Chapter 6: A Breath of Fresh Air

A breath if fresh air - Ajithkumar

A positive title for a change :) . Even in Chennai and with my parents, my life seemed good for a while as I was put in a new school (New Prince) and more significantly in a school where my mother did not work. Unlike my previous schools, in the new school I had more control over my life. In my previous schools, the teachers vented out their frustration of having to handle my mothers over me.

I realized that I had very little control over my family life, so I worked hard to dominate my other life. Even as kid, I always gauged the strength of other kids in a group to find out if I could beat them in a duel to prove my superiority. However that changed as I entered my 8th grade. I realized that I need not be the strongest in a group to lead it, the requirements to be a leader of a group changed. As we grow, our intelligence, aacdemic performance, wits and a bit of extra-curricular activities became more important than physical strength. I was put in 9th standard C section (not meant for the studious guys) , I started evaluating my class and looked out for those who seemed like a competitor to me. The first guy who seemed like a competitor was Navin, a very sweet guy, he was very witty and attractive but never appeared as a threat to me. We became close buddies in a matter of 3-4 days.

A breath if fresh air - AjithkumarThe next obvious area of concern was intelligence and marks, the two who were the toppers of the class over the previous years were Mathura and Ramya. With all due respect to their intelligence I was pretty sure that I would out smart them and would become the topper of the class. I did not miss out even simple opportunities to highlight my intelligence to people, my clout grew among the guys in the class. There is no happily ever after for me, a teacher named Asha, an ex-colleague of my mother in a previous school (she hated my mother), transferred me to section A. She reasoned that I was too brilliant to be in section C. Leaving a group of good friends and a potential opportunity to top a class I moved to the A section.

I started the process all over again and looked out for potential competitors in the class only to find 10 of them. The worst part is, no one looked too hospitable. I noticed a clique of uber confident studious guys sticking together. To me they looked like invincible, Karthik, Ashwin, Sethuraman, Navin and Balaji sitting formed that clique, and I was not even sure where to sit.

I felt like an invisible guy, and sat in the penultimate desk. Sethuraman was from a CBSE school and like me he too joined the school the same year. He gave a mathematical problem in set theory to me and Karthik and asked us to solve it. I was quite good at math, and that problem was pretty lame, but back then I was very poor at handling pressure. On any other day I would have solved it in a jiffy, but that day my hands became numb and was unable to even write down the steps and Karthik finished it comfortably ahead of me. I was shattered, that was subtle bullying and like adding fuel to the fire I encountered a girl named Sudha, and she was equally talented. I am not being a sexist here, but she was the first truly intelligent girl that I ever met or studied with.

Karthik and Ashwin were studying in the same school sinctheir KG. Sethu and I were the new comers, and Sethu is the cousin of Ashwin, and there was a serious competition between them. Ashwin till then was an above average student, but the arrival of Sethu made him highly competitive. Even before the exams started, the students created an unofficial rank-sheet based on the popular opinion; in the ranking according to the popular belief the first four positions went to  Karthik, Sudha, Sethu and Ashwin. According to the class the real competition was for the fifth place and and most of them placed their bet on a guy named Balamurgan.

It was evident that there would be a minor bias towards Karthik as he was the favorite of every teacher in the school, he was not only the favorite of the teachers, but also the favorite of all the students in the class. He was handsome, good at studies, very popular, reasonably good at sports, could dance and was also humorous. In other words, he was living a life which I had only lived in my dreams.

People often demonize those who are a threat or those who are hard to defeat. I started demonizing Karthik, to me he was like a demon surrounded by imps in the form of Sethu, Navin, Balaji, Sam and few others. Every night I used to dream about defeating these guys. Then I came to know that Sethu was a neighbour of mine, just a couple of houses away from my house. Everyday I started to come back home after the school along with him. He will wait till I pick my sister and will ride our bicyles back to our home. I slowly realized that he was not a bad person as I thought, then I started interacting more with Karthik, I realized that there was a reason for him being the most popular guy in the class and also that he had a very pleasant personality.

The exams were over and I was ranked 5th (the competition was so tough). My worst rank ever, however that made me feel like a part of the class I got good friends among the back-benchers and among girls. Then I realized that I could open up more not because of my marks but because of the confidence that grew in me. I got some great friends during that year like K.S Balaji, Arun, Ambika and others. K.S Balaji is in Canada now, and I don’t know where Arun and Ambika are and I never told them till date how much I treasured their friendship. If I happened to meet them again in my life I will spend a whole day telling them how much they meant for me during those days.

