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A shrill voice, but a boy’s. (And not a boy of seven or thereabouts either, like it sounded.)
“You’re smart, aren’t you?” it said, “So I’ve decided you deserve an attempt at this really hard problem I’ve got.”
I looked up from Good Wives with a mix of curiosity and irritation, tucking a recalcitrant strand of hair behind my ear. I wanted to know what the question was, and at the same time I didn’t enjoy being patronized. The face that looked down at me was the impish face of a child with a prank up its sleeve, the tired face of an old man who frowned when he smiled, the idiotic face of a pretending evil genius.
All right, before I go any further, I must share the reservations I have in writing this. I am self-conscious and self-absorbed, and I fear that an unnecessary, even noisome, amount of me might creep into this narrative. And that will certainly not do, because this story is not about me, it is about them. Besides this, there is also the matter of the lens- the perceptions will be partly warped and colored by my own jealousies and prejudices, which may have changed since then but must for now be described exactly as they were. Bear all this in mind as I endeavor to do my best, but I pray that you may judge me lightly, or perhaps not at all.
So, getting back:
“Yes?” I said. I fancied I said so in a cold, haughty, uninterested sort of manner, because although I had known him for barely two weeks, I had already firmly decided I did not like Sameer. He was formidably intelligent, and correspondingly arrogant beyond sufferance. A new school in eleventh grade meant a new world, a world where no clever-little-girl reputation preceded me, and I was at once afraid of not being the smartest kid in the room and fiercely reluctant to face this fear. So I looked on him with distinct disapproval. Everything about him got my goat. And some of it was indisputably justified- for instance, when he solved physics problems publicly he would shut his right ear with his left hand, scribble unintelligibly and volubly hum: “la… lalala…la”.
This one, however, turned out to be a very convoluted math problem involving two trains (assumed to be point masses). One started from place A with a certain velocity and the other from B with a different velocity at a later instant along a track that was a superposition of a sine and a cos wave with a non-constant gradient that varied cubically with the distance from one end-point. They collided somewhere along the track. Which train was closer to place A after the collision?
“I see you aren’t factoring in the gradient,” Sameer nagged after I’d been working on it for about five minutes.
I smiled knowingly, pleased no end at having seen this little trick of his. “I don’t need to. I see you’ve only put that in to make a relatively simple problem more complicated.”
“Oh?” he said, raising his eyebrows in an “Is that so? Do you really think so?” way.
I reminded myself I was sixteen and refrained from sticking out my tongue. “So if we perform this path integral of f from A to a point P, say, at a distance x…” I went on in a thoughtful murmur.
My intense concentration was broken a snort of laughter from the seat behind me.
I turned back, puzzled. It was a friend of Sameer’s who had apparently been following our conversation. Lanky and somewhat gauche, broad-grinned. I hadn’t caught his name, but from what I’d noticed of him he’d seemed like a pleasant-faced, hastily put together scarecrow with bits of straw sticking out, blundering through a hazily rushing world. It is an impression that has largely sustained. In one of my more pompous moods much later, I also remember describing him in my head as quixotic, although that made no sense at all.
“Let him be,” Sameer advised me. “Jay is a unique combination of craziness and stupidity, best left well alone,” he additionally confided. I happened to know this was not true, and this remark struck me as a very cruel way of describing such a pal of one’s, all in very poor taste. I didn’t, of course, think of how I’d probably casually describe my old friends in a very similar way to a new acquaintance. (“Oh, Mini? I assure you that girl is mad, perfectly mad! And such fun!”)
I saw I was missing something. I asked Jay what it was. He paused in his fit of mirth to explain, “The trains collide, you see!”
I nodded uncertainly, wondering if Sameer had after all been right about this specimen’s mental negligibility.
“So they’re obviously at the same distance from place A,” he said.
I felt stupid. I reddened. I felt tickled. I laughed. I would have been completely amused if it hadn’t been for the fact that Sameer was so completely amused.
“Seema the Saviour was about to rescue the world with integration!” he was now exclaiming inanely.
“One day she will stretch the bounds of civilization with sinusoids!” Jay was enjoying himself too.
“She’ll vindicate humanity with vector calculus!”
“And devastate devilry with differentiation!”
I smiled despite myself at this duologue.
“Gosh, everyone I ask gets this wrong because it’s so obvious,” said Jay, “How cool is it?”
“Was it your question?” I asked him.
