I was driving past this building after nearly a decade, but the scene outside the building, the crowd of people around the innumerable stalls, the que of people waiting at the bus stop and the cackle of voices remained the same. For a moment I felt time had stood still, I could see myself among those girls gathered around the ice cream cart shouting out to the hawker for their favourite flavour, those two girls racing towards the bus to grab the vacant window seat made me nostalgic about those beautiful days shared with my friends. A look at the big black gate with the impressive archway over it with the name of my alma mater carved o top made me park the car and I almost made it to the gate and then I stopped right there, for all those bitter memories came crowding back again. I turned around to look at the scene behind me on the streets, which had tempted me to walk to the gate and it seemed to have changed entirely for me.
I could see a girl beside the ice cream cart with her head bent down and her eyes almost welling up, while a lady stood there telling her she couldn’t believe the girl would be so dumb outside the classes too, having ice-creams from road side vendors. She was admonishing the girl, telling her to use her brain at least some time. As I turned around, I could see a group of students peering into each other’s notebooks as they discussed animatedly and girl walked along with a forlorn expression. Those very scenes which clouded the memories of my school days. A good part of the world’s populace claims those were the best times of their lives, I don’t think I am one among them. People speak of everlasting friendships and bonds of a life time created at school; I am not sure if I can make such claims confidently. You see, in a crowd there are only two kind of people who stand out, those who are the best or those who are labelled the black sheep, I didn’t belong to either category all my school life I belonged to a category who get dangerously stuck in the slotting, the average student and being an average student in India who was bad at Maths and Science only spelled doom. Most of my school life was spent trying to shed away the average tag, to earn the labels of smart and intelligent, but alas it was an ambition which remained unfulfilled. I would see friends and batchmates achieve this tag and it would only make me resentful. They would treat me like the less fortunate, an under-achiever. Though I would be tagged a hard worker, I would never be counted among the achievers. As I grew older the expectations of my teachers from me also seemed to diminish, I was never expected to top the exams or bring laurels for the school, at times my barely managing to pass the exam was treated as an achievement. I would be confused whether I was being complimented or taunted. Like any child in her teens, I was ready to bend myself backwards to fit in, to rise above this average tag and the only way to achieve that was to ace mathematics. The hunger for validation dictates even adults, so how could it spare a child, or should I say that’s where the saga begins.
I kept standing at the gate of my alma mater and the path beyond only seemed to bring back memories of the struggles, the rejections and the yearnings for appreciation. A path which was supposed to symbolise the best years of once life, only stood as a reminder of the bleak past. Like the other times in the past, I was tempted to turn around and walk away, it was these very same memories which had stopped me from visiting this place for a decade. But today I wanted to walk into these gates, I could not clearly place a reason why but I walked into those gates. As I walked past the lawn and glanced at the front corridor of the main school building at a distance, the faint image of the notice board on the wall caught my eye. It was the same place where I had spent so many occasions looking up for announcement of the chosen teams for the various inter school and inter class elocution, debate and quiz competitions and most times only face dejection. The times when I would question a selection process and want to know how a team had been created and I was told the teachers know who is smart enough to make it. The anger and unfairness of those episodes came clouding back, but the notice board brought back the most bitter of the memories which had filled my memories of this place to the brim with bitterness. The board exam results had been declared and I was looking at the mark list on the notice board and there was a cackle of discussion around me about future plans and a couple of teachers had also come in to see the results. As I got busy discussing career plans with my friends, a teacher remarked to me “why are you so worked up about career plans. With your score I wouldn’t even suggest a very demanding career for you, choose the easier options.” It had hurt immensely, I knew I was nowhere near the top of the class, but I hadn’t fared all that badly either. All of sudden I felt glorious being here, it felt like I had been given the perfect opportunity to show all those naysayers how wrong they had been. This was my turn to snub them.
