks of the trade to deal
with the notorious kids. In her long reign as a Chemistry teacher in this
school, she had learnt about every ploy that a student would adopt to get
himself/herself out of trouble and knew exactly how to deal in such
situations.
“No messing around with her,” a friendly senior had warned Ashwin in the
bus when he asked them for feedbacks on his new class teacher.

She was handing out Personal Information forms to the students to fill up so
that she had a record of each student with the phone numbers of the parents
whom she would call up when their ward crossed the line. Ashwin first
thought of giving a wrong number but decided against it when he
remembered the reputation that this teacher had.
He filled in Typing in the SUPW column as he was bored of Taekwondo and
found it very tedious to change into the Taekwondo uniform in every SUPW
period. Word was that the new typing teacher was an old and gullible wreck
and one could easily bunk her period. All the more reason for Ashwin to join
it.

Just when Ashwin completed filling his information form and had started
getting up to submit it to the teacher, a pretty girl, whom Ashwin at once
recognised as Akanksha from section A, walked into the classroom and read
an announcement from a piece of paper that she was holding.

“This is to inform you that the standard six final exam answer sheets will be
distributed on Wednesday. Any corrections should be made on the same day
and no changes in the marks will be made after that. No studies will take
place throughout the day so the students are advised to only bring their
almanacs and a rough notebook. The report cards will be given out after a
week of the distribution of answer sheets. Thank you.”

After getting the class teacher’s signatures on the paper, she left.

Sitting beside the window seat, Ashwin gulped and felt a few drops of sweat
on his forehead inspite of the cool breeze that was blowing in from the
window. ‘Only two days to go’, he thought. Yes, that was all the time he had
before doomsday.

The bell for the first period rang. Ashwin checked his new time-table.
“English period,” he said to Saurav who was sitting beside him, soaking in
the cool weather.

“Yep,” he replied. “Now let’s see how our new English teacher is.”

“Just hope she is not like the one last year,” said Ashwin referring to Mrs.
Mrs. Deepa Bhattacharya who was a stickler for submission of homeworks
on time.

Discussing qualities that the new English teacher should have, Aswhin and
Saurav walked to the class door and stood there waiting for the teacher to
arrive. The lobby outside was quiet and all the students of the neighbouring
classes were packed in their respective rooms, all listening obediently to
their respective teachers without making a noise. The only voices audible in
the lobby were Ashwin’s and Saurav’s who were now in a verbal argument
over how their new teachers should be.

“I’d prefer a teacher who teaches well and is friendly with the students. If we
get a teacher like that, then I wouldn’t mind doing homework for her,”
explained Saurav.
“I beg to disagree,” objected Ashwin. “I’d like a teacher who just comes,
teaches and goes and who does not crib over submitting homeworks. It
should be up to the students to decide how much they should study you
know.”

“But the teachers give homework because it would ultimately help us only.”

“Horse shit. They use it as a means to torture poor little children like us. Do
you remember the agonizingly long letters and essays that Deepa ma’am
gave us as homework throughout the previous session. Wouldn’t you call
that downright torment for us?”

“Well, but it did ultimately help us.”

“You don’t know that for sure. The results are still not out, and any benefit
coming out of this sort of strategy from the teachers is surely not justified. I
mean, it is a case of so much for so little. Deepa ma’am’s homeworks sucked
man.”

Just when Ashwin uttered the last few words, Mrs. Deepa Bhattacharya
emerged from the corner striding towards their classroom.

“What timing!” said Ashwin. “Do you think she heard it?”

“I don’t know. You’ll soon find out.”

The teacher walked towards the duo and stood in front of the door.

“Why are you two standing here?” she questioned. “Has your class teacher
appointed door-keeping duties to you?”

‘Thank God she didn’t hear it,’ thought Ashwin, relieved.

“No ma’am, we were…umm… waiting for the teacher here,” explained
Saurav.

“Well then, your wait is over. Get inside the class.”

The two, surprised, went inside and took their seats.
“What the hell!” exclaimed Ashwin, taking his place. “She’s our English
teacher. I’ll be damned. Don’t they have any pity on us? I mean, two years
straight.”

Mrs. Bhattacharya strode into the classroom and occupied her place in the
front. “Good morning class,” she said in her trademark bengali accent. “As
yoo all would have figured out by now, I’ll be your English teacher this year
too and I must confess that I’m really lucky to have got a chance to teach
this lovely class once again.”

The confession was acknowledged by a loud applause by the students,
though most of them were cursing her under the breath.

“But, I must tell you that I have almost finished checking your final exam
papers and I’m not very happy with the performance of the class. The
average score has gone down from the half yearlies and apart from a few
students, no one has secured above eighty percent in the paper.”

Ashwin’s heart skipped a beat. He didn’t want to score below eighty in the
english paper at least.

“Anyways, that is to be considered after two days. Right now, we’ll have to
get our heads down and start with the syllabus right away. There’s a lot to be
covered in seventh grade. It is not like previous year when we could afford
to go on our pace, matters are more serious now. By the way, I see a couple
of new faces in the class,” she said pointing towards the newly transferred
kids from other sections. “Would you please introduce yourselves to me?”

Both the new students stood up in rapt attention and introduced themselves
to the class. Till now, no one in the class had bothered to know about them.
They were sitting together and only had each other for company as no one
else seemed to give a damn about them. So, in addition to the teacher, even
the class got to know more about the tww.

“Hello everyone. My name is Rishi Mittal and I have come from section C. I
secured ninety two percent in my half yearlies last year. My hobbies are
reading and playing cricket. Thank you”
Everyone clapped as he re-occupied his seat, smiling ear to ear knowing that
he had created a good impression on the teacher by mentioning his
percentage.

“Why’d he have to tell his percentage?” muttered Ashwin. “He was
supposed to give a general self introduction, not his academic profile.
Supercilious freak… boasting around his ninety two percent.”

“Hmm… impressive,” said the teacher. “Who was your English teacher last
year?”

“Anuradha Singh ma’am.”

“Oh…” she said, her eyes full of respect for her counterpart. “Isn’t she an
excellent teacher? You must have got very good marks in english in the half
yearlies.”

“Yes and yes. She’s a great teacher and I got a ninety in english in the half
yearlies.” He smiled all the more now as the teacher was now aware of his
outstanding english marks also. He was having a great first period in his new
class.

“Very good,” remarked Mrs. Bhattacharya. “Hope you maintain that score if
not better it this year.”

“I’ll try my level best ma’am.”

“Good, sit down.”

“Yes, you also tell us more about yourself,” she said to the other newcomer.

He stood up and began his self introduction speech in broken english.
“Hello, my name is Umar Hasan and I come from section H. I like to play
cricket and do paint. Thank you.”

“That was short and sweet,” said Ashwin.

“Yeah… and dotted with grammatical errors as well,” said Saurav. “I bet she
won’t have liked that.”
“Thank you,” said the teacher. “You may sit now.”

Umar Hasan obediently sat down on his chair, feeling glad that it was over.
Public speaking was clearly not his cup of tea or coffee or whatever.

“OK children, lets’s not waste any more time and get started. You sure have
bought the books for the new session, right?”

“NO MA’AM,” chorused the class, agitated that the teacher was starting the
course on the first day itself.

“The books are not yet avaialable in the school ook shop ma’am,” informed
Sonali. “They say it’ll take at least a week.”

“Oh… but we simply cannot afford to wait for one week. Anyways, I have a
book and I’ll get a photocopy of the first lesson and have it distributed in the
class tomorrow. As for now, I’ll read from my book and you all just keep
your ears wide open and listen.”

“What an insensitive and thoughtless creature,” Ashwin remarked. “Started
teaching on the first day itself and that too when we don’t have the books.
Damn her.”

Much to the students’ frustration, Mrs. Bhattacharya started the first lesson
‘Engine Trouble’ from her book.

Ashwin slept through the period.

He was woken up by Saurav at the end of the period.

“Wake up sleepy-head,” Saurav ordered. “Computer Lab.”

“Oh… thanks Mister Anand, though I would have preferred sleeping here in
a nice and quiet empty classroom than build web pages in the F-block
basement.”

“Well, I thought that an air conditioned room would only help matters.”

“Hmmm… it sure will. Let’s go.”
The duo walked out of the classroom last, switching off the fans and lights
as they left, a practice that had been dwelved into them since their first day
in this school. ‘Electricity Saved is Electrcity Produced’ read a poster on the
notice board of the class.

The walk from the third floor of the D block to the basement of the F block
where all the computer labs were situated took ten whole minutes which was
enough for them to be declared ‘late to the class’ by Mrs. Priya Narayanan ,
their new computer teacher.

“You are late on the first day of the session itself. Do you know that the first
impression is always the last impression? And you aren’t helping yourselves
by creating a negative first impression of yourselves on the teacher. Do you
understand that?”

“Yes ma’am,” collectively admitted the two. “We are extremely sorry ma’am
and promise that it won’t happen again.”

“Go take your seats, you’ve wasted enough if my time already,” disgustedly
remarked the teacher.

The two occupied the corner computer and switched on the monitors.

The teacher began with the usual ‘introduce-yourselves’ process that is
synonymous with the first period of the session for every subject. Half a
period of the double period computer lab was spent up in the ‘Hello-I-am-
blah-blah-blah’ of the forty two kids of the section and the teacher declared
the rest of the period as free as it was the first day and also because no one
was carrying the computer book today.

“But make sure that you have the books in the next computer period,” she
had ordered. “I may have granted you a free period right now, but I don’t
want to see anyone playing minesweeper or solitaire. Do Word or
Powerpoint or practise your last year’s HTML concepts. We will be doing
‘Advanced HTML’ this year and it is imperative that the basic HTML of last
year is on your fingertips in order to go anywhere with advanced HTML.”

“No man… not HTML again,” said Saurav, who clearly didn’t have an
affinity towards designing web pages.
“Advanced HTML mind you,” corrected Aswhin.

“Dayum.”

After issuing the ‘No-Games’ warning, Mrs. Naranayanan went out of the
lab to catch up with the latest school gossip from the other computer teacher
in the next lab. Ashwin and Saurav and many others identified this as an
opportunity and opened up solitaire on their respective computer screens.
One of them even managed to find Age of Empires hidden away in a cranny
of one of the network drives. Soon, all the boys of the class gathered around
computer number nine, shouting out advices and strategies to overthrow the
Turkish Empire in the game.

“Bring down the walls with the trebuchet,” advised one.

“No,” said another. “Let the battering rams handle the walls, use the
trebuchet to destroy the castle instead.”

“Assign the Knights to kill the villagers…” advised Shourya.

“Our Swordsman and Archer fight horse riders of their,” added Umar.

And this went on for half an hour until someone cleverly tipped off that
Priya ma’am was coming back towards their lab. A wave of panic spread
through the group of boys like wildfire, everyone hurriedly went back to
their seats and opened up MS Word or PowerPoint on their screens instantly.
On entering, the teacher was clearly surprised on witnessing the class sitting
in pin drop silence and seemingly working so assidiously on their tasks. She
had prepared her throat to shout once she would enter the room as she
assumed that after thirty minutes of the teacher’s absence, hell would surely
have broken lose in the lab.

“Whoa…” she said. “I am glad that everyone was sitting quietly while I was
not in the class. I must say, I’m quite impressed with you all. Keep it up.”

“THANK YOU MA’AM,” chorused the class.

The boys smirked cunningly.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Wednesday, April 2nd – D-Day once again for all the students. Ashwin, or
every student for that matter had their hearts in their mouths as the bell for
the first period rang.

“I am almost dead of anxiety,” said Sonali.

“Well, here comes your saviour then,” said her partner, Surabhi, pointing
towards their erstwhile Geography teacher, Nishit sir.

“Saviour can lick my boots. That teacher is good for nothing, neither does he
teach well nor is he a lenient paper-checker. I’d rather kiss the toilet seat
then call him my saviour.”

Well, at least Ashwin and Saurav thought otherwise. Good that they weren’t
around when Sonali was giving such a wonderful description of their most
beloved teacher.

The tall and burly physiqued teacher walked into the classroom with a
bundle of answer sheets in one hand and a class list in the other. “Good
morning children,” he wished the class.

“Good morning sir,” replied all, except Sonali.

“It’s wonderful to see you all again. Wish that I was your teacher in this
grade also.”

Ashwin and Saurav clapped, but no one else took the cue. Embarrased, they
hid their faces behind their notebooks.

“OK, I’ll start distributing the papers now. But before that, I must
congratulate you that the number of students getting full marks in the
Geography paper is the highest in this section.”

The whole class rang in applause.

‘Hope I’m one of them,’ thought Ashwin, whose Geography paper had went
of pretty well.
“Yes yes, you do deserve all that applause. OK, I’ll start now. Roll number
one, Aakash Singh.”

Aakash rose from his seat, legs shaking and went forward and received his
paper. A smile adorned his face soon as he got the paper and one could see
the huge sigh of satisfaction that he took after seeing his score.

“Thirty five on fourty,” he answered happily when someone enquired about
his marks.

Seven students came and went and Ashwin was called on next. As he
approached the teacher’s desk, Nishit sir gave him a large grin from his
place.
‘Now what could that mean,’ wondered Ashwin.

“Very well done,” said the teacher as Ashwin reached him. “A paper well
done. Fourty on Fourty. Keep it up boy.”

Ashwin couldn’t believe his temporal lobes. But once the situation sunk in,
his cheeks ached with the broad smile that he was wearing on the face.

“Can we have a clap for Mister Malhotra here?”

The whole class clapped once again, this time for Ashwin.

“Thank you,” he said acknowledging the applause and went back to his
place.

“That was somewhat expected,” said Saurav, “Wasn’t it?”

“Well… sort of.”

Later in the period, Saurav also recevied his paper. ‘39/40’, it read and was
accompanied by a ‘Very Good’ remark.

“So, class toppers eh?” said Ashwin, referring to them both.

“You bet,” he said giving a high five to his co-topper buddy.
After distrbibuting all the papers, Nishit sir asked the class if there were any
totaling errors or unmarked questions in their answer scripts. Instantly, a
long line of students who had some or the other discrepancy with their paper
was formed.
Another trademark trait of the DPS students is their competetiveness. The
intra-section or even inter-section academic competetion is so high that they
will haggle with the teacher for hours on end just to get that extra half mark
only so that they beat their peers and save themselves from that pathetic
feeling similar to what an athelete feels when he/she misses an Olympic
medal by fractions of a second.
In fact, the length of the line is directly proportional to the grade in which
one studies, which in turn is proportional to the competetiveness. In
relatively layman language, the competetiveness increases with each class
that one graduates into.

So, the long line.

The only ones left sitting in the class were the ones who had got above thirty
eight in the paper and were relatively satisfied with their performances. All
others were waiting for their assumed half or one mark increase for an
answer which they felt should’ve fetched full marks.

“I said only TOTALING ERRORS or UNMARKED QUESTIONS,”
repeated the teacher who was clearly frustrated at having to re-check
answers that according to the students were not deserving of any decrease in
marks. “Please don’t come to me asking me reasons why have I cut half a
mark or two marks in your supposedly perfect answers. I will entertain only
those who have an error in their totaling or have an unmarked answer. In
fact, I’ll deduct marks from the papers of those who come to me cribbing
over half a mark that they don’t deserve.”

The line shrunk from around twenty students to a meagre three after the
teacher’s warning.

“That’s much better,” said the teacher, relieved.

After looking into the three cases who had a genuine error in their paper, he
left the class, muttering under his breath, agitated that he had four more
classes to deal, and each one of those wouldn’t be any better.
The bell rang soon after and Ashwin could no longer afford to wear that
broad smile on his face as their ex-Math teacher walked in, reeling under the
pressure of the huge bundle of answer scripts that she was carrying.

“Good morning class,” she said, putting down the bundle of papers with a
thud on the table. “Nice to see you all again .”

“Well, I am not so happy to see you again,” Ashwin said to himself.

“I’ve brought your papers.”

“We can see that,” he muttered again.

“And I am not very happy with the class’s performance.”

The faces which were earlier smiling on seeing their previous class teacher,
now acquired a grim look.

“No one has got full in this class. The highest is only ninety six.”

Shourya felt as if someone had just sliced his chest with a light saber. He had
been hundred one percent sure after ther exam that he will be getting full in
the paper. Four whole percent less than cent percent in Math was like failing
for Shourya. He had never dropped this low in Mathematics ever.

“On the other end,” informed the teacher, “There are as much as five failures
this time.”

Ashwin’s heart skipped a beat. He had just managed to clear the half yearly
paper by one mark. He wanted to score way above that in this paper.

The teacher started distributing the papers, in reverse alphabetical order this
time.

“Vishal Malhotra, come and take your paper,” she ordered.

Vishal obeyed and went forward to receive his paper.

“I’m very disappointed,” the teacher said, handing over his paper.
“Oh no,” said Vishal after seeing the the writing in red ink on the top corner
of his answer script. It read ‘29/100 – Very Poor’. “I have flunked.” He went
back to his place, head in hands, tears falling through the fingers. “I can’t
believe it. My mom will kill me after this.”

Ashwin and Saurav, who were sitting behind him, tried their best to console
him and make him see the supposedly brighter side of failing.

“You’ll have a re-test you know,” said Saurav.

“And who knows, you may even end up scoring quite well in that,” added
Ashwin. “You should consider yourself that you are getting a second chance
to improve your score. We won’t get a second chance to better our result, so
you are at an advantage you know.”

“By the way, did you know that Abraham Lincoln also failed in school.”

“Yeah, he’s right. Even Michael Jordan and Albert Einstein himself for that
matter.”

“OH…WILL YOU TWO SHUT YOUR MOUTHS,” cried Vishal. “I want to
be left alone, please go away.”

“Umm…We were only trying to help,” said Ashwin apologetically.

“OK, you carry on, we’ll, umm… just stay around the corner in case you
need some consoling,” added Saurav.

“Hey Saurav!” Ashwin said. “Your name’s being called out. Go get your
paper!”

“Oh… sorry. Didn’t hear it. Yeah, I’ll go.” Saurav urgently got up, fingers
crossed, legs shaking and went forward to receive his paper.

“Good,” said the teacher as she handed over his paper. “But you sure can go
four notches higher.”

Saurav grabbed his script from the teacher’s hands and read the dreaded
numbers in red ink on the top corner of the first page of the answer script.
“Whoa…” he exclaimed, “Is this nine and is the number beside it called
six?”

“Well, seems like a ninety six to me Mister Topper,” replied Ashwin.

Saurav couldn’t believe either his occipital or his temporal lobes. He had
actually topped the class in Math, beating the likes of Shourya and Manvi.

“Man, this is so unreal. It’s freaking me out. Pinch me Ashwin.”

Ashwin followed his command.

“Ouch…not that hard, stupid.”

“I feel like giving you a punch in the face right now. Man, how can you
top?”

“Show some respect little fellow, you are talking to the Math topper.”

Amidst all the celebration, Ashwin’s name was called out by the teacher.
Vishal turned back and informed Ashwin about it after the teacher had called
out his name thrice.”

“Go get your paper, deaf ears.”

“Oh… sorry, I was… umm…yeah, I’ll go. Thanks.”

He didn’t want to though. He didn’t want to get that paper back. Too much
was at stake on it. He got up anyways and walked to the teacher’s desk with
heavy steps, muttering a silent prayer under his breath.

“Well,” said Mrs. Sharma, “You sure have shown a huge improvement in
your performance from the Half Yearlies. But you can still do better you
know.” And she handed over the hallowed answer script to Ashwin.

He accepted the paper with trembling hands but didn’t open it. He rushed
back to his seat, away from the curious eyes of the front-benchers who
characteristically had a vexatious habit of wanting to know how the other
student was fairing in the exams.
“Here goes…” Ashwin said, straightening out the rolled up answer script.
“Hang on…” and he rolled it up once again.

“Hey, I think I saw an eight there,” said Saurav.

“You open it and tell me,” said Ashwin.

“As you like it. Who knows, maybe my venerated topper hands would help.”

“Cut the crap and open it.”

“OK,” and he rolled out his paper, like a secret treasure chest map. “Duuude,
you got an eighty five. Congrats man. That’s like a one fifty percent increase
on your previous performance, if my holy Mathematical mind has performed
the correct calculations.”

Ashwin was encountering ambivalent feelings of happiness and desolation.
He was happy that he had managed a whopping hundred fifty percent
increase (if Saurav’s calculations were to be trusted) but was also a bit
wistful that he had missed the ninety mark, a hurdle which he had promised
to his mother that he will cross.

“Yeah,” he said, a bit gloomily. “Thanks.”

“You don’t seem to be ecstatic. Generally, people who manange a bloody
hundred fifty percent increase blow the roof apart in celebration. Why are
you sounding so low then?”

“Nothing, just that it would have been better if I’d crossed ninety.”

“Give me a break man, what a killjoy you are for yourself. You did get eight
five and best of all, you beat Sonali by three whole marks. Isn’t that more
than enouugh to cheer you up.”

“SHUT THE HELL UP,” shouted Ashwin. “Stop bothering me. You know
I’d promised my mom that I’ll get above ninety for sure in the finals. You
are just blabbering away ‘cos you have bloody topped the class. You don’t
know how it feels to fall short. Stop showing off. Keep your marks and your
mathematical genius mind to yourself… bloody ostentatious, insensitive
human.”
He thrust his chair backwards and walked away, fuming with anger. Jealousy
had got the better of their friendship this time. Saurav didn’t know how to
respond. He was only trying to cheer up his buddy you know. He didn’t
mean to show off. The references to his holy mathematical mind were only
sarcastic remarks and shouldn’t have been taken in a light-hearted manner. It
was only Ashwin’s envy that had got the better of him and forced him to
take Saurav’s remarks in the wrong way.

“Hey, Ashwin,” he called out to the second row where Ashwin had occupied
an empty seat beside Pallavi, the same filthy piece of flesh with whom he
was made to sit on his first day of sixth. Yeah, the confrontation was that bad
that he had opted to sit beside her than Saurav. “Come back here yaar. Don’t
get me wrong man, I didn’t mean to boast. I was only trying to make you see
the bright side.”

Ashwin tried hard not to listen and started talking with Pallavi to divert his
attention. Saurav tried hard to communicate with him from his seat but in
vain. Ultimately, he decided to give up the efforts and wait for his anger to
subside.

By this time, Mrs. Sharma had left in a hurry after distributing the papers as
she had two more sections in seventh plus one each in seventh and eighth.
She wanted to get rid of the huge bundles of answer scripts from her table as
soon as possible.

Meanwhile, for the first time, a two way converstion was going on between
Pallavi and Ashwin as Ashwin continued ignoring his friend at the back.

“So how much did you get in Math?” asked Pallavi.

“Well, I got an eighty five. Was expecting a little above ninety though. But
guess I am just destined to fall short of expectations every time.”

“Did you re-check the marking in your paper? Maybe you have an unmarked
question or a totalling error you know.”

“Actually, I haven’t. I’ll do it now if you say, though I have little hopes.”

“Life goes on only because of hope Ashwin. Losing hope is like losing your
life, so never have little hopes. Always hope for the best.”
“Whoa… where did you learnt that heavy-duty philosophical shit from?”

“Got an e-mail. Liked it so kinda memorised it.”

And he got up and went back to his seat to get his answer script from his
desk. Saurav was looking out of the window when the corner of his eye saw
Ashwin coming towards him.”

“Ashwin, listen to me,” he said when Ashwin reached his desk. “I was
just…” but Ashwin had already grabbed his answer sheet from his desk and
walked away paying no heed to his words.

“You do it,” Ashwin requested Pallavi as he returned to his temporary
second row seat. “I’ve read somewhere that according to a survey, girls are
better at finding errors than men, be it in their husbands or in an exam
paper.”

Pallavi grinned through her braces and took the paper from him. At this
point, Ashwin thought that he would have been better off if he had chosen
the solitary empty seat beside the teacher’s desk which was generally
reserved for the black-starred students as his temporary seating place rather
than sit with her.

Ashwin whistled away to the tunes of Eric Clapton as Pallavi carefully re-
checked his paper for any sort of marking error by the teacher. She finished
exactly when Ashwin finished his song.

“Well,” she said. “Guess the survey results were quite accurate, but Sarita
ma’am’s marking wasn’t.”

“What do you mean,” asked Ashwin curiously.

“Ma’am forgot to mark a six mark question of yours. Question twenty three
to be precise.”

Ashwin hurriedly snatched the paper from her hands, heart in mouth, he
flipped over to the page where he had done the twenty third question. It was
a question on Geometry and filled up two pages. The teacher had ticked the
answer but no marks seemed to be have been given to the question. Ashwin
scanned the two pages, the previous and the page following it, but couldn’t
find any marks alloted to question twenty three. His heart leapt with joy.

“Eighty five plus six is?” asked Ashwin.

“Ninety one I suppose,” answered Pallavi.

He jumped from his seat and ran out of the class into the corridor looking for
the Math teacher who had left a few minutes ago. He obviously didn’t find
her in the corridor so he went downstairs to the staff room. Barging into the
huge room, he went straight to his erstwhile class teacher’s table. She was
not there. He checked her timetable which had been put up by her on the
small soft board on the table.

“Crap, this is last year’s timetable. We are three days into the new session
and she still hasn’t updated her schedule. Even I’m not that lazy,” he
remarked.

Dejected, he returned to the class. The history teacher was already in the
classroom when he reached. He slipped in stealthily as the teacher was busy
undo the ever-tight knot of the thread which tied the bundle of answer
scripts. The second row seat did have its advantages. You could slip into the
class and take your seat instantly without the teacher noticing. Walking back
to the last row would surely get one into the teacher’s line of sight. Ashwin
contemplated making this seat his permanent, but decided against it as
Pallavi once again gave that trademark grin through her dental metal mesh
as he sat down.

“So, did you find her?” she queried.

“No, she was not on her table. Will check again in the break. Has Sapna
ma’am started giving out the papers?”

“Not yet, she has been struggling with that knot since eternity and still hasn’t
managed to open it.”

The teacher had been wrestling with the knot for half the period now. “How
did I ever manage to tie it like this?” she murmured.
After about a minute of more strenous efforts, she finally accepted defeat
and handed over the bundle to Shourya who was sitting in the first row right
in front of the teacher’s table. “You try it,” she suggested. “Maybe a change
of hands will work.”

Shourya accepted the bundle with glee, proud that the teacher had once
again chosen him to help her over anyone else. It made him feel important, a
sentiment that he rarely experienced when he was in the outside world. He
got to the job at once, trying ever possible angle on the knot.

“Ashwin,” Pallavi addressed. “By the way, why aren’t you sitting with
Saurav today? You are always beside him everytime so much so that you
two are almost inseperable. Then why sit with me all of a sudden?”

“What do you mean I am beside him all the time? He is the one who always
sticks to me. What can I do about it? And please, we surely are not an
inseperable duo by any means. I mean calling us inseperable will be like
claiming that the lion and the gazelle are buddies since birth.”

‘Lions and Gazelles?’ he thought, ‘Guess that shitty Afrikaans savanna
thought of the day has surely gotten into me. Man, I seriously need to get my
memory priorities right. That proverb is occupying valuable memory space
of my hard disk. So that’s why I never remember Math formulae. Hmmm…
got to get a system upgrade for myself I reckon.’

“Fine,” she said, in a slightly ‘OK-dude-relax’ sort of tone. “I was just
curious you know. There’s no need to give weird analogies.”

Ashwin resisted the urge to go back to his original place next to Saurav and
stayed put as Pallavi gave another of her metal-baring smiles. There were
hardly ten minutes left for the period to end when Shourya finally succeded
in his combat with the knot and the history papers were ready to be rolled
out to the anxious students.

“At last!” exclaimed the teacher. “Finally the bundle is loose. Thank you
Shourya.”

Shourya grinned from ear to ear, but that smile quickly wore off his face
when he turned back and saw fourty four pairs of eyes glowering at him with
detestation.

“Why did you open it fool?” cursed the boy sitting behind him.
“Couldn’t you just pretend that you were not able to unloosen it. Are you so
desperate to get your paper, you stupid teacher’s pup.” added his partner.

“Yes, you are a shtupid teacher dog,” explained Umar from the neighbouring
row.

He turned around at once. Verbal quarrels was not his forte, so he didn’t
want to take a chance. As such Umar was known to be the Bond of the
seventh standard and the one sitting behind him, who inconsiderately
declared Shourya to be a teacher’s pup was the bond’s long trusted aide.
‘Don’t mess with them’ he had thought.

The teacher gave out the papers in a hurry before the bell for the break rang.

“Go through your papers and come to me in the staff room only if you have
any genuine error. That includes an error in totalling or an unmarked
question. I’m warning you that I’ll cut marks of those who come to me
claiming that their answers are correct and that they deserve half or one
mark extra for their supposedly flawless answers.”

The bell for the break rang after she made the declaration. Ironically, no one
got up from their seats. Everybody was busy flipping pages of their answer
sheets, hoping to find a genuine error which would boost up their score by,
well, only two marks at the most, but those two bonus marks would be very
valuable in a place like this where the topper beats the runner up by margins
in the range of point double zero somethings. So, right now, that extra half
mark was way more vital than eating patty in the canteen. After about ten
minutes, four lucky children who had legitimate errors in their answer
scripts rushed out the class to get their marks increased. Ashwin followed
behind them, but parted with the group when they entered the staff room as
he made his way to his former class teacher’s table while the others headed
towards the far end of the room towards the history teacher.

“Bloody hell!” Ashwin carefully muttered to himself, making sure that the
teachers on the nearby tables don’t hear him cursing around in the teacher’s
den, “Is she ever at her table?” Mrs. Sharma was still nowhere to be found
and Ashwin was getting all the more tense as the last period neared.
He remembered what Akanksha had announced the other day regarding
making all changes in marks the same day itself. All he had was a few more
periods to find the elusive math teacher and fulfill his ninety percent dreams
and his promise. He was a man of his word, you know, and would simply
hate it if one of his promises, and that too to his mother, would go undone.
He walked out of the staff room, cursing the teacher and went back to class.

He checked and double checked his Math paper in the break to make sure
that the totalling error was for real. Convinced after fifteen minutes of
addition, he took his final bite of sandwich and kept the tiffin inside his bag
as the bell for the next period rang and the Physics and Biology teacher
walked in together.

“Whoa… double dose!” remarked Saurav from behind.

Ashwin igonred his comments and tried hard not to smile. A few other
students chuckled at the supposedly funny exclamation, but both the
teachers were serious as ever, wearing that trademark grim look on their
faces. They started distributing the papers without wasting any time, not
waiting for those who still hadn’t returned to class after the bell rang. The
Physics teacher started in reverse alphabetical order while her counterpart
opted for the more convntional order, starting from Aakash.

Ashwin went forward as his name was called out after Arihant who was
jumping with joy on getting full in his favourite subject.
‘How can anyone like Biology?’ he thought as he made his way towards the
teacher’s table.

“Yeahhhh…,” he exclaimed as soon as he received the paper from the
teacher. “Thirty one on thirty three. And that too without doing any of those
stupid assignments that she had given us before the exams.”

He was making his way back to his seat when he was called once again, this
time by the Physics teacher to collect his paper.

“As expected,” he remarked, taking his Physics paper from the teacher
which had a ‘31/32’ written on it in red ink. “Wonder why she didn’t give an
‘Excellent’ along with it.”
Cursing the teacher’s miserness on spending a little more red ink and writing
down an ‘Excellent or maybe a ‘Great Paper’ remark, he went back to his
new seat alongside Pallavi.

“Can you please re-check the totalling for these papers?” he asked, handing
out the two answer sheets to her.

“Sure…” she agreed. “Whoa… You’ve got great marks by the way.”

“Yeah, thanks,” he said, feeling proud of himself.

Pallavi scanned through both his papers but found no error in the totalling.

“Sorry Ashwin, no error this time.”

“No problem… guess the Science teachers are just better at calculation than
the Math ones.”

“Yeah…” she replied, laughing. “Weird.”

“Anyways, I’ll go and check for the math teacher in the staff room once
more.”

“Yes, you must. Today’s the last day for reporting any change in marks.”

“Yeah, I know that. Bizarre principle though. Wonder what’s the reason
behind it.”

Saying this, he sneaked out of the classroom. Walked out rather, considering
that both the teachers were encompassed by students pleading with them to
get their marks increased.

“Stupid people,” he remarked walking down the stairs, referring to his class
fellows. “Licking the teacher’s boots just to get that extra half mark. Sucks.”

He walked past the office of the headmistress for the eigth, ninth and tenth
standards which was right next to the staff room, glancing inside to see the
ever-feared Mrs. Saxena (see Adolf Hitler) loudly reprimanding three
seemingly notorious bonds of ninth standard, apparently for their against-
the-rules gelled up hair.
‘Oh, c’mon teacher, they must be only trying to impress the female in the
neighbouring section,’ thought Ashwin as he walked by.

Yeah, so much for Brylcreem ads!

‘Puberty is a bad thing!’ thought one of the boys in the room.

Aswhin entered the staff room and craned his neck from the door itself to
check whether the teacher concerned was there at her seat or not. He spotted
her at the teacher’s canteen window, sipping from her cup of tea. Fearing
that he would lose her again, he quickly made his way through the various
groups of gossiping teachers, towards Mrs. Sharma.

“Ma’am,” he called out from a distance, inviting angry looks from the
nearby teachers, seemingly busy with work. Mrs. Sharma heard the call and
saw him running towards her with an answer script.

“Yes Ashwin, what is it?”

“Ma’am,” he said with a tone of excitement in his voice. “Ma’am I have a
marking error in my paper.”

“Oh… is it, how much?”

“Six marks. Makes it ninety one. You forgot to give marks for question
twenty three.”

“Wait, let me check.”

He handed over his script to the teacher who examined the specified
question to see if he was talking the truth.

“Indeed,” she replied after a few seconds, acknowledging Ashwin’s claim.
“Come to my table, my pen is lying there. I’ll increase your marks.”

Ashwin was ecstatic. The huge smile on his face candidly expressed that,
and fittingly so, as he had manged a collosal fifty seven mark increment
from his earlier performance. That’s a herculean one hundred sixty seven
percent upswing from the half yearlies.
They both made their way to her table, once again passing through the
various blabbing conclaves of teachers. Ashwin overheard one of them say,
“Do you know, Saxena got divorced for the third time.”
Ashwin couldn’t help but blurt out a small “Whoa…” on hearing this latest
piece of tattle.

“What? Did you say something?” asked Mrs. Sharma.

“No ma’am,” he replied innocently.

Mrs. Sharma took out her red pen (which had become synonymous with
teachers and answer sheets in the school and any child carrying a red pen in
his pencil box was looked down upon with suspicion) and scribbled a ‘+6’
beside the earlier score of eighty five. “There you go. I’ll increase it in my
class list also.”

“Thank you ma’am,” Ashwin said, almost jumping with glee.

“Well done,” she replied. “Make sure you keep up the score this year too.”

“Yes ma’am. I guarantee that.”

Promising to keep up his good performance, he walked out of the staff room,
taking another glance inside Mrs. Saxena’s room as he made his way back to
class to witness that the boys with the gelled up hair were still standing
there, taking in hundred decibel verbal blows from the headmistress as if
each of them was one of her estranged husbands.
‘Poor chaps,’ thought Ashwin. ‘No wonder she got divorced thrice.’

On his way back, now that he had made the pledged ninety in his Math
paper, his anger towards Saurav started dying down a bit. He contemplated
an apology from his side for his rude behaviour. ‘He was only trying to
make me feel better,’ he thought as he walked up the stairs. ‘Guess I was just
too harsh…maybe jealous too. Think that a sorry from me will sort things
out.’

He sneaked inside, or rather, once again, walked inside the class room as the
students were exactly in the same position as they were when he had left.
Parul was still trying to push Farhan back from the crowd and Arihant had
still not managed to get the physics teacher’s attention to his paper.
“Stupid fellows,” Ashwin muttered at the sight once again.

He walked past the second row seat, ignoring Pallavi’s call and went back to
his original seat where Saurav was seated beside an empty chair. He was
busy sifting through his biology paper to see if there was any scope of
getting the marks increased through a totalling error or maybe an unmarked
question and didn’t notice Ashwin standing in front of him. It was only when
he sat beside him did he notice his presence and his apparent change in
demeanour.

“Hey,” Ashwin said. “Bet you got a full in biology.” He snatched his biology
paper which displayed a 28/33 on the top corner of the sheet. “Well, I beat
you in this at least,” he remarked sarcastically.

“What’s up with you Ashwin?” asked Saurav, clearly irritated at Ashwin’s
sudden mood swing and his change in attitude towards him. “How is it that
you come and start talking to me all of a sudden. I mean I was supposed to
be this bloody ostentatious, insensitive human, you remember? A good for
nothing ‘show off’, isn’t that what you said?”

“Oh I am so sorry Saurav. I realised my mistake. It was very harsh and
immature of me to give it in your face like that. I apologise for it. I think I
was just maybe a bit jealous. You understand what I’m saying? I didn’t mean
it you know.”

Saurav listened, flinching a bit when Ashwin mentioned that he was jealous
of him. It was the other way round generally, with Ashwin always being the
more popular guy around with his football and rudimentary knowledge of
guitars. He always had this secret envy against him right from the start and
the fact that his friend was now getting green because of him sort of evened
things out according to Saurav.

“Pallavi spotted this error in my paper where the teacher had forgot to mark
a six marker question. Yeah, she spotted it, making some good use of her
squinted eyes for once. Hehehe… and you’ll be glad to know that I’ve got
my score updated and it stands at ninety one now.”

“Congrats man…” Saurav replied, in a happier sort of tone.
“So are you still pissed with me?”

“Well… not really, now that you’ve apologised, I think I could do with a few
more years with a friend like you.”

Both of them smiled. “So you can now count yourself amongst the
privileged few who have the pleasure of my company,” remarked Ashwin.

“Duuude… you might as well update your mental systems too. Guess that
half a dozen worth of marks crashed your operating system.”

The two had a hearty laugh.

“Idiotic dung-beetles”, one could hear Pallavi curse from the second row on
losing out on company yet again.

Well… who cared about her anyway.
CHAPTER 2
THE BOND CONNECTION

All the boys of the class were lined up against the front wall. No, this was no
gender biased reprimanding ceremony, but just an overhaul of the seating
plan that the teacher had planned for the class. This was a long followed
effective strategy by the teachers of this school to improve the state of
discipline in the class. According to them, the distance separating two
notorious students of the class or even two not so notorious children, but
sharing a very good rapport which generally overwshadowed their rapport
with the black board in front for that matter was directly proportional to the
level of discipline and order prevailing in the room. Mrs. Meena Chandra,
their new class teacher, being one of the most experienced teachers in the
school, was well aware of this. Furthermore, as the sex ratio of the class was
even, she had planned a one girl with one boy policy to make the strategy
even more effective. She ordered all the girls to occupy one seat and leave
the one beside them empty. The boys were then alloted seats beside the girls
one by one, a process which looked more like a match-making procedure.
“You go and sit there along with the girl with the green hairband,” she
ordered Arihant, pointing towards the empty seat beside Tanya.
Arihant dutifully obeyed her command and occupied the alloted seat,
exchanging fake smiles with his new partner before sitting down.

“Umar, you go sit with Manvi.” This was a tactical move. Making the
weaker students sit with the toppers was an adroit use of her experience.

‘Why do they only remember the names of the topper guys?’ wondered
Ashwin. ‘This is outright discrimination.’

Just then, he saw the teacher’s finger pointing towards him. “You,” she said,
gesturing towards Ashwin.

“Me?” Ashwin inquired.

“Yes you child. Go and sit behind Umar.”
‘Oh…so they remember the names of the bad ones too. But what about
those in between?’

“Yes ma’am,” Ashwin said, obediently. “By the way, my name is Ashwin,”
he said as he walked past her.

“OK Ashwin, go and sit there.”

His new partner was Mahima Singhal, an average looking female with an
average academic record and a big fan of Backstreet Boys.
‘Backstreet Boys?! Eeeeks…I should stay away from her’ Ashwin had
thought when he got to know about her choice.
But, he was a bit happy too, that he was sitting behind the stud of the
seventh standard and considered this as a good opportunity get some
friendship going along between them. Having a friend who was the bond of
the batch would surely help in adverse situations.

“Hey,” he called out to Umar in front. “Good that I have someone for
company here.”

Umar smiled, “Yes, me also.”

The teacher used up the home room and sacrificed her Chemistry class
which was the first period in the time-table in lieu of the new seating plan.
The students surely didn’t mind the waste of time.

After the new seating plan was in place and all the students had settled
beside their new partners of the opposite sex, Ashwin looked around to see
where Suarav was alloted his new seat. He spotted him sitting with Sonali at
the far end of the class, beside the window, having a laugh with Sonali at,
apparently at one of the supposedly poor jokes which Saurav was renowned
for.
‘You stay away from her,’ Ashwin said to himself, green with envy at the
sight.

Maybe it just wasn’t working between him and Saurav.

Trying hard to ignore the two, he looked around to see where everyone else
was seated. Farhan proved to be the unluckiest boy of the class as he was
made to sit with Pallavi at the end of the second column of seats. Ashwin
noticed Farhan bubbling with frustration as Pallavi blabbered on without
much concern whether anyone actually was listening to her or not. After all,
she had finally got someone to sit beside her permanently which was a first
for her. She had sat without a partner throughout the last session and didn’t
have much hope this year too before the class teacher came up with this
wonderful idea.

After having an overview of the situation, Ashwin concluded that his was a
fairly good enough seat as compared to others, though he still fumed at the
thought of Saurav and Sonali sitting together.

As the day dragged on, Ashwin got more comfortable with his new partner
and established a nice little friendship with her. According to him, it was
necessary for borrowing stationery whenever he forgot to get his, which
would be quite often.

Hmm… smart thinking I must say.

Three periods past, the bell for the break rang thoughout the corridor
outside, announcing the start of recess. It was accompanied by loud bustling
noises echoing out from the classes on the third floor as the children opened
and closed, or rather slammed their desks as they stowed away their books in
the compartment inside it. After a few seconds, one could see a maddening
rush of students in white spilling out of their classrooms, some racing down
towards the canteen while others made their way towards the football field
carrying their lunch boxes in one hand while juggling green tennis balls with
the other. Others were seen showing off their football skills as they walked
towards the goal.

Ashwin curbed his instincts and decided against going to the football field
today, instead, he walked upto Umar and asked him if he could come along
with him and hang out in the canteen.

“Hey Umar. Can I also come along with you? Even I am going to the
canteen,” he lied, “So I thought we two could go together.”
“Ummm…” Umar contemplated for a while, in a manner characteristic of a
bond, “OK, but I be with my friends. You get bored.”

“Oh that’s OK, I’ll just hang around with you guys. I won’t get bored.”

“All right, if it OK with you, come along.”

“Thanks Umar,” Ashwin said, in a most fawning way.

He followed Umar out of the class and the duo walked off towards the
canteen. Ashwin had this whole air of nonchalance going along with him as
he walked, considering that he was walking with one of the most feared
bonds of the batch. They reached the junior canteen (which was supposedly
meant for classes sixth and seventh only, but where seniors often bumped in
to catch a quick bite of patty or to rag innocent little sixthees) where Umar’s
fellow bonds were waiting.

“Hey Umar!” one of them called out over the crowd. “Over here.”

Ashwin spotted the person who was calling out and informed Umar, who
was having a hard time locating where the familiar voice was coming from.

“Oh,” he said as Ashwin pointed in their direction. “They all are over there.”

Ashwin felt proud that he had helped him find his friends and flashed a
servile smile at him as they meandered through the crowd towards the group.

“Hey Umar…what’s up mate?” asked a boy with gelled hair wearing Reebok
shoes and sporting a black Nike bag. Ashwin recognized him at once as
Nikhil from the C section. He generally kept goals for the opposition team
during the football matches in the P.E. periods.

“Hey, I’ve seen you during P.E. I must say you have a very nice clearance
kick,” said Ashwin, “And a pretty good dive too.”

“Well, thank you,” Nikhil answered.

“Hey, who is this little chump? What’s he doing with you man?” another of
Umar’s friends asked him as soon as Ashwin went towards the canteen to get
cokes for the whole group. “And why the hell is he getting free cokes for us?
I mean, I’m not complaining about the cokes, I’m always game for free stuff
you know, but it’s just that I’ve never seen him around you know.”

“Yeah I know… His name is Ashwin. He’s in my new class, sits behind me.
Wanted to come to canteen with me. You’re getting free coke na, why
bother?”

“Yeah…true.”

Ashwin returned with seven delicately balanced bottles of coke in his two
hands. “Whoa… wait, let me help,” Umar said on seeing Ashwin struggle to
hold their beverages. He distributed the cokes amongst the people of the
group and they started chatting sitting on the steps of the OAT. Ashwin was
subsided to the far end of the group where he could hardly hear anything.
The people seemed to have forgotten that the coke they were sipping away
merrily was actually bought by him. Ashwin had bought cokes for everyone
just so that he would be given some attention, but on the contrary, no one
even bothered to enquire about his name, let alone shower consequence. But
Ashwin didn’t mind, the fact that he was actually having coke with these
guys was more than enough to make his chest swell up with pride, as if it
was a most rare thing to do, like maybe possessing an empty bottle of pills
belonging to Marilyn Monroe or something.

Yeah… some people do classify such weird items as rare. Guess if I become
famous after this book, my used underwears would be as precious and rare
as the Kohinoor itself.

Ashwin was happy just to pretend that he was involved in the groups’s chats
about the latest fights in the school when the bell for the fifth period rang.
Ashwin followed the group as they walked out of the OAT area, but instead
of walking towards D-Block, the group veered towards the sports complex.
“Hey guys!” Ashwin exclaimed. “Why are we going towards the sports
complex?”

Umar turned back and was surprised to see Ashwin walking behind him.
“Oh! You are still here. I thought you went class.”

“No, I thought you guys were also going back to the class so I decided to be
with you guys only, but why are you headed towards the sports complex
now?”
“Oh… we are bunking this period. Do you want to come?”

Ashwin thought of the consequences and rightfully refused the otherwise
tempting offer.

“Oh… no no no. I will go back to the class. We have History now, she’s very
strict. Can’t take a risk against her.” answered Ashwin.

“OK then… if the History teacher asks, tell her that the class teacher sent
me.”

“You mean sent for you.”

“Yes… whatever.”

The group walked off towards their bunking hideout while Ashwin went
back to the class, managing to reach just in time before the history teacher,
who generally took a full ten minutes to carry her bulky body up the stairs to
the third floor, arrived. He had whizzed past her on the stairs hiding his face
eleven minutes earlier, that was the time she took to complete her ascent to
the peak of D-Block.
Saurav occupied his new seat alongside Mahima and started searching
frantically for the history book in his bag. Mrs. Roy was a stickler for books
and notebooks and it absolutely killed her if anyone forgot to bring them.

“Hey, can you please share your book with me?” Ashwin requested Mahima.
“I forgot to get mine.”

“Sure,” she replied. “No problem, and pushed the book to the center of the
two desks.

“Thanks a lot.” Ashwin smirked within. His policy was already working.
“And I’ll also need a pencil, just to pretend that I am underlining stuff in the
book and taking down notes you know. Just so that she doesn’t suspect.”

“OK, I think I have an extra pencil in my bag. Let me check.”

‘I think she likes me!’ Ashwin thought. ‘Gives me anything that I ask for! I
might as well tell her to do all my homeworks.’
He sure was an egocentric self-seeking opportunist man you know.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

D-Block, 2nd Floor. The Typing Room

Ashwin was busy typing out his Football Dream Team on the typewriter as
the good for nothing Typing teacher conveniently enjoyed a nap on a breezy
day. The cool zephyr blowing through the windows of the small room had
lullabied her to a nice little doze. The students didn’t mind it at all, for it
provided them with a chance for some sort of diversion from their alloted
finger and mind numbing task of typing out ‘The quick brown fox jumps
over the lazy little dog’ a hundred times during the two SUPW periods.

Ashwin had found out that many of Umar’s friends had typing as their
SUPW and it had prompted him to take up this activity, though he took it
primarily because of the fact that he was informed about the new typing
teacher as being an old and gullible wreck. She sure looked as if she was
born an eternity ago, but by no means could she have been referred to as
gullible. Nevertheless, Ashwin had found company for himself in Umar’s
friends who, though were slightly against having him in their group initially,
had reconsidered their thoughts and had come on to friendly terms with him
soon.

Today, in order to kill the trademarkedly dreary SUPW time, they were
having a little competition as to who makes the best football dream team.
Ashwin roped in many players from various eras, right from the immortal
Franz Beckenbauer to the young soocer prodigy - Lionel Messi. He named
his team - ‘The Juggernauts’. He had come across this abstruse word on the
internet the other day while registering for one of the fantasy games that
were the rage these days. The leaderboard had classified a team with this
name as being the current national leader with 1,867 points. Though, Ashwin
didn’t have a clue as to what the word meant, but he could infer that it was
supposed to be a good name to be given to a team or group, given that it was
the name of a team that was the current national leader of some very popular
event.

“Hey guys, check this out,” Ashwin announced, pointing towards his newly
typed out list of the Dream Team players.

“Hmmm…Nice line-up man,” remarked Nikhil. “But I suggest you rather
play Lampard in mid-center and move Ronaldinho up to the CAM position.
Let him feed Messi with his pin-point passes. Lampard can hold the midfield
together alongside Fabregas and Zidane. What the hell… how did you have
the audacity to keep Henry on the bench? Let him play as the second striker.
Adopt a 4-3-1-2 formation. It’s criminal to keep Henry on the bench, do you
know that?”

“Yeah, even I thought so,” he lied.“Seems like you are one true Arsenal
fan!”

“Gooner for life man!”

“Yeah… even I support Arsenal,” Ashwin lied once again.

“Do you? That’s great man. So now I finally have a fellow gooner in my
batch. Thank god for that. I was just sick of people drooling over
Crapchester Urinated so much.”

“I beg your pardon, crapchester??? Urine??? I’m sorry but I didn’t get the
analogy.”

“Oh… that’s just my way of adressing Manchester United. I just HATE the
guys there at Old Trafford? Don’t you?”

“Yeah…sort of.”

“Good. Someone agrees to my point of view for once.”

“Hang on,” said Piyush, who had butted in to check out Ashwin’s version of
the dream football squad. “What’s that name supposed to mean? ‘Joo-ggar-
naoots’ ?”
“That’s supposed to be pronouced as Juh-ger-knots dude. It is a synonym for
invincible,” he guessed.
Well, not a bad try for a first guess I’d say.

“Ooo… man, from where do you get to know all these heavyweight words?
Did your dad make you sit and lick up the dictionary?”

The whole group erupted in laughter at the supposedly funny exclamation.
This sudden collective cachinnation was enough to disturb the teacher’s
sleep. She got up with a start, looking slightly embarrased because she had
dozed off in the class.
“What’s the matter with you boys?” she yelled. “Have you all finished the
task I gave you?”

“No ma’am,” chorused the lot of students.

“Then that means you have absolutely no reason or right to get up from your
seats. Now do your work silently.”

Some of the boys chuckled to themselves. They were well aware that she
was shouting at them just to hide her guilt.

“Yes ma’am,” they said, trying hard to evade a smirk from spreading across
their faces.

Bu the teacher was not convinced, she decided to have a stroll around the
class and check whether the boys were really working on their task of keying
in the ever humdrum clause – ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy little
dog’ with their now torpid fingers, or not.

Ashwin had surreptitiously disposed off his masterpiece compilation of
soccer players out the window (with a heavy heart though), lest he be caught
by the teacher who could then have a proof to lambaste him for not being
sincere.

Satisfied after a few mintues of inspection, she announced that she was
going to the staff room to get new assignments for them. Considering that
the staff room was two blocks away and that she had to descend and then
climb up six flights of stairs on her way back, the students concluded that
the remaining twenty minutes of the period were to be free.
“Man, it would take her twenty minutes just to get to her table,” Piyush had
remarked, trigerring nods of approval from the rest.

All of them agglomerated over one chair and used up the free time to discuss
their plan of bunking the next period. Ashwin was once again caught in a
catch-22 situation, whether to bunk or not. He had Sanskrit in the next
period and was not quite sure whether taking a chance with his new Sanskrit
teacher, Mr. A.K. Pandey was safe enough or not. ‘To hell with it yaar, he
concluded after long thought and made up his mind to finally have a taste of
what bunking actually feeled like. It was high time, according to him, that he
bunked a class. He had seen people bunk four to five out of the eight periods
of a day and still not getting caught. According to his new found friends,
ninety percent of the times, bunking a period came out as clean as a whistle.
Ashwin banked on the statistics and decided to join the group in the next
period.

The bell soon pealed in the corridor outside and as Piyush and the others had
rightly calculated, the teacher was nowhere to be seen. It was only when
they were exiting the room, did one of them see her from the window,
trudging along from the CB block, carrying a bundle of assignments with
her.

“Let’s hurry before she gets back and hands us those assignments,”
exclaimed Ashwin.

“Don’t worry scaredy cat. I could crawl my way all the way to the sports
complex and back and she still wouldn’t have made it to this floor.”

The group cackled once again as Ashwin’s remarks were once again
ridiculed upon, much to his frustration and embarassment. He contemplated
reconsidering his decision to go with them but finally deduced that they
were just having some harmless fun at the cost of his dignity, and which,
according to him, was nothing much to make a fuss over.

He sure was having some serious self-esteem issues.
The Air Conditioned Gym, Sports Complex:

Ashwin’s was trying hard to stay relaxed like the other guys for whom this
was routine. His heart was throbbing violently out of apprehension. His first
hand-on experience with bunking was giving him the jitters as he thought
about the consequences if anything went wrong. Unusually, there had been
no one in the gym so the group had stealthily slipped inside the big room to
get away from the blazing Sun and also stay away from the prying eyes of
any teacher if one would’ve decided to go strolling in the sports complex for
once, though it was highly unlikely. The various P.E. coaches never seemed
to bother as the place had now become a haven for bunking and there were
just too many people at one time in the complex to be able to pin-point a
bunker from amongst the innocent ones. Ashwin and the rest had relied on
that. The huge crowd at the sports complex didn’t betray them.

They stayed there for the whole of the seventh period, trying their hands on
the various exercise machines that were present while enjoying the cool air
from the A.C.

“Check this out people,” Nikhil said, drawing everyone’s attention to a huge
yellow colored inflated ball, about two feet in diameter which had been
tucked in a nook of the room, hidden from everyone’s view before Nikhil’s
eyes had found it.

“Whoa … is this some sort of football for giants to play with?” remarked
Piyush as he kicked it up in the air.

“No yaar. That’s a Gym Ball,” explained Ashwin.

“What, are we supposed to play with it?”

“Not exactly. You sort of lie on it on your back and do stuff.”

“Stuff?”

“Yeah, as in exercise stuff.”

The rest of the boys scoffed. They were really having a nice time jesting
around with him, making him the laughing-stock for the day.
But Ashwin never seemed to mind. All the better for them.

The boys gathered around the newly found ball and quickly divided
themselves into teams of three each.
“What are we doing?” Ashwin wondered aloud.

“Can’t you figure it out, birdie-head,” answered Adarsh. “We are dividing
ourselves into teams so that we can play football dumbo.”

“What! With this?!” Ashwin said, pointing towards the big yellow ball.

“Yeah…you got any problem with that chump?”

“No… I mean…”

“Play or leave,” Adarsh declalred.

“OK man, I’ll play. I was just warning you that these things are made of the
most delicate material and one hard kick would blow it up. We could end up
in trouble you know.”

“Dude…what a moaner you are,” exclaimed Nikhil. “Now stop cribbing and
keep the goal for our team.”

“Goal keeper?! You must be mistaken Nikhil, I play forward.”

“Ohhh…Ashwin, this ain’t no professional match yaar. Now just go and
protect the goal. It is between those two iron rods. You understand?”

“Yeah…,” he replied, in a dreary tone.

“Good, we’ll start the game now.”

And the match got underway from the center of their makeshift football
pitch. Ashwin sucked at the job, conceding five goals in no time while his
team only managed three.
“Told you so,” he aid when Nikhil gave him a scornful look after he missed
a sitter save.
The game went on for twenty minutes when the bell for the last period rang.
It had ended 23-27 to Piyush’s team. While his team celebrated, Nikhil
wasted no time in blaming Ashwin for the loss.
“Did you see it when he missed that grounded shot from Adarsh?” he said to
another of his team members. “Even my kid brother could’ve stopped that
tardy shot with ease!”

Ashwin opted to not answer back, lest he be ridiculed at for saying
something which supposedly would be worthy of another laugh by the rest.
The boys were resting on the cushioned chairs which were lined up on one
end of the room, letting the A.C. cool them down before they went out again,
back to their classes.

“I don’t feel like going back…” said Adarsh.

“Yes, me too. I’d just love to stay here in the A.C.,” agreed Piyush.

“And I’d do anything to miss my Math period,” said Nikhil. “But we can’t
stay here. No class has P.E. in the last period, so we better get moving now.
The Gym incharge would be coming any moment now.”

“Oh…I didn’t know that,” said Piyush. “Why?”

“To lock up the room, stupid.”

“Arrey, I meant why doesn’t any class have P.E. in the last period?”

“You should’ve specified na. I don’t know. Maybe because the students of
the Anubhav Shiksha Kendra∗ are made to stay here till the school empties.
It does take a lot of time to evacuate a school of five thousand odd people
you know.”

“So, let’s go back to class.” suggested Ashwin. “The gym would anyways be
locked now.”


The brainchild of the current principal of D.P.S. R.K. Puram, the Anubhav Shiksha Kendra is
an attempt to ensure community participation in quality education. Housed in the school
building itself, it is an attempt to impart quality education to the under-privileged students
dwelling in the nearby slum areas through afternoon schooling.
The others seemed to disagree with his idea as he was given another of those
disdainful looks as soon as he had uttered the words.

“What? Did I say anything wrong?”

“Do you so desperately want to go back and study Ashwin?” asnswered
Nikhil. “Then why did you ever come with us in the first place?”

“I thought you guys would bunk only the seventh period.”

“Yes, that’s right. We were supposed to bunk only a single period, but now,
since there’s only one period left for school to end, what’s the harm in
bunking this one too? I’m sure no one else here wants to go back to class.”

His assumption was verified by the vehement nods of approval by his
friends.

“See…”

Ashwin had nothing left to say. He was the minority right now, or rather, the
singularity. He didn’t want to be a wet blanket, so decided to go ahead and
bunk the last period as well, inspite of the fact that it was his class teacher’s
and that she was well known to possess a knack of spotting the missing kids
in the class just by having a look around and awarding the severest of
punishments to those found guilty.
‘I’ll handle it. I’ll just make an excuse that I was in the clinic,’ he had
thought before making up his mind to take the risk.

“So where do we go now?” questioned Adarsh. “We can’t stay here.”

“I say, let’s sneak out and go to PPC,” propounded Piyush

“Are you sure?” asked Nikhil. “That would mean going out of school
premises.”

“I know that dumbhead. But it’s prefectly safe guys. We’ll just keep on
walking behind the log row of buses. That would hide us from the guards
stationed at the back gate. It’s just when we reach the front gate area, would
we have to make a dash towards the park overlooking the school, which
would then lead us to PPC, totally under cover. It’s a simple strategy you
know. And the guards at the front gate hardly get out of their guard room in
this oppresive heat. If circumstances remain favourable, we could actually
stroll our way to PPC and no one would notice.”

“Hmmm…” Adarsh pondered over the thought. “I think we can take a
chance. Wotsay people?”

Ashwin was just too shocked to give his opinion. The innocuous Sanskrit
period bunk was taking graver overturns by the minute, much to Ashwin’s
increasing apprehension.

“I say, let’s hit it,” answered Nikhil, enthusiastically.

The group hurriedly exited the gym before they got caught by the gym
trainer, who, judging by his puissance, was not one man you’d want to mess
with. The sports complex had become uncharacteristically void in the
ultimate period of the day. The basketball courts, which were otherwise
bustling with activity, where budding Alan Iversons polished their lay-ups,
had now become hauntingly deserted. The green cricket field had been
covered by a sea of white which were the students of Anubhav Shiksha
Kendra, proudly sitting in their school uniform, patiently waiting for their
more-privileged counterparts to vacant the classrooms for them.

The group walked past the mammoth agglomeration of ASK students,
furtively sneaking out of the sports complex and behind the long row of
buses.
“Everyone just follow me and do as I say,” commanded Piyush.

“Aye aye sir,” replied Adarsh.

The bunch of six seventh graders secretly made their way behind the school
buses towards the front part of the school, skillfully led by General Piyush
Grover. Ashwin completed the entourage at the back, while making sure that
they weren’t spotted from the back by any chance. Getting caught now
would spell doom in capitals for all of them and Ashwin wanted to take
every possible precaution to prevent that from happening.
“Everybody, tuck out your shirts and hide your belts so that the guards don’t
see them,” directed Piyush. “If they see the belts, they’ll be sure that we are
from this school, otherwise, they might just think that we are from the
neighbouring government school.”

“What a silly advice to give Piyush,” Nikhil remarked. “As if, they’re blind
to our uniforms.”

“You had promised to do as I asked you to,” Piyush reminded.

“Yeah… now I regret it.”

The fact that the bonds were also a bit trepidatious at this point, Ashwin was
filled with even more consternation. His feet had seemingly planted
themselves firmly on the ground in fear, forbidding him to move even an
inch, let alone the three hundred metres to the Prince Pan Corner.

“Now how do we go about it?” asked Ashwin, once they had reached the
front gate. The long row of buses had run out and so had their only means of
shielding themselves from the snoopy guards.

“Now, we pray to God and make a dash to that tree you see over there
canopying the entrance to the park, hoping that no one sees us. This is the
make or break part, so be careful. I’ll go first to show you how it should be
done.”

“Oh really…” Adarsh commented. “We’ll surely be dead if we follow your
lead Piyush.”

“OK, do it however you like, but DO NOT GET SEEN.”

“We managed to infer that from our present situation. No need to over-
emphasize.”

“We’ll go individually,” Piyush said. “Can I go first?”

“NO!” the rest objected in unison.

“Ssshhh…keep quiet,” Piyush reminded them. “Relax, OK I won’t go first.”
The amount of time one spent in hiding behind the last bus was directly
proportional to the probability that he would get caught. Once, they entered
the park, they would be relatively much safer. Ashwin, being the most dolt-
like in the group was nominated to go first, lest he bust up something while
waiting behind the bus and get them all in trouble.

“Ashwin,” Piyush commanded. “You go first.”

“What? Me? Are you nuts? My legs were shaking just at the thought of
running across my school’s front gate during school hours and that too in
front of the guards. How can I go first? You are supposed to be the
experienced guys.”

“That’s why we are going after you, idiot.” A short chuckle followed.
Ashwin wasn’t too keen on doing this, especially after the chuckle. It was
the sort of chuckle that would make one feel that something was fishy. His
conscience was yelling at him not to do this, but he didn’t have the comfort
of opting. There was no turning back now. Ashwin surveyed the hundred
metre stretch of road separating him and the tree near the park entrance.
Even if he moved at the pace of Asafa Powell, it would take a maximum of
nine point seven seven seconds for him to cover the distance, enough for the
guard to catch a glimpse of him, if he did come out of his room, which was
not to be according to Piyush.

Relying on his assumptions, Ashwin got in position, took a deep breath and
bolted across the road, not looking anywhere else but the tree in front which
was the most important thing for him right now. It were the longest thirteen
seconds of his life. As he ran, he prayed to the Sun to shine a little more so
that the guards didn’t come out of their den.
The Sun seemed to have obliged as Ashwin successfully reached the other
side of the road, without the guard spotting him. He had never felt more
relieved in his life as he hid himself inside the park, waiting for the others to
follow suit.

Ten minutes past, all the six had succesfully made their ways across the
school gate and were standing by the tree, huffing as they talked about the
ordeal.

“That was shit scary man,” said Adarsh.
“Yeah…” said Piyush who had come last. “I thought I saw one of the guards
come out just as I reached here. But I don’t think they saw me. Their eyes
were too busy gaping at one of the twelfthees with the short skirts.”

“Ha… I thought I was the only noticing them,” confessed Nikhil.

“We’d better move now guys. The stink from the makeshift urinal beside the
tree is killing me.”

“Good idea, let’s go.”

Now that they were out of the line of sight of the guards, they could afford to
mosey over to the Prince Pan Corner, which was a huge relief to everyone’s
back after all the crouching behind the buses.

“Does anyone have money?” enquired Piyush, once they reached the corner.
“Don’t tell me that we’ve come all this way for nothing. Come on people,
empty your wallets.”

“I forgot to bring mine today,” answered Nikhil.

“I exhausted mine in paying for the almanac,” added Adarsh.

“We also don’t have any,” said the other two.

All eyes turned to Ashwin now. “What? Why are you looking at me like
that?” he said. “I won’t spend any more bucks. I’ve already drained out
seventy five percent of my monthly allowance on cokes and patties for you
guys. It’s only the first week of the month, how do you think I’m going to
survive for the rest?”

“Oh Ashwin…stop cribbing. Do you really want to stand here like a fool
after risking your bloody life in actually making it to this place. Don’t you
think we all deserve at least a coke for our bravery?”

Ashwin was once again caught in the dilemma of putting his or his new
found friends’ interest first. Not wanting to be a killjoy, he took out his
wallet and made it lighter by a hundreed rupee note.
“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” exclaimed Piyush. “Thanks a lot
buddy.”

Piyush snatched the currency from Ashwin’s hands and went forward to the
counter to order six cokes for the group.

“That’d be hundred twenty,” informed the shopkeeper as he handed over six
chilled coke bottles.

“Oh… I only have hundred,” said Piyush, accepting the bottles. “I’ll just get
more,” he assured.

“Aswhin, give me twenty bucks more. The bill’s for hundred twenty.”

“You guys are killing me,” he sneered as he handed out two ten rupee notes.
“Now I only have fifty rupees to live with for three whole weeks.”

No one seemed to care about his distress, as long as they were getting free
cokes that is.

As they sipped on from the ‘deserved-of-their-gallantry’ cola bottles, Ashwin
thought of what could be the aftermath of this ordeal if the teachers found
out.

‘Worst case scenario - I get chucked out of this school’, he thought. ‘At the
least – My parents are called and I get a red card.’

“SHIT”, courted both the suppositions.

CHAPTER 4
A BADGE IS MIGHTIER THAN A PHONE CALL

Ashwin waited in trepidation as the Sanskrit teacher gave out the Monday
Test papers to the class. Having bunked most of the Sanskrit periods,
Ashwin had no hope of getting good marks in the test. He had finished it off
in a meagre twenty minutes as compared to the alloted one and a half hours.
This being a mixed section, i.e., one containing students who had opted for
different third languages, namely, French, German or Sanskrit, Ashwin
didn’t have much cheating options too, considering that Arihant, who sat in
front of him in the test and Atulya, who sat behind him had French and
German respectively, as their tertiary language. He had whiled away the
remaining time despising his earlier decisions of bunking the Sansksrit
periods with Umar and Co.

Cursing himself for his casual attitude, he went forward to take his paper
after his name was announced. As he received his answer sheet, Mr. Pandey
looked at Ashwin in his trademark ‘with-spectacles-on-the-nose’ stares.
“Are you a part of this class?” he questioned. No surprise really, bearing in
mind that he was hardly present in his classes

“Yes sir,” Ashwin replied innocently, in a most ‘Why?-is-there-anything-
wrong’ sort of tone, pretending as if he was an angel of virtuosness.

“OK, it’s just that I’ve never seen you around. Well, maybe I just didn’t
notice you.”

“Yes sir,” he replied, agreeing to Mr. Pandey’s hypothesis.

He went back to his second row seat, dysphoric over his score of 31/50 in a
subject that was supposed to be scoring. Rolling his eyes across the class to
see how everyone else was faring in the test, which he could gauge out by
their facial expressions, he spotted Saurav and Sonali still sitting together.

The French and German students had to go to different rooms in the third
language period as obviously, three teachers couldn’t teach three different
subjects to three different set of students in one room.
Therefore, when the other students would leave, the class would became
relatively vacant and empty seats abounded, but for the past few days,
Saurav had decided to keep on sitting with Sonali rather than with him, even
though he was well aware of Ashwin’s inclination towards her.

“Damn him,” one could hear Ashwin curse as he silently resolved never to
call him a friend again.
Mr. A.K. Pandey had finished giving out the papers and with a chalk in hand
and a duster in the other, was getting ready to get on with the lesson when
the supervisor of class seventh, Mrs. Anju Mehra knocked on the door.

“Mr. Pandey,” she called out. “Can I have a few minutes with the class?”

“Yes yes, why not. Please come in,” he replied in a groveling manner,
ushering in the supervisor.

“I think he is harbouring a clandestine love for Mrs. Mehra, don’t you think
so?” Ashwin told Tanya who was sitting in front of him.

“Yeah…seems like it. His body language and sycophant nature towards her
surely connotes it.”

The supervisor walked in and read from a sheet in her hand. “The scholar
badge ceremony will be held on the fourth of September from nine to twelve
in the morning. All those who had secured eighty percent and above in their
previous year’s final result are advised to check the list of the scholar badge
recepients put up outside the headmistress’ office and verify if their names
are present on it or not. There are also special awards for the students who
had a hundred percent attendance record in the previous session and those
who achieved a fifteen percent increase in their final aggregate as compared
to their aggregate in the previous class, which would be class five in your
case. There will be a practice run of the ceremony day after tomorrow and
all the applicable students will have to report to the AVH (audio visual hall)
in the second period. Parent invitations will be given out shortly.”

After thanking the Sanskrit teacher for letting her use his valuable teaching
time, she left, leaving behind a whiff of perfume which Ashwin instantly
identifed as ‘Destiny’ by Marilyn Miglin, a fragrance which his mother used
to apply at some point of time before it was derisioned by Mr. Khanna as
being a carbon copy of the scent of the baby powder that she used for
Ashwin when he was an infant.

“Hey…did she say fourth September?” asked Ashwin.

“Yes. Why? Anything special?” replied Tanya.

“Nothing much. Just that it is my birthday on the following day.”
“Ooohhh…so it’s your birthday on the fifth!”

“Yeah.”

“And what timing too. You’ll be receiving your scholar badge one day
before your birthday itself. How cool is that. By the way, you are getting a
scholar badge aren’t you?”

“Hell yeah. How did you ever think I was not. Got eighty seven percent girl.
That sure qualifies me for the award, doesn’t it?”

“Yes it does. Congratulations. So, we’re in for a double treat, right?”

“Well, I’ll have to think about that.”

“You don’t have to think. Birthdays are synonymous with treats. It’s a
universal law you know – giving a treat on your birthday. And you’ll be
receiving a scholar badge too. That makes it even more obvious that you
have to treat us.”

With the grim financial postion he was currently in, he would only have
enough money to treat three people at the maximum, and then he’d be only
left with dust in his wallet.

“Let’s make a deal. You don’t tell anyone that it’s my birthday on the fifth
and I promise that I’ll give you a treat if you want.”

“Ummm…fine. But I’ll need a double treat if you want me to keep mum.”

Ashwin contemplated about the stipulation and concluded that a double
treat was much better compared to a score of them, or maybe even
more.“OK, you’ll get a double treat, but make sure that no one finds out.”

“Yes, I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Good.”