This cheered me up. “He’s smart, you’re not,” I informed Sameer.
Sameer frowned for a second, then said, “Jay? Oh yes, he’s extremely brilliant. He’s an absolute genius, aren’t you, Jay? That’s why he’s my role model and my best friend.”
I frowned back. I couldn’t believe he was genuinely praising Jay as he was incapable of genuinely praising anyone but himself. I didn’t quite get his tone, like I didn’t quite get him.
This sort of thing would disturb me again in the coming days, and increasingly so. Something pedantic and didactic in me led me to be concerned about Jay, as you would be about a younger sibling who was a bit of a goof but fundamentally nice, and not unintelligent either. I’d taken an immediate liking to him during our first conversation (which had also led to a net increase in my dislike of Sameer) and I’d found him since to be good conversation material. He had an imagination and sense of humour, and did not have an ego.
But he wasn’t bearing up very well to the pressures of eleventh grade. Like many, he’d seen his grades drop suddenly, and he hadn’t taken it well- he’d always done very well at school before. Jay seemed to always have been one of those excellent people: he said (for example) “Dandruff” when he meant “de Graaf ” (“The van Dandruff generator consists of two metallic combs…What? What did I say? Oh, no, sir, I meant de Graaf…Yes, sir. I mean, no sir, I’m not being clever, honestly.”), frequently dropped from his hands anything they happened to be holding, and staggered on his stilt-like legs.
That was all fine-fun-, but his blundering had been soaring in frequency since I’d first seen him, and it was beginning to affect his morale and pull down his scarecrow smile. I, for one, felt for sure that it had a lot to do with the way Sameer went out of his way to discourage him (or so I perceived), while he himself always remained at the top of the class, unflustered and omniscient.
When Jay did or said something brilliant, or during a general conversation in which he had not yet precipitated any disasters, Sameer would say something on lines of “Wow, Jay, you’re an incredible genius” in the same odd tone that had first troubled me. I’d recognized this as belittling sarcasm. When Jay did bungle things up, he would be offered not the slightest sympathy or even seriousness from this friendly quarter: Sameer enjoyed his mistakes with unconcealed relish and delighted in saying things like, “What a loser you are, Jay, how moronic!” This deliberate and unending- and pointless, really; was Sameer just sadistic?- attempt to make Jay look and feel dimwitted annoyed me no end. Especially because I’d found that he had something that most people- including Sameer and me, for all our scholarly pretensions,- lacked. A good store of solid common sense.
You could see all this troubled Jay, yet he continued to hang around with Sameer. Maybe part of the reason was that he really looked up to his intellect, but I felt it was more out of a sense of enduring loyalty to someone who had been a friend for so long.
But his confidence continued to plummet. Increasingly often, he declared that he was useless.
It came, as they say, to a head at the school Science Fest. Jay and Sameer had unsurprisingly teamed up for the symposium competition, and I was browsing through their report on The Leidenfrost Effect and the Planet Venus, in which they’d suggested some conditions under which water could be kept in the liquid state on the torrid planet. There was a point from a research article I’d gone through once about the possibility of life on Venus that didn’t agree with a point in theirs, and I explained it to Sameer.
“Your paper-authors are fatheads,” was his reply, with his usual reverence for the spirit of intellectual discussion.
“Yes, they certainly are; before your brilliance, the brightest minds fade into insignificance. Einstein obviously couldn’t have held a candle to you, though he did change the way we understood the light from the candle.”
“Don’t speak about Einstein that way, he was a genius.”
“I’m sure he’d have been gratified to hear that,” I laughed. But I was surprised. I hadn’t known Sameer was capable of being respectful to anyone.
Certainly he showed not the slightest sign of it the next minute as he scorned the way Jay had put together their model, which I did notice was rather lopsided. Sameer didn’t correct the arrangement; instead he stood making poetry about the erroneous effort for an interminable while. Suddenly I was furiously angry with him- nothing mattered to him but the satisfaction of slighting and looking superior- it was more important than his project, and had always been more important than his friend. A minute later, I heard him say in some context (I’d lost the thread of the conversation), “Jay’s the perfect teammate, he’s so intelligent.”. For a second, I was wholly vexed. Then I remembered this was his old pattern- direct jibes followed by effusive sarcasm.
Jay, meanwhile, had been worrying he’d forget his lines on stage.
“I’ve been working on this project for so long, and it’ll all be pointless if I go blank there.”
