Reading Time: 16 minutes
Reading time for Dummies: 23 minutes
‘Who broke the vase?’, exclaimed Mom.
I stood there and gave her a blank stare. (Well, you don’t have that many options when you’re five years old.)
‘Your Grandma gave me that vase. Who broke it?’, she asked, this time firmly.
‘I didn’t do it Ma! Halley’s Comet whooshed in through the window and smashed it!’
‘Mmhmm! And how did it hit the vase when you were sitting right next to it?’. The woman meant business.
‘I don’t know!’, I whispered dramatically. ‘It’s a mystery!’ And I saw her anger fade away with a smile.
Mom came from a time when milk came from cows instead of plastic bags. She’d tell me stories about the coffee estate she grew up in, the lone, nice cottage Grandpa had got from the estate; the huge garden where Grandma grew vegetables and the li’l cow-pen at the backyard where she saw a cow givin’ birth to a calf for the first time. Of course, stray snakes were always an added attraction. My life would seem uneventful when I listened to her childhood stories. The only problem was she’d remember I hadn’t done my homework. And I simply refused to do something I did not believe in. I was better off watching ‘He-Man & the Masters of the Universe’ instead of answering questions on ‘Fred, the lazy frog’ & ‘Rip Van Vinkle’! (Who wouldn’t go to the hills and sleep for twenty years if their parents named them Rip Van Vinkle?) How else was I supposed to learn of the triumph of good over evil? Or the importance of showing humility towards your friends even if you’re a prince? Or the complete awesomeness of having a green sabre-tooth tiger as a pet? Mom never understood my concerns about the education pattern of the country; or having a tiger as a pet.
People are amazed at the way kids grow up real fast. Much to the dismay of my people, I grew real fast too. Horizontally. Mom would joke about how I’d get stuck at the doorway if I kept at my gastronomic skills. Dad said pretty much the same thing, but without the humour.
There was a kid from school who stayed nearby; wore thick-rimmed soda-pop glasses. On our way home from school, he and I used to eat pastries at a shop. Then I used to eat some more while he waited. And I always took a couple o’ puffs as a take-away just in case, you know, I get hungry on the way. ‘Glasses’ was very quiet that day.
‘My Daddy’s gonna kill me.’, he said.
‘Wha..? Whhuy?’, I asked, munching away on pineapple pastry.
He took out his report-card and flipped it open in front o’ me like an N.Y.P.D. cop in the movies.
‘Mathematics eighty-two, Social Studies eighty-seven, General Science ninety-two, Language I eighty-nine, Language II ninety-four, English seventy-nine.’, I read out aloud and looked at him with a question mark on my face.
‘I got eighty-two in Math.’
‘So?’, I asked finishing up the pastry.
‘You kiddin’ me? What am I gonna say when Dad asks how I messed up for eighteen marks!?’, Glasses asked me with such intensity, it actually got me thinking. Eighty two plus eighteen IS hundred! The kid was really good at math!
I opened up my report-card.
‘Look! I scored eighty-seven in English.’, I said proudly. Glasses looked into my card and looked up in horror. I immediately noticed that the focal length between his bifocal glass lenses and the iris of his eyes was decreasing as the curvature of his cornea was exposed rapidly, widening the radii of his pupils thereby revealing the anterior chamber of the retina!
(Yes, I thought his eyes were goin’ to pop out.)
I had a red line underneath everything except ‘English’ in my card: The reason for Glasses’ Emily Rose experience.
‘You okay?’, I shook him.
‘Huh, yeah.’, he said as he came back to his senses. ‘I just had the worst vision of my name on your report-card.’
‘Oh. And how was the view?’, I asked.
‘Couldn’t tell. I was busy lying down with my eyes closed in a coffin.’, he said and checked his report once again to make sure he was paranoid.
‘Aren’t you scared of what your Dad’s gonna say?’, Glasses inquired.
I stared at Glasses and I remembered what happened the last time I took the progress-report to Dad. And then I remembered the time before that. Then something worse happened. It was a chain reaction. I started remembering all the times I stood before Dad with a progress report.
‘THIS is just the report! Where is the PROGRESS?’, he’d yell and be upset for a whole month. There’d be tensions in the air when Dad was home. Food was ignored, the television was used to break the awkward silences and oh there was always the silent treatment combined with the raised single-eyebrow technique. (See, the silent treatment is always the worst because the person giving you the treatment doesn’t need to utter a word to make you feel horrible. You assumed the worst and felt horrible yourself. The raised single-eyebrow technique was designed to make sure you did.) Now, to make matters worse, the school would organise a parents-teachers meet where answer-sheets were available for public scrutiny. Our school called it the ‘Parents-to-School Day’ like it was meant to be a funny theme for a costume party; only that, it wasn’t funny, and it wasn’t a party. Although, come to think of it, all the teachers and most of the parents did wear costumes. The parents in the costumes were the ones who were there either to show the other parents how well their kids had performed, or negotiate with the teachers for more marks and then show the other parents how well their kids had performed.
