It’s either LKG or UKG. I can’t tell the two years apart in my barrel of fragmented memories. Ironed-white shirts and muleta-red skirts; the autorickshaw driver lifts us up and gently drives us into the spaces in between the blue seat’s torn edges and the ashy knees that are already in front of them as if we are fluid lego pieces. Brown arms with half a dozen holy threads and the scent of Cuticura layered over that of the sambars and rasams in metal tiffins that dangle from one hand while the other balances water bottles hanging around feeble necks- the driver must be good at tetris. When the auto reaches the school gates, a miss in a cotton sari runs up to our side. Dots of sweat decorate the arm that reaches out to grab me. At Assembly, as we claim all those around us – those we intend to steal chocolate from, copy off of, gossip about, play with and intentionally not play with, unintentionally forget about, learn from and about, grow up with and leave behind – as brothers and sisters, simply by virtue of the label on our application-pending passports, I feel the sweat on my forehead running down the sides of my face. Water and sodium, urea and fear; the little fingers on my non-pledging left hand restlessly pound my thigh. Today, I might have to read it aloud. The fear manifests in tears that, for now, are not marked by mascara streaks.
The word I must read is written in black and repeated in red in a series of squiggly and straight lines. The impossibility had gotten stuck in my throat on the day the miss with the red-orange cotton sari handed me my first Hindi textbook. The first page’s deep red fruit loomed in front of my eyes as I sat at dinner and complained to my Ammachi – this language is impossible! “Ah” for “Annaar”, for the fruit I could never open on my own; it required too much strength and too much time to get its messy insides onto the plate. The squiggly lines formed intricate patterns that looked nothing like the sounds the teacher’s lips produced. The impossibilities were real and relevant. I would never learn this language.
I could imagine neither the day I’d reach “gya” for “gyani” and allow the newspaper-wrapped textbook to collect dust in a childhood home, nor the day I could cut open a pomegranate on my own.
In retrospect, it’s hilarious.
It’s the summer after 9th grade. Or at least, I think it was. The pictures are not on my Facebook, which is disturbing because sometimes, I think that’s the only way I remember events. Photos after photos after photos. Most of my trip to India that year is a blur, as it always is. Between photographing everything green and everything that moves, there is never much left of the homeland to hold on to. But I do remember the heat and how the mango trees had dried up by then, and how school had already started for the next year. White shirts and green skirts and blue ribbons and red ties walk in lines and skip rocks and yell atrocities down the streets as I sit and watch from the terrace. On rainy days, the bright blue tarpaulin race them and I bet on raindrops falling down palm leaves. My cousin is in the dreaded 10th standard that year. At the family event everyone else attends, she is missing and when I complain to my aunt, Ma interrupts – stop being silly! It’s not like it is there. Here in India, kids have to actually study in school. It’s 10th standard, not child’s play.
Later, during one of those impromptu sleepovers in which I ended up handwashing a bra and wearing her mother’s ultra-long nightie, I tell her of how jealous I am – I wish I could belong. She laughs for quite a while before telling me that I can take her place any day. (Identity problems, after all, are for the Americans, with our discussion groups and chai-samosa circles and the plethora of humanities essays in search of a label that predominantly exists in our heads.) Her table was cluttered with books I half recognized. She begins to describe it to me; the piles of handwritten notes look foreign to me, though we supposedly study the same subjects. 10th standard board exams were published in hell and hand-delivered by satan’s minions to crush the souls of students and parents alike. Cable connections cut off, magazine subscriptions changed, “brain food” included in the daily menu, almond milk normalized and ayurvedic supplements bought in bulk, curfews allotted for everyone from the neighbors’ dog to the retired grandfather – no one in the household was spared the misery of a 10th grader. I silently watch the fear in her eyes descend into darkened moons below them as she closes her eyes and lay awake, allowing her fear to seep within me.
