The Lucky Pencil

Birthday celebrations in my home are minimal and predictable. The day would not differ much from the rest of the days in the year except for a few additions to the food menu, one pack of chocolates for my classmates, a handful of toffees for me and a mandatory visit to the nearby temple. I would be forced to wake up early in the morning, have a hot water bath and visit a few of the nearby temples. By the time Appa and I were back from the temple Amma would have made some sweet rice pudding besides the usual breakfast. There were not any birthday gifts in all those growing up years. However, my 7th birthday was a bit different. I remember it vividly. I had decided to feign illness and skip school on that day to enjoy a relaxed and princely lunch. However, amma was not feeling well on that day. Therefore, there was neither the sumptuous meal in the offing nor the rice pudding in the morning. After the usual temple visit, appa packed some curd rice and tender mango pickle in the tiffin box and dropped me at school. I tried to resist but my efforts were in vain. “It is better if you are at the school. She cannot take care of you today. She needs to take care of herself first!” prescribed appa as I got down from the motor bike at the school gate. “OK”, I moaned gently.
Just before I took off to my class, he surprised me by giving me a new pencil. I had asked him for a new pencil a week back as mine was almost reaching the end of its life-cycle. It was the first time I had seen a pencil like that. It was written S-T-A-E-D-T-L-E-R. I did not know how to pronounce it. It felt different from the Nataraj and Apsara pencils that I had used until then. I grabbed the pencil and ran off to the classroom. I desperately wanted to try out the new pencil. Borrowing a sharpener from Arun, I carefully sharpened it. By no means, I wanted to break the delicate graphite head on the first try. Amazingly, like butter the reels of wood peeled off. I collected the long ones and carefully placed them inside my pencil box handling it delicately like the wings of a dead butterfly. It would find its place on the “hall of fame” inside my pencil box. Green-eyed folks on my bench gazed at me. Slowly but surely, my grip on the pencil tightened.
Our class teacher, Miss. Marina had just walked into the room by then. The first period as usual was English. The Gulmohar textbook for English learning was turning out to be a difficult one to master. The words were getting tougher with each passing day. It was Lesson 2 dictation test and my heart palpitated. I had not studied a bit since I had planned to skip the class anyway. My palms too perspired and the pencil slipped in my hands. After the attendance check, and when the dictation test sheets were being distributed, I brought out the toffee pack filled with 100 Cadbury’s Éclairs, stood up and announced that it was my birthday to the teacher and the class. I wanted to slow down the scheme of things deliberately. My friend, Arun’s eyes lit up with glee as it meant he would get a few more chocolates since there would be more chocolates than the strength of the class. For some unknown reason, I started giving two of them to each one of them, leaving the toffee pack nearly empty. Arun was visibly disappointed. I gave him and my bench mates whatever was left in the pack after saving three for me. Meanwhile, the determined teacher proceeded with the dictation. An irritated and mood-off Arun decided not to let me have a look at his answers. He bent his head over the answer sheet and blocked my view with his body. I tried to peek into his answer sheet but then his handwriting was unusually illegible to my trained eyes. Each letter resembled the legs of strange birds and animals running away from the paper, scratched so fast that the sheet nearly tore in between. I had no other choice other than to guess the spelling of most of the words. I had that bad feeling in the lower part of the stomach of familiar butterflies flying after screwing up an easy exam. ‘If I ended up in the last five today I had to either suffer caning or write all those words 10 times by the next day. In the worst case both!’ my mind worked out the probable outcomes. I prayed that the new pencil would work some magic and save me from embarrassment!
After 10 minutes, Miss. Marina announced, “Time up. Swap your sheet with those of your neighbours and correct it. The solution is on the blackboard.” and she started writing out the answers on the blackboard. Arun, squint his eyes and reviewed my answers. He started striking every written word with a repressed anger. I clasped my hands and breathed a quiet prayer. I decided to use my trump card. Opening my pencil box, I let Arun have a good look at the extra chocolates that I had saved and pushed the box towards him. To my surprise, he did not yield. Focusing his head back to the textbook, he continued correcting the paper with a cold face. I corrected Arun’s paper matching it with the solution on the board soon realizing that he had everything right! ‘What a mean-spirited fellow!!! What about me?’ The only solace was that the teacher would not cane me since it was my birthday. Instead of caning, the punishment was an unwelcome and unavoidable imposition – write each of the words ten times by the next day.
“Any full marks?” ma’am inquired. “Arun”, I replied hesitantly. She gave her toffee to Arun. Then, she asked, “Who all are below 4?” A few hands shot up. The names of the regulars were announced. One by one, she caned each one of my classmates who scored below the cut-off. To my utter disbelief, Arun did not announce my name. “Good god! How did that happen?” In a flash, I took the still unconsumed toffee and dropped it on Arun’s lap. He looked back, perplexed and collected the toffees happily. We exchanged back our answer sheets and I stared at the answers for a long while. ‘Surprise!’ I really had six correct answers out of the fifteen. Correct in the true sense, that is without any help from Arun. My guesses turned out to be perfectly right. I had only one thing to thank – My New Pencil! Otherwise, why would I have any of those baffling spellings right without reading the text even once! ‘But, my toffees…?’ They were gone.
