I was halfway through the eighth standard when my Hindi teacher, Mithra ma’am, suggested I take a language exemption. She was a tall, slender woman, around my grandmother’s age, with an admirable command over the language and an ability to make even the most reluctant student pass. For her, this was a defeat. Never had she suggested that any of her students take an exemption from the language. I can still remember her saying “Johnny is not a bad student, he’s just 6 years of not paying attention”. Over a period of six years spanning from the beginning of the second grade to the eighth grade, I can confidently say I did not pay attention during even one Hindi class.
My only aid in passing an exam was not the information I gained in class from listening or from studying at home, but it was from the corner of my thieving eye. Peeking through it would help me trace out the straight and non-straight lines which would come to form letters, words and finally, sentences. These formations would get me the passing marks.
In order to get the exemption document, which was Government-issued on recommendation of the school, I was to be tested and interviewed. Once I got the document, I would no longer need to study Kannada and Hindi. My knowledge of the procedure came from five of my classmates, all of whom were exempted. Of the five, one was my girlfriend, two were my best friends and the other two classmates were twins, who I knew relatively well.
The promise of being able to spend free hours with the lot of them, especially my girlfriend, outside the confines of my classroom and away from the watchful eye of my teachers, as well as the free hours themselves, were more than enough for me to want the exemption. As a result of which, I repeatedly asked my mother if I could get one. She refused every single time, and was stern in doing so, until this one time. You can only imagine my excitement when she agreed.
My school gave me a recommendation letter, which I was to take to The Centre for Dyslexia. The letter was to certify that my school had knowledge of my application for the exemption.
When we got to the office, we had to wait as another family was inside, getting their child tested. Once inside, we were faced with an elderly orthodox Brahmin man. He was the one who ran the Centre. He spoke in the tone of someone used to telling people what to do, but he was not overbearing. I was certain that my mother, who dislikes anything Brahmin, would not like this man and I was afraid that she would annoy the old man, but strangely, not only did he immediately take a liking to my mother, but she seemed to like him too! The old man asked my parents and I a lot of questions. These were meant to give him an idea of my problem and to see if I could be considered dyslexic. Only if he did would I go onto the next level –tests and an interview by a psychologist at a government hospital.
A week passed after the meeting with the director of the Centre for Dyslexia when we were called for the tests and the interview. The director introduced his associate to me just as soon as I entered his office. He was an averagely-built Indian man, with an uneven mustache and an awkwardly-contrasting gold ring. He was not as fluent as the old man when he spoke English but his Kannada was impeccable, just as all well-spoken Kannada is. The both of us were directed into the room in which the tests would be conducted.
I took my seat opposite the man with the uneven mustache and he laid out the test papers. I knew that this would make or break my exemption –I had to do badly in these tests, or else it was back to studying Hindi, and Kannada. I knew I was too smart to do as badly as I needed to, and set out to carefully fail.
Of all the tests in the series, I clearly remember one —there were a hundred rows of numbers from one to ten, arranged in random order, and I was to mark out all the fours. As I marked out all the fours, I took great care to also mark out a considerable number of numbers other than four. Similar sly tactics were used in the other tests as well. After the test, I was to be interviewed and was taken to a government hospital to do so.
Hospitals have that characteristic smell that we all remember but this one was different. It smelt like a garbage dump. My sense of smell was not deceiving in leading me to believe so because the place looked like a garbage dump as well. There were disease-ridden dogs and people scattered everywhere, left unattended and unorganized. The man with the uneven mustache led us through the diseased and into one of the buildings. There was this weird grime all over the walls and along the path leading to the interview room. I noticed it the whole way. When we got to the room, my parents were asked to sit outside and wait; I could see my mother was uncomfortable with the general vibe of the place.
Again, I was seated opposite the man with the uneven mustache. The room seemed to have hints of the same grime as the path leading to it. The lights were yellow and dim. They flickered every now and then, giving the room an eerie feeling. As if the badly-built brick wall splitting the room in two, with someone taking a bath on other side of it, was not enough. I could not help but think of all the diseases that person may have. None of it seemed to bother the man sitting opposite me; he was familiar with it all. So familiar, it seemed like a routine. Looking at his uneven mustache and trying to figure out the degree to which the left side was shaved shorter was the only way to keep my mind from thinking about it.
But I remembered to frequently look here and there and to look dazed when questioned, so as to make it seem my attention was short-fused. Even on the off chance of me slipping out of character for a few seconds, I would be distracted almost immediately by the sound of the water hitting the bathroom floor. It sounded disgusting –it was like I could hear every single molecule of dirt that person was washing off their body hit that toilet floor with the loudest crash. All this was the price to pay for putting on such pretence, in some sense. A pretence that would more or less influence the outcome of the interview.
By now the man’s sense of judgment of me was just as uneven as his mustache. With my mother barging in halfway through the interview and saying she was absolutely not okay with the door being bolted from the inside with me in that room, there was just about enough madness to influence the man’s decision. I got my exemption in a month after that interview.
A seemingly easy and manipulative thing to do, getting the exemption only goes to show how easy it is to run circles around the education system –a statement challenged only by the discovery that my father has a language disability.