My family life continued on the same path, but life seemed easy with good friends, a good school and a lot of dreams. Sethu is a very good cricket player, and we regularly played in a temple ground nearby, where 20 odd teams had to play together due to lack of grounds in our locality. Whenever I played my father would send my sister to fetch me back, and would ask me to sweep the floor or to water the plants or sometimes just for the sake of preventing me from playing. I used to do everything with a poker face, despite crying deep inside.

9th Grade came to an end and I was eager to go my native place. However my father asked me to work in a printing press which was owned by his friend, everyday I cursed myself for being born in that family, I had to go to the printing press and work till 7 pm. I liked learning new things, but not at the cost of missing the quality time with my grandmother and my friends. However, I learned the art of block printing and binding books. I started hard binding all my books from then on.

The classes for the 10th grade commenced, and teachers started telling us about the importance of 10 grade and how there would be a single common exam for all the students of the state.  Studying for exams was the last thing on my mind, my father had a big collection of books, I started reading Mahabharat and his MA books (on Indian and world history) without his knowledge. I had tremendous interest in learning new things, but there was no free library nearby. I also aspired to play cricket at the highest level and harbored the dream of playing alongside Sachin Tendulkar. The problem with me was instead of focusing on scoring runs, I focused more on proving a point to my classmates. Whenever we played a match, too many things went in to my head and I often got out at the wrong time. I will then spend a week or so feeling bad about screwing it up. Learning from my past mistakes I was mentally prepared to approach the game with the right attitude. That match was scheduled on a Sunday, and the day before my father beat me severely and threw me out (again literally) of the house for for leaving the utensils on the floor. I was terrified, not because he kicked me out of the house, but because there was no way of playing the match the next day.

I was so confused, I was hitting the ball pretty well during those practice games and did not want to miss out on that match.  I made up my mind and walked all the way to our school and spent the whole night roaming around the streets. I walked around the houses of Ashwin and Karthik, finally rested in a bus stop near Karthik’s house. After resting for a while I started shadow practicing my shots and repeatedly visualized hitting the bowlers out of the park. I lost track of time and  thought of sleeping on the bus stand. I was unable to sleep as there were so many mosquitoes around, so I walked towards my school and slept under the roof of a grocery store, and next morning the store keeper woke me up and asked about me, (they open the stores quite early around 4 am) not knowing what to say I just ran away towards the play ground. It was pretty early and I had another 5 – 6 hours to kill. I just kept walking without any destination, and then finally went to the place where we regularly assembled before a match (D ground, I don’t know the reason for such a name). I was hungry, sleepy, tired and weak but was motivated to perform.

Sethuraman was the best player, followed by Venkat, however Karthick always lead the team and he would never send me to bat higher up the order. Nothing wrong with that though, because he had never witnessed what I was capable of. So I was waiting for the wickets to fall, and there was no signs of it happening and finally with 2.3 overs to go I got my chance and I hit the first ball high and long in to square leg region, straight in the hands of a fielder. I was shattered, that was much more painful that was more painful than my father’s beating or my mother’s abuse. I blamed everything for that failure, the wind, my hunger, unusually long boundaries in that section and everything else. All my dreams of playing a good knock came down crashing. I failed in the match, I cannot go home, I was desperately hungry and did not have a single penny.

I went home with chilling shivers running through my spine and assuming that they would have searched for one full day. When I entered the house, everything was calm and that made me more nervous. My mother asked me where I was, I lied that I went to Karthik’s house and stayed there. No more questions asked. But then I had to wait till the night to have my food.

We had our exams and I was not expecting anything great. I knew that the results are not going to have any consequence in my life and I was also sure that I would get sufficient marks to opt for the group of my choice. I was the underdog, I had no pressure or expectations, the pressure was actually on Karthick, Sudha, Sethu and Ashwin to deliver. The teachers were expecting State ranks from them.

Karthik and Sethu approched the DPI and got the results even before it was announced officially. I learnt, that both Kartick and Sethu got 100% in math (200/200) but their overall percentage was less than 90 (Which was way too less compared to state ranks). The moment my mother came to know the marks of Karthik and Sethu, she started abusing me that I was fit for nothing and I should go and serve food for those two instead of studying with them. I was unable to understand how someone could their son for poor performance without even knowing his marks. One good thing about my father was, he never cared about my marks. After two days, K.S Balaji came to my house and congratulated me saying that I too got 100% in math and have scored more than Karthik and Sethu. It was a mighty relief and in addition to getting 100% in Maths I also was the school topper in Science scoring 290/300, clearly way ahead of everyone else at school. I scored 4 more than Karthik in the overall aggregate, and I was on top of the world. Our photos were printed in the newspapers along with our scores, I could not believe that good things can happen to me.

For a change I was happy despite being in Chennai. It did not dawn on me until another 3 months that it was just the beginning of a glorious period in my life.