After that incident, I had only one tale to narrate during the lunch break and I had only one tale to narrate at home that evening – “The awesome power of the yellow and black striped lucky pencil”. Of course, none believed me. My friends were initially eager to hear to about the incident, but laughed heartily when I told them that it had some special powers. My parents dismissed the entire episode when I told about this incredulous event. It was on the last day of the comprehensive exams that year would I come to know the entire truth. Meanwhile, I wrote my notes, shaded the pictures in the textbooks, drew many new pictures, added horns and moustaches to the illustrations in the text and ask what not. I did everything with a confidence never before felt for I had this wonderful new pencil! A few days after a problem of a different nature arose. Before I realized, my pencil had become the size of my index finger. “Now what?” Soon it will be unusable. I was not ready for this. I complained about the waning pencil at home every day. My frustration compounded when my friends started mocking at me alleging that my marks, my performance and enthusiasm were just by-products of the new pencil and would vanish with the pencil. I wished that I had inherited a magic fountain pen and an ink bottle instead! That would have at least lasted longer.
After much thought, I decided to discuss this with my parents. “Appa, my pencil will become too small to use in a few days. What to do now?” Although initially he tried to console me saying that he would get me a new pen, once he realized that I was inconsolable he bounced the question to amma. She found an opportunity in this and coaxed me to recite the prayers in the evening without fail, keep the pencil near Ganesha statue before I went to bed after completing the homework every day. “Rest everything leave it to Ganesha. He will help you out. After all he is the remover of all obstacles.” Reluctantly, I agreed to the suggestion, though I despised praying and studying for long hours. There was no other way to regenerate that pencil like a lizard’s tail. Nothing happened the next day and for a few more days. I was getting impatient with every passing day. The pencil had become half the size of my finger. I attached a broken pen to its back and continued using it. I made it a point to use the pencil only for the most important exams that year. My handwriting that had improved began its retreat to older ways, so were my marks, all south bound. It was the day after Ganesha Chathurthi. By then, I had given up all hope when on the morning of festive day the unbelievable happened.
“Boom!” There was a new pencil near the statue similar to the one I had kept yesterday. The one I had kept there was gone. It had my name etched on one side just the same way I had done on my previous one with a razor. One letter looked a bit different. Rest all the same. “Brilliant!” I thanked god, looked around me. Having ensured that no one was around, I recited a silent prayer. Amma was in the kitchen. I ran elated and told her the superb news. She smiled at me, patted my head and whispered, “See I told you, no. If you have faith in God and recited the prayers faithfully he will help you out!” I grinned ear to ear and ran to the veranda where appa was scanning through the newspaper. I somehow felt that he was expecting me at that moment. I beamed, produced the pencil and jumped in front of him like a circus dog on two legs waiting to catch a bone. He responded rather oddly, “Enough of fooling around. Now that you have your pencil go and study!”
From that day onwards, I started studying with a renewed vigour devouring my textbooks. To my surprise, the whole activity of learning and spending time with books was increasingly pleasurable and rewarding. My mark sheets reflected this renewed interest. I was cracking every exam out of shape. My friends and teachers were amazed. My parents would just nod and continue as if there was nothing new. Every month I would continue getting the new pencil until the last exam of that year. On the last day, instead of the pencil I got a strange hand-written note. It read, “You have done well this year and proven that you are a good boy, smart and well natured. Therefore, I have moved the powers from the pencil and moved it to your brain yesterday night. You would not need the pencil any more. Go ahead and write this exam with any pen or pencil. Good Luck!!!”
I was heart-broken. I had no other way other than to believe the slip. It was too late to find a way out of this new conundrum. The handwriting looked very familiar to that of appa. I ran to him with the note and shouted, “Did you take the pencil and leave the note there?” Was he pulling a trick on me? He acted ignorant about these and added that he would not come between me and the elephant faced god for these silly matters. “Silly!” ‘How could he call this silly?’ I thought. To my biggest surprise mom had nothing new to tell me other than to convince and reassure me. She furtively glanced at appa in between the conversation. In the end, I just sharpened my old Nataraj pencil and hurried to school since I had no time for a debate. After getting the question paper, I recited the prayer once and peeked at the paper. Questions looked familiar and answers seemed possible. I started to believe that the letter was indeed right. I wrote the answers double checking the final answers before submitting it. I did that exam far better than the earlier ones.
Appa was waiting in the veranda when the school bus dropped me back. He held a cardboard box. I jumped, grabbed and opened it expecting a new toy or something else interesting for being an exceptional student this year. As I tore it open, inside I found all the finger-length pencil stubs that I had kept near the Ganesha statue yearlong and the sheet of paper that I had read in the morning! I stared at him astounded. Amma came out and asked, “How was today’s exam?” “Good” I stuttered. She explained, “See. We wanted you to realize that it was nothing to do with the new pencil but your own effort. You had never put so much effort earlier. This year you had put so much of effort thinking that it is the magic of pencil but then you had studied so well that you do not need the help of that stupid pencil anymore. You can write any exam with any pencil and clear it pretty well. That is why we planned all of these! Now come inside and have the Ghee Dosas before they are cold. I will tell the complete story then!” Appa brought out a pen box. It was engraved P-A-R-K-E-R on it and looked a lot classier than the other pens that I owned. I threw my bag on the sofa and rushed to wash my hands before trying it out. It wrote on the paper as my fingers rode on amma’s silk saris. In a few minutes, I had all but forgotten about “the lucky pencil” and was feasting on the delicious dosas. I had many more questions and it would take me a few more days to grasp my parents’ master plan to get me interested into learning! The Parker pen was safely clipped to my shirt and the thirst for knowledge to my heart. It would stay that way for a long time to come!