The last time Dad had paid a visit to one such meet was when I was in third grade. He felt it was an utter waste of time. He did not need the teachers to tell him that his son doesn’t study or do home-work! He knew that himself. Ever since, it was Mom who accompanied me, listen to all the complaints the costumed scholars had about me, gave me stern looks when the complaints turned outrageous, gave sterner looks when the other parents around muffled their laughter at me and finally wait outside the Principal’s office with me. Every time, I promised to work hard the next time; and every time I found myself standing outside the big man’s office. This time, I wasn’t goin’ to be let off easy.
Glasses could see that the truth was dawning upon me. (I was a late-dawner.)
‘What’re you gonna do now?’, he asked me as if I had testicular cancer.
It got me thinking. (Initially, it was tough, but I had learnt to do that.) I thought about Mom & Dad and how disappointed they would be to see another history repeating itself; another month of misery, another month of awkward silences and tense auras, another humiliating meet with the teachers. And then, as Spectacles watched, I did something that I had never before done in my life:
I ate the two puffs in the take-away pack standing there!
On my way home that day I tore up the report-card and threw it in the gutters. They cannot make me upset my folks! I was doin’ that already.
The following couple o’ weeks were blissful. I went about doing the usual things I do at home which normally involved Dad’s disapproval. In school, whenever the class teacher asked me for my report card, all I had to do was to tell her I’d get it the next day. Less than a week later, a kid who’d tried to fake sign the report himself had got caught in the act. Amidst all the commotion, I was forgotten. Luck, couldn’t have gotten any better. Once, during dinner, Dad had remembered that there had been an exam a while ago and it was about time the report-card had arrived. I stuffed my mouth more than usual and mumbled something indiscreet. That had done the trick and Dad never asked about it again. I felt invincible! Why hadn’t I thought of this earlier?
I came home and parked my bicycle one fine evening and burst into the house. I was just about to go inside and ask Mom if I could have some ice-cream when Dad intercepted me at the living-room.
‘Open that drawer.’, he pointed towards it. I did and found a hand-crafted Teachers’ Day greeting. You know, the ones those servile, soda-pop-specs wearing, teacher’s pets make with chart-paper, sparkly pens and over-emotional poems in them.
I started laughing at it as soon as I opened it and, for a change, was glad that at least Dad & I shared the same sense of humour. But wait. Where did he get it? Who cares! As long as it’s funny.
‘Look at the back’, Dad ordered.
I stopped my laugh midway. My eyes widened; face straightened. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t read what was written but I knew what it was. I tried to focus but everything went blurred. Seconds went by like hours; minutes, days. Inscribed in neat hand-writing were the names of the subjects and my corresponding marks; with the traditional red underlining for effect. At the bottom was a footnote which read: ‘Parents-to-School Day on Saturday this week.’
I had a thousand questions in mind. Where did Dad get this from? Who was the kid who made this card? WHERE was the kid who made this card? Who, in their right mind, would write something that belonged in an obituary column on a stupid greeting card!? Am I gonna die?
I looked up to find Mom & Dad looking at me and I instantly knew all those questions didn’t matter. Their faces were red, not with rage, but with disappointment. Their only son was a liar now. They walked away quietly and I knew then; they had said everything.
Dad wouldn’t go. He was a proud father who felt helpless; who refused to believe but was being forced to admit that his son cannot make it. So the Parents-Teachers meet saw mom with her usual poise and dignity. The teachers could rant all they want, the others could smile and giggle all they want, but she knew her son was more than that. And they were not taking that away from her. Looking back now she was better than all of them put together, for she would never laugh at someone’s misery, nor would she add to it. I was asked to wait outside the Principal’s office yet again. Although I knew there was nobody with the big man inside, I always felt they made you wait because the anticipation added to your tension. I hadn’t looked Ma in the eye or spoken to her in days. I looked at her now. The woman never ceased to surprise me. Just when I thought she wouldn’t be able to take anymore, the woman came back stronger than ever before. And at that moment I knew, everything was going to be alright. She would put back the bits and pieces of me, just as she had of the vase.
So how does a boy touted as hopeless become the only source of hope for two of the nicest people in the world? How does, of all the possibilities in the universe, life exist only on Earth? How do birds know which way to fly when they migrate? How come ants never fall asleep? How does the flutter of a butterfly’s wing cause a hurricane? How does a father faced with constant disappointments still find reasons to be proud of his son? How does a mother muster all that impossible strength when it comes to her child? And how does everything become so perfect when mom’s around?
I don’t know. It’s a mystery.