Woah! Since when do we get laptops for labs? I stared in awe, and perhaps even drooled a bit, as our physics teacher began to pass out brand new and of course, the fully PERFECT Macbooks to everyone. Sanitize your hands, she was saying, you don’t want to get oil stains on these things. They’re worth a thousand dollars each… The instructions went on but by this point, everyone had already tuned out. After all, the point is- we get a new toy.. Twenty thousand dollars worth of equipments for each department? No wonder school taxes keep going up. And that too, just to save ourselves the two-second walk to the computer lab. Brilliant. Now we can do the calculations for the lab right here in the classroom (and then spend another few thousands on exercise machines.. right in the classroom). Superfluous, much? Of course, of course I’d love to peacefully protest and boycott this infringement of basic financial practicality. But.. seeing that everyone else was already playing around with the webcam and photobooth, just one question- should I make myself fisheyed, pop-arted or bulged? I love you, Steve Jobs (almost as much as Larry Page and Sergey Brin..almost)!
Lab 5 data. AP Biology made me a pro in Excel, I was telling my lab partner, I can do this in my sleep. My first day in Seventh-Day. Seventh-Day Adventist School in Kerala. I stared in awe then too. But the other kind of awe. Oh God, how could I have thought that way? So shallow. So… so everything I claim to hate now. Forgive me, God, I was a shallow ignorant 8-year old (or was I nine? how old are fourth-graders anyway? God knows). I scold them now. Those “American” kids, for the ‘disgust’ they feel when they go back. But, isn’t that what I felt too? As much as I hate that word, it was in everything- in those thin wooden planks arranged in diamonds in place of real walls, to let lots of “fresh air” in (almost like sitting outdoors), the smell of the air itself (the bathroom was the nearest to my classroom), the bare concrete floors (dark gray, nothing else), the wooden benches with a billion cracks (and the random gifts presented by crows and doves) and the English teacher whose thick accent forever ruined my once-favorite poems (yemily dikkison, yenyone?). Disgust, yet I was no foreigner.
“Wow! You’re a first-rank holder from Ooty?” the girls crowded around me at lunch time. How different were the priorities of fourth-graders, no fourth-standard, students there! Not high scores on the latest video game (Halo, is it?) or autographed momentos of the latest pre-teen sensation (Hannah Montana? Jonas brothers?). But ranks. My lab partner turned to me as I smiled out loud. What’s so funny? She wanted to know. I shook my head. You wouldn’t understand.
The girl next to me smelled like sambhar. I like sambhar, especially when Ammachi makes it but… I don’t like sitting next to someone who smells like it. Disgust, again. The girl had short, straight black hair that hid her ears and encircled her neck. A funny hairstyle, if you ask me. Ayesha and Pooja would have laughed too. It was not fashionable at all, at least not by Ooty standards. This girl was the first rank holder, I had heard. From here. I wasn’t actually afraid of THIS competition. But I should have been. The first progress report marked me as being second rank. Guess who was first. Shouldn’t underestimate people. Especially when they smell like sambhar.
In Ooty, we went to the mess hall in straight lines, with our hands tied behind our backs. Little soldiers (with education as our wars). I walked up and down as dormitory prefect, ensuring that even the tiniest junior’s hands were firmly knotted behind her back. In Seventh-Day, the whole class immediately jumped as the bell struck at lunch time. Lunch boxes were brought out. Different foods mixed with the already fowl smells in the air. I wanted to barf. Where had I ended up? I hated how our room was at the end, nearest to the sports grounds (forever filled with senior boys who howled and screamed their way to goals), to the tap on the ground (to which everyone ran to at lunch to wash up) and to the bathrooms (I already mentioned the smell). Disgust, once again. Everyone washed their lunch boxes at that tap. Shiny steel tiffins. They reflect sunlight quite well. Especially when you’re eight-years old. That was their toy.
“Check you sig figs on the height column,” the physics teacher pointed to my screen as she was making rounds. It wasn’t mine. That wasn’t my world. Yet, neither is this.
“Okay, Miss… es Bekend*,” I replied. Now what was her name? That Miss. The one with that deep orange sari with the white lines. You know, the maths teacher. Maths. That feels so weird. It’s been so long since I thought of it that way. That one ‘s’ – it makes all the difference. What was her name? She was my favorite. I had tried to find her on my last day there. I said goodbye to everyone but her. What was her name? I can see her face. Oh God, why did I forget?