~ Trilok Rangan ~
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Appa – Dad
Amma – Mom
Dosa – South Indian Rice based dish

Published – http://www.indianruminations.com/contents/fictions/the-lucky-pencil-%E2%80%93-trilok-rangan-karnataka/

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What a toddler can teach, an education can’t !

Each step more cautious than the previous, often going off-balance, regaining his footing, struggling, moving forward, a toddler was learning to walk in the nearby park. His parents had left him to wander on his own under their watchful eyes. As he explored the world around him, he felt the rough stones under his feet, the wind blowing hard on his face, long legs passing in front of his body, craning his neck up to see features similar to his mom’s and dad’s, strange, smiling faces. Then, there were faces at his eye level, much easier to look, curious glances, trying to touch his face, grasping his hand. He did not accept that touch. He was a little apprehensive. But then he knew that they were similar to him than different. Freedom was exciting and independence was everything. Once in a while he glanced back to ensure that his parents were around. Without him realizing his tiny steps were making an arc with his parents at the center. Often he pushed his luck a little farther to make a larger radius as he ventured out. He was then lifted off the ground and put closer to the center. It was his dad. They would again let him walk in another direction. He moved confidently in that direction. New paths showed up. He discovered new friends and frontiers. A few minutes passed, the exhausted tot sat abruptly on the granite pavement. Concerned, his parents picked him up and took him into their arms. His face lit up and happily gulped the orange juice that he was offered.

Later, while at home, an average middle class young man who I have come to assume of myself, was thinking about my priorities, working with my constraints to achieve my personal goals. To be frank, I realized that I was timid. As I sat waiting for an inspiring talk or picking up another self-help book,  the episode of that little kid learning to walk in the park hit my mind like a silver dagger. It put me into a deep thought. What could I possibly learn from him ?

Have it ever crossed your mind as young boys and girls why our teachers and parents kept on throwing at us the question — “What do you want to become when you grow up ?” The question about our ambitions put to us multiple times forcing us to answer, making us think. From a sailor in the rhymes to a political leader inspired from the chapters of inspiring Independence time leaders to the famous rock star holding his guitar, we were never short of role models to look up to. As time progressed, have you thought how those dreams matured. From a batman to IAS officer, fireman to Computer Engineer. Over time our dreams have been more so practical. But, I am not going to start a debate on why that transition happened. Perhaps, a topic to digress in detail at a later point in time. What caught my attention is the fact that why that question was put to us as kids when we had limited knowledge of the world around us. It was to motivate us, to make us think, to make us work towards an aim. This could have been asked only when were still young and not 20 years later for reasons that I am revealing below.

