‘I wonder why nobody don’t like me,
Or is it a fact that I’m ugly?’
This immortal Belafonte calypso it would seem carries great wisdom, especially so when I look back at my unenviable performance in the circus of life. Indeed, it appears to me that I could be the only person I am aware of in my small circle of acquaintances, who clearly failed to turn out to be the hero of his own life. Indeed, I am a unique counter-example to the generally accepted fact that every cloud is endowed with a silver lining. Leave alone silver, the clouds that hovered over my head all through life did not betray any metallic connection whatsoever, not even to lead.
It is best that we move straight to the mournful heart of the groan-full matter — my career as an under-achiever. Putting it somewhat more forcefully, I appear to have earned meritorious distinction as an epitome of demerit in about all the contests I ever participated, with the result that the few prizes that ever came my way were invariably offered to me under questionable circumstances.
Take for example the time I won the third prize in a swimming competition. There was little to complain about this achievement of course, except for the somewhat embarrassing fact that there were exactly three competitors who took part in the event. Nonetheless, a prize was a prize and I carried my minuscule tin plated wooden shield back home with unmistakable pomp radiating from my face. But people near and dear, my very own flesh and blood, greeted me, not with awe and reverence, but with an emotion that wavered dangerously on indifference. In other words, it was a day that the cheer girls in the neighborhood spent in gloomy unemployment.
Fortunately or unfortunately though, Robert Bruce’s much advertised accomplishment centuries ago continued to be a source of inspiration and I tried for a while not to give up. The next opportunity to prove my mettle presented itself a few years later when I led the college team to a drama competition organized by the Indian Institute of Technology at Kharagpur. Like an inexorable constant of nature, there were once again three teams that took part in the show. Loreto House (an all girls’ college), IIT itself and us. And much to my glee, we won the second prize on this occasion, the first going to Loreto. However, there was a somewhat unsightly fly in our ointment of success. The judges had actually ranked us third and IIT second. The second prize was nevertheless offered to us on the ground that rules did not permit the home team to accept a prize and there were only two prizes to give away! And this piece of information was delivered to the audience over the public address system!
Such being my well-documented record, I was stupefied one morning when a letter arrived for me offering me a prize financed by an endowment in Kolkata University. I was then a student of the MA class in Economics and exams were still far away. By this time, I had reached a conviction, Robert Bruce notwithstanding, that the only way I could ever win a prize would be for it to be offered prior to the competition, before that is any one had had a chance to compete. Such prizes are not unheard of. If I am not too mistaken, dignitaries are quite often anointed by honorary doctoral degrees. Degrees, in other words, which are not backed by dissertations.
I was elated by the news that I too was about to be honored and assumed that it had little to do with my performance, academic or otherwise. But, after embarking on a careful study of the epistle announcing the news, I realized that this was a hard prize indeed that the powers that be were talking about, hard as in cash. I couldn’t believe my eyes and requested all my friends and enemies to study the document under a microscope or at least a magnifying glass, or whatever it was that Sherlock Holmes and his cronies employed to establish irrefutable evidence. And the investigations revealed, that quite unknown to me, I had indeed bagged a first prize in the university, in physiology !
Now, if this piece of intelligence produces a sceptic wrinkle on a brow or two, let me proceed to offer explanations. Before I stepped inadvertently into the quicksand of economics, I was a student of the natural sciences and forced to study the holy trinity of physics, chemistry and mathematics, along with physiology, which, despite its status as a somewhat distant and possibly illegitimate cousin of the aforementioned disciplines, was elevated to the rank of a minor stimulant for the brain. And it appeared that I had, by a miracle that would put Noah to shame, managed to patent this minor tonic, the major ones having been reserved for greater minds than mine.
I am sure that heretics would be wondering by now if I was the only student in the university who had studied physiology that year and I shan’t blame you if you were to entertain such uncomplimentary thoughts. Thankfully enough though, the answer to your doubts is a clear ‘no’, even if the number of adversaries I faced was not large enough to attract the attention of the Guinness Book. To the best of my memory, there were around ten or twelve students amongst my contemporaries who studied this discipline in the university. And I, to my endless satisfaction, had been leading this mini-caravan. This was the closest I ever came to performing the Robert Bruce feat.
