By Maliha Iqbal
Although she could say her madness had begun when she first wrote to Dr. Chilli, but somewhere deep inside her, in a tiny dark crevice, sparked an unintelligible force. This force melted the hard glitter of her eyes till they were like luminous ponds in the heart of a wild forest where all was quiet; ponds in which autumn leaves floated without causing even a shadow of a ripple. Tears flowed down her cheeks. Now the pond had become like a river that refused to stop even as it tore through rocks and Earth. This force had always existed in her, it existed in everyone but remained dormant in most.
She knew she had to stop. Angrily, she beat her forehead with her sweaty, hot palms. Blows that dulled her, as though each was a hypodermic injecting an exhausted numbness in her. The sound of her own crying came from far away like the soundtrack of a movie in slow motion, like distant bombs exploding, like the ringing of an alarm clock heard through the haze of a dream. That’s what it probably was– a dream. It couldn’t be real. In her world, reality was harsher.
She heard the groaning of her school bus and decided that she was awake after all. The day had just begun. It would get harsher.
Ankita got into the bus and sat down in a corner. Her face had faint streaks where tears had flown not so long ago, like the snowy white path left behind by a flying airplane. As they reached the next stop, she stared out of the window. A girl came running out the house and into the bus. She was grinning. A grin that was confident. Perhaps cheerful too but that was difficult to say. It was as though happiness spread everywhere but shied away just when it reached the eye.
She sat down next to Ankita.
“Hi, all prepared?”
Ankita stared at her best friend, Nita and a thought flashed through her. My best friend is Mona Lisa. She made herself smile, stretching her skin so it became plasticky and the somewhat synthetic glitter returned to her eyes.
“Yes, hope today’s class test goes well.”
The girls chatted until the gates of the school appeared.
After school Ankita and Nita returned home. They had a quick lunch and then went off to their coaching center. They went to the same coaching institute, travelling together.
On the way, Ankita kept staring at Nita. Something she had said earlier in school had amazed her. Not shocked her or angered her, not even disgusted her but made her wonder. Curious. Something that she never was nowadays. Nita had airily remarked that she had imagined tenth grade would be very difficult and yet it was easier than her expectations. Was it now? Really? She thought about her routine. Wake up at six in the morning, get ready for school and study till seven thirty. Then school and back home at one in the afternoon, lunch and then get ready for coaching. She went to coaching to prepare for NTSE (National Talent Search Exam), her upcoming board exams as well as for various entrance exams. Returning home at seven in the evening, she completed all her homework by nine and was free to enjoy herself until twelve when she went to bed.
She hadn’t ever complained but lately something had happened to her. All because of Dr. Chilli.
When she had walked into class this morning, two of her classmates had remarked cheerfully that she wouldn’t be worried about the class test of course since she was the topper. Ankita had said nothing. Yes, her class test had gone well. Yes, she loved being the topper but no, she had worried! Right up to the last minute.
This thing about being the topper worried her too. No doubt she loved it, but she knew that it was more difficult to stay at the top than to reach it. She had seen so many toppers deteriorate. Her own best friend was her main competition right now. If only her percentage was higher than Nita in the upcoming boards. Even 0.5 percent higher than Nita would make her feel elated.
She knew Nita must be studying more than her. Why had God made her, Ankita, so dumb? She couldn’t really be good. Not ever.
“Why are you looking so worried?”
Nita was staring anxiously at her.
“Oh no, nothing. I am okay.”
“Look! There’s a new poster for our coaching institute.” Nita pointed at a huge billboard. Ankita stared at a dazzling new poster with the pictures of grim faced, God-like toppers of earlier years staring down. Below was written, “You could be the next one! Excellence in Learning. Experienced Educators. Join now.”
She repeated Nita’s words in her mind. ‘Our coaching’, Nita had said it in a way that meant naturally, not even unusually, that they and the coaching institute went hand in hand. Where there was coaching, there was Ankita and Nita. It was something essential in their life, like the heart or the brain. It had always been ‘ourcoaching’, said in a single quick breath with no space in between the words and she had never really noticed it.