Going back to the tot steps, why did the parents knowingly or unknowingly let him walk ? Did they want him to get lost ? By no means. The only reason for this was the fact that they wanted the toddler to learn to walk. He should learn that himself, self-taught. It’s a basic lesson of life. In turn, he utilized that opportunity to learn, to venture, to see and to understand, take some risks, push himself to the edge to find out what happens, often looking back to ensure that he was keeping the focus right but yet having fun, repeating the above in a loop. Whenever he was hesitant and not progressing any farther than before his father would prompt him to move forward. So a dreamer, an adventurer it’s there in all of us. Consciously or not we were dreamers and had won many a races in life. But, how did we, you and I grow out of our inherent skills ? How did I unlearn that vital learning?  What is that I fear so much ? Are those abilities still latent and will I be able to rekindle that passion ?

In an attempt to rekindle that fearless spirit , to re-ignite those latent abilities, I posted a few questions to my cognizance. What made that little kid do that ? Can I draw a parallel in my life and career at least to an extent ? To get to this answer, I revisited that scene from the park and tried to walk with him and understand from his actions.

Learning to walk

A new career, a business venture, moving to a new house, a new life — perhaps marriage, change in circumstances due to priority shift, transition from college to corporate life. One can draw  as many parallels as one wants about how important is the art of learning to walk is. There will be struggles. You may fall down and then you get up. This is a constant learning process. Would a child who is afraid of falling ever end up walking in his life? How many children have you seen like that ? Perfectly able child who is scared of tripping and falling down. Therefore, he avoided trying to learn to walk and would always sit. I am yet to come across people like that. Whereas I have seen people with disabilities standing tall and running fast. Coming back to the toddler from the park, with every failing step his muscles got stronger and so was his will to walk. He learnt what not to do to be stable. A day later he would try to stand up again on his feet and inch forward. He would then walk, pace, sprint as time progresses. All that forces him to get stronger are the obstacles. Real time translated — a doomed business, financial strains, a strained relationship, a failed marriage.

The kid’s observations
Observations come from the environment you thrive on and what the senses teach you. You will see a lot of people at lot of places – Your superiors, your bosses, market leaders high above you,  your colleagues your friends, your partners, your competitors at your level. In society too you will find your rich neighbor, the salaried class employee, the poor jobless average citizen. The kid saw it all, but did not stay there long enough for he had his goals. He had to move ahead. He did not have all the time to play but then he acknowledged their presence, made relationships. He saw the grown ups and those who are at his eye level. He moved constantly but with an underlying aim. He kept himself curious.

His parents and the radius he was making were his constraints, priorities and his faith. Personal and professional life would often have constraints. It is not that you can fly above your limitations. Remember Icarus, the son of master craftsman Daedalus. Icarus was gifted with a wax wing by his father to escape from the prison. In his curiosity he forgot his father’s warning and flew close to the sun. His wax wings melted and he fell into the deep-sea and drowned to death all in a successful attempt to escape from jail. There is some uncanny resemblance that one can notice between life and this story especially in this context. You will learn the ability to succeed and escape the prison of rat race but then your success comes with the understanding of your limitations. If you forget that your legs are tied and start running, you will eventually fall. This is one lesson that the kid knew by heart. At the end of the day he succeeded, he walked the earth below his feet.

The young little boy took the muddy road as well as the stony pavements. The ability to take the path he liked within that radius is the adventure he had. It helped him meet and see new people. It took him to new places. It was risky . His feet ached. But something took him forward though a little hesitantly. Adventure and risks have to be taken to learn, to challenge oneself, to prosper. It is what makes us look forward to the next day, to reinvent each waking day. It feeds the passion.

All these while he had kept faith, especially in his parents. But he had one more faith — in the people around him. He believed that the world’s always a good place. He might get some bad experiences as the walk progresses.  But he would come to understand that the world view was not made out of a few bad experiences and some failed experiments but the hundreds of cherishing memories and success that were yet to come. In the assurance that someone is watching you, he had got the warmth and the security for self-motivation and removing self-doubt. A mentor, a leader, a philosopher, a beacon of light would often come into the lives of those successful people helping them reach where they are. This may not be god or parents in the literal sense. Those who care about you and who can selflessly guide you when you are lost in the woods or lose in a game are those beacons of light.

Go ahead and analyze each activity of that kid from learning to walk to going to a school to growing up to be a person. I am sure you will get to know all that you have unlearned. One might think that this is just another motivational piece of article. But if you go one layer beneath your mind you will get to know that this behavior of us – the valorous kid in us is alive but trapped inside. We have hidden this behavior deep inside our minds with shells all over it. It would take some serious effort and motivation to break these layers of covering. What that means is for example in corporate life to ensure that talent is recruited and retained at any level mimic a kid’s life. Let him learn, give him challenges, reward him however small that might be and let him grow up. But in this new position let him be a kid and learn. So in every position the employee moves to he will start all over again. I am sure you are much more intelligent than me to read between the lines and extrapolate the rest. This is just one example that I shared with you to illustrate my point. It is up to you whether or where you want to use this philosophy. Just one thing, try applying it for yourself to find your dreams and succeed because it is more about you than him. I know you can go the distance and be where you want to be. So, just go ahead bravely.