The teacher had just started with the first shloka of the new lesson when the
bell rang, signalling the end of the period, much to his frustration as he had
planned to complete at least three of the twelve Bhagwad Gita shlokas
present in the chapter.
‘Why do all announcement have to be made in my period only?’ he
wondered as he exited the room.

The French and German students started pouring in the class five minutes
later, legs aching after the arduous three floor hike. In this respect, the
Sanskrit students had the advantage of having their third language room as
their class room itself, saving them from this three floor ascent that the
others had to suffer.

Umar, who had opted for French as his third language, entered after all the
others. “Hey Ashwin,” he called out from the door. “Come out.”

Ashwin followed his orders and went out of the classroom as the History
teacher, who had a knack of reaching late to the class, had characteristically
not arrived yet.

“What’s up?” he said.

“We are bunking this period,” Umar informed. “You want to come?”

The offer was too tempting for Ashwin to refuse. He had once again forgot
to bring his book and thought that he would rather bunk the period than sit in
the class and be admonished incessantly by Mrs. Roy for not getting his
textbook. It was too befitting a proffer to reject, so he went back inside the
class and took his bag.

“Tell Mrs. Roy that I have been called by the class teacher. But tell her only
if she asks. OK?” Ashwin told Mahima.

“OK, but where are you going?”

“I told you that I’m going to the class teacher.”

“C’mon Ashwin. I know you aren’t going there. You can at least tell me the
truth.”
‘Now what makes her claim that I can atleast tell HER the truth?’ Ashwin
thought as he chose not to answer her question and ran back to the door
where Umar and his friends were waiting.

“Let’s go,” he said to the waiting assemblage of bunkers.

They were making their way down the stairs when Ashwin noticed the
familiar figure of Mrs. Roy climbing up the stairs from the ground floor. He
warned the group at once to stop.
“What do we do now? She’s coming up.”

Umar thought quickly and led them to the boys toilet on the second floor.
“She sure won’t come in here,” he remarked, effectuating loud guffaws from
the rest.
After a few minutes, Adarsh peeped outside to check whether the coast was
clear for them or not.
“Holy cow! She has reached this floor now!” he remarked, as he saw the
teacher climbing up the flight of stairs from the second to the third floor.
“Whoa… I got a nice rhyming scheme going there. Guess I might have an
alternate profession as a poet!”

“That’s why she’s always late for the class,” commented Ashwin.

“Wish even we had such a teacher,” said Nikhil, getting a nod of approval
from Adarsh, who was in the same section.

“OK, she’s gone now,” he informed after a few minutes as Mrs. Roy
disappeared round the bend between the two flights of stairs. “The coast is
clear. Let’s go.”

The troop emerged out of the boy’s loo, slamming the door behind them as
they left. The noise echoed throughout the corridor and into the nearby
classrooms. Fearing that they would get noticed and cursing Adarsh who had
done this foolish act, they darted down the stairs.

“You fool, why did you do that?” reprimanded Nikhil as they safely reached
the ground floor.

“I’m sorry. I did not anticipate that it would make so much noise…
Wretched door.”
“So, where today?” questioned Umar. “I’m bored at sports complex.”

“I agree man, let’s go somewhere else.”

“I say let’s go the football field. There are some swings neatly tucked away
in the far corner of the field. Don’t know if you all have actually observed it
or not. We can pass time there.”

“Yeah, I know that place. Nice idea. Let’s go there,” agreed Adarsh.

Ashwin didn’t like the idea though. He wasn’t too keen to go see-sawing or
sliding in that small play area which had been built for the children in the
elementary wing of the Anubhav Shiksha Kendra.
“Guys, does anyone of you have the history textbook?” he enquired.

“Yes, I do.” answered Umar. “Why do you need it?”

“I have not brought mine and I am not too inclined towards going to the
place you guys are talking about so I’ll go back to the class. You guys carry
on.”

“Why? We can go somewhere else if you want.”

“Let it be Umar,” said Nikhil, butting in. “If he wants to go back, let him.
Just give him the book.”

Umar obeyed and handed out his history book to Ashwin. “Are you sure?”
he tried to confirm once again.

“Yes dude. Don’t worry. You all carry on to the swings. I’ll make up an
excuse for you if the teacher asks.”

“OK, as you like it. Bye.”
”See you,” he said and and left the group, making his way back to D-block,
with a feeling of doing the ‘right thing’ prevailing inside him. “I made the
correct decision,” he muttered to himself as he walked back. “The Social
Studies Monday Test is around the corner and I don’t want to screw it up.”
A sense of pride filled him at having overcome the temptation of bunking
the period and going back to the class to study instead, as he began the long
ascent to the third floor.

He asked for permission from the door to enter the class. “May I come in
ma’am?”

“Come in,” the teacher said, not looking up from her book. Ashwin was
surprised that she didn’t question his late entry into the class, but just as he
was sitting down, Mrs. Roy seemed to have suddenly got her wits about and
ordered Ashwin to remain standing.

“Can you please explain why you’re late to the class?”

“Ma’am, the class teacher had called me,” he lied.

“Did she? For what?”

“For…er…giving me the parent invitations for the scholar badge ceremony.”

“Oh I see. Go si…” but before Mrs. Roy could finish her sentence and allow
Ashwin to take his seat, their class teacher strode into the room.

“Sorry to disturb you Kiran. I just need to give out these invitations to the
students. Or, I’ll give them to the monitor and they can distribute them
later.” She handed over the thirty five odd invitations to Manvi who was
sitting on the front seat, “Distribute it later. The names are written on the
envelope,” she commanded.

“Yes ma’am,” Manvi consented.

“MEENA,” the history teacher called out to Mrs. Chandra just as she was
about to leave. “Please come here for a second.”

“Yes, what is it Kiran?” she said walking towards her.

“Well, this boy of your class just walked in and when questioned about his
late arrival, claims that he had been with you for the past fifteen minutes
since the period has commenced. Is it true?”
“NO, I had been sitting in the library for the past fifteen minutes and he
never came to me. ASHWIN…” she pronounced, in a louder voice, now
looking towards him. “Where were you?”

‘Oohh…so she finally remembers my name.’ Ashwin thought as she stared at
her with glowering eyes. But this was no time to praise the teacher’s
memory skills, it was a time to be afraid, to be very afraid (if you will
pardon me the copyrights of the movie, “The Fly” from where the ‘to-be-
afraid’ lines are taken).

“Ma’am…ummm…I was just coming… I had gone to the toilet,” he lied.

“Do you take fifteen minutes in the toilet?”

“No ma’am… I mean yes ma’am…I mean…” he stammered, trying to think
of a way out of this mess.

“I very well know what you were upto. I have spent fifteen years in this
school you know and have witnessed many cases like this one. Don’t try to
act smart. Now, let us hear the truth from your mouth.”

‘Damn it. I should’ve never come back. These teachers just don’t value
honesty nowadays. I would’ve been better of bunking man,’ he thought as
prepared himself to reveal the factuality to the teachers. He had no other
option really.

“Ma’am, it’s not how you think. I was thinking of missing (which was an
appropriate euphemism for bunking in the present situation) this period, but I
changed my mind and came back. I mean, you see it from my perspective,
why would I ever come back in the middle of the period if I had to actually
bunk it. My conscience ordered me to return and so I did.”

“Do you think I will believe that little fairy tale of yours?” 7

“Ma’am! But this is the truth!” he argued. He also considered naming the
other three with whom he was supposed to go bunking to make his case
stronger, but decided against it as realised that doing that would inevitably
create a feeling of hostility among the guys towards him. He sure didn’t
want to get into trouble with the bonds of the batch.
“Oohh… just shut up! Meena, take him to the headmistress,” Mrs. Roy
suggested.

‘What the hell is wrong with them? So much for teacher chauvinism!’

“Yes, I will. He sure needs to learn a lesson. A strict one that too,” assented
Mrs. Chandra.

“Ma’am please! Why don’t you believe me? Please don’t take me to the
headmistress! I promise that this won’t happen again! Please ma’am.”

“Shut your mouth and follow me,” the teacher said as she led him down the
stairs to the headmistress’ office on the ground floor. Ashwin tried his best to
plead with the teacher to let him go but to no avail. She just wouldn’t budge
from her stand. Ashwin was having a very eager feeling to punch his class
teacher hard in the face, but he somehow resisted the allure.

Once having reached outside the headmistress, Mrs. Kumar’s office, who
was lovingly referred to as Kammu by the students, Mrs. Chandra asked
Ashwin to wait outside as she went inside to check whether Kammu was free
or not. Ashwin could do nothing but wait in anxiety as he listened to the
faint voices of the teachers echo out of the room. He was sure that his class
teacher would needlessly be flaring up the situation against him to ensure
that he got the severest of punishments.

‘So much for a mere fifteen minutes man! Bunking two periods and
sneaking out to PPC suddenly seem so much safer.’

He was interrupted in his thoughts when Mrs. Kumar’s voice commanded
him to enter the room. Heart in mouth, he went in.

He had never been inside the headmistress’ room earlier. As he entered, he
observed that it was fairly spacious, fully equipped with a Personal
Computer, a one point five ton window A.C., a sofa for visitors and a small
refrigerator in the corner. Mrs. Kumar sat behind a wide table on which
rested attendance registers of all the sections of sixth and seventh, a
multipurpose stand, a few magazines and tucked away in a corner was a pile
of ready to to-be-handed-out red cards. Ashwin quickly turned his eyes away
from that spot fearing that he would soon be a recipient. Just the sight of
them gave him goosebumps.
“What’s your name child?” she asked in a most condoscending tone.

“Ma’am…Ashwin Khanna.”

“So Ashwin, your class teacher tells me that you were bunking your History
period. Is she correct?”

“Ma’am…no…I mean yes… I mean, not really.”

“How can you ‘not really’ bunk a period? Please explain.”

“Ma’am, I did initially decide to give the History period a miss, but I came
back after about ten minutes.”
“Fifteen minutes,” corrected Mrs. Roy.

“Yes maybe, but my conscience told me not to do it, so I returned. Does this
entitle a punishment for me?”

“Well, you did try to bunk the period, and in that case, I’m afraid you’ll have
to be penalised.”

‘BLOODY HELL, What’s got into these people? What do they mean by I
TRIED to bunk the period? Bah…’

“Please ma’am. I am sorry for trying to bunk. I pledge that it won’t happen
again.”

“OK, since this is your first time, I am pardoning you of a red card, but I’m
afraid your parents will have be called up right now and be told about your
act.”

Ashwin didn’t know whether this was a justified or a harsh punishment for
his missing fifteen minutes of the class, so he didn’t object, just hoped that
the scholar badge inviation that he would present to his parents today would
have a dilutive effect on their anger.

“OK, go back to your class now. Your class teacher will call up your parents.
You have their mobile numbers, right Meena?”
“Yes I do, it’s in the attendance register,” confirmed Mrs. Chandra.

Ashwin left the room with ambivalent feelings, happy that he had avoided
the red card but dejected that his parents would be apprised of his
wrongdoing.

“Now don’t go strolling anywhere else. Return straight back to the class,”
reminded Mrs. Roy.

Ashwin never had a more overpowering urge to hurt anyone before Mrs.
Roy uttered her last few words. He was feeling an overwhelming exhortation
of walking up to her right now and just knock her out. But he resisted it and
quickly exited the room, fearing that the urge will soon overpower him.

He couldn’t study for the rest of the day as he was feeling too apprehensive
as to what was in store for him once he reached home. When he told Umar
and others later in the day about the incidence, they couldn’t stop laughing
their heads off. He couldn’t really blame them for their insensitiveness as
they hee-hawed at his misery, given that they, inspite of bunking the whole
period, still roamed about scot-free as compared to Ashwin whose life would
be at risk once he reached home.

Whoever claimed that Excess of anything is bad !!!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*******~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The AVH was majestically decorated with flowers and other ornamental
stuff. A huge banner reading – ‘Welcome to the Scholar Badge Ceremony of
Class VII’ had been put up over the entrance gate of the school and
numerous DPS Society flags were lined up on either side of the path leading
up to the AVH. A display board, enlisting the grade toppers in each subject
stood beside the door of the hall. One could even see Ashwin’s name in the
list. There it was, the name – ASHWIN KHANNA, neatly calligraphed
under the Computer Toppers column. He had secured hundred percent marks
in computers in the previous session if you remember.

Nearby, a couple of students stood in rapt attention, ushering in parents as
they arrived. The whole ambience was one of festivity and joy.
All the award winning students were made to sit in order, in different rooms,
downstairs in the E-Block. As the ceremony would begin with the usual
never-ending-chief-guest speeches and cultural programmes which would
precede the actual award giving part, the students were conveniently stuffed
into rooms and would be made to line up only when the actual award giving
procedure commenced.

Ashwin was getting mightily bored sitting in the class for an hour now.
Neither did any one in the class seem to know each other nor did anyone try
to make an effort to develop some rapport with anyone else. The only
ocaasional diversion from staring at the black board was the sound of the
hovering bees who would occasionaly digress into the classroom from the
hive nearby.
Every now and then, a teacher would come and promise them that their turn
was about to come in ten minutes, but those ten minutes never seemed to
end. Actually, an hour had passed in those numerous ten minute promises.

Finally, after what seemed to have been an eternity, a teacher ordered the
class to line up outside the class in the same order as they had rehearsed
earlier in the practice runs.
“I want no mix-ups on the stage,” she said. “So make sure you are standing
behind the right person.”

The students re-checked the faces of the persons in front of them to ensure
that they were at the right place. The teacher didn’t seem to trust them as she
again manually checked the line herself, verifying the positions from the list
she had in her hand. “OK, let’s move now,” she said, once she was confident
that everything was in place and led them up the stairs and into the green
room. They were made to wait there for a few minutes before being led
backstage.

“OK,” said the backstage incharge. “Go as your names are called out and
exit from the other end. You all remember the rehearsals don’t you?”
“Yes sir,” the students chorused.

“Sshhhh….Ssshhh… keep quiet. Don’t you know we are backstage? Even a
pin drop can be heard outside. Now go take your positions in the wings.”

The students obediently lined up near the wings, led by Shourya who had
topped in almost everything, thus being the leader of the line. The students
in the line were placed according to the decreasing order of their
percentages. Ashwin was somewhere in the middle, with Saurav a few
places ahead of him and more importantly, Sonali, was way behind him.

Ashwin’s parents had managed to acquire a seat in the second row as they
had reached at least fifty minutes before time. They sure didn’t want to miss
their son’s first scholar badge ceremony. As earlier prophesied by Ashwin,
their anger at their son’s bunking ordeal had diluted down a bit when he had
shown them the scholar badge ceremony invitation, actually, the choler had
completely worn off as they learnt that their child was receiving a scholar
badge in his first year itself in DPS RK Puram. In addition to this, their
happiness and pride had known no bounds when they saw the hallowed
Topper’s List outside the AVH and found Ashwin’s name on it.
They sat there, smiling ear to ear, clapping as hard as they could as Ashwin’s
name was announced.

“Next up, please give a round of applause to ASHWIN KHANNA who
secured an aggregate of eighty seven point two percent in class sixth and is
also one of the Computer toppers of the grade, securing cent percent marks
in the subject. Congratulations Ashwin.”

“That’s my boy,” exclaimed Mr. Khanna, as he captured the moment with
his camera.

Ashwin stood center-stage and accepted the award with glee from the chief
guest. “Well done,” congratulated the chief guest, whom Ashwin didn’t
recognise.
Who cared about him anyway, as long he gives the awards.
With a modest “Thank you,” he exited the stage from the other side as was
told.
As he entered back-stage, he saw Sonali give him a thumbs up from the
distance. He mouthed another “Thank you”, this time, to her. He found
Saurav waiting inside the green-room as he entered.

“Hey Ashwin,” he called out. “Congratulations man.”

“Thanks,” he replied in a most irritated tone. “Who are you waiting for?”

“Oh… nothing. I was just waiting for someone with whom I could return to
class with.”

“Come with me then. I am also going to the class.”

“Ummm…no… I think I’ll just stay here for a while. I want to meet my
parents. They might come here looking for me you know,” he lied. His
parents were not part of the audience as they had gone out of the city for
some relative’s marriage ceremony. You would’ve figured out by now that
he was waiting for Sonali and lied because he didn’t want Ashwin as his
company.

“Fine. I am leaving then,” Ashwin said.

“OK, bye,” he replied, relieved that he had got rid of him.

Ashwin knew that all that Saurav was claiming was apocryphal. He had
heard him specify to the class teacher that his parents would not be able to
come to the function when she was handing out the invitaions to the class,
but he didn’t want to create an uproar over there so he left peacefully.

“Bloody dog,” he muttered as he walked back to his class. It was break
already and he remembered that he had to double treat someone in order to
keep a vital piece of information secret. He detoured his way to the OAT
where she would be waiting as earlier decided.

Later that day, Ashwin’s parents visited his class during the Physics period.
The teacher was busy labeling a diagram of the microscope on the board
when she noticed Mr. and Mrs. Khanna standing at the door.
“We are Ashwin’s parents,” Mrs. Khanna informed as the Physics teacher
walked upto them.

“Oohh… so you must have come for his Scholar Badge ceremony.”

“Yes yes. Umm… can we have a word with him if you don’t mind?”

“Certainly. No problem. He’s your kid after all.”

All the three laughed at the supposedly funny exclamation.

“ASHWIN,” the teacher called out in the class. “Please come here.”

Ashwin saw his mom and dad standing at the door when he heard his name
being called out. It didn’t surprise him really that they had come visiting his
classroom. They always did, much to his embarrassment.

“Hello Ashwin,” his dad said as Ashwin emerged out of the classroom.

“We’ll be done in five minutes,” assured Mrs. Khanna to the teacher.

“Yes yes, no problem at all. Take your time,” said the teacher. “You can
cuddle him, hug him, for as long as you like, after all he’s got a scholar
badge today.”

The trio laughed again at yet another supposedly funny exclamation.

Ashwin had never felt more embarrassed ever in his life.

‘Cuddle me? Hug me? Give me a break man. I ain’t no teddy bear.’

To his chagrin, his parents did exactly the same once the teacher left and
closed the door behind her.

‘Thank God she did that.’
CHAPTER 5
CARNIVAL CATASTROPHE
The sky wore a pink glow, which was really a rarity in the polluted
atmosphere of a city like Delhi, and the Sun was just emerging out from
behind the buildings in the distance. Ashwin sat in the car, waiting for his
bus to arrive. He checked his watch, it was already six five a.m. and still
there was no sign of the school bus. His transport was getting unusually late
today.

“Dad, I think we missed the bus,” said Ashwin. “It must’ve come too early,
there’s no point waiting more as it is already five minutes past six. I suggest
we go back home.”

“I suggest you keep your suggestions to yourself,” his father said. “It’s only
five minutes past the normal arrival time of the bus. Don’t try to act smart
with me, I very well know why you’re saying this.”

“No dad, I am sure that the bus left before us. It’s never been this late.”

“There’s always a first time for everything, and even if the bus doesn’t turn
up or if it has already gone, I will make sure that I drop you to R.K. Puram.”

Ashwin threw up his hands in despair. No one coud ever argue with his
father. “Bah,” he thought. “So much for a mere day of school. I just hope the
bus never arrives. Its certain that dad won’t fancy a seventeen kilometre
drive to the school early in the morning. He’s just making up the I’ll-drive-
you-to-the-school part so that I’m compelled to wait for the bus.”

As if on cue, the bus soon rolled into the bus stop, skidding to a halt and just
narrowly avoiding overruning on to the pavement.

“Whoa… seems like your bus driver is in quite a hurry,” Mr. Khanna
remarked as Ashwin got out of the car, slamming the door behind him to
express his discontentment at not being allowed to miss the day of school.

It was a different bus today. A bit smaller and narrower than the earlier one.
Ashwin anyways occupied his favourite seat behind the driver, put his bag in
the overhead rack and was just about to rest his head on the window to sleep
when one of the seniors from the last seat came and sat with him.

“Oye,” he called out ot him. “What’s your name kid?”
“Ashwin Khanna.”

“OK Mr. Khanna, please come with me. My friends at the last seat want to
meet you.”

“Meet me? Why?”

“Oooohhhh… you just take your bag and come. You’ll soon find out”

Ashwin did the same, fearing that any more delays and he would just drag
him along with him. “Just one minute,” he said as struggled to get the bag
down because of his short height.

“Leave it, I’ll do it for you.”

“Thanks.”

The senior got the bag down in a jiffy, though he couldn’t care less about
how he did it, pulling at the straps with all his might, so much so that
Ashwin was surprised that all was intact in his bag as it landed with a thud
on the seat below.

“OK, now follow me,” he commanded.

Ashwin obeyed his order and followed him to the last seat. On the way, he
looked askance at the seat on which the bus-teacher usually sat. It was
empty. Ashwin accurately predicted that his brief stay with the guys on the
last seat wasn’t going to be much fun. ‘No teacher, a bunch full of seniors
and an innocent little seventhee. My gut feeling tells me this is not going to
be pretty .’

You’ve got a nice intuition Ashwin I must say, because you are bang on
correct.

“Oye bacche, stand straight,” ordered a twelfthee sitting in the corner seat
beside the window. “Don’t move until we say so.”

Ashwin obeyed, trying hard not to flinch. “What do you guys want?”

“I want Angelina Jolie,” someone said. “Can you get her for me?”
The whole group erupted in laughter. “I’ve been trying for weeks now, but
she just doesn’t bloody pick up my phone. You have to help me man.”

“Please let me go. Why are you troubling me?” Ashwin pleaded, amidst
another burst of cackling by the seniors. “Please…” he repeated, his voice
more audible this time.

“Arrey, we aren’t troubling you, are we? That poor guy is just expressing his
angst and asking you to help him. Is there anything wrong in helping? We
are very sweet people you know, you’re getting us wrong.”

“Yeah…” agreed the rest, nodding their heads in approval.

“See…”

“I’m sorry but I cannot get Angelina Jolie for you,” Ashwin said. “Now can I
leave.”

“SHUT UP,” shouted the Angelina Jolie lover. “If you can’t get her for me
then you cannot go from here.” He took out a cellphone from his pocket and
handed it to him.

“Here, I’ll tell you the number. Talk to her right now and convince her that
I’m her true lover and not that bloody pig faced Brad Pitt chump.”

Ashwin fiddled with the Nokia phone before stupidly asking, “I don’t think
cellphones are allowed in the school.” And he handed it back to him.

“You stupid piece of shit. No one has asked you to recite school regulations
over here. Yes, I have bought a cellphone even though it is not allowed, so?
What will you do? Complain to the principal? Tell my class teacher? Go
ahead, do whatever you want, just that you won’t be able to walk or talk
after you do that coz I’ll make sure that your shitty legs are broken and your
big tongue is ripped off from your mouth if I get into trouble because of
you.”

Ashwin trembled at the image of his crippled body that the boy had so
vividly explained and invoked in his mind.
He mustered a “Sorry” in a whimper of a voice. “Please, I did not mean what
I said. I am so sorry if it offended you.”

“It sure the hell did. What is your name?”

Ashwin contemplated whether he should answer the question correctly or
not. He decided not to take a chance.

“Ashwin Khanna,” he replied.

“Which class?”

“Seventh G.”

“You’d better watch out boy. You got to show some more respect towards
your seniors you know, that is for your own good.”

“Yes, I understand. Sorry for having offended you.”

“OK. I forgive you this time, but remember, in D.P.S. R.K. Puram, you only
live once, not twice as cliched by Mr. James Bond.”

“OK, I’ll remember that.”

He turned around to return to his seat and had barely taken a few steps when
he was asked to stop and return.

“How dare you leave without our permission?” they yelled.

“I’m sorry, I thought you were done with me.”

“What made you think that way? I guess the respect-for-your-seniors
principle would just have to be beaten into you, you sure didn’t seem to get
it the verbal way.”

“No no, please. I do respect all you guys. Please don’t beat me up. I’m sorry
I left without asking you.”

“OK, now you’ll have to do something for us as a punishment?”
“What?” he asked, in a quivering voice, preparing himself for the worst.

On cue, the boy with the cellphone put the song Chhaiya Chhaiya on his
cellphone loudspeaker. “I’ll tell you what you have to do,” he said, placing
the cellphone in the middle so that the melody was audible to all. “Dance.”

“What?! Dance?!” Ashwin replied, in horror.

“Yes kid. Dance on this song. As you know. the Children’s Day Carnival is
also coming up in a few days time, so this will also give you some practice
for the big day when you’ll be dancing around with girls you know. And this
is quite a good track, so don’t complain about my choice otherwise I’ll make
you dance to Jagjit Singh.”

“Dude, you even keep ghazals in your phone?!” exclaimed one of his
friends, surprised at his unusual taste. “I won’t put a ghazal in my cellphone
even if I have thousands of GBs of free space in my memory card. I’d rather
put speeches by Yoga experts or something man.”

“Never mind,” he replied, clearly embarrassed at having unintentionally
made the revelation. “OK Ashwin,” he said, trying to divert everyone’s
attention, “The song’s reached its crescendo. Show us your moves and then
you can go back to your seat. ”

Ashwin couldn’t believe that he was actually dancing in front of this good
for nothing arrogant bunch of twelfthees, but he had no other choice but to
do it to in order to save himself from the pain that would be afflicted upon
him if he chose not to.

He began with some hip-hop hand movements, ones that he had seen
Eminem do in one of his live concerts.

“This is not a rap song you fool,” reminded one of the seniors. “Show us
some desi moves.”

“Yeah… the ones Sunny Deol does.”

A chuckle followed.

“Exactly. But Bobby Deol will also do, or maybe even Dharmendra!”
The chuckle grew to a loud burst of cachinnation.

“See… we gave you so many options to choose from.”

‘Yeah, as if they help,’ he muttered to himself.

The song once again reached its chorus and Ashwin continued with his
dance, now resorting to some real bollywood steps to please the crowd.

“Yeah…that’s more like it boy. Keep moving your body till the song finishes
and then you’ll be a free bird.”

Ashwin did as they told and exhibited an ensemble of characteristic filmy
moves as the seniors whistled and clapped. After about three minutes of pure
torture, the voice of the playback singer finally faded away. Ashwin heaved
a huge sigh of relief as the song ended.

“There you go,” he said. “I danced on the whole song as you wished.”

“Yes… well done. You were a true copy of Mithun Chakravarty. In fact,
your face has a striking resemblance to his face.”
The statement once again triggered a burst of laughter from the rest.

“Thank you so much,” Aswhin replied, not sure as to how to react to the
statement.

“OK, you can go now. We’ll call you again sometime later if we want to see
another dance performance.”

Ashwin decided not reply to the comment said and rushed back to his seat,
relieved that his first encounter with ragging in this school was finally over.
He opened the window to get some fresh air in his lungs and to let the wind
dry up the sweat that had been effectuated after the frightening ordeal at the
back seat.

When the bus docked at the usual place, almost a mile away from the school
gates, Ashwin made sure that he stayed behind the last-seat gang to avoid
any further embarrassing dance performances.
He stealthily made his way towards the gates, ensuring after every ten
seconds that he was out of the line of sight of the seniors.

He soon reached the safety of the D-Block corridors. He moved around his
eyes to observe that posters were put up on every pillar and wall,
proclaiming the date, time and venue of the Children’s Day Carnival.

‘EXPERIENCE ENJOYMENT TO THE HILT’ – read one of the beautifully
painted billboards put up beside the photocopy room on the first floor. All
the other details were neatly inscribed in the paint below.

“Food stalls, game stalls and a D.J. too!” Ashwin said to himself, a feeling of
excitement growing within him. “Freaking great! And we can come in
casuals too!”

He ran up the remaining four flights of stairs brimming with enthusiasm,
eager to break the news to all the students in the class.

“Hey guys!” he shouted as he entered the room. “Did you see the notices?
The date of the carnival is out. It’s day after tomorrow!”

Ashwin had expected more of an ecstatic response to the announcement.

“We know that Ashwin,” said Arihant, “The posters are just all over the
place. One can hardly miss seeing them!”

“OK yeah. I forgot to take that into account. But, isn’t it GREAT? I mean,
after all the months of drudgery – exams, Monday tests etcetera, we finally
have something better to look after to, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, that’s true,” said Farhan. “But I wish they get a better D.J. this time.
Last year’s was such a disappoinment man.”

“I agree,” consented Arihant. “They should try and provide some better
music this year. An increase in the number of food stalls would also be
goooood.”

“Well, this is going to be my first carnival, and things better be top class this
time around. I don’t like mediocre stuff you know,” said Ashwin.
“Uh huh??!! Now I wouldn’t mind a crap D.J.”

“You’d better not wish for that. You all had to compromise on quality last
year, just because I was not present last time around you know. But now that
I am also coming, you can rest assured that the music will be fabulous this
time.”

“OK Mr. Blue Bood Khanna, we take your word, and by the way, would you
mind moving your august butt out of the way, so that our class teacher can
pass through.”

Ashwin turned to see Mrs. Chandra silently waiting behind him with a smile
on her face. “Oh…sorry ma’am,” he apologised and cleared the way to let
her move forward.

“Thank you so much Mr. Khanna, or should I say, your royal highness?”

The class broke into giggles. Ashwin cursed at his misfortune which always
seeemed to emerge out of nowhere and that too at the worst possible time.

He just prayed that it did not raise its ugly head on D-Day, or C-Day rather.

The highly anticipated day dawned and one could see Ashwin get up from
his bed at five o clock itself, around fourty minutes before his usual alarm
bell rang. In fact, he had hardly slept the previous night. An overflow of the
excitement hormones in his body by his central nervous system had kept him
awake all night. Wanting to look his best for the day, he got to grooming
himself one hour before the scheduled arrival time of the bus.

He took out his favourite pair of jeans from the cupboard and teamed it up
with a black full sleeved Numero Uno T-Shirt that he his mother had bought
for him on his birthday. He also thought of sporting a cap to compliment the
outfit, but then changed his mind, thinking that it would become too flashy.

After he was done with his attire, he checked the watch. “It’s only five thirty
right now. I have enough time,” he concluded and entered the bathroom. He
opened the small cabinet above the basin to reveal a brand new tube of
Brylcreem Wet Look gel. He had asked for Umar’s opinion regarding which
gel should he use to get the same spiky style that he flaunted. “Buy
Brylcreems wet looks gel,” pat had come the reply in his characteristic
grammaticaly incorrect manner.

He squeezed out some of the blue jelly like hair style maneuverer onto his
palms. “But how do we apply it?” he asked himself as he tried to think of the
obvious ways. Ultimately, he resorted to the directions printed on the tube to
learn it the right way.

Take some of the Brylcreem Wet Look Gel on to your palms and apply it to
towel dried hair using your fingers. Create your own desied style and leave
it to dry naturally – it read.

“Ah…so I was right. The method is very obvious,” he said.

After spiking up his hair to an ‘Umar-like’ style, he took out his pair of
Reebok sneakers and wore it with white Adidas socks.

Shit, it just struck me – the hell amount of campaigning that I did for these
brands in the above few lines! Well, I might as well claim some cash in
return!

Anyways, Ashwin was all decked up now, fifteen minutes before time today
– he sure didn’t want to take a chance you see. He was looking no more like
Casanova himself, and well, would at least try to live up to his look’s
reputation, keeping in mind all the pretty females that would abound,
including that special one.

The usual sea of white that one could witness early in the morning flowing
towards the school gates had turned vividly colorful. It was as if someone
had actually splashed different shades all over the whole school as the place
resembled a vibrant exhibit of a richly hued ocean of students.
The football field and he path leading up to it had been adorned with
balloons and streamers. A huge platform had been erected at the center of the
field from where the D.J. would play out all the popular songs. Huge
speakers stood majestically at its four corners, ready to blare out the music
at hundreds of decibels. Numerous games and food stalls dotted the
periphery of the field, ready to cash in on the occasion.
Ashwin walked along to his class, absorbing the joyous and festive
ambience that prevailed all over the school. This is one day when the
students literally take over the school and the teachers play second fiddle.

Everyone in the class looked a stark contrast to their usual uniform look.
Ashwin had never imagined that even Pallavi could look decent enough
when not in uniform. Not that he was criticizing the uniform, but that the
students could be seen in a whole new avatar altogether when they donned
their casual apparel as compared to the same old monotonous uniform.

“Hey Ashwin!” Farhan called out from the far end of the class, “Looking
good man.”

“Thanks…” he replied. “You too.”

He nodded his head to acknowledge his comment.

Mrs. Chandra soon walked into the class. She wore a bright red colored suit
as opposed to the sari which was the norm on regular days.

“Good morning children!” she said. “Wishing everyone a very very happy
children’s day!”

‘THANK YOU MA’AM,” chorused the class in reply.

“OK, I’ll take your attendance right now and then we will go to the field as
soon as the announcements are made.”

She began with her usual duty of marking the attendance. Ideally, the class
should have had a full attendance on this day, but students like Shourya had
preferred to sit at home and study for the upcoming Science Monday test
than attend a supposedly boring and useless carnival.

After about half an hour of waiting, the headmistress’ voice boomed out of
the P.A. speaker. “Class seventh, sections A to G, please move to the
assembly ground. G to L to follow after ten minutes.”

“OK children, please line up outside the door,” announced the class teacher.
They were led to the assembly ground where a short formal function would
be held before the actual party started. The whole school was lined up in
front of the stage, eagerly waiting for the function to start. Not because they
were looking forward to it but because of the fact that the sooner it started,
the sooner it would end, and the sooner would they be able to enter the field.

The principal walked up to the stage after a few minutes and addressed the
assembly. Short speeches by the head boy and head girl followed. Finally,
after a performance by the school choir, the gates to the football field opened
and the Children’s Day Carnival officialy got underway.

There was a huge wave of students as every child made a beeline for the
entrance to the carnival area. At that precise moment, the D.J. started his job
and blared out the first song through the speakers which only catalysed the
impatience of the children to enter the place. It was astonishing how a major
stampede was averted when thousands of kids agog with excitement
squeezed through the narrow gates.

Aswhin and his classmates were lucky not to have been separated in the
crowd as they tried to get into the field together.

“Hold each other’s hands,” Farhan had ordered when they got caught in the
maddening rush.

The five of them – Arihant, Atulya, Farhan, a boy from another section
called Gaurav and Ashwin, had decided to stick together during the carnival.
They would club their money and then ultimately splurge them over food
and games. Saurav had mysteriously turned down their offer to come with
them and had opted to be with Sonali and her gang of girls instead.
Well, his deciosion was not so mysterious to Ashwin though. He knew this
would happen.

“Care for a pizza guys?” Gaurav asked, pointing towards the Domino’s
Pizza stall. “They have a special offer going – one fifty bucks for two
regular non veg pizzas. Wotsay?”

“Yeah…Pizza’s fine with me,” replied Farhan.

“Yes, let’s have a pizza. We’ll all chip in the money,” replied Arihant who
had a penchant for anything Italian. According to him, he had travelled to
every nook and cranny of the country. And the most awesome experience he
had there – watching a classic derby match between AC Milan and Inter
Milan. Yeah… how I wish I was him that day.

“Ashwin!” Arihant called out to him to grab his attention which had wavered
off to where Saurav was standing with Sonali and her friends. ‘May his soul
burn in hell’ he had muttered to himself after witnessing the envy-inducing
sight. “Is pizza OK with you?”

“Huh…” he replied trying to focus on Arihant’s query. “Yes yes… it’s fine
with me.”

“OK, we’ll get two non-veg regular pizzas. Everybody, shelve out thirty
bucks from your wallets please.”

Everyone obediently handed over thirty rupees each to Arihant who had
valiantly nominated himself to bisect his way through the frenzy in front of
the pizza stall and get two pizzas for the group. That was quite a task you
see.
“Don’t crush our pizzas!” the others had yelled out to him as he started the
treacherous journey to the cash counter of the stall. They couldn’t care less
about his well being as it was more likely that he would get crushed amidst
the throng of students than the pizza.

After a few minutes, the four watched in amazement as Arihant emerged out
of the crowd, unscathed. But more importantly, the pizza was intact.

“Great job Arihant!” said Ashwin.

“Anything for a pizza!” he replied.

Each of them took one of the eight slices each and gorged on it. After that,
three slices remained, but incongruously, there were five claimants for it.

“Let me sort this out,” said Arihant. “As I went into that maddening horde of
people and actually got the pizzas for you all, I get one whole slice and you
four can take half a slice each. I think that’s fair enough.”

“Well... OK,” reluctantly agreed the rest. “I think you deserve at least that
much for putting your life at risk by going in there,” said Farhan.
After cloying their tummies with pizza, they decided to hit the dance floor.

They meandered their way through the dancing crowd and searched for a
spot to spread out and dance which, as expected, proved to be a very
difficult task. There was hardly any space where one could dance without
being pushed and shoved about given that most of the seniors didn’t really
care about practising their wild dance moves often to the annoyance of the
ones nearby.

“There’s some space over there,” said Gaurav, indicating to a clearing which
was hardly two foot across. But given the situation, that was priceless. The
group quickly occupied the area and started footing to the beats of ‘Without
me’ by Eminem.

Minus all the thrusting and ramming, Ashwin was really enjoying dancing
with his friends. “The D.J. is much better this time,” he heard one of the
tenthees behind him remark.
“It had to be!” he said to himself, smiling.

But that grin soon wiped off his face as he saw Saurav in the distance. His
hands were holding Sonali’s tender palms as they danced along to the music,
surrounded by ten odd girls who cheered the couple on as they jiggled.

“That bloody…” he stopped himself before he said anything obscene.

Instead, he walked up to where they were congregated and did something
which he never imagined he would do even in his wildest dreams…

He lured Saurav out of their group on the pretext of having a coke with him
and led him behind one of the game stalls, making sure they were out of the
girls’ sight.

“WHAT THE HELL!” – these were the only words Saurav could muster as
he saw a fist shoot towards him…

CHAPTER 6
LEFT HIGH AND DRY
Ashwin and Saurav sat at the two opposite corners of the classroom,
avoiding each other’s eye. Well, Saurav had just narrowly avoided a black
eye for himself on Children’s Day as he had turned his head in evasive
action as Ashwin pulled a punch straight at his face which ultimately made
contact with his left ear, making it adopt a scarlet red hue for an hour or so.
He had never imagined that Ashwin, of all the people, would do this kind of
horrendous act. He was never aware of the fact that Ashwin had been so
jealous of him all the time after he had been made to sit with Sonali. As far
as the carnival goes, Sonali’s friends were just having a bit of fun making
him dance with Sonali and see him go red in the face as he blushed. It was
just an idea of having some pure harmless enjoyment and was certainly not
the way Ashwin had inferred it to be when he witnessed the sight. Though he
knew that Ashwin did have a soft corner in his heart for Sonali, Saurav had
never quite envisaged that things would turn out to be so nasty.

He didn’t tell anyone about the incident. He didn’t find it fitting to do it. He
wanted to sort it out himself and just make this a forgettable event. He had
appropriately made up an excuse to the girls when they questioned about his
red ear that he was struck by one of the stray coke bottles that were being
thrown into the dancing crowd by miscreants.

But he didn’t change his seat in the classroom. Inspite of knowing that
Ashwin didn’t find it very pleasing when he sat with Sonali and also being
aware of the fact that this was the cause which almost knocked his head off,
he still sticked to his place and defied Ashwin’s suggestion to request the
teacher for a change of seat.

‘Who is HE to tell me?’ he had said to himself after having cogitated about
the advice.

Amidst all this, the teachers had once again speeded up their pace of
pedagogy as the final exams neared and the syllabus once again seemed
endless and impossible to finish before the last day of school. The teachers
had already started preparing notes and handouts on the last few chapters
which they would conveniently give out to the students if the time proved to
insufficient for completing the prescribed course, not caring less about
whether the poor child would be able to comprehend them or not.
And then they expect us to get a bloody ninety five percent. Bah…

But inspite of all the rush, during one of the assemblies, the headmistress
generously announced that she would be organising a picnic for all the
sections of class seventh as a part of her ‘having-occasional-outings-
catalyses-the-learning-process’ policy, much to the disapproval of the subject
teachers who begged to differ from her theory. So, as a part of this, it was
decided that sections G and H would go to Nehru Park as a part of their
‘occasional outing’ as the headmistress would call it.

All the students, except Shourya of course who had once again decided
against coming to the picninc which would supposedly waste his valuable
time, were in high spirits regarding the excursion to one of the largest parks
in the city. Ashwin was also looking forward to the trip to deviate his mind
off the unsettled and disruptive state that it was in nowadays and hope to
unwind and get some mirthfulness back into himself.

“Are you coming for the picnic?” he asked Umar sitting in front of him.

“Yeah…absolutely. It’s gonna be fun. I have lot of friend in H. We will freak
out.”

“Yep…it sure will be very good. By the way, can I also be with you guys on
the picnic? I mean, I don’t know the guys from the H section, so if they
don’t mind, maybe I can join in too.”

“OK, I ask them, but I don’t think they have problem with you.”

“Thanks. What will be play there? Is someone bringing a football or
something?”

“Yes. I get the football. My friend Tarun in H will bring bat and ball. We will
play whatever we feel.”

“Great! And what about the food?”

“The usual – coke, chips, maybe cakes and other stuff. We will share
everything.”
“Yes, that’s a nice idea. I can bring in some pastries if you want. There’s this
store near my home which sells amazing chocolate truffles.”

“Chocolate truffles! (smacks lips) Then there is absolutely no doubt that you
will come with us. Anything for chocolate truffles man!”

Both of them grinned.

Just the mention of those heavenly pastries makes people go ga-ga over
them, such is their divinity.

On the other hand, Saurav now had developed a ‘I-don’t-give-a-damn’
policy towards Ashwin’s displeasure of his and Sonali’s apparent association
and had decided that he would hang out with Sonali and her group during
the outing.

Mrs. Chandra also liberally allowed the students to get their cameras, mp3
players and other expensive stuff with the stipulation that the school will not
be responsible for any damage or theft to the items. Fair enough I’d say. She,
for one, was also looking forward to the excursion as this would provide her
a chance to interact with the students on more relaxed and personal terms,
though it was too late really as the session was at its end, but still, for the
remaining three weeks or so, it would be better late than never.

The teachers rushed through the course even faster, given that they now had
to compensate for another holiday of sorts. The handouts started rolling
already as the teachers started taking desperate measures to complete the
course giving just brief explanations of the text in the handouts as they
rambled on with the syllabus, or so it seemed to the students!

In the middle of this teaching hustle, the picnic day was no more than a
blessing itself. It provided a much needed break from the recent learning
frenzy that the students were going through.

The classroom was abuzz with activity and an air of excitement and
enthusiasm had enveloped the class. Girls expressed their exhiliration
through small shrieks and giggles as they discussed their plans and boys on
the other hand were more animated as they juggled with balls and jumped
over desks and chairs, unable to contain their excitement.
After taking the attendance in which she was startled to find that everyone
except Shourya was present (as such a strong attendance happened in
extremely rare cases), she ordered the students to line up near the door.

The process took quite a few minutes as the students, scientifically speaking,
exhibited a brownian motion given the highly excited state they were in and
thus it took a fair amount of time to get them lined up in a steady state – with
a strong admonition from the class teacher catalysing the process here.

Back to layman language, the students were soon led downstairs to the
courtyard where the students of the H section were waiting with their class
teacher who happened to be G section’s Math teacher also. Ashwin didn’t
quite know anyone from section H as such so he made sure that he stuck
with Umar lest he be left lost with no one to hang out with. He had already
refused to Arihant, Farhan and the others as they were hobnobs with most of
the boys of the H section and would be hanging out with them. Nevertheless,
as courtesy demanded, they had asked Arihant if he wanted to join in with
them but he had declined the proposal thinking that he wouldn’t be too
comfortabe with them.

He followed Umar as he went to meet his friends in the H section line,
dribbling his football along the way.

“TARUN!” he shouted at the top of his voice to a tall and lanky boy with
short hair standing next to his class teacher, allegedly so that he does not
cause any trouble, given his notorious image.
He turned back and saw Umar waving at him from the end of the line. He
waved back and gestured that he’ll be there in just a few seconds.
He lied to the teacher that he needed to go the toilet and slipped away from
her sight to where Umar and Ashwin were standing.

“Hey buddy!” he said, “Ah…So you got the ball?” He pointed towards the
creamy white ball dotted with green patches of grass held under Umar’s feet.

“Yeah… but it’s not so neat as you can very well see.”

“Haha…no worries man, as long as it gets kicked around. By the way, I’ve
brought the bat and ball, it’s with Rishi right now.”

“Where is he?”
“He has gone to the staff room to meet the English teacher.”

“English teacher? For what?”

“He failed in the English Monday test, is trying to bootlick the teacher into
passing him.”

“Failed in English?” exclaimed Ashwin. “How can someone fail in English?
I mean, where did the teacher cut his marks? The English paper doesn’t have
numericals or anything you know. Hats off to him on achieving this great
feat of actually failing in the English Monday test!”

Umar and Tarun gave him a ‘you-better-watch-your-mouth-you-bloody-
topper’ sort of stare. Ashwin fittingly shut his mouth and restrained himself
from making any other remark regarding the person’s imbecileness.
Soon after, the person Tarun was referring to, walked upto them with an
answer sheet clutched in his hand.
Ashwin thanked the gods that his timing was not wrong on this occasion at
least.

“Hey Rishi!” said Umar, calling out to him from a distance. “Why are you
looking so dejected man?”

“Don’t ask. That stupid good for nothing English teacher…all I need is just
two marks to pass in the test, but she is bloody not ready to give it man. I
mean, I have never seen a teacher this insensitive!”

“Don’t worry yaar,” said Tarun. “Forget about it. We have a picnic today,
cheer up!”

“Yes he’s right,” Ashwin added, tentatively.

“OK,” agreed Rishi. “Who gives a damn about these Monday tests
anyways.”

“Exactly!”

The two teachers called out to their respective sections to start moving
towards the school gate in a line from where they would board the bus. The
students obliged and started walking towards the green gates, not exactly in
a line though.

Two gleaming yellow buses stood at the gate, waiting to ferry the students to
their picnic destination which was just a ten minute drive away from the
school. The students were stuffed into the two buses and the teachers took a
quick head count to ensure that no one was missing before the bus engines
roared and the wheels sprang into motion as the driver steered the bus onto
the main road.

Ashwin, Umar and his friends occupied the whole last row of seats for
themselves and spread their legs out in luxury. Their class teacher sat on the
front most seat, discussing some Chemistry questions with Manvi as the bus
rolled on.
Ashwin scanned the bus and found Sonali and Saurav sitting together yet
again on one of the two-seater seats. He felt a surge of jealousy and anger
bubble inside him.

‘The punch didn’t seem to have worked,’ he thought. ‘I should’ve given him
another.’

Ashwin had anticipated that Saurav would not even wander anywhere close
to Sonali after what he did to him on the carnival, but his assumptions were
reduced to mere drossy peanuts as it was now apparent that Saurav had
completely forgotten about the incident altogether and didn’t seemed to give
a damn about Ashwin’s request, or warning rather, of staying away from the
girl.
Not wanting to ruin his picnic over the issue, he turned his eyes away from
them, feeling a deep sense of disgust towards his former best friend.

“Hey Ashwin! Whom are you staring at? Would you mind taking out the
cokes?” Tarun ordered. “Everyone’s feeling very thirsty you know!”

Ashwin turned his attention to back to the more cheerful situation and
complied with Tarun’s request. He took out four half litre bottles of coke
from his bag and distributed it amongst the guys.

Ashwin was always made to sacrifice all his money whenever he was with
the bond group, but inspite of all this, Ashwin didn’t seem to mind it all as
he was more than happy if he got a share of the bondness himself. His so
called friends would absolutely feast on this vulnerability of Ashwin’s every
time, be it the PPC or the school canteen, and now even on the picnic, but
Ashwin never objected.

“Who’s got the chips?” he asked.

All he received as an answer was a blank look from all the other’s faces.

“I thought you supposed to bring chips,” Umar replied.

“Yeah,” agreed Rishi. “I don’t have much with me. Only some money, that’s
it.”

“Same here,” added Tarun when everybody expectantly turned their
attention towards him.

“You all are impossible! You’ve turned up on a picnic without anything
except balls and bats! What do you think you’ll eat there?”

“Well, we were thinking of having your stuff,” informed Tarun. “We got the
balls and bats, so it was your responsibility to get the food stuff you see. Too
bad you got nothing to eat for yourself .”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, we mean that whatever’s there in your bag is ours. You’d have to
muster with whatever cash you have. Just hope that there are some shops
near the park from where you could get yourself something to eat, otherwise,
it’s just your hard luck I’m afraid.”

Ashwin could do nothing but accept their point of view, no matter how harsh
and irrational it may sound. Dutifully, he handed over his special picnic bag
to the boys who ripped apart the chain and took out a packet of chocolate
cookies.

“Leave some for me too. I love those,” Ashwin requested after the rest
started stuffing their mouths with the lovely choco chip cookies that his
mother had baked specially for his picninc.

Umar contemplated for a while and said, “Ummm… OK, but only one.”
“Fine, just leave something. I have not even tasted them,” Ashwin said,
knowing that he was lucky that they had agreed to give him atleast one of
the heavenly cookies.

They gorged on the cookies and left only a single broken piece for Ashwin
to taste.

Ashwin just stared at the lone piece of biscuit in the packet and muttered a
formal “Thanks” even though he had expected some more generosity from
their side.

The bus reached its destination in hardly ten minutes and Ashwin’s picnic
bag was already half empty. The teachers herded the students out of the bus
and into the park. They searched for a favourable spot for a few minutes and
finally found one near a bunch of yellow flower baring trees with a small
stream running beside it. A vast open stretch in the front allowed the students
to run around and play badminton or football or cricket. Though playing the
last two mentioned sports inside the park was not allowed, the boys would
somehow manage to hide the balls and bats whenever the gardener came
checking around.

Ashwin, Umar, Tarun and Rishi had opted to stay aloof from the rest of the
students who had dutifully congregated only around the area where the
teachers were sitting and didn’t stray on to the nearby areas as warned
against by their beloved class teachers.

“Who would know?” Tarun had said, justifying their decision of exploring
the enormous park themselves instead of just staying at one place and
getting bored. Plus, they would be away from the prying eyes of the
gardener who had now limited his prowl only to area where the majority of
the students were aggregated and this would thus provide them with a
chance of playing football or cricket wherever they liked.

Smart overall thinking I must say.

Thankfully for Ashwin he found a man selling chips and cold drinks inside
the park and bought something to eat for himself, a large bag of chips and a
mango drink to be precise. As soon as he bought the stuff, he strategically
declared that all that was completely for himself only and wouldn’t share it
with anyone else at any cost.

“You already have so much with you!” he had said, pointing towards his bag
which they were holding.

“OK fine,” Tarun had replied. “You can enjoy your chips and mango drink
while we freak out on the lovely bread pakoras that your mother has so
kindly sent for us.”

They walked around for an hour or so observing the couples having a nice
behind the bushes before getting tired and deciding to rest under the shades
of some of the trees.

“Whoaaa…” Rishi exclaimed just as he was about to sit down under one of
the trees. To his surprise, there was a young couple efficiently hidden away
behind the trunk on the other side of the tree and who did not look quite
pleased after the sudden intrusion of their private space by the kids. “I’m so
sorry,” Rishi apologised.
The man turned to give him a scornful look and then continued with his
show of affection to his beloved.

“Is there any decent enough place over here?” Rishi questioned as they
walked away from the love tree. “No wonder the teachers took so much time
to find a suitable place for us.”

“Yes man, this place is so full of these roadside romeos. I sometimes wonder
how they ever manage to woo a girl. I mean if I were a female, I’d rather
kiss the toilet seat than be seen around with those kind of guys!” added
Tarun.

They walked around for another hour or so, munching bread pakoras on the
way, occasionaly stopping by near an open stretch to play a little football or
cricket. After all their food stuff and they themselves got exhausted, they
decided to return to where the other students were. There was only half an
hour left for the clock to strike twelve thirty which was their departure time
as earlier announced by the teachers so Umar decided that it was time they
returned to where the other students were, else they be left behind in the park
with only romeos and their juliets for company. They shivered at the thought
of it and agreed with Umar.
As they were walking, Rishi had a wonderful idea.

“Hey guys, are you all free after school?” he asked. “No tuition or coaching
or anything of that sort?”

The other three ran a tuition-time-table check in their minds and concluded
that there were totally free throughout the day.

“Well, I do have a tuition after school –” said Tarun, “– but I’ll skip that, no
problems. But what do you have on your mind?”

“I was thinking that if you all are free then we can go to PVR Priya after the
picnic and hang out there. My car will be there when we reach school so
transportation is no problem. Wotsay?”

“That’s amazing idea!” exclaimed Umar. “I’ll certainly come!”

“Me too,” agreed Tarun. “Tuition can go to hell.”

All eyes turned to Ashwin now.

“Well… I don’t know… I’ll have to call up my mom and ask her.”

“OK, you can use my driver’s cellphone when we reach school and take
permission from your mother.”

“OK, but I’m not sure whether she would allow.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll persuade her.”

Ashwin wasn’t too sure whether he should go or not. His mother surely
would not like him roaming around like vagabonds with these people. He’d
have to make up an apocryphal tale, something which would sound plausible
enough for her, only then would he have any chance of going with the guys.
His heart said yes but his mind seemed to stop him from him from going,
constantly probing at him to turn a deaf ear on his heart’s whims. He
cogitated about it in the bus on the way back to the school and finally came
to the conclusion that having some harmless fun at the popular Vasant Vihar
hangout place with his friends wouldn’t be much ado about. After all, he
wasn’t planning up to blow up the place or anything, so, merely having a
good time seemed a credible enough excuse for his preaching mind.

They return journey took even less than ten minutes, considering that the bus
driver had another of those ‘if-raikkonen-can-burn-the-streets-of-monaco-so-
can-I-heat-up-the-tarmac-here’ fits and absolutely flew the bus back to the
school.

On reaching, Rishi found his silver Skoda waiting for him at the PPC
crossing. It was almost one and the school was about to end for the day so
the teachers allowed the students to go directly to their buses, marking a tick
against the names in the class list as the children left. Rishi led the group to
his car.

“Here Ashwin,” he said, handing out his driver’s cellphone to him. “Call up
your mom and ask for permission.”

Ashwin took the black Nokia handset from his hands and wondered how
could a driver afford a phone of this high quality. It was a phone that Ashwin
had only seen executives possess. Anyways, he shrugged off the thought and
meditated on the more important issue of how to convince his mother.

“I cannot do it,” he announced. “I don’t have the guts to ask.”

“What a wimp you are Ashwin!” Rishi exclaimed. “Give the phone to me.
I’ll talk to her.”

He handed the phone back to him and told him the number. Rishi dialled it
from the keypad and walked off to a distance to talk in peace. Ashwin
pondered how he would manage to persuade her ever stubborn mother,
fearing that he might just get a mouthful if he got too incisive in his efforts
to convince her.

After about ten minutes of careful polite argument with Mrs. Khanna, Rishi
returned to where the others were standing, wearing a grin on his face.

“What’d she say?” Ashwin inquisitively questioned, with little hopes
though.
Rishi let his grin adopt the dimensions of a beaming smile and said, “She
agreed!”

“What! You got to be kidding me! Seriously?”

“Positive.”

“Fantastic! How’d you do it?”

“Ah…don’t bother about that. Why count the trees when the mango is in
your hands.”

“Whatever Rishi!” exclaimed Tarun at Rishi’s weird analogy.

“Oh, I’m sorry for that,” said Rishi.

Ashwin now really didn’t give a damn about how Rishi actually managed to
persuade her mother, all he was looking forward to was freaking out with the
guys at the popular hangout place nestled in the heart of Vasant Vihar.

They threw their bags in the bootspace and stuffed themselves in the car as
the driver vroomed up his engines.

“Here we go,” said the driver as he blasted the engines to full speed.

The drive which usually took a quarter of an hour was completed in one
twelfth of it (for those with a weak hand at fractions, the above sentence in
normal English would read – “the usual 15 minute drive was completed in 5
minutes”).
On reaching, Rishi borrowed some cash from his driver so that they could
feast on burgers and fries in the McDonald’s outlet nearby, pledging that he
would return it when they returned home.

Ashwin was once again bewildered at the amount of cash the driver was
carrying. Even from a distance, he could distinguish four thousand rupee
notes amongst various others of different denominations in his wallet. Add
to it the amount of currency that Ashwin wasn’t able to see from the distance
and were neatly tucked away inside one of the secret pockets. He took out
one of the many thousand rupee notes and handed it over to Rishi.
‘His family is so stinking rich!’ Ashwin inferred in his mind. ‘The pay
package of the driver himself could rival those of an average young
executive!’

“OK, let’s go now,” Rishi said as he slid the note inside his pocket.

The foursome entered the complex and started wandering about, checking
out the new garment arrivals at the various international brand outlets while
keeping an eye out for pretty girls outside.

“Hey, let’s go to McDonald’s,” Umar suggested after getting bored of
looking at T-Shirts and jeans. “I am feeling a bit hungry now.”

“Yeah…good idea,” agreed Tarun and the others. They were also anyways
getting bored of staring at apparels which they knew they couldn’t currently
buy, given the hefty price tags that accompanied them.

“Today’s treat at McDonald’s from my side,” said Rishi waving his thousand
rupee note tot the others.

“Not quite…” remarked Ashwin, “Courtesy your lovely driver rather.”

Rishi didn’t quite like the comment and decided not to answer back.
Ashwin’s knack of saying wrong things at the wrong time didn’t prove to be
so harmful to him this time as Rishi somehow restrained himself from giving
him a mouthful, or maybe even a handful.

Ashwin, Umar and Tarun went to the upper floor of the fast food joint to
grab some seats for themselves while Rishi ordered for them downstairs at
the counter. The place was only half full as it was a weekday afternoon and
so they didn’t find it difficult to find a table for four in the usually
jampacked seating area.

“What all is Rishi getting?” Tarun asked. “My tummy is screaming out for
food now.”

“Have some patience dude,” answered Ashwin, “You’ll soon find out. Stop
behaving as if you haven’t eaten for ages!”
Tarun clearly didn’t appreciate it and let his body language signify that.
Ashwin sure was talking dangerously.

Rishi soon emerged from the stairs reeling under the weight of two trays
laden with scrumptious food items. Umar rushed forward to help him and
took one of the trays from his hand.

“Thanks man,” he said. “It was just about to fall off!”

“I could see that.”

Rishi and Umar delicately kept the two trays on the table lest the trickily
placed cokes and burgers fall off them.

“Nice order!” said Tarun grabbing his chicken mcgrill burger.

“Yeah…you got loads of stuff,” added Ashwin.

“It was a treat from me after all!” replied Rishi, “Had to be special you
know.”

Ashwin didn’t say anything this time… rightly so.

“Even you don’t like tomatoes?” Ashwin asked instead, on seeing Tarun take
out the tomato rings from his burger.

“Hate them! I wonder how people manage to even put those tiny little seeds
inside their mouths. They are just all over the place. Eww… just the thought
of it makes me want to puke.”

“Same here man. Even I abhor these vegetables,” he said, replicating Tarun’s
actions and taking out the tomato rings from his own burger.

“How can you hate tomatoes?” Rishi objected. “They are just so juicy and
delicious. I just love them!”

He replaced the abandoned tomatoes from the two trays into his mouth.

“Ummm… yummy. McDonald’s tomatoes are the best!”
“Yuck….” Ashwin and Tarun exclaimed collectively.

“Now will you two cut out the yucks and the ewwws,” said Umar. “I’m
trying to eat you know.”

“Ohh…sorry Umar,” said Tarun. “By the way, do you like tomatoes?”

“Not much. But don’t hate them either. They are just OK sorts.”

“See,” Tarun exclaimed at Rishi, “Two for NO and one for OK as compared
to only one for YES. Majority wins. From now on, tomatoes are officialy
declared as being good for nothing pathetic little vegetables which only
losers like you love to eat. Ha….”

“You pig,” Rishi said and had got up from his seat ready to give a light
punch of disapproval to Tarun when his cellphone rang. “I’ll deal with you
in just a moment,” he said as he took out the phone from his pocket and
checked the caller’s ID. “Who can this be? I’ve never seen this number,” and
he walked off to a distance to talk. He always did that.

He had only taken a few steps after greeting the caller with a “Hello” when
he returned.

“It’s your mom Ashwin,” he said, giving the phone to him.

“My mother?!”

“Seems like it, unless this is another of those prank calls.”

Ashwin took the mobile phone from Rishi’s hands and put the earpiece to
his ears. He listened for a few minutes occasionaly muttering an “OK” or a
“YES” in between. When he put down the phone, his face was white with
apprehension and fear.

“Rishi, what had you told my mother when you were trying to persuade
her.”

“Nothing much. I just said that I am one of your friends and that it is my
birthday today and I am giving a party at McDonald’s and I’d just like to
invite you to the party, that’s it.”
“And you told her that your parents will also be around?”

“Well, she was not willing to let you go unless there was any senior person
around so I just lied that my parents would be there.”

“You’ve screwed me up big time now Rishi!”

“Why?! What happened? What did she say?”

“You won’t believe it! She’s waiting outside with my father... ” he pointed
out from the glass window, “…look, I can even see her from here. She was
worried that I didn’t get a gift for you and as my father had come home early
from work today, she decided to pay the party a visit with a gift in her hands
for your very very happy birthday,” Ashwin said in a most disgusted tone.
“Now from where the hell should I get your parents? My mother doesn’t like
being lied to you know. I’m dead meat… and all this because of that stupid
mouth of yours. Hell you’ve screwed me up big time!”

“Relax Ashwin!” said Umar, “We’ll find a way out. Don’t worry.”

But Rishi had had enough. “No Umar,” he said. “Let him go. We won’t help
him. If he thinks that I’m a stupid freak then I’m sorry he’ll have to make do
without our help.”

“FINE!” Ashwin said, banging his fist on the table, an inferno of anger
raging inside him. “I don’t give a DAMN!” and he walked off, livid with
fury, knocking down his chair as he left.

“Idiotic chump!” Rishi exclaimed as he saw him disappear down the stairs.
Tarun and Umar preferred to remain quiet.

Downstairs, Ashwin threw open the door and paced towards his parents, still
fuming at Rishi’s indifferent attitude.

“Mom! Dad!,” he called out, trying to get their attention over the crowd.
They heard his booming voice and spotted him at once.

“Why did you take the pain of coming here?” he said as he reached them.
“Ohh Ashwin… seeing my baby is never a pain for me,” Mrs. Khanna said.
Ashwin looked around and felt relieved that no one had heard that
embarrassing comment. “We just wanted to see your new friend and wish
him a happy birthday… And of course… the gift.” She handed over a neatly
wrapped present to Ashwin. “Now won’t you introduce the birthday boy to
your parents? Come on, let’s go inside.”

Ashwin hung his head in shame. He had no words to explain to his parents
what was actually going on. His friends were also not on his side now,
otherwise they could’ve cooked up something believable together and saved
him from the situation that he was currently in.

“What happened Ashwin?” asked Mr. Khanna. “Is anything wrong?”

Ashwin broke down and blurted out the whole truth to his parents. Rishi
watched it all from the air conditioned room above and couldn’t help but
smirk within himself as he saw tears roll down Ashwin’s cheeks.

“WHAT?!” yelled Mrs. Khanna as soon as Ashwin had finished his tale, not
caring less about the staring crowd. “There were no parents with you all this
while? Had you gone crazy? And this was no birthday party? You mean you
all were roaming around this place like tramps for more than an hour without
anyone accompanying you? Tell me who was the one who spoke to me over
the phone?”

“Rishi,” Ashwin replied in a sobbing voice.

“Where is he? I want to talk to him,” Mrs. Khanna said in a booming voice.

“He has left,” Ashwin lied as he didn’t want his mother to create a scene in
front of his schoolmates.

“And the rest?”

“Everyone left just now.”

“Ashwin, I had called on Rishi’s cellphone barely two minutes ago. How
come he and the others left in just two minutes?”

“No…I mean yes…I mean they were just about to leave when you called.”
“Stop lying Ashwin and tell us where he is,” Mr. Khanna argued.

“I’m telling you. Believe me…everyone left just two minutes ago.”

“So you won’t listen,” said his mother. “Come on Anil, let’s get him home.
He’ll be taught a lesson there.”

Mr. Khanna obliged and they strode off to the parking area.

The following one and a half months was like being sentenced to rigorous
imprisonment for Ashwin. At most, he went out of his house only to go to
school. No football or cricket once he came back, a total ban on T.V. and
restricted computer access of only half an hour per day. Even the school
closed one month later because of the final exams that were coming up,
reducing his life to a state of hell. It was only Ashwin and his books for
company.

The whole of class seventh had turned out to be a bitter nightmare for him.
The only little ray of hope left was him doing well in the final exams, which
was asking too much of him really, considering that he had bunked half the
classes of the semester.

One could see Ashwin make frequent visits to the temple these days…
The transformation
begins…
CHAPTER 1

Ashwin sat in the balcony of his aunt’s house in his home town of Patna,
watching the rain drops pitter patter on the ground below. It was the summer
holidays of his third year in the school and Ashwin had been sent to spend
the days with her aunt as Mr. and Mrs. Khanna holidayed in England. Mr.
Khanna’s firm had nominated his name for a month long training workshop
in the English capital with a decent enough monthly allowance. As the the
income through the allowance was good enough, he had decided that he
would also take his ‘yours truly’ along with him for the primary purpose of
tying the knots of his ties, a practice that he had been trying to master for
ages now but was always unsuccessful when it came to that elusive double
knot. The secondary reason was of course to beat the pangs of loneliness in
an alien country. He could have managed to just scrape through the month if
he had taken Ashwin along too, but decided against it, keeping in mind his
disastrous final exam results.

“A mere seventy six percent?!” he had yelled at him on the day he got his
report card. “We are burning holes in our pocket and paying through our
necks for your education in such a world class institution like this one and
you reciprocate all that with this? You have even missed your scholar badge!
Do you think all this is a joke?”

Ashwin had hung his head in shame, taking in all the acerbic comments that
his father fired at him, knowing that whatever he was saying was right and
his calamitous year in seventh grade was all his fault.

And now there he was, trying to make the most of his holidays with his
cousin brothers and sisters in the capital city of Bihar while his parents
vacationed four thousand miles away in the English capital.

Uncharacteristically, all his holiday homeworks were already done and
dusted before he had come visiting his relatives. No wonder really, given
that his whole character was about to change in the following year, so this
could be termed as a fitting start to the process.
“Ashwin bhaiya!” his kid cousin brother called out from the dining room.
“Mom is calling you for lunch. Come fast.”

Ashwin didn’t want to go. He was enjoying watching the rain after what had
been a hot summer morning. He always had this penchant of gazing out the
window or the balcony whenever it rained. He had it since he was a small
child, his mother had told him. He would even sometimes wake up in the
middle of the night just to gaze at a late night downpour. Besides, the rain
always raised his mind to a level of peace and serenity in contrast to the
usual clutter of thoughts that prevailed in it.
Ashwin was retrospecting as to what had gone wrong in the previous
semester (though recollecting what all had not gone wrong would have been
way simpler) and how to make amends for it and ensure that he learnt from
it. But the lunch call disrupted his ruminations as he got up from the chair to
check out the menu for the day.

“Ah…come Ashwin,” his aunt said. “Sit down. I have made your favourite
dish today – chilly chicken!”

Ashwin’s pensive mood soon turned into a more joyous one as his aunt
uncovered the lid to reveal the steaming curry preparation. He smacked his
lips to show his inability to resist the temptation any further.

“Yummy!” he exclaimed as he sat down. “Chilly chicken! Thanks mausi.”

“The pleasure’s all mine darling. I am no less than your mother herself when
it comes to culinary skills you know!”

“Even better!” he said as he took the first bite.

“By the way, is your suitcase all packed up? We have to leave for the airport
in three hours.”

“Almost… just the towels and the footwear left. Will keep it after lunch.”

“Don’t bother, I’ll do it.”

“Oh… thank you so much mausi.”
‘What an angel she is!’ he thought. ‘Lucky him…’ he muttered in his mind
looking towards his younger cousin brother.

His aunt quickly finished her meal and went to his room to pack up his
towels and shoes. Ashwin was the last one to leave the table, considering
that he couldn’t help himself but to take more rice everytime he finished a
course. When he did leave leave the table, he could hardly stand under the
weight of his overloaded belly.

At the airport, Ashwin couldn’t help but shower all sorts of praise on her
aunt for all the lovely food she had treated him to all this month.

“I’ll miss your lovely food,” he confessed. “I don’t want to go. I was having
so much fun here.” Well, this part was certainly a lie. Playing around with a
four year kid was surely not his idea of enjoyment.

“Aww…” his aunt exclaimed, “…don’t worry Ashwin. Maybe I’ll come to
Delhi whenever you have your next set of holidays, or even otherwise. I’ll
make all your favourite dishes so that you study hard and eat harder.”

Both of them laughed. “Yeah…sure. I’ll love that.”
And with a final goodbye, Ashwin disappeared into the security check area.

When he landed at the Indira Gandhi airport in Delhi, his parents were
already there to pick him up. They had returned just the night before from
their lovely holiday. Ashwin spotted them at once, sitting in the waiting
lounge at the arrival terminal. He waved at them from the baggage claim
area. They didn’t see him. He tried his best to jump, wave and do all sorts of
attention grabbing stunts but they failed to spot him.

‘I don’t think they are looking forward to receive me,’ he concluded. ‘They
usually wait right at the barricade separating the baggage claim area and
the waiting lounge, but today it looks like they just don’t care – sitting in the
farthest corner possible, watching some silly old news channel spewing out
bullshit.’

Ashwin’s bag was among the first ones to arrive at the conveyor belt and
that too quite quickly as compared to the usual. Ashwin was very surprised
that the airport guys, for once, overcame their characteristic indolence and
did the job within the prescribed time limit.

He heaved his luggage on to a trolley and made his way to where his parents
were sitting. Finally, his parents noticed him when he was barely ten feet
away from them.

“Aahhh…Ashwin!” his mother cried. “How are you my child?” She hugged
him tightly.
Ashwin looked around. This time he wasn’t so lucky, the whole crowd was
staring at him. ‘Leave me mom! You’re embarrassing me!’ he said within
himself.
Mom didn’t hear his thoughts as she claimed otherwise.

When she did leave him, his father took over and repeated the process.
‘Oh man! Not again!’

Finally, after the hugging-kissing saga was over, much to Ashwin’s relief,
they started towards their home.

“So…how was your stay with your aunt?” questioned Mr. Khanna as he
drove.

“Fantastic!” he lied (keeping the food as an exception that is).

“I’m so glad!” replied Mrs. Khanna. “though we didn’t quite freak out as we
had planned to. Your dad had so much of work there you know.”

“Honey! It was a training workshop, not a vacation!”

“True…” agreed Ashwin.

“Ashwin, you’re sure all your holiday homework is complete? School is
starting from tomorrow as you would be knowing.”

“Yes mom!” he replied in an irritated tone, agitated at another mention of
that nagging question that never seemed to leave him wherever he went.
Even his aunt had enquired about this while he was in Patna.

“Good,” she said. “I can see that you are changing for the better already.”
“Thanks mom.”