She thought about what was written. Yes, the teachers were very experienced in her institute. Take Mr Sharma who taught physics. He had a formidable experience of eight years in Kota, and he kept complaining about the low quality of things in Delhi. The students worked harder there, put in more hours, slept lesser. When he talked about his Kota days Ankita stared at the faces of her classmates, their eyes shone, and she could clearly read the desire in them. The desire to be hung up on a billboard, staring down on the world. At those times, she had felt that desire too but now she only felt like laughing at them.
The poster was too small. They were crazy if they thought they could all ever fit in it.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes, yes. I am fine.”
“Ankita, you talk so little nowadays, and you look worried.”
Ankita stared at Nita’s concerned face. She smiled synthetically, feeling her palms sweat.
“Trust me. It’s just that the board exams are only a month away. It’s the stress.”
“Don’t be worried! Remember what our principal said — just think of it as a class test.”
Ankita thought what it would be like if this was really a class test. Well, she might worry a little less but she would still worry. Every mark mattered. Somehow, she could not think of a board exam as a class test, but it was easy enough to think of a class test as a board exam. That made her wince.
Ankita straightened her face quickly and said nothing.
Nita frowned and murmured, “You keep making faces… I don’t think you are well.”
“Oh, don’t keep saying that!”
Nita looked surprised and with a touch of hurt said, “I only care about you. I won’t ask you anymore.”
They were both silent for a while. Then Ankita said quickly, in a low voice,
“You don’t understand. There are too many Sharma sirs in this world, and I am so afraid of him. I afraid of going out into that world.”
Ankita was at home, and it was nine-thirty in the evening. She had just finished her dinner. She lay back on the bed, the back of her neck throbbing with pain. It always ached when she studied with her head bent. She thought back to her coaching class, trying to feel inspired by Sharma sir’s words like she used to feel once upon a time but there was no rush of adrenaline through her body. She held her head in her hands, hating Dr. Chilli.
Her mind went to when she had first started all this. When she was preparing for her ninth-grade final exams, her heart had often felt crushed by a heavy weight like an iron fist squeezing the life out of her. She had not only worried about her upcoming exams but also about her tenth grade for those were the real tests. The Boards. Nita had been concerned even then. She had told her that exams were nothing to be scared about. Sometimes even she, Nita worried, but did not let that worry make a wreck of herself. Ankita had listened to Nita but shook her head slightly. Nita had then laughed and joked, “Well, then go see a psychiatrist!”
That had made both of them laugh.
“What makes you think I have enough saved to go to a high-class psychiatrist?”
“Okay then, just take a page, invent a doctor and write to him!”
They had laughed again but that night when Ankita couldn’t sleep (it was getting more difficult to sleep as the days passed), she had slipped out of bed and opened a notebook. She thought for several moments then wrote,
“Dear Doctor Sheikh Chilli,”
She smiled. Sometimes she imagined if she had just been a fool, no topper. What would life be like? She would never know but at least she could consult a psychiatrist who was a fool, one of the most famous simpletons!
That was how it had started. She now went to that notebook and picked it up flicking to the first entry. It read–
“Dear Doctor Sheikh Chilli,
I feel like I am going mad. I am angry all the time. Angry on my father, my mother, even a glass of water (I threw one down and broke it yesterday). I have always been so calm, but I don’t know what has happened… What’s really weird is that I don’t feel afraid of my results or even the exams, but I am always more afraid of what comes in between- the preparation. What kind of preparation is this? I have to mug up every word of my books, be word-perfect. I hate it. I mug up something at night and forget it in the morning. It’s all very well to say that the key to scoring good marks is reading the chapters thoroughly. Sounds intelligent. Of course, it’s not true. The text in the book should be branded in your brain to get anywhere at all.
