Ol’ pal Baruk left a comment on the blog the other day about an incident that I’d mentally filed away under “mortifyingly embarrassing childhood incidents that one should never bring up again”. But to my surprise, I can now think and write about it without cringing or feeling embarrassed enough to make a face. (And that happens to me too often, I must say. I think of something that I did wrong, and I make a face. People notice.)
This incident occcured when I was in the seventh standard. Or as we used to call it back in those days, Class VII. Ms Deepali was our class teacher, and actively involved in extra-curricular activities. Baruk was a year senior to me, and the resident debate/speech/music god. We would team up for a quiz every now and then – I sucked at debates (still do), and the last time I participated in one while in school, I got so tongue-tied that I argued against my own team. But extempore speeches, the ones where you had to pick up random chits of paper on which teachers would write words like “cricket bat”, or “the President of India” – I could at least blather for a minute or two and try and be funny, and say things so blatantly obvious it made everyone laugh. It was okay. I even won a prize or two.
It’s been quite sometime, you have to understand, and the details are a little hazy. I do not remember whether it was I who saw the ad in the newspaper and went to Baruk, or if it was he who approached me, but I do remember both of us walking to the Teachers’ common room to speak to Ms. Deepali. There was an extempore speech contest, we explained to her, but it was during school hours, at 1 PM, and in order to be there, we would have to skip classes after lunch-time. Would it be ok if she spoke to the Principal and got us permission? We were convincing enough, apparently – permission letters were signed, the watchman at the school gates was told to let us out without any fuss, and we were off. Grinning from ear to ear, because the extempore speech was going to be held at the Book Fair.
Now, Guwahati in the 1990s was not a great place to buy books. It still isn’t. But there was one annual event everyone looked forward to, and that was the Guwahati Book Fair, organized every December at the centrally-located Judge’s Field. The timing was perfect – school would be over for the year, and the Fair was a perfect place to meet your friends in the evening, hang around eating panipuri and chaat, and of course, hunt for and buy books for which you would have saved money all year. Hell, my parents had an annual book fair budget set aside just for me, and every purchase during the year would be weighed carefully – do I buy something now, at full price, or wait for the 10% discount in December? As final exams would get over, I would literally count down the days to December 26th, and the first day of the fair would have my parents dropping me off at the gates at 11 AM in the morning, just after the inauguration, and not worry about me until 7 PM, when it would close.
But that year (it was 1992) some people had a bright idea. “Why don’t we organize another book fair?”, they figured. “And let us make sure we make it so that it starts smack in the middle of the school season, in September.” The result was an event called the North-East Book Fair. It should have sucked, but it did not. The first time I went to the North-East Book Fair, it was a Sunday, and I nearly blew my yearly book budget buying out copies of Mad magazines. A bookseller from Delhi brought piles of comics that he refused to open the first day, despite my nearly-awash-with-tears eyes. “Come back tomorrow”, he said. “But…but…tomorrow is school-day.” “Well, come in the evening then”, he retorted. I gave up trying to explain that by the time the school bus got me home, it was almost 5 PM, and to come back to Judge’s Field when the fair closed at 7 was just not worth it, there would hardly be an hour of browse-time. Fail.
But the other bright idea that the organizers had, as part of the publicity drive for the fair, was to set up events every day of the week. There was a quiz competition – open only to college students, feh. An art competition on Tuesday, for kinder-garteners. For school-kids my age, an extempore competition on Wednesday. The extempore competition to which Baruk and I were now enroute, having successfully convinced the concerned authorities that we would come back with shiny prizes and certificates.
When we reached the Book fair – and the school participation letter ensured that we didn’t have to pay for tickets, which meant another 10 rs saved for more worthy causes, hah! – there was already a shitload of like-minded, stage-happy students waiting to extemporize the shit out of everyone at the venue. Baruk and I sat for a while, and by the time the third or fourth speaker came on stage, we had had enough. We headed to the bookstalls, I happily attacked the pile of comics and discovered that it contained four volumes of Eastman and Laird’sTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Yes, Ganja, this is the secret origin of how I got ahold of those books. You may stop reading now.) Baruk had his own agenda, and I believe he had a satisfying jaunt around the fair as well. The next thing we know, it was 2 o’clock, and the extempore competition was over. Our bags were still back at the school, so we had to go back. The only part we had to be clear on was – what do we tell the teachers?
Baruk suggested that we say that the Extempore speech was cancelled (or did he suggest that it was postponed to the next day? I don’t remember, honestly). I was not convinced – “why don’t we just say we participated and did not win anything?” We boarded a bus, discussing the merits of both the approaches, but neither of us was convinced. Somehow ( somehow?) both of us got distracted by what we had bought that day, and when we landed at school, we were still undecided. I reached my classroom, and gulp, it was Ms Deepali’s class. “How was it, Soityojit?”, she asked. (I swear – every class-teacher I have had in school pronounced my name a different way. The way Ms Deepali said ‘Soityojit’ was a particularly English-accented Assamese that set my tummy aflutter everytime I heard her say it. That day it set my tummy aflutter for different reasons altogether.) I launched into a confident story about how the competition was really tough, and I had gotten “Crow” as a topic and had managed to say this and that. “What did Baruk talk about?”, she asked. Some corner of my brain said “Cheetah”, and I said “Cheetah – oh, you should have heard him, he was brilliant.” She listened with interest, a little disappointed that neither of us had won. I was about to go back to my seat when –
Baruk walks into the classroom, holding a note from his class teacher. Ms Deepali smiled at him, and asked – “So, how did it go, Baruk? Cheetah, was it?” Baruk blinked once, twice – and this, I remember perfectly, because my heart was in my mouth and I was frozen to the floor – he said “No ma’am, the speech competition was cancelled, and we just went around the bookshops, bought some stuff and came back.” Ms Deepali looked at me, and looked at him, and looked at me again. “What was that about the crow and the cheetah?” “Well, actually, they gave us the topics, and then they cancelled it because there were some problems.” “Is that right, Soityojit?” By this time, Baruk had realized that I had goofed up, and pretty badly at that, and after throwing a couple of dirty looks my way, he played along. Ms Deepali ahem-ed and nodded, with a half-smile on her face. Baruk left, glaring at me once again from the door. And then it was just me, staring at Ms Deepali and trying hard not to feel my ears to see if they were really burning. She stared back at me, smiling a little more, in that semi-dangerous teacherly way that could either mean I know what you did, and you better watch your back or you poor thing, you look so cute when you lie.
“Go back to your seat, Soityojit,” she said. I did.