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Full marks, then? October 11, 2017

Posted by globejam in Childhood trauma, Denmark, Scepticism, Uncategorized.

exam-1My parents were both secondary school teachers. So, to say my childhood revolved around school and education would be an understatement. All through my school life, one or the other of them used to teach in the school I studied in, and invariably taught at least one of my classes. Let me tell you, you cannot even begin to imagine how it is to have one of your teachers around you 24 × 7. I could not skip classes, bunk school under any pretext, misbehave in class, be late to school, not do my homework, or not show them my report card the day it was given to us.  Every little thing that I was involved in, in school, was reported back to my parents, sometimes even before I knew about it.

They were protective and extremely strict, worried that if I strayed, their reputation as teachers would be tarnished.  Nobody respects a teacher with a wayward child.  So, I was collateral damage, though they meant well.  To be fair to them, they realized this and from time to time tried to make amends.  One way was to buy me books, bunches of them.  Books like 101 questions, know your world, and even the entire set of Encyclopedia Britannica one time, bought second hand from a nearby house getting demolished. I don’t remember reading any of them.

Like many other parents of their generation, they used a lot of metaphors, similes, allegories and parables to illustrate ideas and instill values in me. However, there was a big difference in our house in that all of these were school and education related.  For example, they didn’t say “Don’t judge a book by its cover”.  Instead, they would tell me not to judge a master by his moustache, or a teacher by her sari! A favourite of my father’s, whenever he thought I was being stubborn or was talking too much, was “In life as in your notebook, please leave wide margins for the master to give his comments and guide you”. My mother’s favourite was dinned into my head on numerous occasions “Don’t just learn to know, know to learn”.  As you can see, these similes and metaphors ranged from the sublime to the sanctimonious and I ignored most of them just like most young people do.  However, one saying of my mother’s that had a seriously long-term effect on me was the one she told me when I was just joining school. It was something like Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set.

I don’t really know what she meant by that, but somehow, I took it to mean that my life was one long examination in preparation for an unknown higher calling.  For the rest of my life, those words hung over my head, night and day, forcing me to evaluate every little thing I did as though it was an examination.  As a young student, this made me work hard at school and score well.  As I got older and lessons became harder, I realised that I was not as smart as I would have liked to be and so had to work even harder to do well in class.  Toward the end of schooling, I found all my hard work would only get me scores in the mid-70s and 80s and every additional mark required a disproportionate amount of additional work.  I wasn’t ever a shirker and my parents had instilled the virtues of hard work in me, so I continued to work as much as I could because to me every mark missed was equivalent to, in some indefinable way, falling short in the examination called life.

Through adolescence, through puberty and through college, studies were no longer the only things on my mind and this made my life even more stressful.  I dissected every stray thought and feeling I had and anguished over them.  I was convinced that the all-knowing Ultimate Invigilator and final Evaluator was seeing everything I was thinking.  I was sure that every action of mine was being scrutinized and appropriately marked. And not knowing the syllabus meant that I could not just resort to hard work as I had done in school. Nevertheless, I managed to put my head down and get through four years of college.

After finishing my engineering, I was selected by a software company from campus. Software companies were just coming up in India at that time, and we were among the first to join this new industry.  It was an exciting and fulfilling period and for a few blissful years I forgot all about my mother’s saying.  Then I was sent to Norway on deputation.

Copybook culture shock.  Having lived an extremely sheltered life till then, with very little exposure to the rest of the world, not even through books and television, everything was new and bewildering for me.  The new-found freedom, with no one around to go and report back to my parents, instead of liberating me, felt like free falling without a parachute with my stomach constantly threatening to jump out of my mouth.  The racy fare on TV, the explicit videos and magazines in every shop I entered and the general openness of their society shattered my carefully crafted and fragile world view.  Did they not know that every thought and action of theirs was being examined, I wondered.  Did failure mean nothing to them?

I was ready to leave what I believed to be a decadent country.  The only thing that made me hesitate was the peer pressure I was sure to face back home if I returned prematurely.  And the nagging doubt that maybe this was also part of the unknown syllabus that ruled my life. I hated the country and all its people.