The next day, Ashwin woke up with a whole new spirit. Instead of heaving
his body from the bed, his movements today were rather swift and energetic.
He didn’t find it a pain but was actually looking forward to the day in
school. He felt as if he had a point to prove, as if he was on a mission, and
missing a day would only prove to be detrimental to the ultimate aim. With a
keen sense of purpose, he left home for school. Even his music tastes had
changed – while earlier, his favourite song used to be Def Leppard’s fun
filled and casual natured number: ‘Let’s get rocked’, nowadays it had
changed to the more inspirational ‘Eye of the tiger’ from the band
‘Survivor’, though most of you would remember it as the soundtrack from
Rocky III.

Now, he occupied the frontmost seat, bang on under the nose of the teacher
and his partner was none other than Shourya, who had proudly declared that
he had never ever occupied any seat behind the frontmost row and had
refused Farhan to sit beside Ashwin as all the other front seats were full.
Farhan didn’t want to break his legacy and was content enough to occupy
the seat behind him.
‘Geez…he surely needs to get his priorities right!’ he had muttered to
himself.

The bell rang and their new class teacher, Mrs. Nagma Zafar walked into the
class carrying the class attendance register (just to tell you, she has no
relation with the family line of Bahadur Shah Zafar if you may have been
wondering). Her face had the typical features of a woman in her late forties –
slight wrinkles dotted here and there and brownish colored lips. Her hair had
streaks of grey which she didn’t care to hide away with one of the many age
concealing hair dyes that were the rage these days. She was relatively fair
and had a short and lean stature. As far as her interests go, no one could ever
beat her when it came to Premchand. She knew every possible crumb of
information regarding the great writer – right from his hobbies to even the
brand of dantmanjan (tooth powder) that he used every morning. Also, she
had a great fondness for music, especially the oldies from the sixties and
seventees era.
Ashwin had managed to create a fairly good impression of himself on Mrs.
Zafar before the summer holidays by constantly sitting on the front seat – a
practice which is synonymous with the topper creed. Plus, he had even
managed to participate in the Hindi classes (that was the subject she taught)
and provided the teacher with answers every now and then which had
exalted his image in the teacher’s mind.

She took her seat behind the teacher’s table and opened the register to mark
the attendance for the first day after the summer holidays.
“Good morning children!” she said as she sat down. “Welcome back after
the holidays. Hope you all had a nice time during the vacation.”

“Yes ma’am…” replied few of the students. “No ma’am…” chorused the
majority.

“Why so?” she questioned.

Umar stood up and spoke for the majority – “Because of the herculean
amount of holiday homework that you and your counterparts gave us.”

‘How did Umar’s English become so fluent and gramatically correct all of a
sudden? HERCULEAN?? What is that supposed to mean?’ Ashwin thought.
‘Maybe he joined one of those ‘Learn-fast-and-fluent-English-in-just-15
days’ classes I guess. Anyway, good for him.’

“Well… it is the same for everyone, and some people did have a good time
during the holidays as you would have heard just now. So it is basically a
matter of time management you see.” Mrs. Zafar replied, even though she
was aware of the fact that what the boy was saying was actually correct. The
holidays were only for the namesake, the children ultimately had to slog it
out the for the whole two months, scrounging the internet for information
needed for projects and power point presentations or visiting the slums and
taking interviews of the under privileged children. Consequently and
ironically, the so claimed vacations for the students were more of a
punishment to them, and all this while the teachers made good use of the
leisure time and holidayed in Goa or something.

“If I ever become the education minister, I would make sure that holiday
homeworks are banned and the teachers are made to grind it out in
workshops and training sessions throughout the two months of vacations,”
Ashwin had said to himself after finishing his holiday homework one month
back.

Then, as if she had completely misunderstood the cue, she announced that
she would be collecting the Hindi holiday homework in a few minutes after
she took the attendance. Ashwin, who was among the ones who had
answered ‘yes’ to the teacher’s question, promptly took out the Hindi
holiday homework file from his bag and kept it on the table.

What a gratifying feeling it was – having completed one’s homework and
then submitting it obediently when the teacher asked for it. Ashwin had
undergone this emotion only sparingly in the last two years, so today gave
him even more pleasure you see.

When the teacher finished taking her attendance, Ashwin was the first one to
hand out his file to the teacher.

“Have patience!” she said, “I’ll collect it one by one with the help of a class
list to ensure that I am aware of all those who do not submit their
homeworks.”

Umar got the jitters when he heard this statement – he had not done any of
his homeworks. A situation similar to Ashwin’s two years back.

Still, Ashwin was the first one to submit his homework as the two roll
numbers before him had also not done their Hindi homework. How could
they have? Designing a Hindi magazine with self written articles, jokes and
stories or making up funny dohas (couplets) was surely not child’s play for a
student of eigth grade. This of course if they refused to just rip off stuff from
the internet like Ashwin did. Well, ‘one would rather plagiarise than be
scolded by the teacher’ according to Ashwin’s funda.

The teacher reached Umar’s name in the class list and asked him to submit
his Hindi holiday homework.

“Ma’am, I haven’t done it,” came Umar’s reply.

“May I know the reason why,” Mrs. Zafar replied.
“Ma’am I had gone to the US with my family and returned only two days
back.”

‘So that’s how his English has improved!’ Ashwin thought.

“So aren’t two days enough to do the holiday homework?”

“Certainly not ma’am.”

“Well then you should have thought about this earlier and taken your
homework along to the US as well.”

“I forgot to take it ma’am.”

“NOW NO MORE EXCUSES!” she yelled, losing her patience.

“Sorry ma’am, but this is the truth.”

“I don’t care!” she shouted at him. “Come here and stand with all these good
for nothings.” She pointed at the already fifteen student long line of
defaulters.

Umar obeyed without any further argument.
Ashwin looked at the students in front of him with sympathetic eyes. He
knew how it felt to stand there and could fully empathise with each of them.
But, on the other hand, he was also glad that he wasn’t one of them today.

The teacher was busy shooting caustic remarks at the students, criticizing
them on their casual and indifferent attitude towards the holiday homeworks
when the P.E. teacher – Mr. Abhilash Gupta knocked on the door with his
strong knuckles.

Mrs. Zafar turned her head and saw the tall and burly figure smile at her
from the door. “May I come in?” he asked in a most innocent voice which
was clearly incongruous with his demeanor.

“Yes, please do,” she said.

“Thank you.” And he strode in.
“I have to make an announcement if you don’t mind,” he said.

“Not at all. Please go ahead,” she replied and continued with the scolding in
the background.

“Thanks…” he acknowledged and started with his announcement. “…
Tryouts for the junior school team for every sport will be held on the coming
Saturday, i.e. the seventh of July in the sports complex, though football
tryouts will be held in the football field inside the school itself. For your
information, the junior school team will consist of students from sixth,
seventh and eigth grade. The process will start at seven in the morning and
end at about eleven. Interested children are requested to please stick to the
timings and not be late. You’ll have to come in proper sports wear,
preferably track suits with proper sports shoes. Football studs are needed for
the football tryouts. The school won’t be providing any transport facilities so
the students will have arrange for their own conveyance. Interested students
are requested to note the specific details for their respective sports from the
notice put up on the notice board outside Mrs. Saxena’s office... Hope to see
quite a few of you on Saturday!”

He spotted Ashwin sitting on the front seat listening in rapt attention to his
announcement. He winked at him… Ashwin smiled.

“This is your chance,” he said quietly. “You’ll have to do your best to get
into the team!”
The voice said: “You’ll have to do your best to get into the team.” The tone
of the voice said: “You’ll have to give out your best for the team.”

A silent resolve filled Ashwin’s mind once the teacher left – one that he had
been cradling for two years now. A vision that he had wanted to be a part of
since his first P.E. period in the school. The time was now and it was all upto
him. The teacher had already given the thumbs up from his side but there
was still some points to be proven (his poor passing ability for instance,
which had proved detrimental to his prospects every time…till now that is).
Still some mouths to shut up and still some misconceptions to be clarified.

A whole plethora of students had descended down on the sports complex on
the warm sultry Saturday morning. Some had obediently turned up in track
suits while others had adopted the more fashionable option and had decked
themselves up in T-shirts and jeans instead. Nevertheless, each of them
looked like atheletes. What with all the budding sportspersons around, the
whole resembled an Olympic arena. It was a coach’s nightmare. The sheer
multitude of kids tugging at their shirts from behind and enquiring when
their chance would come, sent them into a tizzy.

“If it goes on like this, we might have to consider bringing in an event
management system over here!” one of the cricket coaches had said.

At the football field inside the school, the situation was even worse. Owing
to its relatively smaller area as compared to the sports complex, the density
of the students on the football pitch was immense. Not even an ant could
find enough space for itself. Both the gates which opened up to the field had
been conveniently modified into some sort of to-and-fro-motion-producing
swing on which you could stand while your friend pushed you and you
enjoyed the wind rustle through your hair. On the other hand, the genuine
swings nearby, threatened to break off from the central rod above owing to
the huge load of two to even three students that each of them was bearing.

However, the most classic case of innovation was one of the students’
brilliant idea of turning the goal net into a hammock. Few of his friends and
him had hauled up the free end of the net and had ingeniously tied it up to a
fence, thereby creating a large hammock like structure with enough strength
to take the load of of all the students who were now bouncing on it. Not sure
for how long though.
I sometimes wonder if we Indians could apply our such inventive brains in
more worthwile things than to the purpose of jugaad as they call it, we could
be brushing shoulders with the top superpowers, if not shrug them off too!

Ashwin reached school ten minutes later than the prescribed time.

“Damn that traffic jam,” he muttered to himself as he slammed the door of
his car.

“Easy Ashwin! You almost broke that thing!” Ashwin’s father replied… but
he had gone.

He rushed through the gates and into the school, sprinting towards the
football field, hoping that the trials had yet not started.
“The announcement said seven a.m. sharp,” he said to himself. “And it is
already seven fifteen…dayum…I’ll just kill myself if I ruin this opportunity
also. There’s hardly any chance next year…senior teams don’t take ninth
standard kids. Shit…”

And he ran faster, faster than his legs could carry him. Too fast…after a few
metres, he stumbled and landed hard on his knees, the cruel concrete surface
below showing no sympathy as it brutally scratched some of his epidermis.

“Crap!!” he cried. “Why does everything has to go wrong on the big days
only?”

He got back on his feet and brushed off the few droplets of blood that had
started oozing out of the wound. He reduced his run to a walk, lest he left his
leg completely useless for the all important try-out.

He entered the ground just in time. Mr. Gupta was filing the children up in a
single line for the two warm up laps that they had to run before they started
with the selection, or rather, rejection process. Ashwin surreptitiously
slipped in at the back of the line, not wanting to let the coach that he had
arrived late.

After a few minutes, assured that the line was in proper order, he whistled
and the line jerked into motion. He stood there as the students jogged out
past him. Mr. Gupta smiled at Ashwin as he brought up the back. Ashwin
reciprocated it with a confident nod.

The earth beneath his feet seemed to quiver because of the rhythmic motion
of the students’ feet stamping on the grass below. The line was so long that
the first person in the line was already almost one lap ahead of Ashwin when
he had started and could actually reach out and grab Ashwin’s shirt from
behind if he wanted to (i.e. if you accept a slight bit of exaggeration).
Ashwin’s knee veins throbbed as he struggled to complete his second lap.
He looked down and saw some more red droplets exude out of the rupture.
He neglected it and carried on running. He searched for any familiar face
among the students that had turned up. It was a wonder really that he could
find not a single person that he knew amongst the huge population.
“Either I have a very small friend circle or the populace of the eigth standard
is tremendously high as compared to the deluge of children here,” Ashwin
said to himself.
Simple answer – the latter obviously!

Though he did spot Nikhil in the crowd who could be called a friend of his,
but didn’t feel like going and saying a “Hi!” to him. Something in his heart
forbade him to do so. He obeyed and remained at his place at the end of the
line.

Mr. Gupta ordered the applicants to separate out and form different groups
as per the position in which they play.

“Defenders to my right, midfielders in the center and forwards on my left,”
he shouted out.

The single group fragmented into three as the students joined the group of
their preference, though few knew what position they actually played in. As
expected, the forward lot had the most number of kids. After all, everyone
aspired to be a Rooney or an Henry rather than a Cannavaro or a Maldini.
Well, Ashwin for one had his positions sorted out and joined the group
which had the fewest takers, i.e. the ‘defenders’. He had always idolised the
likes of Nesta, Carragher and Terry and was at his best when he was playing
the centre back for any team. Striking was not his can of coke.

Mr. Gupta dispersed them off to three different parts of the field giving a ball
each to every group.

“Practice for some time and get used to the balls,” he announced. “I’ll just
come back in a few minutes.”

“How does he expect us to get used to the ball when there are seventy odd
people fighting for it?” Ashwin muttered. “I’d be lucky if got a touch!”

The defenders’ lot marched off to their alloted area near the goal at the far
end of the field to practice and if possible, get a feel of the ball. The
aspirants for the goalkeeper’s post were also a part the troop, and thus, so
was Nikhil. Ashwin grimaced when he saw him take his place in front of the
goal, bullying off the other three candidates for the post. His heart raged
against him for some reason.

“I wish there was a penalty shootout!” he muttered aloud.
He decided to just wait and watch from the side as the want-to-be defenders
fought around the ball. Nikhil was hardly being tested as the ball barely
reached within ten yards of the goal.
“Oh…will you all stop quarelling over the ball and play peacefully!”
bellowed Nikhil from behind.

Mr. Gupta returned after a few minutes and walked up to where Ashwin was
standing.

“Why aren’t you practising kid?” he asked.

“Sir,” he replied, “do you think I’ll be even able to touch the ball in that
mayhem! I mean only one ball for seventy kids! You got to be kidding me!”

“You mean to say that all those children are fools that they are playing amid
that so claimed chaos?”

“No si…”

“Shut up! Stop cribbing about the resources. You must learn to extract the
best out of whatever you have. This is football. The best teams aren’t those
who have a star studded line-up but those who manage to take out the best
from their players. Look at Real Madrid… they have a whole bunch of
superstars…so much so that even players like Nistelrooy and Michael Owen
for god’s sake are made to warm the bench…and still they never manage to
reach the finals of the champions league, let alone win, or even finish top of
the table even in their own premiership for that matter.”

He veered sharply and strode off towards the crowd with a disgusted look on
his face.

Ashwin cursed at his mouth for blurting out more than he wanted to, yet
again. He slowly followed Mr. Gupta towards his other seventy counterparts
who were listening keenly to the instructions that the coach had started
shouting out to them.

The first level of the rejection process was the ‘clearing test’: The ball will
be rolled towards each child and only those who are able to kick the ball past
a predecided distance in a maximum of three attempts will go on to the next
level. This was of course, a test to make sure that the selected kids are well
aware how to clear the ball from the penalty area whenever the opposition
surged forward and threatened to score.

“The weeds will be separated out from the crop in this stage,” the coach had
asserted.

And rightly so – after the procedure, a flat fourty of the seventy students
were weeded out.

Ashwin had gleefully kicked the grey Nivia football way past the mark but
had not been quite happy when he was asked to retrieve it too.

The next level was the ‘celeritas test’, a name proudly coined by the coach
himself. It would basically test the swiftness of the students and ensure that
those who fell short of completing a hundred meter sprint within the
prescribed time limit do not make it to the next and final level.

“This will separate the quality crops from the pest infested ones,” the coach
claimed. The pest infested crops referring to the indolence ridden muscles.

Ashwin let out a soft whistle. He was expecting this, but unfortunately, was
not too good at it. Along with his passing prowess, another hindrance to his
footballing prospects had been his slow movement and it had come back to
haunt him again. He remained at the end of the line as the the coach called
the children one by one for the hundred meter dash. He watched as the kids
sprinted off one by one to the other side of the field where his assistant was
noting down the timings and separating out those who failed to match the
criteria.
Ashwin jerked his legs and braced it up for the dart to the other side as he
saw the child in front of him scurry away to the finish line on the coach’s
whistle.

“OK Ashwin,” he said, “you’re next. Give it all you’ve got. You understand
me?”

“Yes sir,” he replied confidently, though his knees had started shaking a bit.
“OK… on the count of three… one…” Ashwin could feel the vein in his
knees throbbing once again, he was going weak. “…two…” His legs almost
gave way, but he persisted.
“Come on!” he said to himself.
“…three!” and the coach whistled.

Ashwin was off in a flash, forgetting everything about his knees and shutting
out his brain to the constant voices that the heart was hammering it with,
urging him to give up and look after his injury instead. It was a fairly good
start. Halfway across the course, he started losing his breath. He gulped in
air from his mouth. It didn’t help much. Twenty five metres to go…he
approximated after a couple of seconds. He garnered the last remaining bits
of energy from inside him and made that final scutter towards the finish line.

“Time!” cried the man with the stop watch as Ashwin flashed past him and
collapsed on the grass out of exhaustion.

He didn’t get up and enquired about his timing. He couldn’t. His legs just
would not allow. Instead, the man stood came and stood beside him. He
smiled. Ashwin’s limp body tried to rise but fell back with a thud.

“Right on the dot,” he said.

“You mean I qualified?” Ashwin questioned as he gasped for air.

“Just…”

His sweaty face acquired a broad grin of satisfaction.

The final level tested the player’s ball control and tackling skills.

“Piece of cake…” Ashwin had muttered to himself while the other twelve
had swallowed at the mention of the task. This was supposed to be the true
yardstick to measure the adroitness of a defender according to the coach and
would winnow out the grain from the chaff.

This time around…Ashwin proved to be that golden grain the coach was
looking for.

“What’s your favorite number?” he asked him once the trials concluded.
Ashwin cracked a grin and replied, “Five”

“Cannavaro eh?”

“You bet!”
CHAPTER 2

“Mrs. Zafar is not so sweet as she pretends to be!” remarked Saurav as he
and Sonali stood against the black board along with the other students of
their row. Mrz. Zafar was overhauling the entire seating plan of the class,
and Saurav wasn’t too happy about it for obvious reasons. Of late, the class
had been making a lot of noise, she had claimed, so she had resorted to this
age old strategy to restore some sort of discipline in her class.

“Yeah,” Sonali replied, “I thought she was a very naïve sort of teacher.”

“I thought too…that’s why I am surprised at this sudden seat change idea
that she got.”

“You…” she called out poitning a finger towards Saurav, “…the boy with
the spectacles, go and sit on the last seat there.”

“Yes ma’am,” he obeyed and proceeded towards his new seat, giving a
scornful look to the teacher as he passed by her.

Ashwin watched in glee and hope. Happy that Saurav had got a new seat and
hopeful because the seat beside him was empty as Shourya had, for the first
time ever, absented himslef from school today.

But his aspirations were thwarted as the class teacher ordered Sonali to
occupy the empty seat beside Tanya in the third row.

“Never mind,” he said to himself.

First period was Mathematics. Their Math teacher was the same as last year
and Ashwin didn’t quite mind that. She had thought that Ashwin was an
average decent enough kid and he never had any bitter experiences with her,
thus he had not found any reason to panic when he had seen her walk into
the class on the first day of the session.
She entered the class five minutes after the bell rang. Their class was
situated in the CB block which housed the staff room as well, so the teachers
generally took less time to reach, though the climb up to the third floor did
provide some sort of compensation to the students.

“Good morning children,” she said, taking her place behind the teacher’s
table.

The students chorused a reply and a bustle of noises followed as they took
out their Math notebooks from their bags.

“As you would be knowing,” she announced “there is a Math Monday test
scheduled for next week. But we are lagging behind the other sections who
have already completed the syllabus for the test. So from now, I’ll be going a
little faster and expect you all to pay full attention.”

The class let out a loud groan expressing their disapproval of the idea. The
teacher turned a deaf ear to their viewpoint and started with the first question
of exercise four point three of the chapter: ‘Circles’.
Ashwin dilligently took down whatever the teacher scribbled on the board.
He was aiming for a perfect score in this test you see so he was making sure
that he left no stone unturned in order to achieve that.

After doing a few questions on the board, the teacher sat down. “The rest of
the questions are similar,” she informed, “I want everyone to complete the
rest of the questions of exercise right now.”
The class let out another moan of disapproval which the teacher once again
disregarded.
Only Ashwin and a few others obeyed and got down to work. Others were
happier playing pen fight instead.

“Do I have a double period with you today?” the teacher asked Ashwin
softly.

“Ma’am… ummm…” he hesitated, “…No,” he finally concluded. “But we
do have a P.E. period today. You can take that if you want.”

“When is it?” she asked, her eyes lighting up.

‘Shit’ Ashwin muttered in his mind. ‘Why the hell did I say that?’
“After this period.’

“Great,” she said. “I’ll take it.”

‘Everyone’s going to kill me for this!’ he thought. “OK ma’am”.

“Class,” she announced, “no one will go for P.E. in the next period. I am
taking it.”

“NOOO MAA’AAM…” the class shouted in unison, extremely upset at the
prospect of studying Math in the so-looked-forward-to P.E. period.

“Ma’am we only have one P.E. period in one whole week!” informed Umar.
“Please don’t take it!” he pleaded.

“YES MA’AM,” supported the class.

“Why don’t you understand children? There is still one more chapter left
after this, and there are five more exercises left in this one itself. Add to it the
four of the next chapter. That means we have to complete nine whole
exercises in just four days! I have to take extra periods to finish your course
you know otherwise it is only you who will suffer.”

The class remained silent. It was of no use arguing with her. They now had
to just mentally prepare themselves to miss even the library and SUPW
periods and study Math instead as they were quite sure that she won’t miss
any chance to have an extra period with them. They just prayed that she
didn’t take the breaks too.

“Man, how I hate her!” said Farhan from behind.

“OK, now get on with it and complete the exercise before the bell rings,” the
teacher instructed. “I’ll start with four point four in the next period.”

“And how I wish I had a gun with me right now,” he added.

“Ssshhh…” Aswhin snapped at him from the seat in front. “Can you be quiet
Farhan? I am trying to concentrate!”
“OK, OK…relax,” he replied. “But why are you actually doing the exercise.
Wanna play pen fight instead?”

“Shut up!”

He pouted his lips and let out a soft whistle. “Maybe Shourya’s traits are
contagious!” he said to himself.

“I heard that!” Ashwin said, veering sharply from his seat.

Farhan looked away from him, embarrassed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“'Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes
when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very
substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps,
India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but
rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age
ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. It is
fitting that at this solemn moment, we take the pledge of dedication to the
service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.”

“All right Ashwin, stop,” ordered Mrs. Zafar. “OK Shourya, you’re next. Let
me hear what you’ve got.”

Class ‘Eigth G’ had been assigned the task of putting up the second
September morning assembly. The concept of Morning assembly was
initiated to provide a platform for each student of each class to display their
talents and out of which the better ones would be winnowed out to become a
part of the larger scheme of things. Each class was assigned a day when they
would conduct the morning assembly on any topic of their choice, provided
it was decent enough, and try to keep the audience entertained for the fifteen
minutes of the home room period. It was quite a hard task you know as all
the morning assemblies had a characteristic half asleep audience who always
criticized the program of being an early-morning assembly rather than just a
morning assembly.
When she was informed about her class assembly date, Mrs. Zafar had
wasted no time and had called all the interested students who wished to
participate in the garden outside the CB block in the lunch-break on the
same day. Ashwin, Shourya, Sonali and Arihant had turned up to fight it out
for the compering slot.

“It would be one boy and one girl,” she had announced when they had
reached. So Sonali was through by default. Ashwin, Shourya and Arihant
had to compete for the other post.
The three had to read a portion of the legendary ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech
from a small piece of paper on which she had written it down. Apparently,
she remembered the whole speech, but quite a few eyebrows had been raised
by the students when she had claimed it.

“How can a person who is a die-hard Premchand fan remember the whole
Tryst with Destiny speech?” Arihant had exclaimed.

Anyways, Ashwin had read it out quite well and was fairly confident that he
would be paired up with Sonali. But he had thought too soon. Shourya had
spoken even better and the teacher had made up her mind even before she
heard Arihant. Arihant’s oratory skill was anyway not the one to die for.

After listening to all the three and contemplating for a while, though it was
just to make the decision seem tougher, she made the formal declaration that
the comperes for the assembly would officially be Sonali and Shourya.
Ashwin grimaced a bit, though he knew that that was expected.

She asked the selected duo to stay there and write the compering speech with
her and ordered the rejected two, Ashwin and Arihant to go back to the class.
Both of them turned around, dejected, and proceeded towards their class.

“Just hard luck I guess,” said Arihant.

“Maybe…” replied Ashwin. “But I think Shourya did speak better. Though I
strongly object the one boy one girl policy.”

“True, that is unfair. Only the best two should do the job and not the just best
boy and the average girl. So much for the one girl and one boy policy!”

The bell rang through the corridor as they returned.
“There goes the bell,” said Arihant. “What period is it right now?”

“I guess Physics,” Ashwin replied.

“Cool.”

You might be wondering why a thirteen year old boy is referring to Physics
as cool. Well, thanks to their new Physics teacher, Mr. Randhir Roy, who had
become an instant hit with the students from day one, every student now
looked forward to the Physics period more than anything else. Well, that is
not taking into account the P.E. periods of course which will always be
numero uno in the revered ‘most-looked-forward-to-periods’ list. Mr. Roy
had a most friendly and interactive pedagogy and an uncanny knack to gel in
with the students really well. The frequent visits to the newly constructed
Science Park, situated in the corner of the football field and innumerable free
periods that he showered upon the students also contributed to his popularity
as a teacher, and all this without compromising on studies. The other staff
members wondered how he managed to finish the course in time inspite of
all the free periods that he gave, even I do. When asked, prompt would come
the reply: “Quality teaching time is much more productive than quantity
teaching time.”

Teachers, please note.

Just as they were about to reach the stairs and begin the long ascent to the
third floor, Shourya came running behind them and shouted at them to stop.

“What happened Shourya?” asked Ashwin.

“Ashwin…” he panted, “…ma’am is calling you.”

“Me? Why?”

“She has selected you for delivering the speech in the assembly.”

“Oh!! Speech!” Ashwin replied, a little surprised. “I had completely
forgotten about that, otherwise I would have auditioned for that too.”

“Well, there are no auditions now coz now you are doing the speech.”
“Great!”

“Now come with me fast.”

“Arihant,” Aswhin said, turning towards him, “Tell sir that I am with the
class teacher if he enquires.”

“Do you think he will?”

“Point… Maybe not, but still.”

“OK” he said and he carried on with his ascent, feeling a bit dysphoric and
covetious that Ashwin had bagged the speech leaving nothing for him except
the prospect of either being in the choir or speaking the thought of the day
which was generally hardly two lines long.

Ashwin and Shourya went the other way back to the garden.

“Oh, Ashwin,” the teacher said on seeing him. “You will be doing the speech
in the assemby. Is that OK with you?”

“Perfectly fine ma’am.”

“Good.”

“But, er… ma’am, I… don’t know the topic of our assembly.”

“Good gracious! You turned up for the audtions and you don’t even know
the theme of our assembly?”

“Er…no.”

“Anyways, it is ‘Environment’.”

“Hmmm….”

“So I expect you to prepare a speech on Environment and how it is being
degraded and exploited and all that stuff… by day after tomorrow at the
maximum. Is it clear?”
“Yes ma’am.”

“Good, I want to start the rehaersals as soon as possible.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Our assembly would be the best that the principal has ever seen!”

“Yes ma’am.”

“But I want everyone’s support for that.”

“You got it ma’am,” cried her three students.

“Thank you so much kids.”

They spent the remaining of the period discussing ideas to make their
asembly as grand as possible as everybody pitched in with their viewpoints.
After about thirty minutes of heated debate and powwow, they finally
sketched out a blueprint of what all the assembly would present. On the
roster were a speech, a thought of the day, the morning news, a short skit and
a song by the class choir to top it all. Hopefully, all the items would take up
not more than fifteen to twenty minutes which was the prescribed time limit.

“I’ll select the students for the rest of the items in my period,” she said.

“OK ma’am,” replied Shourya. “You have the next period with us.”

“Good… OK you all go back to the class now.”

The students obeyed and proceeded towards their classroom. Ashwin and
Shourya were keen to reach as soon as possible so that they could copy
down all that they had missed during the period. Sonali was relatively more
relaxed and didn’t have any such preference of reaching early, so she lagged
behind as the boys jumped two steps at a time and literally flew to the third
floor.

“God! Why are they so desparate to study?” she exclaimed as she turned
after the first flight of stairs and saw them already reach the top.
*****

The rehearsals started two days later. Ashwin was spending half the periods
out of the class with his English teacher, trying to perfect his speech and get
the pronunciations correct. Though he was strictly against this everday
official bunking ordeal, he didn’t really have a choice. Mrs. Zafar was just
hell bent on making their assembly as grandiose as possible and thus would
make the participants miss periods and practice for as long as they could.
Even their P.E. periods were sacrificed, not mentioning the library and
SUPW periods that is.

Half the class would become empty whenever Mrs. Zafar called the students
for practice, considering that the class choir itself consisted of twenty kids.
Add to it fifteen more of the skit, speech, etc.

“Whom do I teach? The walls?” every subject teacher had complained when
they would see barely ten kids’ faces staring back at them. The practice had
made Mrs. Zafar very unpopular among the subject teachers of her class you
see.

Unlike Ashwin , students like Umar who had joined the choir, were really
gladsome of the long practice sessions. They had decided to participate
solely because of the inestimable opportunities of official bunking that they
would get if they became a part of the assembly. Furthermore, if one did
ever get caught bunking unoficially, he would have a ready excuse with him.

For the choir, Mrs. Zafar had used her leverage to get hold of the music
teacher and had assigned him the responsibility of making Ray Charles out
of the choir kids in a mere seven days. The English theatre teacher was also
not spared and was dumped on with another duty apart from the numerous
assignments that she was already reeling under the pressure of by asking her
to draft a play on Environment for her assembly. She couldn’t also obviously
refuse the duty as Mrs. Zafar was an old salt in the school and commanded a
lot of respect. Cursing her luck was all that she could do to give herself some
sort of satisfaction.

One day before the all important day, she asked all the participants to report
to the assembly area after the first period for a full practice run. Everyone
had gleefully obeyed as no one (not even Sourya) wanted to attend the ever
boring Civics class.

“Pity the ones who are still in the class,” Ashwin said as they walked
towards the assembly area.

The students reached to see that Mrs. Zafar was already there. They
generally had to wait for her whenever she would call them for practice.

“Everybody take your positions fast,” she announced hurriedly. “I don’t
want anybody wasting time. I have a class next period and I want to see a
full flawless practice run before the bell rings.”

The students looked at each other.

“Comperes! Come forward,” she ordered.

Shourya and Sonali walked up to the front and stood behind a makeshift
dais.

“OK. Start,” she instructed. “And don’t make any mistakes. One error and
you’ll have to start all over again!”

Shourya started, “Good morning everyone. I welcome you all to today’s
assembly which is being conducted by seventh G…”

“STOP!” Mrs. Zafar cried. “Have you forgotten which class are you in? You
just said seventh G. Please Shourya, concentrate!”

“Sorry ma’am,” he apoplogised and started again. “Good morning everyone.
I welcome you all to today’s assembly which is being conducted by eigth
G.”

Sonali took over from there, “The theme of today’s assembly is
Environment. Oxford dictionary defines Environment as the surroundings or
conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates…”
Shourya and she spoke in turns for about ten minutes before calling upon
Arihant who was to deliver the thought of the day.
He proceeded, reiterating the thought of the day in his mind as he walked.
He spoke it flawlessly. Not really an achievement considering that it was
only nine words long.

“Next up,” announced Shourya, “is Ashwin who will enlighten us more on
this topic.”

Ashwin had yet not memorized his speech. He only wished that Mrs. Zafar
would be a bit lenient in his case and allow him to read from the sheet of
paper. He walked up and started.

“Wait wait,” Mrs. Zafar said. “Why are you reading from the sheet?”

Ashwin hung his head and replied: “Ma’am… I … umm… I have not yet
memorized it.”

“WHAT?” she cried out. “The assembly’s tomorrow and you still haven’t
memorized the damn speech?”

Ashwin stood there silently.

“If you didn’t want to do it you could’ve told me, I would’ve given it to
someone else. This is very bad Ashwin. Now how will you memorize it in
just half a day?”

“Ma’am I will. Don’t worry.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive ma’am.”

“Well, I don’t really have a choice. Anyway, read it from the sheet as for
now. Let me see how you speak.”

Because of the reprimand, Ashwin spoke nervously. He messed up few of
the words and stammered at quite a number of places.

‘I wonder if I made the right choice’ the teacher thought.
When he finished, the teacher had a grim look on her face. Ashwin’s face
acquired the same on seeing hers.

“Ashwin,” she said, “I’m sorry your rhetorical skills weren’t too great. I
excused you from the memorizing part all right but I’m afraid you were just
not good enough at the actual speaking part.”

“Ma’am… sorry ma’am,” he pleaded. “Maybe it is becase I have not
memorized the thing. I am sure it will turn out much better once I do learn
it.”

Mrs. Zafar contemplated for a while and said, “I’m sorry Ashwin. If you
have not yet conned the speech and if this is the way you are speaking… I…
I think you’ll have to be replaced by someone better.”

Ashwin stared at her with contempt and anger. He was about to protest when
she cut him short and shouted out to Arihant.

“Ma’am…”

“Arihant! Please come here for a minute,” she said.

Arihant ran towards her hearing her call, “Yes ma’am?” he said.

“Ashwin, give him the paper,” she ordered.

Ashwin obliged and handed over the speech to Arihant and backed off to a
distance, an inferno of rage swirling inside him against his teacher. He
listened as Arihant spoke.

One could see Mrs. Zafar’s head nodding in approval as Arihant read from
the piece of paper, apparently, better than Ashwin did.
He cursed Arihant as the speech ended.

The speech ended with an encouraging remark for Arihant, “Much better,”
she said, looking at Ashwin from the corner of her eye, seemingly mocking
at him that Arihant had managed better than he had.
She called him.
“Ashwin, I’m sorry but I’ll have to give the speech to Arihant. He spoke way
better than you.”

“But ma’am… I…”

“No Ashwin. You anyways haven’t yet memorized it, so it won’t harm that
much. Well, you can take the thought of the day if you want.”

Ashwin was not game for any consolations. ‘After all this, taking part in this
assembly would be a disgrace to my self-esteem’, he concluded.

“No thanks ma’am.”

“Well… OK… it’s purely your choice.”

Ashwin strode off towards the back of the stage and slumped in a corner. He
took out the Sanskrit book and started completing the homework that Mrs.
Kamla Dabral had assigned to them. Though it was due for submission only
next week.

“I have better things to do than rehearse for this hebetudinous assembly,” he
muttered to himself.

At a distance, the class choir had broken into a song. Well, it would qualify
as more of a cacophony rather. Mrs. Zafar had bellowed at them to stop
before they could barely complete the opening line, much to Ashwin’s relief.

“How glad I am that I am no longer a part of that,” Ashwin commented after
hearing that jarring noise; what they claimed to be music.

The next morning, as the students of eigth G stood skittishly on the stage
while the principal recited the inaugral morning prayer, Ashwin comfortably
cuddled up in his bed, snoring away as he dreamt of Angelina Jolie.
CHAPTER 3
BIRTHDAY BASH
(Quite Literally)

Missing one’s class assembly did have its drawbacks: The class was treated
to ice creams that day on the order of the principal. This was a practice that
the principal had started to reward the students for their hard work and was
one of the reasons why every class looked forward to its assembly.
Furthermore, if the assembly caught her fancy, she would even go a step
ahead and award the students with a picnic for their wonderful show.

Talking about ice creams, Ashwin was in dire need of one right now. Sweat
was dripping of his face as he sat on the corner seat of the class with the
nearest ceiling fan miles off from him. He wiped a drop as another fell on
his Monday test sheet, creating a small blue blob on the ink.

“Shit,” he said softly, as the salty water droplets now started dripping all
over his answers. “They should like, spend some more and fix up a fan up
here or something. The heat’s bloody killing me… and my answers too!”

“Ssshhh…” cried his partner, a short plump girl from sixth grade.

Ashwin mouthed a silent sorry and carried on with his paper. This time’s
Hindi paper was unusually short and easy. Ashwin had already reached the
last section and almost thirty five minutes still remained.
Generally, he used to hate the Hindi tests and exams just because of the
enormous amounts of writing that one had to do to finish it. Ashwin was
almost lulled off to sleep writing the rambling long answers that the
questions of any Hindi paper demanded. But today, the case was a bit
different. The Hindi department, for once, had shown a bit of sympathy
towards the students and had drafted a fairly short paper, much to Ashwin’s
relief. A long Hindi paper and a lack of moving air would have proven to be
an icky combination which would surely have made matters as bad as
possible.
He tried hard to concentrate on the the questions that remained: the last two
long ones which clearly specified that the answers should be atleast two
hundred words long.

‘Gawd! Four hundred words still to go!…’ he thought and willed his mind
into the final two hurdles, curbing the temptation to just leave the paper and
go off to sleep or something. Hindi bored him more than Carnatic music you
see.

He roved on with the answers for some time, carefully re-checking the
spellings of the esoteric words that he wrote. He had learnt up quite a few of
them for the test so that he could add some sort of substance to his answers.

He finally finished ten minutes before time.

“May I borrow your pencil and scale please?” he innocently asked his
partner.

She nodded her head in approbation.

“Thank you so much,” he replied, “ I really appreciate it.”

She looked at him… Ashwin feared that she might holler at him at being
such a pest… but she just smiled, with contempt… Ashwin reciprocated it
with a foolish beam.

“You don’t have to be that grateful. You can take it whenever you want
during the test, but please don’t bother me by asking. OK?”

“Yes… yeah… OK.”

And she carried on with her work, muttering something under her breath as
she wrote. Couldn’t really blame her, completing the Social Studies paper
was one huge achievement. Three subjects rolled into one question paper
which is to be completed in just an hour… every nanosecond was precious
you know and Ashwin had just wasted her valuable thirty seven seconds.
Only a few minutes remained and she still had to start with the final portion
of the test, i.e., Civics. No wonder she was furious.
The few minutes seemed to have condensed into a few seconds as the bell
rang soon after.
Ashwin was glad. His partner was not.
While Ashwin blithely handed over his paper to the invigilator, his partner
cried and pleaded for just one more extra minute to try and complete her
paper. The teacher did not relent and snatched her sheets away. She sat there
and wept in a most characteristic sixthee way. Some of her friends crowded
around her and tried their best to console her, to little avail though.

Ashwin stealthily slipped away, lest she catch hold of him and beat him up.

“You can never trust those sixthees!” he had said to himself.

True… the more recent batches of class sixth were of a new generation
altogether. They absolutely had no fear of their seniors and had the audacity
to argue with them whenever their points of view were not considered. It
was sort of OK up to this but some of them even went to lengths as to
actually have a brawl with them. Obviously, that was a pretty foolish thing
to do as most of them returned with black eyes, ears, lips, etcetera.
And then the parents would come visiting the headmistress, complaining
against the seniors who had cracked their children like nuts. What they failed
to understand that it was their own proudy kids who had invited trouble on
themselves.

“You don’t go fooling around with a rhino and then blame the creature for
attacking you!” the headmistress had tried to explain to one of the parents,
who obviously didn’t listen and were adamant that the senior get a red card
or something, if not get kicked out of the school.

I offer my commiseration to all those seniors who have had to suffer because
of some foolish, thickheaded juniors.

Shourya had not turned up for the test, so Ashwin was to sit alone on the
first seat today also. He wondered what had gone wrong with him. Shourya
missing a Monday test was like me missing a Simpsons episode, highly
improbable that is.

He took his seat as chaos reigned in the classroom.
It was always like this, whenever a Monday test would get over, students of
the class would hasten to the front and would try to grab their bags as soon
as possible before a maddening rush prevailed. Others would congregate in
groups and start dissecting the question paper as if it was a frog or a
grasshopper. Sounds of Ooo’s, Aaahh’s, Yess’ , Shit’s (not literally!) and ‘Oh
no! I knew that’ could be heard as they went about with their discussion of
the paper.
People shouted in glee as they realized that their guessed answers had turned
out to be correct. Others groaned when they came to know about that silly
mistake that they had done which would thwart their aspirations of getting a
full in that subject.

The muss soon dissipated as the sixthees slowly filtered out of the class. The
math teacher knew about the situation that prevailed after any Monday test,
so she used to conveniently come late to her period which was the one after
the test.

“Man, we should have P.E. or SUPW after the test,” Farhan exclaimed from
behind. “I am in absolutely no mood to study Math after a Hindi test.”

“True,” Ashwin replied, turning back. “By the way, how was your paper?”

“It was good… but it was damn boring. Hindi sucks man.”

“Couldn’t agree more. It should be banned from the curriculum or
something.”

“Yeah…what a relief that would be!”

After a few minutes, an unrecognised teacher walked into the class. The
students nevertheless stood up to wish her.

“Good morning ma’am,” they chorused, in an inquisitive tone.

The teacher acknowledged and ordered them to sit down.

“Your Math teacher is absent today so I have come as an arrangement,” she
announced. “You can all do whatever work you want to, but quietly. I don’t
want any noise from this class. Is it understood?”
“Yes ma’am,” the pupils replied in unison.

She got down to her work of checking some Monday test papers while the
children relished the free time.
Ashwin opted to complete his Geography homework in the meantime, that
of marking the capitals of each state on a physical map of India. Others
preferred to pass their time by playing pen fight or the silly old game that I
remember I used to play when I was in elementary school – Name Place
Animal Thing.

But their fun was spoilt by Mrs. Zafar who had walked into the class after a
few minutes to make an announcement.
The arrangement teacher and she exhanged smiles before she spoke:
“Line up children! There is a special assembly in the AVH right now,” she
declared. “Quick. Hurry up. We are already very late… actually had to go
after the test got over. Come on now, don’t waste any more time… fast!”
The children obeyed dutifully and rose from their seats. They were always
game for some time in the A.C.!

The arrangement teacher got up and quickly herded the children into a single
file, though the line dismantled a few seconds afterwards.
Mrs. Zafar hurriedly led the students towards the audio visual hall.

“Why an assembly all of a sudden?” Farhan asked as they climbed the stairs
to the AVH.

“Yeah… curious. I don’t have an idea,” replied Ashwin.

They reached the entrance of the hall on the second floor of the E-block and
the teacher ordered them to occupy the last two rows that had been reserved
for their section.

The audio visual hall of the school was a marvel in itself. It had been
recently refurbished and now boasted of a hi-tech sound and light system
fully equipped with all the latest gadgetry and equipments. The air-
conditioning system had also been overhauled and a network of brand new
quiet ceiling air conditioners now cooled the hall. The original floor of
mosaic tiles had now been replaced by a more attractive wooden floor. And
of course, the seats with the earlier torn covers had now been supplanted by
more respectable and snazzy ones. Wallpapers now adorned the earlier
barren walls, giving the place a most elegant and classic look.
All in all, the revamp had turned it into something that the school could be
proud of. And so the students were.

A whiff of cool air greeted the children as they obediently entered and
occupied the alloted seats.

“Aahhh…” Farhan said. “Absolute bliss!” The cool air rustled his hair as he
sat beside Ashwin in the last row.

“Yeah…” Ashwin replied. “It sure is! I was completely drenched in sweat
during the Monday test. There is not a single fan near my test seat for miles.
The humidity was absolutely killing me! Thank god for the assembly!”

He was interrupted by the voice of the compere beaming out from the newly
laid out speaker system.

“Good morning everyone!” it said. “We have all gathered here today for a
purpose. We have assembled here because today, the elusive secrets to
success will be revealed. After this session, each person in this hall will walk
out as a new human being. Today, you will learn about all that you ever
wanted to know. Today, I have the honour to call on stage, one of the
greatest philosophers of India and the author of the widely acclaimed
‘Secrets of Happy Living’ … students please welcome him with a loud round
of applause – Mr. Sadanand Chittaranjan Bose!”

The excited announcement was requited with a rather faint plaudit,
considering that most eighthees were either not aware of this eminent
personality or more probably, didn’t give a damn.

Ashwin and Farhan had stopped listening altogether and had engaged
themselves in a more interesting confabulation, that of the latest results of
the English Premier League. His erstwhile group of friends: Nikhil, Tarun,
Rishi and Adarsh sat in the row next to him, sneering and mocking at every
sentence that the philospher said by taking out weird inferences out of them,
occasionaly breaking out in fits of silent laughter.

Ultimately, no one in the hall was actually listening to the chap on the stage
except for those who had the misfortune of being seated in the first row and
who were compelled to pay attention under the fear of the prying eyes of the
headmsitress that stood there. The teachers could be seen yawning away.

Ashwin and Farhan were discussing about the upcoming derby match
between Arsenal and Tottenham when Farhan noticed Mrs. Zafar from the
corner of his eye, walking towards them.

“Hey, she is coming here,” he prompted, “keep quiet.”

Ashwin turned around and saw his class teacher stride towards them
purposefully.

“Shit!” Ashwin exclaimed. “Do you think she saw us chatting?”

“Maybe… yeah…”

Mrs. Zafar walked upto them and stood beside Ashwin. He shifted nervously
in his seat. She addressed him: “Ashwin,” she spoke softly, “I am making
you the new monitor of the class for the month of September. Is that OK
with you?”

Ashwin’s brain took some time to compute what had just been said. It had
braced itself up for a hard impact and what it got was instead a feathered
landing. When he did gather what the teacher had just spoken, he wasted no
time in accepting the offer.

“Oh…” he said, stuttering slightly. “Yes… sure… I don’t have any problems
ma’am.”

“Good… Today is what? The first?... yes it is… so you can take charge from
today itself.”

“Yes ma’am,” he replied sincerely.

She left them and went back to her seat in the first row as Mr. Sadanand
Chittaranjan Bose talked on from the dais on the stage. He didn’t seem to
stop at all. He had already the stretched the session beyond the alloted time
of one period and the lunch-break had started outside. This made the
students even more restless. They fidgeted around in their seats, expressing
their discontentment at the utter bullshit that the philospher was blabbering
about.

But the headmistress seemed to be loving the whole talk; she had kept
nodding her head in endorsement of whatever gibberish the man was talking
about throughout the whole session. She didn’t seem to care whether the
students had their lunches or not and was rather more interested in them
listening to the gabble that the man was talking. She had apparently
organized this whole program as she thought it would do the children some
good and would mentally prepare themselves for all the hardhsips of the
school and the society that they would face in a few years from now. Of
course, the children begged to differ from her point of view.

The prattle and twaddle lasted for another fifteen minutes before some kind
teacher informed the headmistress that the session had overshot its alloted
time and the break was already about to end.
Her information was met with surprised eyes of the headmistress.

“Is it,” she said.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Good lord! You should have told me earlier! I’ll just prompt at Mr. Bose to
stop.

Mrs. Saxena tried to catch the attention of Mr. Bose but in vain. He had
almost drowned himself into his speech. After a few futile attempts, she
finally caught his eye and signalled at him that it was time for his audience
to leave. He understood and started concluding his never ending talk.

“OK children,” he said, “It was wonderful talking to you today and I am sure
my speech would have enlightened your young minds.”

“Yeah… right!” remarked Farhan.

“I am grateful to Mrs. Saxena for calling me here and giving me this
wonderful opportunity to come and address you all. So…thank you all for
sitting through this session and best of luck for your future!”
And he left the stage, finally.
“At last!” one of the boys in the front row cried. “He seemed to have fallen
in love with the mic!”

His exit from the stage was met with a loud applause, not because the
students thought that he spoke brilliantly, but they were just desperate to get
him off the stage as fast as possible.

He beamed an all-thirty-two-teeth flashing smile at the crowd as he was
escorted away by Mrs. Saxena.

The students were led away soon after by their respective class teachers.

“So Mr. Monitor!” Arihant called Ashwin from behind as they walked
towards their classroom.

“Oh…” he replied. “Thanks man… But I have no idea why she selected
me.”

“It’s simple. Because she thought that you are good!”

“Well… I don’t know. Do you know who’s the other monitor along with me?
Is it a girl?”

“Yup… and you’ll be glad,” said Arihant, “to know that it is Sonali!”

Ashwin tried hard not to blush and acquire a ‘so-what?’ look.

“Uhmm… well… OK… OK… it doesn’t really matter that much you
know,” he lied.

“We’ll have to see that!” commented Farhan, and he and Arihant burst out
laughing.

Ashwin hurried away to the class preferring to leave them behind. On the
way, Mrs. Zafar caught hold of him and handed him a two paged class list
which contained all the personal particulars of each student of the class.

“Pass it around to every student and tell them to cross-check whether their
details are right. If there are any changes, tell them to write it down on the
side with a pencil. Will you do it?”
“Yes ma’am,” he replied, in a most ‘why?-don’t-you-trust-me?’ sort of tone.

They exchanged false smiles and went went their ways.

“Why does she keep questioning me like that?” he mumbled to himself as he
climbed the stairs to the third floor.
It was still break and most of the students of the class were out, but he saw
Sonali sitting on her seat and eating from her lunch box. He went up to her.

“Hey!” he said. “Whatcha doing?”

“Oh… hi Ashwin,” she replied in a happy tone. “Not much, I was just trying
to finish my sandwich. By the way, congratulations on the monitorship!”

“Yeah… thanks… congrats to you too!”

“Yeah… thank you. So, did the teacher assign you any work already?”

“Well, yeah… actually she did. Just now in fact,” he held up the two paged
list to show it to her. “I have to get this checked around by all the students.
Just a verification of their personal particulars.”

“Cool. So you are on the job already eh? I’ll dump all my responsibilities on
you whenever Mrs. Zafar assigns me any. So be prepared!”

Ashwin laughed softly. “We’ll see who does that!”

Sonali chuckled and took the last bite of her sandwich. “I’m going to have a
lot of fun this month!”

“You can count on me for that!”

Their conversation was disturbed by the non stop stream of students that
were now entering into the class, passing between them as they went
towards their seats. The bell had rung.

Ashwin went back to his seat after flashing a final smile to her. He sat down
on his front row seat and rummaged through his bag for his computer
notebook.
“ASHWIN!” Farhan ejaculated excitedly from behind his seat.

“What?”

“This list says that your birthday is just four days away!” He fluttered the
class list in front of his face as if it was some long lost treasure map and he
himself was behaving like he had found the pelf.
Well, a birthday treat was no less like a treasure to him.

“Oh… yeah… I forgot to tell you guys.”

“Well, you need not bother now. The whole class will now know about it!”

“Thank you so much Farhan,” he remarked sarcastically.

Ashwin cursed his luck. Birthdays, in this school, were never looked
forward to by the person who was to turn a year older that day, instead,
his/her friends were more excited about the day. To the birthday boy/girl, it
was more of a punishment really. Ashwin had been saving his skin for the
past two years now. The birthday hoodoo had finally got the better of him
this time around.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Ashwin was being mobbed. Almost all the students of his section as well as
some others were hounding him for their share of the birthday treat. He had
never thought that he was so popular. Well, even a zinch could achieve
apotheosis on his/her birthday.

“ASHWIN… patty!” cried one .
“Coke for me!” yelled another.
“I want a cornetto!”
“Get a burger!”
“Noodles!” “Chips!” “Biryani!” “Sandwich!”
“Can you guys just have some patience!” replied Ashwin, irritated. He was
clearly having a hard time trying to treat all his friends at the OAT canteen.
“Jeez!... OK, first tell me how many cokes shouild I get.”

The party people quickly counted up the number of coke bottles required.

“Get twelve!” Farhan yelled over the crowd.

“TWELVE!!!” cried Ashwin in disbelief. “Whom am I treating? The whole
school?”

“Just get it,” Farhan replied bluntly.

“Talk about being generous!” Ashwin muttered to himself.

He emerged out of the exasperating ruck of students, five bottles in one
hand, four in the other and other three forcibly stuffed into his pocket. It was
no short of a wonder that he managed to get all twelve bottles intact out of
that swarm.

“Here you go,” he said, handing out the cokes to the people one by one.
“Now who all are left?”

Fifteen hands rose. “What the hell!” he exclaimed. “You people are still
left?!”

“Yeah…” they replied synchronously.

“OK… now what all do you guys want?” he asked, perturbed.

“Patty!”
“I want a cornetto!”
“Get a burger!”
“Noodles!” “Chips!” “Biryani!” “Sandwich!”

“OK OK! I’ll get some of everything that is available! You divide it amongst
yourselves as per your preferences.”

They nodded in approval.
“Good.” He went towards the canteen and entered the throng of students in
front of the canteen once again.

His friends waited for him on the steps of the OAT. They were sitting in
anticipation of their treat to arrive when Rishi emerged out of the corner and
came towards them.

“Where is Ashwin?” he asked purposefully.

“Oh… I don’t know you,” said Arihant, “but I bet you have come to get
yourself a treat, isn’t it? Well, he’s just coming with some stuff. You can take
whatever you want from the lot.”

“NO STUPID!” he rebuked vehemently. “The headmistress wants to see
him!”

All of them stared at him with shock.

“Ashwin? The headmistress wants to see Ashwin?” enquired Farhan,
wanting to confirm what Rishi had just said.

“Yes… Ashwin of your section.”

“But why?”

“You don’t have to bother about that,” he said coarsely.

Ashwin returned soon after with loads of stuff delicately equipoised in his
hands. He saw Rishi. Initially he was surprised, but then a feeling of anger
overpowered it when he recalled the mess he had gotten him into some
months back. Their eyes met and Ashwin gave him a scornful look as he
handed over all the food stuff. Rishi retorted it with a cold stare.
Rishi spoke first: “Ashwin, Mrs. Saxena wants to see you,” he said plainly.

Ashwin was not amused by the apparent joke. “Get going Rishi,” he said.
“Stop fooling around with me.”

“I am not fooling around,” he replied in an agitated tone. “Mrs. Saxena has
sent me here to call you.”
Ashwin chuckled sarcastically. “Now why on Earth would Mrs. Saxena want
to meet me? Because it is my birthday? Or is it because today is Teacher’s
Day? Eh Rishi?”

“You’ll soon find out… Now come with me… quick.”

“Well… OK… let’s see what she’s got for me.” He followed Rishi as they
walked out of the OAT area towards the CB block.

The drizzle was gradually taking the proportions of a heavy shower so they
hurried along.
“If this is a prank,” Ashwin said, “then you will have to pay for it.”

“Dude… what’s your problem? Just shut up that stinking mouth of yours and
walk quietly. Do you get that?”
Ashwin just gave him a despisive look and chose not to reply, lest they had a
fight right in front of the headmistress’ office.
They reached Mrs. Saxena’s office and walked in nervously. She was busy
doing some paper work but immediately put it aside as she saw them
walking in.

“Don’t you have the courtesy to ask before coming in?” she complained.
“You don’t just barge into your headmistress’ office like this!”

“Sorry ma’am,” they replied.

She shook her head and muttered a remark under her breath on how the
children had seemed to have lost all respect for the teachers. “So are you
Ashwin?” she asked, looking at him with that trademark piercing look.

Ashwin felt like she could see right through him. Her eyes were cold and
unforgiving. The icy stare sent a chill down his spine, even though there was
no actual reason to be fearful about. “Yes ma’am,” he replied innocently.

“OK, I’ll get straight to the point,” she said candidly. “Tell me why did you
tear off a part of the wallpaper in the AVH? Now don’t lie!... you must be
well aware how I HATE them!”

Ashwin’s face acquired a quizzical look. Had his brain registered properly
what the person sitting in front of him had just said?
“AVH? Wallpaper?” he asked in a puzzled tone. “I am sorry ma’am but I
don’t know what you are talking about!” He tried to maintain a ‘with-all-
due-respect’ voice. But she didn’t buy his explanation.

“SHUT UP!” she bellowed. “Stop lying! You better come out with the truth
fast or I’ll probably slap you across the face right now!”

“Ma’am! I am not lying! I seriously... have no…no idea…of…of… this
whole issue!” he stammered in fear. “Maybe you got the wrong person!”

Mrs. Saxena’s temper burst out like a volcano and words as hot as lava
started vociferating out from her mouth. She stood up and banged her desk
with her strong fists. “Lacs of rupeed have spent in furbishing that
auditorium…do you know that?... and you just so easily go there and just
destroy it as if it is your own personal property! And then you have the
audacity to argue with me like this!”

“But ma’am…”

“Listen to me!” she interrupted, or rather shouted. “This boy here says he
actually saw you doing it! Ask him! Why would he lie?”

Ashwin turned his head towards him and he could’ve sworn that if he had a
gun in his hand right now, he would have shot him bang on in the middle of
his eyes from point blank range. He saw Rishi smirk slightly. He felt his fists
clench, ready to knock him out, but he somehow resisted. Ashwin had never
felt such a strong sense of abhorrence and anger at anybody else in his life.

“Ma’am he is lying!” Ashwin protested. “He is just trying to protect himself
or his companions who would’ve done this! We two anyways don’t have a
nice relationship and a forgettable history of… arguments and squabbles.”

“Oh really? Should we also call his companions in here?”

“Yes ma’am… please. I assure you that the wrongdoer is one of them. I saw
them in the AVH the other day when Mr. Bose had come. They were
constantly talking and giggling throughout the session. I am sure they
would’ve been upto something. I was sitting right beside them. That’s why
they are probably targeting me and are trying to shift the blame from
themselves. Also the fact that they don’t have any degree of liking for me.”
Mrs. Saxena for once gave some sort of credence to his point of view and
instructed Rishi to go and call Nikhil, Tarun and Adarsh from their classes.
He obeyed and rushed out of the room.

She immersed herself in the paper-work again while Rishi returned with the
other boys. Ashwin took a few steps back to ensure that he was at a safe
distance from her and leaned against the wall.

Ashwin stood there, thinking and finally figured out what had exactly
happened. He had seen the group drop behind the crowd of students that day
and had apparently stayed back in the AVH as Ashwin had not seen them
come out even after the line of students had ended. He hadn’t really cared
too much so he had walked away. Although he knew that they were upto
some mischief. Rishi being the most influential and dominating person of
the group and considering his past bitter altercations with Ashwin, had
conveniently shifted the blame on to him when he was accused of the act.
Also the fact that Ashwin was sitting just in the next row to their’s made his
false claim even more colorable.

Rishi returned with the rest of the three genuine accomplices after a few
minutes. They walked in fearlessly. They were in a majority and it would
require a great deal of effective debating from Ashwin’s side if he had to get
out of this mess cleanly. It was them four versus him alone. He was
handicapped, but he didn’t submit.

“OK boys,” Mrs. Saxena said, keeping aside her work. “Please explain.”

Tarun spoke on their behalf – “Ma’am, it’s simple. Ashwin was sitting
beside us in the AVH that day – the day Mr. Bose had come to speak to us.
He was constantly talking with his friend the whole time we were in the
AVH, apparently planning the act.”

Ashwin opened his mouth to protest, but was stopped by Mrs. Saxena.

“After the thing got over,” Tarun continued, “we were one of the last ones to
leave and on the way out, we saw Ashwin scratching at the walls with his
pen, and would have probably ultimately tore it off. That, is the truth.”
“Ma’am please don’t believe a word of what they said,” Ashwin cried. “That
whole story is false. In fact it was I who saw them hang around in the AVH
even after everyone had left. As a monitor, my class teacher had asked me to
check if all the students of my class had left or not so I had went inside again
and I saw them loitering around suspiciously. As I was getting late for my
class so I left soon, but I bet that they were the ones who did it.”

Mrs. Saxena excogitated for a while and weighed the two arguments. It was
a tough decision. There was not enough concrete evidence to separate the
guilty from the innocent but she used her past experiences of such cases and
concluded that most probably it was the group of four who were to be
blamed. But she was not too sure, so she announced punishments to both,
them being more severe for Rishi and Co. than Ashwin, but whatever it was,
Ashwin didn’t actually deserve any kind of punishment at all. But he
couldn’t do anything about it than just blame his rotten luck.

“OK,” she announced, “I really don’t have enough time with me today, so I
am announcing punishments for both of you. But I do feel that you guys are
the ones who actually did it,” she said pointing at the four, “so your
punishments will be a little harsher than that boy’s who it seems has been
dragged into this controversy for no fault of his. But still…I cannot be
hundred percent sure so I am playing safe.”

“But ma’am…” Ashwin said, “why…”

She cut him short, “Child! I don’t have time! Please don’t argue with me
anymore or I might just end up giving you a red card for disobedience. I am
just stripping you off the monitorship… I think that’s lenient enough… so
please don’t crib anymore.”
Ashwin stared at her in disbelief but stopped himself from blurting out in
objection.

She then turned to the other four. “And as far as you all are concerned,” she
continued, “I am giving you four a one week long detention. According to
this, you won’t be allowed to go outside during the break and their would be
no P.E. or SUPW for you. Instead, you’ll report to me and stand outside my
room during those periods… I have been quite clement on all of you. You
should be glad that I am not handing out red cards.”

They hung their heads in shame.
“You all can leave now,” she said irritatedly.

Ashwin followed the four out of the room, cursing the headmistress as he
walked out. Outside, even though he had an overpowering temptation to hurt
Rishi as badly as he could, he thought logically and seeing that they were
four of them, rightly walked away vowing to himself that he will get him
some other time.

The bell had rung for the fourth period ten minutes ago and the corridors
were deserted. Ashwin let a few tears roll down his cheek as he climbed the
stairs.
“What does she think of herself?” he said to himself, feeling angry and
betrayed… of justice. “And why does it always have to be me?”

He reached the third floor but he couldn’t govern the tears to stop at his
whim. He entered the boys toilet and let his sentiments get the better of him.
CHAPTER 4

Aswhin cupped his hands and blew some warm air into them.

“Brr…” he said to himself as he walked into the main gate of the school, “…
it’s nippy!”

It was the second day after the school had broken for the winter vacations
and winter had already arrived in the capital city, unusually early (blame it
on the CFCs and CO2s!!!). The half T-shirt and shorts that Ashwin was
wearing just aggravated the chill for him. No, he wasn’t a freak in wearing
these cool summer clothes on such a cold day like this, but had donned it
because Mr. Gupta had asked the team to come for footbal practice today
morning so that he could drill and train them before the all important semi
final clash against their brother school, DPS Vasant Kunj tomorrow.

Finally after what had seemed like eons, Ashwin had something to cheer
himself about and look forward to. Even though academically, his third year
in the school had been going great guns, all the other aspects of school life
had been going horribly wrong for him. Being stripped of the montiorship
for no fault of his, the daily twits and derisions by Rishi and his group and
his once so impressive image on the class teacher now being reduced to
tatters, all this had left him so depressed that he now hated to come to
school. Taking at least one holiday per week had become the norm for him
and this practice had made his impression fall all the more in Mrs. Zafar’s
mind, if not in the minds of the other subject teachers as well.
And now when he thought that things were reverting back to mormal, the
first choice goalkeeper of the school team, Aditya, shifted out of town and so
did Ashwin’s prospects of happy days. That is because now, by defualt,
Nikhil was officially the new goalkeeper of the school football team. He
would never miss a chance to gibe at him in every practice session and
would criticize him for the tiniest of mistakes that he’d make in defence in
any match. Ashwin feared that this lack of harmony and discordance
between the defender and the goal keeper (some thing that is essential in any
football team in order to help them achieve success) would spell doom for
the team’s chance of winning the inter-school football tournament that was
going on right now. Thankfully, there had been no complications so far, but
that was solely because the strikers had just managed to score more goals
than the opposition, (ideally, they should have kept a clean sheet and not
allowed even a single shot to cross their goal line) which, till now, had been
relatively weaker sides as compared to theirs. But tomorrow’s match would
be the clash of the titans. One in which the true calibre of both the teams will
be tested and will, once and for all, decide who is the first among equals.
This time, the defence could simply not afford to let in so many goals that
they had in the previous games. They were aware that this time, the
opposition’s defence was very strong and would be very difficult for the
strikers to breach it, thus, the result of the game sqaurely lied on the
shoulders of DPS RK Puram’s defence, of which, Ashwin was a key
element, the goal-keeper all the more important, and the accord between the
two, the most consequential.

Ashwin walked on to the football pitch and learnt that he was the first one to
arrive. Then he saw Mr. Gupta emerge out of the fog at a distance.

“Hi Ashwin!” he said.

“Oh!...” he replied, surprised at his sudden apparation. “Hi! You surprised
me!”

“Don’t blame me! Just look at the fog! I can barely see my hands in front of
me!”

“Yeah… today’s practice won’t be easy. I mean, you’ll have to fix fog lights
on the ball or something.”

Mr. Gupta laughed, “Yes yes… you are right. You all are in for a hard time
today.”

They walked upto one of the goal posts, at a distance from which, where Mr.
Gupta had neatly arranged the footballs in a line for free kick practice. On
seeing the sequence of the ready-to-be-kicked balls, Ashwin couldn’t resist
the temptation. He ran upto one of them and kicked it in the direction of the
goal with all his might. The ball did a slight bend and crashed into the cross
bar, rebounding back to him.
“Awww…” cried the coach. “Hard luck Ashwin! Guess you’re just better at
defending!”

“Yeah…” Ashwin said admittedly, neatly bouncing up the ball with his feet
and catching it with his hand. “”A Cannavaro cannot be a Cristiano you
see!”

Mr. Gupta nodded his head. “OK, here come the rest of the guys,” he said,
pointing towards the other end of the field from where a bunch of kids were
walking towards them.

“How can you see them?” Ashwin questioned, “You must have a very
penetrating vision!”

“You bet. I can see right through students (metaphorically that is).”

They waited till the group reached them.

“Hello boys!” Mr. Gupta addressed the bunch. “I’ll excuse you all for
coming late this time, but I won’t tolerate this casual attitude in the future. Is
that understood?”

“Yes sir,” the rest chorused.

“OK. Now to business, you all are well aware why I have called you today
inspite of the unforgiving weather. Tomorrow’s match is very very important
to us. Not only because it is the semifinals but because DPS RK Puram and
DPS Vasant Kunj have a long running rivalry on the football pitch as you all
must be knowing. They are as strong a team as ours, if not stronger. So if we
have to win, we’ll have to play out of our skin…”

“Nice rhyming scheme there!” whispered one of the boys.

“… It will be a battle of the best and only the team which outshines the
other, will emerge victorious. And that is what I want my boys to do:
outclass the opponent, and for that, we’ll have to practice and get all our
strategies and tactics right. That is why I have called you here today and that
is why you all have turned up.”
“Duh!!!” exclaimed Nikhil.

“So let’s not waste any more time,” continued Mr. Gupta, “and get on with
the practice.”
The boys jumped on their spots, all charged up after the pep talk, warming
themselves up for the drill.

“Karan,” the coach called out to the team captain and striker, “Line the boys
up and make them do some warm up exercises. I’ll go and get the training
cones.”

“Yes sir,” he obeyed and led the squad of fifteen to the center of the field and
ordered them to form a semicircle around him. As the captain of the team, he
commanded respect and the members obeyed whatever he instructed them to
do. Even though his short height and lean built had invited questions
regarding his ability and in turn his inclusion in the side, he had silenced
them all with his exceptional talent on the field. Touted as the budding
Henry of India, his skill and proficiency as a striker had proved to be
instrumental in all the wins they had achieved in the current tournament. All
this had lifted him in the eyes of every player of the team and they used to
always look upto him to take inspiration and improve their own game.

After about ten minutes, Mr. Gupta returned with the training equipment.

“OK,” he said. “Enough exercise for now. Strikers come with me. Defenders
and goalkeeper, please proceed to the other goal post and midfielders stay
here.”

The three strikers of the team gathered around the coach. “You all practice,”
he instructed the lot of the defenders and midfielders. “I’ll just be back in a
few minutes after I am done with these three. Midfielders, get the co-
ordination going amongst yourselves and practice long and lofted passing
before I return. Defenders to practice tackling. Decide the goat among
yourselves whom you’ll practice on. Also do a mock penalty shootout and
give some practice to the keeper. Who knows, maybe we’ll need it
tomorrow!”

He strode off in the fog towards the near goal post as the others occupied
their alloted areas and started practice.
The goal keeper and group of five defenders, four of whom would feature in
the starting eleven tomorrow, marched towards the goal on the far end.

“Let’s do the tackling first,” suggested Vaibhav, the other center back along
with Ashwin.

“NO!” cried Nikhil. “We’ll do the penalties first. I want to have some
practice.”

“But you can have it after the tackling also.”

“NO. Just do as I say or I’ll break those yellow teeth of yours and shove it
down your mouth. You get that?”

Vaibhav kept quiet and decided not to answer for fear that he actually did
what he claimed.

Ashwin shook his head in disgust. How he execrated that boy!
“Someone had once rightly said about hating someone’s guts!” Ashwin
mumbled to himself.

“OK guys,” said Akshay, the right back of the team, “We can do it in
whichever order. Let us start with the penalties if he wants.”

“Yeah, exactly,” added Nikhil.

Nobody seemed to have any problem with this except Vaibhav who simply
loved taking people down with sliding tackles and hence was so adamant on
doing it first. But now, after the official threatening that he had got, he had
agreed to keep his interests secondary.

Nikhil took his position in front of the goal while Akshay went to fetch one
ball from the midfielders who had a dozen of them. Ashwin ambled around
on the wet grass deciding which way he’ll shoot. Ideally, he would have
wanted to kick the ball so hard that it would take the keeper along with it
before smashing into the net behind, but as for now, he stayed content with
the thought of seeing him diving in vain to the opposite side and taste the
grass underneath.
Akshay returned with the ball a few minutes later and placed it on the
penalty spot.

“Who’ll start?” he asked.

Vaibhav stepped forward, purpose in his stride. “I will,” he said.

“OK. Nikhil are you ready?” he shouted out to him.

“All set,” he replied.

Akshay backed off to a distance, allowing Vaibhav to take his shot.
Nikhil springed a few times on his spot and waved his arms around to get a
feel of the distance that he had within range. “Come on dummkopf,” he
yelled. “Show me what you’ve got!”

Anger seethed within Vaibhav as he took a few steps back to gather
momentum for the shot. “Get ready to smell leather!” he shouted back.

Nikhil scoffed at the hollow minacious remark.

In his anger, Vaibhav compromised placement for power and kicked the ball
too hard. Nikhil plainly stood at his position and didn’t need to twitch a
muscle as he saw the ball sail over the crossbar and into the science park
behind.

“Shit!” cried Vaibhav.

“So you were commenting something regarding my olfactory sense… eh
Vaibhav?!” Nikhil shot back. “I think you should pay some serious attention
to your common sense. Why the hell would you shoot the ball in the sky
when there is a whole wide goal screaming at you to feed it?”

Embarrassed, Vaibhav walked off from there on the excuse of drinking water
from the water cooler nearby.

“Bring it on!” cried Nikhil. “Who’s next?”

Ashwin had enough of his domineering and stepped forward resolutely to
shut up the big fat mouth of his.
“Oh… so its you Mr. Khanna,” remarked Nikhil. “Come on. Show me your
striking skills.”

Keeping quiet, a firm determination in his body language, Ashwin placed the
ball on the spot and stepped back a few yards. He flexed his right foot and
took a look at the goal… and the keeper, the latter boiling his insides with
ire.
But he stayed calm. It was like it was the penalty shootout of the finals itself.
He started towards the ball, carefully measuring his strides so that he had a
perfect shot at the ball.
As he sped towards the spot, he had still not decided whether he should go
for a placement or power, a combination of both being highly unprobable.
After a few moments, his foot made contact with the ball, rather softly.

Nikhil dived towards the left, haplessly watching in vain as the ball went the
other way, rolling slowly on the ground, begging to be stopped, but there
was no one home to comply with its request.

This time, it was he who said: “Shit!”

