Under The Blanket
Ajay walked into his examination centre, slowly. He had had a rather long night with his Physics textbooks and his eyeslids felt heavy. It also felt rather cold for the time of the year. But his brain cells were too busy going over the formulae, to spend any more than a few minutes on this unnecessary observation.
Equipped with his instruments and preparations, he sat down on the bench that had his roll number chalked over it. In just a few minutes, the exam would begin. A sharp shiver went down his spine, leaving him disoriented. But Ajay was quick to bring back his focus. He had to. He ought to. This was his grand finale, his last step on the ladder, his final leap towards his dream, his parent’s dream – the Indian Institute of Technology. He knew he could crack it; he had no other choice. It was either this or nothing!
The IIT was both, his family pride and tradition. He had to follow in his father’s and elder brother’s footsteps. And as his father put it ‘defeat us, exceed us and surpass our expectations.’
Ajay was a brilliant boy – his parents’ pride and an asset to the school. Bragging about his achievements was his mother’s favourite socialising topic and voicing his expectations, his father’s favourite leisure time activity. Failing to live up to their pride and expectations was unthinkable. Even being at par with his father’s elder brother’s achievements would be unremarkable. For him, the only way forward was to outshine them all by sweeping the higher secondary examinations at the state level.
Ajay was going well, really well. His tireless romance with his course material had won him the past two conquests - Math and Chemistry. This was his third last one, and he could almost see the victory cup gleaming at the finishing line. But with every victory, a pressure steamed up inside him, a building fear of ‘now or never’ - the knowledge of the growing criticality of the conquests and the consequences of a single slip at this stage. It was a realisation that came in sudden strokes breaking his concentration and, usually, making him sweat. Only today, it was bringing him the shivers. Sudden, unexpected shivers, seemingly caused by the unusual chill in the air, but as he very well knew, were rooted much deeper within him.
Nevertheless, Ajay continued writing the exam.
Question after question after question, he conquered all. But a strange tiredness loomed inside him at the end of each victory. By the time he finished solving the last problem, he was exhausted, physically and mentally. His memory of the paper blurred and he just could not get himself to revise the hard work he had put in, in the past few hours. He decided to submit his answer sheet right away and leave. Never before in his life, had he been this careless with his examination. But today it seemed all right. Today, there were other things that seemed much more important.
Like the dark blue blanket that sat on the cozy bed in his room.
He rode his kinetic slowly, conscious of his sudden lapse of ability to control the machine. He said ‘great’ instead of ‘awesome’ when his father asked about his exam and soon drifted into an uneasy dream about extreme temperatures and unsolved problems, under his dark blue blanket.
“Ajay, Ajay? Beta are you ok?” He recognised the concerned voice as his mother’s, but could not gather the energy to respond.
“E = mc2”, hovered in his head as he made another effort to answer, but a sting of cold shiver ran across his body, dismissing all efforts.
“Oh my God! You’re burning with fever!” He felt his mother’s icy palm touch his forehead, as she screamed. Within half an hour, his father was in the room with a frowning doctor, who tortured Ajay’s ailing body again, with his cold touches.
“Breathe deeply”, the doctor instructed. It took a lot of Ajay’s diminishing bank of energy to do so. Nothing was making sense to him. How could he fall ill? Such things don’t happen in the middle of Final Year Exams! Or do they? But he didn’t have enough energy to muse over it, or size up the consequences. He closed his eyes and tuned in to the voices in the room.
“… a blood test, but as far as I know, its malaria.” Was the doctor’s indifferent declaration.
“Oh lord!” The father exclaimed in a tone that, though concerned, was pretty much diluted with disappointment.
“Oh my poor baby.” The mother’s tension lines were visible in her voice, even as she continued speaking to the doctor, “What should we do now?”
“I’ll take the samples, meanwhile, I recommend at least two week’s rest. I’ll prescribe a medication that will keep him…”
The doctor’s voice trailed off in his head, as it put a full stop to his family’s legendary dream. He won’t finish his exams this year. A year’s drop in school, a year’s lag in attaining the degree is too much of a scratch on the impeccable family canvas.
“Things won’t be the same anymore”, he thought. “Papa won’t be full of expectations any more. Mumma won’t be so full of pride anymore. Ajay won’t be the ‘unbeatable’ anymore.”
And then, he felt a weight lifting away from his body, evaporating in thin air. At first he though he was under some kind of medicinal effect. But the more he thought about it, the lighter he felt. A smile broke across his trembling face. He tried to recall the last time he had smiled like this. No, not the victorious smile he wore after he ‘killed it’ at an exam, but a ‘happy smile’, the kind of smile he cannot pinpoint a reason for.
Well, maybe he was just ‘happy’!