“You won’t go blank,” I scolded, “There is positively no way you can go wrong on stage.”
“That’s not true,” said Sameer’s high-pitched voice, “You can.”
I turned to Sameer with disbelief.
“What is wrong with you?” I yelled, “Are you determined to make him forget?”
But Sameer ignored me and said to Jay, “Anyone can go wrong. It’s a fact. You can, but don’t, ok?”
I shook my head in dismay. What did he hope to get out of such brutal discouragement?
Here’s how it went:
6:00 pm- The presentation begins.
6:03 pm- All fine so far.
6:04 pm- Jay says, “So, Venus has this really dense atmosphere made of sulphur dioxide- no, sulphur trioxide- wait, sulphur dioxide. Hell, that’s elementary.” The crowd laughs, briefly. Jay stops.
6:04:20 pm- Jay has been quiet for a moment. About to start speaking again. Sameer mouths something to him with what looks from my angle like a sneering sort of expression, maybe his next line, I can’t make out properly.
6:04:22 pm- Apparently, nor can Jay. Instead of saying what he was about to say, the chump dumbly
says, “What?” The crowd laughs louder and longer this time.
6:04:30 pm- Now Jay has forgotten his line. They are standing stupidly on the stage. What self-conscious children we all are: Venus and Leidenfrost are long forgotten.
6:05 pm- Jay has been standing completely speechless for the last half-minute. Silence on stage, noise in the audience. It has all stopped making sense. Now would be a good time to leave, you see him think, and he stumbles off the stage.
6:07 pm- I’ve got to the wings. Jay has vanished. “Nice, comprehensive botch,” a friend says to Sameer. He nods. “What’s wrong with Jay?” the friend asks. He shrugs. After he’s brought it all about. Angrily, I go out to look for Jay.
I found him sitting on the bench outside in the low light of dusk; he was up to some clichéd head-in-hand burying. He looked up.
“I’m hopeless, aren’t I?”
“As of now, yes,” I said, “Absolutely.”
“And a loser.”
“That’s right,” I assured him, “Though I think ‘hopeless’ covered that rather well.”
There was a dejected silence.
“I messed up completely. From the start I didn’t think I could do it. It isn’t like that with Sameer.”
“Yes. Sameer is so much better at everything, isn’t he?”
“He’s so much smarter than I am. He knows so much more than I do. And he’s so sure of himself.”
“That he decidedly is.”
Jay mumbled something incoherent about being a veritable moron or a vector meson, I couldn’t really tell. I decided I didn’t have the patience to put up with this rambling.
“Jay, you know you’re not an idiot; you just keep forgetting it around him. He does his best to ruin your confidence, and you let him. All that unpredictable jibing, followed by all that horrible sarcasm. How do you stand it? No, the question’s why. Why do you stand it?”
“Um? Um.” said Jay, looking drained.
I narrowed my eyes testily.
“But he’s my friend. You’re making him out to be a villain.” He didn’t sound like he was reproaching me, he just sounded like a soul in turmoil.
“On the contrary, I have absolutely no interest in whether he’s a villain or not. It’s beside the point. It’s irrelevant. The point is, are you going to take more of a stand for yourself after this fiasco? Or would you rather be a perennial broken spirit?”
A further dejected silence. My work as the friendly counselor done, I patted him kindly on the shoulder and left him to his meditations.
The nightmare began the next morning.
The resilient Sameer had got over the disappointment rather well and was celebrating his conquest of a certain complex problem with an extremely complicated method. I didn’t entirely agree with his solution. “I don’t care,” he said, “I used seven Gaussian surfaces in a single question! Try and beat that.”
Jay hadn’t been taking part in the conversation; he’d been reading Wolf Hall all morning. But he presently looked up to say to me, “Yes, Seema, do try. Although it is the easiest thing in the world to use seven surfaces, or a dozen even. If you’re more concerned with showing off than with finding the answer, that is.” He went back to his book.
The first part of his speech was the kind of bubble-bursting we’d come to regularly rely on Jay for, but the second puzzled me. It was uncharacteristic in its intent and its indirectness. And nor did he present a more logical answer, as he usually did.
I was in, in fact, for a lot more puzzlement over the week, which was to turn into trepidation and then dismay.
Sameer has just helped an airhead with algebra, and she is gratefully drawing an analogy between him and Newton, whose first name she seems a bit uncertain about.
“Really?” says Jay with interest “Was Isaac in the Pretending Prodigy Club too?”
