If you were born in a time when exams held their tyrannical sway over young lives, you could never forget those swarthy exam pads. The very sight of them used to cause me to quiver in my well worn Bata shoes. Scared frenzy propelled sweat would populate every conceivable pore.
It was but logical, that I turned to invoking God on to my exam pad. Over a period of time, a variety of stickers of every conceivable God on Earth were pasted across the pad. On my pad there were Gods with spears. Another on a tiger. All of them with myriad weapons and paraphernalia. Some with ten hands, dazzling crowns, halos around their heads. Jesus was there with blessings seemingly streaming from his palms. A picture of the grand mosque at Mecca. Buddha. Every conceivable God that you could think of was there.
I couldn’t care less which of those Gods would lend a hand. I just needed a hand. Incredible things were reported of every single God. As a young lad who just needed to clear his exam, religious difference were silly.
Two days before the exam, my dad spotted the God sporting pad! Not looking up from the newspaper he was devouring along with his filter coffee, he let go of a suitably loud guffaw and said, ‘God is just an idea’.
My head reeled. An idea? I mean, here were chaps with bows, arrows, crosses and array of mystical powers that debilitated enemies with precision, were paragons of kindness and generally oversaw the ways of the world. All I was asking was some help with the math exam. And my dad was calling it a giant hoax. Almost.
He followed it up with “If you don’t believe in yourself, God isn’t going to believe in your prayer. He is a busy man. He sure has other things to do than solve your math exam. Don’t you think so?”
That holiday, I remember taking walks with him. Discussing God. Man and most importantly, exams! He stood tall. Not in a physical way. Not even in a literal way. But in a shy, unobtrusive, middle class way where all change and soaking up had to happen by the dint of effort, respect and quiet fortitude. And any action remotely akin to showmanship without substantial substance was despicably pejorative.
From him I learnt taking walks and sorting things out in my mind. By the time, I had come to my Board exams, the exam pad sported cartoon characters. I had come full circle. I had taken many walks. I thought too highly of God and a trifle too funnily of exams. That notion has stuck for life.
His ways were woefully unobtrusive. There were times you would expect a clear answer and all that I would end up having, was a smirk. Or an arched eyebrow. A punctuated guffaw. Following which he would dive into his collection of books like a chef searching for the choicest of ingredients and return with two books. Or more. ‘Go read’ he would say. Sometimes with an afterthought, add, ‘The Dictionary is in the cupboard’. On hindsight, I should have deciphered that code as as ‘this-is- a-@*#%*$&-tough-book-to-read’
J.Krishnamoorthy. Shakespeare. Milton. Kannadasan. Biographies. Judgement copies. Constitution. Economics. Osho. The Gita. It was a time when not reading the Reader Digest was a sin only slightly lesser than daylight robbery. We argued. We questioned. Sometimes he would answer. Many other times he would just stay silent and say ‘think’.
From him I learnt the indelible virtue in reading. A virtue that necessitated respect for multiplicity of points of view. He never insisted that I study any subject, save Math and Tamil. For which I remain eternally grateful. He had such a surfeit of generosity in his invitations to read and talk, that I would often end up playing cricket, citing difficulty to choose from all that he had to offer. Or so I told him. And he would play along.
Back in school, one fine morning, I was told I was going to be the next School Pupil Leader. It came with a few duties. One of which was to get on stage every morning and sort of compeer the prayer ceremony. Every morning. This was the unkindest of blows to a chap who suffered from tongue-gets-pasted-to-lips-the-moment-there-is-a-crowd-in-front disease.
No way was I going to do that. I made a deal with him. He would talk the school out of it and in return, I will work hard and come amongst the top three rank holders in school. I mean, that was the best I could offer, given the unbelievably studious chaps that I think could have out beaten Google! Or so it feels now.
He thought about it and said, ‘deal’. I was happy as a blissful pig who found a new ugly spot to roll in. Even if you had offered me three ice cream Sundaes I wouldn’t have been happier. If you offered me four, well, that is hypothetical, and let’s not go there.
He dutifully came to school and met the Principal. That evening over dinner, he was beaming. I was happy that this School Pupil Leader thing was put to rest. With a small portion of a dosa in his mouth he spoke. ‘They made me a better offer’.
My world collapsed. It was a teenage moment when seething anger gives way to blinding rage at the injustice meted out to ordinary people. ‘AND WHAT IS THAT BETTER OFFER’ I thundered like a Tamil hero. (May I request you to please add an echo and a thundering background special effect sound as is the norm). He continued munching his dosa, nonplussed. Paused for a brief moment, and said, “They said, It will be good for you.” And that was that.
From him I learnt ‘to persevere’ is more important than ‘to perfect’. From him I learnt that as long as you are still standing in the ring, you haven’t lost the fight.
He used to come to the plays I acted in, but would never tell me he was coming. (“You should perform for the sake of performance. Not for who is in the audience”). He never wrote a letter of recommendation. He insisted that we always lifted our own luggage from train stations and treat the rickshaw puller with respect.
He wanted us to have an independent mind. Fiercely. Almost as though, being otherwise was illegal and would result in rigorous stone breaking imprisonment and sharing of a dark cell with hardened criminals with deviant sexual orientations. He didn’t say those. But looking back, that’s how it feels now!
It was not as though he was perfection personified. He had his views, foibles, follies and some of them deeply impacted us. But then, so did we. I guess, it was who he was. To live life naturally. Without pretense.
He would beseech us to ‘walk like a Jawan’ and in the same monotone say, ‘safety is most important’. With him by the side, language often took a new meaning. Silence spoke. Mistakes didn’t matter. Wealth was a corollary consequence. Virtue was in trying. Of course, treating people with dignity was important to be human. Love needn’t be expressed but it had to be experienced. We didn’t agree on everything. But that didn’t stop him from getting us to chat about everything.
Today, at home, my mom hands over the same exam pad to the nurse. The same pad with cartoon stickers on them. My mom’s ways of capturing a piece of the present for future reminiscing, has ensured preservation of that thing from school. The sight of the pad unlocks a dam of memories and a slight quiver runs through my adult legs.
The nurse who has come home, records parameters. In a sheaf of paper clipped on. My dad lies there. In the same room. A shrunk shadow of who he was. But still fighting the disease that envelopes him.
In the evening I pray for easing of his pain. Thoughts bob like a balloons in a bucket of water. I wonder if I should revert to the original stickers on the pad. He would be livid. But, this after all is a different exam.
And most importantly I am not him. I am not even a patch on him.
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