“So you were commenting something regarding my striking ability… eh
Nikhil?!” Ashwin shot back. “I think you should pay some serious attention
to your goalkeeping skills. Why the hell would you hasten and jump away in
one direction while the ball leisurely crosses the line from the other side?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Football Field, amidst the fog,:

The time had come, and the battle cry, in the form of the referee’s whistle,
had been sounded. DPS Vasant Kunj had won the toss and had possession of
the ball initially.

All the strategies and tactics that they had discussed yesterday were whirling
in each students’ minds. Ashwin and the other three defenders stood like a
wall near the penalty area, watching the other players pass the ball around in
midfield. Well, they could hardly distinguish between their players and the
rivals because of the dense fog that had enveloped the ground. From their
position, the ball was a blur. Ashwin gauged who was in possession of the
ball by the shrieks and yells of their coach from the sidelines, who, with his
so claimed penetrating vision, was having no problems sighting the players
and the ball.

“Kanishk!” Ashwin heard him yell out to the right winger of the team,
though he could not see him. “Cross it in! Cross it in!”

By the excitement in his voice, Ashwin inferred that this was a very
promising attack and a good goal scoring opportunity. He crossed his fingers
and strained his eyes to try and see what was going on at the other end of the
field. Staring hard, he figured out the ball flying in the air and inside the
penalty area where Karan was waiting, surrounded by an army of defenders.
Ashwin saw the ball come down to the height of the defenders and felt sure
that they would clear it away. But then he saw Karan’s head rising above
them all and his head made contact with the ball. Inspite of his short height,
he had leapt quite a few feet high above the towering defenders and had
managed to get to the ball first.

Ashwin held his breath as the ball flew off his head towards the goal… but
into the hands of the keeper who had cleverly positioned himself at that
exact spot to deny DPS RK Puram taking the lead in this all important
match.
Karan held his head in his hands in disbelief and slowly trotted back to his
position as the goalkeepers got ready to take the goal kick.

“Quite a good start for us!” Vaibhav said.
“Yeah…” agreed Ashwin. “Almost got a goal in the first minute itself!”

The opposition goalkeeper kicked the ball straight into their half. It flew
over the midfielders heads and landed in the void between the midfield and
the defence. Ashwin saw the opponent striker darting towards him with the
ball on his feet, outrunning the center mids, with two other players of his
team flanking him.

“Vaibhav!” he shouted, “Cover my back and get him if he passes me! Don’t
worry about the card!”
Vaibhav understood and sprinted behind Ashwin, ready to take the striker
down if he he managed to trick his way past Aswhin. Akshay and Gaurav,
the right and left backs, positioned themselves to stop the other two strikers
who were running in from the sides.

Nikhil flexed his hands and tightened his gloves, bracing them for impact.
He crouched and concentrated on the ball to get himself in a good position to
stop the strike.
The boy with the ball teared through the fog and approached Ashwin.
Ashwin knew that he had to stop him and couldn’t rely on Vaibhav who was
backing up behind him. He was sure that if given a chance, he would tackle
the striker so hard that a free kick from that threatening position was almost
inevitable, the opponents using that opportunity and taking the lead being
even more probable.

He was now withing sliding distance of Ashwin. He exposed the ball to him,
but Ashwin used his presence of mind and did not fall into the trap. He knew
that the odds of a clean tackle in such a high momentum move were against
him. Instead, he waited for the opponent to do his trick and try to pass him.

The striker did just the same. As they came within touching distance of each
other, the member of the rival team pulled off a stepover and had almost
managed to beat the defender when Ashwin stuck out his leg to the left and
neatly claimed the ball. The striker feigned a dive and appealed to the
referee, raising and swinging his hands in objection.

“He got the ball!” cried the referee, not being fooled by the striker’s
argument. He waved away the protest and signalled to let the game carry on.
Ashwin bolted forward with the ball on his feet. On reaching the half way
line, he passed the ball to Manmeet, the center midfielder of the team.

“Counter! Counter!” yelled Mr. Gupta from the touchline.

Manmeet lofted a pass towards the right corner of the field where Kanishk
was waiting. The practice drill of yesterday yielded its result as the ball
landed squarely in front of Kanishk’s feet.

“Whoa… what a nice ball!” exclaimed one of the substitutes of the rival side
from the bench.
But as soon as Kanishk touched the ball, the linesman blew his whistle and
raised the flag.....
“Offside!” he shrieked.

“Crap!” Kanishk remarked. He saw around him and concluded that the
linesman was right in his decision, but only just.

Karan, who was waiting for the cross in the penalty area, put his hands on
his head in agony. If the cross would’ve been delivered, he would have had a
clear goal scoring opportunity as the nearest defenders were still miles away.
He cursed their luck which, it seemed, was totally hostile to them today.
Nevertheless, he optimistically strode back to his position as one of the
defenders got ready to take the free kick.

The rest of the half boasted nothing much to commentate about. The score
was still nil nil and no cards had been shown, though Vaibhav had come
close to getting himself a yellow when he had taken down one of the players
hard as he had tried to cross the ball in. The victim ultimately had to be
substituted because he could hardly stand after suffering the crunching
tackle.

The players of the home team gathered around the bench, drinking glucose
solutions and eating chocolates which they claimed gave them instant
energy. Mr. Gupta paced upto them and ordered them to form a huddle
around him.
The students obeyed and congregated in a circle with the coach in between.

“It was a decent half,” he said, “but we need to pull up our game that extra
notch now if we have to win. We had many great breaks but unfortunately,
luck went against us and we failed to score. The defence also did a pretty
good job,” he looked at Ashwin and smiled. He then turned his eyes to
Vaibhav, “But Vaibhav, you need to be extra careful. You almost gave away
a penalty. Thank god that the winger was just outside the box when you took
him down! And Nikhil, the save of the subsequent free kick was pretty
good.” Nikhil smiled in smugness. “As far as the second half is concerned,”
the coach continued, “I am making some changes in strategy. We will now
play in a four-three-three formation rather than the earlier four-four-two
configuration. For that, Prateek, I am sorry that you’ll have to sacrifice your
position to a striker.”
“No problem sir,” he replied, “Anything for the team.”

“That’s the spirit! That’s the spirit I want in all of you! Play for the team and
not for individual glory. I am sure that if Karan had passed the ball to
Sarfaraz instead of having a crack at the goal himself that time, we would
have been one goal up. But anyways, I want you to understand what I am
saying and not repeat the mistakes in the second half,” he turned towards the
captain of the team, “Karan, now there will be two strikers on your sides,
Sarfaraz and Aabhas. One of them will always be in an area with relatively
more space. Pass the ball to them whenever you get a chance. Move up
through the defence and ask them to cross in. This will just rip apart their
defence. You understand what I am saying?”
Karan nodded his head silently.
“Good. And Sarfaraz and Aabhas, I hope you too have understood the
strategy.”
They yessed.

The referee whistled from the field, calling the players from the sidelines to
resume the match.

“Excellent. Now I want you all to go out there and give it your best! Show
them what we are made of! Give them a piece of what DPS RK Puram is!
Go…get them, will you?”

“YES SIR!!!” the whole team shouted confidently in reply.
Brimming with energy and confidence, they sprinted on to the field for the
second half.

Karan and Aabhas stood near the ball center pitch as the rest of the team
took their positions behind them. With a final glance at the watch, the referee
blew the whistle. The second half was underway.

Both teams oozing with enthusiasm, the second half game was characterized
by a sense of vigor from both sides, much unlike the first fourty five
minutes, which was a dull stalemate. Each team tried as hard as they could
to get the possession of the ball, inviting a lot of yellow cards in the process.
Ashwin also got one for rashly tackling one of the players from behind,
though he thought that he didn’t deserve it and had almost made the referee
send him off after adamantly arguing with the referee for quite some time
after the card was shown. Now he had to be extra cautious. One more
mistimed move and he’d be off. He had also not helped matters after that
fiery altercation with the referee.

Fourty minutes into the second half, the game was still seeming to be
heading into extra time with both the teams, inspite of the great energy
levels that they were maintaining, not looking like scoring. The strengths
and capabilities of both the schools were so similar that the game was still
deadlocked. Both the defences equalled any attack that built up in front of
them, no matter how threatening they seemed, thereby preventing any of the
teams from taking the lead. It would really take something dramatic to
change the course of the match now… and who would’ve guessed, that in a
few minutes, Ashwin would be reponsible for the same.

DPS Vasant Kunj were counter-attacking after their defence had thwarted yet
another goal scoring attempt by DPS RK Puram. Their three strikers were
tearing towards the opponent’s goal. RK Puram’s midfielders lagged behind,
unable to halt their corrivals’ onslaught. Now, only the line of four defenders
were up against the group of opponents pacing towards them.

Ashwin glanced both sides. “Where the hell is Vaibhav?” he muttered to
himself. He turned his head and saw him standing some distance behind
him.
“What the hell are you doing there?” he yelled. “Take my right!... Quick!”
But it was too late. The attackers had already reached within striking
distance of the goal and there was no time left for Vaibhav to change his
position.
He saw the charging trio and cried, “Leave it Ashwin! Try to stop him. I’ll
get him if he crosses you.”

Ashwin shook his head in disapproval but realized that nothing could be
done now.

The striker darted towards him. This time, he decided not to test Ashwin’s
capabilities and instead, veered into the space left free by Vaibhav. Ashwin
knew he would do that after he had foiled so many attempts of his to trick
his way past him. He was at his heels in a flash, catching up with the player
in no time. They ran shoulder to shoulder and the striker was finding it
increasingly hard to keep the ball on his feet under the constant pressure by
Ashwin.
He entered the penalty area. Inspite of the threat of a penalty and another
yellow card, Ashwin didn’t abate the pressure on the attacker and pushed
even harder. The striker finally buckled under and lost possession of the ball.

With the ball in his control now, Ashwin veered sharply on his heels and had
started to clear the ball when another of the rival team’s players came bolting
towards him. There was not enough space or time to power up and clear the
ball away so Ashwin cleverly stepped sideways with the ball and avoided the
player. But he refused to accept defeat and was back once again, pressuring
Ashwin from behind.

“What a pest!” Ashwin mumbled to himself as he did yet another sharp turn
and now faced his own goal.
The opponent player was simply not relenting even for a moment and had
Ashwin under constant pressure. Ashwin realized that if he didn’t pass the
ball now, he would certainly lose possession to the person behind him, and
that too in such a crucial position where he would be off in a clear goal
scoring opportunity.

He saw Vaibhav standing behind him, guarding the near post of the goal.
Without intimation, he passed the ball towards him. Vaibhav was too busy
getting his position right and missed the ball completely. Nikhil watched in
horror from the other post as the ball tardily rolled into the goal.

“What the…!!!...” exclaimed Vaibhav as he witnessed the ball roll into the
goal inches away from his feet.

Ashwin stared in disbelief as the rival team celebrated. He was too shocked
to say anything, and too shocked to hear what Nikhil was swearing at him.

“DUDE!” bellowed Vaibhav, coming upto him. “What the hell was that?”

Ashwin kept quiet, not knowing what to say, not knowing whether it was his
mistake or Vaibhav’s who had actually missed the ball.

“You just cost us a place in the finals, jerk!” added Nikhil, running up to
them. “And ultimatlely the trophy also!”

Ashwin ignored their comments and ran towards the bench where his coach
was standing, jaws dropped.
“What happened Ashwin?” he asked as he reached him.

“Sir,” he replied, “Please substitute me.”

‘Maybe this whole bloody year is jinxed for me!’ he thought as he sat down
on the bench despite the coach’s protest. ‘Can’t wait for New Year’s eve!”
CHAPTER 5
PUBERTY STRIKES

DPS Vasant Kunj had went on to lose the finals to underdogs Tagore
International School for whom this whole tournament had been a dream run.
It was the first time that they were contending for the coveted cup and had
shocked all by reaching the finals, moreso defeating one of the favourites
through a penalty shootout in the ultimate game.
Ashwin had refrained from going to the football field in the P.E. periods
since the school had reopened after the winter break and used to stay back in
the class solving Physics numericals with Shourya instead.

It was a chilly February morning and Mrs. Zafar walked in for the second
period, wearing a dull cream colored cardigan, carrying a bundle of sheets in
her hand, which, by the manner she firmly held them close to her chest,
seemeed to be very important stuff. She carefully handed them over to
Hitesh, the new monitor for the month of February.

“Distribute this to everyone,” she ordered, “and give me the extras. I’ll keep
it for the absentees.”

Hitesh obeyed and started distributing the information sheet cum form to the
students.

“What could this be about?” whispered Ashwin.

“I don’t know,” replied Shourya. “Maybe something regarding the selection
of the second language.”

“Huh?! What’s that about?”

As if on cue, the teacher took over:

“As you all must be aware, from next year on, you will have only two
languages to study. English is compulsory and you have a choice between
Hindi and your third languge for the other slot. Hitesh is distributing the
option forms right now. I want all of you to go home today and think over
what you want to carry on with and what you want to leave, i.e. if you
haven’t yet thought about it which I am sure would be the case with the
majority of this class. Talk to your parents and choose wisely. Remember,
this subject will also be a part of your ‘Board Syllabus’ so don’t hasten and
think what suits you the best. Don’t take Hindi or whatever just because
your friends are also taking it. Everyone has a different aptitude towards a
subject. Have a recap of your performances in both the subjects in the past
year and see for yourself which of the two are you better at.”

“Ma’am, but I got almost the same marks in both throughout the year, and
that too both being above ninety five percent,” said Shourya innocently.

The class laughed at the unique situation. Some of the students’ combined
score of Hindi plus their third language didn’t reach ninety five!

“Then you should be glad!” replied Mrs. Zafar. “You are in a win-win
situation!”

Shourya flashed a fake smile at the teacher. ‘Thank you so much for helping
me out with my dilemma!’ he mumbled in his mind.

Hitesh came over to their row and handed out the form to Ashwin and
Shourya.

Ashwin studied it for a minute and learnt about the whole second language
saga. It didn’t take him more than a jiffy to decide what he would be
continuing with.

“Have you decided?” questioned Shourya.

“Yes,” replied Ashwin.

“So quickly?”

“I had no second thoughts.”

“What’s it?”

“Sanskrit… obviously!”
“The same for me, most probably.”

“For once, I can’t wait for the final exams and get done away with shitty
Hindi.”

“True!”

“And another important thing,” continued the teacher, “that I’d like to let
you know is that next year, all sections will be re-shuffled and it is most
likely that you will have, at the maximum, only three to four children of this
section with you in ninth standard. So that is another aspect that you need to
keep in mind and mentally prepare yourselves for it. You’ll have to make a
whole new group of friends next year.”

“Awww…..” cried the class together.

“Don’t moan like this!” said Mrs. Zafar. “This is all a part of your
personality development. You can’t stick with a single set of friends for the
whole of your life. I mean, there will be the special few who will remain in
touch with you throughout your life, but apart from that, you’ll have to learn
to adjust and build up relationships with new people all the time in the
outside world. In fact, you should be grateful that the school is training you
for it at your grassroot level.”

Some of the kids nodded in approval, others shrugged.

“She’s talking sense,” said Shourya.

“Bullshit!” replied Ashwin.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

It was the day of the last final exam and Ashwin was pondering over the
final long answer question. It read:
As Bishal Mahato of ‘The Homecoming’, write a diary entry in 125-150
words expressing your feelings after you returned to the village after two
decades.

“I’d rather kiss the toilet seat than imagine myself to be Bishal Mahato from
that balderdash lesson!” mumbled Ashwin, unable to think of anything
substantial for the answer. “One twenty five to one fifty words! How am I
going to fill it up?”

Nevertheless, keeping in mind that only a few minutes remained for the bell
to ring, he started rambling.

Dear Diary
Today was one of the most sentimental days of my life. I had never felt so
attached to my village until today. Coming back after twenty long years, it
completely moved me that the village people here still remembered me. I had
no words to express my appreciation and on the other hand, was also
feeling ashamed of myself that I had ignored this place and its people for so
long. This is the place where I was born. This is the place where I spent my
childhood, playing pranks and attending elementary school. Ah… how
beautiful and carefree those days were!......

He counted up the words… “Hundred four,” he said, “Only a few more to
go.”

He completed the answer a few minutes after, stopping at excatly one twenty
five words.

“There you go,” he said, drawing lines between the answers to make his
otherwise untidy paper more presentable and readable.

The bell shrieked in the corridor outside and the invigilator got to their jobs
of collecting the answer sheets. She started from the opposite end so Ashwin
still had a few more seconds to revise and beautify his answer sheet.

“Psst…Ashwin,” Arihant whispered surreptitiously from the front. “A2…
second part…what is the synonym for rudimentary?”

“Elementary,” casually replied Ashwin.
“Thanks…and C3, fourth part… what is the unjumbled sentence?”

“We spent about three hours trying to pull out the car.”

“Cool… thanks.”

“HERE!” cried the teacher from the far side of the classroom. “What are you
doing? Turn around at once!” she commanded to Arihant.

“Ma’am, I was just asking for an eraser,” explained Arihant.

Ashwin let out a soft cackle from behind. “Nice one,” he said.

The teacher came up to their row and started collecting their answer scripts.
She gave a scornful look to Ashwin and Arihant as she literally snatched
away the papers from their hands.

“She hates you,” Ashwin said.

“You too buddy,” Arihant replied. “Didn’t you see that look she gave to both
of us?”

“Now who cares?”

“Exactly, exams over… eigth over… we are free birds now,” Arihant
exclaimed. “For a few days atleast!” he added softly.

“You’re right. We only have a week before we come back for the new
session!”

“As if that is not enough,” would say the school authorities.

They started towards the door to get their bags. They were searching through
the legion of school bags piled up outside when Sonali excitedly came up to
them from the other room where the second half of their class was seated.

“Hey!” she said. “How was the paper?”

“It was good,” replied Ashwin, “except for the last question which I messed
up.”
“Yeah… it was a good paper,” added Arihant.

“Thanks to me!” reminded Ashwin.

“Yes, yes. Thanks to you my dear friend.”

“Huh?” said Sonali, looking puzzled.

“Oh… never mind,” said Arihant. “So, you had something to say?”

“Yes. I wanted to invite you two to this get-together that I have kept at my
place day after tomorrow. As you know, we all will split up and be scattered
in different sections just one week after today so I thought of having a nice
sort of farewell party where everybody could freak out together for the last
time.”

Ashwin and Arihant expressed their approval of the idea through a nod of
their heads.

“Please do come…” she pleaded. “For eigth G’s sake at least!”

“I for one will definitely be there,” asserted Ashwin.

“Count me in too,” said Arihant.

“Cool…thank you so much. Take down my address, quick. I have to go and
invite the others too. By the way, can you also please tell Farhan and Saurav
about the party if you meet them?”

“Yeah, sure,” agreed Arihant.

“No… wait… I informed Saurav yesterday over the phone. So just tell
Farhan if you meet him. OK?”

“Yes,” replied Ashwin with a strong sense of disdain in his voice. He started
reevaluating his decision of going to the party.

“Thank you so much. See you day after.”
“Yeah…certainly,” said Arihant.
She strode off into the crowd and Ashwin saw her slim body snake through
the throng of students as she hurried down the stairs.

“You think you’ll come?” he asked.

“Sure. What’s the harm?” Arihant replied.

“Don’t you think we’ll be nobodies there. I mean, with all her female friends
around, we’ll get bored.”

“I don’t think so. There’ll be Farhan, Saurav, you and me, so I don’t think
we’ll get bored. Besides, it will also be a great opportunity for us to have a
blast together for one last time before we split up.”

“I don’t know man,” he said irritatedly.

“Come on Ashwin, don’t be a party pooper. If you think your parents won’t
allow you then I can talk and convince them if you want.”

“No no. I’ve had pretty bad experiences in letting my friends do the talking
with my parents.”

“So what’s the problem then? Why don’t you want to come?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t feel like.”

“What do you mean you don’t feel like. You just now so vehemently
confirmed your presence at the party front of Sonali. What happened all of a
sudden?”

Ashwin picked up his bag, hauled it over his shoulder, “I’ll see,” he said.
“I’ll ask my parents.”

“I’ll call you at eight today.”

“Don’t bother. I’ll call you up and let you know whether I am coming or
not.”

“Fine.”
Ashwin started walking towards the stairs, “Listen!” he called out to Arihant.
“I’m going straight to my bus so you inform Farhan if you see him around.
Call him once you reach home if you don’t meet him.”

Arihant gave a thumbs up.

Walking towards his bus, Ashwin cogitated whether he should go to the get-
together or not. He knew that there would be no problems with his parents
who would definitely allow him to go for the party and would even provide
him with a car facility to help convey himself to and from Sonali’s house,
even though it was bloody twenty miles away, but deep within, a strong
sense of reluctance was stopping him. He attributed the unwilingness to his
apparent insecurity that Saurav would be given more importance and he
would be relegated to just being a cipher.
But later that day, he was efficaciously persuaded by Arihant over the phone
that all his assumptions were utter drivel.
“Why would she had ever bothered to approach you if she doesn’t want your
presence at the party? Stop this bunkum talk Ashwin. You are being very
immature,” Arihant had explained to him.

*****

The car pulled into the lane that ran by the houses of the C block of one of
the most swish localities of South Delhi – Greater Kailash-1. Ashwin opened
the rear door and stepped out of the car.
“Bhaiya, aap gaadi udhar park kar lena,” he told his driver and proceeded
towards the huge wrought iron gate that guarded the palatial three storeyed
bungalow.

Ashwin was dressed in his best clothes. He had specially bought them
yesterday for the party: a smart black sweat-shirt coupled with a pair of good
ol’ jeans. Black colored sneakers and a grey wrist band that he sported on his
right hand completed his look.

He rang the call-bell and almost immediately, a security guard came running
towards the gate and opened the gates for Ashwin.
“Welcome,” he said. “You must’ve come for the party.”
“Yes,” replied Ashwin.

“Well, you are considerably late. Anyways, it is on the third floor. Go
straight forward the drive-way and take the stairs on the left.”

“Thank you.”

Ashwin paced forward towards the stairway. On the way, he crossed three
luxury sedans, each of which would have left the family dearer by two
thousand grands at least. Ashwin pouted his lips in a whistle.
“Whoa… they’ve got a nice little Auto Expo here!” he exclaimed to himself.

He climbed up the stairs and could hear the music blaring out from above as
he reached the first floor. As if being pulled by the rhythms, Ashwin
hastened his way up the remaining two floors and entered the party hall.

Originally a study cum library, the huge room had been converted into a
virtual disco theque. With a D.J. playing out the latest chartbusters through
mammoth speakers, a long dining table boasting of lip-smacking eatables to
even a dazzling dance floor, it was impossible to believe that this place was
otherwise used as a resource for one’s intellectual pursuits.

“Hey Ashwin!” Sonali called out to him from the dance floor.

Ashwin spotted her in the dancing the crowd and couldn’t help but keep
gazing at her. She was looking stunning in her cream colored top and black
skirt. She ran upto him and Ashwin was forced to break his ogle.

“Hi!” he said.

“Thanks a lot for coming Ashwin,” she said. “I thought that you wouldn’t.
But why did you come so late?”

“Thanks to the Delhi traffic.’

“Oh…yeah… obviously. Anyways, come on in. Everyone else has been
freaking out for the past two hours already. Make the most of whatever time
you have.”
She grabbed his hand and led him to the dance floor where he saw ten odd
people of his class jigging away to the tunes of the latest bollywood
releases. Among them he noticed Arihant, Farhan and Niloy (another of his
classmates) congregated in a group, dancing away like maniacs while
delicately holding glasses of coke in their hands. The rest of them were
females whom Ashwin rarely talked with in class. But he was surprised to
see that even Manvi had turned up.
‘For once she decides to have some fun and take a break from her books!’
Ashwin thought.

“What should I get for you?” Sonali asked.

“A coke will do,” replied Ashwin.

“Right away.”

Ashwin searched around but couldn’t see Saurav anywhere. He wandered
about a bit and took a look at the plethora of items on the dining table. He
picked up some chips from a bowl and continued ambling around as he was
not in the mood to dance. Sonali returned with a glass of coke in her hand
and offered it to Ashwin.

“Where is Saurav?” questioned Ashwin, accepting the glass.

“Oh… just don’t talk about him,” replied Sonali. “He promised me
yesterday that he would come but he called me up today morning and said
that he had to go out of Delhi with his family to some marriage of some
cousin in some city. Bah…”

Ashwin sneered within himself, “Hmm…” he said, trying to look regretful.

“You never mind. You still have Farhan, Arihant and Niloy for company.
And why are you standing here all solitary? Go on… enjoy… Take some
inspiration from your friends man,” she pointed towards the three who were
dancing away like mad men. She laughed. “See!”

“Why? Can’t I have you for company?” he asked flirtatiously. “ Besides, I
don’t feel like dancing right now anyways.”
“Why sure!” she replied enthusiastically. “Even I’ve danced a lot before you
arrived. I say, let’s sit down over there.” She pointed towards some empty
chairs near the dining table.

“Sure,” agreed Ashwin.

They walked together to the chairs and sat close to each other. They talked
while munching chips from the bowl placed nearby on the table.

“So, how were your exams?” asked Sonali.

“Umm…average sorts. Nothing to be excited about really.”

“Yeah…same here. I am just excited about the fact that now there’ll be no
more Hindi!”

“Yeah…true,” replied Ashwin. Then it struck him, “Oh…even you are
taking Sanskrit?”

“Yes.”

“Fantastic. Even I am. I just hope we two are in the same section next year.”

“Great…I’m so glad that even you are taking Sanskrit. I wanted someone to
help me out with the subject. I’m not too good at it you know. I took it just
because my Hindi is even worse! Will you help me?”

“Of course!”

“Thank you so much Ashwin. You really are such a sweet person.”

Ashwin blushed. This party was turning out to be more than he bargained
for. They smiled at each other.

Ashwin didn’t realize how an hour passed so rapidly. Talking to her was
seeming so effortless, so genuine, so soothing. Even the loud music was
inaudible to his ears when she spoke. It was a very funny feeling for him.
One that he had never experienced before. It wasn’t his fault really, puberty
did the same to even the mightiest of men.
They were deeply engaged in rendezvous when Sonali’s mother came up to
them and disturbed their conversation.

“Honey,” she said to Sonali. “Who’s Ashwin out here?”

Ashwin sat up straight from his slouched position when he heard his name.

“Meet Ashwin, mom,” Sonali replied gesturing towards him.

“Oh… so you are Ashwin!” said her mother, looking impressed. “Sonali
talks about you a lot!”

‘Oh… does she?!’ he thought grinning at the lady.

“Yeah… he is one of the toppers among the boys… top five of the class in
fact!”

Her mother raised her eyebrows in appreciation. “Well done, son! Quite
impressive.”

Ashwin turned crimson in the face at the sudden appreciation.

“Oh… I forgot what I actually came here for!” her mother said, hitting her
head playfully with her hand. “Ashwin, your driver was calling you,” she
informed. “He says that your mother called him and asked him to tell you to
start for home at once; you all have for go a dinner party to some relatives’
of yours.”

‘Shit, shit, shit’ Ashwin muttered in his mind, ‘Why do I always have tp
suffer from some sort of bad timing?’

“Oh… I’ll just… leave… in… a second,” he said reluctantly, not wanting to
escape from the heavenly time that he was having.

Sonali’s mother beamed at both the kids and disappeared down the stairs.

“Aww…” cried Sonali. “We were having such a good time,” she moaned.

“Yeah… I just hope that we end up in the same section so that we can have
more such times.”
Sonali grinned. “I’ll keep my fingers crossed!”
CHAPTER 6
INTO NINTH

Mr. Khanna was driving in top speed, caring little for the scanty early
morning traffic. Seated to his left, Ashwin was devouring a banana. Missing
his bus, he had told him that he didn’t want to be late on his first day of ninth
standard itself, but this was really a case of overcompensation.

“What’s the time beta?” he asked.

“Dad! It’s only six fourty! We’ll reach school well in time! For god’s sake,
stop driving like Alonso.”

“How dare you insult me by comparing me with that good for nothing
Judas!”

“OK sorry, will Raikkonen do?”

“Ummm…yeah, he’s the best… I’ll accept that.”

“Good. He’s my favourite too!”

They had a hearty laugh together and Mr. Khanna narrowly missed running
the car over a stray dog.

“OK. Enough Formula 1 connotations!” exclaimed Ashwin, letting out a
sigh of relief that his father veered the car away just at the last moment.
“This is not Monaco for God’s sake! Please drive slowly dad!”

Mr. Khanna didn’t listen to his son and let the car zip past the traffic. In a
trice, the car halted in front of the front gates of DPS RK Puram. Ashwin
grabbed his bag from the back seat, hung it round his shoulder and got out of
the car.
“Bye dad,” he said, “and thank you for the Grand Prix simulation.”

He smiled back, “There’s still time for me to switch to an alternate
profession, eh Ashwin?”

“I don’t think so.” He entered in the school and turned back for a final good-
bye wave, but his father had already rocketed away in the car. He could see
him fly past the Prince Pan crossing, burning rubber. Smiling, he proceeded
towards CB block.

There was a huge drove of students surrounding the notice board which
displayed the new sections and its comprising students. Some students’ faces
reflected delight while for others, the section shuffle had proved to be a
bitter occurrence. Ashwin forced his way into the crowd and somehow
managed to reach the notice board. He spotted the list for eigth G and
quickly ran his fingers down the list.
‘Ashwin Khanna’ the fourth record said. ‘Previous Section – G | New
Section – D | Second Language – Sanskrit | Room Number – C-03’.

He noted down the room number on his hands and scanned the rest of the
class list.
After he was done, he came out of the crowd with a plain expression on his
face. Ninth-D didn’t have so many children of eigth G, Ninth-A bagging the
honours for that (a whopping twelve students), but Ashwin did have
something to cheer about. Among his classmates, there were Farhan,
Shourya, two girls whose, till now, Ashwin didn’t even know the names of,
and, most importantly, Sonali.

He had grinned widely when he had seen her name at the bottom of the class
list, learning that she also had been shuffled into the same section as that of
Ashwin’s.

Ashwin headed towards C Block which housed his new classroom on the
ground floor. He checked his palm for the room number, “Now where do I
find C-03?” he mumbled to himself.
He circumnavigated the block and finally found the classroom after ten
minutes of searching. It was neatly tucked away in the corner, on the rear
side of the block, in the vicinity of the staff room. Ironically, the classroom
stood right beside the wall separating the school from the JJ Colony that lied
on the other side. The juxtaposition of a world class school, the students of
which could arguably be called global citizens if you will, with a settlement
of penury stricken people whose daily life was a struggle for existence,
vividly exhibited the extent of unequality and the sheer impecuniosity that is
regnant in the Indian society currently.
And still we claim that we are on the path to being a superpower!

“ Shit,” Ashwin cursed. “Now the teachers would come faster,” he said,
referring to the short distance between C-03 and the back door of the staff
room.

Cursing his luck, he went up to the door and entered the class. It was a
relatively small room with four columns of desks and chairs somehow
squeezed into the little space that was available. All the seats were occupied
except for a few in the last column. Ashwin looked around and wasn’t able
to recognize anyone else except the few that had come from his earlier
section. Generally, he used to see people of other sections in the P.E. and
SUPW periods, or maybe just hanging around in the CB Block which
contained almost all sections of eigth, but he had never witnessed these alien
faces before. He wondered whether they all were newcomers.

“Nah…” he said, dismissing his suggestion. “DPS RK Puram would never
take these many newcomers in ninth.”

On seeing Ashwin, Farhan’s eyes lit up and he waved at him from the third
seat of the second column of seats. Ashwin spotted him and occupied the
empty seat beside him.

“So… what’s up?” asked Farhan. “I’m so glad that now I have atleast
someone in this class whom I can call a friend. I was afraid that even you
would be turned into some other section. Then I’d have to cope alone with
all these strange faced creatures.”

“Yeah… even for me, the shock was palliated a bit when I checked that even
you had been alloted this section.”

“Arihant got into A.”

“Yeah, I saw that. Bloody twelve people in there!”
“Fortune is a funny thing….. those twelve kids must have a good sense of
humor I guess!”

Ashwin scoffed at the pathetic connotation. He looked around for Sonali and
saw her sitting with one of the two girls of his previous section at the far end
of the room. He tried to catch her attention to indicate his presence but she
was busy chatting away.

Their new class teacher, Mrs. Mala Verma entered the class soon after. A
biology teacher, she had been teaching in this school for the past five years
now and could be termed, relatively, as inexperienced. She had a stocky
built and a height that almost equalled that of Ashwin, quite short that is.
Likewise, her hair was boy cut and didn’t fall beyond the neck. Her fair face
was an assortment of marks, bumps and dents, quite like the Moon’s surface.
Rings adorned each of her fingers and a long chain with a large pendant
hung around her neck. She spoke in a most feeble voice which didn’t quite
quadrate with her built.

“Good morning children!” she said in that characteristic voice.

The class also wished her in return, in a bolder tone but.

“As you must have figured out, I am you new class teacher and my name is
Mrs. Mala Verma,” she announced. “I’ll be teaching you biology this year.
By the way, I wanted to know, who all know me or my face from before?”

Only a solitary hand rose, that of a girl who sat on the front seat, two seats in
front of Ashwin. He couldn’t see her face but could figure out from behind
that she was one of those nerds.

“Oh yes Arushi,” the teacher said. “Obviously. You live near my house and
we go in the same bus so you would obviously know me. Anyone else
except her?”

This time, no hand rose. A clear indication of her comparitive newness to
this school, considering that most of her counterparts were old salts.

“Fine. Forget it… Anyway, this year is a very crucial one for you. You
probably must have heard this from many people so my telling you could
sound redundant but nevertheless, you have work very hard and do your best
in this grade. All that you study this year, and a bit of what you studied in the
last two years, will form the sub stratum for your class tenth board exams
and a clear understanding of which is imperative if you want to do well in
eleventh standard also, if you decide to take up Science after tenth that is. So
I request you all to please not take it lightly and wait for next year to study
for the Boards because it is in ninth itself that the foundation of the course
that you’ll follow for the next two years is laid. I hope you’ve understood,
have you or was I just talking to the walls?”

“Yes ma’am!” ambiguously answered the class, out of compulsion basically.
No one was actually listening to whatever jabberwocky that she was saying.

“Good,” she said. “I must confess, that I’ve already developed a sort of
liking towards this class.”

“Yeah, that’s because most of the students are still not acquainted to each
other,” Farhan remarked softly. “Just wait till that happens! I bet her liking
will fly out of the window then!”

“OK. I have your new time table with me,” she announced, retrieving a
small piece of paper from the crevices of her handbag. “I am writing it on
the board. Everyone please take it down.”

She started writing it up on the white board (from this year onwards, the
school had decided to replace all black boards with white ones and all white
chalks with black markers) and the students started scribbling it down on
their rough notebooks, or just on a stray piece of paper, depending on the
level of sincerity of each person.
After she completed Wednesday, Farhan cried in excitement, “YES!! Double
period P.E.!!”

Ashwin noticed it and joined in with his enthusiasm, “Cool! Two P.E.
periods continuously! Now I am developing a liking towards this teacher!”

“You obviously don’t mean the second part, right?” questioned Farhan.

“Dude, you seriously have a short hand at understanding sarcasms.”

Ashwin had barely finished his sentence when Farhan leapt up with joy, yet
again, “And another on Friday too!!” he exclaimed.
Ashwin looked up at the board and moved his eyeballs to read the time-table
for Friday.
“Another P.E. period!!” he ejaculated on understanding the cause of the
delight behind Farhan’s face. “I have a feeling this is going to be a good
year,” he said.

“The Wednesdays and Fridays at least!” replied Farhan.

The teacher completed the time table and returned to her chair, replacing the
cap of the brand new marker and sliding it down her handbag.
“Another important thing that I wanted to ask you all is that who all are
interested in the JSTS classes?” she said.

This time, her query got a better response and almost half the class rose their
hands.

“JSTS?!” said Ashwin, looking puzzled. “What’s that?”

“It is this scholarship thingy that the Delhi state education department
conducts each year for the students of class ninth,” Farhan answered.
“Stands for Junior Science Talent Search. They have a written exam
sometime in January or February through which they shortlist some students
who are then called for an interview. All this for a mere five hundred rupees,
which they claim is worthy of being called a scholarship. But, yeah, clearing
it is a very prestigious thing and the certificate has great value when you
apply for colleges. So our school conducts classes for the aspiring candidates
three days a week, after school, from one thirty to three thirty. Special bus
routes ply on those days so transportation is no problem. Last year they
didn’t charge anything from the students but this time I’ve heard that they
are asking for a small fee, just so that the students are more serious. Last
year, the JSTS classes had become more of a joke as anyone could butt in
anyday, anytime, much to the anger and dislike of the teachers and their pets,
plus the school’s coffers were being emptied, so they have adopted a change
in policy this time.”

“Will you join the classes?”
“Yeah…my parents are insisting that I do, so I have no choice really.” He
raised up his hand along with the others. Ashwin thought for a while and
followed suit.
‘What’s the harm in trying?’ he muttered in his mind.

Mrs. Verma ordered Arushi to note down the names of the interested
students. “Please bring the fee for the classes tomorrow,” she declared. “Five
hundred rupees.”

After writing his name on the list, Ashwin got up from his seat and walked
over to the other end of the room where Sonali was sitting. Ashwin noticed
her eyes become full of joy as she saw him coming towards her. He
occupied the empty seat in front of her.

“Hey!” she exclaimed. “Are you also in this section?”

“Seems like it,” he replied.

“How come I didn’t notice you till now?”

“I sort of, came late. You were busy chatting with her…” he pointed towards
her partner, “…so I couldn’t catch your attention.”

“Ashwin, I cannot tell you how glad I am that you have also been put into
this section. It will make my life much more easier.”

“Yeah… mine too. I had a pretty strong hunch that we’d be in the same
section and so we are…and my prophesy record lives on!”

She laughed. A few strands of hair fell across her face, caressing her cheek.
She promptly pulled them back behind her ear. Ashwin as if mesmerized,
stared at her, but quickly withdrew the look to avoid an embarrassing
situatution. He broke the silence and said:
By the way, are you joining these JSTS classes.”

“Nah… not my cup of tea,” she quickly replied.

“Oh… OK. So I’d have to look for someone else for company during stay
backs then,” he said coquettishly.
“Ashwin!” she said, in a softly admonishing tone, “By the way, why don’t
we all sit together? Me, you, Harshita (the one who was sitting beside her)
and Farhan. You can call in Shourya too if you want. Then we’ll have this
whole eigth G gang over here.”

“No use. He won’t budge from the first seat! He considers relegating himself
to a seat other than the front one as criminal and morally unacceptable!”

“Oh…I see! But I’m sure that you two don’t have such viewpoints. So you
can come in here, probably after the homeroom period.”

“Definitely.”

*****

It was the last period on a sweltering summer afternoon and Mrs. Sangeeta
Singhal, their computer teacher, was scribbling SQL queries on the board.
Ashwin dilligently took them down in his notebook. Farhan, Sonali and
Harshita preferred to talk about the farewell party that Sonali had thrown at
her residence a few weeks back instead, discussing how they looked on the
day and confessing the secrets behind those elusive and rather unimitable
dance moves that they managed to pull off, particularly Farhan.

“What’s the time Ashwin?” Sonali asked.

“Five minutes to go,” he replied.

“Are you staying back?” asked Farhan.

“Yeah… but don’t feel like it. The heat outside is murderous! What about
you?”

“I will if you do.”

“Fine then, I will.”

Farhan cursed. “I was banking on you to not.”
“I penitently regret my decision, but you’ve got to deal with it.”

“Damn.”

Ashwin sniggered and got back to his work.
As soon as the teacher finished with the queries and was proceeding towards
the chair to have a well deserved seat after standing and writing on the board
for twenty odd minutes in this sultry weather which was only compounded
inside the class room, the bell indicating the end of the day’s study session
rang outside. But not for Ashwin, and even Farhan for that matter though, as
they had to gruel for another two and a half hours in such exacting
conditions, studying for the JSTS examination that was still almost a year
away. Ashwin, on the reccomendation of his parents, had also joined the
classes along with Farhan and hoped that they would actually be of some use
and worth the pain and the torment that he was inflicting upon himself,
staying back after school three days a week in this unyielding heat.

“Where’ll you eat?” asked Farhan, exiting the classroom with the rest of the
children.

Ashwin waved and mouthed a “bye” to Sonali in the distance and returned
to Farhan’s question. “Let’s go to PPC,” he suggested. “School Canteen food
has not been good off late. Besides, I also have to try out the new drink that
they have introduced – the ‘Maha nimbu lemon’. Heard it’s quite good.”

“Yeah… good idea. No problems with me. Let’s go.”

They swam along in the sea of students towards the school main gate after
which the crowd thinned a bit as everyone proceeded towards their
respective buses. As was always the case at one in the afternoon, Prince Pan
Corner was bustling with students but the store keepers, through years of
experience, expertly handled the rush-hour melee and looked after each and
every order with great efficiency. Ashwin made Farhan go into the crowd
and get burgers and Maha Nimbu Lemons for them both. As effective as he
was in such situations, Farhan quickly returned with the stuff.

“Take it before it falls off!” he said hurriedly, pointing at the lemon drink
with his eyes.
Ashwin complied and relieved the strain that had developed in Farhan’s
hands for keeping the items from falling. He checked his watch, the hands
indicated one twenty.

“Let’s go,” Ashwin ordered. “Ten minutes left. What do we have first?”

“Math.”

“Then?”

“Physics.”

“Crap. I should’ve gone home.”

They walked back towards the school, occasionaly cutting through the paths
of the school buses that were leaving, thus inviting angry looks and
comments from the drivers. On reaching the gate, they had an encounter
with the guard who initially disallowed them from entering but after a few
minutes of arguementation followed by a bit of pleading, relented. They ran
the remaining distance to the D block where the classes were held and
rushed up the stairs. They reached just in time before the Math teacher, Mrs.
S. Subramaniam who arrived barely seconds after. Ashwin had already had a
confrontation with her earlier when he had arrived just minutes late for the
class and she had admonished him like he had returned from a serial killing
spree! So Ashwin and Farhan, being well aware of her being a stickler for
punctuality, like most South Indians, had opted to hasten and thus save
themselves from the hellfire that they would be targeted by.

“Good afternoon class,” she wished.

The front row replied back. The only other participation was from Ashwin
and Farhan from the end of one of the rows, not out of choice, but because
they had to, to create a somewhat respectable impression of themselves on
her mind after the disastrous initial image that they had managed to stamp
on her mind. The rest didn’t care.

She started writing stuff about quadratic equations on the board while the
students sedulously copied it down in their notebooks. Warm winds blew in
from the windows next to Ashwin, lulling him to sleep, but he resisted and
tried to concentrate on the board.
“You have to chose two numbers say ‘p’ and ‘q’…” said the teacher after
finishing writing on the board, “… such that the co-efficient of ‘x’ is the sum
of ‘p’ and ‘q’ and its product is the constant term which appears in the given
quadratic equation.”

“What is a co-efficient?” asked Farhan, discombobulated at the supposedly
highly technical jargon that the teacher was using.

“Why did you ever join these classes Farhan…” replied Ashwin, surprised,
“… if you don’t even know what a co-efficient is? This is like ABC stuff
man!”

“I told you I joined in only because of my parents. I for one have no interest
in staying back after school, baking myself in this scorching heat and
studying Math and Science. I’d rather go home, switch on the AC and doze
off you know. But thanks to my parents, I am stuck in this stupid room with
these stupid teachers and sometimes I think, with stupid people like you!”

Mrs. Subramaniam overheard the commotion and ordered the two to stand
up.
“What’s going on there?” she roared.

Trembling, Farhan and Ashwin stood up. Farhan didn’t have the nerve to
open his mouth so Ashwin spoke on their behalf, “Ma’am… we are sorry. I
was just clearing a doubt that he had asked me.”

The teacher looked at Farhan and bellowed, “If you were unable to
understand something, you should’ve asked me and not your partner.”

“Sorry ma’am,” Farhan cried apologetically.

“No, I’ve had enough of you two. Just get out of my sight… Get out!” she
hollered.

They didn’t dare to argue with her and obediently stepped out of the class.

“Good for nothing miscreants!” the teacher mumbled to herself as he saw
them trudge out of the door. “Close the door behind you!” she shouted at
Farhan.
He chose to slam it.

Once outside, Ashwin expressed his anger at Farhan at getting him into
trouble for no fault of his.
“Thanks you so much!” he said, sarcastically.

Farhan wore an expression of disgust in reply and strode off down the stairs
to the canteen to grab a coke to beat the heat. Ashwin stood alone in the
second floor corridor, cursing his ever star-crossed luck.

“Why does it always have to be me?” he wondered.
CHAPTER 7

An aura of tension was prevailing in the school. Ashwin crossed the green
gates and was immediately gripped by it. Today was the third exam of the
Half Yearlies. Third in the series of five, but for Ashwin and maybe all the
other students of ninth, it was virtually the last. With only English and
Computers to follow, Ashwin was looking forward to get today’s Sanskrit
paper done and dusted away with and spend some leisure time before he got
his head down and started preparing for the two leftover exams, which only
demanded two hours each at the most. ‘Study beyond that and you are bound
to get all your concepts all mixed up ,’ was Ashwin’s funda.

You can’t really challenge the hypothesis, given that applying this very
schema for the two mentioned subjects, yielded Ashwin the highest marks in
the section.

He walked through the crowd of anxious students doing that last minute
revision of the syllabus and others who had just started it, coming to know
of the syllabus just now.

The examination room where the first half students of ninth D were
supposed to sit was situated in the newly constructed block for sixthees,
puerilely titled ‘Blossoms Block’. No wonder really, the eleven year old
sixthees did actually look bambinos in front of the towering twelfthees.
Ashwin climbed the stairs upto the third floor (yes, third floor yet again. The
top floor jinx never seemed to let go off Ashwin.) and entered the classroom
which was buzzing with activity, thanks to the sixthees, who were in a state
of extremely high energy preceeding their relatively facile computer exam.
He went up to Farhan who was swaying his head in a repeated motion over
his book, trying to cram up that last bit of the shabd roops and the dhatu
roops.

“Hey Farhan!” Ashwin said jovially. “What’s with the swinging head?”

Farhan wiped a drop of sweat off his brow and looked up. “Man… this thing
is just freaking me out!” he cried. “What the hell do they think we are?...
Human hard drives or something? Who the hell can mug up these many
shabd and dhatu roops? I mean… it’s preposterous!”

“Dude, obsereve carefully,” Ashwin replied. “All of them are similar. Each
one of them only requires a few modifications here and there but otherwise,
their structure is almost the same.”

“The similarities can lick my ear wax! Where the hell do you see similarities
here man?”

Ashwin obliged and enlightened Farhan with some valuable tips.

“That’s amazing Ashwin!” cried Farhan after being enlightened. “Why
didn’t you tell this to me before, you little genius?”

Ashwin flushed at his sudden apotheosis. “Why didn’t you ask, idiot!” he
replied. “By the way, thanks.”

Farhan sneered and immersed himself into the book once again. Thankfully,
now equipped with a more effective strategy, the head swinging stopped.

Ashwin went to his seat on the other end of the classroom, beside the
windows which opened up to the JJ Colony in the front. He sat with his book
open but some freakish bhojpuri music emanating out from one of the homes
hindered him in his last minute revisions.

“Damn it,” he cried, slamming the windows shut. It was of little use though,
as the sound waves still managed to make their way inside from somewhere.
Irritated, he plugged his fingers into his ears and tried to concentrate.

Consider it as a bad omen for the things to come…or as Maktub, as Mr.
Paulo Coelho would put it.
The invigilator soon apparated into the class and started her usual routine of
shouting at the kids to keep their bags outside the room and be settled so that
she could distribute the answer sheets a little before time, only so that the
students had a little bit of extra time to draw up the margins, a practice that
was a prerequisite to a neat and in turn, a high scoring paper.

“Why don’t they get sheets in which the margins are already made?” Ashwin
had quite often wondered, but had yet not received an answer to this elusive
question.

The students too, routinely, chose to disobey her commands and ultimately
be shoved out of their seats, forced out the classroom with their bags in hand
and the books of the concerned subject in another as they begged for just
another minute so that they could revise that last question which was
tentatively tipped by the teacher to be a deifinite part of the question paper.

“NO!!!” would clamor the teacher everytime the request was put up to her.

Finally, after a few minutes of the usual pandemonium that prevailed before
the start of any exam, the invigilator, satisfied that now the class was in
proper order, started distributing the question papers and answer sheets
simultaneously. Some kids complained that they should have been given the
answer sheets earlier, but all they got as a reply was a stern admonishing
look. Cowed down by the glare, they curbed themselves from blurting out
the next sentence of protest.

Ashwin received the set, quickly drew up the margins on all the twenty
pages of the answer sheet, got his head down, and started off with the paper.

The first section was reading. Two passages, one long and one short, ten
questions on the first and five questions on the latter. Ashwin sailed through
both, securing twenty marks for himself.

‘Section-B’ he wrote on a fresh page, in bold. It was to test the writing skill
of the individual. A five marker question on conversation sentence
completion in which one just had to place the words, that were already
provided, in the right blanks, another sentence completion based on a letter,
following the same ‘choose and insert’ method and finally a tenner which
demanded the student to compose five sentences in Sanskrit using the
helping words that were provided.

Sounds easy eh? But believe me, your brains will be cudgeling like
Einstein’s did before he promulgated the e=mc2 poppycock, when you
actually sit down and attempt these type of questions. Either each option
seems correct for every blank or the words are so highbrow that you end up
interpreting the yin as yang!

Ashwin’s mind was in a similar state after reading through the questions of
this section. Nevertheless, hoping for the best, he started filling the blanks.
The conversation question took him twenty whole minutes while it was
designed to be finished in just ten. No offence meant, because to most of the
students, it seemed that all the given words could be interchangeably used,
so Ashwin was no exception. Even Shourya was having a tough time dealing
with these questions.

He had somehow managed to conclude the conversation question when his
sixthee partner, a plump little timid boy, nudged him. He pointed towards the
neighbouring column of seats.
“He is calling you,” he whispered, gesturing towards Farhan.

Ashwin looked up from his paper, a bit annoyed at having been disrupted,
and looked in the direction where the child was pointing. He saw Farhan
surreptitiously signalling at him through some weird hand actions.

“What?” Ashwin mouthed, checking the movement of the invigilator from
the corner of his eye. She was busy blabbering to another teacher who had
turned up at the door – apparently another invigilator who had got bored of
invigilating a good class, so like theirs at present, apparently.

Farhan held up his question paper and pointed at the seventh question of
section C which was the grammar portion. It had a big question mark
scribbled beside it and the question number was circumscribed by a big blue
circle. Ashwin identified the question and flipped the pages of his own
question paper to the particular page number. He read it quickly and gauged
the answer.

“But how do I tell you?” he murmured.
“Write it on a chit of paper,” suggested Farhan. “Tear off a part of the
question paper from the corner. That much should be enough.”

Ashwin obeyed and carefully separated a small portion from the question
paper, ensuring that no noise is made in doing so. He somehow cramped in
answers of the four parts of the question and turned to Farhan.

“Psst…” said the sixthee. “Bhaiya has given this.” He handed him a black
gel pen.

Puzzled, Ashwin stared at Farhan, his eyes asking for an explanation.

In turn, Farhan gestured something through his hands. At first, Ashwin
wasn’t able to comprehend, but then he figured out what he was trying to
say.
Ashwin followed the procedure prescribed by him: He wrote the answer on
the small chit, crumpled it into a tiny sphere, took off the cap of the pen and
thrusted the small ball down the cap of the pen. Replacing the cap on the
pen, he ordered his sixthee partner who had virtually adopted the role of a
messenger for the benefit of his two seniors to pass it on to Farhan. This
time, much to Ashwin’s relief, his partner was very unlike his Monday test
partner who would’ve brought down the whole room by now. Plus, the fact
that his computer paper was almost over (in barely an hour!) also
contributed to his genial and supportive attitude.
He dilligently obeyed Ashwin’s commands and passed over the pen to
Farhan, who accepted it gleefully. He mouthed a ‘Thanks’. Ashwin
acknowledged it with a smile and got back to work.

Only thirty minutes remained for the exam to finish and Ashwin, having
finished all the other questions, was desperately trying to correctly match the
words to the corresponding blanks in the letter sentence completion question
back in section B, but the words provided were beyond Ashwin’s limited
Sanskrit lexicon. Hapless, he decided to turn to Farhan for assistance. Using
the same method, he tore off another piece from his already rented question
paper and scibbled the question number on it. Next, he took out his spare
pen, uncovered the cap, shoved the chit down its throat and replaced it back
to its usual position. The sixthee was once again made to act messenger as
he was asked to deliver the pen to Farhan. His paper finishing an hour before
time, he was almost glad that Ashwin made him do this chit conveyor
service which helped him kill the boredom that he had to suffer sitting alone
and stupidly gazing at the invigilator or at others who were working up
sweat trying to finish all the questions.

“You know what you have to do,” said Ashwin.

The sixthee nodded and took the pen from Ashwin. He signalled at Farhan,
but he was deeply absorbed in his paper. He tried the very weird actions that
Farhan had used to catch the attention of Ashwin earlier, hoping that they
would work, but in vain. Losing patience, and under constant pressure by
Ashwin to hurry it up as there was hardly any time left, he flung the pen
across to Farhan. Ashwin held his breath as he saw the pen fly in mid air.
Luckily, the invigilator was looking the other way as the pen somersaulted
through the void between the two column of seats. Ashwin sighed in relief.

But, the luck soon ran out. The pen, instead of landing on Farhan’s desk,
missed it by a whisker, brushed the corner and crashed on to the floor,
creating a loud noise which echoed throughout the room. Alerted, the
invigilator walked up to the crash site. Farhan immediately understood the
whole situation, got up from his seat and quickly retrieved the pen. But it
was too late.

The invigilator, wearing a stern look on her face, came and stood beside
Farhan’s desk.

“Get up!” she roared.

Trembling with fear, Farhan obeyed her command and stood up, a most
angelic and innocent expression adorning his face.

“Ma’am… my pen fell down… sorry ma’am… it’s not the way you are
thinking ma’am…” he stammered away.

“Don’t lie!” she bellowed. “I saw the pen fly falling from there…” she
pointed towards where the sixthee was sitting, “…and not from your desk.”

“Ma’am… actually… he wanted a pen so I was just giving it to him when it
fell accidentally.”

“I had instructed right at the beginning of the exam that there will be no
borrowing or lending. Do you remember?”
“Yes ma’am.”

“Then why did you lend the pen to him?”

“I’m sorry ma’am.”

Ashwin could do nothing but watch with his heart in his mouth. He just
prayed that the teacher did not take out the pen cap.

“Give me that pen,” the teacher ordered.

Farhan dutifully handed it over, also supplicating to the Gods that she didn’t
replace the pen cap.

Ashwin and Farhan, both heaved a huge sigh of relief as the invigilator just
grabbed the pen and took it away without opening it.
They looked at each other, smiled and re-immersed themselves into the
paper.

After this frightful incident, Ashwin promised to himself that he’ll never
cheat again. But the repurcussions of this event were far from over.

After about ten minutes, the ominous sound of the bell sounded throughout
the corridor outside. The prevailing ambience of quiet was replaced by one
of tension and hastiness as the students hurriedly winded up their answer
sheets and tied up all the supplementary pages that they had used. The
sixthees and the Sanskrit students of class ninth had comfortably finished
their paper within the alloted time and sat ready to hand over their scripts to
the invigilator, while the French and Hindi exam givers were sweating it out
to conclude their papers as the teacher screamed on their heads to hurry up
and threatened to snatch the answer sheets away without even letting them
tie up the supplementary pages.

Some kids relented, opting to leave whatever questions were left while the
others insisted and fought for a little bit of extra time to complete their final
answers. But the teacher was indifferent to any of the appeals and ruthlessly
snatched away the scripts if the students didn’t hand them over themselves
within five seconds.
She finally came up to Farhan and Ashwin and took away their papers,
flashing a disgusted look at them as she passed by.

The class broke into a state of chaos which was characteristic after the end
of an exam or test. Ashwin walked up to Farhan who was trying to retrieve
his bag from the whole bevy that was dumped out of the class.

“Farhan!” he called out over the disarrayed crowd.
The voice failed to reach his ears.
“Farhan!” he called out even louder now.

This time, he looked up and saw Ashwin waving towards him. Grabbing his
bag from the clutter, he walked up towards him.

“That was a close shave,” he exclaimed, “eh Ashwin?”

“It sure was!”

“By the way, what did you want to ask?”

“Not much. I was just stuck up in the letter sentence completion question so
I thought that I’d take some assistance from you. But I cracked it eventually,
so no harm done.”

“Yeah…true… no harm done, even in the bigger scheme of things!”

They laughed at the teacher’s doltishness and were about to proceed down
the stairs when they heard her call out to Farhan from inside the classroom.

“What could she want now?” Ashwin wondered aloud as they veered and
walked back towards the room.

Ashwin preferred to stay out and asked Farhan to go inside alone.
“She called you, not me,” he said.

Farhan looked at him disgustedlt and solitarily walked in

“Yes ma’am?” he asked innocently on reaching her.

“Don’t you want to take your pen back?” she said plainly.
“Oh…” said Farhan, relieved. “Yeah… thank you ma’am.”

“But don’t ever lend anything to anyone in the future without first asking
me…” she warned, “…and tell that boy to bring his own stationery. At least
in the exams!”

“Yes ma’am…” he replied. “Sorry ma’am,” he added.

Satisfied with his apology, she held out the pen. Farhan stepped forward,
stuck out his hand, held the pen and pulled it away from her hands. But to
his horror, the cap which was already a bit loose and didn’t fit in properly
with the body of the pen, remained in the teacher’s hands and all that Farhan
got in his hands was the rest.

“Oh…” said the teacher, smiling. “You forgot the cap.”

But the smile soon wore off her face when she held out the cap and pop
came out the small crumpled sphere of paper that had been placed there by
Ashwin.

“Wait a minute,” she said, in a graver tone. “What is this?”
She stooped down and picked up the chit. Her face turned red with anger as
she read through it and realized the gravity of what had evaded her.

“Do you have any explanation for this?” she asked admonishingly.

Farhan just stood there, head hanging in shame. He didn’t want to bare the
truth and tell the teacher that it was Ashwin’s handwriting and it was he who
had approached him through this chit to get an answer to a question.
Obviously, he was also aware that he was the one who had actually started it,
so blaming Ashwin could also backfire on him. Plus, of course, that he
considered him as a good friend and didn’t want to get him into trouble.

“Do you have any explanation for this?” she shouted out again, more loudly.

Ashwin heard her bawl outside and decided to walk away before he got into
a soup, leaving Farhan fending for himself. Little did he know that unlike
him, Farhan was trying every possible way to take the blame off him.
Thinking quickly, Farhan cooked up a tale and recited it to the invigilator.

“But how do I believe you?” she said after hearing the canard.

“You can ask Ashwin,” Farhan replied, trying to sound credible. “He is
standing outside.”

“Go call him,” the teacher ordered.

Farhan obeyed and went outside to call Ashwin. He searched around in the
neighbouring classrooms, checked the toilets, even inside the cubicles if
Ashwin might have had a stomach upset, but couldn’t find him anywhere.
Cursing at his indifferent attitude, he returned to the teacher, dejected.

“So…” said the teacher. “Where is you friend who supposedly wanted a pen
with a chit?”

Farhan tried his best to look and sound plausible but he knew it wouldn’t
work. “He’s not there ma’am,” he said. “I think he left. Might be getting late
for his bus.”

The teacher could take it no longer. She had exhausted all her patience now
and the volcano inside her burst, spewing lava, in the form of verbal
reprimands, all over Farhan.
He could do nothing but feel himself burning by the same. He just stood
there, head hung, taking in all that she was firing at him.

“No,” said the teacher, suddenly conceiving an idea. “I can’t let you get
away like this. You ought to receive a punishment so that you do not dare to
cheat ever again.”

She walked up to the teacher’s table where all the answer scripts were kept
rolled into a bundle. She untied the string which held the answer sheets of
class ninth and opened up the bundle.

“What’s your roll number?” she asked rigidly.

“Ma’am… twelve,” replied Farhan, scared at the thought of the obvious
reason why the teacher asked this question.
“Twelve…” she murmured to herself and took out the corresponding answer
sheet from the bundle and re-tied the rest.

“Is this your paper?” she asked.

Farhan stepped forward and stared at the sheet. “Yes ma’am,” he replied
fearfully.

“What a pathetic handwriting you have!” she remarked as she started
searching for something in his handbag. Farhan knew what she was looking
for: the dreaded ‘Red Pen’.

“Ah…” she said, finally finding the instrument tucked away in a cranny.
“Here it is!”

Farhan held his breath as she moved the pen to her answer sheet.

“No ma’am…” cried Farhan as the invigilator scribbled a ‘minus five for
cheating’ remark on the top of the sheet. “Please ma’am! I’m sorry! I
promise I won’t do it again!”

But all his implorations fell on deaf ears as the teacher just grimly replaced
his paper in the bundle, picked up her bag and strode off, leaving behind a
hapless and aghast Farhan who couldn’t believe what had just happened.

“How insensitive people can be!” he mumbled to himself, referring to both
the pedagogue and the pal.
CHAPTER 8

“And so, Newton’s third law states that for every action, there is an equal
and opposite reaction,” explained the Physics teacher.

Ashwin sat with Sonali, passively listening to the teacher as well as to what
Sonali was saying while he somehow also managed to copy the diagrams
from the board to his notebook. Talk about multi-tasking!

“Why didn’t you apologise?” Sonali said after he had told her about what
had happened after the Sanskrit exam and how Farhan had stopped talking to
him and even refused to sit with him in the class.

“I did!” Ashwin cried. “Innumerable times! But he just doesn’t listen!”

“Well, you kind of even deserve it, leaving him alone with that stupid
teacher even though he was trying to save you from trouble. You know, he
could’ve easily shifted the blame on to you because you were the one who
had put that chit in the cap which ultimately got you two in this mess. You
understand that, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do! But I had got shit scared when I had heard her scream at Farhan.
I thought that he must have blurted out the whole truth and thus, was just too
afraid to face her. I know it’s my fault and I shouldn’t have done that, but I
have apologised to him thousands of times. What else can I possibly do?
Though he did reply once…”

“What?”

“Buzz off, he had said!”

Sonali giggled softly. “Your sorries will not return the five marks that he
lost,” she explained.
“But he was also a part of it you know! He had conceived this idea and it
was he who had first approached me for an answer through this… most
ingenious method of his.”

“But it was you who messed it all up and got Farhan and yourself in this
soup.”

“It was that bloody sixthee’s fault! Not mine! He failed to deliver the pen to
Farhan properly.”

“Ashwin!” Sonali exclaimed, simultaneously taking down notes from the
board, “You have an excuse for everything!”

“But this is not!” insisted Ashwin. “If it wasn’t for his bad throw, we
would’ve never been in this botch!”

Sonali craned her neck and looked at Farhan sitting alone on the last seat on
the other side of the class. “But just look at him,” she said. “I’m feeling so
sad for him.”

Ashwin held up his hands in despair and decided not to argue with her any
further that Farhan’s melancholic state was not his fault of which Sonali was
so adamantine about.

“Have you all understood?” asked the teacher, after finishing writing on the
board.

“Yes ma’am,” replied the students. Ashwin too joined in the affirmative even
though he had not compassed anything through the whole fourty minutes.

“OK, so write down a question,” the teacher ordered. She started with it but
was interrupted by the sound of the bell.
“Never mind, I’ll dictate it to you in the next period,” she said, a bit
disappointed that she had failed to complete the chapter in this period itself
as she had earlier planned.

“What do we have now?” asked Ashwin.

“Sanskrit,” informed Sonali. “She will give out the papers today.”
Aswhin flinched a bit, not because he was worried about his paper but
because he was apprehensive as to what would Farhan’s reaction be. His
impression on the Sanskrit teacher’s mind was sure to be dented after she
would see the big ‘–5 for cheating’ declaration that captioned the front page
of his answer sheet. The thought of admitting that it was his handwriting on
the chit and thus clearing his guilt which had been eating him up till now
had crossed his mind number of times, but he had disregarded it when he
recalled that it was Farhan who had actually petitioned him first through this
method, asking for an answer, so it was not entirely his fault… if not at all.

He gathered his notebooks from his desk and started packing his bag slowly.

“Will you hurry up!” Sonali exclaimed from the door.

Ashwin looked up and saw Farhan hang his bag around his shoulders and
start towards the door.

“Hi…” Sonali wished Farhan as he came towards her, trying to sound as
cheerful as possible.

“Hello,” coldly replied Farhan as he brushed past her and continued to the
Sanskrit room companionless. He sure was not in the mood to talk before
receiving his ill-fated Sanskrit paper.

Ashwin had deliberately delayed even further when he had seen Farhan
ready to leave as he didn’t want to face him. On ensuring that Farhan had
left, he walked towards the door where Sonali was waiting for him.

“Why is he angry at me?” she wondered aloud as they both started towards
the Sanskrit room which was two blocks away.

The class was already full. The Sanskrit students from the two other Sanskrit
sections had already arrived and sat waiting anxiously for their paper.
Ashwin and Sonali were the last ones to enter. She spotted a couple of seats
in the corner of the last row and they went over and occupied them. Farhan
sat a few seats in front, alone.

Uncharacteristically, the Sanskrit teacher got late today and arrived barely
ten minutes before the end of the period.
“Sorry kids,” she said as she hurried into the room and put down her bag on
the table. “I forgot that I had a class with you. Thought today was Friday.”

Some of the students chuckled.

“But as promised, I have got your papers.”

The chuckling stopped.

“So I’ll not waste any more time and give out the papers to you all, who, it
seems, are very anxious to receive them.”

“Yeah, right!” sneered Sonali to herself.

Ashwin’s was the first paper in the bundle.
“Ashwin Khanna,” the teacher called out, “Come and take your paper.”

Apprehensively, Ashwin got up and walked up to the teacher’s table.

“Tantalizingly close…” remarked the teacher as she handed out the answer
script, “…but well done!”

Confused, Ashwin quickly grabbed his answer sheet from her hands and
stared at it in amazement. A wide smile of achievement and satisfaction
graced his face. “Ninety eight!” he exclaimed, proud as a peacock.

The class rang in applause at the teacher’s instruction. Farhan fleered.

He returned to his seat as the other students stared at him, envious of his
score.

“Congrats!” said Sonali as he sat down beside her. “But how did you pull off
a ninety eight?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, still dazed.
He scanned through his paper to check whether there was any totalling error
or any other mistake on the part of the teacher which could increase his
score even further.
“Now why are you re-checking it?” asked Sonali. “Aren’t you happy with a
bloody ninety eight?”

“Wouldn’t a century be even better?” he replied.

He just got a deriding stare from Sonali in reply.

A few minutes past, the teacher cried out Sonali’s name and ordered her to
come and collect her paper.

“Shit,” she muttered. Full of trepidation, she stood up, straightened her skirt,
and plodded along to the teacher mumbling a silent prayer under her breath.
Sanskrit was one subject which she simply hated, but as she had loathed
Hindi even more, she had opted for Sanskrit as her second language in ninth
standard. Consequently, it was one of her weaker subjects.

The teacher looked at her, a mixture of disappointment and slight anger
reflecting in her eyes. Sonali dreadedly stepped forward.

“Didn’t you study for the paper? You have scored the lowest among all the
students in this group.” she remarked. “Your paper’s a mess! It seems as if
you don’t have a clue as to what you are writing.”
Sonali hung her head in embarrassment.

“Meet me after the class,” the teacher commanded. “I want to talk to you.”
She thrust the paper forward in disgust. Sonali nervously accepted it and
didn’t have a look at it until she reached the safety of her seat in the corner
of the last row, far from the snoopy eyes of the other students.

She sat down and rolled open her answer sheet with trembling hands.
Ashwin peered over her shoulder.

“Oh my God!” she whimpered on seeing her score. “Ooohh… my…. God!”

Ashwin caught a glimpse of the paper. The big bold writing in red on the top
of the answer sheet read – ‘59/100’ and was accompanied by a remark –
‘Pay attention in the class!’

“It’s OK Sonali,” Ashwin said, trying to console her. “Fifty nine isn’t that
bad.”
She didn’t listen and simply buried her face in her hands. He tried to help
her out with her misery for a while before he heard Farhan’s name being
called out by the teacher after which, he diverted his attention to the front of
the class where Farhan was now standing with the teacher.

Ashwin noticed that the teacher’s face had turned grim just as Farhan had
reached her, in fact, so had Farhan’s. She talked with him for a long time,
and by the look in her eyes and the way she moved her lips with her head
bent slightly towards one side (she did this whenever she was talking grave
stuff), Ashwin knew that they were surely not discussing stuff about the
recent super hit movie but something staider and much more
consequential…… and he very well knew what.

After about ten minutes of talk, she finally let go of him. Farhan plainly
returned to his seat without a hint of animation on his face.

The bell rang soon after and the students, some happy, others disappointed
started spilling out of the classroom. Farhan, Ashwin and Sonali were the
last ones to leave. As they moved out of the room, the teacher, who was
standing outside, caught hold off Sonali and ordered Ashwin and Farhan to
go along and not wait for her.

“Are you her guardian?” she had said when Ashwin had insisted. “Or do you
think I’m going to eat her up?”
He knew he wasn’t her guardian but he seriously doubted the
unlikelihoodness of the second case. Eventually, he reluctantly left her alone
with the teacher and continued towards the class.

“Farhan!” he called out to him on the way. He looked back but didn’t stop.
“Farhan!” he shouted out again. When he didn’t respond, he ran up to him
and physically stopped him.

“What’s the matter?” Farhan asked, irritatedly.

“Dude, I told you I’m sorry,” Ashwin said. “I know it was my fault and I
shouldn’t have left you alone there, but how many times do I have to
apologise to you? Can’t you forget whatever happened?”

Farhan just stood there wearing a plain expression on his face.
“Farhan, please!” exclaimed Ashwin, “Why don’t you understand?”

For once, he replied – “Dude, you know what?”
“What?”
“I got a ninety five in Sanskrit,” he said

“That’s freaking amazing man!” remarked Ashwin, thinking that the good
score would make Farhan forget all about the minus five. Then it struck him.
“Oh…” he said, correcting himself.

“Yeah, exactly… OH!” Farhan added. “If it wasn’t for your idioticity, I
would’ve got a full in Sanskrit and topped the class. It’s not only you. But
even I don’t understand why the hell did you ever leave me alone in the
room with that stupid invigilator? There I was, trying every possible way to
get us both out of trouble and had even cooked up quite a plausible story. All
I needed was for you to second it and we both, rather, I wouldn’t have ever
been in this mess.”

“I said I’m sorry for that. I don’t know what got into me that day. Maybe I
just got too scared when she started screaming at you!”

“So you just decided to leave me alone with that monster…”

“No… I mean, yes… I mean, I didn’t mean to.”

“Shut up, Ashwin,” he rebuked and carried on towards the class, leaving
Ashwin standing behind, alone.

