I open my eyes and stare at the question paper one more time. The subject title says “Physics”, as I look around in a daze, only to realize, that I had gone to sleep while answering an exam paper. I peek into my neighbor, Sakira’s paper and she is circling question no. 40, here I haven’t even read the first question. I read question no. 40 and realize it is futile to even attempt answering it. I read the next one, and it seems more like a History exam as the question goes, ” Which kingdom was attacked by the aliens in 1882?”
I stare blankly at the next question, which is just as vague, and then I actually wake up. It is 10:00 AM in the morning. I had overslept! As I start getting ready for the day, I muse over exams and how they chewed away a huge chunk of my life. They continue to scare me even after 25 years of my last one. I realized their importance, as a first grader, when my parents quizzed me repeatedly on the “potential exam questions”. My father always sharpened a dozen pencils, filled my fountain pens with ink and dropped me to school/college an hour before “the exam.” I didn’t take a bus to school that day, so that way, I was fresh and well prepared for my written exam.
Every Friday, we had exams, sweetly labeled “Prep tests” then Terminal exams every three months, followed by the dreaded “Final exams.” After finals, were celebrations and jubilations galore among us students. The exams kept getting drearier and scarier every year as we kept climbing the ladder of grades, but I had to prepare harder and do well as my entire future and career depended on them. Doing well, helped me become a computer engineer, even if it wasn’t something I actually wanted!
Back when I was eight years old I was worried about strange people peeking into my bedroom window. It was a strange house we lived in, it had an open staircase with no gate, just about anybody on the street could walk up the staircase and land up in the balcony of our house that wrapped around my bedroom window.
Whenever the strong winds and rain made a tapping sound on the window, I was scared! The nightly shrill whistles and the merciless beating of the street with a stick followed by yells of “Jaagte Raho!” (Stay awake!) by our friendly neighborhood watchman, only stirred my imagination further! Who was he trying to yell at? The thieves, the hapless folks like myself or simply trying to keep himself awake. Sometimes, I imagined all sorts of thieves running up the staircase and peeking through my window as I tried to sleep, and other times I imagined the watchman peeking through the window looking for thieves. All this make-believe only made my heart beat faster and body shiver as I hid under the blanket, trying really hard to go to sleep.
Lovingly known as chowkidaar, the watchman was a timid guy in his late 50s, barely 5 feet tall, who went door to door the first Sunday of every month, asking for his salary of one Rupee from everybody with a big broad smile? “How does he survive on such little money?” I would ask my dad? “He will be fine, because everybody in the neighborhood gives him money”, he said. But, I knew of people, who gave him only 25 paise (a quarter) or not even that! I felt sad for him, but found it unbelievable, that he could become such a huge presence at night!
Even then, there were some nights, when the entire neighborhood woke up to garbage dumped on the floor in the back porch – as our garbage bins had been stolen, or water running relentlessly in the back porch – as our metal faucets had been stolen. Our back porches, where the maids washed dishes and clothes were open to intrusion. All it required was a jump over the 3 foot high, boundary wall. Naturally, everyone directed their fury on the poor chowkidaar. It also meant no salary for him, that month. My mother rebuked him when he came, “What is the use of you walking on the streets, when the thieves are running amock, stealing stuff from everywhere?” He merely nodded his head and tried to smile.
As if the howling winds and the Chowkidaar’s nightly walks weren’t enough, our neighborhood in Jayanagar, Bangalore, now had the added attraction of a liquor store, right next door. Men in drunken stupor often screamed and shouted late at night. Often times, they were found sleeping in front of our house right by the dreaded staircase in the morning! It only made sleeping harder for me as I now had visions of drunk men loitering around our balcony! So I wound up in my parent’s bedroom, sometimes walking in my sleep. I felt so much better, when my father had time to put me to sleep with a story, or rubbed Amrunthanjan – a strong smelling balm on my forehead, so forcefully, that it hurt, but somehow it was soothing at the same time and it was easy to fall asleep.
As I get older, the nightmares continue, even though I live in another house in another country; sometimes I am being chased by people, sometimes I find myself asleep in the middle of an important exam, and at other times the howling wind is actually tapping on the roof in the middle of the night, it all reminds me of that familiar, not so nice feeling of somebody mysterious out there. But I know my father is with me, I feel his comforting presence as I lull myself back to sleep…