It was called agoge in ancient Sparta, the inhuman education and training regimen that little boys were subject to in order to make them impervious to hunger, fear and pain, a regimen that included having boys fight boys to death so that the weak may be weeded out.
Or as anyone who went to school in the late 80s and early 90s in Bengal would say, school life.
Suicides were common, and so were heart-attacks and nervous breakdowns. Four successive days of two papers of a hundred each was considered to be perfectly humane because, how else, were children going to handle “the real world”? I came from a school, particularly notorious for what was just known as “The Pressure”, where most of us were made to fail in our maths half-yearly in class eleven, because and this was the stated reason, the class ten scores had given us whippersnappers an inflated idea of our intelligence and we needed to be cut down to size.
And if you thought the teachers were bad, you hadnt met the parents. Even today as I close my eyes I can see them. The thirty minute break between paper one and paper two, and there they were, like heavyweight boxers in their corners after a bruising fight, sitting catatonic their heads to the side, one parent putting an ice pack on a head or stuffing yogurt down a barely moving mouth while the other, like Micky from Rocky, giving last minute sparring advice “Answer the objective type first” and “Don’t, no matter what you do, touch the short notes” and “Last time, what’s the length of the Nile? Oh-ho that’s Amazon you stupid boy”. Exam over, and they come out, some elated, some deflated, some with their heads in their air and some sinking into the earth, and parents swooping down from all sides, holding them by the forearms, “What answer did you get for Question 3a? Somnath and Sudipta got 5. What ! You got -32? ” Hot summer afternoons, corpulent aunties in sleeveless blouses, sweat streaming down their flabby forearms in torrents, copying “notes” using the backs of other aunties as tables, hounding the mothers of the “good children” with earnest queries like “Which coaching do you send her to?” And finally small boys and girls, with heavy bags weighing them down, being harangued publicly as they walk away towards God-knows-what at home, for doing “short notes” or for forgetting that when you remove the bracket and there is a “minus” before the bracket all the signs change.
Aah the memories.
Some of this performance obsession one could explain as the expression of middle-class insecurity in a state in the grip of generational despondency. Unless you were at the top of the class, or at least at the bottom of the top, you could not expect to become a doctor or an engineer, leaving only one option open, that of being a CPM cadre, to live a life of plastering posters on walls, playing carrom, roughing up opposition, and shouting “Inquilaab Zindabad” for the promise of a packet lunch of a banana, a toast and a half boiled egg at Brigade Parade Ground. Justifiably, parents felt terrified of what would happen if the report card had “Fair” or “Very Very Fair” written in the dreaded box (this was one place where fair was not lovely) and this terror of becoming the average seeped in through to their children, till they would forget what they were scared of except that they were scared of something.
And then there was something else.
The outlet afforded by sharing pictures of happiness in foreign locales through DSLR cameras on Facebook and envious “Liking” by peers was not afforded to parents of our generation, who stuck in joint families, middling incomes, high taxes, Webel color TVs and occasional visits to Puri or Digha, had only their children to show as monuments to their awesomeness. Easily measurable and totally ordered, marks became the sole focus of one-upmanship (“My son got two marks more than your daughter”) and “We push him hard because we love him” the comforting narrative justifying the pursuit of happiness through the engendering of social envy.
Here’s the thing.
None of it mattered.
More than twenty years after I left school, I look around at those that shared my bench or my tiffin. And, in my most unscientific and mostly Facebook-friend-list-based study, I find it that almost everyone has done very well for themselves. They took different routes to get to where they are, some didn’t get to do what they wanted out of school (like me) or didn’t get into the college they wanted to get in, but everyone, almost everyone, made it to roughly the same place. Even there, the ones who did better than the others, weren’t necessarily the best in class, and that boy that almost always used to get hundred in Maths and never made a silly mistake and appeared on Doordarshan after “ranking” isn’t the guy who is driving the Audi or posting seven pictures of him and his wife having an expensive dinner at Cannes. I don’t know what it is that gets people to where they are—inherent ability, good health, confidence, luck, good choices, solid relationships, an MBA degree from a top school, or a combination of the above, but I know what doesn’t.
Which often makes me wonder, as I grow old and value the time I have left in this world that much more, what a waste it has been, the emotional energy expended obsessing about scores and ranks, hours lost trying to be a hard-drive of useless knowledge when I could have spent that time doing things of the kind I can never do again, and competing with people I was never really in competition with. And what’s even worse is that it has stayed with me, that terror, so that even today, decades after it ceased to matter, I still have intense exam nightmares, and I sit up straight wondering how the fear of exam-failure has become a part of who I am, and all for nothing.
I am not much the advising man, for I know little about life, or I would have perhaps done better for myself.
But all I want to say is that marks are good, and if you got a boat-full in your board exams, great and congratulations.
But if you have not, then let me tell you with the advantage of hindsight, that it won’t matter. Not in the long run.
The most important thing to remember is you have time on your side.
And once you have that, nothing else matters.
You will find your way.