Twenty years ago, I was in ninth grade and quite a loser. I lived in a dream world that I’d doodle in my notebook while the chemistry teacher spoke of Mendeleef and his termite ridden table. It kept me happy but the teacher, who wouldn’t know the Mona Lisa from the Tower of Pisa unless they had valencies, refused to recognise the genius in the runny-nosed maestro before her and routinely banished me to the ‘wall of shame’. I must’ve been okay with a paintbrush in those days because of all the certificates at home but I never heard a word of encouragement from anybody in school, simply because the subjects I enjoyed like ‘art’ or ‘Bible history’ or ‘GK’ were given about as much respect as Jews in concentration camps. But I don’t blame the school. I guess the times were such…
So in this climate of darkness and dismay, my parents and I left for Jabalpur to visit an aunt that summer. There, I met this group of young people in the neighbourhood. There were a couple of boys, younger than me, three girls, about my age and then these two sisters, eighteen and sixteen year old angels… None of them ‘knew’ that I was a loser. Here, I could be whoever I wanted to be. Afternoons and evenings were spent playing ‘four corners’ and after dinner I’d just sit and hear the two girls talk. Until now, I had never known that the world was home to such divine creatures… I was in raptures. I had never felt this about anyone at school but here for the first time, wanted them to like me.
One day I heard one say to the other… “V didi, why do you like Sanju bhaiya so much? He’s handsome but talks a lot…”
“Renu, you should see him playing cricket. When he is batting, the crowd asks him to hit a six, and he does… just like that… I love him… Wish he was a fast bowler like Imran Khan, but as long as he’s playing cricket, I’m happy.” Then she looked at me and asked “Do you play cricket in Delhi?” Well, I was only allowed to field and bowl while the grownup kids batted, but I heard myself say, “Yes I do… I play for my school too,” I lied. “Really? What do you do?” she asked. “I’m a fast bowler, V didi,” I said, and then added “like Imran Khan…” She rolled her eyes, pulled my cheeks and laughed and said “theek hai, I’ll ask Sanju to organise a match and you could play with them.”
Matchday, and I was nervous. I liked drawing. But I did it for myself, without caring for opinions. Exams I believed I was destined to be poor at and never tried to prove otherwise, to myself or to others. Marks, passing, failing just happened. But here, for once, I wanted to be good at something because I wanted others to acknowledge that I too mattered. I ran in and bowled as fast as I could, working harder than I ever had in all my young life. And whaddya know… Sanju bhaiya wasn’t so hot after all… he tonked me around but then I surprised both of us and slipped one through which was too quick for him… it missed the stumps. I didn’t get his wicket but I did have his respect. He was quite sweet actually. Afterwards, both V and Sanju promised to come to Delhi and see me play for my school.
‘Ei moreychey’, how do I get out of this one? I really wanted to see V again but forget the school team, I wasn’t even in contention for the class team. Once in Delhi, I toiled to make it to the school team, and I did… The first time someone picked me for a team was the first time I felt wanted by people beyond family. Suddenly, I was a boy with ambitions. Finally, I understood what confidence meant, what it meant for people to have expectations and for me to live up to them. Success, howsoever minor, woke me up, to things around me, inside me.
That feeling of being wanted, wanting to be liked and being appreciated rubbed off on other aspects of life and except for Mendeleef and Pythagoras, I found most other acquaintances in school, and life, rather agreeable, eventually…
It didn’t matter that I never met V again. And it didn’t matter that I never played for India. What mattered was that long ago that summer day in Jabalpur, I had taken my first step towards self discovery.
We all have ‘gift s’, and gift s whether academic, sporting or artistic, are not necessarily meant to end up as careers. Some are just meant to help us reach out to the world and say ‘I exist’. Perhaps you and I were lucky to find ours but if you know a ‘loser’, then do pull his cheeks and make him feel special, for oft en that is all a child needs to really become special..