Yesterday I needed to find my Class X school leaving certificate- as that's what the government considers proof of age. I'd needed to find it for many days now, but I'd been dreading the exercise. Everytime I'd remember I'd go hot and cold with nervousness and feel that heavy feeling of gloom in the pit of my stomach.
Looking for it was part of so many pasts - it was the misery of those teenage years. Being 13 or 14, in a new school. Growing up and feeling confused about boys (not much has changed there!); feeling ugly, feeling dumb, feeling peculiar and not like the other girls, unable to translate their mysterious language of groups and giggles and arch phrases. It was the fear of board exams, the inability to soldier on past the inarticulate, inaudibe, intractable, self-hating teaching style of Miss Kalra from physics, Miss Saumya Das from maths, Mrs. Subramanium from chemistry. It was the confusion of seeing marks that had been really good, plummet to borderline pass, the fog of just not getting a thing in some classes and everything in others which made it impossible for you to just accept that maybe you were a duffer so why care? It was the emotional coldness of hostel - I was the type that hated it - the constant fucking surveillance, the suspicion of girls getting "too close", the public humiliation by a totally unbalanced Matron (what a designation) if you made a silly joke she didn't like, the enforced study hours, the one movie a month chosen democratically, which means it was always a horrible movie - the one time I got to choose I chose a strange but interesting sounding film called Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, came out walking on clouds, only to be stoned to shock by everyone saying - what ya, Paromita, what a stupid movie you chose (not much changed their either notwithstanding said movie's cult status). The whole control of your time, first at school and then at home so that there was no time for dreaming, for sleeping, for reading too late into the night because you could not put a book down. It was the loneliness of not telling your parents what you felt because you knew instinctively that parents do not have the strength or the spine to deal with their children's hardships. It was waiting for letters from the free world of no-hostel - when the letter came you were lifted up on the breeze of excitement and for the 15 minutes it took to read once and then once more, not trapped in this gridlock of timetables, but lost in the world of the letter writer, feeling their love, imaging them talking like those old movies where the face is superimposed on the letter, clinging to every little detail of what they did, what they'd been reading, a new cassette they'd bought. And then when you put the letter down, you were surprised to find yourself still there, as the blood that had rushed up in excitement settled down, the colour of the world went back to medium setting. If it was a letter from my dad it was a less extreme experience of course. My dad's letters were always in point form, written in his strong, squat loops and usually only came on birthdays:
" My darling daughter,
1. May you have a wonderful birthday
2. My prayers to God to give you great happiness and the best things
3. I love you
4. Love and kisses.
Your loving Papa"
I laugh about it now, but I always felt disappointed then and would read it over and over to somehow suck more up from it, wanting there to be more. And if Matron passed by she would always say some Manorama or Shashikala type thing that would emabarrass and deflate you, break the spell.
For someone as easily terrorised as I am, the last years of school were the final inhospitality of life and took years and years to recover from. And still show up in my awkwardness with belonging to a gang or crowd of any kind.
Added to that, the search implied some of the terror of early PMGP days. I was 23, depressed, uncertain about my future, living like no one in my family had lived before, doing something that didn't seem marginal, it just seemed pointless - and always broke, always wishing I could have nicer clothes, a table to eat lunch on. I would try to store important things in suitcases or in a big wooden box under the window. But the PMGP rats were not a force to be so easily fought. If the damp didn't get the papers, a scrabbling sound would eventually start up and you'd know that the rats had squeezed or chewed their way in. I would be scared to open the box in case they leapt at me. So I would bang away at it and run back. Once the beast had scurried out I would gingerly open the box. On bad days I would find a clutch of pink rat babies. On good days I would find only some juvenile poems or old college assignments chewed to bits and would feel miserable. I knew that the papers were probably lying in that same box and I dreaded opening it to discover that in fact the papers weren't there, had been eaten by the rats and I had erased the memory.
And intertwined with it all was my irrational terror of all things official - property deals, passport applications, income tax, Matron asking if it was you who had thrown a sanitary napkin down the commode and you standing there frozen and terrified even though it wasn't you.
But eventually I couldn't put it off so I went down on bended knee and forraged.
Out they came - the files of proposals for un-made films, scripts that were never produced; then a layer of production files of various projects (no wonder the rats chase me, I'm a pack rat myself!); and finally, that blue plastic Tata Steel file marked 'important papers'.
What I found there took my breath away - because perhaps I hadn't remembered it was there, or if it was, never thought about it's meaning.
There was my Class XII and Class X certs. My college certificates and mark sheets. My "Character Certificates" - our famously corrupt principle Mahendroo certifying that I am a girl of good character!
But that wasn't the main thing. In it was also an envelope my father had given me when he thought I was old enough and responsible enough (well!). I had forgotten I had it. In it was every single report card of mine from Lower KG onwards. Each one neatly and lovingly preserved and handed over to me.
Looking through them made me smile at the quaintness now of what was once valued. In Upper KG for instance Science and Sanskrit had been crossed out and subsituted with Rhymes (Fair) and Conversation (V.fair). It made me laugh to see how some things have changed: Remarks - Remains tranquil and attentive (!!) Makes good use of reference books (oh why did I become the girl who only reads murder mysteries and steamy romance novels? Well perhaps that's all the refernce books one needs in life?) Well mannered, QUIET and friendly; Does not waste time uselessly (!!!!!!!! a game of wordtwist anyone?) and shows originality; A QUIET and affectionate child! Clearly I was leading a Jekyll and Hyde life early on because I don't think my family has this memory of me! It made me laugh to see how some things really haven't changed - Remarks: weak in Hindi; needs little work in Hindi; she is a good pupil but can work harder; she is an excellent student but she could be much better if she tried to live up to her promise; It made me remember that even if the report card of youth in my memory is full of Unhappiness - 9 on 10; Alienation 10/10; Sullen Misery 8.5/10; Life (V.Unfair), that isn't the only assessment possible.
If my father had kept each progress report of his child so carefully, surely there needs to be a column in my head: Acts of Love - 100/100. Looking at it all I felt again the intense fragility and perfection of being one who is loved. People say to be loved makes them more secure - and in some ways I believe it does. But it also makes you aware of the fleeting, ephemeral quality of life, so unbearable is the beauty of being cherished by someone in this simple way, so full of pride; and of the wafting, wispy nature of love that can pass through the tightly packed wall of death. It was fitting that I looked and found these yesterday, November 11, which was my father's birthday. Because even though he is gone I felt once more enveloped in his kind and generous hug, in his simple, never second-guessing love - one perhaps, like everyone, I hadn't always felt aware of as a miserable child or an angry teenager.
That's my father on his last birthday. My mother and sister always buy a cake on his birthday and say they will celebrate his life and not cry. I am not yet that brave or beatific but I will get there. This year too, they each bought his favourite dark chocolate cake and cut it. As for me, I got the back-present.