“Damn it!” he mumbled to himself.
CHAPTER 9
PUCK PUCK PAKAAK

Ashwin winced as his mother applied an ointment on his polka dotted arm.
The dots here are not to be connotated with fashion but rather with the
symptoms of the most irritating disease in the world (ask those who have
suffered from it) and which also has a very funny name – Chickenpox (I still
haven’t figured out why it’s named after a chicken!). The ointment, as
claimed by the doctor, would relieve Ashwin of the severe itching that
accompanied the thousands of blisters that had sprouted up all over his body.

“Aahh…” he cried as he suffered yet another bout of itching.
“Be careful, Ashwin,” Mrs. Khanna warned. “Make sure you don’t burst
open those blisters with your nails. Scratch softly.”

“Damn it!” Ashwin cried, helplessly.

All had started when Ashwin had returned from his JSTS preliminary
written examination three days back. He had attributed the high fever that he
had been suffering while giving the paper as due to exam stress, but when
the temperature had shot even northwards after he had returned home,
worried, Mrs. Khanna had taken him to the local clinic where the doctor had
immediately diagnosed the instance to be a case chickenpox. After reciting
all the usual precautions and do’s and do not’s, he had prescribed a plethora
of medicines which, he claimed, would somewhat alleviate the suffering.

Right now, Ashwin was cursing the doctor for describing the effect of the
medicines as ‘somewhat’ palliating, as the drugs and the various ointments
were having little, if any, effect on him.

“Is it any better now, son?” Mrs. Khanna asked, as if mocking him, after
applying the pink colored ointment all over his two arms.

Ashwin scoffed at her question and started scratching away wildly as soon
as she stopped with the application of the ointment, as he suffered from yet
another bout of itching.
“You think?” he replied, sarcastically.

“Aww…” she replied sympathetically, “my poor baby.”

Ashwin hid his face under the blaket in embarrassment.

“Call me if you need anything, OK sonny?”

“OK mommy,” Ashwin replied from under the blanket.

Mrs. Khanna left the room, switching on the heater as she went. Ensured that
she had left, Ashwin stuck his face outside the blanket, grabbed the remote
and switched on the TV. There was nothing else he could do really, except
worry for the final exams which were only a month away.
‘How am I going to ever cover up the chapters that I will miss?’ he
wondered. ‘There’ll hardly be any time left when I return to school after
this....... Or will there be?’

He shuddered at the thought and decided to put it away, concentrating on the
reality show that was on TV presently, instead.
‘Dare to face your fears?’ it flashed in its opening sequence. Ashwin
considered it and swapped the channel after a few seconds.
‘No, I do not,’ he said to himself as he put on a sports channel where Arsenal
were beating the pulp out of Tottenham Hotspurs in a premier league game.
Smacking his lips, he cuddled in his blanket, sat back, and started enjoying
his favourite football side demolish their city rivals.

“Mom!” he shouted at the top of his voice, which, at present was not louder
than just a whimper, considering that the disease had even affected his throat
among all the various other miseries that it had inflicted.
Mrs. Khanna, who was in the kitchen, obviously didn’t hear him.

“MOM!” he shouted out once more, straining his vocal chords to the
maximum limit. He sighed a breath of relief relieving the strain of the shout.

This time, Mrs. Khanna heard his shout and hurriedly came into his room.
“What’s the matter, Ashwin?” she asked worriedly.

“Can you please get some coke for me from the fridge?” Ashwin said, trying
to sound as verisimilitudinous as possible. “Please…” he added.
“Oh…Coke!” cried his mother. “In this condition? You should look after
your throat beta. You just now complained of an ache in there.”

“Pleeeaase mom…” he insisted, “…just one glass.”

Mrs. Khanna incubated the idea for a while, then she remembered what her
late mother had once said – ‘Chickenpox is a pure representation of Maa
Durga in an earthly form. All wishes of any person who is suffering from
chickenpox should be granted without second thoughts as it would be like
serving the great goddess herself.’

(is it???!!!... my mother had also claimed this when I was down with
chickenpox)

Thought she was a bit skeptical regarding these sort of ideas and
superstitions, nevertheless, not wanting to take a chance, she relented.

“Thank you mom!” Ashwin ejaculated with joy after Mrs. Khanna agreed.

“Aahhh…” he said. “Coke, Arsenal, Tottenham, four – zero, no school,
people catering to all my needs while I relax in bed… life couldn’t have
been better…..”
As he said this, another spell of itching started. “…. Just if it wasn’t for these
irritating blisters!” he added, as he started scratching away wildly, yet again.

*****

Day 13 (of the 21 day quarantine period):

The blisters had dried out and turned into ugly brown colored scabs. But, the
itching had increased even more. According to the doctor, it was an
indication of the disease somewhat subsiding. Ashwin, obviously, didn’t
believe it.
Mrs. Khanna had arranged for a unique scratching equipment with a bunch
of feathers on one end for Ashwin, who was having a hard time scratching
softly otherwise.
Ashwin lay in the bed, a pack of chips on one side and a bottle of orange
juice on the other. He burped as he ate a mouthful of the former and took a
sip of the latter. He sure was making full use of his mother’s rather
superstitious beliefs.

“Apart from the ithcing, this illness is a blessing,” Ashwin said to himself.
“In India at least, where people actually consider it as a form of a deity!”

He was busy watching Tom and Jerry cartoons on the TV when her mother
stepped inside the room with the cordless phone in her hand.

“Your phone Ashwin,” she said, a sense of purpose in her voice. “It’s your
class teacher.”

Ashwin sat up at once on the mention of the caller and quickly muted the
television which was otherwise blaring out with crash and bang sounds as
Tom got drilled by Jerry, repeatedly.
“Mrs. Verma?” he asked, wanting to make sure.

His mother replied in the affirmative by nodding her head.

Wondering what it could be, he took the phone from her mother, took a deep
breath and aligned the phone to his ear.
“Hello,” he said, nervously.

“Hello Ashwin,” came a cheerful voice from the other end. “I am Mrs.
Verma this side.”

“Oh… good morning ma’am.”

“Good morning. So, how have you been feeling of late?”

“Umm…better.”

“Great. So, by when will you be returning to school?”

“Umm…the doctor said that a minimum of twenty one days are required for
one to fully recover and be fit to return to work.”
“That means you’ll remain absent for around ten more days?” said the
teacher, a sense of alarm in her voice.

“Er…yes ma’am.”

“Oh… but we are breaking for the study leave holidays just fifteen days
after today. Will you be able to cover up all that you have missed in five
days? The exams will start right after the week long gap.”

“Er… yes… I’ll try to.”

A short silence interrupted the conversation as Mrs. Verma gauged the
gravity of the situation, then she spoke, “Well, OK. You know better.
Anyways, get well soon,” she ended on a formal note and hung up.

Ashwin switched off the instrument and stared at it for a while.

“What did she say?” his mother asked inquisitively.

Ashwin paused for a while and recited all that the teacher had told him.

“Oh…” she replied. “That is not good Ashwin.”

“I know!” he shot back. “But what can I possibly do?... damn this disease!”

Mrs. Khanna contemplated for a while and came up with an idea. “Should I
go to your school and get someone’s notebooks…” she suggested. “We can
photocopy the notes and return them within a day.”

Ashwin shrugged. “Don’t bother, mom,” he replied. “No one’s going to give
his or her notebooks barely weeks before the exams, they will be busy
studying from them.”

The faces of both Ashwin and his mother, acquired a grim and worried look
as they thought of possible solutions to this problem.

“Tch…” exclaimed Ashwin, in despair. “What am I going to do?” he cried
helplessly. “My exams are doomed!”
Mrs. Khanna tried her best to reassure Ashwin with cliched phrases like
‘Don’t worry, everything’s going to be all right’ and ‘Have patience, God
will help you’ and blah…, but Ashwin’s spirits refused to be lifted.

For him, now, Tom and Jerry cartoons no longer seemed amusing, no more
joyous ejaculations on seeing his favourite football side thrash their
opponents and no more referring to chickenpox as a ‘blessing’.

He started doubting his chances of even passing the exams as he spent the
next few days in serious cerebration and moping about his prospects.

*****

Surprise Surprise!

Ashwin lay in his bead, pondering over a trigonometry question. The
mathematics book rested open on his lap. Ashwin stared at the question once
again, it seemed to be mocking him.
“Can’t you even solve me,” it seemed to say. “I am the easiest one you can
get!”

Ashwin tried hard to think of the solution but the itching and the high fever
effortlessly and constantly, digressed his concentration. He probed his mind
further, but to no avail.

“Damn the chapter!” he exclaimed and closed the book with a thud.

He switched on the T.V. and started surfing the channels for some
amusement. Stopping on a news channel, he decided to get updated of the
latest happenings in the country and abroad.

“Drunk tries to use police car as a taxi!” yelled one of the breaking news
stories.

“Bah!” Ashwin sighed and swapped the channel.
He stopped again on a music network.
“Eeeks…” Ashwin exclaimed on seeing the video that was on air, “Britney
Spears!” and quickly changed the channel once again.

After a few more minutes of scrounging for a decent programme, but in
vain, he switched off the T.V. in disgust, cursing the networks for airing such
stupid telecasts which only insane people could tolerate.

Irritated, he returned to the Math book and tried a second shot at the
supposedly easy, but elusive question.
Few minutes past, he was back to square one. “Tan θ, my foot,” he
exclaimed, still unable to crack the question.

He moved on to the next, tried it, failed to solve it, moved on to the next,
and the next, and the next, till he came to the end of the exercise….. failing
to decipher even a single question of the all important chapter.

He checked the printout of ‘Math syllabus and chapter-wise marks
distribution’ circular that he had downloaded from the school website –
‘Trigonometry – 35 marks’ read one of the columns.

“Shoot…” said Ashwin, worried. “Thirty five marks…flat! Now I’m in need
of some real music. To hell with math!”

“MOM!” he shouted. “Can you please get my mp3 player? It’s lying on my
study table.”
“Nothing better than good old music to relieve stress,” he said to himself as
he waited.

Few minutes later, Mrs. Khanna entered the room.

“What took you so…” Ashwin started, but ceased the exclamation as he
turned his eyes towards the door, startled.
“What the…!!!???” he blurted out.

He couldn’t believe what his eyes were registering. His mother who was
supposed to fetch a mp3 player for him, had in fact, turned up with
something else, or rather someone else. And of all the peole, there, standing
beside his mother, was… Farhan.
Still dressed in the school uniform, bag hung around his shoulders, shoes
still dirty with dirt from the cricket in the P.E. period, a pile of sheets in one
hand and a couple of notebooks in the other, he stood there besides the door,
smiling.

“Farhan!” Ashwin ejaculated with astonishment. “What are you doing here?”

Mrs. Khanna started with an explanation but Farhan stopped her. She obeyed
and walked out of the room, leaving the two with each other’s company.

After ensuring that Mrs. Khanna had left, Farhan walked over to Ashwin and
sat on the bed.
“So, how are you feeling now?” he asked, sympathetically.

At first, Ashwin was at a loss for words, but regained his speech quickly and
replied – “Umm… better than earlier. Only five days to go before I officialy
be declared fit.”

“Hmm…” sighed Farhan. “You must be knowing that the school’s closing in
ten days time…”

“Yes.”

“…And the exams are due in another twenty.”

“Yeah.”

“So, how were you planning to cover up for what you have missed?
Considering that, it is quite a lot!”

“I didn’t, and don’t have a clue.”

“Well, you must be wondering why I’ve come here today.”

“As a matter of fact, yes, I am.”

“Then you’ll be also…well…delighted to know that I have come here to
help you cover up all the stuff you’ve missed.”

“Is it?”
“It sure is,” he said, handing over the clump of sheets to Ashwin.

Ashwin accepted them and rolled them open curiously. His face acquired an
expression of relief and admiration for the person sitting in front of him,
smiling, when he found out what the sheets contained.

“Oh…” he cried out, “Thank you so much Farhan for these notes! I was in
desperate need of these! And none of the students were willing to lend their
notebooks for even a day so that I could get them photocopied. Insensitive
bums…”

Farhan flinched a bit when Ashwin used that term. ‘You could have been
considered the same when you had left me alone there,’ he thought to
himself but didn’t announce it, refraining from opening up chapters of the
past. In fact, he had come here only to forget all about it.
“Well, now that you have ‘em,” he said, “I hope you’ll make good use of
‘em. I spent a whole hour at the photocopy shop getting all this. The man
there almost killed me you know. Imagine, repeating the same process of
turning the page, placing it in the machine, closing the lid with a thud,
pressing that same button again and again, that same humming sound of the
machine, for sixty whole minutes! It didn’t come easy, you see.”

“I’m so grateful to you Farhan!” Ashwin said in a most fawning manner. “So
that means you have forgiven me, right?”

“Well…” he replied, “…sort of.”

Ashwin threw a pillow at him playfully. “You dog!” he exclaimed.

“And yes,” Farhan added, “Take these too.” He handed over the couple of
notebooks that he was carrying. “These are your homework notebooks that
you had submitted to the teachers before falling sick.”

“Aahh…” said Ashwin. “I had been looking for these everywhere.”

“By the way, I didn’t know that you submitted homeworks too. I mean, what
a disgrace!”
Embarrassed, Ashwin grabbed the notebooks from Farhan’s outstretched
hand and quickly hid them beneath his pillow. He searched for an
explanation but Farhan broke the silence first.

“And, I must tell you, that I’ve also photocopied each and every page of
both the notebooks,” he said. “I had never made mine, you know.”

Ashwin smiled. “Now you owe me one!” he said.

Farhan picked up the same pillow and hurled it at Ashwin’s face.
“And you call me a dog!” he said.

Farhan stayed on for two more hours, explaining the concepts of
trigonometry to Ashwin while simultaneously reporting about all the
school’s latest happenings, all this over innumerable glasses of coke and a
profusion of chips, pakoras, cutlets and sandwiches that Mrs. Khanna
supplied to them unceasingly.

“We should study like this more often, Farhan,” suggested Ashwin,
interrupting himself from the set of questions of trigonometry that he was
currently tackling under Farhan’s guidance.

“Sure,” he replied. “Besides, your mom makes great food! I’d love to visit
your place anytime you want!”

Ashwin sniggered. “Next year…” he said.

“The Boards!” added Farhan.

“It’ll be a cake-pastry-pudding walk if we study together. You understand
what I’m saying?”

“Hell yeah!”

“Then welcome…” he said, in jest, “… to the exclusive league of Ashwin’s
benefactors!”

“Hell NO!”
The Battle of the
Boards…
CHAPTER 1
BEGINS…

Soulful lounge music was emanating out from the speakers overhead, softly,
lulling Ashwin to sleep. The place was one of the banquet halls of the
grandiose Ashoka Hotel and the occasion, much to Ashwin’s displeasure,
was the ‘Happy (mind you) Birthday’ celebrations of a two year old.

“So much for it!” he had said when his parents had ordered him to get ready
that evening.

“But it is my best friend’s son’s second birthday!” his father had exclaimed
in explanation. “He’ll kill me if we don’t go there. Plus, the food there is
great. I especially like the gulab jamuns they serve! Steaming hot balls,
tender like lamb, dipped in a warm sweet syrup. Aahh…how they melt in
your mouth!... absolute bliss!”

So, Ashwin had yielded, not because he wanted to sing cliched Happy
Birthday melodies to the toddler, but because of the lovely description of the
delicious gulab jamuns that his father had just gave him which only seemed
to bewitch him into going.

But on reaching, he had felt a sense of betrayal.
“Oh no!” he had said to himself after having a walk along the buffet table.
“The bloody Jamuns are not on the menu!”

And now, there he was, sitting alone on one of the corner couches, satisfying
himself with a cold kulfii while he dreamed of those hot, steaming gulab
jamuns that his father had promised about.

Except for a few pretty girls, who constantly huddled together and giggled
whenever Ashwin passed by them, there weren’t much sources of
amusement for him. Occasionaly, he would smile at them from a distance,
which would only prompt another of those characteristic girlish snickers
from the group. Put off, he resorted to staring at his kulfi and tearing out
slivers of wood one by one from the wooden stick around which the dessert
stuck.

After a few minutes, he was disturbed in his endeavor of denuding the whole
stick as his mother came over to him, accompanied by a friend of hers.

“Ashwin,” she said in a tone which prompted him to stand up. “Meet Aarti
aunty.”

On cue, the lady standing beside her came forward and flashed a smile at
Ashwin. She had deep wheatish complexion and her hair was tied up in a
bun. She carried a huge hand bag, the sorts that mothers of new-born babies
carry (yes…the same ones which are full of all those filthy diapers, milk
bottles and containers holding mucky porridges. The same ones which were
dumped on to you to carry when your younger sibling was a baby. Ah… how
peaceful my life was, then. Even if it required me to carry those gigantic
bags. At least I didn’t have a younger sibling clamoring on my head all day
long!).

“Hello beta!” she said, in a most servile manner.

“Namaste aunty,” Ashwin replied, wearing a phony smile on his face.

“Why don’t we sit down,” suggested Mrs. Khanna, pointing to the empty
couches that abounded around Ashwin.

Aarti aunty nodded and they both sat down on the sofa, facing him.

‘Maybe I was just better off solitary,’ he thought to himself.

And then, the usual woman confabulation about the latest episodes of the
popular soap operas, gossiping about other females who were looking better
than them in the hall and of course, the boasting around of the priceless
exclusive jewellery that they had managed to get their hands on, courtesy
their husbands, commenced. Don’t know how much of it is true though.
Maybe I could’ve related it better if I was a female…
On second thought… maybe not. Life is so much better as a ‘HE’! (apart
from the ‘queue’ situations that is!)
Ashwin cursed himself for not bringing his mp3 player along. The topics of
the conversations and the gibberish that followed which continually made
their way into Ashwin’s brain through the ears, seriously jeopardized its
sanity.

Ashwin made do with muttering lyrics silently in his head, trying hard not to
let the prattle in. He was midway through the poeticals of a hip-hong song
when his mother addressed him.

“Ashwin, did you tell aunty that you stood third in your class in the exams
that just concluded?” she said, flushing with pride.

Ashwin had barely opened his mouth to reply when she cut him short and
started with the details herself.

“You know, he was down with chickenpox just weeks before the exams and
yet, he managed to pull off the third rank!” she declared, chest still swelled
up.

Aarti aunty raised her eyebrows in appreciation and awe, forming an
inverted ‘U’ through her lips. “Is it, Ashwin?’ she asked.

Ashwin nodded in confirmation.

“Well, that’s quite an achievement! You should be proud of yourself!”

‘So what do you think I was feeling?...’ he muttered to himself, ‘…
ashamed?’
But due to demands of courtesy, he replied with just a smile.
“Thank you,” he blurted out after a few seconds of awkward silence.

“So which standard are you in right now?” the lady enquired.

“Tenth,” Ashwin replied.

Just at the mention of the numeral, her face acquired a concerned visage.
“Oohh…” she exclaimed, “You have the Boards this year!”

‘As if I was not aware!’
“I’m sure you must have started studying already!”

Ashwin swung his head in a “No.”

“Then you must do!” she advised. “Regular practice is the key to a good
result in these exams. I need not tell you this as you probably must be aware
of it yourself.”

“Yes,” Ashwin replied, not wanting to argue with her that most of the
toppers of last year had started their preparation only days, if not hours,
before the pre-Boards, which, take place, barely a month and a half before
the actual thing.

“I’m sure your son’s going to come off with flying colours in the board
exams,” she said, turning to Mrs. Khanna.

“I hope so,” she replied. “Eh, Ashwin?”

Muttering a quick “Yes” in agreement, Ashwin excused himself from the
place to get a piece of the sumptous chocolate truffle cake that had just been
cut by the birthday boy, amongst birthday songs wishing him a long life,
sung in the same old cliched tune.

He had had enough discourses on how to study, what to study and when to
study by almost all the people currently present in the hall. Every time he
was introduced to any of his parents’ friends, they would look at him with
concernment and consequence when they would find out that he is in tenth
grade, and repeat that same statement which Ashwin had been hearing for
the past so many weeks now – “So, you have the Boards this year!”

‘For God’s sake, it’s not the IIT-JEE!’ he would say to himself everytime he
was informed about this ultimate revelation.

The two-tier cake was cut into fragements and distributed out to the guests.
Ashwin managed to acquire the rich chocolate sauce blanketed piece and
had started devouring it when he saw his father come towards him with
another man by his side. Sensing the obvious, Ashwin quickly veered on his
heels and strode off into the distance and into the crowd, pretending that he
had not spotted his father. He surely was not in a mood to talk about the
hyped board exams right now after mooting about it so many times in the
past few days with all and sundry. Plus, also the fact that he wanted to enjoy
the divine truffle piece alone and without anyone disturbing him.
The heavenly cake had compensated for the absence of gulab jamun as far as
he was concerned, and he didn’t want anyone to distract him from admiring
and eventually faring the piece of cake.

On the way back home, Mr. Khanna reminded him. “So, school, rather, the
battle for the Boards, starts from tomorrow, right Ashwin? ”

Ashwin almost banged his head on the window in irritation. “How many
times am I going to hear this dad?” he replied, agitated, and rightly so. “I
mean, I know I have the Boards this year, but will people please stop
repeating the same thing again and again. It has started irking me now. I am
worried that it could end up having an adverse effect you know.”

Both the parents’ faces acquired a worried look as soon as Ashwin had
blurted out the final sentence.

“Talk auspiciously Ashwin!” his mother admonished. “These things,
inadvertently, tend to have an effect on the result, you know that?”

“Oh…Mom…please!”

“Ashwin!” reprimanded his father, as he jumped the car over a speed
breaker. “You should listen to your mother. She knows more than you. And
yes, talking inauspiciously of these things do have an effect. Whether it be
psychological or physical or whatever.”

Ashwin just remained silent and took in all the supposed balderdash. He
couldn’t believe what lengths parents could go to when it would come to
ensuring a good result for their children in the all important board exams.
Neither had I.

‘Inauspicious words??!!’ he thought to himself. ‘That means now I can’t
even refer to the exams as worthless twaddle?! How incredulous!’

Mr. Khanna rolled the car into the garage and screeched it to halt, barely
missing Ashwin’s bicycle which was propped against the front wall.
“You’ve had too much of champagne, Anil!” Mrs. Khanna admonished.

“Naah…” he dismissed. “I just accidentaly put my foot on the clutch instead
of the brake.”

“Oh, really?”

Without replying, Mr. Khanna got out of the car and walked up to the front
doore of the house and opened it.

“Come on, Ashwin. Hurry up!” he yelled from inside. “It’s already twelve in
the night. You got to get up early tomorrow.”

Ashwin plodded his way to his room, changed into his night dress and
crashed on the bed.
He didn’t have the slightest of desires to attend school tomorrow. After all, it
had only been four days since the exams had finished, and only two since
the results (exclusively of the ninth and eleventh standards that is) had been
given out.

They surely deserved a lot more time to unwind and get their focus going
again before they started with the all important tenth grade. But the school
authorities had thought otherwise. Declaring another week of holidays for
the rest of the school, they thought that the board classes, i.e. the tenth and
the twelfth had to be started early so that there was not even the slightest
chances of the syllabus not getting over before January.

“So much for security!” Ashwin had said when he had found out about it.
“Only four days! God, protect our sanity!”

And the worst part was, that while they sweated it out here in the school, the
rest of the students freaked out in places like Goa, Mauritius et al.

“How cool life was back then!” Ashwin thought and nostalgically reminisced
of the happy days.

“Well, it will only get tougher from now on,” his father had told him. “You
better gear up!”
And so, here he was, lying on his bed, contemplating of how his life would
change from the following day. Setting the alarm for five thirty in the
morning, he eventuallty dozed off.

*****

Ashwin was awoken by the sound of a bell ringing. He rubbed his eyes and
checked the digital clock beside his bed.
“Who’s ringing bells at five in the morning?” he muttered to himself,
annoyed.

Feeling too lazy to find out, he put the blanket over his face, put the A.C. on
full blast and continued snoozing…
…only to be awoken by his mother after what seemed like only a second,
but the alarm clock indicated that it was already five fifty in the morning and
prompted Ashwin to jump out of the bed and head straight for the bathroom
to do his business, brush,take a bath and dress up, all this in a record time of
ten minutes flat.

Ashwin rose up to the challenge and though he cheated a bit (skipping the
bathing part that is), he managed to get all decked up right in time for the
bus, much to Mr. Khanna’s relief, otherwise he would have had to speed
behind the bus in the car for a long time, trying to overtake it and ultimately
stop it for Ashwin to get on to. Considering how rashly the bus driver drove,
or rather flew the bus, overtaking it was quite a task, and that too in the wee
hours of the morning when your eyelids barely open.

Munching a sandwich, Ashwin entered the bus. The last seats were empty
today, and so would they have been if Ashwin had not dared and sat on
them. The reason for this uncharacteristic valor was not because he had had
an impuslive bout of doughtiness, but because from this session onwards,
the haughty seniors who had once ruled this area of the bus, would no longer
be a part of the G-2 bus fraternity. That meant that now, Ashwin, along with
the few others tenthees, was the seniormost in the bus and thus rightfully
deserved the coveted last seat which seemed to command more respect than
the queen’s throne itself.
Enjoying the feel of his newly acquired position, Ashwin wondered whether
this was a good start to this year, a good omen of sorts. Now, all the other
students in the bus, looked up to him with awe and respect. He would no
longer now have to bother to run up to the water cooler, fill up his bottle and
rush back before the bus left him. The juniors would do that job for him
now. Now, he also need not starve on the way back home because some of
his classmates ate his lunch, as now, he had the authority to make others
starve, the juniors that is, and fill up his own stomach instead, by asking
them for their tiffins, to which they dared not refuse.

A bonus would’ve been the case when someone would have foolishly
entered the bus with a coke in his/her hand or any other item from the
canteen. It was only considered obvious for the seniors on the last seat to
finish half of whatever that had been bought by the juniors who were
looking forward to having a nice journey back home, sipping coke as they
watched the trees sprint by. Ashwin, who till now, had been the sufferer of
these customs, was feeling nice to know how it felt from the other end.

Now, even the walk from where the bus stopped, to the school, was covered
in a more magisterial manner. Ashwin walked with an air of superiority as he
made his way through the relatively thinner crowd, towards the school gates.

He checked his hair in the huge mirror which stood at a distance from the
main gate and brushed it with his fingers, making it look much neater now.
He had always liked the concept of placing a mirror right at the entrance as it
made him conscious of his appearance and ensured that he made himself
look good for the day. Everyday when he passed through the gates, he used
to deliberately veer into the right lane of the walking students so that he
could get a glimpse of himself in the mirror. It sometimes also threw up
images of a teacher walking behind him, after which Ashwin would divert
his attention from his hair to his tie and belt to ensure that they were in
proper order and not dangling as usually was the case. More so when the
teacher following him turned out to be the supervisor, headmistress or
maybe even the principal herself.

Ashwin paced along to the CB block where all the notices for eigth, ninth
and tenth class were put up. There was already a drove of students there,
eager to learn about the new sections that they had beene alloted. The
ninthees, in particular, could be seen more anxious and apprehensive as they
went forward to the notice board with crossed fingers. Ashwin remembered
how he had gone through the same emotional state just a year back, which
seemed just like yesterday.

Although there was usually no change in sections from ninth to tenth,
Ashwin, still wanting to confirm, craned his neck over the crowd and tried to
find his name on the long list.

“You never know with these people,” he murmured to himself.

After a few minutes of searching, he relaxed his neck, which had now started
paining because of the craning.

“Thank God!” he sighed on learning that he had, fortunately, not been
dumped into another section. In fact, no one of ninth – D had been.
“So common sense prevails after all!” he said.

The classroom of tenth-D was situated, much to everyone’s relief, on the
first floor of the C block. Ashwin had been particularly happy about the
location when he had learnt about it from the notice board. Plus, it was right
next to the football field and far away from the staff room and the snoopy
eyes of the headmistress. Talk about a strategic location!

It was a well lit and airy room and the erstwhile brown rickety chairs and
desks had been replaced by flashier green topped ones which really seemed
to brighten up the whole room. The soft board, which had been so
assiduously decorated by the students of the class which had occupied this
room last year, still displayed works extolling ‘India’s unsung freedom
fighters’

Ashwin stepped into the room and felt his heart thumping in his chest. As he
walked inside and searched for a seat, a strange sense of determination and
resolve, filled him.

‘The battle’, he thought, ‘had indeed, begun’…
CHAPTER 2
FORTUNE FAVOURS THE FORTUNELESS

Ashwin and Kunal paced through the corridors and ran up the stairs. They
were already late for the Geography period, and their class teacher, who also
coupled up as their geography teacher, was a stickler for punctuality and
zero wastage of time.

The new time table for the session had given them no reason to cheer as
opposed to the one they had last year. It consisted of only one P.E. period in
the whole week and the much looked forward to SUPW periods (at least for
Ashwin, who always had a nice time playing football in the two Taekwondo
periods) were altogether absent from the list. They were fortunate enough to
atleast have a library period to provide some sort of diversion, on at least
one day, from the monotony of sitting in the class and taking in all that the
teacher fired at them.

Today’s P.E. period had particularly been very draining. The harsh Sun and
the mucky weather had sapped all the energy from Ashwin and Kunal.
Deciding to stop by at the water cooler on the way and rehydrate themselves,
they had delayed their arrival into the class and now, only hoped that the
teacher had, uncharacteristically, not arrived yet.

Kunal nervously peeped into the room through the door which lay ajar. He
let out a huge sigh of relief when he learnt that the classroom was still
unoccupied by any teacher.

“Phew…” he said, turning to Ashwin. “For once, she is late. And what
timing too!”

Ashwin smiled in relief and followed Kunal into the room.

All the students were already out with their books and notebooks as had
been ordained by the teacher on the first day of the session.
“Do not waste time in taking out your notebooks and books,” she had said.
“You should have them open on your desks before I enter the room so that
we can start at once. Otherwise, considering how clumsy you all are, half the
period would be wasted in just getting ready to study.”

Every student in the class had muttered a silent curse to her when she had
dismissed them to be a, so claimed, clumsy lot. One of the boys had bravely
gone even further and had verbally protested with the teacher. It is
dispensable to say that, recknoning the extremely strict and ‘I-don’t-like-
students-arguing-with-me’ sort of attitude that she had, the boy had been
thundered at and forced to sit down meekly, quite contrary to how he had
stood up.

Ashwin made his way across two columns of seats and occupied his seat
beside Farhan, in the third row.
Talking about the seating, it is needless to say that Shourya still sat on the
first row of seats, still bang on under the teacher’s nose.
No one, till now had really understood his fetish for sitting right under the
teacher’s nose.

Mrs. Sachdeva hurried into the room seconds after.
“Sorry for the delay, students,” she guiltily said as she took her place behind
the teacher’s desk.

“Is a delay of five minutes even worth apologizing for?” whispered Farhan.
“I mean, how punctual can a person get!”

“She sure is one of a kind!” replied Ashwin. “Lord knows how she survives
in the Indian scenario, what with the Indian Stretchable Time or so to speak,
that prevails.”

Farhan sniggered softly.

The teacher picked up the black marker lying on the teacher’s desk and
scribbled the name of the new chapter in bold, on the board.
‘Forest and wildlife resources of India’, it read.

She returned to the desk, placed the marker back on the table and ordered
one of the students to start reading the text from the book.
The student obeyed and started at once.
He was barely half way through the first sentence when he was abruptly
stopped by Mrs. Sachdeva.

“I just now remembered…” she said, struck with a realization, “…that you
all had to submit in your homework notebooks to me today with the
questions that I gave for the previous chapter. Isn’t it?”

No one replied.
“Shit,” Farhan mouthed.

“Isn’t it?” she repeated, in a louder tone this time.

“Yes, ma’am,” feebly replied the class.

“Then please do so right now,” she commanded.

Some of the students obeyed and handed over their notebooks to the teacher,
who neatly piled them up beside her on the table. Twenty five odd students
later, she stood up from her chair and suspiciously counted up the notebooks
that had come in.

“I only have twenty seven notebooks here,” she announced. “Where are the
rest?”

The class stayed mum.

“I asked, where are the rest?” she bellowed.

The sixteen defaulting students stood up, head hung in apology. One of the
braver ones amongst them gathered up some cuorage and spoke for them,
“Ma’am, we have not done the work,” he confessed. “We are very sorry,
ma’am.”

And those two sentences were all it took for the volcano to explode. The
teacher became absolutely livid with rage.

“What made you all not do the work?” she blustered. “I had given this work
a week before, and still you couldn’t find enough time to complete it? And
then you say you are sorry! I mean… it’s unbelievable!”
She turned to Farhan, who was also a part of the defaulter group. “What’s
your excuse?” she clamored.

Farhan didn’t reply. He didn’t have the guts to.

“I feel like coming over there and give a tight whack across your face!
Didn’t you hear what I asked? You very well had the courage to actually not
do the homework and now, are you so scared that you can’t even speak?”

“Ma’am…actually…” he stammered, trying to buy some time to think of a
colorable excuse. “Actually… ma’am… I didn’t have the questions with
me.”

‘Shit’ he muttered under his breath after finishing with his explanation.
‘Why the hell did I say THAT.

And he thought right. Just as he concluded his justification, the teacher
walked up to where he was standing and would have actually gobbled him
up in anger if it wasn’t for her small mouth and his huge head. As for now,
she was content with just a reproachful stare and a mouthful of rebukes.

Ashwin just watched as Farhan stood beside him, quietly listening to the
teacher’s loud roars. He mouthed soundless giggles in between when
Farhan’s and his eyes would meet, only to be replied with scornful looks
from him.

“Aren’t you aware that this year, twenty marks of the Social Studies have
been set aside for internal assessment?” Mrs. Sachdeva continued.

Farhan nodded.

“Then why are you so hell bent on losing them? Instead of trying hard to
create a good impression on me, you are making every possible effort to
dirty your image in my mind. The questions and the assignments that I give
you in class, carry valuable board marks! Why don’t you understand that
child?”

He nodded again to express his agreement with the point that she was
making.
“It really beats me, you know!...” she remarked, “I mean, its, ridiculous. You
had one whole week! And then you say that you didn’t have the questions!
Couldn’t you have actually bothered to take the questions from any of your
friends?” She turned towards Ashwin. “Look at your partner. I remember
that he had been absent for three days in the last week. Weren’t you?” she
asked him.

“Yes ma’am,” Ashwin confidently replied. “I was down with viral.”

“You hear that?” she asked Farhan. “If he was down with viral for three days
and could still complete the homework, why couldn’t have you?”

Farhan flashed a contemptuous glance towards Ashwin.
“Why did you have to say that?” his eyes speaked.

“I’m sorry,” replied Ashwin’s.

“Just go and stand there for the rest of the period!” she ordered and pointed
towards the corner where the dustbin was placed. “And if I don’t get your
notebook tomorrow, I’ll make sure that the headmistress comes to know
about this! Is it clear?”

“Yes ma’am,” Farhan whimpered and trudged along to the corner. The rest
of the defaulters soon joined him.

Satisfied that they had been reprimanded long and harshly enough, the
teacher continued with the lesson.

Ashwin dilligently took down notes in his textbook as she explained. The
rest were content in just listening, only until they got another reprimand
from the teacher that is.

The bell rang just a few minutes later, much to Mrs. Sachdeva’s displeasure
as she had managed to finish only one paragraph in the whole period as
opposed to the three pages that she had planned.
Muttering curses under her breath, she left the classroom.

Relieved, Farhan walked back to his seat.
“Why did you have to say that, stupid!” he reprimaded Ashwin. “She would
have almost killed me you know!”

Ashwin supressed a giggle. “Sorry Farhan,” he said. “I know I shouldn’t
have done that, but I was just too tempted, you see… to see you shouted at
by her like that. Ahh…man, I should have clicked a picture of your face at
that time. It seemed like you would cry any moment!”

“Damn you!”

Ashwin let the laughter flow as Farhan jumped on him and beat him up
playfully for making a mockery out of his misery.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Change the line!” Ashwin shrieked. “I am free!”

Soon after, the ball came flying towards him. With a deft touch from his
chest, he brought it down and expertly controlled it with his feet. One of the
defenders of the opposition team came charging and slided, trying to win the
ball, but in vain. Ashwin skillfully dodged him and sprang forward in the
open space. Now, he was one on one with the goalkeeper.

“Block his shot!” yelled one of the defenders.

The keeper obeyed and ran towards Ashwin, trying to limit his shooting
range. One metre between them, he dived… but all he got was a mouth and
handful of grass as Ashwin adroitly pulled off a stepover move, dodged the
keeper, and walked straight into the goal with the ball at his feet.

Mr. Gupta blew the whistle from a distance, formally declaring the goal and
the end of the ninety minutes as well.

Ecstatic, his team members, and the other students of tenth – D, who were
watching from the sidelines ran over and surrounded him, cheering and
applauding with joy.
One of the boys hauled him over his shoulders, and soon after, the others
joined in as well as they hoisted Ashwin up. His happiness knew no bounds
as he was carried off the field by his fellow classmates.

“Hip Hip…!” cried one of them.

“Hurray!” chorused the rest, in reply.

The grand celebration was surely justified. Tenth – D, had beaten five other
sections and had ultimately emerged victorious in the Inter-section football
tournament that had been organized for class tenth.
And what better way had been to win the cup than by beating their arch
rivals, section A, in the final match that had just concluded. The match
looked to be heading towards a goalles draw and would have stretched on
into extra time and maybe even penalties if Ashwin had not scored that great
winning goal in the dying minutes of the match.

“OK! OK!” Ashwin cried over the hullabo. “Now will you all please bring
me down? It’s a bit jittery up here, you know.”

One of the students heard his plea and advised the rest to bring the hero
down. Though unwillingly, they obeyed, and brought Ashwin back on Earth.

Though metaphorically, he was still up there!

After the match, Ashwin had surely become the hero of the class. The throng
of fourty three students surrounded him for a long time, congratulating and
shaking hands with him, before Mr. Gupta ordered them to clear away and
go back to their classes as the bell, signifying the end of the P.E. period, had
rung quite a while ago.

“Crap!” exclaimed Farhan on learning about it. “We have Geography now!
And we are already ten minutes late!”

The rest of the students, as if struck by terror after what Farhan had just
informed, wore a worried expression on their faces and quickly vamoosed
away from the field, leaving Ashwin and Mr. Gupta behind.

Both of them stood and there and saw the group of students scurry away to
the C block.
“Don’t you have to go?” Mr. Gupta asked.

Ashwin turned to him and looked straight into his eyes. “You saw my game
today, right?” he said.

“Yes, I did….. So?”

“So what do you say about it?”

“What do you mean Ashwin?..... come to the point, I don’t have much time.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Ashwin, see…” said Mr. Gupta, now adopting a graver tone in his voice,
“…I already have decent enough, if not, better players than you in the senior
team. I mean, you don’t have to try so hard Ashwin! Concentrate on your
Boards this year. You have a guaranteed place in the senior team next year…
I promise.”

But Ashwin didn’t seem to buy the idea.
“I don’t believe this!” he said, trying to sound as polite as possible. “I can
handle the Boards, sir. It’s a mere cake walk.”

Mr. Gupta turned his head away and tried to avoid the conversation by
looking at a distance for the batch of seventh that was due to come in this
period for their P.E.

“You also know that I am good,” Ashwin added. “And I know that you are
skirting the issue… yes I know that. I can understand that you are concerned
for my board results, but this is no reason to not include me in the team. In
fact, this is ridiculous!”

Mr. Gupta launched himself into thought and tried to look for a possible
excuse. He knew that what Ashwin said was actually correct, but he couldn’t
obviously agree to his viewpoint. His face acquired a grim look as he
cogitated.
“I know that you know that I am right,” Ashwin said, pressing him further.
“And I also know that right know, you are thinking of a credible excuse to
avoid me.”

Mr. Gupta turned towards him. “Ashwin,” he said, solemnly. “I gave you an
explanation and I don’t any further any debate on it. You understand that?”

Ashwin opened his mouth to protest, but he cut him short. “Now please go
back to your classroom, fast,” he commanded.

Ashwin tried to object once again, but the coach just walked away, leaving
him alone with his mouthful of remonstrations. Angry and incredulous of the
coach’s rationale, he stomped away from the field, feeling betrayed.

In the class, Mrs. Sachdeva was continuing with the chapter and everyone
was present. All except Ashwin. In the boys’ toilet, as he changed from his
football kit to the school uniform, Aswhin thought about the consequences
of him walking in twenty minutes late to Mrs. Sachdeva’s class.

“Should I bunk the rest of the period?” he wondered aloud and
contemplated.
“Naah…” he concluded after a while. “That would only make things worse.”

After he had fully changed into the school shirt and trouser, he decided to
return to the class and face the consequences head on, whatever they may be.
He got out of the toilet and slowly walked up the stairs to the first floor. He
paused for a while in the lobby outside the classroom to re-evaluate his
decision.

“Let’s just see whatever happens,” he mumbled to himself and went forward
towards the door.

He nervously peeped through the door. Mrs. Sachdeva was writing on the
board with her back towards the door. Ashwin could have easily slipped into
the class inconspicuously but he chose not to. The fear of the teacher
stopping him to do so.

He just stood quietly at the door for a few seconds while Mrs. Sachdeva
wrote on the board. Then she turned and their eyes met.
“May I come in, ma’am?” Ashwin spluttered, trepidation oozing out of his
voice.
He mentally braced himself for what was to come.

Mrs. Sachdeva replaced the cap on the marker, kept it on the table and
walked up to him. Ashwin closed his eyes, girding himself for the impact.
After a few moments, he felt the distinctive fragrance of the teacher’s
perfume fill the air around him.
‘Just not on the cheeks’ he muttered in his mind. ‘Just not on the cheeks’

A few seconds of awkward quietude passed. Eyes still closed, Ashwin
wondered what was happening. Then, he felt a comforting hand on his
shoulder.

“We all are proud of you Ashwin,” came a voice.

Flabbergasted, he opened his eyes hastily to learn about the situation. What
he saw, astounded him.

The whole class was at its feet and Mrs. Sachdeva was standing beside him,
smiling.

‘What the hell?!’ he mumbled inaudibly.

“We all are very proud of you…” continued the voice, “…because of the
wonderfull game that you played today which ultimately fetched us the
Inter-section football glory. Though I wasn’t there to see the match, but my
ears have been full of your praise since the whole of the twenty minutes after
the period began, courtesy your classmates.”

The students smiled together at their mention.

“I know you must be wondering why I am not howling at you for coming
late.”

Ashwin nodded, still dazed.

“Well, that’s because now, you are the class hero. And I dare not scold the
people’s hero, right?”
“Yes ma’am,” emphatically chorused the class.

“There you go,” she said, still beaming with appreciation. “And by the way,
I also didn’t get any time to teach till now, thanks to the unending
commentaries of the match that the students were reciting to me. So you are,
sort of, still on time.”

Ashwin grinned.

“Talk about having the luck of the Irish!” he said to himself as he occupied
his seat to beaming faces staring at him in awe and envy.

“Maybe it’s not that bad being me after all!” he concluded.
CHAPTER 3
PANGS OF PUBERTY

Ashwin let out a soft sigh. The Math Monday Test question paper lay on his
desk with the answer sheet beside it, empty. He was in absolutely no mood
right now to solve the linear equations which stared back at him from the
paper, begging to be solved. His mind wandered off to the conversation that
he had had with Sonali using his mother’s cellphone the night before.

The goal that he had scored in the final match had not only made him a
paladin in his classmates’ eyes, but now, thanks to his heroics, Sonali had
started taking a particular interest in him. Talking with her over the phone
had become a daily affair nowadays. Though he was a bit reluctant at first in
comunicating with her so often, he had ultimately given in and let his newly
developed hormones dictate terms.

‘Concentrate Ashwin!’ he said to himself, ordering his thoughts to come
back to the question paper.

Even though the Monday Tests didn’t matter much now, except for the ones
of Social Studies that is, which would have a twenty percent share in his
final board result, Ashwin, nevertheless tried to focus on the paper to ensure
a maximum score for himself.

He looked around and noticed that half the class was just biding away its
time, gazing out of the window or just sketching cartoon characters on their
question paper.
He was tempted to do the same, but he refrained himself from doing so.
Instead, after solving a couple of three marker questions just to make his
answer sheet look full, he once again let his mind wander off to yesterday
night.

‘What did she mean when she said that she had always dreamt of a person
like me?’ he wondered.

A smile cracked across his face shortly.
‘I KNOW what she meant!’ he said after a while, the smile now adopting the
proprtions of a wide grin.

Toes curled with excitement, he tried to concentrate back on the question
paper, but to little avail. Thoughts of Sonali and her last night’s flirtarious
comments kept swirling in his mind.

“Damn it!” he cried, vexed at not being able to deduce the answers to the
questions which he had been so thorough with just hours before.

The two periods were seeming like two decades, and Ashwin couldn’t have
been more glad when the bell proclaiming the end of the test finally rang,
though his usual reactions to this very bell were quite different than the one
he exhibited today.

He promptly handed over his paper to Mrs. Sachdeva as she came around to
collect them.

“What happened Ashwin?” she queried. “Was the paper very easy today?
You never give the paper on time usually.”

Ashwin flashed a false smile. “Sort of,” he replied.

Smiling back, the teacher took the paper away. Ashwin got up immediately
after.

“Move!” he commanded his partner who sat with him in the Monday tests, a
timid seventhee. He had yet not completed his endless Hindi paper and was
frantically scribbling the last few lines of the letter to the editor, trying to
finish it before the teacher came around his column of seats once again to
collect the papers of his class.

“Can you please wait for a minute,” he spluttered, slightly irritated.

Ashwin didn’t concur with his suggestion and literally moved his chair aside
with his hands.
“What the?...” the seventhee exclaimed, as Ashwin pushed his way through
the narrow space and walked towards the front of the class to retrieve his
bag.

“Stupid underlings!” he remarked, sifting through the pile.

He found his bag tucked away beneath two layers and pulled it out with a
jerk, not caring about the couple of bags that flew over, as a result, to the
corner where the dustbin was kept.
Hanging it over his shoulder, he went outside of the room and waited for the
second half of the class to return from their Monday test room.

Inside, the class was enveloped in the usual state of scramble that
accompanied the end of a Monday test. Invigilator howling at the students
who had yet not handed over their answer sheets while the people beside
them loudly shouted out the answers while discussing it with their peers.

“Just a second ma’am,” they would plead as they quickly jotted down the
answers which they were now enlightened of, thanks to their classmates.

Outside, Ashwin couldn’t contain his patience as ten minutes past, the
second half students had yet not arrived.

“What is taking her so long?” he muttered to himself.

After a while, he heard a voice calling out to him from somewhere..

“Hey! Mr. Hero!” the voice remarked jocularly.

Ashwin turned around in anticipation but all he saw was an excited Farhan
running upto him with the question paper fluttering in his hand.
His face drooped once again.

“Stop calling me that,” he replied plainly, though he did like the apotheosis.

“OK, as you like it, Mr. Star-Of-The-Class.”

“Farhan, cut it out!” he cried agitatedly.

“Fine. Anyways, how was your paper?”
“Don’t ask,” he replied, craning his neck over the crowd that had gathered in
the lobby.

“Hey, I wanted to ask you something. What was the answer to this
question?” Farhan queried, pointing his finger at the second last six marker.
“Everyone’s getting three fourty but I can bet my lovely hair that four fourty
was the answer. I did it just now before the test. What answer did you get?”

“I don’t know,” casually replied Ashwin, looking away from Farhan, still
searching for Sonali amongst the horde of students.

“What’s the matter Ashwin?” Farhan asked, clearly irritated at the lack of
espial from him, but he found out that he was talking to nothing but thin air.

He gaped incredulously as Ashwin disappeared into the crowd, leaving
Farhan alone with his demands of a justification.

The surge of choler intensified even more as he witnessed Ashwin walk upto
Sonali who had just descended from the stairs from the second floor, and
get, up close, if not personal as well, with her.

Hostiled, he paced back inside the class.

“What took you so long?” Ashwin asked, in a tone which seemed to reflect
that he had been wating for her since eons.

“I’m sorry Ashwin,” she replied, making a very funny teddy bear like face to
look as apologetic as she could. Though Ashwin found it more cute than
contrite. All his annoyance seemed to melt away at once.

“I couldn’t finish the paper on time,” she added, “so I was fighting with the
invigilator to accept my answer sheet even though I submitted it five
minutes after the bell rang.”

Ashwin sniggered.

“Stop laughing!” she admonished. “By the way, you seem to be very happy,
why, did your test go very well? Eh… Mr. Hero?”
“Your hero?!”

“I said MR. Hero and not MY Hero, stupid,” she corrected.
“Though I think it can work both ways,” she added coquettishly.

Ashwin curled his lips and raised his eyebrows, more in pleasure than in
surprise.
“Oh, really?”

“Well… sort of!”

“I’m flattered!”

“You should be, too!”

Ashwin sweared that he would have held her hand right now had he not
spotted the Chemistry teacher cutting across the large crowd, making her
way towards their classroom.

“Shit!” he remarked. “Here comes the Chemistry teacher.”

A hint of displeasure flashed on Sonali’s face, which Ashwin took to be
because of the hindrance in their flirtatious conversation that had come about
with the arrival of the teacher rather than the aversion to study the highly
boring subject.
‘She likes me!’ Ashwin inferred after a while.

“Oh....” sighed Sonali. “Let’s go in then.”

“Sure.”

“Capture the two seats in the left corner,” she ordered Ashwin. “I want to
talk to you.”

Ashwin almost jumped and punched the air in joy at the command.
Somehow managing to restrain his emotions, he overtook the chemistry
teacher and entered the classroom first. He moved his eyes to the left corner
of the class and spotted Farhan and Kunal sitting there.

‘Damn those two!’ he muttered.
Nevertheless, he made his way across the column of seats to where the duo
was sitting.

He stood beside them with his hands on his hips. Kunal looked merry and
ready to entertain his request, but Farhan looked away in disgust.
Ashwin winced at the prospect of asking him to vacate his seat.

“Can you two please sit somwhere else?” he asked all the same.

Willing, Kunal stood up and searched for vacant seats in the room. He
spotted one in the front row and another near the door of the clasroom.

“I can go and sit with Shourya,” he suggested, “and Ashwin, you can sit here
with Farhan. Besides, I also have to study Chemistry. I haven’t been able to
understand a thing in ‘Carbon Compounds’.”

“You didn’t understand,” said Ashwin.

“Yes, I didn’t,” Kunal confirmed. “Carbon Compounds is one hell of a
chapter you know!”

“Tch…NO!” Ashwin replied. “I want both of you to vacate your seats.”

They responded with a quizzical look.

“Sonali and me will sit here,” he explained.

Kunal let out a small exclamation of surprise and smiled at him teasingly.

“Oooo!!!...” he remarked. “Someone wants to spend some time in private
with someone! Interesting!”

“Come on Farhan,” he added. “Let’s go sit on the front seat. We’ll tell
Shourya to go and sit on the last seat, for once, so that he can realize how it
feels to witness the board from a distance of ten feet rather than ten inches!”

Ashwin guffawed, but Farhan was not at all amused. He got up plainly,
grabbed his bag and followed Kunal to the first row where they had a slight
argument with Shourya after which, miraculously, Shourya agreed to
relegate himself to the last seat.

Ashwin waved at Sonali to come and occupy the seats which he had
managed to clear just because she had wanted to sit on them.

She meandered through the columns of seats, managed to slip past the
teacher inconspicuously and walked towards the corner of the class.

“What’s up with Farhan today?” she asked as she straightened her skirt and
sat down beside Ashwin. “Why is he ignoring me? I said a ‘Hi’ to him just
now but he didn’t respond. Is it just me or is he behaving like this with you
too?”

Ashwin flinched a bit. “Forget about him,” he dismissed. “You wanted to
talk to me about something, right?”

Sonali’s eyes broadened and she flashed a wry smile. She shifted casually in
her seat, reducing the gap between her and Ashwin even more.
“Aahhh…” she exclaimed. “As a matter of fact, I did.”

“Well then…”

She kept quiet and observed the Chemistry teacher through the corner of her
eye.

“But I don’t think this is the correct time,” she explained. “I can see the
teacher cracking cautionary glances at us.”

She gestured at Mrs. Ghosh through her eyes, who, while reading from the
textbook, also made a point to throw occasional admonitory glances at the
two of them.

“What a pest!” Ashwin remarked.

“Well…you’ve got to deal with it. Blame your luck if you want.”

“But the suspense will eat me alive, Sonali!”
She contemplated for a while and added, “Fine, but don’t look at me. Keep
looking at the board while I talk. OK?”

“Perfect.”

Ashwin was fully aware as to what Sonali wanted to say and she also
perfectly knew what he wanted to hear and why was he so insistent on it.
Maybe now, even you know what they wanted to say to or hear from each
other. Let me make it explicit nevertheless.

Ashwin listened intently as Sonali spoke, making a conscious effort to look
as involved in the lecture of the teacher as possible. The occasional coy
smile intermittently interrupted his earnest gaze at the white board. Sonali
sat with her hands propping up her chin on the desk – an effective strategy
which also concealed her lips as she talked.

“You might not had been aware,” she murmured, “but I had started noticing
the particular interest you held in me, since seventh standard.”

‘Maybe I was just not too eloquent in sixth,’ Ashwin thought.

“And who knows, mayhap in sixth as well!” she added.

‘Perhaps I was!’

“It might surprise you, but I am also aware about the bust up you had with
Saurav on Children’s Day.”

‘That good for nothing dummkopf! Why did he have to tell her about it.’

“And I also must tell you that it was not Saurav who told me about it, as you
might be thinking otherwise.”

“Then who the hell did?”

“You don’t bother about that. I have my sources.”

Embarrassed, Ashwin tried to change the course of the conversation, which
was adopting unpleasant proportions for him.
“Take it as my immaturity,” he explained nevertheless. “Anyways…”

Sonali paused for a moment and studied his face. Ashwin stared back, in
trepidation that she might just walk away from him. He probed at her with
his eyes, calling at her to stay. It seemed to work as he saw a smile spread
across her face. Relieved, he returned to his job of goggling at the board.

“I’m glad that you had an explanation for it,” she said, satisfied with the
apparent plausibilty of the justification.

‘I’m glad that you actually believed the canard’: he wished to reply but did
not, and cleverly so.
“Thank you,” he pronounced, instead.

“So,” she continued, “What do you think about me?”

Ashwin turned so that he could face her.

“You?” As in…?...” he queried.

“As in… generally…” she answered.

One could clearly see that they were continuously going around in circles
uselessy, while all that was required from either of the two was to sidestep
once and grab the bone which was lying in the centre.

“Generally…” he continued, “umm… maybe… umm… I think you are…
umm… very sweet and… umm… always ready to help, I guess.”

“Will you stop giving me all those cliched phrases Ashwin,” she replied
plainly, “and come up with something better?”

“Why don’t you try?”

Sonali scratched her chin with her long nailed fingers and immersed herself
in thought. “Let me frame it up,” she said.

“It isn’t that easy you see.” he remarked.
“It sure isn’t,” replied a voice. A very hefty and grown up voice. Too grown
up for a fifteen year old in fact, but strangely similar to a voice that he had
heard quite often.

He looked up and just stared in horror as he saw Mrs. Ghosh standing beside
him, sternly. Veins protruded out from the back of her palm, signifying the
magnitude of anger that she kept vented inside, and which, would come
raining down on Ashwin soon. He lifted his head up to face her, trying to say
something in his defense, but her scalded-peach like and multiple wrinkle
infested face which stared back at him condoscendingly, restricted him to
utter even a word.

“Stand up!” she ordered. “And please explain what was going on over here.”

Ashwin obeyed and raised himself to the short height of the teacher, but his
mouth refused to open. He racked his brains and thought quickly for a
credible excuse, but he couldn’t find any in his database that would fit the
current situation.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” was all that he could muster.

“What do you mean by sorry?” she roared. “I want an explanation from you
for not concentrating. Apologies can come later, though it is only obvious
that I won’t accept them.”

Ashwin hung his head in shame and stared at the slivers of wood jutting out
from his desk. He had no explanations really, considering that it was
apparent that he won’t reveal that they were actually professing their liking
towards each other, though not really in direct ways, sitting there on the two
corner seats, as they tried their best to pretend that they were actually as
involved in the teacher’s lecture as they would be in a Harry Potter movie.

Pardon me for the comparison, all Harry Potter execrators.

“What happened to that little mouth of yours?” the teacher bellowed once
again. “It was blabbering away to glory a few minutes back! Why isn’t it
opening now?”

“Sorry ma’am,” he repeated.
Mrs. Ghosh looked away and put her hands up in disgust. “I never expected
this from you, Ashwin,” she said. “From one of the brightest students of the
class.”

Embarrassed, he resumed his gaze at the desk as the teacher continued with
her admonitions.

A strange feeling of guilt gripped him. He felt bad… angry with himself…
and for the the first time, he looked at Sonali in a condoscending manner.
After all, she was the one who got him to sit here in the first place, and the
prospect of her supposed ultimate revelation, which never actually came, led
him into this mess.

‘What is going wrong with me?’ he thought as he simultaneously took in all
that the teacher was firing at him.

Those pangs of guilt kept raising their heads everytime he was anywhere
around Sonali. And the day when she sqaurely did reveal her feelings for
him, he had no choice but to refuse the proposal.

On a cloudy August afternoon, in the P.E. period, when the classroom was
void of all its inmates, she had propped her head on her left shoulder and
letting her hair blowing freely in the wind, she had said: “Ashwin, will you
go out with me?”

Ashwin had noticed the soft, pink cheeks, the perfect eyebrows, the
captivating eyes, the very luscious red lips, the long neck elegantly
supporting the pulchritudinous face and the most enrapturing voice that had
ever banged on his ear drums… and all this had made it next to impossible
for him to refuse the offer… but he had replied firmly,

“Sorry Sonali.”

That was all it took…. only two words… to escape…from his first ever...
pangs of puberty.
CHAPTER 4
OF PROJECTS AND LAB FILES

“Be careful with the H2SO4!” shrieked Mrs. Ghosh.

At the far end of the CB Block Chemistry Lab, as if on cue,
Varun, one of the dolts of the class, spilled some of the
contents of a jar labelled ‘Sulphuric Acid’ on his fingers.
Thankfully, there was a small note beneath it– ‘Dilute’, it
said. In fact, in actuality, it was very very dilute, otherwise,
his hand would have vaporised by now!

“Aaahhh…” Varun screamed in pain nevertheless.

“Dilute or Concentrated, H2SO4 is H2SO4 , man!” he explained to his
lab partner.

Mrs. Ghosh sprinted from her spot to the place where Varun was standing
wincing in his so claimed pain.
His wails increased in volume even further as the teacher neared him.

“What did you do to yourself?” asked Mrs. Ghosh, trying to sound as
sympathetic as possible, though within, she was cursing the sheer idiocity of
the boy.
‘Playing around with it like it was Holi!’ she had mumbled.

“Ma’am, the jar was not opening,” Varun explained, “so I was trying to do
so by sticking a pen into it through the side so that the lid could come off.
But, then, as soon as I stuck it in, the lid came off all of a sudden and the
acid spilled all over my fingers.”
He raised his hands and twirled his fingers.
“See,” he said.

Mrs. Ghosh quickly interpreted the situation and concluded it to be just one
of those petty lab accidents caused by idiotic dullards who don’t pay
attention when the teacher is instructing the precautions to be taken by the
students for their own safety. She didn’t waste her time in checking whether
the acid was concentrated or dilute.

“He wouldn’t have been standing here if it was concentrated,” she muttured
under her breath as she returned to the teacher’s table to correct the few lab
files that had been piled up there.

In front of the table, Ashwin and his lab partner, Deepti, cracked a giggle.

“He is one stupid clod, I tell you!” exclaimed Deepti. “We don’t even need
Sulphuric Acid in this experiment! Wonder what he was trying to achieve
there.”

“Yeah…” replied Ashwin. “The corrosive properties of sulfuric acid are
accentuated by its highly exothermic reaction with water. Hence burns from
sulfuric acid are potentially more serious than those of comparable strong
acids, for example hydrochloric acid, as there is additional tissue damage
due to dehydration and particularly due to the heat liberated by the reaction
with water; i.e. secondary thermal damage. Thus, we can conclude that he
had a narrow escape.”

Deepti just gawked back, baffled. “Oh!…OK!” she managed to exclaim. “I
didn’t know that!”

“Yeah…”

“So moral of the story is…”

“Never play Holi with Sulphuric acid!” added Ashwin.

Deepti flinched. Her face acquired a look of disgust at the poor sense of
Ashwin’s humor.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Yeah,” she replied. “That sure was a pathetic one!”

“I know…”
They resumed with the experiment of testing the conditions required for
corrosion as the teacher continued with her usual screamings and shoutings,
begging the students to submit their lab files before they broke for the winter
holiday hiatus.

“Neither you nor will I get time after that,” she blared. “Besides, you have
the pre-Boards right after the holidays. You anyways need to submit them
before that.”

The class went ‘Aww…’ in unison.

“Lab files are such a waste of time,” yelled one of the students from behind
amidst the chorus.

The teacher managed to discern it from the chorus. “Who was that?” she
yelled back.

The class went mum.

“Who was that?” she repeated.

This time, the class erupted in soft giggles.

“Just…an…impossible batch of students!” she murmured under her breath
as she resumed her checking of the lab files.

“She is so dumb!” said Deepti, softly, ensuring that the teacher didn’t hear
the comment this time. “Ain’t she?”

Ashwin didn’t reply. To him, she sure wasn’t.
“I’ll go and get the iron nails,” he said, trying to change the topic.

“Bring some test tubes too,” ordered Deepti. “The ones we have here are
very dirty”

….. as always!

Ashwin went over to his neighbouring group and stealthily pulled out some
cleaner test tubes from their stand. He returned, handed them over to Deepti
and paced back towards the lab assistant to get some iron nails for himself.
The lab assistant of this chemistry lab, or in fact, the ones of all the labs in
the school for that matter, exhibited a most unique character and behaviour
while dealing with the students’ need for apparatus. It seemed as if, or rather
they made it seem like they were the HODs of the department, creating an
air around them which seemed to proclaim a message of – ‘You dare not
come to me asking for apparatus!’ inspite of the fact that that was the very
thing that they were paid for.

Ashwin nevertheless went forward and tried his hand at getting extra nails as
the one they had received earlier, were already corroded to the core and
hence were unsuitable for their experiment.

“Sir,” he whimpered. Well, he atleast got the title right, calling him as a
Bhaiya or an Uncle would have only made the guy shoo Ashwin away like a
dog.
“Can I get a few iron nails please?” he added hesitantly.

The guy, who was merrily sipping from his cuppa of tea, looked up and
frowned, his eyebrows meeting in the center as a result. He put the cup down
with a thud on his small rickety table and a few drops of the tea spilled out.

“What happened to the ones that you got earlier?” he asked, a hint of
impatience in his voice.

“They were already rusted…” replied Ashwin, trying to sound as confident
as possible, “… so they were virtually unsuitable for our experiment.”

The guy chewed on his comments for a while, looking for a loophole in his
argument which he could use to shout at him. He didn’t find any, but, as he
still had to scream at him for disturbing him with his tea, he came up with an
excuse:

“Why did you come so late then?” he bellowed. “One period has already
ended.”

“Sorry sir,” replied Ashwin, “but we were doing another experiment before
this.”

“Which one?”
“Sir, Ph.”

“So couldn’t you have come then?”

“Sir, we didn’t realize it then.”

“Bah… you children will kill me one day! I cannot even enjoy a peaceful
cup of tea here in this school!”

Ashwin opened his mouth to apologize but the lab assistant had disappeared
into his small little store room to fetch some fresh iron nails for him,
muttering curses under his breath. He emerged after a few seconds carrying
a fistful.

“Here you go!” he said unpleasantly, scattering the nails all over his table.
“Take as many as you want. You can even take some home for your
plumber, electrician, carpenter or whoever!” he added sarcastically.

Ashwin collected them in a heap and grabbed a few in his hands. With a
formal ‘Thank You’, he veered on his heels and started to walk away.

“The next chump who dares to bother me is going to get vitriol all over his
body!” Ashwin heard the lab assistant mumble to himself in agitation.
Considering himself lucky to have come just at the right moment, he fled
quickly from his sight.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The sentry at the door obediently opened the glass doors and Mr. Khanna
confidently stepped into the office of the ‘Central Ministry of Tourism’ at
Janpath. A warm smile by the receptionist greeted him.
Poster proclaiming India’s Incredibleness, sceneries depicting India’s so
claimed varied flora and fauna and a plethora of collages limning the
country’s genuinely claimed cultural diversity, adorned all the four walls of
the huge room.
“Hmmm… Impressive!” Mr. Khanna said to himself as he had a quick stroll
around before going over to the grinning receptionist.

He walked over to her desk, put his hand on the top and propped his head on
it. Legs crossed, he enquired: “From where can I get pamphlets and
brochures of each state’s tourism department?”

The female obviously got a bit surprised at the bizarre enquiry, which also
reflected on her face as she raised her eyebrows and thrust her eyeballs
outwards in startlingness.
‘Maybe he is planning a grand INDIA TOUR’ she inferred.

Mr. Khanna, reading her expressions, quickly spluttered in explanation: “No,
it is not the way you are thinking,” he said. “Actually, my son has to make
this project in his school on ‘The Tourism in India’. It is quite significant
you know, as he is in standard tenth right now and this project will be a part
of his internal assessment. So, he had asked me to get some brochures from
your office to help him with the thing.”

The woman nodded in agreement.

“And he is amongst the top five of the class too…” he added, though
Ashwin had been in the bottom half as far as the results of the recently
concluded half yearly exams go, thanks to his first ever experiences of the
salad days. “And as I want him to get the best, I came to your office where I
thought I would get the best possible material for his project.”

“Aahhh…” she exclaimed. “Thank you so much.”

Mr. Khanna smiled fawningly.

“Please go straight forward and up the stairs to the first floor. There is a
room at the end where you’ll get all the brochures you need. You’ll find Mr.
Mehra there. I’ll just call and tell him to show you around and help you with
everything.”

“Thank you so much!” replied Mr. Khanna and proceeded on the described
route.
Since almost a week, Ashwin had been pestering his father to visit the office
of the Tourism Ministry and get the stuff that he wanted for his Social
Studies project which carried five whole marks in the final score.

“Dad!” he had exclaimed, “we need to submit this before the winter holidays
which are barely a fortnight away. And I need at least two weeks of time to
make this damn thing! The more you delay it, the lesser time I’d have left to
complete it which would only affect its magnificence , you know. And that
would ultimately reflect in the marks. Why don’t you understand that?”

Mr. Khanna had clearly understood it but even though his office was a
stone’s throw away from Janpath, he had never found the time to go over
and get the job done….. before today that is.
Today, after coming home from school in the afternoon, enraged, Ashwin
had picked up the phone, furiously dialed his father’s cellphone number and
had literally hounded him for still not getting the brochures that he had
demanded. Threatened by his warnings, Mr. Khanna had, at once, left his
office, and had driven, or rather flown himself to the office of the Tourism
Ministry to comply with his son’s demands.

Back home, Ashwin, now ensured that his father would finally get his
project material today after his vociferous outcry, switched on the Air
Conditioner of his room and started with his Biology Lab file, from scratch.

“Fifteen experiments to be written…” he said to himself, “…in fifteen days.
Not fair!”

Rather, to be more explicit – ‘Saraasar Naa-insafi’, in the words of Gabbar.

Nevertheless, he picked up his pen heavily and started copying the ‘aims’,
‘theories’ and ‘procedures’ of the experiments from the lab manual that he
had managed to procure from one of his seniors who lived nearby.

The writing part was fine enough but when it came to the esoteric and most
difficult-to-sketch diagrams, “Aaarghh…” would come the reply from
Ashwin.
He almost tore off one of the pages while furiously erasing a diagram
depicting stomatas in a leaf.
“These things are just impossible to draw!” he cried in helplessness.
He nevertheless had to make them, no matter how recondite they may seem
or how sloppily he drew them.

“Only the neatest files will be given full marks,” the teacher had warned.
“No laxation on the part of the students will be tolerated and marks will be
cut.”

Threatening it may seem, but in actuality, when it came down to giving the
practical marks, which were done by the school teachers only, rather than the
externals as they had claimed throughout the year, almost all the students
managed to achieve a ‘twenty five on twenty five’.

This, keeping in mind that the school obviously wouldn’t downsize its result
in the all important class tenth Board Examinations, which, as far as my
view goes, were, a… humbug really. Where else would you possibly see
almost every other student student manage a Brobdingnagian twenty percent
increase from his previous year’s performance. This only signifies the utter
worthlessness, or rather, bullshitness to be more rhetoric, of the tenth
standard board exams at least.

But, Ashwin, and in fact, all the students of tenth standard for that matter,
except for the privileged few who had already been intimated about this by
their elder brother or sister, weren’t aware about this very obvious practice.
As a result, they slogged it out day and night trying to perfect diagrams,
drawing lines wherever possible to embellish and get the most precise
‘procedures’ and ‘theories’ for each experiment that they had neatly
calligraphed in their sparkling lab files.

As if it were the Bhagwada Gita itself…on second thought… even more
sacrosanct.

The following day was the last Friday before the winter holidays and
tentatively, the last working Friday for the whole session itself as far as the
tenth standard was concerned as the holidays would be followed by the pre-
Boards and practical exams and after a month of which, the mega event
which the students had been preparing for almost a year would commence.

The period between the two sets of exams would obviously be a big holiday,
or a big study leave rather, for the students, so tomorrow would effectively
be the last Friday of their class tenth session… or more importantly, the last
day of studying Social Studies and Sanskrit!

Yes, talking to a student who had just started with his eleventh standard, the
happiness and joy of the conclusion of his tenth standard session which was
clearly evident from his face, was actually more because of the relief of
finally getting rid of the two most loathed subjects than because of the fact
that the Boards had been effectively dealt with!

Concerned teachers may please pardon me for this rude awakening that they
had to undergo.

Anyways, early in the cold Friday morning, an unusual aura of tension had
gripped the class and except for a sincere few who had already got their lab
files checked, all the other students were glued to their seats frantically
trying to complete theirs.

Ashwin entered the room ten minutes before the bell for the home room
period and almost immediately got enveloped in the air. He went around two
columns of seats and occupied his in the second row. Manish, his partner,
was one of the select few who were merrily ambling around and laughing
within themselves at the students who were working up sweat trying to
complete their files which had to submitted today, or else they would beat
them up until they resemble a specimen of spirogyra as the teacher had
claimed.

“Manish,” he called out to him. “Can you please help me with the
diagrams?” he pleaded.

Not having anything to do, Manish thought he might as well help the poor
guy.
“Yeah…” he replied. “ Sure. I even sort of, have a liking towards sketching
these cute little crawlies.”

Ashwin stared at him in amazement. “You do?”

“Sort of… yeah.”
Most impressed, Ashwin stood up and performed the hailing ritual by
holding up his hands over his head and bending repeatedly to pay reverence
to the unique liking of his.
“Then can you please take the trouble of drawing mine too?… please!”

“Ummm… fine, but I’ll charge fifty bucks per diagram.”

Ashwin looked incredulous. “Elephant Manure! That’s what you’ll get!”

Manish cracked a giggle. “OK, OK, relax. Give your file, I’ll do it for free…
but only this time mind you!”

Ashwin took out the diagram pages from the file and handed them over to
the art prodigy. “There are six left,” he said. “I somehow managed to
complete the other nine. Don’t ask me how.”