I was no longer the average student or an average person as it had been envisaged by my teachers in school. I was a published author of two books and working on my third manuscript and I was a sought-after guest speaker at prestigious universities, in fact that had been the reason I had come to the city. I had never forgotten those scathing words. All my life from that fateful day onwards I moved ahead with only one motive to prove those words wrong. I would deliver every work be at a personal front or on the academic or work front I would do my work with only motto, to prove to the world that I was perfect at what I took up and I could ace at every sphere in life and had I not proved my brilliance, I had added so man feathers to my cap. All of a sudden, I felt a hand on my shoulder and snapped out of my reverie. I turned around to look who I was and I was quite surprised to see her there after all these years. Rima had been the topper in our batch, the ideal student, the all-rounder child every parent craved for. But despite her myriad achievements Rima did not have an iota of arrogance, she was one of the friendliest people I had met and after all these years her effervescent smile was still intact, in fact she had not changed much she still wore her hair in a braid, though it was little stylishly done and were not the tightly oiled braids she had during our school days. She was dressed in a sky-blue cotton saree, with pink flowers embroidered on it which seemed to perfectly embody her calmness, at least the Rima I knew had been supremely calm, whether that facet of her personality had changed is something I would get to know soon.
Rima recognised me instantly and embraced me warmly saying “it has been so long.” Indeed, it had been more than 15 years since we met and though pleasantly surprised, I was happy to meet her. “How come you are here?” I asked her without realising how blunt I sounded, I should have enquired how she was and asked about her family and when I realised my folly, I was embarrassed. “You are the same curious girl” Rima responded with her mischievous smile. “Sorry, I did not mean to sound blunt, I guess it’s the excitement of meeting you after all these years” I tried covering up. “That’s ok, I am also really expected with this surprise meeting, there is so much to catch up, lets head to our favourite spot” Rima said pulling me to the lane beside the building and stopping at our favourite corner at the centre of the canteen. This place had changed a lot, what had been a small stall with a couple of desks arranged in front, had now turned into a small café, there was a coffee machine, a fruit juice counter and a variety of snacks listed on the board behind the counter. “This place has become fancy” I exclaimed to Rima. “Yes, it has transformed, their target customers are quite different from our generation” she responded. I couldn’t help agreeing with her, the present generation of students were a lot more aware than us and confident of their needs and choices. “I hope other aspects of the school have also transformed for the better” I said with a tone of sarcasm and looking at the quizzical expression on Rima’s face, I regretted having used that tone. “So, how are you and what are you doing these days? I tried tracking you down on several social media handles, but I couldn’t find you.” I enquired Rima, with an attempt to steer the conversation away from my comment. “I am as awesome as I appear to be” Rima responded with a laugh. “On a serious note,” Rima continued “I am doing fine, leading a pretty much usual life. I got married about a decade back, have been settled in this city since then, have a seven-year-old daughter and life is pretty much about striking the balance between work and family and my dance classes in the weekend. As for a social media account, let’s just say I am still contemplating whether or not I should be opening up my life to the world for viewing and if I do how much should exactly be put up for public consumption, let’s just say it’s one complicated facet I am still figuring out. You say, how are you? I know you are a famous personality now, in fact I read your novel which was released last year and it proved to be a really interesting read.” “Thank you for taking the time out to read my book, I can see you have your plate quite full. It’s so nice to know you still dance, so where are you working?” I responded with another question to Rima. “I work here, I teach mathematics to the senior classes and currently I am also the class teacher of X A, our section, remember? She responded with a radiant smile. I was completely taken aback, the batch topper who had cracked the National level engineering entrance examination, securing a high rank had chosen to teach at this school! The revengeful me was again back in form and I mentally scorned, she was touted to be a success story and me a failure two decades back, how they had been proved wrong. “What happened, you seemed to be lost in thoughts” Rima’s question broke my chain of thoughts. “You, work here, umm that answers my first question. But you were the biggest success story of our batch, the world expected you to be at the top, in fact I had assumed you would be having a high-flying corporate career, having shattered the glass ceilings on your journey to the top. Why only me, all of our batchmates and teachers also assumed the same” I exclaimed.
