99.9 %

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

On Monday as another round of school board exam results with its related procession of stratospheric marks went by, I was thinking of something else.

Not long ago, soon after I turned fifty and mortal, I visited a man I owed much to. He and another teacher ensured I crossed the finish line when I faced my board exams. Like one of those body shutdowns at marathons, I was a mess in my tenth standard, crawling to a verdict I had dreaded for years. These teachers put up with my very average academic ability. They coached an also ran to somehow perform and get a finisher’s medal.

Since then I have walked a path away from the competitive exams, the majority clusters to. Life has been considerably less rewarding on the road less traveled. It has also been quite lonely. But I feel life, as moment and journey. If I hadn’t felt it so, would I go back to thank my teacher at fifty? Fifty was remarkable for another realization. In India, the legacy of competition beats the best of stain removers. Most of my friends are still in board exam mode. They aren’t done with accumulating distinctions to stay on top in the rat race. Unlike me, they either love the rat race or having got married and raised families can’t afford a different perspective. Old friends meeting up, is like playing pool with glass balls. You have to make sure no ego is pricked, no vanity punctured. As we live we pile on such layers.

Life’s greatest question is: what am I? Like toddler comprehending movement because there is fixed ground below for index, board exam gives you an initial baseline. It is also misleading because there is a lot of others – comparing with them, beating them – in the frame. After all, 99.9 per cent and 499 / 500 pose no value if they don’t take you to the head of a queue and for queue, you need others. But hive is not sole reality around. What about every bee’s individual excursions? Remember – the one we live with the longest is our own self. That’s why the question: what am I? – It matters. What am I? – cannot be answered by looking at others. I never forget the scene of Sentinels invading from The Matrix Revolutions. The screen turns dark with a swirling mass of squid like robots, each reporting to the rules of the matrix. Contemporary Indian life is a lot like that dark screen. We lose sight of sky because our vision is blocked by human beings, rat race and rules we dare not question. Universe unseen, what am I? – is trashed as irrelevant. That’s when 99.9 per cent in accordance with curriculum by hive, looms as only viable torchlight in utterly dark cave. All the while, the switch to know one’s self – the best illumination existence provides – remains undetected.

In a sense it is good. Life thereafter becomes discovery. But not if an edifice of trashing genuine questions becomes your cocoon for the next several decades. Employment these days is just that. The relentless march of compliance as virtue is a peculiarly Indian thing. We seem wired to be the world’s torso harboring the organs and processes that keep existence going. Not so much its brain or probing finger tips.

I love those friends with whom I can question rules and imagine without boundaries. It clears dark screen and Sentinels, makes you sense universe beyond. Monday night, I asked one such friend how much he scored for his board exam. It was 75 per cent. Then, there is the other case. A brilliant person (brilliance measured on my terms, not 99.9 per cent) I knew from my college days, now shuns company. I think he needs to be so to preserve his mind. When I asked him how he survives in his city prone to flocking and quick judgement, he replied, “ I keep to myself.’’ Every May as the frenzy around 99.9 per cent and 499 / 500 rolls out, I remember the teachers who saved me. I also feel amused. All that celebration and publicity in the media is like declaring winners before the race of life has begun. Forget race, the beauty of the path ahead is that if you bother to notice life, it dips, dives, soars, plunges, turns, meanders, wanders – it does too many things to be any one in particular and be the stuff of a discipline and a race. But then you have to notice it.  How many of us do?

Apart from visiting my former teacher, the other thing I did at fifty was visit the parents of an old friend. Somewhere in that chat I blurted out, “ I still don’t know what I am or what I wish to do in life.’’ Oops, I thought clamping my mouth shut. If it was office, that would be hara-kiri. “ Interesting,’’ the father said smiling. He had a look in his eyes. The easiest description of that would be `distant’ but a more accurate one I think would be, `knowing.’

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)      

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