“Perfect,” replied the master artist. “They’ll be done in fifteen minutes
max.”

“Thanks a lot!”

The class teacher walked in soon after and was bewildered to see her class
sitting in pin drop silence. Usually, it was a case of pin drop violence (if you
allow me the liberty of using the band name). Students howling, jumping,
sprinting, fighting, banging and all other concerned gerunds, the class was
customarily referred to in this light, but today, the case was most diametric
from the usual state.

“What has happened to you all?” she cried nervously. “Have I walked into
the right room?”
She walked back to the door and sarcastically checked the the room number
plate again.
“Seems correct…”

Assiduously engaged in their work, no one cared to reply.

“Can someone please tell me what is going on here?” she asked again.
Shourya, who was also a part of the good guys clique (though it is
superfluous to mention that) and was sitting free, having already got his lab
file corrected, stood up and explained the whole situation.

The teacher was most amused by the tale. “Aahh…” she exclaimed. “So this
is why!...”

“Yes ma’am,” replied Shourya.

“Oh, how I wish the Science teachers collected lab files everyday!”

Shourya smiled obsequiously. The rest of the class shrieked in protest.

“NO MA’AM!” they howled in unison.

Taken aback at the sudden outburst, the teacher almost fell off her seat.
“OK children!” she cried. “I apologise for that wish! As long as you remain
in the pleasing state of silence that you were in.”

The room erupted in laughter…

“No one can get the better of us!” someone exclaimed. “Not even the
teachers!.........”
CHAPTER 5
THE CRY BEFORE THE BATTLE

‘Subah ho gayi maamu…maamu... maamu…’ sang the cellphone. It was still
dark outside and a bone chilling nip hung in the air. Disturbed by the
proclamation by his mother’s cellphone, head still resting on his snuggy
pillow, Ashwin opened his left eye and checked the time.

“Is it is six already?!” he mumbled to himself using one half of his lips, the
other half being cozily snuffed into the headrest. “Goddam it!”

He wearily sat up and switched off the alarm which was still screaming out
the melody through the phone speakers. He rubbed his eyes, stretched, and,
unwillingly, clambered out of the bed.

“Damn these pre-Boards man!” he exclaimed as he entered the bathroom to
brush.

His outburst was surely justified. The dreaded pre-Boards of the tenth
standard were already two exams old, English and Math being the done-and-
dusted-away-with subjects. But more importantly, tomorrow was the big
daddy of ‘em all – the most feared, or rather, most execrated subject that has
ever set its darned claws on us poor little students – the subject which, in my
opinion, should be subjected to eternal damnation – you must have guessed
by now that it is none other than freaking…. ‘Social Studies’!!!

Bah…even the thought of it makes the blood in my circulatory system go
bubbling with anger.

And if that was not enough to give nightmares to the students, the school
had, most insensitively, given only one bloody day as a study leave before
the dreaded exam.

Sitting on the toilet seat, Ashwin wondered, though a bit exaggeratedly:
“Fifty odd chapters… five hundred odd maps… thousand odd question… or
rather five thousand (just to make the list items congruous) odd questions…
to be revised, if not to be actually done for the first time… in just eighteen
hours… and that too in this wretched state of apprehension!”

He scratched his head.

“The exam’s doomed!” he concluded.

A similar feeling of dread was plaguing almost all the students of class tenth
right now, and, most uncharacteristically, almost all of them had already
woken up so early in the morning in order to make the most of the solitary
study day they had before tomorrow’s exam.

After freshening up and changing into warmer clothes, Ashwin carried the
huge pile of Geography, Civics, History and Economics books, notebooks,
assignments and maps from his study table, whose size proved to be too
small to accommodate all of these, to his bed, where they would lay
scattered around throughout the day for ready reference.

He landed them on the bed with a thud and a few granules of Ashwin’s
yesterday’s chips attacks flew up in the air. He grabbed some of the bigger
pieces and gobbled them up.
“They still taste good!” he exclaimed.

Not able to decide where to start from, he wasted a whole precious thirty
minutes in thinking. He finally settled for History as he wanted to get the
worst ones out of the way first.

And thus began his revision of the four subjects for the penultimate time in
his life. The effort lasted for a record sixteen long and strenuous hours,
which was disturbed only by a ten minute lunch break and an even shorter
five minute dinner break when he just hurriedly stuffed in all the maggi that
had been laid out in his plate and returned to his room at once, to tackle the
last and relatively easier subject of Economics.

Mr. and Mrs. Khanna wore a most worried look on their faces as they
witnessed Ashwin devour the maggi like so quickly like a beast. They
seriously started doubting their son’s sanity.
But, I cannot blame them really, most of the parents do the same one day
before their ward’s Social Studies pre-board exam, especially when the
school most foolishly gives only one day as a study leave.

When he did finally get up from his arduous marathonic studying spree,
Ashwin’s face reflected a disheveled look. Hair strewn all over the place,
eyes drooping with sleep, lips parched due to a lack of water intake and his
newly acquired spectacles crookedly placed on his nose, he went over to his
study table, thudded all the books and notebooks in relief and started
accoutering his pencil box with pens, pencils and a few color pencils as well,
for the maps that is.

Trudging along to his room, he grabbed his mother’s cellphone on the way
from the dining table for setting the alarm, switched on the heater and just
crashed on his bed, dozing off in an instant.

A few minutes later, Mr. and Mrs. Khanna came into his room and softly
kissed him on his forehead while he was fast asleep.

“I am proud of you, my son,” Mr. Khanna whispered.

“Yes,” replied Mrs. Khanna, “you should be, too! Did you see how much he
studied today?”

“Of course… he is my son after all!”

Mrs. Khanna suppressed the urge to disagree and dragged her husband out of
the room.

“So will you please let your child sleep in peace?” she exclaimed, once
outside.

Mr. Khanna held his hands up in apology as they too retired to their rooms,
tired after the day’s work.

‘Subah ho gayi maamu…maamu... maamu…’ cried the phone again next
morning . But this time, Ashwin was already fully awake. In fact, after the
first few hours of his crashing on the bed, he had hardly slept the remaining
four and a half hours! The anxiety associated with the exam had just not
allowed him to relax, let alone close his eyes.

He emerged from the bathroom, tooth-brush still in mouth, and irritatedly
turned off the alarm.

“I know!” he exclaimed at the phone.

In the kitchen, Mrs. Khanna was struggling to keep her eyes open on this
early and chilly January morning, while preparing breakfast for her son.

“Pizza” – she had planned for breakfast. “It will help him cheer up for the
exam. Beside, he also deserves a reward after studying the hell out
yesterday.”

But, not even a lip-smacking-soul-uplifting pizza could lift Ashwin’s spirits
today. As he sat down at the table after changing into the school uniform,
Mrs. Khanna expected a joyous exclamation from his son, but all she got as
a response was a frown at the excessively vegetablish topping that she had
used.

“What do you think I am? A goat?” Ashwin had rapped.

“But it will only help you provide stamina for the three hour exam!” she had
explained.

“Bah!…” he had replied and stormed off the table towards his room to fetch
his bag, leaving the pizza staring back at the ceiling.

“Here I am in dire need of some how-to-stay-awake pills and you talk of
stamina building!” he had said as he stormed out the front door towards his
bus stop.

Mrs. Khanna could do little but gape incredulously as his son walked out of
the house without even eating a morsel… and that too before the three hour
marathon which awaited him.

“How difficult teenagers can be!” she mumbled to herself as she
surreptitiously took a bite from the pizza in the midst of her week long diet
regime.
Ashwin had to wait for ten minutes before his bus arrived. Mrs. Khanna
even came out to the bus stop in the biting cold with a quickly prepared
sandwich for Ashwin, but he refused to eat even that, letting his ego get the
better of him.

Mrs. Khanna insisted vehemently but Ashwin didn’t budge, until the bus
arrived and he disappeared into it.

“Let him return,” she resolved. “He sure is going to get a mouthful from
me!”

In the bus, Ashwin fought hard to keep his eyes from drooping and
concentrate on the Geography maps instead which he had put off for
revising in the bus.

On the front seats, the juniors jumped and giggled around merrily as, unlike
Ashwin, they had no exam to deal with today. One could see the tenthees
sitting at the back of the bus go green with envy.

“Stupid brats!” Ashwin said to himself.

“Will you chumps keep quiet and sit down on your damn seats!” the tenthee
sitting beside Ashwin exclaimed.

Order was, at once, restored in the vehicle.

“That’s more like it…”

The journey from Ashwin’s house to the school which usually took about
fourty minutes, was, seemingly reduced to a mere ten. He had managed to
finish only ten maps when he stared out of the window to see the huge
Sangam cinema hall loom into his sight.

“Have we reached already?” he wondered in surprise.

“Seems like it…” replied one of his friends.

“Hell!”
For once, he found the long walk from the bus to the school gates, useful. He
walked slowly and used up the time to revise the ten odd maps that were left.
He knew that once in the class, all the noise and the very air of tension that
hung in the air would never allow him to concentrate.

“Damn these coal cities!” he exclaimed, unable to distinguish amongst the
super-numerous coal centres that dotted the states of Bihar and Jharkhand in
the map of India, marking Dhanbad as Durgapur and Bokaro as Barauni.

“I fail to understand the use of making us mark all these places on a blank
map of the nation… and that too a physical map! I mean, I am no
cartographer man! Nor do I intend to become one!”

Similar thoughts were going across each student’s mind in the exam room
which, today, was wrapped in a thick ambiance of tension and stress. Such
was its intensity, that Ashwin could almost feel that he was cutting through
this air as he entered the room and went forward to his fourth row seat.

For the pre-Boards, the students were sitting with the twelfthees, who, today,
were, in a relatively more jollier mood as they had English.

Ashwin, like his classmates, and unlike his seniors, quietly sat down on his
allotted seat, plugged his fingers into his ears and started with the final
minute recap of the whole syllabus.
For him, this was an essential practice which re-inforced all that he had
studied and a failure to do which always resulted in a mid-exam wipe out
which left him staring at the question paper as if it was written in Latin.

No one dared disturb him during these fifteen minutes. Observing the
intensity on his face, not even the twelfthees.

Soon after, the invigilator – Mr. M.K. Majumdar, a short plump, around fifty
year old male teacher sporting a French beard and a brisk walk, stepped into
the classroom. Today, he didn’t feel the need to shout at the students to
restore order in the room, not at the tenthees atleast.
But, he did have to carry on the custom for the seniors though, shrieking at
them to settle down while they too, wanting to maintain the tradition,
blatantly refused to comply.

“Learn something from your juniors!” he remarked.
Five minutes before the bell, Ashwin stood up and heaved a sigh of relief.
“Finally!” he exclaimed, at having finally finished doing all the… well…
most brain racking and dexterity testing, maps that were a part of their
ruthless syllabus.

On cue, Mr. Majumdar, commanded the students to put their bags outside
the class. Ashwin winded up the paper mess on his desk, stuffed them into
his special exam bag and exited the classroom.

The state of method inside the classroom was in stark contrast to the
scramble outside. Students expressing their anxiety to friends and others
asking last minute doubts, the corridor resembled a bedlam as a cacophony
of noises rung in the air.

Afraid that it will disturb his concentration and focus, Ashwin quickly went
back into the room, deciding to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to some of the
students of the other sections who were calling out to him from a distance
asking him to join them in the congregation. He sure was in no mood right
now to discuss the black dress that Sharapova wore in the recently concuded
final of the Australian Open.

Inside, Mr. Majumdar started giving out the answer sheets to the students.
Ashwin grabbed one from his hands and frowned at the same old margin-
less sheet that lay before him.

“When will they ever learn?” he muttered as he borrowed a scale from his
partner and started drawing lines on the left side of each page of his twenty
five page long answer ‘book’ really.

The question papers soon followed.

Arka, the one sitting on front of Ashwin threw three question papers back at
him, not wasting any time to get on with his own paper.

Ashwin took one and passed the rest to Auliya, the girl sitting behind him.
Not bothering to have a quick scan of the paper to get an idea, he too began
the marathonic exam without wasting precious seconds.
The paper was a tricky one. Not one in which the student was expected to
vomit all that he or she had mugged up, but one which mostly consisted of
inference based questions which would test the child’s understanding of the
chapter rather than his rote memorizing skills. Ashwin, or every student for
that matter, had been taken back by surprise when they had first had a look
at the question paper.

The first five one markers of each of the four subjects were a breeze, but it
were the nagging two and three mark questions that played with the
student’s minds and urged them to delve deep into their banks of knowledge
and understanding of the chapters, find out the appropriate solution and
hence answer those scheming queries.

Ashwin had to work up sweat and do just the same. As was the praxis, he
had emphasized more on rote learning than comprehending the jargon of the
chapters while preparing, but now, he was, sort of, in a fix. The school had
most intelligently thrown up a very unconventional paper in an effort to
make the students face every possible situation that they could encounter in
the main board exams, given how unpredictable and capricious they were
each year.

Little did they know that this was only demoralizing their students.

‘After studying like a dog for sixteen hours straight’, thought Ashwin, “I get
this?! How can these people be so whimsical in setting the paper? Aren’t
they concerned about us?’

Yes, he never seemed to get enough of criticizing the school for its very
weird policy of always throwing up the unexpected and seemingly not
caring about its students. In fact, almost every student upto class tenth
thought similarly. It was only when they graduated into eleventh grade and
actually started getting a better picture of the outside world, did they then
realize the sheer cleverness and ingenuity of these tactics.

Actually, this is what this school is all about and this is what makes it stand
out amongst the crore others that serve the future of our nation.

Thankfully, the map questions were not as foxy as the rest of the paper. Ten
minutes before the bell, Ashwin’s eyes had lit up when he had turned to the
map question. It read:
Label the following places on a Physical Map of India:-
(i) Two coal cities in Eastern India
(ii) The city of Tipu Sultan’s Palace
(iii) Narora Nuclear Power Plant
(iv) Salem Iron and Steel Centre

“Yes!” he exclaimed as he quickly took out his pencil and started with the
final question of the Social Studies paper for the second last time in his
student life.

A strange sense of excitement filled him as he effortlessly marked the cities
on the map provided. Inspite of the trickiness of the questions, he had
managed to pull off a pretty good response to all the questions.
His sixteen hour Herculean effort had paid off. Though for this kind of a
paper, not more than five hours would have sufficed, considering that there
was a minimal amount of, what they refer to as, ‘rattoo’ questions involved.

As the bell shrieked outside in the corridors, Ashwin finished his revision.
For once, he had comfortably finished the S.St paper in time and was
expecting cent percent in the subject.

Sounds chimerical I know. Ashwin was feeling somewhat similar too.

After the exam, on the way back home, he wondered whether this was a
presage of things to come…

“I hope so…” he concluded.
CHAPTER 6
THE BATTLE ITSELF

“A shwin!” called out Mrs. Khanna from the drawing room. “Phone for
you…”

In his room, surrounded by books, notebooks and assignments, Ashwin took
a break from his Physics numerical solving spree and got up from his study
table when he heard his name being called out. He strained his ears to
decipher what his mother was saying.

“What?” he shouted back.

“There’s a call for you!” she repeated.

“Tell him to hold,” he replied, opening the door to facilitate the long distance
communication between him and his mother. “I am coming in just a
minute.”

He started searching for his slippers.

“But it is a her, not a him,” Mrs. Khanna informed.

Surprised, he gave up the search of the elusive slippers and darted out of the
room bare feet, screeching to a halt right at the edge of the carpet where Mrs.
Khanna was standing with the cordless phone in her hand.

“Who is it?” he asked, snatching the phone from her mother.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I didn’t ask her name.”

Ashwin started to put the phone to his ears.

“Do you want me to tell her that you are not at home or something?” she
added.
“No, no…” he replied and returned to his room with the phone.

Banging the door behind him, he answered the call.
“Hello,” he spoke into the phone confidently.

A familiar soft and pleasing voice came from the other end – “Hi Ashwin!”
it said.

He didn’t waste much time in recognizing the distinctive voice of Sonali.
“Oh!” he replied, a bit formally. “Sonali! Hey… what’s going on?”

He wondered why she had remembered him all of a sudden. They had not
spoken much since Ashwin’s denial of her proposal and the friendship that
they had otherwise shared before the incident had also sort of loosened its
chords, so it was quite unusual for him to hear from her today, two days
before their Science Board Exam.

“Not much. Was just stuck with a few Physics problems here, so I thought of
calling up the genius for help.”

“Ah… shut up. I am no genius. Anyways, how has your preparation been
going for day after’s exam?”

“Amazing! To say the least.”

“Whoa… how’s that?”

“My mom fixed up this really great Science tutor. He bloody cleared up all
my concepts in two days flat! Now I am raring to go!”

“Cool… good for you.”

“Yeah… OK… so the queries that I wanted to ask.”

“Oh… yes… bring ‘em on!”

They spoke for half an hour during which Ashwin tried his best all the
queries that she fired at him. In fact, he actually surprised himself by
answering almost all the doubts that she asked. He never knew that he knew
so much.

‘And there I was, worrying my hair off whether I was studying enough or
not’ he thought to himself as he hung up the phone.

The month of March had finally arrived. Though usually associated with
spring, joy and happiness to the layman, it had brought about exactly
antonymic feelings for Ashwin and his fellow students. Sleepless nights,
anxiety ridden days, a total curfew on television and computer games and a
dreadful feeling of the unexpected… all these were commonplace in every
home which housed a tenthee or a twelfthee.

‘G-01, Ashiana Enclave’ was no different. Though Mr. and Mrs. Khanna
were pretty sure about their son’s sincerity and commitment towards studies,
they had, nevertheless, disconnected the cable connection of their house and
had packed up the CPU and tucked it away in one of the overhead
compartments of their cupboard, just to makes sure that Ashwin’s focus
didn’t digress in any way.

For recreation, but only after a minimum eight hours of study everyday, Mr.
Khanna had taken the onus on himself and had started to play Table Tennis
or Snooker with his son in the nearby sports complex.
Ashwin didn’t seem to mind either.

“What with a snooker game almost everyday,” he had said to himself. “who
claims that the Boards are bad?”

And as far as the Boards go, Ashwin had already nailed three of them that
had already taken place in the fifteen days before today, one of them being
right after Holi, Mathematics that is, though he had not gone out and
celebrated the festival, lest he caught the ever feared and non curable
common cold virus.
Social Studies, Sanskrit and Mathematics had been the casualties till now
and Science and English still stared back at him from the front and Ashwin
was desperate to knock them down also, and that too, as soon as possible.

‘I just want this burden off my chest.’
But, he had to wait for an agonizingly long time still, as the final exam, that
of English was still two weeks away. In fact, the whole ordeal had been set
by the education board to last for almost a month, what with the first exam,
Social Studies, held seemingly ages ago and the last, still eons away.

After speaking on the phone with Sonali for thirty minutes, he kicked back
into study mode…… serious study mode. For the next three hours straight,
he confined himself to his room and ripped apart the Physics syllabus.

He remembered what the teacher had constantly rapped throughout the year
– “You should be thorough with each and every word of your NCERT
book.”

And so did Ashwin obey. He didn’t leave a single stone, rather, not a single
page unturned in his preparation of all the three subjects.

The whole of two days before the Science exam was spent up in nothing but
studying, that is amidst lunches of Dal Makhani and Pulao and regular cups
of coffee to help sustain the concentration levels. As a result of his untiring
efforts, his parents also often treated him to chocolate sundaes and exotic
pizzas as rewards.

But, his studies could have been somewhat hindered by the ongoing test
cricket series between India and South Africa, though the men in blue, very
considerately had ensured that it did not happen.

“Usual…” he had remarked everytime after he had checked the score on TV.
“No need to waste my time watching them dance around the ball like
headless chickens.” (*pardon me Mr. Ronen Sen*)

It will be redundant to describe what usual referred to here. Everyone knows
what to expect when they switch on the TV to get updated on India’s score.
Apart from a few quirky days when your face lights up with joy on seeing
the national cricket team, for once, dominate the proceedings of a match, it
is usually worthless to even make the effort of pressing that red button on
your remote.

Well, their frequent losses in the series could also be viewed in a different
light. Some of the players’ own kids might have been giving the Boards this
time and thus, had they not put up this poor show, their kids would have
been glued to their TV sets watching in glee as the Indian cricket team
thwarted the opposition. This, when they should have been confined to their
study tables and pondering over trigonometry questions instead. The men in
blue surely didn’t want the youth of India to suffer in their exams because of
them…

“After all, these kids are the future of Indian cricket,” they would have said.
“We should do our best to look after their concerns you know.”

I’d say…how thoughtful!

The twentieth day of March dawned on the capital and Ashwin was among
the first ones to wake up to the early moring sunlight. Throughout this
month, Ashwin had donned a new mantle and had started getting up right at
the crack of dawn… without an alarm mind you. The anxiety and tension
serving its purpose here.

Every morning, just at the first rays of the Sun would fall on the window, his
brain, as if fitted with some sort of hi-tech sunlight detector or something,
would scream into Ashwin’s ears.

‘Get up you sloth! Where’s your damn commitment gone?’

And Ashwin would wake up immediately, startled.
‘Fishing,’ he would want to reply, but would then realize that his own future
would be fed to the fishes if he didn’t listen to his conscience which shrieked
at him every morning.

Today was no different. He woke up at six with the chirping of the birds and
the distinctive aroma of spring flowers diffusing into the heater warmed air
of his room through the open window.

As he clambered out of his bed, a strong whiff of cold air blew across into
the room prompting him to immediately shut the glass windows with a
clank.

“I am fully awake!” he told the wind. “No need to ensure it.”
He switched on the heater once again to nullify the chill that had blown into
the room and disappeared into the bathroom, cursing the wind gods.

Today, the month long Board Exams saga would effectively be over. What
with only English left after today’s Science exam, and that too seven days
after, Ashwin could afford to start celebrating already.
Though his parents had dissuaded him from doing so:

“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch, Ashwin,” her mother had
warned.

“Yes. And you must also know that great men work while others sleep,” Mr.
Khanna had added.

Well, Ashwin had obeyed, a part of it, or so one can claim.
As in, he was pretty sure that no one would be getting up at bloody five
fourty five in the morning to lick up books.
So, at least his father’s orders had been taken care of you see. It was just the
chicken counting that he had to restrain himself from doing.

In the dining room, Mrs. Khanna laid out the staple breakfast on the table:
sandwiches and a hot cup of coffee. She covered the cup with a coaster, lest
Ashwin storm her once again for the coffee being too cold, though it would
only be a few degrees lower than the desired temperature. At least in terms
of coffee, Ashwin was a perfectionist and settled for nothing less than the
ideal.

He soon emerged out of his room, hair wet and unruly and a towel hung
around his shoulders. He saw the coffee kept on the table and put his fingers
around the cup to check how hot it was.

“Perfect,” he concluded.

But that idyllic state usually did not last long, so he quickly rushed out into
the balcony, spread the towel on the clothesline and hurried back into the
dining room.
He checked for the ideality once again.

“Still perfect,” he said to himself and pulled out a chair.
“There is nothing more divine in this world than a perfect cup of hot coffee
on a cool March morning!” he thought as he took a sip.
“If you take out the Board exam that is due in a few hours out of the frame
that is,” he added.

Mrs. Khanna nervously peeped outside from the kitchen and heaved a sigh
of relief as she saw her son enjoy the drink without fuss.
“Phew!” she mumbled.

She sure didn’t want to spoil Ashwin’s mood before his all important
Science board exam. In fact, now she could reassure herself that she had
succesfully done her job, that of ensuring that he ate a good and hearty meal
before leaving for the exam centre.

Ashwin smacked his lips as he gulped down the last few drops of the
heavenly drink. Dismissing the sandwiches for later consumption, he
returned to his room to groom himself up with deodrants and talcum
powders before spending fifteen minutes on combing up his hair in his
favourite style.
There were quite a few pretty girls at the exam centre you see, though he
would only look at them once the exam got over, his parents and high levels
of exam focus preventing him to do so before it.

As was the norm, he took up exactly half an hour in deodrating and combing
himself up and re-emerged in the dining room at nine O’ clock to complete
his breakfast.

And, also keeping up the consuetude: “Ashwin!” shouted his father from the
garage. “Come on out fast! We are late already!”

And as always, Ashwin grabbed the two sandwiches in his hand and rushed
out towards the car. Mrs. Khanna stared at her son’s back disappear out of
the front door as she muttered a silent prayer requesting the Gods to help her
son throughout the three hours.

“When will you ever learn Ashwin?” Mr. Khanna admonished as Ashwin
seated himself beside him. “For God’s sake, these are the Boards! How can
you be so lackadaisical?”
“Dad! The exam only begins at ten thirty! We still have an hour and a half in
hand!”

“Bah…” he replied in disgust and pulled the car out of the garage and onto
the main road.

With a quick good-bye wave to his wife, he sped away.

The exam centre, a Naval Public School in the locality of Chanakyapuri of
New Delhi, was approximately twenty kilometres away from their house.
Usually, twenty five to thirty minutes, even in peak traffic hours were
considered enough to reach there, but today, or in fact on all the other exam
days as well, Mr. Khanna had unfailingly rolled out the car from the garage
at nine o’ clock sharp, not wanting to take any risk with the very erratic
Delhi traffic.

“And if we still manage to run behind time…” he had said on the day of the
Math exam when, thanks to a good-for-nothing VIP’s movement, they had
managed to reach the centre just ten minutes before the start of the paper,
“…I can always switch over to my Formula one mode. I now have learnt
quite a few strategies and techniques seeing Raikkonen in the recent grand
prixs you know. Bring on the chicanes and hairpins I say!”

Today, he didn’t need the erratic Delhi traffic to prompt him into that
particular mode, his jolly mood early in the morning doing the trick.

“Dad!” cried Ashwin. “Watch out for that cow on the road!”

Mr. Khanna spoted the bovine animal which had strayed on bang into the
middle of the road and effortlessly swerved away the car around him. He
turned towards Ashwin expectantly after pulling off that nerve wracking
move.

“Hmmm… impressive!” Ashwin obliged.

“Well thank you son!”

“Seems like you are a pretty fast learner!”

“And a pretty fast driver too. Want a sample?”
Ashwin contemplated the consequences.
“At worst, we break a few bones and I get an excuse to not give the final two
papers. I say… show me what you got!”

“Get a load of this then.”

Ashwin opened his mouth to reply but the words stuffed back into his mouth
as he was pushed back into his seat by violent inertial forces as Mr. Khanna
floored the acceleration pedal and the car literally flew past the surrounding
vehicles.

The drive to Naval Public School was completed in thirteen point three
minutes flat. As the car screeched to a halt outside the school gates, Ashwin
rolled down the windows and looked outside. He learnt that they were
probably the first ones to arrive, what with more than an hour to go for the
exam to commence.

“So, what do you say to that?” jubilantly asked Mr. Khanna, taking off his
seatbelt.

“I think it was quite laudable,” he replied, preferring to keep his own belt on,
just in case. “I mean, you should consider giving a call to Briatore or Todt
regarding your talent.”

“Aah… I’ll do that today. I’m sure they’ll be excited at the prospect.”

“Yeah….. they are in dire need of tyre changers you see.”

Mr. Khanna frowned at him. “I’m sorry I asked for your opinion.”

“Well, I am glad that I gave mine! You sure needed it.”

“Bah… it’s just impossible to talk straight with you teenagers.”

“So you’ve finally realized that.”

“Yes… and good for me that I did.”
“It sure is! You would be banging your head on walls if you hadn’t. Nice that
you didn’t have to learn it the hard way.”

“Are there any tactics to modify this sort of behavior.”

“Yes.”

“What?”

“Wait.”

“For how long?”

“Till I become twenty.”

He frowned once again. After a while, he realized his mistake. ”Oh… I
forgot! You are a teenager. No use asking you that.”

“Yup.”

“And no use expecting a straight answer even if I did.”

“Bingo.”

Ashwin smirked. Mr. Khanna winced.

By now, anxious students had started trickling in in the parking area outside
the school gate. Ashwin spotted Farhan with his mother standing near the ice
cream vendor that had come in to make the most of the student crowd and do
some brisk business.
Students loved licking ice-creams to alleviate the tension you know, and one
could also see children dishing out ice-cream treats to his or her friends after
having a great paper. So, it was quite an ingenious move that he had
employed.

Ashwin opened the door and walked out to his buddy. Mr. Khanna protested
but he paid no heed.
“Drive a bloody twenty kilometres to get here,” sneered Mr. Khanna, “and
be left sitting all alone in the car. Whoever said that being a father was a
bliss!”

Farhan saw Ashwin coming towards him and smiled.

“Hey Ashwin!” he exclaimed.
“Mom, meet the genius of our class.”

His mother stared at Ashwin, impressed and a bit envious.

“Aahh…” she said. “So you are Ashwin. Farhan talks about you a lot. How
you won the inter-section football thing for the class and how you recovered
from chickenpox to crack the top five of the section in class ninth.”

Ashwin blushed. “Oh… I am sure Farhan would have exaggerated the facts.
I am just an average student you know, surely not a genius as he claims. And
that goal was… was just by chance you know. Anything can happen in
football. It was just my lucky day.”

Farhan opened his mouth to interrupt. His mother stopped him.
“Yes, maybe,” she said, trying to defend her envy. “He sometimes also
exaggerates his exam marks!”
She shot an admonitory glance towards Farhan.
His eyes seemed to reply: “Stop embarrassing me mom!”

Ashwin cracked a phony giggle. “Oh…I didn’t know that.”

Farhan hung his head in embarrassment.

“Never mind Farhan,” he added. “Even I have to resort to such ways
sometimes.”

“See mom!” cried Farhan. “Now you have it straight from the horse’s
mouth!”

Mom flinched and excused herself away to check today’s alloted room
numbers. Farhan felt glad.

“So,” he said, trying to change the subject. “How is your preparation?”
“Couldn’t have been better!”

“Yeah. Same here. Just waiting to blow away those questions.”

“Detonate ‘em off to oblivion!”

“Tear into shreds.”

“Chew them raw.”

“Isn’t this getting a bit too gory now?” came Mr.Khanna’s voice who had
come up from behind. “I mean what was that… were you discussing Jurassic
Park or something? Chew ‘em raw… tear into shreds?!”

Ashwin and Farham sniggered. “Teenage jargon dad,” Ashwin informed.
“You won’t have a clue!”

Mr. Khanna nodded in affirmation. “I might not, but I just came here to
inform you two that the gates have opened.” He pointed towards the smaller
gate near the main bigger one which had opened and had started admitting
students.

“So you better be off now.”

“Oh… yes,” he replied. “Farhan, don’t you want to meet your mom before
going in?”

“Oh…” he said reluctantly. “Yeah… I’ll just go… and do that.” And he
walked away.

Ashwin picked took out the stationery box from his bag and handed the bag
back to his father.
“So long dad. See you after three hours… hopefully in a more jubilant
mood.”

Mr. Khanna smiled. “I am sure that would be the case.”

Ashwin started towards the gate.
“Ashwin!” Mr. Khanna shouted out to stop him. “Just a second son.”

Ashwin turned and paced back to his father.
“Yes dad?” he said impatiently.

Mr. Khanna took out a silver coin from his wallet and asked Ashwin to hold
out his hand. He obeyed.

“Keep this in your pocket Ashwin,” he ordered, placing the coin in his palm
and closing his fingers around it. “It will help you in your exam.”

Ashwin stared at it inquisitively. He saw some deities inscribed on it with
some Sanskrit gibberish underlining the picture.“What is it dad?”

“Don’t bother, just keep it.”

“You sure I won’t get caught for this?”

“Ashwin!!!”

“Sorry!”
He slid the mysterious silver coin into his shirt pocket and proceeded
towards the gate.

“Ashwin!” Mr. Khanna called out once again, stopping him in his tracks.

“Now what dad?” he remarked irritatedly.

“Nothing… just wanted to give you a hug.”

Ashwin waited for a while and stared back at him, but ultimately complied
and spread his arms to embrace his father.

“Do well, my son,” he spoke into his ears as they hugged.

“Don’t you worry dad,” he replied. “I won’t let you down.”

For a moment, tears formed in both the people’s eyes, but they casually
wiped them away before they could fall, not wanting to embarrass
themselves.
Now, boosted up with even more inspiration and focus, Ashwin stepped
through the gates. An overwhelming sense of purpose and determination
filled him as he walked past the basketball court towards his examination
room.

“Come on Ashwin!” he told himself. “Time to show ‘em what you got!”

During the next three hours, or for that matter, in all the other exams as
well… he bloody well did exactly that.
FIVE DOWN,
TWO TO GO
CHAPTER 1
UNEXPLORED TERRITORY

F or the past few weeks, Ashwin had known bliss. Innumerable DJ
parties, marathonic movie watching sprees (with as much as five
films a day!), countless amusement park visits and infinitely long
football playing sessions, heaven, isn’t it?
For Ashwin at least, it sure was. After a torturous, murderous, agonizing,
harrowing and excruciating wait of twenty nine days, he surely deserved it.
The Boards, you see, were finally over.

One should have seen the faces of the students as they had walked out of the
gates of Naval Public School on the twenty seventh of March. It was a sight
to behold – three thousand ecstatic fifteen year old faces beaming back at
you with a feeling of joy and relief which was superlative to all those
emotions that you may experience after a getting a perfect score in your tests
or maybe after scoring that vital goal for your side to clinch the tournament
trophy.

Hugs and cries of glee had abounded in the parking area of the school that
day, and the various news channel reporters that had turned up to harness
stories, had gleefully made the most of it. Some of the fortuitous kids
managed to get themselves interviewed too.

“Wow!” had exclaimed one of them after getting herself recorded on the
camera. “Talk about the icing on the cake!”

Ashwin had not been so lucky though. But there were still enough reasons to
make him ecstatic anyway. What an English paper he had had! The only fear
he held within him after walking out of the exam room that day was that
whether the teacher checking the paper, who would most likely be a,
ahem…, government employed one, would not be able to gauge the
meanings of the various hefty words that he had used in the writing skills
section.

So now you know why you got that seventy in your English Board exam
even after writing it so well.
So, eventually, after this conviviality of parties, he had finally relented to his
parents’ demands of visiting the Vaishno Devi shrine to pray for his good
results. Though he didn’t think he needed it. His Boards had been a blast, as
he preferred to call it.

“Delhi is getting pretty hot nowadays,” he had reasoned to himself. “Might
as well chill out in the mountains.”

The big SUV hummed along the road as they crossed the border and entered
the town of Ghaziabad. The Sun blazed outside. Coupled with a thick layer
of smoke and pollution that hung in the afternoon air, it was a deadly
concoction for the vagabonds that lay on the footpath outside. What with
rickshaws and bicycles dragging along at their own pace, occupying the
major part of the roads, i.e. not taking into account the horde of humanity
that treated them as footpaths, the car was reduced to a crawl as soon as it
had crossed the border.

Comfortably placed in the air-conditioned car, with his hair ruffling as the
cool wind of the air conditioner crashed into his face, Ashwin looked out
through the tinted windows as they made their way back to the capital city
after an exhaustive four days of travel which also included that body
crunching thirty kilometer long up and down walk on the mountain.

“And they list this place in the top ten dynamic cities of the world!” he
remarked. “Funny how, if not why, they conduct these sort of surveys.”

From the front seat, Mr. Khanna turned back and faced Ashwin.
“When did you say your school’s reopening Ashwin?”

“This Monday,” he replied

“Only three days left then.”

“Yes, I know. But I don’t understand why they are calling us so early. I
mean, it has hardly been two weeks after the boards finished. I’m sure half
the class won’t turn up.”
Must be because they would want to counsel the students to help them
decide which stream to choose, now that you all have reached eleventh
grade.”

Ashwin nodded.

“You anyways have freaked out quite a lot during the past few weeks, so you
might as well attend school now. Those sessions will only help you.”

He nodded again, though a bit reluctantly. Getting up late in the morning
then would no longer be possible you see.

“By the way,” Mr. Khanna added, “Have you even bothered to think about
what stream you want? You’ve had quite a lot of free time to do that and
actually, you should have ought to. It is quite a serious matter you know.”

Ashwin scratched his chin in contemplation. “Well….you’d be worried to
know that I have still not started cogitating about it, though it would most
likely be Science.”

“With?...”

“With….. I don’t know…” He thought for a while before adding. “Is
Fashion Technology a good option?”

Alarmed, both his parents stared back at him in shock.

“Just kidding!”

A sigh of relief from the parents followed.

“No, actually I haven’t thought about the ‘with’ part yet.”

“Then you better do that.”

“I am relying on the counselling sessions for it.”

His parents didn’t seem quite convinced.
“We’ll have to sit down and talk with you tomorrow,” said Mrs. Khanna.
“Just to clear things up in yours, as well as our minds.”

Ashwin didn’t like the idea. Whenever he had had these let-us-sit-down-and-
talk sessions with his parents, he had never come out smiling. Nevertheless,
he agreed hesitantly. He had to.

‘Now I have to seriously think about this,’ he thought to himself as the car
finally crossed into Delhi. He racked his brains for a while trying to look for
a suitable choice, but couldn’t come up with any substantial reasons for
selecting a particular fifth subject.

His mind just kept jumping from Computers to Economics to Biology to
even P.E.. Fashion Technology had already been ruled out earlier. Good for
him as he now had lesser choices to choose from, otherwise, he would have
seriously contemplated that too as an option for the fifth subject. Basically,
throughout the drive from the east end of the city to the west, inspite of the
intense brainstorming that he had inflicted upon himself, he had drawn nil
conclusions and had actually entangled himself even more in the plethora of
permutations and combinations that were availaible to choose from.

‘Science with P.E., Science with Computer, Science with Computer and Math
but without Chemistry, Science with Math and Computer but without
Physics, Science with Economics and P.E. but without Math. Damn it. I need
some serious counselling.’

The above thoughts basically sum up his whole state of mind throughout the
drive and the hours following it, quite vividly. Choosing had never been so
difficult. Even choosing gifts for Valentine’s Day seemed easier in front of
this discombobulating situation.

The three days before the school re-opened were spent up in serious
contemplation and discussion on the part of Ashwin and his parents, but a
final conclusion still evaded them. Private counselling sessions hardly
helped, rather, they perplexed them even more as the counsellors dished out
even more choices to choose from.

Still in a fix, Ashwin wearily climbed out of his bed on a warm Monday
morning. The clock displayed five fifteen and the alarm rang in the
background.
Ashwin yawned and stretched himself. His brain ordered his eyes to shut, his
hands to reach out and switch on the air conditioner and his legs to carry him
back to the bed, but he resisted the forces and persuaded his legs to direct
him towards the bathroom instead.

The post Boards festivities were over and now, it was back to the same old
drudgery of getting up at five in the morning after almost a fortnight of
whimsical waking ups, though he expected today to be anything but a
drudgery. In fact, the whole three weeks before they again broke for the
summer hiatus, would be anything but a travail. Though it would ultimately
prove to be a stark contrast to what would follow once the vacations ended.

Ashwin had not expected to see many students in the class today, but he had
still decided to go.

“What would I do sitting at home anyways?” he had reasoned. “I’d rather
spend some time with my class fellows before that dreaded section super re-
shuffling after the holidays.”

The school bus was buzzing with activity. Everyone was excited at the start
of the new session. All except the ones who were to start their ninth standard
from today. Ashwin remembered how he had also felt the same way two
years back when he had walked through the gates in trepidation, uncertain of
the section in which the re-shuffling would dump him into; far away from
his friends and amidst a totally new group of students.

But today, he was experiencing mixed feelings – those of joy, sprinkled
along with a bit of apprehension.

He was quite happy and looking forward to a whole new session of learning
in a completely different environment, but on the other hand, also held a
slight fear within him which stemmed from the numerous accounts that had
been drilled into his minds through his seniors, of how people had made a
mess out of their eleventh grade which came as a direct result of the abrupt
change in pedagogy, syllabus and difficulty level from the previous year’s
course work, which, to be summed up in a few words, had been a cake walk
for most, at least in contrast to the following session.
The bus rolled up beside the Prince Pan Corner and halted. Ashwin and his
fellow eleventhees opened up the back door with a violent jerk and stepped
out of the bus, most authorotatively. Now that they had graduated into
eleventh grade which came under the senior wing of the school, they had
started to command even more respect from everyone around. The demands
that they made from the juniors of the bus had now taken even bigger
proportions. The timid sixthees and seventhees were now commanded right
in the morning on the way to school, to save their tiffins for their seniors so
that they could eat them in the afternoon as they returned from school. The
juniors dared not refuse to comply, lest their bags, if not they themselves, be
thrown out of the bus, or so the seniors claimed.

Ashwin and his friends proceeded towards the school gates swimming
through the huge sea of white that surrounded them. The time period from
six thirty to seven in the morning was a harrowing one for the cars that had
to drive by the road beside the school. Maneuvering through the huge horde
of students was quite a task. If lucky, the hundred metre stretch where the
density was at its maximun could be covered in five minutes (that is, at a
turtlish speed of 1.2 kilometres an hour) and if not, then the time required
could range between ten to even fifteen whole minutes.

Hats off to those who dare to pass by this area early in the morning.

After checking his alloted room number from the huge list that had been put
up on the notice board, Ashwin proceeded towards his new classroom in the
F-Block.

The F-Block housed the major part of the sections of eleventh and tweltfh
and could also be arguably referred to as the no-entry block for the juniors of
the school. They dared not venture into it, even by mistake.
Ashwin remembered how he as a sixthee used to make a dash from the
staircase leading to the F-Block to the basement where all the computer labs
were located, due to the stark fear of the seniors that he held within himself.

“There is always a chance that some senior might grab me by the neck and
throw me down the stairs,” he had said to himself five years ago.

The upper floors had been literally inaccesible to him or to any of the juniors
for that matter. So today, as he climbed up the stairs to the third floor, he felt
a sense of achievement grow within him. It seemed as if he was climbing
Mt. Everest itself, both literally and metaphorically.

The three weeks of school that they had before the summer vacations would
be spent in the same section as that of last year. Only that they would be
referred to as Eleventh – D rather than the relatively lowly Tenth – D. It
would only be after the vacations that the eleventh grade would suddenly
spread out its wings and the number of sections would almost double from a
measly twelve to a whopping twenty three which would in turn effect a
major section scramble as the students would split up into different streams
and sections.

These three weeks would be all about educative and consequently boring
excursions including visits to various museums and educational institutions,
movie screenings, and counselling sessions to assist the kids in making the
crucial decision of selecting the most suitable stream for them.

In hindsight, those happy days could only be compared to the exotic food
that a goat is fed before being slaughtered off most ruthlessly by the butcher.
The goat here being the poor students who didn’t have a clue as to what
would follow and the butcher being the unsparing syllabus of this grade.

Ashwin entered into room number F-303. It was a pretty big room and the
windows lined at the back of the class allowed maximum light and fresh air
to come in. Four columns of seats barely occupied half the total area
available. The rest would be used later on for cricket and football sessions
between periods.

He took in the air of the new class with a deep breath. It had a distinctive
smell of fresh paint to it. One of the other kids soon realized why when he
propped himself against wall and caused a part of the sleeve of his shirt to
acquire a faint patch of yellow.

The bell rung in the corridor outside causing the students to pour back into
their classes. F-303, which earlier resembled a deserted classroom, now
looked more like the terminals at the Delhi Airport. Farhan waved at Ashwin
from the last seat. Ashwin somehow spotted him amongst the melee of the
incoming crowd and went forward to sit with him.
“Nice breeze blowing today, eh?” asked Farhan, tidying up his hair after the
a strong gust of wind from the window behind had ruffled them.

“Yeah,” replied Ashwin. “Cool weather.”

“Do you know any Lalitha Subramaniam Venkateshwara Iyer by the way?”

“Lalitha Subra… what?”

“Never mind. Just that she’s supposed to be our class teacher for these three
weeks.”

“Bah…”

“Well… there she is.” He pointed towards the door through which a stout
short lady had just walked in. “Mrs. Lalitha Subramaniam Venkateshwara
Iyer for you.”

Ashwin craned his neck to catch a glimpse of his new class teacher. She was
quite short and the huge heels she was wearing, as Ashwin had so expertly
observed, didn’t help much to increase her height. He wondered in
amazement how tall she would stand without them. Her hair was typically
South Indianish with a beautiful gajra adorning her manes from the back. It
was also typically long. She wore gigantic spectacles which seemed to cover
up most of her face, doing a pretty nice job in hiding the pimples on her
cheeks.

“Good morning children,” she squeaked.

Ashwin and Farhan supressed a giggle and replied courteously.

“What happened to her voice?” said Farhan, smirking.

“Fits well to her demeanor,” Ashwin replied.

“Thank God she is my class teacher only for three weeks. I would’ve spent
all the Physics periods of eleventh laughing otherwise.”

She ordered the children to settle down as she pulled out a class list from her
folder to take the attendance.
Ashwin shot a cursory glance towards the other end of the room and saw
Sonali engaged in conversation with her friends. For a moment, the same
feelings of attraction filled his mind but he jerked them away with a nod of
his head.

“So, what is the schedule today?” he asked Farhan. “I mean, what are we
supposed to do today? There will be no studies, or will there be?”

Farhan turned to him, breaking his stare at the pretty girl who had just
emerged in the balcony of one of the flats of the apartments that was visible
from the class windows.
“What?” he spluttered. “What did you just say? I am sorry, I was not paying
attention.”

“Yeah… I could see that.” He turned around and had a look at the girl
himself. “Not bad I say.”

“Sure not.”

“Anyways, I was asking whether we will have any studies today?”

“You crazy! You think I would’ve come if that would have been the case? I
mean, hardly a fortnight has passed since the English exam.”

“Exactly. Then what are we supposed to do today?”

“I’ve heard that they are going to take us to some institute.”

“Huh ?!…What sort of institute?”

“Have you heard of NSIT?”

“N..S..I..T…” he replied, scratching his chin. “Yeah… I have. In fact, it is
near my house. Mine is in sector 4 and NSIT is in sector 3.”

“Great! Then we might just sneak out and visit your home instead,”
suggested Farhan. “I hope your mother won’t mind.”
Ashwin considered the consequences – he, accompanied a bunch of rowdy
sixteen year olds, gatecrashing his house when they should have been in
their classes, or rather with their classes in this case, without any prior
intimation to her mother...... “Not good,” he concluded.

“I am not too sure about your idea, Farhan,” he told him.

“Why not?” he replied, disappointed.

“I think you haven’t met my mother yet.”

“No, I haven’t.”

“And you sure wouldn’t want to… at least like this.”

Farhan got the picture and decided not to argue further.

The bell for the first period rung and Mrs. Lalitha Subramaniam
Venkateshwara Iyer exited the class, giving way to a very old lady, probably
in her seventies, with grey hair, wearing a light pink saree which seemed to
complement her manes. Veins protruded out from the back of her palms and
her droopy eyes seemed to suggest that she had been deprived of good sleep
throughout her life.

She finally reached the teacher’s desk, a minute or two after she had entered
through the door. No offence meant though… in fact, hats off to her. You
don’t meet such type of people too often you see, still loyal to the profession
even after being well above the retirement age… and that surely reflected in
her style of teaching and the way she came across to the students. She
commanded respect as she walked through the corridors, unlike many other
teachers who were happy just to receive a ‘Good morning ma’am’ from the
students as they walked through the corridors.

Keeping up with the norm, the students of 11-D had spontaneously stood up
in respect and had wished her a good morning as she had entered the room,
and as sweet as she was, she had smilingly and politely asked them to sit
down.

“But,” said Ashwin, slightly confused, “you said there would not be any
studies today!”
“Dude,” he replied, “It’s seven thirty in the morning. We will only be able to
meet the security guards there if we turn up so early. Besides, a nice little
sociology class will not hurt you much.”

“Sociology class?”

“Yep. That lady is the sociology teacher.”

“Oh. I didn’t know that even sociology is offered as a subject in eleventh.”

“Neither did I, until I learnt about it through one of my friends in the bus. In
fact, sociology is a pretty common subject and many people opt for it. So
much for uncommon subjects, you’ll be surprised when you actually get to
know the various other options that are availabe… like Psychology, and
Tabla and even Fine Arts!”

“Fine arts?! For God’s sake!”

“Yeah… by the way, have you decided which all subjects you would go for,
i.e. if you have already decided your stream, unlike me.”

“Well, I know I want to take Science, but I am still confused regarding the
individual subjects. There are so many combinations available that I am left
flabbergasted whenever I try to think about it.”

“But at least you have made some headway. I am still not clear whether I
want to take Science or Commerce or Humanities!”

“Don’t worry man. Everything will be sorted out.”

“I hope so. In fact, I am relying on the classes before the summer holidays to
help me with my decision.”

“Huh? How would that help.”

“Don’t you know? The three weeks that we have before the summer
holidays, we will be taught all the subjects of all the streams, though in brief,
so as to help us understand and get an idea of what to expect from each
stream and subject. I think this will greatly aide me, if not all of us, in our
decision.”

“Oh… so that’s why we have the sociology teacher here.”

“Yes. Why else would you think she would have come.”

“No, I thought she might have forgotten her way and just wandered into our
classroom by mistake, considering her age.”

Farhan supressed a giggle and tried to keep his face straight as the teacher
shot an admonitory glance towards them after hearing sounds from that part
of the class.

Farhan waited for her to turn her eyes away. “She is an old horse,” he told
Ashwin, “you better be careful while she is around in the class.”

Ashwin nodded in agreement and took out a rough copy from his bag, just to
look sincere.

“My name is Mrs. Subhadra Tyagi,” the teacher began, “and I teach the
subject of sociology which comes under the Humanities stream. Through the
next three weeks, I will try my best and acquaint you with the subject as
truly as possible so that you get a clear picture as to what to expect ”

The class nodded in unison.

“As we will be interacting with each other through the next twenty days,
first of all, let me please know your names.”

One by one, each student of the class complied and introduced himself or
herself to the teacher.

“Great,” she said after the procedure concluded. “Now before I start with the
class, just by a show of hands, I’d like to know who all have already decided
to take up Humanities as their stream.”

A couple of hands replied.

“Oh,” she exclaimed. “And how many are still undecided on your future?”
The rest fourty two replied in the affirmative.

“I see,” she mumbled. “Then you all better pay attention to whatever I teach
and try your best to behave well because who knows, you might just end up
being my student for the next two years!”

“Let us see,” murmured Farhan from the back.

“Just to give a brief idea as to what sociology actually is all about… wait,
does anyone here want to give a brief definition of sociology. What comes to
your mind initially when you hear this word?”

One of the two girls who had risen her hand previously, promptly did so
once again.

Impressed, Mrs. Tyagi asked her to answer.

“Ma’am,” she began, “Sociology is an academic and applied discipline that
studies society and human social interaction. Sociological research ranges
from the analysis of short contacts between anonymous individuals on the
street to the study of global social processes. Numerous fields within the
discipline focus on how and why people are organized in society, either as
individuals or as members of associations, groups, and institutions. As an
academic discipline, sociology is typically considered as a branch of social
science. Sociology is the…”

“All right, STOP!” shrieked the teacher. “Dear, I wanted a brief definition,
not the whole thesis!”

“Exactly,” said Ashwin to himself.

“Anyways, as she so vividly explained, sociology is, in fact, basically a study
of human social interaction and is considered a part of Social Science.”

“Wasn’t that so obvious.”

“Now, aside from the technicalities, let me put some more abstract questions
across, because Sociology, as some you will find out, is largely hinged on
the abstract than on the the technical.”
“I want you all to define… Love.”

“What the devil’s!...” spluttered Farhan and Ashwin spontaneously.

“What is this all about?” added the latter.

“I am not sure about that but now, I am damn confident that I am not going
to take up Humanities at least!”

“I will give two minutes to all of you and then you can raise your hands and
answer,” the teacher suggested.

“Come on Farhan, tell me your definition of Love. I am sure you will be
knowing all its intricacies.”

“Shut up. You were supposed to be the lover boy, remember.”

“Oh, no no. That’s all history now.”

“Oh really?”

Ashwin hesitated for a while. “Yes it is.”

“Hmm… good. So you mean to say that now, I’m the man.”

“Yep.”

“All… right. Well, I would define love as a deadly concoction of a chemical
imbalance in the concerned person’s brains coupled along with his or her
sheer stupidity.”

“Whoa… that’s a first!... But I would take that.”

“Thank you.”

“But I am not sure the teacher would. Want to try?”

“Why not? I anyways have no idea of being her student in the future.”

“Best of luck then. But, I don’t think you need it though.”
“We’ll see.”

“OK, children,” announced Mrs. Tyagi after a while. “Time to listen to your
responses.”

“Here we go,” whispered Farhan and confidently raised his hand.
The old lady spotted the gesture and asked him to stand up and deliver his
definition to the rest of the class.

“Ma’am, according to me,” he began, hesitated a bit, regained his speech
and continued.

“Love can be defined as… well…I think that it… is a deadly concoction of a
chemical imbalance in the person’s brains coupled along with his or her
sheer stupidity.”

He waited patiently for the teacher’s response. Not that he was afraid, but he
only wanted to test how much she could bend when a slight amount of
humor was involved.

The result, thankfully, was positive.

“I am not too sure about the definition that you just recited,” she replied,
“but I am very very confident that you are not going to take up Humanities
for sure.”

Farhan smirked sheepishly.

“And it would most probably be Science for you… what with all the
chemical imbalance gibberish that you just pointed out.”

“Well…” replied Farhan. “It might be that way.”

He pondered for a while and then, as if a great realization had dawned upon
him, he added excitedly.

“Ma’am, in fact, it will be that way. You know what… I had never thought
about it this way until now…. Thanks for clearing things up in my mind,
ma’am. Good that you pointed out your observations. Now I am pretty sure
where I want to go.”

The teacher looked slightly confused.
“It’s funny how many times I end up doing something good when I intend
the complete opposite,” she murmured to herself.

The bell rang soon after.

“So now you are pretty clear, eh?” asked Ashwin, as they poured out of the
classroom along with the other students for some fresh air.

“Yes… I am. Clear as a bell. That lady just made things look so easy… and
that too so effortlessly.”

“Though accidentally.”

“Who gives a damn about that. You know what, I think I should go up to her
table right now and thank her for her good, though accidental deed. What do
you suggest?”

Ashwin paused, contemplated and answered. “Yes, I think that would be
fine.”

But Ashwin’s suggestion fell on the walls as he saw Farhan already half way
down the flight of stairs.

“Farhan’s problems seem to be solved,” he said to himself. “Ab mera
number kab aayega?”
CHAPTER 2
AIMING FOR IIT?...

…w ere the three words that could be seen
adorning almost every second banner at every
second metre of space. Markets, roads,
schools, buses, metros, malls to even public toilets, not a single public place
was left uncovered by these loud advertisements.
And as if that was not enough, Ashwin’s house, or any eleventhee’s house
for that matter, was nowadays being flooded with letters from n number of
insitutes inviting them to join their two year courses for cracking the JEE.
Most of them usually also had printed on them, in bold and enclosed within
blurbs, an arbitrary figure which they claimed to be the percentage of their
previous batch who managed to clear the exam… and none of those claimed
numbers were below seventy percent.

So much for it, you would probably need ten, if not more, IITs to house
those number of students the institutes claimed.

Unfortunately, most of the parents and the students were not clever enough,
or rather were not idle or dumb enough to while away their time indulging in
such stupid calculations, so unlike me.

And so, here he was, Ashwin, sweltering it out in a dingy classroom of some
‘is-that-the-name-of-a-school?’ sort of school, trying his best to solve the
given ‘quadratic’ and ‘similar triangle’ problems in order to gain admission
into Delhi’s premier IIT-JEE coaching institute. The chair below him
creaked every now and then, thus, constantly threatening to leave him in a
most embarrassing situation in front of everyone.

Though he doubted that would be the case as far as the students, rather
nerds, that were sitting around him were concerned. Not even a rampaging
elephant could make their heads pivot from the question paper that lay in
front of them, so engrossed they were.
“How they seem to be so deeply in love with those sheets,” Ashwin
murmured to himself. “Might as well marry them.”

After ten or so more minutes of struggle with the almost unsolvable
questions, he gave up and started gazing out of the windows instead. He saw
the school gate, beyond which stood a thousand anxious parents. He spotted
his own amongst the crowd, relatively calmer and cooler than their
counterparts. He wondered if that was because they didn’t expect him to
qualify and had just sent him here just for a formality.

Well, their feelings were surely justified. According to official reports, there
were more than five thousand aspirants fighting for a measly three hundred
seats of the institute which was considered the pinnacle for IIT-JEE
preparation. Their letters, for one, contained genuine, and oh! so tremendous
figures of the number of students who were able to crack the toughest exam
in the world and hence gain entry into one of the top most engineering
colleges on this planet – The Indian Institute of Technology.

Ashwin had not really wanted to be a part of those three hundred, but having
not thought of anything else beyond joining a coaching institute and working
like a mule to try and make it to one of the top engineering colleges, he had
no other option but to join the herd.
Plus, his parents had also been adamant that he did the same, thus leaving
him with no choice.

He couldn’t blame them too, considering that he had never tried to voice
what he really wanted, partly because he himself didn’t know what to do
with his life after entering into eleventh grade.

Twenty more minutes past by with Ashwin pondering over his future sitting
in that classroom, most ironically amongst those students whose aim in life
had been cut out and delved into their minds right since their birth.

The bell rang soon after and the so called (considering that he so
conveniently slept throughout the exam) invigilator started making his round
to collect the answer sheets.

Ashwin couldn’t wait for him to come around towards his seat, so he got up,
went up to him and handed over the sheet to the man himself and rushed out
of the room, most like a bird would after having been trapped in a cage for
eons.

“How was it?” asked Mr. Khanna as soon as Ashwin emerged out of the
school gate.

“Let us get to the car first,” replied Ashwin, “and then we can talk. This
crowd is suffocating me.”

He agreed and led Ashwin away from the melee of nervous parents towards
the car which had been parked nearly a kilometre away.

“When did you arrive here?” Ashwin asked as they walked.

“Almost half an hour back. I thought we would be among the first ones to
arrive but were surprised to learn that more than half the parents had never
left the place after dropping their children. They have been standing here for
the past six hours!”

“Yeah… I had even weirder people inside that classroom.”

Mr. Khanna pulled out the car keys from his pocket and plugged it into the
keyhole of the door as they reached the parking spot.

“So, now can we please know how was your test?” he said.

“It was pretty tough. I mean, most of the questions were almost unsolvable.
Now it all depends on how the others faired in their paper. In fact, I doubt it
if anyone did actually have a good paper. It was so damn difficult!”

Little did he know that there were some who were even expecting a perfect
score in this very exam that he was deeming to be unsolvable.

“Relax… we’ll hope for the best. Now get into the car. We’ll stop by at KFC
on the way and get you something… if that would lift your spirits
somewhat.”

“It sure will… anytime, dad.”

“Good.”
The results were due after two weeks, but Ashwin couldn’t afford to rest,
considering that he had entrance tests to cope with every second day. His
parents were taking no chances and had got his name registered for the
entrance tests of almost every coaching institution in town, and Ashwin, so
dilligently, had tried his best to perform to the best of his ability on all of
them though after the relatively simpler boards, the questions of these papers
had come across as a rude awakening for him.
Little did he know that this was only a sample of what lied ahead.

Even though the syllabus for all the exams was the same, though still
daunting enough – ‘Everything that you have sudied till standard tenth’ had
specified one of the institutes under the sub headings of ‘coursework
required for test’, the questions on each of the exams seemed to suggest that
one had studied nothing at all till standard tenth. The figures, terms and
concepts used in the questions were as alien to Ashwin as an ant on Mecury
would be to an elephant on Pluto… oops Neptune.

And the costs that these people demanded for their much sought after two
year courses weren’t a reason to smile either. What with the total tuition cost
almost crossing the one lakh mark, that is not mentioning another twenty or
thirty thousand for the transportation and the odd movie or burger that the
child might indulge in with his coaching friends, not many could afford it.

Aswhin’s family, fortunately by the grace of God, or rather unfortunately
(for him at least), didn’t face any such problem and with that, had gone yet
another excuse for Ashwin with which he could have otherwise argued his
case.

The week following the two weeks of relentless examination, the results for
most of the coaching institutes were announced. Though Ashwin had
managed to get through an impressive four of them, but three of them were
relatively ‘unheard-of’ institutes which had just sprung up in the last few
years to try their hand at this business which had suddenly started gaining
such large proportions for many across the country, and who knew, these
institutes could even die out before the completion of the two year course.
The one reputed institution that did select Ashwin claimed itself to be,
though arguably, the second best in the city. Thus, Mr. and Mrs. Khanna had
no doubts in their mind, so unlike their son who wasn’t sure at all whether
joining any coaching institution for that matter would be a good choice, and
were among the first ones to confirm registration for their ward into their
‘Two Year Integrated IIT-JEE classroom program’.

‘Classes start from next Monday’ reported the confirmation letter that had
arrived just a day after the registration.

“Yeah… and so does my grind,” had added Ashwin. “These summer
holidays are going to be BAD!”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

‘The next station is…’, announced a voice from a speaker in one of the
coaches of the Delhi Metro, ‘…Rajouri Garden. Doors will open on the left.
Please mind the gap.’

Ashwin, who was sleeping until now, was awoken by the passenger sitting
beside him.

“Child,” he said. “Your station has come. You better get up.”

Ashwin awoke with a start and realized that the train had already screeched
to a stop on his destination station. He quickly gathered his bag, wiped off a
bit of saliva that had dropped on to his sleeves while sleeping and stood up
to exit the train.

“Uncle,” he asked before leaving. “How come you knew I had to get down
here?”

“Bachhe, I travel everyday on this route and always see your kind of
students on this train. This stop is quite popular among them. I had spotted
your coaching institute bag and guessed that you would also probably be one
of them, so I decided to wake you up before it was too late.”
“Oh… thank you so much uncle!”

He turned to leave, but the man called out to him from the back.

“Listen!” he shouted over the crowd.

“Yes uncle,” replied Ashwin impatiently as the doors were about to close.

“Hats off to you and all your fellow coaching institute friends. I mean, even
we do not put in so much hard work like you students do. Juggling with the
school studies along with your coaching, it really beats me how you all
manage your time so efficiently.”

Ashwin smiled back and it suddenly struck him for the first time that he had
maybe probably made the right decision and he was indeed working as hard
as he was.

With a quick bye, Ashwin exited the coach before the doors could shut him
in. He pulled out his wallet from his pocket and checked how much cash he
had left.

“A hundred bucks,” he muttered to himself and started calculating – “Fourty
for the auto to the institute and fourty for returning. Thirteen for the metro
home. That leaves me with seven. I’ll probably buy a patty for myself from
that roadside stand on the way back.”

This was his usual resource allocation every time he had a class, i.e. every
Monday, Tuesday and Thursday. The last seven surplus rupees usually found
itself being handed over to the roadside snackswala or the ice-cream wala,
depending upon his mood.

The dormant escalators whirred into action as soon as Ashwin stepped over
them, carrying him down towards the station exit.

Outside, the Sun brunted down on the road. Ashwin peeped through the dark
filmed glasses of the Rajouri Garden metro station and found that a number
of autos had now started lining up on the road, right in time for the
passengers who had just got down from the 2:37 p.m. metro.
His cellphone rang as he stepped out into the Sun calling for an auto. Well,
this was one of the few benefits that Ashwin had received by joining a
coaching institute – his own personal mobile phone. Considering how
protective and caring his parents were of their child, getting a mobile phone
for him had been one of the paramount considerations for them after
enrolling him into the institute.

“You never know with Delhi,” his mother had told him.

Ashwin pulled out the shimmering new phone from his pocket and answered
the call. It was mom.

“Yes mom.”

“Have you reached the station?” questioned the voice from the other side.

“Yes mom.”

“And you sure you have enough money with you?”

“Yes mom.”

“OK. Give me a call after you reach the institute. All right?”

“Yes mom.”

“OK. Bye”

“Yes mom.”

Thrusting the phone back into his pocket, he entered into the auto which had
just halted in front of him. This conversation, was typical of Mrs. Khanna
who, if she had her will, would even have Muhammad Ali bodyguard her
son to and from the coaching institute.

“When will she realize that I have grown up enough!” murmured Ashwin to
himself as the auto sped along.
No wonder he was feeling this way, considering that he had this ditto same
conversation with his mother every coaching day exactly at 2:37 pm after he
would disembark from the metro.

As the auto buzzed along the road, swiftly maneuvering through the
afternoon traffic, Ashwin took out his Physics study package boldly titled –
‘KINEMATICS’ and started pondering over the ‘Brain Teasers’, or so the
authors claimed.

He had received an SMS last night from Kunal, one of his friends at the
institute – ‘Derz gonna b a surp tst tmrw. phy kin. cm prprd. im relng on u’

For those who couldn’t understand the SMS jargon, gibberish, to be precise,
here’s the translation – ‘There is going to be a surprise test tomorrow.
Physics – Kinematics. Come prepared. I am relying on you.’

As he solved the questions, Ashwin wondered how was it that Kunal always
knew of every surprise test that was about to take place.

“No problem though,” he said to himself. “As long as he keeps intimating
me too about ‘em.”

Three kilometres from the institute building, the auto missed the green light
and had to screech to a halt just behind the zebra crossing as the light turned
red. The timer above it started ticking down… from 120 seconds.

“Damn it!” Ashwin cried. “I was already getting late.”

The auto driver turned back in response. “Ekjam hai kya chhotu?” he queried
in typical auto driver fashion.

Ashwin didn’t know how to reply. ‘How dare he call me chhotu?’ was his
initial reaction, but he chose to respond in a more polite manner.

“Haa jee.”

“Chinta mat karo. Pahucha doonga.”

With a servile smile, he turned back, staring at the traffic light…almost
probing at it to turn green.
“I hope he does.”

The scene at the institute building was one of ease and calm, a sharp contrast
as to what it would be at the end of the following two hours. Only Ashwin,
Kunal and another of their friends knew of the test and could be seen sitting
in one corner of the classroom, cramming their heads with whatever last
minute information they could harness from the study packages.

“What’s up with you guys?” asked the topper of their batch, clearly surprised
at the sudden increase in the sincerity levels of the three. “Is something
wrong? I mean, I don’t remember any test being around the corner.”

The trio smirked.

“You’ll soon find out why,” replied Kunal.

Still confused, he left, concluding that either they had gone mad or that he
would now have to face serious competition from three more students in this
already cut-throat competetive batch.

“Nah…” he mumbled to himself as he walked back. “It’s most probably the
former.”

The clock mounted on top of the writing board displayed three o’ clock and
a short heighted plump man, probably in his thirties, strode into the
classroom carrying a bunch of sheets in one hand and a snazzy PDA in the
other.

This was Mr. Sushil Verma, Physics teacher of the batch R-4. The man was
quite a character and had an uncanny reputation of changing his mobile
phones almost every other month. That is not to mention his fetish with
watches which he changed every week. While he had a Tissot on Monday,
you could see him sport an Esprit in the next class itself.

He scanned the class through his Bon-Ton spectacles and quickly counted up
the number of students present.
“OK, settle down fast children,” he ordered as he landed the bundle on the
table and started retrieving some sheets from it.

“What could those be?” asked a child as he took his seat.

“Maybe some assignments,” replied his partner. “Though he usually never
gives them, just asks us to do the problems of the package. Strange.”

“Shit!” exclaimed Ashwin. “He’s already there… and I have still not
memorized the formulae for 2-D.”

“Be quiet everyone,” Mr. Verma commanded, now getting irritated at the
commotion that was prevailing in the classroom.

Almost at once, there was pin drop silence in the room.

“Better.”
“I am delighted to tell you that today…” he said, pointing towards the sheets
in his hand, “… you all have a surprise test to deal with. These sheets right
here, contain questions on Kinematics, both of one dimensional and two
dimensional motion. The questions range from multiple choice type to match
the following type. You will have an hour to answer these questions – in
these sheets itself – and hand it over to me when time is called, with your
names written on them.”

The faces of all the students, except those three, instantly acquired an aghast
look and an immediate rustle followed as the students hurriedly took out
their notebooks and packages to do some last second revision before they
were handed over the question papers.

“I hope there would not be any problems as I had always expected and also
asked you all to do at least some practice after going back home after each
class. I am sure all of you did that… did you?”

The class stayed mum.

“Anyway, it would only be your loss if you didn’t. Here are the papers.”
After distributing all the papers, he comfortably placed himself in the
teacher’s chair and started fidgeting with his newly acquired gadget – a
Personal Digital Assistant (PDA).

“I hope you all will be finished by the time I manage to record the highest
score in my game right here.”

The class murmured a soft laugh.

“I hope the last level dragon never lets him do that,” muttered Kunal.

He sat behind Ashwin and conveniently tick marked all those options which
Ashwin had in his paper.

“It’s a deal,” he had said after infroming Ashwin about the surprise test.

Ashwin had no problems either. He didn’t bother whether anyone benefited
from his work or not as long he himself was getting the marks… and Kunal
was helping him do so, or at least trying to do so.

“Fine,” he had replied.

But the paper that lay before was trickier than he had anticipated. He cursed
the teacher under his breath for designing such a dastardly tough paper.

‘Damn you!’ he whispered.

The gang of toppers sat beside Ashwin in the next column of seats, literally
immersed in their question papers. Ashwin glanced surreptitiously at one of
their papers and learnt that they had already reached question number twenty
as compared to Ashwin’s ninth with which he had been struggling for the
past few minutes.

At that moment, the same old feeling came back to haunt him. He almost
gave up on his paper, agitated and depressed with himself.

“I can’t do anything!” he told himself and slammed his fist on the table.
“Just a worthless pound of flesh… yes… that’s what I am….. Damn!”
That day, after coming back home, Ashwin shut himself into his room…..
and cried.
CHAPTER 3
KALINGA? WHERE’S THAT?

T he Air Conditoner was at full blast and the ceiling fan whirred in full
speed. Below it, Ashwin lay snuggled under a blanket. It was still
five thirty in the morning and outside, a warm breeze rustled the
leaves of the branches which shadowed the bedroom’s windows.

Placed beside his pillow, Ashwin’s cellphone clamored its ringtone through
the speaker, straight into its owner ear canal.

“What the…” mumbled Ashwin, clearly irritated. “Who wants to talk to me
at this hour of the morning?”

He rubbed his eyes and forced them to open. It took them a while to focus
on the mobile screen and when they did, they opened up so wide that they
now refused to blink.

“Sonali?!” he cried. “Why is she calling right now?”

Not wasting a single second, he answered the call at once.

“Hi Sonali,” he blurted into the phone.

“Hi Ashwin,” came the voice from the other end.

“What’s up. Why so early in the morning? I was well asleep right now.”

“You were asleep!!!” she answered, horrified.

“Well… yes.”

“Goddamit, don’t you know that we have our results today?”

“Yes I do. But they are not going to be out until six in the evening, right?”
“You dummkopf! It is six in the morning and not six in the evening!
Whoever told you that it was six p.m. God! How ignorant can a person be!”

“WHAT! Are you serious!”

“Hell yes I am. No one except you has been able to sleep last night. And
almost everyone is sitting on their computers right now, waiting for the clock
to strike six.”

“Shit! Thank you so much for telling me Sonali….. by the way, what was the
name of the website again?”

“I’ll be damned! You don’t even know the name of the website on which our
results are supposed to come out?!”

“Er… no… actually, I forgot.”

“God save you! Anyway, it is www.cbseresults.nic.in.”

“www.cbseresults.nic.in..... is that OK?”

