Built on a hill-like high edge of a pond–in local dialect it is called bhinda or pokharbhida–the school was our world. Its tiled roof which leaked when it rained heavily, whitewashed walls, huge courtyard with rose and other flowers beautifying its periphery, we treated the campus not just as our gurukul but as an incubator which taught us many values. Values that have stayed with us decades down the line.
I began visiting it since I was admitted in class six. We were around 60 or 70 students crammed into a corner classroom. We had sports and games too but I was not encouraged much to play games.
At the annual examination I topped the class. This trend continued till 8th standard. At the end of 9th and annual exam for 10th Binod Kumar topped the list, Vijay Mohan Kesri came second, another boy came third while I slipped to the fourth place.
Binod, like most of us, came from a village a few kilometers from our school and stayed at the school’s hostel. He was good in Mathematics and very dear to our Mathematics and Physics teacher Pulkit Sahu Suman. All our teachers, out of respect, were addressed with “Babu” as suffix. So they were called Pulkit Babu, Ramswaroop Babu, Ramdev Babu, Badruddin Babu, Malik Babu, Wasi Babu, Suraj Babu, Kamaldev Babu, Farid Babu, Rajkant Babu.
Binod was a hosteller while I was a day scholar. I would walk three kilometers from my village every morning to the hostel accommodation of Pulkit Babu to take tuition in Mathematics. Unlike today’s children, including my own kids, we didn’t need any tuition in social science subjects. We mostly took tuition in Mathematics and English. Since my father taught English at the school and helped me with grammar at home, I didn’t need to take extra tuition in English. Mathematics was where I needed to be coached more.
No matter how much I tried to improve my performance in Mathematics, I never matched Binod’s calibre. He knew all the formulas and could solve problems in algebra and statistics really fast.
Since our medium was Hindi and we wrote our answers in it, good handwriting in Hindi was always an advantage. Binod’s Hindi handwriting was better than mine. However, I had an edge over him in English and Social Sciences.
The news of Binod topping the class in the annual exam of 9th and I slipping to fourth place came as a bolt from the blue in my household. It was a sort of humiliation for my father who taught in the same school. Binod and I became competitors, arch rivals. Since we didn’t own huge parcels of land and no one in the family had gone beyond becoming school teachers, we were taught to excel since education alone was the key to progress. Securing good marks was the only parameter to judge brilliance. It was a skewed view, but that was it.
I vividly remember the evening my father brought the bad news that I who had consistently topped the class till 9th had come down to fourth position in the annual exam. My parents wept while my siblings kept quiet. The only person who tried to cheer me up was my grandfather, a British-era school teacher who had gracefully entered his autumn years.
That evening I resolved to pip Binod at the post. That meant I decided to avenge the defeat of 9th final exam at the 10th or Matriculation Board exams.
Despite my grandfather’s protest, I cleaned the glass of my study lantern and sat by it in a corner of our tile-roofed (khaprail) outhouse. Electricity was still years away from my village.
From that evening till the day I gave 10th Board exams, there was not a moment when Binod went out of my mind. I knew he was much better than me in Mathematics and Physics. But I also knew that, if I worked hard in Mathematics and put more efforts in Social Sciences, I could still defeat him. What pushed me more to burn the proverbial midnight lamp was my burning desire to restore my father’s prestige. I had seen him weeping silently at my poor performance a few months back.
I finished all subjects in a few months, made my own notes and began revising. When I felt I was getting distracted at home in my village, I shifted to my elder brother’s rented lodge in Darbhanga town just a month ahead of the 10th Board exams.
Binod was always at the back of my mind. I knew he was laborious too and would try to leave no stone unturned to keep his top position.
A week ahead of the 10th Board exams, my father fell ill. Since our centre or the school where exam was scheduled to be held was a different High School many kilometers away from our own school, we moved to a mohalla near the exam centre.
It so happened that my father who had egged me on all along was in our village recuperating from a serious back pain. He was not there to encourage me as I went to write the papers. But his blessings were with me. His illness was hidden from me lest I got worried and distracted. My elder brother told me about father’s illness only after I had written the last paper.
After nearly two months, the results for the 10th Board exams came. My father was in school while I was at home when we heard that a Hindi newspaper had carried the results. Nobody in my village got a newspaper. And my father was to return home from school only in the evening. There was no telephone or mobile phone to communicate. I got impatient. Then someone told me that a Brahmin friend of my father in a neighbouring village had got the newspaper which carried the results.
Accompanied by another boy, a class junior to me, I ran to that village to see the results. My roll number was among those who had secured first division.
The news was good but incomplete. There were many, including Binod, who had passed in first division. The newspaper didn’t have the marks or percentage of marks the students had secured.
With bated breath, I waited for the marksheet. It came after a few days of declaration of the result in the newspaper. Another boy of my mohalla, junior to me, was present at the school when the complete result with ranks and mark-sheet reached the school by speed post. The school peon Raju opened the sealed packet before the headmaster Ramswaroop Babu and a few other teachers. My father was taking a class when one of his colleagues informed him that his son had topped. The school bell was rung an hour earlier than usual because it was the result day.
The boy from my mohalla ran towards headmaster’s office. He saw my father coming out smiling. “Sir, result agaya kya? Topper kaun hai?,” he asked my father excitedly. “Haan result aa gaya hai. Wajihuddin ne top kiya hai.”
Since the final bell for the day had already been rung, the boy began running. He wanted to break this news to me quickly. I met him outside the village since I was expecting him to arrive before my father.
That day there were two celebrations. One at the school where my father threw a feast of sweets and another at my house where mother had sweets distributed in the neighborhood. That evening I saw a beatific smile, a smile that comes from huge happiness, playing on my father’s face. I never saw him happier.
I had left Binod behind by 52 marks in the 10th Board exam. He was placed second. While he went to a college in Patna, I joined Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) for intermediate studies. Later, he joined Indian Postal Service and I, crushing my father’s dream to see me, first as a doctor and then as an IAS officer, became neither. I changed my stream from Science to Arts and never sat for the Civil Services exams. I drifted into journalism.
With a heavy heart, I inform you that Binod died of TB a fortnight ago. My heart goes out to his son Abhinav, a final year MBBS student, and wife Hira.
Once Bindo and I were competitors but our friendship never dulled. We didn’t treat each other as enemies. An adversary is not an enemy. But for Binod, I would not have put in so much hard work to make my father feel happy and proud.
I will miss you Binod. You were my age. Why were you in such a hurry?