As I walked past the corridor, tactfully evading several paper rockets, I caught a slight preview of what lay ahead..
. As I walked into the classroom, I was lost in thought. My mother’s constant instructions of what to do and what not to do seemed to get lost amidst the murmurs and mayhem of the classroom. As I entered the classroom, all eyes turned towards me and when I stood there in denim jeans and a full length T-shirt, a sudden gush of self-consciousness came over me. The reaction I got was almost incomprehensible. It was a combination of hatred and fear. My presence was proving to be rather disturbing to the others.I took my seat and after a quick “good-bye” and “best of luck” from my mother, I was left alone to endure reality.
The examiner quickly handed out the question paper. It was bad enough to be giving an art exam in a municipal school but to give it alone, which just put the icing on the cake. I sat down and quietly arranged all my material on my desk.
The other students, whose school I was giving the exam in, seemed unusually drawn towards me. They seemed to be mimicking me. They took out their materials. Besides the awkwardness of it all, the examination hall wasn’t exactly my definition of pleasant.
The benches were slurred with words I had never encountered previously and students had engraved little illustrations on to the desk. The blackboard seemed centuries old and the floor was obviously not well-tended to. The over-flowing dustbin seemed to be the only object with any similarity to my own classroom. But the smell had to be the worst. The lavatories, which I wasn’t allowed to use were filthy and were breeding-grounds for all sorts of insects. Who would believe, they actually existed! The smell was a mixture of the fish market I passed every day on my way to school and the unique odor of Mumbai in the monsoon..
.Damn! I had drifted away. I stared at the large clock above the blackboard. Eleven twenty nine. Only two hours and one minute to go. After a quick mental debate on whether or not I should listen to my I-pod, I looked back at my half painted aster flower.
The glares I was getting were becoming more and more vicious and my level of comfort had sunk deep. The combination of my complete incognizance of my over-whelming presence and my full-sleeved T-shirt enhanced my perspiration. There were people leaning over my back and people pushing by my side. It was all starting to get claustrophobic.I could comprehend what they were saying and I sensed that was premeditated. This strange barrier existed between me and the rest. They were strangely attracted to me and I was strongly appalled by them. The more I ignored them, the more they glared.
The more I tried to be nice, the livid they got. It seemed to me that my presence was driving them mad. My thoughts were interrupted by the shrill screech of a glass object. The girl sitting diagonally opposite to be had dropped her paint kit. The screech was followed by a bout of wailing from the girl, her carefully oiled braids were messed up as she cried for her paint bottles.
If someone at my school cried for a paint bottle, I’d probably have laughed. The wailing was getting on my nerves and my work on the aster was showing little progress with all the unwanted distraction. My heart and my brain were having a little internal conference.
My brain seemed to tell me to ignore the wailing and my heart was begging the brain to do something. I walked over and gave her my extra paint box. The extra one was from a local shop as I didn’t want to waste my expensive one in case she decided to drop it again and plus who knew whether she would ever return it.I saw it as a form of charity. As I smiled at my praiseworthy gesture and took pride in my humility and generosity to the less fortunate, the girl glared at me with increasing intensity. Her eyes which were sore from all the crying were revived with energy and anger.
She grabbed the box out of my hand, as I quickly backed off and scoffed at this rowdy and completely ungracious behavior. Thud! It smashed down to the floor. As I stared down at the paints amalgamating with the dust and the ancient wrappers that embraced the floor, she stared at me. I had no idea what was happening.What had I done to anger her so much? All I had done was tried to help her.
I was expecting a courteous “Shukriya, didi*”. She was breathing deeply, almost like a murderer inspecting its victim before lynching it. I was scared, this exam was turning out to be a nightmare… not only was I surrounded with people who hated me for being more fortunate than they were but despised me even when I tried to help.
Their perspective of me was generalized and biased and they judged me with the number of paint bottles I had carried to the exam, my clothes and my grooming.My thoughts were flexed to the limits and my scrutiny of everything around me was become more profound and more educated. I was watching the girl, my eyes lost in thought. She walked over to my bench and dropped my water bowl to the floor. The strange thing was that she didn’t spoil my painting. It seemed to be a warning to me to stay in my place and not interact with the rest.
She hated me but I didn’t know who to blame for this hatred. I was born in to my life and was given these material privileges and they had been brought up to crave those privileges and hate those who were born into them.To her, my life was simple and unproblematic. I looked back at the clock. One minute left. My aster flower was the best I had ever done, and I was sure my teacher would be proud. That flower was filled with memories with my encounter with “the girl”.
Every time I look out of my Mercedes and see a school girl walking on the road with neatly oiled hair, I search for “the girl”. Two years later, I appeared for my intermediate exam and guess where I chose to go? I went to the same municipal school. But this time I walked in with a simple box of Indian paints and the impeccably oiled hair.