“Yes.”

“All right, thanks so much for informing me about this. I’ll just go and
switch on my PC……. and yes….. best of luck.”

“Yeah. Thanks. Same to you.”

With nervous hands, he ended the call and clambered out of his bed in a
hurry. His knees started shaking as soon as he stood up. He just stayed there
for a few minutes, unable to command his legs to move forward towards the
room which had the computer. Inspite of the air conditioner, he noticed that
he had now started sweating profusely.

After all, their Class Tenth Board Results were being announced today.

As he somehow willed his legs into moving, he thought whether he should
wake his parents up or not.
“I will need them for some moral support,” he concluded and knocked on
their door.

Mr. Khanna sleepily replied from inside, “Who is it?”

“Dad, it’s me. The results are going to be announced on the internet in a few
minutes from now. Wake up... quick!”

After conveying the information, he rushed to the computer and switched it
on.

“Damn this machine!” he exclaimed. “Why does it have to take so much
time to start!”
Even though it had an impressive 2.8 Gigahertz processor and a Gigabyte of
RAM to go with it.

The welcome screen greeted him soon after. He hurriedly typed in the
password to his user account and logged in.

He checked the time – “Five minutes to six,” he said. “The results should be
out by now.”

He double clicked on the browser icon and typed in the address of the
website. By then, his parents also entered into the room, still in their night
gowns, wearing a tense and anxious look on their faces.

“But you said it would only be out by six in the evening,” remarked Mrs.
Khanna.

“No, I got the a.m. p.m. wrong. One of my friends just called and informed
me about it.”

“That was so careless of you Ashwin!” admonished Mr. Khanna.

“Anyway, let’s forget that now,” added Mrs. Khanna. “Ashwin, beta quickly
open the website.”

“Yes, I am trying my best to do that, but it seems to be taking a lot of time.”
“The servers must have started to overload,” explained Mr. Khanna.
“Considering the amount of traffic it would be handling right now. You
anyway keep trying Ashwin.”

Ashwin obeyed and keeped refreshing the page until after about ten minutes
when the home page of the website adorned the monitor.

“There… we have it!” cried Ashwin, in joy… and nervousness.

“All right son, punch in your roll number. The time has come.”

Anxiously, and with trembling hands, he obeyed and typed in his seven digit
roll number carefully into the field.

“Here goes nothing,” he said as he pressed ‘Enter’.

The screen went white for a moment, then a small sand-timer popped up into
the center of the screen.
‘Please be patient while we load your result’ read a line underneath it.

A few seconds later, a table appeared, captioned with Ashwin’s name and
roll number.

Ashwin held his breath… he could almost taste his heart in his mouth. And
then, there it was……

SUB CODE SUB NAME MARKS GRADE
101 English Comm. 90 A1
122 Comm. Sanskrit 96 A1
041 Mathematics 93 A1
086 Science and Tech 99 A1
087 Social Science 87 A2
165 Introductory IT 99 A1

Ashwin rubbed his eyes… so did Mr. and Mrs. Khanna.

“Is this for real?” was Ashwin’s initial reaction.
His parents didn’t care about an oral answer and instead, just picked their
son up from the chair and hugged him…tightly.

“Great job done, my son!” exclaimed Mr. Khanna, overcome with joy.

Ashwin was still in a daze and was finding it hard to believe what had just
been displayed on the screen.

“I am so proud of you Ashwin!” cried Mrs. Khanna. “I knew it that you’ll
come out with flying colors! I have never been happier in my life!”

Then, after a while, it finally dawned upon him.

“Yes!” he cried, ecstatic. “Yes… yes… Oh my God! I don’t believe this!
Yes…”

Smiles abounded in the room.

“Hey… just hang on.”

He sat down on the chair once again and clicked on the Calculator icon.
“Let’s check out my aggregate percentage.”

The calculator application popped up on the screen and Ashwin carefully fed
his marks into it.
“Let us see…” He pressed Enter.

The calculator quickly came out with the result and displayed it on the
screen.

Mrs. Khanna let out a small whelp of joy. “A ninety three percent!” she
exclaimed. “What a result Ashwin!”

Ashwin turned and looked at his parents’ faces. The sheer happiness and joy
that they radiated seemed were more rewarding for Ashwin than the actual
result. The fact that he had made them proud was his greatest
accomplishment.
Observing their beatitude, he could only say one thing, “My job… is done.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The notice board now was precariously perched on only one its four legs and
threatened to fall down any time on the thousand of students that were
surrounding it. The pandemonium had resulted because there were just too
many students wanting to see the long list that had been put up on the board.

Ashwin stood at the edge of the huge crush of people and was trying his best
to bisect through it and reach the board so that he could learn which section
he had been alloted after the massive section re-shuffling procedure that had
come into effect now that the summer vacations had ended, but the drove of
students just didn’t let him.

“What are you trying to do?” snapped a fellow eleventhee after having been
given a slight push by Ashwin.

“I am sorry,” Ashwin apologised and tried to get in throgh another route……
but to little avail.

It was the first day after the summer vacations and the also the first day of
the session for eleventh… the genuine start of the session rather, considering
that the three weeks before the vacations saw anything but studies.

From today onwards, the major section scramble that had been feared by
each and every eleventhee, would come into effect and each one of them
would be thrown into an all new section, away from all friends and foes that
they had managed to make in the past so many years.

As if that wasn’t enough, the majority of the occupants of each section
would be new students coming from all parts of India… but more
importantly, all of whom would be having an aggregate percentage of ninety
three or above as that had been the cut off for admissions into eleventh
standard this year in this most prestigious institution of learning.

“This year’s cut off is relatively low,” the principal had claimed, much to the
shock of the students. “The graph will only rise in the coming years.”
His score, which had till now seemed to tower above those of his peers, now
adopted diminutive proportions when Ashwin started comparing it with his
fellow classmates.

“Was it good enough?” he questioned himself. “Did I celebrate too early?”

Apprehensively, Ashwin entered into his new classroom – F-206. ’11-F’ –
proclaimed a small board mounted on the top of the door. The class, much to
his anticipation sat in pin drop silence. Not a single person was talking to
anyone. Ashwin started receiving inquisitive stares as soon as he entered. He
quickly scanned the room to look for familiar faces with whom he could sit.

He could identify only a few students whom he had seen during the P.E.
periods or otherwise, from other sections, but there was no one from tenth D.

“Shit,” he muttered under his breath. “There’s not a single person that I
know here.”

Not wanting to sit with unacquanited people, he spotted two vacant seats in
one corner of the room and went forward to occupy one of them.
The class sat in rapt silence till the class teacher arrived.

Mrs. Mohita Dahiya stood at about five and a quarter feet in height and had
a fairly lean demeanor. Her hair had started to gray, an indication that she
was now into her late fourties or early fifties. Her innocent, timid face
seemed to suggest that anyone could befool her and work her to his or her
advantage, but in actuality, she was anything but what her face seemed to
indicate. She spoke in a very polite and childish manner, often in a very
comforting tone which made her seem very amiable and easily
approachable. As a chemistry teacher in this school for the past five years,
she was well enlightened of the tricks and trades of the students and had a
fair bit of understanding of what went through their minds.

“Good morning class,” she said in her trademark genial tone. “I am your
new class teacher and my name is Mrs. Mohita Dahiya.”

The students rose up in unison and also wished her a good morning.

“Thank you,” she replied. “Please sit down.”
They obeyed and occupied their seats, still mum, still uncomfortable, still
feeling awkward amongst all these new faces.

Mrs. Dahiya, as perceptive as ever, realized the discomfort of the students
and added, “Don’t worry. We’ll have a self-introduction session soon after I
finish taking the attendance. OK?”

For once, the class spoke – “Yes ma’am,” they replied.

“Right.” She pulled out the newly acquired class list from her folder and
started calling out the names in alphabetical order. After the procedure, she
learnt that two students were absent.
‘Wonder what they are doing sitting at home on the first day of the session,’
she thought to herself.

“All right,” she announced after doing all the formal paperwork. “Now let us
know each other better…. Oh! Wait! Did I tell that I’ll be teaching you
chemistry?”

“No ma’am.”

“Well, now you know it. So now let us know all about this class. We’ll start
from here and I want each one of you to specify your name, and if you are
an external student, also mention where you have come from. Internal
students may specify their previous year’s section. This being a Science
section, it’ll be foolish of me to ask you your percentages as I am sure that
most of you, if not all of you, would boast of a ninety or above.”

The first student to stand up was a ninety six percenter from Patna, Bihar.
“Hello everyone,” he said diffidently. “I am Vipul Mishra and I have come
from DPS Patna.”

“Very well,” replied the teacher. “We are glad to have you here Vipul.”

“I am more glad than you to have come here. It’s absolutely wonderful
here.”

Second in queue was an extremely dark complexioned boy who, or so it
seemed, seemed to have come straight from the jungles of the Nicobar
islands, but he reported something else in his self introduction.
“Hi! My name is Hari and I am from Kendriya Vidyalaya, Kalinga.”

A quizzical look spread across the faces of many students after hearing the
name of the place which he claimed to have come from.

“Wasn’t Kalinga supposed to be a historical place?” questioned one of the
other new students. “Something to do with the great emperor Asoka? Does it
still exist today?”

Hari was taken aback, also slightly insulted. “Of course it is! Didn’t you
know?”

“Well, I am sure most of the students would not, let alone me. Isn’t it?”

He looked for a reply from all the other students but just got silent stares
instead. No one wanted to make a fool of themselves as he had done, and
that too on the first day of the session itself. They had an impression to make
on the class teacher you see.

“Um… OK. I admit that I didn’t know about it,” he replied, “and it seems
that everyone else did,” he added skeptically.

“All right,” intervened the teacher. “Can we have the next person please…”

And so the process went on until all the fourty four students had introduced
themselves to the class and after which, Ashwin found out that out of those
fourty four, hardly fifteen were the ones who lived in New Delhi! Rest all
had arrived from different parts of the country, including Patiala, Bangalore,
Patna, Ahmedabad and the ever historic, Kalinga, and had made the School
Hostel their homes for the following two years.

What with such an ecletic bunch of students, Ashwin didn’t know what to
expect from his further two years of schooling in this institution.

“How are we going to gel together?” he wondered. “They are all so
different!”

That day, during the lunch break, Ashwin met some of his friends in the
OAT over a bite of patty.
“Which section have you been dumped into?” asked Farhan, coolly sipping
coke from his bottle. “How many of the students do you know there?”

“F,” replied Ashwin melancholy. “I am not acquainted with even a single
person there. Two thirds of the students have come from outside Delhi, from
places I never knew existed. Only about fifteen are internal students. Though
I know some of them by face, I still can’t call them my friends.”

“Pity. At least my section – N, does not have so many externals! Plus, I even
have Sonali and Arihant with me!”

“Damn you… dog.”

“Hehe… I seriously pity thee. Anyway, we surely would be able to meet in
the P.E. periods, right?”

“I don’t know man, there is going to be so much study pressure… what with
the freaking coaching classes and the ever so herculean class eleventh
curriculum, and to add it, those freaking lab files that we’ll have to keep up
to date, I am skeptical whether I would actually go out of the class for P.E.
or not!”

“Not going for P.E.! That’s a first!”

“Why? Haven’t you joined any coaching institute? You surely must be aware
of the pressure that accompanies it.”

“I am not a fool like most of you. What’s the use of doing something you
don’t look forward to? It’ll only harm you. If you understand what I am
trying to say.”

Ashwin sure did understand and very well knew that what his friend was
suggesting was bang on correct, but he replied otherwise.

“If you think coaching is a waste of time then that does not mean that the
same should apply to everyone. I don’t see any harm being done to me if I
attend coaching.”

“Or so you think.”
They debated for another fifteen minutes after which the bell rang.

“There goes the bell,” informed Farhan. “What do you have now?”

“English.”

“Oh. Who’s the teacher?”

“I don’t know. Some Anita Singhal. Never heard of her.”

“Aaah… Anita Singhal. I know her. Goes in my bus.”

“Oh, great. How is she?”

“An angel as long as your homework notebook is up to date, a monster if it
isn’t.”

“OK. I get the picture.”

“Good that you do. Otherwise you would have had to find it out the hard
way.”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

“Hey, listen.”

“What?”

“I still think your coaching institute is a humbug.”

Ashwin sneered and replied – “We’ll see.”

“We sure will… All the best.”
CHAPTER 4
A RUDE AWAKENING

Ashwin sat alone in his classroom. A mathematics study package lay open in
his lap as he scribbled some calculations in his notebook. The armchair that
he was sitting on had been conveniently propped against the wall behind to
enable him to rock to and fro while he racked his brains in order to solve the
trigonometry questions that had been given to him as homework by his Math
coaching teacher.

A cool wind blew into the room from the windows behind him and rustled
his gelled up hair. It was great weather for a nice little game of football, and
most of his classmates had went out to make the most of it. But Ashwin, on
the contrary, had decided to stay back in the classroom in the P.E. period and
do some Math problems instead.

“Damn it!” he cried as yet another of his answers failed to match with the
solutions given at the end of the book.
“There must be a printing error,” he hypothesised and carried on to the next
question.

Two months had now passed by since Ashwin had first entered into 11-F and
in contrast to his predictions, all the students had managed to gel together
quite well, though there was a still a wide communication divide between
the two sexes present in the classroom, which might have been because of
the lack of pretty girls whom the boys would have loved to talk to and sit
with. Although it could well be the other way round too, but I doubt it.

These two months had seen the teachers rush through with the already so
difficult syllabus of the grade so that the coursework for the half yearly
exams, which were now barely a fortnight away, could be concluded in time.
What with the three days of coaching per week also to deal with, it had
become a deadly concoction for the students. High levels of stress and
tension now abounded in most of the students’ lives and it was startling how
none of them lost their sanity in the process.
The bell soon shrieked outside in the corridors.

“Shit!” muttered Ashwin. “I had planned to finish this chapter in this period,
but I am only half way through.”

After a few minutes, the students started pouring in, some of them drenched
in sweat after an intense game of football or basketball.

Sagar, a ninety four percenter who had come here from DPS Faridabad, had
been the first few friends that Ashwin had made in this new section and
shared a very good rapport with him. A very good player of Table Tennis, he
too entered the classroom a few minutes after the bell rang, clutching his
beloved T.T. racquet in one hand and came over and sat with Ashwin.

“So?” enquired Ashwin. “How was today’s game? How many did you
beat?”

“All of ‘em,” replied Sagar emphatically. “Even the coach… or so he calls
himself.”

Ashwin giggled. “Yeah… he surely isn’t fit to be a Table Tennis teacher.
Even I sometimes come close to beating him.”

“Yeah… anyway, why didn’t you come today? What were you doing in the
class?”

“Oh, nothing much. Was just trying my hands at some of these trigo
problems that my Math coaching teacher had given. Didn’t feel like playing
today,” he lied, “so decided that I might as well stay back and do some
math.”

“How many did you manage?”

“Oh, not much. The answers that I come up with, most of the time, they do
not match with the solutions given at the back. I don’t know whether there is
a printing error or my way of doing the questions is wrong. I don’t know….”

“Is trigo coming for the half yearlies?”
“I don’t think so.”

“Then why are you studying it?”

“Because that’s what’s being done in my coaching right now. I cannot afford
to neglect it.”

“Yeah… even I am caught in a similar situation right now. Even my
coaching is doing Limits whereas that is also not coming in the half yearly
exams.”

“I mean, why don’t they collaborate their stuff with what is going on the
schools. It will be so easy on us then you know.”

“I agree…… but they don’t.”

“Curse them! How can they be so insensitive to our plights? Idiotic dolts!”

“Yes. It will be extremely hard for us in these half yearlies. I even have
classes during the exams!”

“So do I! Wonder how I’ll manage.”

The students that had entered, had now started leaving with their bags again.

“What do we have now?” queried Ashwin.

Sagar checked the huge time-table that had been put up on the class notice
board. “Chemistry Lab,” he informed. “That’s why they are leaving.”

“Crap!” Ashwin exclaimed as he frisked his bag. “I forgot my lab coat. That
teacher is surely not going to let me in without one.”

“Go borrow one from section M. They too had lab today. Do you know
anyone there?”

“No.”
“Doesn’t matter. Just barge in and announce that you need a lab coat.
Promise them that you will return it after your two lab periods. This practice
is quite normal these days, so no need to feel diffident.”

“But these are the last two periods. School will end after our lab periods,
how will I return the coat to the person?”

“Sneak out of the lab five minutes before the bell rings. If you don’t manage
to pull it off, return it tomorrow. Anyway, chances are quite high that the lab
coat that you borrow from someone, might actually belong to someone else,
which in turn would also belong to someone else. So, ultimately, the guy
from which you will be borrowing today, wouldn’t be quite bothered
whether you do return the coat to him or not.”

“Is it?”

“It sure is. I myself have done it a number of times and have also lost my
own lab coat courtesy some of my friends in the other section. I believe it is
a cycle, so I will eventually get one to keep for myself, soon.”

“Great. You go on, I’ll catch you in the lab, hopefully with a lab coat on.”

“Don’t worry. You will.”

Sagar picked up his bag, pulled out his lab coat and lab manual from it and
left the classroom. Ashwin too, packed up all his coaching material into his
sling bag, put the chairs around him in order and made his way up to the
third floor towards section M to get a lab coat for himself.

The period was already ten minutes in and the corridors wore a deserted
look, though hardly a minute before, it would have been crammed with
students socializing with their friends after the end of a period. Ashwin
walked through the corridor and found section M right at the end, beside the
room for the HOD of English.
The door was ajar and Ashwin peeped into the room surreptitiously. The
dilligent seeming students sat in absolute silence as the Math teacher
rambled on with her explanations of Binomial Theorem.

Trying to get his attention towards him, Ashwin waved at the boy sitting in
the front, beside the door.
“Hey!” he whispered. “Over here….”

The boy, surprised, looked out towards him through the small opening.
“What is it?” he signalled through his hands.

Ashwin mimicked putting on a coat and mouthed the words – “Lab Coat”

The boy, in reply, wore a puzzled expression on his face. “I can’t
understand,” he mouthed.

“Lab Coat!” Ashwin cried, a bit loudly this time.

“Oh!” whispered back the boy. “Just a second.”

He checked to see whether the teacher was looking towards him or not. She
was busy doing some NCERT questions on the board, so he pulled out a
long stark white lab coat from his bag and extended his hand to give it to
Ashwin.

“What’s your name?” Ashwin asked as he took the lab coat from his hands.

“Puneet,” he replied. “Puneet Mishra.”

“Thanks Puneet. I’ll make sure that I return this to you before school ends.
Stay in your classroom if I become a little late. I’ll meet you here. Is that
fine with you?”

“Perfect.”

“Good. Thanks a lot dude.”

Ashwin pulled the door shut and rushed through the corridors and down the
staircase towards the chemistry lab.

“Great!” he wondered as he paced along. “This was easier than I thought!”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
On a pleasant October evening, the Metro sailed along on its tracks over the
cluttered residential colonies of Uttam Nagar. Inside one of its jampacked
coaches, Ashwin, who had miraculously managed to acquire a seat in this
melee, sat with his Chemistry NCERT textbook staring back at him from his
lap… the pages of which seemed to mock Ashwin.

“You still have fifty more of us to go through,” they seemed to say to him.
“And you have no time left.”

He grumbled as he tried to understand what the Molecular Orbital Theory
actually was all about.

“Damn it!” he exclaimed, irritated at not having understood a word out of
this whole page of apparent gibberish. “This freaking Chemical Bonding is
killing me!”

Ashwin had spent a major part of his day today sitting in the classroom of
his coaching institute and studying Math while ironically, he had a
Chemistry exam to deal with in the school tomorrow. Now, going back home
when it was almost seven in the evening, he had hardly any time left to go
through the two chapters of ‘Chemical Bonding’, which carried a whopping
twenty marks weightage in the exam, and ‘Atomic Structure’, itself carrying
a not-so-modest thirteen marks as well.

Trigonometric formulae kept swirling in his mind and made it almost
impossible for him to concenrate on these plethora of orbital and bonding
theories.

“Why did they have to keep a class today?” he said to himself, frustrated.
“Almost every school is having their exams these days. Why can’t they just
give some days off?”

He tried his best to focus on the theories but couldn’t make much headway
as the metro train pulled into the station where Ashwin hd to disembark.
Realizing soon enough, he quickly put all his stuff into his bag and rushed
out of the door.

“I’ll finish the VSEPR theory on the rickshaw back home,” he decided.
Downstairs, outside the station, a horde of rickshaws and auto rickshaws,
patiently waited to ferry the passengers to their homes. Of them, was
Ramesh, a rickshaw driver whom Ashwin had befriended and who waited
for him outside the metro station whenever Ashwin had a coaching class, all
this in return of a monthly payment of two hundred bucks. It was quite a
shrewd deal on the part of Ashwin you know, considering that he would
have had to dish out more than double that amount if he paid the general
Rupees Fifteen per trip each time he had a coaching class.

Coming out of the station, he waved at Ramesh who had lined up his
rickshaw along with everyone else. The guy spotted him in the crowd and
pedaled towards where he was standing.

“So Ashwin,” he said as Ashwin clambered on to the seat. “How was today’s
class?”

“Forget about the class,” replied Ashwin. “Just get me home as fast as
possible!”

“Why? What’s wrong?”

Ashwin sifted through his bag and took out his chemistry book. “Because I
have this darned Chemistry exam tomorrow and I haven’t studied a thing!”

“Oh! Ashwin, that’s too bad. But you couldn’t blame yourself really. You are
working so hard for your coaching… such little problems in the school don’t
really matter, right?”

“Little problem? You have no idea how big this is. I still have to go through
two huge chapters which carry more than half the paper’s marks. More than
fifty pages in total!”

“I’m sure you’ll be able to manage. You are a very bright kid. I know that.”

“I am not too sure about that.”

“No one gets a ninety three percent in the boards just like that.”

“Ramesh, Boards were a piece of cake. Eleventh is altogether a different
realm of studies. I have seen people who got full in math in the boards
barely managing to scrape through in the Monday tests of the same subject
in eleventh standard.”

Ramesh didn’t know much about the studies in eleventh or even tenth for
that matter, so he decided not to argue any further. He had dropped out of
school in the middle of the session in eighth standard and had started to
work as a waiter in a local roadside dhaba. Now obviously he had graduated
to driving a rickshaw, which he had bought on loan from some babu or so he
preferred to call him. One of the reasons why he had offered Ashwin this
two-hundred-per-month deal, which obviously didn’t give him enough profit
as he would have liked, was because then he would then be able to interact
with a student on a more or less daily basis, which, he felt, would inspire
him to work even harder and break free from the shackles of his penury
stricken life and into a life of learning, thus quenching his yearn of educating
himself right up till class twelfth after which he hoped to acquire a job as a
clerk in any small office.

After pedaling for another ten minutes or so, they finally reached outside the
gates of Ashwin’s house. Ashwin got down in a hurry and started towards
the gate.

“Ashwin!” Ramesh called out from the back. Ashwin, still in a rush, quickly
turned back.
“What is it?” he said hastily.

“Nothing. I just wanted to wish you all the best.”

Ashwin smiled back. “Thank you. I’ll do my best.”

Ramesh turned and faded away into the darkness. As he had turned, Ashwin
could clearly perceive the longing in his face. “I’ll do something about it
once the exams get over,” he decided and walked inside his home.

Mrs. Khanna was in the kitchen, busy preparing dinner for the family.
“Hi beta!” she called out to him. “How was today’s class?”

Ashwin didn’t care to reply and straightaway went into his room and closed
the door shut.
“I’ve got to start as soon as possible,” he told himself.
Skipping the usual freshening up routine that he followed after returning, he
sat down on his study table at once and started with the chapter of
‘Chemical Bonding’.

After about an hour, Mrs. Khanna, who had not yet talked to her son after he
had returned from his coaching, knocked at the door of Ashwin’s room.

“Ashwin!” she called out. “Dinner’s ready.”

When no reply came from the other side, she slowly opened the door and
peeped inside.

The lights of the study table were glowing with full intensity and a book and
a notebook lay open on the table. A few pencils were strayed over here and
there and on top of all this rested Ashwin’s head… fast asleep.

A feeling of uneasy apprehension hung in the air of the room. Propped
against the wall in a corner of the classroom, stood Ashwin, desperately
trying to cram up whatever he could muster from the chemistry book in
these final minutes before the exam. Well, at present, in this room, no one
was more scared than Ashwin was.
So much so for the dreary content of the two chapters, coupled along with
exhaustion after the marathonic Mathematics class that he had attended in
the afternoon, Ashwin had fallen asleep within minutes of sitting down on
the study table and starting with the chapter of Chemical Bonding.

“Why didn’t you wake me up?” he had complained to his mother today
morning as she had laid out the breakfast for him.

“I thought you were too tired,” Mrs. Khanna had justified, “and I was keen
that you get a good sleep before your exam today.”

Ashwin had wanted to debate further but knew that it would have been
futile, what with a person like his mother as his opponent.

He checked his watch… hardly any time left before the invigilator would
walk in and command everyone to put away their bags and settle down on
their seats so that she could distribute the answer sheets as quickly as
possible. Now, with the strict instructions that an extra fifteen minute
reading time be also given to the students to go through the question paper
once, meant that the teacher would hustle even more as soon as she would
arrive.

He quickly read through some of the parts which were more most likely to
be a part of the question paper. Around him, the tenthees, with whom the
eleventhees were supposed to sit in these half yearly examinations, giggled
and couldn’t be more casual in their approach. You see, they had the ever so
simple Computer paper today, which would test all those concepts that they
had most probably known for almost half a decade now.

One could see a stark contrast in the emotions reflecting from the faces of
the class tenth students and their seniors. The cheery lot of class tenth almost
seemed to mock the much more serious and apprehensive state of the
eleventhees.

Ashwin had barely managed to go through two topics when Mrs. Shalini
Jha, the invigilator of their room, walked in with a big brown sealed
envelope in her hand – which pretty much had the students’ fates sealed in it
as well.

“Good morning class,” she wished, but no one replied except for a few
tenthees standing right next to the teacher’s table. She was anyway a new
recruit to the school, so it didn’t come as a surprise.

Skipping any more pleasantries, she got down to business and started
moving around ordering students to stow away their bags outside the class.

“Hurry up and keep your bags outside!” she yelled. As expected, no one
heeded. “You also have fifteen minutes of reading time today, so the exam
will start in hardly two minutes from now. It would only be your loss if you
delay matters.”

This time, few of the students got up and complied with her request.

After about ten minutes of more shouting and bellowing, the invigilator
finally managed to get all the children to obey her commands and get the
classroom in control.
“All right,” she announced. “Let me just inform you that you all are already
five minutes into your reading time courtesy your disobedience. But anyway,
I’ll start distributing the question papers now.”

She started handing over the question papers to the class tenth students of
the first row, much to the dissatisfaction of the eleventhees who protested
that they should be given the papers first as they had a far tougher and
longer paper than their juniors.

“Before you start,” the invigilator said, “make sure that there is no piece of
paper or any sort of material which might get you into trouble during the
exam. If there are any chits lying around your chair, pick them up and throw
them into the dustbin right now.”

Some of the students smirked. “Yeah…” said one. “As if she is going to
notice what we do during the exam.”

“Yep,” replied his partner. “I’ve heard this is only her second month on the
job. Absolutely no chance…”

Oblivious to the students’ capabilities, the teacher distributed all the
question papers to the students and occupied her position on the teacher’s
chair.
“You still have ten minutes reading time, so read through the paper once and
organize your approach. Let me remind you that no one is supposed to write
anything on their answer sheets during these ten minutes. Keep your pens
and pencils away.”

More simpered smiles followed. “Yeah right…” remarked one of the
students.

Aseem, who sat in front of Ashwin in tests and exams, extended his hand
back and handed over the question paper to Ashwin. Ashwin collected it,
kept one for himself and passed the rest to Atulya who sat behind him.
After a quick prayer, he started reading through the questions.

Ten minutes of reading time past, once he had gone through all the thirty
questions, his partner heard him exclaim – “SHIT!”
CHAPTER 5
TWO ESSAYS + INTERVIEW = HELLO JAPAN !!!

A shwin sat dejectedly on the last seat with his head propped against
his hand. Three floors below, somewhere outside the school, some
street children merrily played with their Diwali guns that they had
managed to acquire from somewhere. Maybe some passerby had given it to
them, so that these less privileged kids could also join in the happiness and
enjoy the festive spirit that had enveloped the whole city nowadays. Day
after tomorrow was Diwali, but Ashwin, incongruously, didn’t feel like
celebrating courtesy his chemistry and physics answer sheets that lay before
him.

“Damn it!” he ejaculated as he once again looked at those harsh, insensitive
numbers staring back at him from the answer sheets.

His half yearlies had been absolutely cataclysmal, to say the least. He had
come nowhere near to sustaining the kind of scores that he got in the board
exams.

“Don’t get too carried away by your board marks,” his class teacher had
warned, but not many had paid heed. “Eleventh is a totally different cup of
tea.” In fact, she had also added in her trademark dry sense of humor,
“Actually, it is like Vodka – it doesn’t matter whether you take it lightly or
otherwise, it will only come back hard at you.”

And so prophetic her words had now proven to be for so many students.

Caught in the dilemma of concentrating on his coaching or his school
studies, he had manged to make little headway in either direction.

Sagar, who had scored decent enough marks, actually much better compared
to the majority of the class, saw Ashwin sitting alone in a corner and came
up to him to enquire.
“Hey,” he said, cheerfully, trying to conduct the same feeling into Ashwin as
well. “What are you doing sitting here all alone? Come on man, it is break!
Aseem has brought pizza, don’t you want to have some?”

“No,” he replied coldly and stuffed the answer sheets into his bag.

“Oh c’mon Ashwin! Now stop crying over those marks. How do they matter
anyway. I bet you must be doing great in your coaching and ultimately, that
is what matters the most. Who gives a damn about the school exams?”

Ashwin didn’t reply. He didn’t want to tell him that he was not doing well
anywhere.

“Anyway, we still haven’t received our computer papers yet. That might
boost up your percentage up a bit.”

“After all this…” replied Ashwin, “…I’ve lost all hope.”

“Oh come on! Don’t be such a worrywart. The paper was a piece of cake. I
am sure half the class will get full.”

“Yes. Only that I’ll be a part of the other half.”

“We’ll see. Anyway, I’m going back to have whatever pizza that might be
left in Aseem’s tiffin. Come right now if you want some. You’ll only find
crumbs afterwards. In fact, not even that!”

“No, thanks.”

“All right. Though it is a sin that you are committing – refusing an invitation
to have pizza.”

And he strode away. As soon as he left, Ashwin took out the answer sheets
once again and re-checked the totalling, hoping to find some error in
calculation on part of the teacher, but he couldn’t find any. Frustrated, he
stuffed them in his bag once again and buried his face in his hands.

His dejection act was interrupted by the ring of the bell and the computer
teacher walked in soon after, carrying a bundle of answer sheets in her hand.
Sagar, with his mouth stuffed with pizza, came back and occupied his seat
next to Ashwin.

“I bet you’ll get full,” he said. A distinctive smell of cheese filled the air as
he spoke.

Ashwin held his breath for a few seconds to let the smell fade away and then
replied, “No, I know I got an output question wrong. The third one. I forgot
to change the line after the third display command.”

“That’s a pretty minor mistake. She’ll only cut half a mark for that. It still
rounds off to seventy.”

Ashwin started to reply but stopped as he heard his name being called out by
the teacher. He stood up and walked towards her to collect his answer sheet.
Sagar gave him a pat on the back as he went away.

“Good,” said the teacher and handed over the paper to him.

‘65/70’, the red ink on the top read.

“That will shut him up,” Ashwin said to himself as he walked back to his
seat.

“How much? How much?” Sagar enquired as soon as Ashwin returned.
Ashwin thrust the paper into his face.

“Oh… a sixty five,” he said. “That’s not bad.”

After everyone had received their papers, and as Sagar had predicted, with
twenty one students getting a full or a sixty nine in the computer paper,
Ashwin replied – “Yeah… that’s not bad… that’s not bad only when half the
class is not getting a bloody seventy on seventy… like it just happened right
now… and you are bloody one of them. Stop showing off and leave me
alone.”

Sagar felt that right now, it was best to do just that.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Only a week had passed since the exams had concluded and studies were on
in full swing once again. This year, Diwali had also very cruelly fallen on a
Sunday, so there was absolutely no reprieve for the students. Moreso, they
also had a Math Monday test which they were dealing with right now. The
teacher had somehow managed to rush through the chapter which was
supposed to be tested in today’s test, but as Ashwin had already done this in
his coaching institute, he had little problems in dealing with the questions
that lay before him.

Ashwin finished the test ten minutes before time and was quite confident
that he had done all the questions correctly. Nevertheless, he revised the
paper once again, just to make sure.
He had felt the same way after he had completed his Math half yearly paper
but when he had received his paper, he was shocked to learn that seventeen
of his marks had been cut, courtesy silly mistakes which could easily have
been rectified if he had revised the paper.

The bell rang soon after and Ashwin, after having revised his paper
thoroughly and correcting the plethora of small errors that he had found,
dutifully handed over his answer script to the invigilator.

Next period was also Math and with the chaos that usually prevailed in the
classroom following a Monday test and also the fact that whatever time
would remain would be spent in the discussion of the paper, everyone knew
that it would be more or less be a free period.

But before the Math teacher reached the class, the supervisor of class
eleventh, Mrs. Komal Sen, entered the room and at once, the class went
quiet. Quite unlike her name, she was actually considered to be the strictest
teacher around, thus the sudden transformation of the state of the class was
very well expected.

“I have an announcement to make,” she said. The few who had still dared to
talk after she had arrived, now zipped their lips and started listening intently.

She read from a piece of paper – “There is an exchange program being
organised by an organization called YOT, Youth Of Tomorrow, in which five
students will be selected from all over India to represent the country in a
month long exchange program to Japan. Interested students should submit
two essays, the topics for which are on the organizations website,
www.yotindia.org, and submit it latest by Friday of this week. Shortlisted
students will be informed in a fortnight’s time and will be required to sit for
an interview.”

No one seemed quite interested.

“It is a fully funded trip sponsored by the Japanese government. Anyone
interested?”

The reactions soon changed as few students rose their hands. Ashwin was
one of them.

“Come here and give me your name,” she ordered.

They dutifully obeyed her command at once.

“Check the topics for the essay from the website and make sure that I have
your write ups on an A4 sized sheet latest by Friday. Is that understood?”

“Yes ma’am.”

She strode out of the classroom and the Math teacher walked in. As soon as
that happened, the class reverted to its earlier state and disorder prevailed in
the class once again, the sudden change quite vividly illustrating the effects
that different teachers had on a class full of students.

“Good morning class,” she wished.

No one replied. In fact, no one gave a damn.

“Good morning students,” she repeated, thinking that probably they had not
heard her.
When still no reply came, she gave it up and took out the question paper of
the Monday test from her bag.

“OK, please sit down all of you,” she pleaded. “Let us discuss the paper
now.”
And so, as was expected, the whole period was wasted doing nothing
worthwhile other than discussing the paper, in which hardly a few students
were interested. Strategically seated on the last seat, some students had
utilized this time to complete their lab files, while others solved numericals
from their coaching institute’s Chemistry study package – they had a test
coming up this weekend you see.

Later that day, when Ashwin reached home, having nothing to do – actually
he had lots to do, but didn’t feel like doing anything – he remembered about
the Japan exchange program and checked the website of YOT for the essay
topics. As he was not in a mood to do any physics, chemistry or math, he
decided that he might as well write the essays, just to pass time.

“Five students from all over India,” he thought aloud. He concluded that
there was a very slim, if any, chance of getting selected, but he nevertheless
sat down to complete the two essays just out of the fear of Mrs. Sen who
would absolutely rip him apart if he didn’t submit them after committing to
do so.

“Why did I ever give my name?” he cursed himself as he probed his brains
for a suitable introduction to the first essay.

Two hours later, he printed both the essays and neatly placed them between
the pages of his physics lab file.

“I might as well submit it tomorrow itself…” he said to himself, “…and get
over with it.”

Tired after the effort and too depressed after his exam results to study any
physics, chemistry or math, he put on some music on his mp3 player and
dozed off.

A week and a half later, Ashwin sat in a corner of the football field along
with a bunch of other students. A teacher sat with them, busy listening songs
on his newly acquired high end multimedia phone, caring little as to what
the students were up to. No, this is not a description of an utopian place but
an actual situation which prevails every Wednesday in the fourth and fifth
period when Ashwin has his SUPW – Taekwondo. Few people knew about
this and as most already had a pre conceived notion of Taekwondo being an
SUPW where one has to sweat it out hard and be ready to accept as much as
fifty push ups or ten rounds of the ground as punishments by the teacher,
students generally refrained from taking it up as their SUPW. But Ashwin
had been one of the lucky ones who knew the inside story and had thus
joined it without having any second thoughts.

“So,” asked one of his friends, “How many experiments have you all done in
chemistry?”

“Eleven,” replied Ashwin. “Out of them, six are salt analyses.”

“Oh! Your class has done six salts! We’ll only be doing our third one today!”

“Who’s your teacher?”

“Mittal.”

“The one with that trademark toothless smile?”

“Yeah… she is the HOD too. Wonder who made her that though. She is
never on time to the class and our syllabus, like our progress in the lab,
always lags behind the other classes.”

“Yeah, even I’ve heard a lot of criticism about her. In fact, someone told me
that she doesn’t even get along with all the other teachers of her department,
moreso with the teachers of other departments.”

“Oh crap!”

“What happened?”

“I forgot to bring my lab coat! One thing which she is really particular about
is having students wear lab coats before letting them enter the lab. Screams
at the defaulters like hell, almost gobbles them up whole and I sure don’t
want to experience that.”

“Take mine. My lab is already over. When is yours?”
“Next two.”

“Fine, return it to me after that.”

“Yes, I will.”

Ashwin opened his bag and started to take out his lab coat, but just as he was
doing so, he heard his name being announced on the Public Address system.
His hands froze. Everyone that was seated there started looking towards him.

“Why are they calling you?” curiously enquired the teacher, lowering the
volume of the song.

“I don’t know.”

The voice announced the names of few other students, all from eleventh and
ordered them to come in the garden outside the junior staff room.

Anxious to know what this would be about, Ashwin quickly handed the lab
coat to his friend, zipped the bag close, hung it over his shoulders and rushed
towards the place.

Once there, he found that ten odd students had already reached. He couldn’t
identify any person whom he knew, from the group. Nevertheless, he went
over and joined them. Soon after, a teacher walked into the garden and stood
in front of the students.

“Good morning,” she said in a very warm voice. “My name is Mrs. Jasleen
Grover and I am the Japanese teacher in this school.”

“Good morning ma’am,” everyone replied courteously.

“First, let me congratulate you all as you have made it past the preliminary
written test for the YOT exchange program to Japan.”

Everyone’s faces, which earlier had quizzical looks, now acquired broad
smiles.

“Yes. Well done. Now, you all will be required to sit for an interview before
the final decision is made as to who the five students will be. The interview
for you all will be held tomorrow at this address. Please note it down if you
have a pen and paper with you right now.”

Ashwin quickly took out a pen and his chemistry lab rough copy from his
bag and noted down the address, though he was not sure whether he would
actually go for the interview or not, considering how little hopes he had of
getting selected.

“Take down the phone numbers too, in case you need them.”

Everyone obeyed.

“OK. Best of luck all of you, and in case you have any problems or queries,
call those people up at the numbers I just gave you.”

The students nodded and she left with a smile.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“I'm not afraid, I've been here for so long, escape from me, my world is
breaking down,” blurted the mp3 player earphone – quite ironically though,
as he would soon find out why – firmly placed in Ashwin’s ears. The metro
whirred along on its path and Ashwin sat in one of the corner seats beside
the door.

Today’s coaching class had been particularly long and exhausting than usual.
The physics teacher had finished almost the whole chapter of Rotational
Motion within two hours and the students had to keep themselves attentive
throughout the class, and all of this had completely drained Ashwin
mentally. Add to this the eight hours of school that he had attended before
his coaching and one could easily sympathise with this poor kid.

The metro rolled into a station and Ashwin’s cellphone buzzed in his pocket.
He took out the phone, unplugged the earphones and checked who was
calling.
‘Mom’, read the screen.

He answered.

“Hello,” he said. The distinctive sound of her mother answered from the
other end, but he couldn’t make out what she was trying to say. The signal
was too weak. The call ended within a few seconds without much of a
conversation taking place. Ashwin decided to call back, but just as he was
about to press the green button, his phone shut down.

“Damn it!” he exclaimed. “I charged the battery last night, how did it die out
so quickly?”

He forcibly switched it on once again and tried to call back. He started to
press the button but then another warning flashed on the screen – “Warning!
Battery low!”

But just as he was about to switch the phone off in frustration, he received
an SMS. He pressed the ‘read’ button and quickly read through before the
phone shut down automatically once again.

The SMS was from his mother… it read – “Congrats beta. You have made it
to Japan!”
CHAPTER 6
YOKOSO JAPAN!!!

It was a chilly January afternoon and the new year was just two days old.
Ashwin, along with his family, sat on a comfortable sofa in the office of
YOT in the tony locality of Greater Kailash. Beside them sat four more
students with their respective families. It hadn’t surprised Ashwin when he
had found out that two of the four other studens were from his school only.
Among the other two, one was from Jalandhar and the other from Pune.

“I am proud to announce…” proclaimed a six feet tall, burly old man who
claimed himself to be the director of YOT, “…that these five students sitting
in front of me…” All of them stood at their mention. “…well, now standing
in front of me…” he corrected himself, “… have cleared the rigorous
selection procedure – which had been so ruthlessly designed by us – and
have finally been shortlisted to proudly represent the country in the
‘Japanese scholarship cultural exchange program’ which will be fully funded
by the Japanese government.”

A round of applause followed.

Ashwin too joined in and clapped for himself, though he had still not been
able to believe the news he had received a month back from his mother
while travelling in the Metro.

“There were hundreds of kids there mom!” he had told her after he had come
back from the interview that day. “I think I just wasted four whole hours for
nothing. I don’t think I have a chance. Why did I ever actually go for the
interview? In fact, why did I ever give my name?”

But her mother had thought otherwise… and how rightly so.
“You never know son,” she had said. “Maybe you are just being too critical.”

“I don’t know,” he had replied, shrugging off the thought.
“We had a gargantuan task on our hands…” continued the director, “…that
of selecting you five students out of five hundred others who had made it
through the preliminary round. The things which we were looking for while
interviewing the students were, a strong intellectual capability, motivation to
excel in extra curriculars, open mindedness, good communication skills,
commitment to the host family experience, self-responsibilty, self-direction,
maturity and most importantly, the readiness and eagerness for a cross
cultural exchange experience… and you five must feel proud of yourself to
know that you satisfied most, if not all, of these requirements.”

Another applause followed. The five of them beamed and acknowledged it.
One could easily notice all the parents sitting there go proud as peacocks.

“You all have been called here today for a pre-departure orientation session
in which we will brief you on all the information and details which you had
been so curious to know about since the day you received the letter
confirming your selection. This is a historic occasion as yours will be the
first batch of students that we will be sending to Japan and hope, or rather,
are confident that your month long stay will be instrumental in the
development of a mutual respect and understanding between the two
countries.”

More proud beams followed.

“Well, having said so much about the tough selection procedure, I must
mention here the fact that three out of the five students are actually from the
same school – DPS RK Puram. I mean, it just speaks volumes of how great
an institution it is. By the way, did you guys know each other from before?”

“No,” replied Gaurav.

Ashwin and Sumedha verified the claim by shaking their heads in a ‘No’.

Ashwin, Sumedha and Gaurav had been selected for the program and though
all three of them were in the same school, but just due to the sheer size of the
batch of class eleventh, they had not even seen each others’ faces before.

While Ashwin was in section F, Gaurav and Sumedha were in section J and
P respectively, so their classrooms were indeed quite far apart.
“That’s really surprising. Anyways, you better build up a good rapport with
each other now. You’ll need someone to talk to on that mammoth eight hour
flight to Tokyo.”

Ashwin looked at Gaurav and assumed that they would get along well. He
couldn’t say the same with the other three girls.

The director blabbered on for another hour or so, briefing the five students
and their families what all to expect from their month long trip. As a part of
their preparation, they were asked to take Japanese lessons and were also
provided with a book titled – ‘Survival Japanese’.

The next fifteen days saw the five students frantically trying to memorize
whatever of the Japanese language they could muster. Apart from this, they
were also expected to be aware of orthodox Japanese etiquettes, dining
manners and bowing protocols.

“This is insane!” Ashwin would sometimes burst out in the middle of their
lessons. “Why the hell do we need to bow three times before entering a
house? And I won’t eat that raw fish! And why don’t they just use spoons?
And how can they claim that seaweed is a delicacy!”

These were just some of the problems that Ashwin had feared facing when
he would arrive in the Land of the Rising Sun. It was seeming much tougher
than he had imagined.

And then, the day finally dawned when he was to leave his family for a
month and leave for a country four thousand miles away.

The following are some of the entries in his diary while he was away.

Ashwin’s Diary:

18th and 19th January
Arrived at the swanky Narita International Airport at four in the evening on
the 18th. Travel agent came to receive us. Went to the Central Bus Terminal
in the heart of Tokyo in a Limousine Bus or so the Japs preferred to call it.
Took us a whole hour. Saw Disney Land on the way and almost jumped off
the bus if it wasn’t for the ever strict travel agent who was supposed to
ensure our discipline. Observed the great infrastructure of the city on the
way. Reached the bus terminal at six. Ironically, took a taxi from there. YOT
representative accompanied us. Talking about the taxi, with a GPS system
on board, automatic transmission and really really comfortable seats with
ample leg space, it was a sharp contrast to what we have back home where
one considers himself lucky if he manages to just reach the destination safe
and sound. Reached the NATIONAL OLYMPIC YOUTH CENTRE – our
abode for one and a half days – at 7.30 pm. Dinner was over and the
cafeteria was closed. “What the devil’s!”, was our initial reaction as we
were so not used to this kind of situation. “It is only 7.30! I only come back
home after playing at 7.30!” cried Gaurav.

“Well, that is the way it is going to be I’m afraid,” remarked Sumedha,
butting into the conversation.

Got bananas, juice and a shitty apple pie – which tasted more like a brinjal
pie – for dinner. Today saw us opening the packets of Nimki and the various
Khatta Meetha mixtures that our mothers had so considerately stuffed into
our bags because the juice, bananas and pie were inedible. We got our own
rooms – we had room 212 – opened the door and just crashed on the beds.
We then realized that there was another boy in our room too – Paul from the
Phillipines. Exchanged pleasantries. Were not really in a mood to talk, so
asked Paul to switch off the lights and slept.

Tomorrow, Paul woke us up at six in the morning.

“Get up Abhinay,” he exclaimed in typical Filipino accent. “Breakfast is
only from 7 to 8.”

I got up with a start. What with sleeping with a relatively empty stomach last
night, I surely didn’t want to miss today’s breakfast. Had a hearty meal and
then arrived at a classroom where we were supposed to have our
orientation. We were the first ones to arrive so the guy there was really
impressed by us Indians. Waited for half an hour for the Filipinos and
Koreans to arrive. Class started at nine. Learnt stuff about the Japanese
language. Gaurav even got a birthday gift from the YFU people as it was his
birthday yesterday. Studied some more stuff Japanese traditions and
customs and then proceeded for lunch at the cafeteria at twelve. Today’s
menu for the buffet was rice, chicken, fish and some other esoteric dishes.
We were not able to decipher what the other dishes were all about, so just
had some rice, chicken and fish. Some coffee and orange juice supplemented
the main course. Quite pleased with the food and with stomachs full, we
went back to the classroom for the second half of the class. Little did we
know about what was in store for us later on for dinner. Class resumed at
one and we learnt some important Japanese etiquettes – how to bow, when
to bow, why to bow, etcetera. We also told the teacher about Indian food and
culture and also learnt that she had been to India two years back. She
claimed she lived in Cochin – of all the place – for two months with a family
there. Class went on till four and by that time we were mentally drained. It
was break from four to four thirty after that. “There’s more?” I had
exclaimed.

We used this break for emptying our bowels after two whole constipation
ridden days. We had to but two huge two litre mineral water bottles to
enable us to clean our, you know what, because we didn’t want to use paper
which is obviously considered sacred in our country. But we then found out
that two of the cubicles in the sparklingly clean toilet near our room which
had some really cool mechanism fitted on to the pot which could not only
clean, but even dry one’s…… Furthermore, the pot could also be heated! We
surely did have a great time doing our business. Anyway, after answering
nature’s call, and obviously saving those precious two litre bottles which
costed a blood three hundred yen each, we returned to the classroom. As it
was right on the other end of the campus, we were slightly late this time due
to …er… unavoidable circumstances.

When we reached, a guy was addressing all those already present. He gave
us a stern look and asked us to settle down fast. He went on to brief us about
our stay in the country and gave back our passports which he had taken
earlier to get them photocopied. Had dinner as early as five thirty in the
evening… or did we? This time, the buffet table was adorned with beef, beef
and morea beef. We being staunch Hindus, could just walk along the table
turning away in disgust at each passing dish. It was only when the table
ended did we see something that we were allowed to consume – Coffee and
Juice. Yes, that was it. My mother will kill me if she gets to know about this,
but we only had juice and coffee for dinner today. I don’t know, for some
reason, the dinnertime food is just cursed at this place. At least as far as we
are concerned. Trudged back to our room with empty stomachs yet again,
collected our towels and headed straight to the Ofuro, or the public
bathroom. We didn’t have bathrooms in our rooms. This was no Hyatt
regency you see. Unlike the food, the Ofuro was wonderful – warm showers
and a jacuzzi to go with it. After two days of strain and jet lag, soaking up
the warm water felt like heaven. Came back totally fresh and rejuvenated.
Dumped the dirty clothes in our bags and, on the invitation of Paul, headed
straight for the room which housed Paul’s friends – four Filipino girls who
were also part of this program and had come with Paul.

“YES!” was our immediate reaction after hearing about the invitation.

So, all the Indians (even the girls joined us) and the Filipinos chatted for an
hour or so and told each other about ourselves and our country. We then
proceeded to take a walk around the whole circumference of the campus
which was more than a couple of kilometres long. The Filipinos had the
Nimki which I had brought along and they loved it. Threatened to finish up
the whole packet but didn’t when I told them this could be my only means of
survival if I get to encounter more food like the disastrous dinner we got
today. Explored the whole campus during the walk. Walked for an hour, took
some pictures and then retired to our rooms.

Looking forward to tomorrow.

20th January

Paul woke us up once again at six in the morning. Took half an hour for us
to get out of bed and another thirty minutes to dress up – in a hurry.
Somehow managed to brush and change by seven and rushed to the
cafeteria only to find that it was desolate. Confused, we then walked the
whole way back to our block, braving the chilly winds and knocked on the
door of the room where the YFU representatives were staying to ask what
was going on and why hadn’t the cafeteria opened till now.
“Did we miss the breakfast?” asked Gaurav, nervously.
They told us that today being a Saturday, the cafeteria would open only at
eight. Cursing ourselves for not hearing the announcements carefully, we
went to the common room and switched on the television. Saw Powerpuff
Girls 2 – in Japanese – and killed half an hour. Decided to sleep for the
remaining half an hour in the room. Obviously, we overslept and reached
the cafeteria at nine. Had breakfast – noodles and sausages – in a hurry as
we had then found out that the final orientation class for today had already
started at nine. Reached ten minutes late to the class, yet again. Formally
apologised to the teacher, who didn’t seem to mind us coming late, and
joined the group. We did a short speech as to how to introduce ourselves in
Japanese and spoke it in front of the whole gathering. Class went on till
twelve. Had lunch till one. We then boarded this really swanky bus for our
Tokyo cultural tour. Left the youth center at one fifteen for the tour. First
visited the Imperial Palace. Although we were not permitted to go inside, we
managed to get a decent enough glimpse of the palace and the surrounding
majestic guard towers. Stopped there for fifteen minutes and then proceeded
to the EDO-TOKYO museum. It was a great place equipped with all the
facilites that a museum should have and which none of the museums back
home have. We observed all sorts of artefacts and models of ancient and
medieval Japanese civilization. Went around the museum for an hour and
then walked to the SUMO WRESTLING ARENA which was just at a walking
distance. Tickets were sold out so we just waited outside for the wrestlers to
come out of the arena and get a glimpse. So much so for a glimpse, we even
managed to get hold of some and take pictures with them. Went back to the
bus and proceeded to a very famous Japanese shrine located nearby. When
we reached there, we learnt that it was designed by an Indian architect in
the sixteenth century and thus it somewhat resembled the Indian temples.
Prayed there for a while. The temple also had a market attached to it, so we
were given twenty minutes time to do all the shopping we wanted. Boarded
the bus at six and reached HEART INN HOTEL by seven. We were checked
in there for the night. Had a nice dinner and went off to sleep.

21st January

There was no Paul to wake us up today, so Gaurav and me (we were sharing
the room) overslept once again only to be woken up by the one of the
Filipino girls. We had to leave for our respective host families today. We
finally managed to get up thirty minutes before our departure time and
packed our bags and got ready in a hurry, yet again. Quickly went down for
breakfast but the waiter there asked for a meal ticket which we had
supposedly received along with the keys after we checked last night. Rushed
back to the room, searched the whole place inside out and finally found that
little piece of paper nicely tucked away behind the TV. Cursing ourselves for
being so carelees, hurried back downstairs to the restaurant only to be
greeted by the most horrible I had ever tasted. It was as bad as the dinner
was good yesterday. Tried very hard but was unable to figure out what was
what. There was this black liquid in a small cup which I instinctively
presumed to be coffee and poured out all of it into my cup. Mixed it with
some milk and very eagerly, had a sip.
“Brakhhhh!!!” Spitted it as eagerly as I took it. To start with, that darned
black stuff was not coffee but some sauce which I was supposed to decorate
my soup with and that white powder which I had concluded to be milk
powder was something which tasted like anything but milk. I still haven’t
figured what that freakish thing was. Ultimately, I only had two spoons of
plain rice – which obviously tasted horrible as well – and left the table. On
the other hand, Gaurav – a ‘I-can-eat-anything’ monster – slurped on the
food as if he hadn’t any since ages. With a disdainful look towards him, I
exited the hotel and went down to the local departmental store and bought
some chips and ice-cream. Tried to fill my stomach with these snacks and
returned to the hotel to find that everyone had gathered in the lobby, all set
to leave with their huge bags by their sides.

“Oh! Not again!” I exclaimed and ran upstairs (the darned lift was taking
ages to arrive) to get my bag from the room. Returned in a few minutes and
apologized to everyone for delaying proceedings.

“Where had you been?” irritatedly asked Sumedha. “We had been waiting
for you since ages!”

I opened my mouth to exlpain but then realized that the receptionist and
quite a few Japanese were within hearing distance, so I refrained from
narrating my horrible terrible experience and pointing out that these people
should label whatever stuff they keep on the table to make matters easier for
people like us.

Some people had to go by air, some by train and others were to be picked up
by their host families from the hotel itself. Boarded the bus which would take
me to the airport, bid everyone goodbye and proceeded towards the airport.
Gaurav, Sumedha, Paul, some Koreans and I had to board our fights for our
respective destinations from the same terminal so we stuck together.
Explored the huge Tokyo Haneda airport and bought some gifts for family
and friends back home. Then it was time for my flight to depart and I left the
group after a warm goodbye and walked towards the boarding area. I was
flying ‘ALL NIPPON AIRWAYS’ (flight number ANA-23, to be precise). I had
a window seat and there were no passengers sitting on the two seats beside
me – yeah, this did make me doubt this airline’s crediblity – so I was
completely at ease… or so I thought. The whole one hour flight from Tokyo
to Kobe was as if the plane was an old Ford, devoid of any shockers, and
was driving as if it was the Dakar Rally! The coke that I had so politely been
handed over by the pretty air-hostess just refused to enter my mouth and
kept getting attracted to my lovely T-shirt and jeans instead.

After I landed in Osaka, a part of my jeans had gone so wet that it made the
people passing by me doubt the threshold strength of my bladder. To add to
the misery, I had to wait for twenty minutes for my luggage to arrive – quite
like in India but not very common here though – due to some glitch in the
conveyor belt. And quite unlike India, the guys fixed up the problem in no
time and the belt was up and running again. So finally after collecting my
twenty kilo luggage, (or so the airlines claim to be the maximum limit
allowed) I headed towards the arrival lounge. Yet again, unlike back home,
there was no pandemonium prevailing outside as I had expected, with
people pushing, pulling and stepping over people to get the favourable
position beside the railings so that the ones whom they had come to receive,
could see their stupid faces. Instead, as soon as I exited the baggage claim
area, I could instantly spot a lady holding a placard with my name written
across it.

‘ABHINAY. WELCOME TO KOBE!’ it read.

Soon realizing that she was the one, I quickened my pace and walked
towards her, trying as hard as possible to get the luggage trolley to match
my pace. Her face also lit up when she saw me coming towards her and her
smile could not have been broader.

“Konnichiwa,” I said. “Watashi wa Abhinay desu.” I bowed exactly the way
we had been instructed. She bowed back in reply.
“Oh! I am so happy on seeing you!” she remarked, most enthusiastically.
“We have been looking forward to your visit.”

I was a little stumped at the prowess of her spoken English but the accent
required quite a bit of discerning. “Yes, I am also very excited about my stay
with your family.”

Then, as she was about to ask me the next question, probably about how my
flight was, thankfully, a pretty lass, just about my height with brown hair
and a beautiful face, walked up to us and smiled at me. Initially, I was taken
aback, flattered at having been smiled at by this lovely looking female.

“Hi!” she said in the same typical accent. “You must be Abhinay.”

I nodded, obviously at a loss for words.

“Hi Abhinay. I am Yoko, your host sister.”

I seriously didn’t know what to say. I mean, what more could have I asked
for. I managed to stutter a reply though, “Hi!” I replied. “Oops...
Konnichiwa.”

“Ah… it’s OK. You don’t need to be formal with us. We are your family!”

I nodded with a smile.

“OK, come on. Let us proceed to the car,” said my host mother. “You must
be pretty tired.”

The drive from Osaka to Kobe took one hour. Talked throughout the drive
and they got to know my likes and dislikes, especially concerning food,
considering how finicky I am in that matter. They told me that my other host
sister, who was younger than the one sitting in front of me, was at home
preparing for an exam that she has tomorrow, and had thus, not come to the
airport. My host father, despite today being a Sunday, had gone to the office
and would return only in the evening.

Also saw my school on the way – KONAN BOYS HIGH SCHOOL (yes, Boys
high school, darn!)– that I had to attend all the while I was here. Reached
home to be greeted my the elder host sister – Shoko, who was also very
pleased on seeing me, and as soon as I entered the drawing room, the two
dogs of the family – Moko (I wonder what’s with the ‘KO’ – Yoko, Shoko and
now Moko) and Moya leapt upon me as if I was a cat.

Talked with Yoko saan (In Japanese culture, one is supposed to put the suffix
saan while addressing anyone who is elder to him/her), Shoko saan and
Okasaan (‘Mother’ in Japanese) for an hour after which Otosaan (Host
father) arrived from work. After he freshened up and changed, all of us sat
together on the dinner table and chatted for a long time while Okasaan
served Rice and Chicken – which was absolutely delicious – for dinner. Had
the lovely dinner (baan-gohan), talked with them some more and finally
retired to the lovely room that I had been given, at nine.

22nd January

Alarm rang at six thirty. As usual, I snoozed it and myself did the same.
Finally managed to open my eyes at about eight thirty. Brushed, changed
and went down for breakfast. Shoko saan and Otosaan had already left for
work. Yoko saan was still sleeping so I didn’t feel embarrassed as I was not
the last one to wake up. Had bread, eggs and coffee (kohi, as they call it) for
breakfast. Surfed the net for an hour – had nothing much to do really – and
e-mailed my family back home. Till then, Yoko saan had also woken up and
and was ready to leave for her university. Wished her a good day and went
up to have a bath. Okasaan invited me to go shopping with her, to which I
readily agreed as I was only getting bored all alone in my room. School
would start from day after so I needed something to engage myself with in
the meantime, and shopping didn’t seem a bad idea after all. So we went to
this place called ‘Sunshine Wharf’ from where one could get a beautiful
view of the Inland Sea, which is a part of the Pacific Ocean separating the
main island of Honshu with the relatively smaller island of Shikoku. There
was a huge electronic shop inside one of the malls there. Okasaan had some
work there so she asked me to look around for a while.
“In an electronics shop in Japan, a PS 3 or a Nintendo Wii couldn’t be far
away,” I concluded, and sure enough, at once, I found a PS 3, a Nintendo
Wii and an Xbox 360 lined up together on a stand for the customers to play
on and enjoy. I couldn’t have asked for more. Freaked out on the consoles
for quite a while before Okasaan finally found me tucked away in that
labyrinth of alleys bustling with electronic stuff, enthusiastically pressing
button after button to get that winning goal against Argentina.

She smiled before adding, “Come on Abhinay. We have to leave. You must be
feeling hungry now. It is already twelve thirty.”

Initially I wanted to tell her that I usually didn’t have my lunch till about
three, but then I spotted a McDonald’s right outside the store and decided
against it. Wanting to test my Japanese speaking prowess, she gave me the
responsibilty of placing the order. So then there I was, trying my best to
explain to the girl at the counter what a ‘milk shake’ and a ‘chicken burger’
is like before some clever fellow from the kitchen promptly gave me a menu
written in English.

“Arigato Gozaimaas,” I replied to him and then let my fingers do the
explanation as I pointed out the items that I wanted from the menu.

“Aahh…!” exclaimed the girl as she finally realized what I was trying to
explain to her all this while and couldn’t stop a huge grin from spreading
across her face. She quickly did the billing and handed me the burgers and
shakes.
We finished our meal and then roamed around in the malls for a while.
Window shopped and then returned to the parking area. By the time we
exited the parking lot, it started raining heavily. Boy, then the real fun
began. As she had kept some clothes out for drying in the balcony, not
wanting to let the darned rain negate all the hard work she put in this
morning washing those clothes, Okasaan floored the accelerator pedal and
let the car whiz past the heavy afternoon traffic. I could do little than close
my eyes and recite the Hanuman Chalisa, pleading with the almighty to not
let me die in a foreign land. But thankfully, we reached home safe and
sound… and shaken (well, at least I was). Went to my room and let myself
calm down a bit. When I had recollected myself, I went down to the drawing
room and switched on the TV. Okasaan, in the meanwhile, cursing the rain,
stood behind me, ironing clothes which had remained relatively dry, being
placed under the shade of the balcony.

By then, Shoko saan and Otosaan returned from work and we had dinner
together. I showed them some photographs which I had brought along with
me. They loved it and were quite amused by the clothes that women wear in
India. Okasaan said she wanted a saree for herself and admonished me for
not bringing one for her. We waited for Yoko saan as she returns home only
by ten thirty in the night. She attends two universities – one in the afternoon
and another in the evening. Talk about being dilligent and working hard!
Talked with her for a while after she came and then switched on the
computer to check if anyone of my friends or family members were online or
not. Found dad online and chatted with him. Reassured him that all was
well here and the food was great, except for a few mishaps.

Retired to the room at eleven thirty.

23rd January

Alarm rang at six thirty. No need to specify what followed. But, to my
surprise, I woke up as early as seven thirty. Brushed, changed and went
down for breakfast. Had sandwiches and a hot cup of coffee. Did nothing for
an hour. Till then, everyone had left for work and only Okasaan and I
remained in the house. She had her breakfast and insisted that I have more
sandwiches along with her. Not wanting to disappoint her, I agreed and had
another of the lovely sandwiches that she had made. My original mother
back home would be really happy when I tell her this. Food had been one of
her paramount concerns initially but I am sure that will not be the case
when I tell about the wonderful stuff that my host mother makes. Maybe she
could even draw inspiration and do more as far as her culinary skills are
concerned.

She then informed me that today, we were to visit my school and do all the
official paperwork that was required before I joined it as an international
exchange student. I was quite eager to visit my school so I went back to my
room and put on some better clothes. We left home at twelve ten and caught
the twelve twelve bus from the bus stop nearby. The bus was right on time –
precisely at twelve minutes past twelve – characteristic of the trademark
punctuality that the Japanese are famous for. Reached a place called
Motoyama in about fifteen minutes and walked to the nearby Otakomo
metro station. Bought two tickets to Ashiya Gawa – the locality in which my
school was located. I had expected my school to be somewhere near the
metro station but was astonished when after de-boarding, I learnt that we
had to walk two and a half kilometres uphill to reach the school. There was
a bus service which linked the station with the school, but the Japs are very
particular about walking and always prefer to walk rather than use any
means of transport. Two and a half kilometres is kid stuff even for the elderly
there. The prospect of walking a bloody two and a half kilometres uphill
shocked me, but it was quite normal for Okasaan. We started for my school
on the road which turned almost vertical at some places. I could only watch
the buses which rolled by, longly while I trudged along, lagging way behind
Okasaan. My humiliation finally ended when we reached school at one
fifteen. Waited at the gate for the YFU representative to arrive. She arrived
about ten minutes later in a Porsche. Once again, I found myself gazing
longly at the superb machine as it stopped, allowed one of its occupants to
disembark, reversed and whizzed back down the steep road.

The lady then led us to the staff room where she introduced us to the Head of
the International Exchange Committee, Mrs. Junko Sawabu. Yeah, they had
a separate committee solely to look after the International Exchange
students. Looks like they have quite a few each year. She talked with
Okasaan for a while, all of which seemed blatherskite to me as I couldn’t
understand a word.

After this conversation, I founf myself being led to the Prinicpal’s office on
the first floor. The principal seemed very happy on seeing me and told us
that I was special as they hadn’t had an Indian exchange student in this
school ever. So, he said he would make sure that I be taken good care of for
as long as I was here. Sawabu sensei (or so I was supposed to call her.
Sensei is for teacher) then got a bag full of uniforms and asked me to select
one which fitted me the best. The uniform – Navy blue pants and a navy blue
jacket – didn’t quite please me, but nevertheless, I tried some of the sizes
and finally zeroed in on one which seemed to fit me the best. I could wear
any shirt inside the jacket, but obviously, that shouldn’t be visible, as
Sawabu sensei so strictly specified.

“You should make sure that your jacket is buttoned up to your neck,” she
warned. “That way, your shirt won’t be visible.”

I nodded and promised – obviously to be broken afterwards – that I would
do only as she instructed.
She smiled back and concluded that the school had a very disciplined and
sincere Indian student to look forward to.
*Ahem…*

Anyway, I smiled back and reassured her assumption.

After doing all the official paperwork, we left for the station at four and
reached home by five. Whiled away time and waited for the others to arrive
from work. Had a sumptuous dinner and talked about Indian religions over
it. They were quite flabbergasted to know that we had over a thousand gods
in India and as many religions, sub-religions and sub-sub-religions. Surfed
the net for some time and slept at nine.

24th January

Alarm rang at six thirty. Today, I had no option but to get up as I had to go
to school. Couldn’t afford the luxury of snoozing the alarm. Enthusiastic and
looking forward to the day, I got up and brushed. Tidied up my room as by
now, I had realized that courtesy demanded it. Changed into my school
uniform and went down to the dining table, excitement oozing from my face.
Okasaan, just like mom, identified it at once and was very excited herself.
She wished me luck and served me breakfast. Coffee and a pork stuffed bun.
It was wonderful, quite like the day I was going to have in school. Otosaan
also usually left for work at this time and as we had to travel by the same
bus, we left home together and went to the bus stop to catch the seven twenty
three bus. The bus arrived exactly on schedule, not a minute adrift. This
somewhat intimidated me and I started to feel slightly nervous. I mean how
could a laggard like me, who didn’t know the P of Punctuality, survive in
this land of ever punctual people…and that too for a whole month.

The bus was relatively devoid of passengers when we boarded but soon got
jampacked after the next few steps. But thankfully, we had managed to
acquire a seat for ourselves.

We deboarded at Motoyama, same place where I deboarded yesterday.
Otosaan had to catch a metro from a different line, JR line, while I had to
catch mine from the Hankyu line. So we bid goodbye to each other and went
opposite ways to our respective stations. I walked to Okamoto metro station
as yesterday.
One thing that I clearly noticed here is that though the Kobe metro runs
faster, it is no match to the Delhi metro which has a far better infrastucture
than this.

Reached Ashiya Gawa station and got down there, as I was instructed.
There, I found a boy named Shishi Hara waiting for me at the exit.
Apparently, he was given the responsibilty to escort me to the school as the
route from the station to the school was extremely discombobulating. Met
his friends and we merrily walked together towards school discussing
football on the way. Reached school in twenty minutes and was led to my
new classroom. Shishi was also in my section. Everyone in the class was
very happy to see me. Most of them had never seen an Indian before so all of
them were very friendly and were eager to know more about me.
In fact, they almost started to fight amongst themselves, as to who will get to
sit next to me. There were still ten minutes to go for the first period so I
introduced myself to everyone and also got to know my new classmates
during that time.

First period was Oral Communication, which is basically all about spoken
English. I was expecting some heavy duty English stuff being taught during
this period, but was amazed to find out that they were actually doing things
which we had learnt in class one. Every OC class, the teacher introduces
five new words and the students listen to tapes containing dialogues which
use these words. Today’s words were reliable, intelligent, voice, professional
and interview.

I could not help but scoff at the list.

After a while, noticing that I was looking quite bored, the teacher asked me
to come forward and formally introduce myself. I agreed and did the same.
Then he asked me to recite some blonde jokes as he, like me, also loathed
blondes. When I told them that I knew Hindi and Sanskrit, he asked me to
say and write something for them in both the languages. They gave me
sentences and I translated them. They found it really funny as some of the
Hindi words had alternate meanings in Japanese. In the next two periods, I
had to attend special Japanese lessons. These lessons were specially meant
for foreign exchange students to help them with their Japanese. There, I met
two more international students, Henrique from Brazil and Andrew from
New Zealand. I introduced myself to both of them who had been here for the
past six months. The teacher soon arrived and we studied a bit of basic
Japanese for two periods.
Had computer lab next. Went to the lab and was assigned a terminal by the
teacher. The students were being taught MS Word and as there was free
internet access on the computers, I surreptitiously started to surf the net. But
the teacher soon came around and caught me. I explained that students in
India are taught MS Office way back in sixth standard and so all that he was
teaching was pretty boring to me. He was quite impressed to learn that in
this standard, we were being taught C++ in school so he allowed me to
carry on. Later I found out from one of the students, that he didn’t know
C++ himself.

“Oh!” I had exclaimed. “So that’s why he was so lenient.”

Bell rang at twelve and yeah, it was lunchtime. Accompanied some of my
newly made friends to the cafeteria and had chinese noodles (Raamen) for
lunch. The break carried on for fourty five minutes, quite unlike my school
where the recess gets over before you can say “Yummy” after seeing the
contents of your lunch box!

Had history lessons after lunch. Though they were studying Indian history,
but as all of it was in Japanese, I slept through the class. Woke up with the
bell and was told by one of my classmates that we had to go to the
auditorium to attend a presentation there. Reached the auditorium and
found some Japanese guy talking about something. Occupied a seat and
slept through this too. After about half an hour, I heard my name being
called out. I woke up with a start and learnt that the principal was now on
the stage and was asking me to come on to the stage and give a self
introduction to all those who were present in the hall, almost the whole
school really. As I walked towards the stage, I quickly revised the self
introduction speech that I was taught in the orientation classes. Managed to
remember it all and recited the whole of it in Japanese.
Judging by the amount of applause I received, I thought I managed to speak
quite well.