My sister tells me that in 10th grade, the impossibility was the dominating thought in the minds of everyone on the ride. It was the single most important exam, bolded often, and decided the course of the rest of their lives. I half-remember seeing my sister’s name on a rank list posted somewhere near the biology classrooms. She must remember that too as well as the fear and the sleepless nights- but probably not the question papers. More than a decade later, they’re all over the world- the classmates, the schoolmates, the smiling photos in the newspapers and the hopefully-smiling faces that had not made it onto the papers, the ones who made the parents proud and the ones who suffered the wrath of a decade’s worth of storm clouds. The lists, as they often do, collapse from the middle. Hierarchies become meaningless, both in terms of bank statements and happiness. Fifteen-year olds grow up, and the impossibilities decay. (Of course, only to be replaced by new ones).
In retrospect, it’s hilarious.
Much later, I tell my cousin that her tenth grade is my eleventh grade, which was slightly true and wholly false. There was an exam but it was not a big deal. Okay, fine, there were a few exams; and on the nights before all of them, I thought they were the biggest deals I could ever have a chance with. I prayed to every God I ever encountered and drank coffee by gallons. Does Krishna listen to Christians? Is it too late to convert to Islam? If all the gods you know thumb-wrestled, who would win? Wait, I wish I had a goddess of wisdom- that’s so unfair! It was a year of internal monologues and external strifes. We bought review books in bulk and paid per pound of overly simplified and utterly useless information. Resumes were written and reworded a thousand times over, prepositions removed and grammatical constructions wholly ignored for the sake of fitting my entire life story on a 8.5 by 11 inch rectangle. But, dear Mrs.(Counselor), I really like adjectives, and run-on sentences. After all, Arundhati Roy writes like that and she survived. But I wouldn’t. No, it was impossible. I would be okay but not great- no science bowl, no sports, no books, nothing amazing.
On the day the guest speaker gave us that elaborate anecdote, I sit up, desperate for any bits of silver I could find. His story is about how his wife wrote “I will buy <name of car>” on a post-it note and stuck it to her mirror so that she could see her goal everyday. Though the car seemed unaffordable and impossible to attain at the time, she bought it within a few months. Eager to dissipate the fear in my throat, I flatten out old post-it notes and write specific things for the future – I will get at least a [score] on my SAT, I will write [number of essays] by next month, I will get 5s on [number] of APs, I will get into [university names], I will realize I’m happy. A part of me remains logical, realizes the insanity and thus, adds the only bit of saving grace – I write them all in French. When visitors or family members come across the notes on my mirror, they might raise an eyebrow but at least, I thought, they wouldn’t laugh. As I brush my teeth, I read over them and the impossibilities rise in my sink. They bubble in my head for the rest of the day.
In retrospect, it’s hilarious.
Where am I going with this? That I find Hindi a daunting language to learn? That I missed out on the ICSE board exam stress? That I got into college because I wrote my motivational messages in French? Yes, yes and yes(?), I guess. But also, that as I currently spend hours after hours pouring myself over MCAT books, spending my summer alternating between library carrels and my bed while wondering for the millionth time what I actually want to do with my life (I DO NOT KNOW) in sentences punctuated by sighs and chest pains, in the middle of a largely talented group of people who seem to have it all sorted out and laundered, it’s nice to be reminded that:
(1) I might still not know Hindi but hey, I can watch Hindi movies and understand most of it. So it’s completely fine. (Mainly. Most of the time. Except when Hindi-speaking people make fun of you, but that’s a whole another story.)
(2) The most daunting of fears are sometimes the silliest. And our impossibilities remain mere figments of our imaginations. Love, our brains are just really good at playing jokes on us.
(3) We get through them. Be it tests or unwanted internships or the lack of internships or the jobs that make us feel like we’re made of plastic or the sting of rejections or the kakorraphiaphobia that numbs our fingers or the applications that pile on or the way in which our dreams seem to flatten out into mere practicalities- they all matter so little and we make it out with our heads still in the clouds. Not because they are not important but because.. well, they end.
(4) I’m not just talking about academia. But I’m most likely talking to you. Everything will be okay. Or another kind of okay. Some kind of okay. Promise.