“Whose class is this? And why are you shouting like hooligans?” Kamakshi Mukherjee ma’am glared at us with eyes that Bengali women can file patent for.
A class of 40 teenagers in complete bedlam came to a stand-still. Pin-drop silence. No student dared to move under the extra high scanning power of Ms Mukherjee’s eyes. Satisfied with the intended effect, she went on, “who’s the monitor of this class?”
A petite Sumita came out of the third row, head bent in shame that only good souls carry for others’ mistakes. Probably Ms Mukherjee took pity on this harmless looking girl, for all we heard was a strict warning and some inaudible murmurings of Sumita…of the math’s madam being absent and the zero class teacher being untraceable. Ms Mukherjee didn’t waste time in hearing Sumita’s defense. She threw her all-pervasive look once again, and raised a stern pointer to her lips. We got the message loud and clear.
When Ms Mukherjee was separated from us by more than a floor (we sent an agent to track her whereabouts), the class began to gain momentum in the same way a goods train catches speed after starting from a local station. A hapless Sumita stared with sagging lips as the class sank into chaos again. She shut the door requesting fellow classmates to maintain order, but in the classroom, as in life, wisdom is learnt, if at all, after the mistake.
We must have created a hell lot of chaos because all of a sudden, we heard the door bang with an angry jolt, swinging violently on its hinges. In came the despicable math’s teacher of 7-B, Devinder sir. Looking murderous and funny at once. As was his nature, he caught hold of the first lad who came his way, poor Pramod. At the instant, however, Pramod didn’t look all that poor, mooning away to glory before a cheering audience.
Smackkk! A resounding slap was planted on Pramod’s cheeks. It had the kind of echo depicted graphically in Archie’s comics, except that this one was not funny. Devinder was mad with rage. He swept a sobbing Pramod away and proceeded to the next boy standing in line, Pratham.
Truth be told, Pratham was simply standing and chatting around. Like the rest of us were. Pratham and I belonged to the league of boys who found themselves in the top five rankers of the class without actively aiming for it. Pratham’s impression on the class was just as his personality was – composed and amiable. There was nothing magnetic about him. He was a mathematics enthusiast, without being a geek, and that combination endeared him to fellow boys like me.
Back then, Pratham was plainly unlucky to have fallen in Devinder’s path.
His jaw clenched tight and sleeves rolled for the attack, Devinder held Pratham by the collar was going to land a tough one on his face when Pratham thrust a hand forward. A sigh of shock went through the class. The class watched the little boy in awe, dread and anticipation.
If one was to observe Pratham’s motion in isolation, he looked like a traffic inspector with eyes pressed tight and hand pulled out straight. But in this particular context, Pratham’s was simply an action in defense. It seemed heroic because ordinarily, in those days, no student dared to defy the teacher. Right or wrong, the teacher RULED. And here was this medium built 13 year old, running a gauntlet with the most abhorred boor of the school!
Devinder couldn’t admit it, but Pratham’s open rebellion gave him a start. He let go of his collar, and bent down staring in his eyes. Pratham stared back. Unable to deal with this public ignominy, Devinder barked out, “You dolt. Bloody loafer. You’re chatting around when your math teacher is not in class as if you are Aryabhatta already. And then you have the audacity to look into my eyes. I’ll give you one sum right now, one sum, and that is all it will take to reveal your level, your bloody aukaat before the class. Bloody chit of a boy looks back at me…” Pratham’s hard look seemed to have shaken Devinder for the latter went out of breath shouting. Used to being a dictator, the lion of jungle took affront to a mere self-defense from a bird. Was it because of the look in his victim’s eyes? Or was it because Devinder’s conscience realized his disproportionate reaction? I still can’t tell.
Pratham still looked on. Intently in Devinder’s eyes. Silent.
A profusely sweating Devinder realized he was in a battle he couldn’t afford to lose. Or quit. Again he thundered, “All it takes for good-for-nothing boys like you to bite the dust is one sum. One good math’s question. And then you start crying for mercy like babies asking for mama’s milk.” Devinder must have thought his remark was funny, because the class’ stoic silence annoyed him even more. He was preparing to spew more venom when an even-voiced Pratham cut-in.
“Give me any sum.”
All eyes on Pratham. Yes. Boy. Man. We loved him!
“What?” Devinder was incredulous this time. Was he actually replied to? In all his anger? He HAD to collect his wits. He just can’t let this indiscipline fester.
“Yes sir, give me any sum of 6th class and I will solve it,” said Pratham with the kind of ease that had my jaw dropped. All said and done, I had never witnessed such remarkable heroic before.
“So you want a sum, yes? You want a question? You want to prove to your classmates how smart a chit you are? You rascal, rather than admitting your fault you are changing the topic?”
“But you said that a sum will test whether I am a good student or not, so please give me a sum. Any sum of your choice.”
There was no effrontery, no force whatsoever, in Pratham’s voice. No spike in his eyes either. I remember that day like a fresh leaf in my memory. A boy of my age, in this phenomenal state of being. I did not totally understand it, but I appreciated and loved it to the extent that Pratham became my avowed hero of school-days.
Whatever the case, the billion-dollar sum didn’t come forth. Devinder never came up with the question. Clearly, he wanted to avoid further loss of face. He grumbled a few more lines, this time at the class, and went without much ado. After Devinder’s exit, I remember most boys going upto Pratham and patting his shoulder or touching his cheek or blankly staring at him. I was too transfixed to react. Pratham had become a hero, and still showed no signs of being one.
I lived in that incident for days. I even dreamt about it. Those five minutes taught me a lesson that I have nestled in my conscience ever since. Recently, while talking to my best friend, I happened to recall those minutes in finest details. With each recall, the lesson gets bolstered further.
The quality that set Pratham apart from others, that gave him the strength to stand adversity, that made it possible for him to maintain a placid countenance when most others would have buckled in…is defined in one word. A word that changes everything about your life.