My last day there.. I remember that. It wasn’t the last day of school. But I had to leave. That’s how our tickets were planned. Chechi and me-no, I had already forgotten my English- Chechi and I were leaving to the USofA. It was the end of that one year I spent there and by then, I had made friends. Even the sambhar girl. They were telling me things, to stop me from going. As though anyone had a choice. As though anything would have changed. Why are you smiling? My lab partner turned to me again and looked at my computer screen, either Excel is telling you jokes or you’re doing something else. I laughed. I was just thinking, I replied, do you think it’s weird that we’ve a city called Buffalo? No, she gave me a queer look, of course not. Well… I do. She had told me that. Sambhar girl had a sister in the USofA. “Do you know, they named a city Buffalo?” The girls laughed, everyone but me. “Onnu po!” Go away! I replied, a bit annoyed, with the only comeback I knew then (and know now). “They do! Want to bet?” she laughed in my face. Oh, that laugh of hers. “500 rupees. They don’t. They don’t. They don’t!” Stubbornness ran in my blood. I owe her that 500, if I ever see her again. What was her name? I can’t remember. Wicked smart, probably in this year’s list of IIT applicants or civil service prospectives- how fast time went. 4th to 12th. Just like that. We had competed for that rank each time, first hers, then mine, then tied. I never saw the last progress card. I wonder, if I had stayed, which list would I have been on now?
Our school is too cold in the winter and too hot in the spring. Everyone complains. Everyone. But that day, in Sixth-Day*, it got so hot. The Maths teacher (the name, dammit!) was torturing us with algebraic weapons and under my dark blue uniform socks, my eczema was starting a torture of its own. The sun was literally in my face (I did already mention the lack of real walls, right? In preference to ‘fresh’ bathroom-flavoUred air). Everyone was ready to leave by lunch time. The tap water on my face. The best feeling in the world. That day. Nothing comes close. Not even that one day last year when it got so hot in our high school that the heat sensors went off and the fire department came. At least, there was a heat sensor. “Missey, enikku choodedukkunnu,” some brave soul had screamed. “Choodinodu edukkandannu para.” In the heat, there was laughter. Loud, bright laughter.
Then there were those competitions. What was it called? Talent Day? Cultural Fest? Shoot, I can’t think of that either. It has been eight-ish years but come on, I have only had 17 (and a half) years of life. Can’t my mind hold a few more memories? Oh God! What was it called? Oh… I recited a Malayalam kavitha. Sarga Sangeetham. Rachana, Vayalar Ramavarma. I hadn’t understood it then. I don’t understand it now, even with the help of the Malayalam-English dictionary that I had told my grandparents to buy for me. But I had won second. English recitation gave me first prize- Leisure by William Henry Davies. I can still say it by-heart; ‘What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare..’ Then there was Malayalam light music; my music sir had taught me that. I was a little scared of him. When I was littler, even before my Seventh-Day times, I would do all kinds of tricks to escape his lessons. My eczema that remained passive till then would start its games at the sight of him. I can’t remember why I was so antagonized by him. But, he remained patient with me. I can’t remember it now but the song’s still there, written in his neat, typographic handwriting on the last page of my Karnatic music book (which is almost falling apart now; I should fix it when I get home today). And last, but definitely not least, fancy dress. Ammachi had dressed me up in a chatta and mundu, two plastic bangles covered in gold foil for earrings and a long rosary. ‘Edi, aa pashuvinte paal karakkanam, aa kozhikku theetta kodukkanam. Njannonnu palliyil poyittu varaam,’ I would command to a nonexistent daugher, with my lips completely enveloping my teeth, shaking my hands and stressing each syllable accordingly. Then, I’d slowly circle around the stage, with my hunched back and shaky feet. And a haste small prayer once I got near the mike again. The senior boys who sat in the back yelled ‘amen’ as I finished. That’s how I knew I won.
Excel. I hate the 2007 version. I barely know how to use it. Now, where is the formula bar? Standard deviations are such a waste of time. My lab partner nodded. Woah! You’re that ahead? I just finished the first section and you’re on the fourth? I laugh. You’ll catch up. Aapa pithave dheivame… why is that song stuck in my head now? Oh, that girl taught me that song. She sat on the other side of me (sambhar girl was on my right). She knew a lot of songs, especially church songs. This one was her favorite. Israyelin Naadhanaayi… Very popular song but I heard it first from her (and after that, just about every competition in Philadelphia). She was the one who filled me with the wisdom that, you know, in the USofA, they use the tissue things in the toilet. Tissues in the toilet? No, THEY DON’T! Nope, I didn’t bet any money this time. But I still owe her an apology. Not that I remember her name either. What’s with me and my inability to remember names?
