"Zane chu matricus exam" (as if you are studying for your matriculation exam) was a proverb quite often used by elders pulling the legs of children who studied too hard or were always glued to their books.
Yes, passing the matriculation exam, that too with a distinction was no mean feat - only 125 in the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1988. We had relatives, friends, neighbours, colleagues visiting us with gifts and showering praises and adulations.
I soon became an example for the younger children in my extended family, my aunts and uncles quoting my name "Vouch Sahab jiyes kun" (You should look up to your elder brother Sahab Ji - my nickname, with an extra "Ji" as a recognition for my new-earned respect).
Deep inside I was the same naive, tactless simpleton villager, who used to love climbing apricot and apple trees, bathing in the small stream in front of the house, feeding cows, attending to newborn calves, growing vegetables, fetching wood after the snowfall, watching the spiritual and religious practices performed by my grandfather, listening to the humour and practical wisdom of my grandmother.
I had slogged very hard in the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir from one winter to another to keep the so-called honour of my clan.
My father, a doctor by profession, who hated giving any advice and always wanted me to be on my own, had just one piece of advice for me. He wanted me to wear nicely stitched trousers and shirt as I would soon be joining the Gandhi Memorial College for class 11 - the so-called PUC. He was so keen that he took me to the professional tailor "Excelsior" and ensured that the fitting and pleats of the trousers were up to mark.
|Suddenly, I heard shouts and slogans and a few gunshots as some of the students entered our classroom...|
Since I was entering college I needed to look suave and decent and had to give up wearing the cult stone wash jeans and LT jackets recently bought from upmarket BlueFox, and for that matter all readymade garments. This was a great sacrifice that you had to make for getting admission in a college.
However, once again, I had to live up to the expectations of a blue-blooded clan, that had a garden called "Munshi Bagh" named after it and which had produced a former prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir.
College was more liberating - no uniforms, no drills, no one asking you to come inside the class, no coordinators, no punishments for late coming.
The feeling of getting into a matador driven by a Wasim Akram lookalike, playing catchy numbers like "Hawa Hawa" of Hasan Jehangir with some of the girls of the neighbouring college around used to be an awesome experience. In such situations, one used to feel like the sun with everything spinning around him.
Actor and demigod Amitabh Bachchan's movie Shahenshah was released in a theatre near my college. I had never watched a movie without my parents and the last movie I watched was Manoj Kumar's Kranti way back in the early 1980s.
My "Richie Rich" friend Suhail Shah took me and the gang of three more to the theatre. Seeing the unending queue, we had a mournful face. However, out of the blue, Suhail managed to get tickets from somewhere. When we asked him, he pointed to the fattest guy in the crowd, who used to sell tickets in black. "O hai, O hai", which in Kashmiri means "see someone is coming behind you" is a phrase used by street boys to tease girls. The singing of this song had to be virtually banned in Kashmir and cops used to beat the hell out of anyone who still managed to.
In the midst of all this fun and frolic, which had just started, the final exams arrived way too early in November. The winter had also brought the murmurs of "azadi" and for a strange reason some of the boys in the college were very complacent about the exams.
While most of us studied all night to prepare for the exams, these "cool" college guys always came unprepared, yet fared well in the exams. Later we learned that all these students were a part of the "azadi brigade" and they would get a copy of the question papers a day in advance.
I somehow didn't believe this till I had to appear for the Physics B paper. In an hour-and-a-half I was almost through and had written the perfect derivations, SI units, definitions and rather easy numericals. I had a big smile on my face knowing that a full score was on its way.
Suddenly, I heard shouts and slogans and a few gunshots as some of the students entered our classroom, saying that the questions were out of the syllabus (may be they weren't given the copy of the question paper this time round) and we should all hand over our answer sheets to them as we all had to boycott the exams in solidarity with their demand.
I was shocked and taken aback, the feeling was miserable. Here I had an exam neatly written with all answers correct to the core, yet I had to surrender my answer sheet - my prized possession.
I don't know what struck me. I folded the main answer sheet like a handkerchief and slipped it in my pocket, at the same time risking my life - which I realised later - as the protesting students were carrying pistols and had fired a few shots earlier.
I played a trick. When one of the protesters approached me, I handed him some continuation sheets which had accidently fallen off from someone's answer sheet. The protester never looked at what I had handed over to him but yelled at me to leave the room at once.
The moment we left, we were caught in a battle between these students firing on one end and the police firing on the other. I was tightly holding on to my neatly written answer sheet, still hoping that we would be asked to go back inside our classroom or that an invigilator would ask me to submit my answer sheet.
I reached home and my parents were relieved seeing me back as they had heard about the incident, but I was still anxious for someone to ask me about the exam and how I wrote it, but no one was keen.
I hid my answer sheet in my cupboard, and for a strange reason, the expectation of someone calling me to submit my answer sheet never died.
Amid bomb blasts, cold-blooded murders, grenade attacks, hate-mongering, protests, sub-zero temperatures, snow and paralysed life we had to leave the Valley in January 1990.
I still remember, when my father turned on the ignition key of our Maruti Suzuki 800 (which was rumoured in Kashmir to have an original Japanese engine), my mind raced and I rushed back with the keys of our newly-built house (it was in Chanpora, the hotbed of militancy, where we had shifted just three months back) in search of something, I picked up the answer sheet and hid it in my "Pheran" (a long robe worn by the majority of the population in Kashmir in winters), lest my father scolded me for halting a long, difficult journey to Jammu in the dead of night for such a trivial reason.
I still don't know the reason and logic I picked up the copy of the answer sheet, which till date remains with me, unmarked, unchecked, un-submitted.