At least three years had elapsed between my accomplishment and the university realizing that an honour hungry talent awaited the bestowal of recognition. Accordingly, the papyrus (or was it parchment?) was despatched to heal the wound of long neglect. There were no festivities associated with the event of course. I was instructed instead to show up at the Darbhanga Hall offices of the university to be guided further about the procedures to be followed, to establish my legal claim to the booty. I proceeded as advised to the second floor of the august building and initiated inquiries, producing my mildewed document for the clerical staff’s scrutiny. Each one of them, as expected, disavowed connection with the prize of contention and pointed vaguely towards dark labyrinthine corridors leading to even darker chambers.
I stuck to my claim like a vice, however, and proceeded intrepidly, inspired by thoughts of the fabled cave in which Bruce observed the indefatigable spider building its nest. The surroundings where I stood did not leave much scope for imagination in this respect either. The room bore an uncanny resemblance to Robert’s cave. After labouring for what might appear to be an eternity, thereby outshining Bruce by several centuries, I finally found the spider, guarding his lair in the guise of a middle aged man who regarded me and the document I proffered with undisguised suspicion for about a quarter of an hour. First, from above the glasses he wore and then from under. I too stood my ground with iron determination, resembling no doubt, to add a French flavour to the Bruce analogy, the young son of Louis de Casabianca on the burning decks of L’Orient.
It was a battle of nerves, the only one I ever won. The gentleman finally exchanged my paper for the one he produced from a secret locker in his secretariat table, explaining most reluctantly the procedure to be followed thenceforth. His paper, as opposed to mine, was apparently a gift voucher, which I would need to produce to a renowned bookseller and the latter would in turn exchange the voucher for a book or two of my choice.
Success at last! I rushed off to the shop in nearby College Street without caring to check how much the voucher was worth. Robert Bruce surely snickered in his grave! Well, as I found out, the prize was worth exactly Rupees Ten. And I had decided to buy the collection of Maugham’s short stories, which, during Ancient Mariner days, cost a solid Rupees Fourteen!
Now, fourteen being a number that mankind has generally recognized to be somewhat larger than ten, my dream and I appeared to be standing on opposite sides of the Great Wall of China.
I tried to convince the seller that a large discount was in order for customers bearing the stamp of brilliance. But the sick old man remained as unmoved as Shylock in pursuit of his pound of flesh. I needed to bear a cost of Rupees Four (which was around 28.57 per cent of Rupees Fourteen, as far as my calculations revealed) for peaceful settlement of the murky transaction. It was an unheard of luxury for a university student with a middle-class background to carry Rupees Four in his pocket during the period of history we are dealing with. But once again, miracle prevailed. After frantically searching inside my pockets (mine, not others’ mind you!), trousers and shirt included, I was able to produce a pile of coins, which the mean fellow counted with supreme concentration before agreeing to part with his proprietary claim over the Maugham collection. I emerged triumphantly from the shop, richer by the four Penguin volumes, but poorer by pocket money that could possibly have lasted me two weeks or so.
I can’t recall exactly how my mom greeted me when I presented her with the news that I had squandered away the money she had allotted me from her less than bursting kitty. It would appear, however, that I managed to survive and I possess the books till this very day.
Whether they can be legitimately described as prizes remains, however, an unresolved philosophical problem in my opinion. To the best of my understanding, 28.57 per cent of the collection fails to satisfy the definition of a prize, though I doubt that I shall ever be able to identify which amongst Maugham’s stories fall in the non-prize category!
Worse, there is no way for me to establish proof that any part at all of the collection was a prize. There is no inscription inside the books recognizing my dubious distinction and the suspicious clerk had taken possession of the only evidence I did have that the prize belonged to me.
So, if you were to test the veracity of this story, I will surely appear to you as a confidence trickster. And I in turn will then have little choice left other than pacifying you with a full-throated rendition of the calypso we started off with.
‘I wonder why nobody don’t like me,
Or, is it a fact I’m ugleeeee …?’