“People’s expectations, their validations that’s what rules our lives” the tinge of sadness was clearly visible in Rima’s voice. But to me it looked like an opinion coming from a place of privilege. “That’s easier for you to say, you were the achiever and only must have had good things to hear from people around you. It’s the mediocre like me who have insulting barbs thrown our way. Those deprecating remarks keep pinching you all your life, its these validations from people around us that you despise helps people like me keep our confidence in ourselves intact.” I responded quite angrily to Rima’s remark and the next moment felt sorry for the rude snap, for I could see from Rima’s eyes that she was hurt at my sudden outburst. “Whoever told you, you were mediocre? Tell me, why would you let other people’s opinion of you define your life? You know, to be on the receiving end of the world’s expectations is never a pleasant experience, it only bogs you down. From early on I was supressed under the weight of the world’s expectations from me, I loved mathematics I won’t deny it but left up to me, I would have learned to discover the magic of math at my own pace, but I was expected by everyone around me to keep excelling as I had shown them I was capable of it, it was only in my mid-twenties, did I realize that in this constant run to meet up with everyone’s expectations and seek societal validations I had completely forgotten to listen to the most important person in my life; myself. An engineer from a premiere institute in the country choosing to walk away from a corporate career and planning to teach that to school students was not met with happiness by even my own family, let alone the society. But I have been extremely happy with my decision, the joy of spreading the magic of math and removing the fear of the subject and making the young minds fall in love with the subject gives me unparallel joy, the societal evaluations do not even matter. But I am surprised, someone as creative with such strong faith in your own thoughts would value random people’s opinion about you so much. The books you create are for people to evaluate, but why would you put yourself up for society’s evaluation?”
Rima’s words left me stunned, was it possible that someone give up a touted successful life and be happy in fulfilling a simple dream. I thought such stories were relegated to those self-help books and inspirational you tube videos, but here was a live example. “Being bogged down by expectations is understandable Rima, but being told you are incapable and mediocre beaks you down badly. I left the school premises with a lot of anger and questionable confidence, as the parting note I received was I am not going to make it anywhere in life. So why shouldn’t the approval and validations of society matter to me. Its these validations which have made me prove those naysayers wrong. My achievements fit the requisites of the society’s definition of a success story is the reason all those who termed me a failure will be forced to take their words back.” I responded to Rima, sounding very sure about myself but that smile on her face let me confused. “Your life’s journey should be achieving your goals and about your happiness, not about proving others wrong or right. There could have been people who doubted your capabilities back in school, but I knew many who appreciated your skill for language and dedication. Often the negativity we receive in life leaves a stronger mark on our mind, that happens because we give a lo of importance to those words. Are you happy with your achievements in life? Do you cherish this journey? That is what matters. In your incessant urge to prove your detractors wrong, have you been able to savour your own success? Tell me tomorrow, if your next book garners negative reviews will you take that to heart and work with only the vengeance of making your critics take back those words? Don’t let yourself get so bitter and cynical, appreciations and criticisms will keep on coming your way, people will go on judging you, you cannot make everyone happy. If you are happy with your life’s journey, it’s a success story no body needs to certify that.” Rima’s response was very calm and I found nothing in her statement which I could deny or present a counter argument about. We did spend another half an hour catching up with each other and then I took her leave, promising to catch up again soon.
The words Rima spoke that day kept playing in my mind for a long time, I would keep questioning myself whether I was happy with my journey, with my achievements? A month later at a get together of my acquaintances, I was being told I must attempt the thriller genre in my next novel, it would make me be considered as a versatile writer and would increase my worth in the literary circles. “I have decided my next book is going to be about a girl who writes her life’s success story on her terms.” It was a surprise for the gathering to see me not agree with their views. But that day I decided to END my obsession of complying with societal validations and opinions and begin to live for myself.
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