Well, my first day of school ended after this and I walked back to Ashiya
Gawa station with some of my friends. Reached home at five and changed.
Watched TV and surfed the net. E-mailed home. At dinner, I gave everyone
Nimki to eat. They loved it, in fact, gorged on it. Talked about Indian stuff
for some time over dinner and narrated today’s experience of my first day at
school. Everyone was very happy that I had made so many friends on the
first day itself and was going along well with everyone.

For a change, went to sleep early today.

27th January

Saturday. Fourth, that too, so today was a holiday for everyone. I didn’t
need to get up early but still I woke up at eight thirty. Freshened up and had
a mini pizza for breakfast. This was the first non-Japanese food I had for
ages, so I gorged on it and returned to my room. Continued with my novel
that I had issued from my school library, my school in India that is. Yeah, the
due date is now two more than two weeks past. Anyway, read it for an hour
and then decided to take a bath. The hot shower really eliminated whatever
sleep was left within me and I emerged from the bathroom all refreshed.
Changed and went downstairs to watch TV. It was twelve in no time and
lunch was served. Finished my lunch and went back to the couch to watch
some football match that was going on. But just as I sat down, Otosaan
came down from his room and announced that we were going for a short
Kobe sight seeing tour, right now. Completely took me by surprise. I think it
was really very sweet of him to decide to take me to a sight-seeing tour. This
shows just how considerate and thoughtful my host family was.

I quickly changed into some good clothes and got ready. Otosaan, Okasaan,
Shoko saan and me got ready to leave. Yoko saan had a test tomorrow so she
had to stay back in the house and study. Hard luck for her I guess.

Our first stop was the AKASHI-KAIKYO bridge. It is the longest suspension
bridge in the world, spanning almost four kilometres in length. It connects
the city of Kobe to Akashi island. First, we stopped at a distance below the
bridge at a place called Okura coast from where we could get a clear view
of the whole bridge. Took some photographs and admired the structure. It
was very cold and windy so we made it fast and rushed back to the car. We
then went drove to the bridge and bought tickets for entering it. There is a
provision of walking a certain distance on the bridge in a specially
designated area for the general public and tourists who don’t want to cross
the bridge (which carries a toll of bloody two thousand yen) but want to
experience it. The walkway is below the actual road on which the vehicles
move and is surrounded by glass walls at some places and just by a wire
mesh at other parts. There are a few places where a section of the floor
beneath is made of glass panels and so one can actually see the sea beneath,
crashing against the pillars of the bridge. It’s kinda scary to watch you
know. Even more scary to stand on that glass. Feels like we are walking on
the water itself. Had a great time on the bridge and then went back to the
parking lot.

Pulled out of the parking area and headed towards Port Island. Took us
thirty minutes. Saw some great Harleys, Porsches, BMWs and even
Lamborghinis on the way. Port Island has a lot of universities and ship
container godowns. I could spot the containers of many known companies
stacked up at the port – Honda, Kawasaki, Seiko and many more. The island
was earlier used solely as a port but as Kobe city expanded, more and more
residential and commercial establishments sprung up and the port was
shifted to another place. After seeing around Port Island for a while, we
proceeded towards Kobe Airport which had opened just last year and is
literally floating on a man made island! It is connected with the main city
though a long bridge and a monorail. As the airport has just recently began
its operations, not many flights land here, and that’s why even I landed in
Osaka rather than Kobe. Nevertheless, the airport was beautiful. We went
inside it and shopped from some of the shops there. Also went to the
observation area and saw a few planes take off and land.

We left the place at around five and on the way back to the Kobe mainland,
stopped at the KOBE PORT TOWER, which, to Kobe, is quite like what
Gateway of India is to Mumbai, a well known symbol of the city. The place
also had a marine museum and a huge hotel nearby. People refer to this
place as MERIKEN PARK – from the American ships carrying wheat and
other food stuff that docked here decades ago. After clicking some pictures,
we visited China Town. I was quite amused at the concept of having a
CHINA town in Japan. Maybe it was just one of the many attempts aimed at
developing healthy relations between these two nations.

It was nearby, so it took hardly ten minutes for us to get there. This place
was full of Chinese restaurants and small shops selling all sorts of Chinese
delicacies. We looked around and everyone had something to eat. I chose ice
cream, which I considered to be relatively safer to eat than all the weird
preparations that were on display in every shop that we passed by. We were
on our way back when Otosaan suggested that we have dinner here only. So
we entered a typical Chinese restaurant and they ordered something which I
couldn’t understand. The restaurant guys didn’t have a menu in English so I
had no option but to trust the tastes of my host family members. The dinner
arrived very quickly and I had bits of everything that were on the table.
Couldn’t figure out what was what, but they tasted good so everything else
was secondary. I don’t know what kind of meal they ordered because the
dishes just kept on coming. As soon as we finished one dish, the waitress
would promptly pick up the empty container and replace it with a new one
containing a new preparation. This went on for five six times after which
they finally stopped. Everyone, without a doubt, ate to their stomach’s full.

After having such a heavy dinner, everyone started feeling very lazy and
decided to return home. Stopped at a McDonald’s outlet on the way and
bought something for Yoko saan. I couldn’t resist the temptation of having a
milk shake, so I got myself a small vanilla shake. We reached home at seven
and found that one of Yoko saan’s friends was also there. Yoko saan had
asked her to come over to give her company while we were out. Met her and
chatted with her for about ten minutes. Then went to my room and read the
book for some time. Cleaned up my room and put all the clothes that were
strewn all over, at their right places. Then I rememberd that I had to transfer
the photos from my camera memory card – which had reached its maximum
capacity, two hundred thirty odd photos along with a few short videos – to
the pen drive that I had brought along with me specifically for this purpose.
Put the thing on the computer and while it copied, saw the news with
Otosaan in the meantime. Sitting behind us, the girls were gossiping and
talking some girly stuff, considering that all of them were giggling in that
trademark girly style.

The computer did the job in a few minutes and I also got updated on the
latest news in the meantime. Thanked everyone for the lovely trip today and
went back to my room. There was nothing else to do, so put on some music
on the CD player kept in my room and slept.

1st February

Day fourteen. I didn’t feel like getting up and going to school today, but then
realized that I’ll miss all the fun at school if I don’t go, so woke up and got
ready. Had bread and eggs for breakfast and a huge mug of coffee along
with it. Otosaan and me left home together. It was very cold today. Chilly
winds were blowing right into our faces as we walked along to the bus stop.

Reached school at eight thirty and by then, all my exposed body parts had
gone absolutely numb. Took fifteen more minutes for me to regain feeling in
those parts. First period was Japanese. The tall teacher gave me a sheet
with the Japanese national anthem along with its history and meaning
written on it. He also asked me to write the lyrics and meaning of the Indian
national anthem on another paper and submit it to him at the end of the
period. I obeyed and spent the whole period trying to decipher the meaning
of the anthem. Managed to figure out the major portion of it and wrote it all
out, caring little about whether he would be able to understand what
Punjab, Sindh, Gujarat, Maratha, etcetera actually are.

Next period was Mathematics, which is the by far, my favourite of all the
periods in my time table. The teacher took a small ten minute test today
before he started to teach. I managed to finish it in like two minutes. The test
was all about basic quadratic equations, all of which I had already studied
back in ninth standard, so it wasn’t much of a problem for me. The teacher
was hell impressed by my quick work and just to make sure whether I had
done the questions correctly or not, quickly checked the paper and learnt
that all the answers were perfectly correct. He couldn’t help but shower
kudos on me for this amazing job. I, on the other hand, decided to bask in
the glory and didn’t feel necessary to inform him that I had already done all
of this two years back. After the test, the teacher carried on with the chapter
and also specially translated all the important points that he spoke, into
English, just so that I could understand. Llittle did he know that I already
knew whatever he was talking about. Nevertheless, it was very kind and
thoughtful of him to do so.

In the computer lab period that followed Math, I once again surfed the net
and showed the website of my school to some of my classmates. They were
really impressed on seeing the great infrastructure that we have. Even the
computer teacher joined in the praise and said that he would have loved to
teach in a school like ours. But I don’t think he would have been recruited in
our school, considering that his knowledge was just limited to MS Office,
which even the juniormost students of our school have mastered.
Had something called Udon in lunch today. Couldn’t figure what it was
actually but it looked more or less like noodles.
In the chemistry lab in the next two periods, we did the same pH experiment
that I had done… I don’t know…way back in seventh standard I guess. I
sometimes wonder how they are so technologically advanced when their
school curriculum is so bloody slow. So, eventually got bored in these two
periods as I had completed my experiment in hardly five minutes. Was just
helping others – who, for some reason, could never get the color of their pH
paper to change – during the rest of the two periods.

As the bell rang for the last period of the day, a feeling of dread filled in all
the students’ hearts which was clearly perceptible from the look on their
faces. Someone told me that it was the P.E. period. I was quite surprised and
couldn’t figure out why the P.E. period – which is associated with totally
different feelings usually – is something which is dreaded by all the students
here. But I soon found out why. Every Thursday, like today, in the P.E.
period, all the students are supposed to take part in a freaking fifteen
hundred metre race amongst themselves. At first, I thought that running
fifteen hundred kilometres was not that big a task, but after my classmates so
vividly described the experience, I started to doubt my confidence. When we
reached the field, the evr strict coach, quickly made us stand together in a
single file and made us do some initial warm-up exercises. This was
followed by a thousand metre jog. Yes, this was in addition to the fifteen
hundred that was coming up.
He soon flagged off the race and I started on my journey of completing eight
whole rounds of the huge field that spread around me. Though I didn’t
manage to win the race, or even be in the top five or something, I was more
than glad that I had actually finished the course and just crashed on to the
ground after the run was finally completed. But the pain wasn’t over yet. As
a part of the post-run exercise, that ruthless, insensitive coach had more
torture in store for us. He actually made us do some more exercises and
asked us to jog another round of the field, which he claimed, was essential
to give the final touch to today’s exercise regimen.

“To hell with the final touch,” was all I could mutter under my breath as I
plodded along for another round of the field which seemed to get bigger
after each round I ran.

The torment finally ended with the bell and I somehow managed to limp
back to Ashiya Gawa station. I had thought of exploring the market near the
bus stop today but dropped the idea as my legs barely managed to somehow
drag me along to the stop.

Reached home at four thirty and just crashed on the sofa. Stayed put for an
hour and watched TV. Decided to have a hot shower after this to freshen up.
Emerged completely rejuvenated from the shower and went to my room to
complete the Math homework. Was done and dusted away with within ten
minutes. Went down and talked stuff with Yoko saan. She was free today as
her exams had finished yesterday. Watched some tennis while having dinner
with her. Got slightly irritated hearing her go ga-ga over Andy Roddick. Let
myself get distracted by the lovely food that lay before me. After dinner,
shared chocolates which I had bought yesterday, with everyone. Had some
pudding too, which Okasaan had bought specially for me from the market
after I had mentioned to her how I loved puddings. Otosaan arrived by then.
Talked with him for some time and then went back to my room. Put on some
music and ultimately dozed off.

3rd February

Day sixteen. Saturday. Surprised myself by waking up at eight thirty. Only
Okasaan was up and everyone else was sleeping, so it was quite an
achievement on my part you see. Went to the bathroom and brushed as
quietly as I could, careful not to let any sound emanate out from the
bathroom and into the three rooms nearby in which Yoko saan, Shoko saan
and Otosaan were sleeping. Changed and went down for breakfast. Had
bread and eggs and coffee. Washed my dirty clothes in the washing machine
after eating. Had nothing to do after this, so helped Okasaan with the
dishes. It was a great relief to her as she absolutely hated to clean the
dishes. So, I managed to create quite a good impression on her.

Over the job, she told me that today, one of her friends would take me to a
SAKE factory and museum where I would be shown how traditional
Japanese Sake is made. Sake is basically a wine which is made from
fermenting rice under special conditions. It is a trademark preparation of
Japan and is widely known for its distinctive flavor. She told me that I had to
get ready by one.
I was quite excited at the prospect of seeing how Sake is made.
“Who knows, I may even get a chance to taste some of it,” I thought as I
dried that final plate and stacked it along with the others on the rack.

Today, some Japanese people observed a festival called SETSUBUN. It is
not a major festival and though my host family didn’t used to celebrate it, as
I was very curious about it, they decided to observe it this year just to show
me how it is done. In this, the youngest member of the family is supposed to
throw soya beans outside the house, maybe in the balcony, to frighten the
devil away and usher in happiness into the house. Shoko saan had bought
some beans and a devil mask yesterday for the festival. Otosaan wore the
mask and pretended to be the devil. As I was the youngest member of the
family, I had to throw beans at him as many times as my age. So I threw
beans at him seventeen times and he, quite sportingly, took each blow and
acted as if he was scared and even ran out into the balcony after the final
throw of beans, trying to symbolize the devil fleeing from the house. I must
admit, it was fun doing all this.

After the celebrations, Okasaan laid out the traditional lunch that is eaten
on this day – Sushi, which is basically raw fish wrapped in rice and
seaweed. As I was not too excited at the prospect of eating crude fish,
Okasaan had very considerately replaced the fish from some of the sushi
rolls with chicken or pork. Had lunch and then Okasaan dropped me to the
metro station (Hankyu Mikage) where I was supposed to meet that lady.
Reached to find that she was already there, so I quickly got down from the
car and walked upto her. Okasaan introduced me to her and as is expected
when two ladies meet, both of them gossiped for a while before we entered
the metro.

We first went to an International Students Center where she works as a
teacher and from where, more university students would be joining us for
this tour. There were twenty eight students in all. Waited there for fifteen
minutes for all the students to arrive and then proceeded towards the metro
station to catch a train to the Sake factory. On the way, talked to some of the
students from El Salvador, Iran, Germany and Korea. Talk about an ecleteic
bunch!

Reached the destination in ten minutes and walked to the factory..... and
nearly two kilometres at that. I told you the Japs are very fond of walking.
Reached the factory and had a look around at the museum part of the
factory. There were all sorts of tools and equipments on display which were
traditionally used to make sake. Now, of course, with the advent of
machines, none of these equipments have any worth left. After looking
around for twenty minutes, we proceeded towards an area where we could
taste freshly prepared sake. I was quite excited at this and was the first one
to leave the museum and proceed towards the area. There were many small
glasses with sake kept on a table. Everyone tried it and loved the taste. Some
of them actually gulped down five to six glasses. More of drinking rather
than tasting. I, very modestly, just took one sip. Actually, that was more than
enough for me, considering how strong the drink was. There were sake
bottles on sale too. I bought one for thirteen hundred yen to take as a
souvenir. I had not bought any traditional Japanese stuff till now, so thought
that this would be a nice thing to take back home. After everyone had tasted,
or rather, drunk the sake, we headed for another factory, which was
supposedly nearby, where we would actually get to see how sake is made
nowadays with the help of machines. We walked again for what seemed like
four long kilometres. And to add to it, we even managed to lose our way in
the middle, and had to walk a mile more to get back on track.

Well, we finally managed to reach the factory after about fourty minutes of
walking and were very warmly greeted by the factory manager there. He
took us inside and showed how the different machines worked to produce the
best – or so he claimed – sake in Japan. It was quite a complex procedure
so I didn’t understand much of it. All I could figure out was that it is made
by fermenting rice with some yeast and it takes approximately two months
for the whole thing to take place. It is then kept for six more months inside a
huge barrel with some weights over it to maintain the exact pressure needed
for the mixture to mature. After learning all about sake production, we were
invited to taste some of the sake of this factory. I did not try it this time. They
even gave some sort of soup to everyone which was made of some by-
product of the sake formation process. It was not exactly alcoholic as it was
made of the unfermented part, so I decided to try it. It was delicious. Having
hot soup in that chilly weather felt like heaven. After drinking soup and
sake, some of the students, who had not bought sake bottles from the
previous factory, got their common sense working and bought some from
here.

After thanking the manager, everyone left the factory and walked back to the
metro station to go back to their International Student Center. As I had come
with Okasaan’s friend, who was also a staff member and one of the
organizers of this trip, I also stayed back along with her and the other
teachers while they made the payment etcetera. I started talking with the
manager and learnt that he had some Indian friends in Kobe Steel Company.
They were younger than him and usually came over every weekend or
holiday to have some sake with him. He asked me how was I not feeling the
cold when he saw that I was wearing just a single jacket. Today was
particularly chilly and according to him, one jacket was not enough to
protect myself from the cold. I insisted that I was all right and at complete
ease but he refused to listen to me and went inside his room to get an extra
jacket and a muffler for me. He had many of them so he got one each from
inside and handed it over to me to wear. He said that it would remind me of
him. Though I didn’t really wanted that extra jacket and muffler, it was still
very thoughtful of him to give them to me. Apparently, he was very fond of
Indians and so he showed an inclination towards me among all the other
twenty eight people.

After talking with him for another fifteen minutes or so, I thanked him and
we left for the station. Took the metro to Hanshin Mikage station. On the
way, I showed her an Indian hundred rupee note. She immediately
recognized the picture of Gandhi on the note and told me that she really
admired and respected him and his ideals. I decided to give the note to her
as a souvenir from India and also to express my thanks for taking me on this
very informative and interesting trip. She was very happy to take it and told
me that it would remind her of me. Good enough.

Reached Hanshin Mikage at five and waited for a while to Okasaan to
arrive. She finally arrived ten minutes later and we headed home by car.
Dropped her friend on the way and reached home at five thirty. Went online
and checked my inbox. Was sending an e-mail to one of the Filipinos when
Otosaan came down and announced that we would leave for an Indian
restaurant in a few minutes and would have dinner there only. Excited, I
quickly ran up to my room and hurriedly changed into better clothes.

When everyone was ready, we stuffed ourselves into the car and we started
towards Rokko Island where the restaurant was located. Rokko Island is
another artificially made island which is right next to the Kobe mainland.
Many foreigners live here, so most of the foreign cuisine restaurants are
located on this island. Reached the mall which housed the restaurant and
found the restaurant tucked away in a corner on the ground floor. The name
of the restaurant was INDO-MURA – meaning Indian village. Otosaan told
me that it was earlier called Taj Mahal, but the owner had changed recently,
and thus, so had the name.

As soon as we reached the gate, my mouth started watering at the familiar
smells of Dal Makhani and Paneer, which I hadn’t smelt till, what seemed
like ages now. The waiter and cook greeted us at the gate. Waiter’s name
was Prince and the cook was Ramzan Ali. As we sat on the table and
decided the order, I talked with them in Hindi. Felt very good and satisfying
to speak in my mother tongue after so many weeks. The cook had been in
Japan for the past nine years, while Prince had moved just two and a half
years ago. They were also very happy on seeing an Indian in their Indian
restaurant. Hindi songs were playing in the background. Aahh… felt like
heaven – Indian music, Indian people and Indian food, all at one place, and
that too when being miles away from India.

We ordered Dal Makhani, Matar Paneer, Butter Chicken, Mutton Sizzlers,
Samosa, Naan, Tandoori roti and Gulab Jamuns as dessert. Yeah, pretty
long list. Had a wonderful time gorging on the food. My family also loves
Indian food and visit this restaurant quite often. After having the lovely
dinner and paying the hefty bill, we left the restaurant. Said Jai Mata Di to
Prince and Ramzan Ali while leaving. They loved to hear that. Went to a
convenience store in the mall and Okasaan bought some breads for
tomorrow’s breakfast.

Returned home at eight thirty and talked for a while, explaining how the roti
is supposed to be eaten with only one hand as they were quite curious to
know how I managed to do it in the restaurant. Tried my best to teach them,
but in vain.

“Practice,” was all I could advise them to do.

Today was a pretty hectic day, so I was very tired. Thanked my family for
taking me out to such a lovely dinner, retired to my room and immediately
fell asleep.

5th February
Monday morning. Woke up witht the alarm at six fourty five. Changed,
brushed and had sandwiches for breakfast. The coffee had gone cold so
Okasaan told me to warm it up in the microwave as she was busy making
lunch for Otosaan’s tiffin. Put the mug in the microwave and put the timer
for three minutes. When I opened the lid to retrieve the mug three minutes
later, I found that half the coffee had spilled over and the whole microwave
was all messed up with coffee. Apologised to Okasaan for the disaster and
told her that I was absolutely hopeless in the kitchen, even with the
microwave. She completely agreed with this and told me that the coffee was
only supposed to be heated for a maximum of thirty seconds. Shamefacedly,
I slipped out of the kitchen, finished my coffee in one gulp and left for the
bus stop with Otosaan.

Reached school at eight twenty. Felt nice to see all my friends after the
weekend. Chatted and taught a bit of Hindi to some of them. After a while,
the bell for the first period rang and the Japanese teacher walked in. This
teacher was quite a character and was considered, by far, the most popular
teacher by the students. He had this reputation of cracking jokes – poor
ones at that – for half the period and had thus earned this coveted title of the
most popular teacher in the school. As usual, he came into the class and
cracked silly jokes for half the period. For the rest of the period, he asked
me some basic stuff about my life in India, like where does my father work,
what is the average percentage of a eleventh standard student there, what do
I do after school, etcetera. I told him that I have extra classes of Physics,
Chemistry and Math after school, three to four days in a week as I was
preparing for IIT whose entrance exam is considered the toughest in the
world.
He was quite impressed by this and told me that I could be considered elite
amongst my classmates as I study for nearly twelve hours each day while
they barely manage to study an hour at home. The bell rang soon after, so he
hardly taught anything worthwhile in this period, all to the students’ liking
of course.

Went for my stupid special Japanese lessons with that dreary teacher with
that ever monotonous voice. I still haven’t figured out how Andrew,
Henrique and me always manage to stay awake wheneve we have these two
period – which seem almost like two millenia – long lessons.
Anyway, the teacher got slightly late today, so we three just monkeyed
around in the room and played football with the duster. Henrique, having
come from Brazil, defeated both Andrew and me without breaking much
sweat.
The teacher finally arrived fifteen minutes later and told us that she was
busy with Sawabu sensei and that she had asked her to inform Andrew and
me that this was our last week in this school, we were supposed to give a
farewell speech in front of the whole school on Wednesday…and that too in
Japanese. But to our relief, she told us to write the speech in English which
she would later on translate into Japanese.
Wrote the speech and she sat down and translated it in the two periods. I
read some magazines in the meantime. She told me to learn it up by
tomorrow.

“Yeah…right!” was all I could mumble to myself.

Math was next and we received answer sheets of three tests that we had
given earlier. I received perfect scores in all the three. Carried on with
quadratic equations for the rest of the period. This period seemed to finish
very quickly. Likewise, the lunch break which followed, also seemed to get
over in a jiffy. Though the next period, which was History – and thus boring
– seemed to drag on for ages. Slept through the period.

Had P.E. next. On Mondays, we have the good P.E. in which we get to play
football. We divided ourselves into six teams of seven players each and
started playing without wasting much time. There were three parallel pitches
so three matches were going on simultaneously. We played two matches and
I scored in the first match, though for a losing cause as we lost 1-2. But we
won the next game 1-0. Had a good time playing football with everyone and
everybody appreciated my game.

Went back to the class for home room after the period got over. The class
teacher announced that today, after school, a social service program was
being organized in which the road from the school to Ashiya Gawa was
supposed to be cleaned. Intrested students could volunteer for this job. A lot
of my friends volunteered so I also decided to join in. So as soon as school
got over, all the volunteering students were lined up at the gate and given a
pair of gloves, tongs and a huge bag to dump all the trash in. In fact, almost
the whole school had volunteerd.
So, the army of students left school at three fourty five and split up into four
different groups and each group took a different route to Ashiya Gawa. I had
a lot of fun with my friends on the way and as the roads were already so
clean and relatively devoid of any garbage as such, there wasn’t much work
to do after all. Ambled along and reached Ashiya Gawa at four thirty.
Handed over my garbage bag – which was rather empty – to the incharge,
bid goodbye to everyone and boarded the metro from the Ashiya Gawa
station. Reached Motoyama bus stop at four fourty five and learnt that the
next bus would not arrive until five ten, so just walked around the nearby
market in the meantime. Returned to the stop to find a huge line of people
waiting for the bus. Joined the line at the end and boarded the bus. Had to
stand throughout the journey.

Today, I reached home rather late, at five thirty. Went up to my room,
changed, put all my clothes in order in the drawer and went down. Watched
TV for a while. Surfed the net for some time, chatted with some friends back
home and e-mailed mom and dad. Otosaan arrived by then. Had salad,
pizza and pumpkin soup for dinner. Once again had pudding for dessert.
After dinner, I recited the farewell speech that I had written today. They were
quite impressed by my Japanese writing skills, but then I told them that it
was actually courtesy the Japanese teacher. But of course, the feelings and
gratitude conveyed were strictly mine. But anyway, they said that the speech
was wonderful.

Was quite tired today, so went to sleep early.

7th February

Alarm rang at six thirty. Was not feeling like getting up today, so I switched
off the alarm thinking that five more minutes of sleep won’t make me late.
Overslept and had to be woken up by Okasaan at six fifty. Got up in a hurry
and hastily arranged the bedsheet. Went to the bathroom to brush but found
out that it was already occupied. Got even more late due to this. Went down
and just managed to finish my coffee in time. Asked Okasaan to pack up the
breakfast so that I could have it on the way. I was already too late. Otosaan
had gone out of station yesterday, so I had to travel alone today. Put the
breakfast in the bag and hurried out towards the bus stop. Managed to reach
just in time for the bus.
Reached school at eight twenty. Tried to memorize the farewell speech that I
had to deliver today. Tried for ten minutes but wasn’t able to go any further
than the first line. First period was OC. As a part of the show and tell
exercise (yes, the same thing that we used to do way back in the first
standard) that the teacher had planned for today’s class, he first asked me to
come in front of the class and do a show and tell of something. As my
English was better than all the other students, he said that my talk would be
a good start to the exercise. I had nothing substantial to show and tell about
so thought that my watch, which I had bought recently, would be a good
enough choice. Talked about it for some time and the teachers and the
students found the whole talk really interesting and impressive. Others did
their show and tell in the remaining part of the period.

Next two periods were the special Japanese lessons. Today’s lesson would be
the last for Andrew and me.

“Finally!” I had exclaimed after the two periods had eventually finished. I
had used these last two periods to write a ‘Thank You’ speech for my host
family which the teacher translated into Japanese.

Went to the computer lab after this. E-mailed home telling them about my
flight details. I had received my tickets yesterday. Surfed the net for the
remaining period.

After the lunch break, we had history. Saw two movies about European
warriors and Vikings. This period dragged on forever and I utilized it to
complete my sleep.

Next period was homeroom, but the whole school was supposed to go the
auditorium where a small function was to take place and in which Andrew
and me had to deliver our ‘bye bye’ speeches. I had wanted to take a photo
of the history teacher with me, so I had stayed back after all the students
had left. Took a photograph with the teacher and walked back to the
classroom only to find – to my horror – that it was locked! My speech was in
my bag – which was inside the class – and I didn’t remember a word of the
whole page long speech.
Had to run to the auditorium to get the keys from the class monitor. To make
matters worse, the bloody auditorium was at the opposite end of the school.
Entered the auditorium and found that the function had yet not begun.
Thanked God and started searching for the stupid monitor. Finally found
him sitting right in the front, took the keys from him and ran back the entire
length of the school campus to fetch my speech.
Then ran back again to the auditorium. Now, after running three freaking
lengths of the school, I was surely not in a position to deliver a speech. If it
wasn’t for the principal’s and vice principal’s never ending speeches which
gave me some time to regain my breath, I would have been literally panting
away after each line.

The speech went off quite well and I received a huge round of applause after
I had concluded, considering that I had recited a whole speech in Japanese.
School ended after the function. Went back to the class, grabbed my school
bag, and started the long walk towards Ashiya Gawa. I got late today as the
function had carried on till three thirty, thanks to the two long speeches by
the two highest authorities of the school. Reached home at five. Okasaan
was not at home, but she had left the door open for me, so I went in and
changed. Watched a bit of TV for some time before Okasaan arrived at six.
Helped her iron some clothes and also tried my hand at making a part of the
dinner. This time, I was quite successful and managed to make the whole
chicken curry by myself…well, with a little help here and there from
Okasaan.

Had dinner with her as Otosaan was not in town and Yoko saan and Shoko
saan had gone to some birthday party. Listened to some music on the
computer for a while and taught Okasaan some tricks on the PC.

Was feeling sleepy, so went back to the room, put on some music and slept.
CHAPTER 7
WTF?

A shwin looked out of the window and saw the lights of the city below
come nearer and nearer. Beside him, Gaurav lay asleep, owing to
the overdose of Thai cuisine that he had devoured in the lovely
dinner that the airline had served them.

‘I think I should wake him up now,’ Ashwin thought. ‘We are just seconds
away from touching down.’
But it took quite an effort to do that. Even the constant blabber of Sumedha
and Co. couldn’t interrupt his slumber. By the time Ashwin did manage to
wake him up, the flight was taxiing towards the arrival area.

“Relax,” Gaurav remarked as soon as he woke up and saw that the other
passengers were already taking out their baggages from the above
compartments and getting ready to disembark. Having arrived home after a
month and desparate to meet their families, Ashwin and the girls were also
showing haste in getting their bags out and joining the line of passengers.

“It won’t matter if we get down in the end,” he added. “We’ve been away for
a month. A few more minutes won’t matter much you see.”

“Point,” said Ashwin and sat down. The girls didn’t and continued with the
task of hauling out their bags.

“We’ll see you two in the arrival lounge,” said Akriti and joined the line. The
other two girls followed and they soon disappeared out into the aerobridge.

“Chumps!” exclaimed Gaurav as they left.

“Yeah…” added Ashwin. “Hardcore. You should have heard what prattle
they talk with each other. I had no other option but to put those
uncomfortable earphones on and listen to that shitty Thai instrumental music
to save my ears from listening to their twaddle.”

“Tch Tch… Thank god I was asleep.”

“Thank me that I didn’t wake you up until we landed.”

“You couldn’t have anyway.”

Both of them laughed and waited until the majority of the passengers left.
When the crowd lessened, they retrieved their hand baggage and exited the
plane.

When they arrived in the baggage claim area, they found that, as expected,
the baggage for their flight had yet not come in and all the passengers were
lined up near the conveyor belt, patiently waiting with trolleys. Ashwin
spotted the three girls standing at the far end of the belt, looking frustrated
due to the delay that was being caused.

Gaurav and Ashwin looked at each other, snickered and walked up to them.

“So,” remarked Gaurav. “I thought we were supposed to meet in the arrival
lounge. But… I think the board there claims that this is the baggage claim
area, doesn’t it Ashwin?”

Ashwin held back a smirk and replied, “Yeah. Seems so.”

The girls listened but tried to ignore their remarks.

Just then, the conveyor belts whirred into action and the first bags started
rolling out. Ashwin and Gaurav quickly got trolleys for themselves and
stood near the mouth the conveyor belt. Their bags were one of the first ones
to arrive. They hauled their twenty five kilos each of baggage on to the
trolleys and headed out towards the exit.

Ashwin couldn’t stop himself from delivering a remark as they passed by the
girls – “Now we’ll see you in the arrival lounge.”

As he walked through the passage leading to the arrival lounge, Ashwin
could see thousands of eager faces lined up at the fence, some had flowers in
their hands, some carried name boards while others just kept their hands
empty and ready to give a nice little hug to their dear ones when they
arrived. Ashwin looked around, but couldn’t spot his parents in the crowd.
By his side, Gaurav was also trying to do the same.

They had walked for just a few metres more when a small girl, with
happiness oozing from her face, came running into the restricted passage,
jumped in joy and hugged Gaurav. The police personnel stationed there,
seeing the cute re-union of brother and sister, also decided to bend the rules
a bit and not stop her. Ashwin couldn’t help but smile on seeing this precious
moment. He carried on walking and now started to look at his left to see if
his parents were standing on that side. Just then, he heard his name being
called out from the front. He turned his head and looked straight down the
passage. There, right at the end of the passage, flashing huge smiles, his
parents stood waving at him. Ashwin’s face lit up and he paced towards
them.
“Mom! Dad!” he cried out as he came out of the passage and hugged both of
them tightly.

“Welcome back, son,” Mr. Khanna said and hugged him once again.

“We missed you so much Ashwin,” added Mrs. Khanna and kissed him on
the forehead.

“Yeah. So did I.”

“Where are the rest of the kids?”

“Gaurav and me came out together. He must be with his family somewhere
here only.” Ashwin looked around. “Yeah, there he is,” he said, pointing
towards the other side of the fence.

“And the girls?” asked Mrs. Khanna.

“Oh, their baggage had not arrived yet, so they must be still inside.”

Getting done with all the hugging with his family members, Gaurav walked
up to Ashwin.

“Ashwin,” he said. “The YOT guys are here too. They want to take a
photograph of the five of us. They are standing right there, with my family.
Come on.”

He noticed Mr. and Mrs. Khanna standing there. “Oh, namaste uncle,
namaste aunty,” he added courteously. “Why don’t you also come along.
Everyone is standing there. In fact, my parents were looking for you.”

The three of them agreed and started following Gaurav.

“But Gaurav,” said Ashwin. “Have the girls come out yet?”

“Yeah. Just a few seconds ago. Actually, it took them so long because they
were not able to find Sumedha’s baggage. They waited for twenty minutes
until all the baggages of our flight were claimed, but they said her luggage
never arrived.”
“Then?”

“They started talking to the authorities there, but even they didn’t have a
clue as to where it was. The luggage people claimed that all the baggages
from the flight had been unloaded. Sumedha feared that someone might have
run away with it.”

“So, did they find it eventually?”

“Yeah. Akriti finally spotted it on the Air France conveyor belt!”

Ashwin erupted into a loud laugh. “What? Seriously?”

“Yeah! What else do you expect from an Indian airport?”

“True.”

“And the best part was, there was this huge board beside the conveyor belt
which read – “INCREDIBLE INDIA!”

Both of them were sent into another paroxysm of stentorian laughter,
oblivious to the deriding stares that they were receiving from the rather quiet
public.

“So, we have school tomorrow,” said Ashwin. “Planning to come?”

“Yeah. What would I do sitting at home anyway?”

“But what will we do in school either? I mean, there’s no point attending
classes. We will be exempted from the finals, won’t we?”

“Yes. Komal promised me that.”

“Good. Otherwise, we woud have been dead meat. There is hardly a
fortnight left before the exams start you know.”

“Don’t worry dude. Now cheer up and smile for the photograph.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Gaurav, Sumedha and Ashwin wore a worried look on their faces as they
waited outside Mr. Pillai’s office. R.K. Pillai, one of the three vice principals
of the school, had a reputation of being an ‘all-problem’ solver. So whenever
the students or even any of the staff members had any problems or were
caught in a dilemma, they would waste little time and convey the issue to
him in hopes of getting it solved in a jiffy. And so it would happen… ninety
nine percent of the time. Plumply built with a height that matched one of an
eleventhee and with a wide grin that adorned his face 24 x 7, he came across
as an extremely affable man and had thus gained a lot of popularity among
the students of the school. This had been one of the prime factors in the
decision to appoint him as the vice-principal of the school.

So the benefits of being kind and generous to the poor little students are
manifold, to say the least. Teachers reading, please note.

This was Gaurav’s, Sumedha’s and Ashwin’s second day in school after
coming back and they had received quite a reception from their students and
teachers – barring a few – on their return. It had been this way also partly
due to the fact that they had been very munificent and had got lots of
chocolates for their classmates and other friends. Ashwin had gone a step
further and had even presented some of his subject teachers with gifts that he
had bought from one of the duty free shops in the airport.

His other four companions on the trip had scoffed when they had found out
about this.

“Are you mad?” Gaurav had remarked. “We could have bought four more of
those ‘burger-fries-soft drink’ combos with that money!”

And now, as they stood outside Mr. R.K.-‘problem-solver’-Pillai’s office,
you would be thinking that they had most probably been called there to be
congratulated and be told how proud they had made the school feel, but
unfortunately, that was not the case.

“Yes, yes. You will surely be given exemption after you return,” Mrs. Sen
had told them when the three had gone to her one month ago, asking whether
they would be required to give the final exams or not, considering that they
wouldn’t get enough time to prepare after they returned.“After all, as much
as three of our students have been selected from so many students all over
India. That is quite an achievement you know.”

And then the three had left, pleased and reassured as ever.

“A month in Japan and no exams after coming back – if there is heaven on
Earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!” Gaurav had exclaimed.

That these five students were being exempted from their eleventh standard
final exams was top news doing the rounds in the school these days. Gaurav
had not been able to resist himself after Mrs. Sen had assured them of their
exemption and had proclaimed the news to everyone he knew. But now,
things had started going horribly wrong for them. Their prospects of being
exempted from the exams had started to turn grim and consequently, their
credibility also threatened to suffer.

The person who had been keeping Mr. Pillai busy all this while finally
emerged out of the room and Ashwin peeped in through the door which the
man had left ajar. Mr. Pillai noticed his big head and asked him to come in.

“Come on,” Ashwin ordered Gaurav and Ashwin and the three of them
walked into the room.

“Good morning sir,” the three of them chorused.

“Good morning kids,” Mr. Pillai replied, not looking up from some papers
that he was reviewing to sign.

The three politely introduced themselves and then Ashwin spoke on their
behalf – “Sir, we three had been selected by an organization called YOT to
represent India on a month long exchange trip to Japan and we returned from
the trip just three days back.”

“Oh, yes yes,” Mr. Pillai replied, now keeping aside his papers and looking
up at the three students. “I had heard about this from Mrs. Khandelwal (the
other vice principal). So, you are the three, eh?”

“Yes sir.”
“Great. How was the experience?”

“Wonderful. All of us had a great time there.”

“Good, good. So, have you brought any gifts for your vice principal?”

All of them looked transfixed, but Ashwin took over and managed to handle
the situation. “Well… yes… we have, sir. Actually, it is in Gaurav’s bag.
We…er… forgot to get it.”

“Oh, relax. I was just joking.”

They flashed some smiles and then Ashwin started to relate their problem.

“Sir… actually we came to you because there has been a slight
misunderstanding between the two supervisors of class eleventh regarding
our exemption.”

“Exemption?”

“Yes sir, actually we had been promised exemption from the final exams by
Mrs. Sen before we left for Japan. In fact, we had decided to go ahead with
this trip only because we knew that even if we missed so many classes, it
won’t matter because we would not be required to appear for the finals. If
this would not have been the case, then we would have never decided to be a
part of this rather prestigious program in the first place.”

Mr. Pillai’s trademark grin soon vanished and a staid look came over his
face. “Granting exemption to students is a very sensitive matter. I cannot do
anything unless I am informed more about the background of this issue.”

“Sir, but this is all there is to it.”

“No, where is Mrs. Sen? Go call her and ask her to meet me right now.”

“That’s the whole problem, sir. Mrs. Sen is on maternity leave right now and
won’t return for at least two months, and apparently, she had not briefed the
other supervisor, Mrs. Chatterjee about this. So, ultimately, no one has a clue
as to how deal with this situation and so we came to you, hoping for a
solution.”

“Did you submit any written application demanding exemption?”

“Yes, sir. We all had submitted three individual applications, addressed to the
principal and had given it to Mrs. Sen. She had promised us that she would
get it done, but I don’t think she ever bothered to do it.”

Mr. Pillai scratched his chin and racked his brains for a viable solution.

“Hmmm… I understand that now, it will be very unfair if you are asked to
study all that you missed, which, I’m sure would be quite a lot, and then
appear for the exams which start hardly in two weeks time.”

“Exactly, sir. Plus, even the school is shutting down for preparatory leave
after this week, so we only have around five days to actually run behind
teachers and ask them to teach whatever we missed.”

Mr. Pillai fell into deep thought once again and started stroking his French
beard. He was known to do this before he came up with a brilliant idea. The
trio, on witnessing this, knew that now, a solution was just around the corner.

“What were your percentages in the class tenth boards?” he enquired.

“Sir, mine was ninety three percent,” replied Ashwin.

“Ninety two point five,” added Gaurav.

“Ninety five point six,” informed Sumedha.

All of them wore a puzzled expression as they recited their percentages, but
Mr. Pillai’s eyes lit up and the trademark smile was back again.
“Great! I knew it that you three would be brilliant students.”

“Thank you, sir,” they replied in unison.

“So, what’s the problem then? I mean, you are capable enough. Study hard
these two weeks and give it a shot. I am sure you all will come out with
flying colors.”
Ashwin turned towards Gaurav and his eyes seemed to say – ‘Is this
supposed to be the solution we were waiting for?’

Gaurav’s eyes could do nothing but just stare back helplessly.

“A true achiever is one who can manage his time well and does not lets his
extra curricular pursuits hinder his or her academics, and I am pretty
confident that each one of you agrees to this. After all, you three are
achievers too.”

They didn’t know what to reply.

“Now stop worrying and instead, focus your minds and efforts in covering
up all that you had missed, work hard and give the exams your best shot.
OK, now you all can leave. I have some very important work to deal with.”

The three of them had nothing left to say other than a formal ‘Thank you’.
They did so and disappointedly walked out of the room.

“I don’t believe this!” cried Sumedha “How are we supposed to finish those
huge chapters in Physics and Chemistry with hardly any guidance?”

“Yeah. Doesn’t he know that tenth and eleventh are totally different and our
class tenth percentages can, in no way, serve as a yardstick to predict our
class eleventh final exam results?”

“So,” said Ashwin. “What should we do now?”

They just stood there for some time, contemplating about their options. They
were in dire need of a very good idea to help save them from this most scary
situation.

Gaurav came up with one – “Why don’t we try with the other vice principal,
Mrs. Khandelwal? Mr. Pillai said that it was she who had told him about us
going to this trip.”

Having nothing to lose, the three decided that now, after having tried
persuading so many teachers, they might as well try it out with one more. So
they now turned their steps towards CB block where Mrs. Khandelwal’s
office was located.

This time, Gaurav spoke, but even after half an hour of persuasion, they
were not able to succeed in their efforts.
“I am sorry kids,” she had replied politely. “I am not in a position to do
anything about this request. If you would have given the application to me,
things might have been a bit different, but since I did not receive any sort of
written application from you before you went, I cannot do anything
regarding this.”

“But ma’am!” they had exclaimed in reply, “We did submit our applications
to Mrs. Sen, who had promised that she will get it delivered to the principal.
But she has been on leave since we arrived. What can we do in that case?”

“Well, neither can I do anything. I am extremely sorry kids, but I can’t help
you in this matter.”

The three turned back and were about to walk out of the room when Mrs.
Khandelwal stopped them.

“Listen children,” she said. “I think you should just forget about the
exemption and give the exams. You three are brilliant students and there are
as much as two weeks still left. I am sure you will be able to cover up all
that you have missed and eventually ace your exams.”

Ashwin held back a contemptuous smirk and didn’t care to reply. Neither did
the other two and they exited the room together.

“We are dead meat!” exclaimed Gaurav as they walked through the corridors
towards their block.

“Dead, defunct, deceased meat. Whatever happened to the practice of living
up to one’s promise! I feel like slapping a lawsuit against these guys!”

“Guys!” exclaimed Sumedha, butting in. “Relax. There must be some way
out.”
“Yeah. Like the way out of the house that we’ll be shown after we bloody
flunk in PCM∗!”

“No yaar. Why don’t we go and talk straight to the horse herself?”

Ashwin and Gaurav looked at each other and made up a sympathetic face.
Gaurav spoke – “Sumedha, I know that this is very hard on you also, but,
please keep your sanity intact and come up with some sensible solutions.
How can a horse help us in this situation?”

“Maybe to help us run away from our homes before we get kicked out,”
suggested Ashwin.

“Oh! Will you guys please shut up! My sanity will sure be in serious
jeopardy if I continue to stay with you two! By my suggestion, I meant, why
don’t we go and talk straight to the principal herself? I am sure she will grant
us exemption from PCM at least.”

Gaurav and Ashwin didn’t look quite pleased at this idea. Barging into the
principal’s office and demanding exemption was surely not a good plan.
Besides, prospects of something yielding out of this attempt were very slim.
In fact, finding her sitting in her room was even more unprobable,
considering how busy she was, nowadays.

They both shook their heads in a ‘NO’.

“No. I won’t go in there,” said Gaurav.

“Neither would I,” Ashwin followed.

“Fine! Then you guys stand outside and I’ll go in and do the talking.”

The two boys contemplated about the idea and ultimately came out with the
conclusion that they had nothing to lose.

“OK, you go ahead with the brilliant idea of yours and we’ll see if it works.”

“Yes. We’d be rather happy standing outside.”


Physics Chemistry Mathematics
Now clearly irritated, Sumedha stomped away without replying and veered
into E block, which housed the principal’s office. Ashwin and Gaurav too
followed her as she disappeared into the block. They didn’t want to miss the
fun when she would be denied entry into the office by the peon outside or
when she would come out with a saddened face when she would find out
that the principal, as ever, was not in her office.

They finally caught up with her and wished her the best of luck as she
knocked on the door. The peon was out to fetch his tea from the canteen and
so there was no one to stop her at the door.

“Well, she cleared at least the first hurdle,” remarked Gaurav as they stood
watching from a distance.

She was soon admitted in and they saw her walk in confidently, closing the
door behind her.

“Let’s see what happens,” said Ashwin. And then they started waiting.

They waited for what seemed like eons but Sumedha still did not emerge
from the room. By now, the peon had also come back and had even finished
sipping his piping hot tea, though still unaware of the intruder that had
infiltrated on his area and had crossed his borderline – that of the door of his
boss’ office.

“I wonder what’s taking her so long?” said Ashwin, looking up from the
magazine that he had procured form a nearby rack and had been reading all
this while.

“Maybe she’s just getting a nice little diatribe on not to just barge into a
room like that and disturb a person in the midst of his or her work.”

Ashwin snickered.

But then, Gaurav saw the door of the office opening and noticed Sumedha
emerge from it. Her face was lit up like a million watt bulb and there was a
spring in her step as she paced towards them. As she reached them, a sudden
zephyr ruffled her hair and also a sheet that she was holding in her right
hand. Gaurav and Ashwin noticed the sheet and wondered what was written
on it. She re-arranged her hair cursorily and held up the sheet to display it to
the two boys.

Curious, Ashwin and Gaurav quickly read through it and their jaws dropped
open. Their heart started racing. They read through the sheet once again but
couldn’t believe their eyes.

“Is this for real?” spluttered a dazed Ashwin.

“It sure is,” replied Sumedha and pointed at the signature of the principal at
the bottom.

“Oh my God!” cried Gaurav. “I never knew it till now, but our principal is an
ANGEL! She granted us exemption from Physics, Chemistry and Math! I
feel like going and kissing her right now!”

“Yes, guys. We have finally been granted exemption from the Physics,
Chemistry and Math final exams, thanks to my persuasion skills and as
Gaurav pointed out, a very generous principal.”

“Yes!” ejaculated Ashwin. “Yes, yes, yes. No PCM for the finals! Now that’s
what I’m talking about!”

“But we still have English and Computers, mind you.”

“Oh, who gives a damn about them. I didn’t read a word for my Computer
Half Yearly exam and still managed a sixty five on seventy.”

“Exactly! And English is just a matter of a few hours. I know Merchant of
Venice like the back of my hand.”

And now, as they walked towards their respective classrooms, glad as ever,
Ashwin said to himself – “So, with me, for once… justice prevails.”
CHAPTER 8
LOOKING DOWN THE PATH LESS TRODDED

The final exams of eleventh had been a breeze. Though Ashwin, Gaurav and
Sumedha had been exempted from all the exams, they had decided to appear
for the Math, English and Computer papers. Rather, their parents had forced
them to do so.

“What will you do sitting at home and just whiling away your time?” was a
common question echoing in each of three students’ homes. So, they had no
option but to obey and start studying for the three exams right away.
Still, I write that the exams had been a breeze because they were not
supposed to appear for the Physics and Chemistry exams – the two
behemoths of the Science stream.

On the answer sheets distribution day, Ashwin had received numerous green
eyed glares from all eleventhees that he had encountered. He had
reciprocated all of them with just a wry smile, knowing what a huge reprieve
it was for a student to not give the Physics and Chemistry exams.

His new class – 12-F was located on the first floor in the E block. The
change in rooms was a welcome break as now they didn’t have to climb
three floors as was the case last year. The students of the class were also
pretty much the same, except for a few who had changed sections and had
shifted into his class. Ashwin didn’t know why.

Their new class teacher, Mr. S.C. Tiwari, who also taught Chemistry, was a
tall and husky man, probably in his early forties. In contrast to his built, he
was a very quiet and shy person and followed a plain and simple teaching
policy – Come, Teach, Go. Inspite of him being the class teacher, he was
least interested in anything that didn’t come under his policy. He never tried
to establish a rapport between him and the students. Consequently, he was
never too keen on reprimanding students who weren’t concentrating or
appreciating those who were.

“This…” he answered when being questioned about his unusual method, “…
keeps the students as well as me happy and satisfied all the time. No
squabble, no nonsense, and both the sides are happy. What more do you ask
for?”

As a matter of fact, his classes actually were one of the quietest in the whole
school. The results in his subject were a different matter though.

The academic session for class tenth and twelfth students had begun a week
earlier than the rest of the classes owing to the board examinations. In fact,
they only had the weekend off after the exams concluded. Today was the
third day in the new class for Ashwin.
“So,” enquired Sagar while walking along with Ashwin to the computer lab,
“what percentage did you get in the finals? Must be great considering your
darned exemption!”

Ashwin held back a smile and answered, “I haven’t got my report card as
yet. They said mine would take some more time till they figured out a way
to calculate my average in Physics and Chemistry for the whole year.”

“Figure out a way to calculate your average? What does that mean? Isn’t that
plain math?”

“Yeah, I know. But that’s what they said. I obviously didn’t argue. I am in no
hurry to get my report card you know.”

“Yeah. Why would you? Man, I so damn envy you for this!”

They walked into computer lab 5 in the F block basement and found the
same teacher who taught them in the previous year waiting for them.

“Oh no, not again!” cried one of the students.

The teacher heard it but pretended otherwise. She didn’t want to start the
session on a bad note.

“You will have the same seats as were allotted to you in eleventh,” she
announced after everyone had arrived. “And if you have any problem with
your group partners, then convey it to me right now. Each group will be
working on a project which will be a part of the board practicals. It carries
five important marks, and the viva based on the project will carry an
additional five marks. So there are ten marks up for grabs for free provided
you work regularly and diligently. There won’t be any changes in the groups
afterwards. Is that understood?”

“Yes ma’am,” chanted the class.

But, one boy stood up from his seat at the far end of the lab and questioned,
“Ma’am, I don’t have any partners now. I am the only one left in my group.”

The teacher replied curiously, “What do you mean? Where are they? Weren’t
you assigned a group last year?”
“Yes ma’am, I was. But from this year, both my partners have changed their
fifth subject to P.E..”

“Why? If they were finding the subject difficult, they should have comed to
me. I would have helped them clear their concepts. The school also arranges
extra classes for students weak in computers.”

“No ma’am. It’s not the way you think. Both of them scored very well in the
computer final exams. One managed a ninety eight while the other secured a
ninety five.”

“Then what was the problem?”

“You see ma’am, in order to get the ninety eight and ninety five, they had to
study hard. Plus, we also have to make a C++ project this year for which
we’ll need to work throughout the year. All this would lead to a wastage of
time. On the other hand, one has to hardly study for the P.E. exam. Just five
hours of effort before the exam and you can easily secure a ninety. Even the
final project is a task requiring a mere one twenty minutes. Furthermore, you
can even tell your younger sister to do it. That is not the case with
computers.”

“I don’t believe this! How can studying hard be a wastage of time?”

“You see, Computer Science is not in the syllabus of the JEE ma’am.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~*****~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

After missing a whole month of coaching studies while he was away in
Japan, Ashwin could never really find his rhythm back. Nowadays, he was
finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate on what the teacher was
teaching. Whenever a new chapter would start, he would have the
opportunity to start afresh after the thirty day long hiatus, but he could never
get the concentration back no matter how hard he tried. It was highly
frustrating at times. On the other hand, his classmates had now shifted gears
and had gone into overdrive once twelfth standard had commenced. So
much so that half the class had now changed their fifth subject from
Computer Science to Physical Education.

He had a crucial decision to make now.

Ashwin sat alone on the last seat beside the window. Outside, keeping his
eyes engaged were two young sparrows trying to learn the art of flying from
their mother, much like the thirty odd students seated around him were
trying to learn the art of cracking the toughest entrance exam in the world –
the ‘Joint Entrance Examination’ a.k.a. JEE a.k.a. ‘IIT ka ekjaam’ to many,
from Mr. Pandey who stood beside the black board explaining organic
chemistry to the keenly listening students.

After writing a question on the board, Mr. Pandey sat down on the teacher’s
chair for a brief rest after standing continuously for the better part of an hour.
He was approaching fifty now, and his legs could no longer provide the
assistance that they used to give in his earlier years as a school teacher. That
was before the sudden and sharp increase in the number of coaching
institutes that had opened in almost every nook and cranny of the city. It was
from one of these newly established coaching centres in west Delhi that he
had received an offer to come and teach chemistry to students who were
aspiring to gain admission in, arguably, one of the premier institutions of
knowledge in the world – the Indian Institute of Technology. He had little
hesitation in quitting his job as the HOD of the Chemistry department in one
of the top schools of the city and accepting the job profile which the
coaching centre was offering him. A better salary, the small distance between
his residence and the coaching centre and a much better working
environment were the arguments that went in favor with his decision to join
the new job, but the most important factor that prompted him to change
tracks was the proposition of a greater amount of intellectual stimulation
from the no holds barred teaching curriculum. His intellignce was hardly
tested within limits of the school syllabus in which one had to be as strict as
the Swedish football referees and ensure that nothing was taught which was
out of syllabus, lest you wanted a hundred parents protesting at the school
gates.
Mr. Pandey looked around the room and saw that all the heads were deep
inside their notebooks, working hard to find the solution to his question. A
tiny smile spread across his face.

‘It ain’t that easy as it looks’, he said to himself. It was one of those
questions that he liked to refer to as – ‘out of the bag’. He had plentiful of
those which he had gathered from years of teaching and would give at least
one in every class to challenge the students. Whoever could manage to find
the answer (though that would happen very rarely) would be promised a
chocolate of his choice as a reward.

He continued rolling his eyes across the classroom and noticed Ashwin
gazing out of the window from the last seat. He didn’t care to reprimand
him. This was one of his weaknesses.

As was expected, none of the students managed to figure out the solution to
the twisted question.

“All right,” said Mr. Pandey. “I’ll tell you how.”

The students now turned their heads from their notebooks to the blackboard,
anxious to know what was wrong in their approach.

“Though even my four year old grandson could do this one.”

This was one of his darling lines. The students hated it.

And then, after the solution was on the board, the class, as always, let out a
loud – “Ooohhhhh, why didn’t we think of this earlier?”

“Yes, that’s the way it goes – so near, yet so far. You have to bridge the gap
if you want to see yourself in IIT.”

Ashwin had just turned his attention back to the class and heard the last
comment that Mr. Pandey made.

‘You have to bridge the gap if you want to see yourself in IIT.’

‘…if you want to see yourself in IIT.’
“Do I really want to see myself in IIT?” he asked himself.

He didnt’t get a positive reply from inside.

“Am I just a nobody in the herd who knows he only has a miniscule chance
of getting through?”

“Am I just a numskull do be doing something I don’t want to do and just
wasting my time trying to force myself into doing it?”

“Do I really want to do it? Is this my calling?”

“Is it really worth it after working two bloody years like a bloody ass?”

“You see, I am not an OBC either, or a SC, or a ST. Then why the hell?”

“If not IIT, then what? Will these two years be worth it then?”

“You work so hard for something so narrow, and when chances are that you
will end up in something even narrower.”

“Then why do people do it?”

“Goddamit!”

Till the time the class ended, Ashwin had made a crucial decision at an
equally climacteric juncture of his life. One that would change each and
every dimension of his future.
CHAPTER 9
STARTING ON A PATH LESS TRODDED

Mr. Khanna drove pensively. Beside him, Ashwin sat quietly, not knowing
what his father’s response would be to the comment that he had just made.

“I want to quit coaching,” he had said.

For a moment, Mr. Khanna had thought it was a joke…just a casual
comment made by his son after probably a tough four hours of coaching
which had drained him.
But, Ashwin knew that this was no impulsive decision. He pressed on.

“Dad, I am not able to concentrate anymore,” he added. “I feel now it is just
a waste of time. I don’t want to do it. I want to quit coaching.”

This time, his father replied. “But why son? What happened all of a
sudden?”

“I don’t know dad. No matter how hard I try, I cannot concentrate on
whatever is being taught. I somehow feel that this is not what I want to do. It
is not my calling.”

“Are you sure about what you are saying?”

“Yes, dad. This is a very important phase of life and you can trust me not to
take any decision without giving it deep thought. This is not an impulsive
decision. I have given myself every possible chance before coming to this
conclusion… and I believe this is what I want.”

“Has this something to do with you missing a month of coaching studies
while you were away?”

“Maybe, maybe not. Looking back, I only feel that the Japan sojourn has
made me look at my life from a three sixty degree perspective. It has given
me a fresh outlook and the confidence to pursue what I want. Till now, I was
running a race which I didn’t want to win. I want to change that, and I
believe it is not late yet.”

“I don’t know son. I have never forced my decisions on to you. You know
best what you want. Just that you should know that what you are doing is
right. Do not draw any conclusions in haste. I am sure you know what I
mean.”

“I can perfectly understand what you are feeling father. You can rest assured
that I won’t let you down.”

Mr. Khanna scratched his chin and contemplated for a while.

“I trust you, my son,” he added a little while later.
Both of them smiled and Mr. Khanna pulled the car into their garage.

They entered their house and Mr. Khanna conveyed their son’s decision to
his wife. Mrs. Khanna listened patiently before questioning. “Then what else
are you planning to do, son? I hope you are not thinking of switching to
commerce! Are you? I have heard about a lot of cases who switch streams
and are not able to perform well in either of the two places. And then they
are left with nowhere to go.”

“No mom. It’s not that bad as you think.”

“Thank God..”

“It’s even more extreme.”

“What do you mean?” cried his parents in unison.

“I want to go abroad for my undergraduate studies after school.”

Mr. and Mrs. Khanna didn’t know what to say at first. They stayed mum for
a few seconds before Mr. Khanna broke the silence.

“Abroad? What? Where? How? Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. I have researched extensively about the opportunities and the
procedure and am confident that this is the right path for me. All I want is
your assent and support. You can leave the rest to me.”

“But, how did you come to this decision out of the blue?”

“It’s not an out-of-the-blue decision mom. I have realized that there are far
better opportunities and facilities in the colleges abroad. I do not mean to say
that Indian colleges are bad, but the fact is there are only a few that are so.
And one has to face it and be realistic about one’s chances. I feel we are
being offered too little after working like hell for so long. Face it, if I do not
get through IIT, then what? Would you like to see me in any average
humdrum malarkey institute here? Why ask you?, I would not… and would
never let me enter any such college in the first place. Is this my worth?”

“But…”
“Mom. You have to trust me here. I have got it all figured out. I’ll have to
give a few tests and perform well in my twelfth boards. My tenth marks are
good enough and a good score this year will seal my chances in a top notch
college which is ranked way above any IIT. I just need your support and
want you to have faith in my decisions. I am quitting coaching so that I can
focus on my CBSE studies and the required tests that I would have to give
for college admissions.”

“And the costs? I am sure studying abroad won’t come cheap.”

“Yes, it will be expensive. That’s why I am urging you to let me quit
coaching so that I can concentrate on my school studies and work up a good
score in the boards. That will help me get a decent scholarship. They even
give hundred percent financial aid you know.”

“And if you don’t get a scholarship?”

Ashwin stayed quiet for a while before replying, “It’ll all be over then. I’ll
be left with nowhere to go. Not here, neither there. A year drop at the worst.”

“And I won’t like that one bit.”

“Neither would I, mom. This is what drives me even more. I don’t want to
let myself and more importantly, my parents down.”

Mrs. Khanna was faced with a tough decision to make. She sat down on the
dining table (she always did that before deciding on anything important) and
started cogitating. Ashwin waited anxiously. It was still a dodgy prospect for
his parents to let their son live in a distant land for four whole years. He had
never been separated from them for more than a month you see. A different
land, a different culture, different people and no one to call a family or
friend, all these factors naturally made Mrs. Khanna hesitant.

After a few minutes, she stood up, looked straight into the eye of her son and
said: “I don’t know Ashwin. But if this is what you want, then I guess I’ll
just have to agree. We can only hope for the best for you.”
And thus, Ashwin was off on a path less trodded. So much so that now, he
was the only one in his class not attending coaching classes. It is not as if the
new route that he had chosen was insanely difficult to pursue, but just the
fact that he had decided to separate himself from the herd, made it somewhat
tough for him.

“So, how are your coaching classes going on Ashwin?”

“I have left coaching.”

“What! You have left coaching! Why? How did your parents allow that to
happen?”

This was just a typical conversation that took place between him and people
whenever he was part of a social gathering. Nothing angered him more than
being subjected to such type of questions. There were times when he
doubted his own decision and his ability to pull off what he was aiming for.
What with the whole society silently accusing you of being downright stupid
and dismissing you as mad, it was bound to happen. But, Ashwin had his
eyes fixed on his goal. Relatives would talk to him hours on end on the
phone trying to convince him to return to his coaching classes and not
behave like a fool. Most of these conversations ended with the relatives
dismissing him as an idiot. “Yeh to gaya haath se,” would be the common
lament. But all this made Ashwin even more resolute in his efforts. If he
failed now, there could be no worse situation on Earth than what he would
find himself in. Nonetheless, he decided to carry on… steadfast.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth

Then took the other as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet, knowing how way leads onto way
I doubted if I should ever come back

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Two roads diverged in a wood
And I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference

Robert Frost
37 years, 8 months,
2 weeks and 5 days
later

T he clock struck five. The eyelids of eleven year old Aayush Khanna
were barely opening. It was his first experience of getting up so early
in the morning. The lights in the neighborhood homes were still out,
one of them which housed little Aayush’s childhood puppy crush. With a
quick, hopeful glance out the window, he clambered out of his bed and with
a I’m-gonna-throw-you-away-you-little-peace-of-scrap look towards the
poor alarm clock which was giving a ‘now-what-did-I-do?’ sort of look, he
entered the bathroom to answer nature’s call.

You might be wondering and probably even cursing the cause due to which
this poor little boy had been made to get up so early, but, beginning, from
this day, a new chapter in the boy’s life was to start. A chapter which would
lead him to new frontiers in life and one which would which would prove
instrumental in shaping up his entire career and future. The day signified the
mark of a start, the start of a process which would help transform the
innocent, timid, cute, chubby little boy of eleven into a fearless, confident
and responsible MAN in a mere seven years. Commencing from today, the
boy would become a part of an institution which would take up the burden
of shaping up the child’s personality, a task which was as difficult as shaping
up a pyramid of cards in his case, given, so stubborn, careless and lazy he
was. The same institution of which his father, Mr. Ashwin Khanna became a
part of almost four decades ago and the one which almost single handedly
shaped his entire future as well.

“Ready, Aayush?” called out Ashwin from the dining room. “We are getting
late.”

“Down in a jiffy, dad,” came the reply from upstairs.

It had been almost seven months now since Ashwin’s family shifted base
from the United States of America back to India. His friends back in the
states still couldn’t believe why Ashwin had taken such a step. Quitting his
job as General Manager of a major software firm, giving up the gargantuan
pay that he received and shifting to India and into an uncertain future defied
their logic. They had spent hours on end every other day, trying to dissuade
him from taking the step, but to no avail. He was adamant. No one knew
why.

“Aayush!” called out Aayush’s mother. “Breakfast is ready. Come down
fast.”

Ashwin had met Shalini Joshi in university while studying for his
undergraduate degree. He was a Computer Science major while Shalini was
into Medieval History Studies. Considering the diametrically opposed nature
of the subjects that they were pursuing, it was a surprise that their paths
intersected. And in what way! It would never have happened if Ashwin had
decided not to go to the library on that snowy day. He was down with high
fever and the college nurse had advised him the weekend’s worth of bed rest.
But, the workaholic Ashwin was, he had thought otherwise and decided to
visit the library and complete his final term project. Though the project was
due only next week, for some reason, Ashwin wanted to get it done and
dusted away with over the weekend itself.
The topic for his project was ‘Computer Viruses and Worms’. Books on this
subject were hard to find, but Ashwin scrounged through whatever was
available and managed to put together sufficient amount of information. A
major chapter in his project was of a particular class of viruses called the
‘Trojans’. Not wanting to waste time in searching for a specific book on that
topic, he decided to go to the counter to ask for specific directions from the
librarian. And, as it turned out, Shalini had also just arrived to return a book
that she had issued last week. Ashwin walked up to the counter and asked
the head librarian, “Ma’am. Could you please help me locate some books on
Trojans?”

The librarian, Mrs. Brown, a pleasant lady in her late fifties, stroked her chin
and searched her memory chambers to remember where those books were
kept.

“Umm… I’m afraid I don’t remember exactly where they are. I mean, there
are thousands of books in here, and now with old age chasing me faster than
ever, its getting kinda hard remembering things, you know.”

Ashwin sighed in despair and was about to turn back when Shalini spoke.

“I know where those books are. I issued them just two weeks ago. I can
show you where they are.”

Ashwin looked at her with wide eyes and replied, “Really?”

“Yeah. Trojans. Isn’t that what you said?”

“Yeah yeah. Trojans.”

“Great. Follow me then.”

She led Ashwin to the the History section of the library and stopped near the
rack on the far end of the area. Ashwin had never been to the history section
before and wondered what he was doing here now.

Puzzled, he asked, “Er… What are we doing in the History section?”

“Searching for books on Trojans. That was what you wanted. Right?”
“Well, yeah. But, how will we find it here? Don’t you think we should be
looking in the computer section?”

“Er…no. I remember finding it here last time around.”

“Which Trojans are you talking about?”

“Aren’t you looking for information on the Trojan Horse incident of the
medieval period? The one involving the kingdom of Troy.”

And then Ashwin realized. He remembered reading about it in his social
studies class while he was still in school and burst into laughter.

Amused, Shalini replied, “Why? What happened? Why are you laughing?”

And then Ashwin explained how she had misunderstood a Trojan virus for
the famous Trojan Horse incident. She told him that she was a Medieval
History Studies major.

“No wonder,” Ashwin replied.

They started seeing each other after that day.

“It is a perfect match,” said their friends.

And so it became after three years when the two were married in one of the
Hindu temples in their city.

“Hurry up, Aayush,” shouted Ashwin. “It’s already six!”

On cue, a chubby little boy stormed down the stairs and grabbed the
sandwich from the dining table. Munching on it as fast as he could, he
ordered his father to take out the car from the garage.

“I’ve already done that,” Ashwin replied.

“Damn. I needed a bit more time to fix my hair. Its my first day after all.”

“You are looking fine. Now hurry. You aren’t going to no party. Come on.”
Mumbling under his breath, Aayush picked up his bag, waved goodbye to
his mother and entered the car. Revving up the vehicle, Ashwin commanded,
“Put your seat belt on.”

“Dad! This is not the US. No one will check here.”

“Do as I tell you to.”

“But dad, it will spoil my shirt!”

“Goddamit! You are going to school, not a fashion parade. Stop cribbing and
put on the seat belt!”

Aayush gauged that there was no point arguing and he complied with his
dad’s command. He soon found out why he was so adamant.

Ashwin floored the accelerator as Aayush got pushed back into his seat. The
inertial forces got even more violent as Ashwin swerved and turned the car
on the various bends and turns that came across their way to the bus stop.
Ashwin remembered how his father used to do the same whenever he was
running late. He had inherited this skill for him.

“Look out for that dog!” Aayush shrieked. Ashwin had already noticed it
before his son and confidently swerved around it without even putting his
foot on the brake pedal.

“You scared the wits out of me!” whimpered Aayush, still in shock over that
close shave.

“Don’t you worry son,” Ashwin reassured. “I have had enough experiences
of this sort.”

They managed to reach the bus stop well before time. Aayush saw a number
of kids already present at the stop. Among them was a mean looking senior
who, gauging by his height, might have been in tenth or eleventh standard.
At once, Aayush made a point in his head, ‘Stay away from him.’

After about a few minutes, a shiny yellow bus rolled into the bus stop and
its doors opened automatically. The kids lined up and started to board their
transport to the school. Aayush also got out of the car and bid his father
goodbye.

“Aayush!” Ashwin called out, just as his son was about to board the bus.
“Best of luck! And remember – Do not talk to the seniors on the bus.
Especially those sitting on the last seat. Understood?”

Aayush nodded.

“Do not get intimidated by the huge crowd in the school. Ask for directions
to your classroom and be a good boy in the class. Do not crib. The guys
there do not like fussy kids. OK?”

Aayush nodded once again before entering the bus. A smile spread across
Ashwin’s face as he saw the bus disappear around the bend at the end of the
road.

His wish had finally come true. The dream which he had nurtured since the
day Aayush was born was finally taking shape. His sole motive for quitting
his job in the USA and moving to India was finally paying dividends. He
had always wanted his son to be a part of the same institution that had
moulded him into the person he was today. An institution to which he could
send his child with trust and could rest assured that it would prove
instrumental in shaping up his son’s entire career and future.

He could rest assured that beginning from today, a new chapter in his boy’s
life would start. A chapter which would lead him to new frontiers in life. The
day signified the mark of a start, the start of a process which would help
transform the innocent, timid, cute, chubby little boy of eleven into a
fearless, confident and responsible MAN in a mere seven years.
Commencing from today, the boy would become a part of an institution
which would take up the burden of shaping up the child’s personality, a task
which was as difficult as shaping up a pyramid of cards in his case.

The place I’m talking about is neither Alice’s Wonderland nor any other
place of fantasy, but a quiet little campus nestled in the twelfth sector of the
R.K. Puram locality of New Delhi, near the notorious Prince Pan Corner and
Sangam Cinema road crossing. It is a wonder-machine which takes in kids
like Aayush, grooms and educates them and churns out responsible men and
women citizens of the world, each one with his or her own sense of identity
and responsibility.

It is a place we dipsites call heaven, it is a place the students call a second
home, it is a place of learning and fun……...
It is a place called DELHI PUBLIC SCHOOL, R.K. PURAM.

Actually, there was one more factor that had prompted Ashwin to shift base
to India. While still in the US, he had received a job offer that he had told no
one about. A job that he absolutely could not refuse. Though it did not pay as
much as his previous employer did, nor did it offer the various benefits that
his software firm showered on him, Ashwin had little hesitation in replying
in the affirmative to that offer.
It was something beyond just paychecks and free international holidays. It
was an emotional connect and a desire to give back which was responsible.

As Ashwin drove back, he started to make his ‘to-do’ list for the day in his
mind. He had a particularly busy day today. Numerous important meetings
were scheduled and there was still a lot of work to be done in preparation for
them. He would have to leave for office early today. Life doesn’t come easy
when you are the President of the DPS Society, you see.