In Ooty, we sometimes got to see Hindi movies. Sometimes sweet, sometimes sour- that is a translation of one of the movies’ names. I can’t remember the original title. I should google it when I get home. I wonder if we’re allowed to go on the internet now. Oh God, Chechi would laugh if she heard that, me and my obsession with what’s allowed and not allowed. That’s a side-effect of Ooty too. We saw Niram before Papa and Mummy left for America. There is some story about us being late for it but I forget now. At Seventh-Day, we decided to dance to a song from that movie. Minnithennum nakshathrangal minni thennunnu… With matching black baseball caps. My first dance without a formal choreographer. In Ooty, Shakhi Miss taught me everything. To be a meenkari whose husband was out sailing during a storm (kaaveri puzhayil..), to be an umma whose daughter was getting married (‘nte rabbe! Onningu ethaaraayi!), to repeat each adavu over and over until the whole room even breathed together and sit in aramandi until standing straight seemed to be the unnatural thing to do. Shakhi Miss. I remember her name. And Smitha Miss, the English teacher who made me fall in love with the Chicken Soup books. And Saritha Miss, the curly-haired Malayalam teacher who taught me anything and everything I know about my mother tongue. And Sunila Miss. And Ivy Miss. I remember all of them, Ooty teachers and friends (Ayesha, Pooja, Neil, Rashmi, Mayuri..) and even the VP, the turbaned Sikh who knew Malayalam. What happened to Seventh-Day? A hole in my memories. That one year. No, not a full hole. Just memories with lowered opacity, to speak of it in photoshop terms. If only they could be despeckled, warped, saturated and filtered too. Perfection created. Too bad it doesn’t work that way.
“You’re done? Good! You can play around with the laptop for the next ten minutes,” my physics teacher patted me on the back, on her second set of rounds. Not to be arrogant, Ms. Beckand*, but I feel overly confident in these classes. When people keep talking about how fast I work. They don’t understand that it’s not because I’m amazing in any way but because I had a non-silver-spoon-fed foundation (no, I’m not talking about Revlon or L’Oreal here). I didn’t have Sparknotes to copy and paste the night before the essay was due. I didn’t have teachers telling me that my best is good enough when my best was an 90. No, it isn’t. Victory or failure but not my best. I didn’t have the peer pressure around to act as though I didn’t care. I had the pressure to care. To beat Sambhar girl (by the way, we were good friends, not enemies; just to reiterate). Test scores didn’t come back with smiley faces and smelly stickers. Actually, the Maths teacher didn’t even smile at me if I didn’t get a 100. I loved her nevertheless. The English teacher read every word of my cursive essays and circled every misspelled word in thick red (and then commented on the inequalities between the sizes of my ‘a’s and ‘e’s). It’s not just the idea that counts but the mechanics too. I agree. No, my foundation wasn’t fed to me with a silver spoon. And I am glad it wasn’t. Too bad the rest of it was. Yet, somehow somewhere lines begin to cross. Every foundation can smudge, both in terms of this and Revlon. Sometimes, there are boundaries and sometimes, there aren’t. (Am I going crazy? Physics, you make me mad… with love, of course!)
“Out, damned spot! out, I say!… Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”
Shakespeare’s words. In Macbeth, around the time Lady Macbeth becomes a complete lunatic (no, I’m not at that stage yet). I know this book completely, from cover to cover. The printed words on my hardcover book, my English teacher’s million ways of analyzing every word, my classmate’s funny sound effects through the narrations, the dozens of practice SAT essays I used it on… I know this book.
And somewhere else, half way across the world, Saikat, my friend from Ooty, has it as his Facebook status (with un-Shakespearean comments to enhance it, of course). He knows it too, cover to cover. Macbeth and his tragic flaw. Lady Macbeth and her guilt. He knows it too.
And again, somewhere else, perhaps still in Seventh-Day and perhaps not, sambhar girl is probably pondering those same words. Out, out I say.
Hello, where are you? My lab partner waves her hand in front of my face. The bell rang. We can’t be late to Math again. Maths. I like Maths. Orange and white lines. In a zig-zag pattern. Oh God, what was her name?
*So I had fake names. And today (march 9, 2010), I decided to change them all back, except for my current Physics teacher. Next year, when I’m far far away, maybe I’ll change it back;]