Thirty years ago, I discovered that chicken pox was not an April Fool prank that wears off in a hurry. When I was returned to the world pockmarked and dreadful as the friendly neighbourhood infected scab dispenser, the summer vacation had burned down to the wick. The nerds who passed for my friends had been banished indoors by their chaperoning mothers. Holiday homework. Would you believe that? Destination IIT, at age seven.
Every year thereon was a similar story. Before the season’s first squirrel-felled mango smacked upon my head the resigned enlightenment that (thanks to gravity) I’d never be Superman, April embraced me with fresh pathogens to stymie my vacation plans.
When I outgrew my share of explosive diarrhoeas, fabulous fevers and the mandatory M&Ms (measles and mumps), April took on a harder edge. Little did I know that Newton, a seemingly affable gent who whiled away the balmy English summer watching apples topple, had withheld from us his ugly alter-ego.
With every summer vacation, illness steeled my immune system for the roughest ride. I soon ran out of fevers but the heat was still on. April, as you might recall, is the month that cold-hearted educators chose to tame us into submission. Final Exams: Try saying that phrase slowly, imagining the angry heat rashes and searing sweat burns that the Indian summer inflicts (to top, imagine a global ban on Nycil – and we’re in business). Done? Now, dwell on the hopeless fatality of each word. Final. Exam. If you are sufficiently human you will shudder. Why, Roger Waters did. No dark sarcasm there.
I sat on a hard bench clenching my sphincter as I tried to comprehend the exquisitely bewildering calligraphy on the physics question paper (the roots of my haemorrhoids run deep). If April, as Eliot declared, was the cruellest month, this question paper was a shimmering work of bloodless cruelty. A poison-tipped dart from an embittered pedagogue’s scheming blowpipe. Designed to shock and awe, then numb and maim.
I felt a febrile longing for the cherished fevers and diarrhoeas of my childhood. What, I pondered, were the possibilities that I could summon up remembrances of maladies past? Could I contract a most malignant form of instantaneously devastating cancer by shredding and swallowing a copy of Clark’s Tables? What would it take now, this moment, to crumple to the ground in a sorry multiple-sclerotic mess of bloody, incontinent intestines? Would scraping my instep with a broken foot-ruler endow me with tetanus? Why was I too young to have a heart attack? Why did they eradicate smallpox before my time? Oh, what I’d do now for a few fluid-filled abscesses!
These fantasies, which I vocalised in public, inspired a classmate to successfully pulverise the fine bones of his writing wrist. Triumphant, his arm in a cast, he exercised his right to a scribe. I watched in jealous amazement as he smugly enlisted the services of a Class IX topper. Drat – my idea, and I couldn’t even sue him for copyright breach.
Reconciliation usually follows anguish. I’d look at the clock and wonder what time it was in Mexico – wait, let’s reserve that for the Geography paper. Back to the immediate physicality of Physics. Surely something wasn’t right. Why is half of this paper in Greek? Do I have the right to a translator? Come on, this has to be the wrong question paper, for the wrong exam, on the wrong day, at the wrong centre, on the wrong planet…
Three hours is an awfully long time to expend on a wish-fulfilling reverie, so I’d eventually lower myself to earth (Gravity, you see, had not yet left the building). Specifically, to the here and the now (Time was fast running out). And what of Space? Well, a great empty example of the aforesaid quantity was mushroom-clouding inside my head.
Comforted by my serendipitous grasp of concepts, I attempted to make whatever sense was possible of those cryptic symbols on the question paper. A queasy I-want-to-go-home-ness whirling in the pit of my stomach made them appear all the more alien. Ergs. Joules. Ohms. Lumens. How totally George Lucasian!
Funnily enough, the force stayed with me. I light-sabred my way through high school even as my classmate’s scribe, exercising integrity over brotherhood, led him to an ignominious fall. Ah well, Newton and his bad apples.
Swiftly flew the years. Delivered into adulthood in certifiably sane condition, I imagined that my demons now belonged in the past. My childhood friends, having aced their ways through the temples of modern India (they now swear by Chetan Bhagat, no less), now sat hunched before diminutive laptops crunching numbers for Fortune-1000 body-shops.
Attending a PTA meeting at my daughter’s kindergarten class, I slipped into conversation with her classmate’s parents – he from IIT, she from IIM.
“Freelance writer, is it?” she asked when I handed her my card. “Interesting.”
The subtext of that really meant: “Wait till she starts studying Physics, you hippy dork.”
A chill washed over me – perhaps it’s another April Flu!
First published (without the accompanying cartoon) in M magazine, April 2011