Then I got to know my colleagues and was unsettled by how warm and friendly they were.  They were kind and caring, knowledgeable and worldly wise, helpful and entirely non-judgemental.  I learnt a lot during the next few months both in relation to work and about their views on a wide variety of issues that I had not even considered till then.  It was a confusing period to say the least.  I could not reconcile much of what I was learning with my life back in India.  If this were all part of the examination that my mother spoke about, what should my answer be?  Where are the textbooks to deal with all this, I wondered. The constant heavy and suffocating presence of the unknowable examiner made my life unbearable.

In retrospect, that was the time I think I first started displaying signs of depression.  Thinking my behaviour was a sign of homesickness, my attentive colleagues tried to cheer me up in many ways including by giving me a lot of books to read.  The books became my lifeline, a cocoon to avoid my immediate surroundings and a way to escape my own thoughts. I devoured all the books they hurled at me, indiscriminately.  Fiction and non-fiction, as long as it was in English I read them all, cover to cover.  Science fiction, philosophy, crime, religion, fantasy, and even autobiographies, I consumed with unhealthy zeal.  Unbeknownst to me, the books were educating me. Surreptitiously. With a vengeance.  If “A prayer for Owen Meany” struck a deep chord, the auto-biography of Malcolm X made me cry in anguish at the injustices in this world.  Did we all have the same syllabus, I wondered. Did anyone pass?  Were we all set up only to fail?  Then, 100 tomes later I got to read “The selfish gene” by Richard Dawkins and my world was thrown into turmoil.

For the first time, I questioned the very existence of the unknowable examiner. All the arguments I had heard for why God is unknowable seemed to work equally well for a non-existent one.  If He did not exist, then is there a higher purpose for me?  What am I being tested for?  Am I being tested at all?  What is my purpose, then?  These questions started tumbling out one after the other. In my mind, deep seated beliefs fought with new awareness while nagging worries that this might be just another part of an examination for which I was woefully unprepared wreaked havoc on my composure.

It is little wonder that I took to drinking at that point in time. Without familial support in an unfamiliar environment with winter approaching, it was inevitable.  I drank to numb my brain, I drank to get some sleep and I drank like there was no tomorrow.  And I did not stop till about four years ago, thanks to a chance meeting that has changed my life.

I was coming back after another stretch at a alcoholic rehabilitation centre, fully aware that this sober period was just another blip in my long drinking history and that I would be back to my usual ways in another month or so.  On the bus from Bangalore to Chennai, sitting next to me was this elderly gentleman. He looked even sadder than me, if that was possible. He told me that he was on his way for another round of chemotherapy.  Children in the US, wife long gone, he had no one to even accompany him to the hospital. We got to talking and I realised the he was a very brave man.  He was not worried about the cancer that was eating his colon, he was not worried about being lonely, nor did he blame his children for not being there for him at the time of his need.  What worried him was how he would fare when he finally got to meet his maker.  “I don’t know what crimes I have committed”, he lamented.  Was I a good father?  A good husband?  A good child?  Did I do justice to this chance that He gave me to be born as a human being?

Here was a fellow human being tormented in the end by the very same questions that had been haunting me for a large part of my life.  That day, I found my purpose.  Not a higher purpose for after this life, but a purpose for here and now.  The next day, I searched the net and found a course that was being offered for lay persons by the school of social work. I enrolled, much to the delight of the few diehard friends I had remaining.

Now I am a qualified ‘end of life’ counsellor. I visit dying people in hospitals and old age homes, and talk to them about the inevitability of their impending death. I help them prepare for whatever is in store for them.  I help them reconcile their past and to make peace with themselves. Sometimes, I talk to them about free will and the possibility that it does not exist.  At other times, I tell them to think of themselves as a higher life form playing a game where they specifically chose to play this role as a way to understand themselves better. Sometimes, I even tell them that God is all-knowing and merciful and all will be forgiven and that everyone goes to heaven in the end. But mostly, I tell them that life is not an exam for us to pass or fail.  I don’t know if that statement is as cathartic for them as it is for me, but I know they all feel a lot better after hearing that.

For the first time in a long while, I am very happy now.  I have helped a lot of people in the last three years.  Most of these people have left this world at peace with themselves, passing away with quiet dignity while holding my hand.  I would like to think that it is my talk that has helped them pass away peacefully, though some credit, I guess, may have to go to the barbiturate injections I give them when no one else is around.



1. sgtilak - October 11, 2017


2. Shyam - October 12, 2017

Sanjay, you should publish this. If possible, try to make the style more informal and shorten the sentences. The O Henry type ending is awesome

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