Seven Lives Minus One
It was late 60s and you could be a teacher and yet appear for your class 10th exams as a pass certificate in class 8th qualified you for the profession. At least that’s what my father tells me. And he isn’t the one to invent stories. If you travelled six months every year for over 25 years charting maps of places that couldn’t be found on any map, you wouldn’t need to either.
Anyhow, there was this distant cousin of his who was a teacher in a primary school in a small hill town nestled somewhere in the Himalayas. She got quite close to my parents when my father was transferred there. Like people in small places do. In fact, they must have been quite close for her to confide in them that she was appearing for her matriculation exams the seventh time that year. A lady of immense perseverance, one would say.
The results, again in keeping with the peculiarity of the times, never mentioned your divisions, percentages and individual marks. It was a simple procedure of buying the local newspaper on the day the result was expected, looking up your roll number and then taking either of the two courses, depending on whether or not you find your roll-number there.
If you do, you give a little scream of delight, run down to the only mithaiwala, order a few laddus and take them around to friends and well-wishers (which more or less included the entire town). The certificate followed in a month or two. But you didn’t care, because everybody took your word for it.
However if your roll-number didn’t figure in the list, you simply put away the newspaper and thanked your gods for saving you the money you would have spent on laddus. You told yourself, and anybody who asked, there was always next year and thought no more of it.
But when this father’s cousin failed to find her number in the newspaper on that fateful day, she didn’t quite stick to the above-mentioned course of action. She might have thanked her gods, I don’t know, but she didn’t let it go at that. She tucked the newspaper under her arms, hung up a notice in her class at the local school declaring it a holiday (obviously not giving the reason) and walked to my parents’ small two-room house. She killed some time talking to my mother till it was time for my father to come home for lunch. The moment he entered, she confronted him with the newspaper, looked at him reproachfully like it was his mistake, and started without giving any preamble.
“This is the seventh time.”
My father, trying to recollect what could he have possibly done the seventh time without realising all the while he was offending her, said: “I am sure I didn’t mean it, but what is it?”
“What is it, what do you mean what is it? It’s the seventh time that I appeared for my matriculation and again I fail to get through. As it is it’s wrong for a person to study all of seven years and not make any headway. And for a teacher it’s even more so. What kind of example am I setting for my students? And moreover, how am I expected to clear Class 12th and become the principal?”
“Oh that!” my father said, letting out a sigh of relief, “but I’m sure you’ll get through if you give it another shot. One more year won’t really harm you.”
I am sure my father meant no offense, but she didn’t see it that way. Her reply, my father insists, smelled of something not altogether friendly and understanding. “Another year won’t effect you. But it does me. You won’t understand how it feels to see your own students bringing you laddus and you not being able to reciprocate.”
“But you’re certainly better than them,” my mother, always the one to see the brighter things in life, “after all, you’ve done the same thing seven times over. And god willing, will improve on it.”
The lady luckily took no notice and went on speaking to my father, “ Now what I want you to do this. Write a letter to these people. Tell them I’ve studied enough to start checking answer sheets and it’s about time they gave me a pass certificate. If I don’t qualify on merit, surely it can’t be denied I qualify on experience! You draft a letter now so that I can send it in today’s post.”
I’ve always found my father, a soft-spoken bespectacled man, to be very sensible. He knows there are times when it is worth your time and effort to argue a point. And then there are times when you should just do what you are told and get on with life. This cousin, though of a short stature, seemed to have added a couple of feet to her height and breadth by years of teaching. This, besides confirming that his signatures would not appear on the letter, he sat down to do the needful.
My father couldn’t recollect the actual text of the letter, especially as it had to go through a score and one changes before the teacher cousin gave it her reluctant go-ahead. She put her signature to a neatly written copy, sealed the envelope and managed to catch the postman as he was busy locking the red box after having retrieved all the outgoing posts.
Time passed and my parents got on with their lives. They had quite forgotten about the relative’s little episode, though she herself was of a personality that couldn’t be easily missed or forgotten.
It wasn’t before a full three or four months had passed that my father, while coming home to lunch, noticed the only street of the town full of kids in school uniform dancing like they had gone to school and had been greeted by a sign that told them it was a holiday. Entering his house he saw the lady waiting for him with an expression my father first saw on a mummified corpse in a museum in Lucknow. She responded to my father’s greeting with a silence that only added to the similarity. However, she did move a little and handed my father a very official looking envelope that had already been opened. He noted it was from the education board that conducted the matriculation examinations. Fearing the worst, he took out the letter and read.
My father quoted me the letter verbatim, but I will spare you the details. What it said was to the effect that they had received the letter, thank you very much. Also that they had gone through their records and discovered that she had indeed been failing all these years, sometimes even miserably. All except once, when she took the exams the first time. That year she had passed. And though there were several instances where newspapers failed to list roll-numbers due to minor oversight, they did post the pass certificate. Or they must have, surely. Also that they were not responsible for any loss due to postal department’s error. And, finally, they would gladly issue a duplicate pass certificate on receiving intimation that the concerned person so desires.
This is where the letter ended, duly signed and stamped by the board authority. I don’t know if the concerned person was desirous of applying for a duplicate. Though her seven repeated attempts would lead one to believe that she was.
My father was to stay in that town for another twelve years before he got transferred elsewhere. And in all those years he never dared to ask her if she went on to take her Class 12th exams.
But before he left, he tells me, the relative was already the vice-principal and well on her way to becoming the principal.