Good luck.

~Trilok~

Very Short Stories Part 1

From Land of Stories and Story-Tellers

Chennai is blessed for it has a beach, a long shoreline. It is here the rich and the poor walk the same wet soil, the water that washes the dirty feet laps and cleanses the rich legs too. They are one and same there by the side of the sea, for at least a few moments, breathing one another’s exhaled air…A kid came running and hugged me from behind, her grip tight around my legs. I turned around and her eyes narrowed failing to recognize me. Her grip loosened, eyes swelled, and words stammered. She is lost. She took me for someone else and now her eyes frantically searches for the faces she knew. I lifted her on my head so that she could see the crowd and search her loved ones. She found her father. A man richer than the earth. He thanked. Her brother hugged. Her mother nowhere to be seen. But she laughed again. Her laughs brought smile on my face. I walked back with a corn in my hand, the only gift I accepted, for my mother sold corn that I never knew the taste of…!

The Hindu Priest – Devan

I remembered that young temple priest. His head shaved, his forehead and body smeared with sandalwood paste , bathed in sweat coming out from the temple kitchen. His skin hugged his body like a tight brown cloth on a skeletal frame. A torn, yellow towel covered his lower half, hardly reaching his knees. His hands held the garlands for the his deity. White, Red, Yellow and green were the colors on a cotton thread, woven into a simple garland for the simpler deity from the simplest human. He smiled at me. His face glowed like the god behind him. Like the king of a hundred thousand lands. Standing there I saw the real god, outside the Sanctum Sanctorum – Devan, the priest.

The Half Open Window

She was coming back. I don’t know where from. Closing the gate, she turned around, short hair, shorter sleeves on her white Kurta, Sharp nose and sharper limbs, a compound wall between us…Our eyes met… Electric effect.. Thousands of tamil movies played… I felt my heart melt as she walked away. But nothing happened.. A cold stare remained…

The power was out. I felt my way through the messy roads to reach the gate. A nineties Yezdi roared, it’s silencer louder than normal for there was no sound. I could hear crickets sing and dog’s barking a mile away. My neighbour’s kid on that. The angry young man he was. unkept hair, long and in all directions. Gave me a threatening glance.

A moment later, I came out.  This time the sharp eyes and sharper angled body of that girl awaited me. She sat on the rear seat – the typical Indian way. Her eyes shone in the moon light. It smiled. It said, “SShhh….” Her hands pressed the young man’s shoulder. He got it. The bike roared and they were away.

Summer Rain

It rained here in Bangalore. Wind plays around with the blocking structures finding its way through my half-opened windows. It’s cool. It has that peculiar smell, of spring flowers and dried leaves, now all wet, and decorating the black roads, turned into a slippery mash, of neem and of Eucalyptus. Lightning streaked the distant horizons like a dream half- lived. They brought memories – Of Pilani and the summer rains…

Aging

I am torn between many a souls, split between many a realities, between people who cared. A handful of promises made waiting to be kept – I am that man in between, not a boy anymore !!!

Signs

It felt like a dream. I wanted to wake up. Realized there was no waking up. I was living it. Every second, every breath of it. Everything seemed unrealistically real. It was dark. There was light. I was walking towards it. Images blurred. I was not able to understand. Every scene played like a 35mm clip, parts of the dilapidated reels eaten away by time perhaps. Were they flashbacks, my present or the future seen from a future to come thereafter? No Idea. Vague. Mysterious. I was walking a thin line. It was not a question of life and death. It was about sanity and madness !

Love

He asked,”Can you sing for me?” “No, you better not hear me sing !”, she replied, “But I can dance for you”, she volunteered. “I can’t”, he shook his head. But still they danced to soft music hitting the table and chairs, singing till the dawn peeped into their room, the warmth of the morning filled their eyes and the room. (The couple were blind !)

Technology – Changing A Kid’s Life

Today, I saw my cousin’s five-year old kid using an iPad with ease. Not just looking at it, but browsing menus, interacting, playing keyboard, games and what not. Then he came to the Dell laptop that I was using, kept his finger on the screen and tried to do the same thing expecting my laptop to respond only to be disappointed. Disinterested he was at the clumsy keyboard, left quickly to pick up the iPhone to play “angry birds’. Now that is Technology Revolution !!! I had used a black slate, wet cloth and a chalk to study, look at today’s kids !

~ Trilok ~