A long moment of silence; Sameer looks stunned.
“Ok, Jay, here goes your psychoanalysis,” says Meera, an analytical friend who feels (like many of us) that Jay’s psychology requires examination, “First question. If you were allowed one wish- a solid, material thing, mind you- what would you ask for?”
“A nicer set of vocal chords, for an old chum.” This is nasty. This is not like Jay.
Sameer doesn’t seem to have heard.
I ask Jay if he wants to speak in our class assembly.
“What?” he looks startled, “No, no, I can’t.”
“I’d really like you to.”
“No, Seema, I don’t think I can… All those mics and loud voices at rehearsal will be bad for my ears in their present state,” he adds in the idiotic sly tone he’s been employing rather frequently of late.
“Your ears?” I said fretfully.
“Yes. My ears have been bombarded for so long with shrill insults that they’re very near dissolution.”
I’m more than a little irritated by the technical inconsistency of this. What can bombardment have to do with dissolution? Jay’s sense seems to have evaporated along with his niceness. I see that the real reason for his refusal is his insecurity about last time’s debacle, and it was to get rid of this that I’d asked him. That he’s turned even this into a chance to slight Sameer disgusts me.
It was hard to say for sure how all this affected Sameer, or even if it affected him at all. To start with, he looked dazed. But in a while he came round and wore the mask. One thing, however, could not go unnoted- how little, relatively, he now talked. Certainly there was no question of conversation with Jay.
And when the result for a certain test came in and we were all shocked to find how drastically terrible his score was, with all manner of the silliest mistakes, I couldn’t help thinking there wasn’t a deeper explanation than a sudden spree of negligence. Out of sympathy or officiousness I tried to talk to him about it, in the most general terms.
But he just shrugged. He didn’t seem distraught, only tired. “I told you, remember?” he said, “Anyone can go wrong; you just shouldn’t. It’s a fact.”
Maybe, I suddenly thought, he’d only been stating it that way on the Evening when Everything Changed. As a fact, as a simple observation that was better encountered than eluded.
The next minute I was mobbed by maybes.
Maybe Sameer suffered from something like… like kleptomania, that he couldn’t very well be blamed for. Some insuperable internal impulse that forced him to poke fun at Jay, a habit he could not correct. And maybe what I had interpreted as cruel sarcasm all along was actually just a slightly guilty, awkward attempt at making amends.
Maybe everything that I couldn’t get my head around was not wrong.
Then again, maybe I’d had it right to begin with, and he did deliberately scheme this way. What if the truth was none of the two, or a kind of hybrid? I’d never find out, and it all made me thoroughly miserable.
Jay was absent; I shuddered to think of how meanly he would respond when he heard about how badly Sameer had done. All day I was despondent: I looked before and after and pined for what was not, and so on. I decided this world had too little love and too much hatred, and that I had caused at least half of it. I toyed listlessly with the idea of becoming a Confucian and attaining harmony. Or perhaps a Zen-Buddhist; their version of peace, et al. was more stimulating.
But when Jay did hear about it, he said nothing. He just changed the subject.
Later that day, I saw them having a discussion about the pros and cons of the exact height at which the windows had been placed in our class, and the number and size of them. It lacked the old fervor. They were both expressing their views rather guardedly, as if one injudicious word would change the future of the Gaza strip. Moreover, there was no gesticulation from Sameer. Yet it was so bracingly out of recent form that there was a skip in my step as I retreated from the site of the conference.
I took it as a sign that things were getting back to their old selves. Then just the other morning, I found definite evidence.
Our class assembly had gone off rather well, and Mrs. Tandon, our pleasant, hawk-nosed class teacher, had much to say about the excellent way I’d coordinated it all.
“Seema’s efficiency is the stuff of epics!” Sameer exclaimed.
Everyone laughed, including me.
“Her excellence will inspire generations!” a voice from the other side of the room said.
Jay was grinning his broad scarecrow grin.
Sameer looked delighted. “Her management will turn men into magicians!” he trilled.
“She’ll uplift this race with her superior grace!” Jay finished.
Let’s put it this way- I heaved a sigh of relief.
I wondered if this meant we were back to square one, but I couldn’t help feeling the whole episode would definitely lead to a change, a growth of respect, an enhanced equality. A very slight change, perhaps. But even if we were back to square one, I told myself with a shudder that it was an infinitely happier state of affairs than the terror of square two.