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THE REPORT CARD

I have to admit I am not the star pupil in my class. That single honour goes to Ajai Sharma. I am just about 'average' in studies except for English and History in which I am reasonably good. I have never failed nor have I topped in anything ever in my life. 'Could do better' is the sort of tepid
remark that you will usually find at the bottom of my report card. Hardly guaranteed to spread joy and good cheer at home.

The thing is that my parents give great importance to marks. When they talk about so-and-so's brilliant son or daughter who has scored nothing less than cent per cent since lower kindergarten, I feel sorry for them; there is such wistful longing in their voices. All their friends and acquaintances have potential Nobel Prize winners for children. And my parents have me. (The fact that I have the largest collection of matchboxes does not really count.)
To be honest, I don't like being around the house when the report card arrives by the post. It triggers off such a depressing atmosphere of gloom and doom at home that it gets even to me. Mother does not say a word. That is her forte: saying nothing. Her long-suffering sighs and reproachful looks are enough to make me feel like the biggest criminal since Jack the Ripper. And Father? Not trusting himself to speak, he simply shakes his head. Again and again he shakes his head till I fear that it might just drop off. However, self-containment is definitely not in him. Before long he explodes: it is all about competition, ambition, purpose of life, etc. I tune out most of what he says but it is the attitude that gets me. For days I am
treated like a bad smell.
Now, I always make sure that when the report card arrives, I am at a safe distance.
My grandmother's house at the other end of the town is relatively safe. And it is to this haven I repaired that weekend after school closed for the winter holidays. I am particularly fond of my grandmother. She is quite eccentric. I cannot think of any other word to describe a person who loves cats as much as she does. She has seventeen of them. 'Billi mem' is how the neighbourhood addresses her. With her small crouched figure, wispy grey hair and puffy cheeks she looks rather like a tabby herself. Her tongue of course can be sharper than a cat's claws.
"How did the exams go?" Dadi asked when I reached her house. "Another stellar performance?"
"One of these days, I will surprise you," I said. "I will come first, you just wait."
"I am seventy-eight," she retorted, "how much longer do you want me to wait?"
"Only seventy-eight?" I teased. "You don't look a day younger than hundred and eight!"
She chuckled. That is one good thing about my grandmother. She has a tremendous sense of humour.
The other good thing is that she is a superb cook. I looked forward to a weekend of gormandizing.
It was Friday morning. By mid-day, the post would arrive. My parents would have that night and two whole days to absorb the shock. Of course, the aftershocks would carry on for some time, but from past experiences I knew that I could handle that. In the meantime, I had to keep myself occupied. So, I walked down to the local video library to pick up my favourite Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Guess who I met there? Ajai Sharma, 'Mr. Albert Einstein' himself. He raised his hand in the kind of noblesse oblige greeting Caesar reserved for the hoi-polloi. A totally bogus smile flitted across his features.
"What are you doing here?" he asked in an obviously disinterested tone.
"Psst...I am on a secret mission for James Bond," I mumbled through the corner of my mouth. The humour of course was lost on him. Ignoring me, he said to the attendant.
"Will you reserve that cassette for me? I am going away till Monday."
"Where to?" I asked. "To our farmhouse."
"Have fun," I said though I meant, break a leg.'
"Thanks... Before I forget, best of luck to you."
"Whatever for?"
"The moment of truth," he said, baring his teeth in what I assumed was a smile. "The report card must be in the post."
I walked back feeling strangely glum. It was not very nice to be a fugitive from one's own home. But what could I do? I could not possibly face my parents. I would run out of excuses. Studies were incidental in my life. Though I tried hard, I just could not pay attention long enough in class. At home, I usually never opened my books till the evening before a test. I wondered, what must it feel like to actually look forward to showing off one's report card? For a fleeting moment, I envied Ajai Sharma and the rest of his ilk.
"Cat got your tongue?" Dadi asked. I looked up from my plate. We were having lunch in the garden. The afternoon sun was pleasantly warm; the chrysanthemums were in bloom. The cats were dozing around.
When I did not smile at her little joke, she said, "I asked you if you want a second helping of matar-paneer?'
"No, thanks."
"There is gajar halwa, too."
"No, thanks."
"I have never known a mere thing like a report card to affect your appetite," she said drily.
"Is it particularly bad this time?"
"No more than usual," I said. "I just hate the whole thing so much. Marks are not the only measure of intelligence, are they? Then why am I treated like a lower form of life?" Dadi just reached out and covered my hand with hers.
Dadi went in to have her nap. The sun's warmth had made me sleepy. I lay down on a durry in the garden. I must have been fast asleep because I did not know when the car arrived. The slamming of its doors woke me. I saw my parents. I remember thinking, why have they come here? This must be worse than I imagined.
"Ah, son!" my father began. But as usual, emotion rendered him speechless. He kept shaking his head.
However, there was something very odd. Ma was smiling.
Breaking away from her usual pattern, she kissed me and said, "Beta, you have done us proud." Opening a box of sweets, she stuffed a laddu in my mouth.
For a moment I felt I was dreaming. Were these my




parents? Was I their son? They held out the report card. Was this my report card?
I ran my eye down the column: 90%, 95%, 92%, 97%...Rank: First
"You have brightened the Sharma family name, son!" Father finally managed to say it.
That was when the penny dropped.
Sharma is to India what Smith and Jones are to England—the commonest surname. Just look into the phone directory. There are pages and pages of Sharmas. Dadi says that in India all you have to do is shake a tree and a Sharma will drop off.
Ajai Sharma. My name is Ajay Sharma, too.
The school office had made a real mistake. They had mixed up the names and entered the wrong marks. These belonged to Ajai Albert Einstein' Sharma.
These are not my marks,' I wanted to say immediately.
However, the sight of my parents' faces was too much. I could not bear to burst the bubble yet. Though in time, I would do it.
Attractive as they were, these were not my marks. As I basked in the approval of my parents, I saw it for what it was: simple pride. Nothing more. I looked at the marks again. Something in me changed. A wish was born—to do well not just to please my parents but to earn these marks for myself. It would take time. But I would do it, I determined.
As Mother ran in to tell Dadi the 'good news', I had a sudden picture of Mr. Brain and the shock he would get
when he opened his report card! I laughed.

M.S. Mahadevan



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