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