In all my life, whenever I have had problems, I have talked to my parents. Take the time when I lost my most cherished fountain pen and cried all day. My father at once bought me a new one next day but now I really don’t know whom to confide in. My father can do nothing. My mother can do nothing. I am fighting a losing battle against a system that I haven’t yet understood clearly. Perhaps that’s why I am angry because I don’t know whom to beg for help, whom to be angry on. Perhaps that’s why I am going mad.
Sometimes when I am studying, my brain goes out of control, and it becomes so difficult to memorise even one paragraph. I feel so mad, so angry that I slap myself. It’s morbid but it is so out of my control! It seems I have to beat the words into my brain. I remember when my grandfather passed away, my grandma became hysterical with grief when she came to know of it. She screamed and sobbed, slapping her forehead. Whom am I crying for? Is it because I know I am dying or is it because I know everyone like me is dying?
She read it once and with sweaty hands picked up her headphones. She listened to songs till ten when her mother came into the room.
“Ankita, I just came to remind you. Have you finished your homework?”
“Yes! Is there anything you want me to help you with?!”
“Don’t shout! This is a bad habit of yours. Whenever you have your headphones on, you think that just because you can’t hear clearly, others cannot either and you have to shout to make yourself heard.”
She smiled sheepishly. Her mother went away, and she relaxed in her bed.
She thought back to what she had read not long back. Then she had been afraid of the mugging. Now she was afraid because she wasn’t afraid. She no longer feared the mugging because she knew it was nonsense, stupid, illogical– and that’s what really frightened her. When she had finally realised the brain-deadening stupidity of it all, would she ever be able to continue as before? Now that she realised that this crazy competition was not healthy, but maddening, would she still remain the topper? Could she ever put her heart into all this and truly believe in it?
Ankita woke up gasping. She had a nightmare, but she couldn’t really remember what it was. Did she even have a nightmare? She wasn’t sure any longer. She sat on her bed for a long time. It was strange. She was sure something horrible had caused her to wake up. If only she could at least remember the nightmare. She was sweating badly.
Dr. Chilli would never hear from her again. She had promised herself this because if she continued writing she knew either of two things could happen- she would deteriorate or she would go mad but right now she had to do something to pass the time because she just couldn’t sleep. She opened the notebook and decided that she would write something positive, something that had been on her mind ever since the exams started to loom on the horizon.
“Dear Dr. Chilli,
‘When the Exams are Over.’ Sounds so magical, doesn’t it? I have so often thought and thought of what I would do when the exams are finally over. Finally, I am penning it down. Firstly, I would definitely take a look at those flowers by the river that I always see whenever I pass by in the school bus. They look beautiful from so far away. Imagine how nice they would be up close!
I also want to devote some time and try learning swimming. It always looks so exciting. Another important thing I would do would be to convince my parents to take me to a beach. Andaman? Kerala? Odisha? Or some foreign country? I haven’t decided but I would definitely see a beach someday. I would go to a theatre to watch a movie. I haven’t ever seen a movie in a theatre, but I hope it will be fun! There are so many other things. I could fill this notebook!”
She paused, suddenly excited by all the planning. When could she do this? Most likely after Board exams in March. No, she had her senior secondary entrance tests pretty soon after that and then the scholarship exams. There was NTSE also.
Then she also had to join coaching classes for eleventh grade. She would have free time too (she could do some of the things then), of course but what had she been thinking? Imagining everything would be over after this exam. Oh no, life was an exam. There would always be the next one. For one moment she had imagined living in the world where she had beat the system. It was fun.
She sighed and wrote the same lines several times in her notebook until she fell asleep, her face calm, no doubt thinking about the one line she had written so many times.
…When the exams are over...
Maliha Iqbal is a student and writer based in Aligarh, India. Many of her short stories, write-ups, letters and poems have been published in magazines like Livewire (The Wire), Creativity Webzine, Histolit, Countercurrents, Freedom Review, Cafe Dissensus, Times of India, Good Morning Kashmir, Borderless Journal and Indian Periodical.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL