Short Fiction: Ramesh and The Test
The clock ticked audibly as Ramesh sat in the examination room. He stared at the sheet of paper in front of him.
1. Comment on Nehru’s agricultural policy through the lens of Dialectical Materialism. Compare Nehru’s view of Socialism to England’s, then Russia’s. (1000 words).
Sweat sprang to his forehead. He began furiously writing:
“When cautiously considering a wide and complex social issue as class-based and historically imperative as the Peasant Question, it bears well to keep in mind, as best as one can, the class nature of the struggle…..
The overwrought prose came to him naturally, and soon he had filled a page with what he dimly imagined his examiners wanted to read. He was 28, already with a noticeable slouch, and this was his last chance to make the Indian Civil Services. The automatic nature of his responses left time to consider the gravity of his situation. He began to quietly hyperventilate. This was it then; his last chance, and look how he was wasting it! He remembered the three other times he had sat in this cavernous hall, answering the same questions with the same textbook regurgitation and sitting, it seemed to him now, even in the same seat.
He glanced up at his fellow-test takers. There were four hundred of them, each scribbling as fast as they could. They at least seemed to know what they were writing. Along each row strode a grim proctor, glancing first a student’s test, then raising his gaze to the hundreds of identical creatures silently competing with one another. They might as well be carrying batons, thought Ramesh as a roving proctor caught his eye and gave a withering glare. The dense silence in the room accentuated the gesture. He snapped back to his exam.
“Of course, one cannot deny – indeed, one is forced to accept – the bourgeois nature of the Pre-Nehru system of agriculture. In fact, class antagonism began to overwhelm the British Empire, and was, one must concede, a necessary, if not integral, part of Nehru’s Prime Ministership as a whole, and certainly of the policies thus enacted. In order to place these events and policies in the proper context, it is always necessary, even vital, to consider the historical imperative of the class question and…..”
Ramesh felt a wave of revulsion at what spewed from his pen. It was no good. He knew it, the examiners knew it, and his parents never ceased to remind him of it. This was all it came to, all his idealism, his proud rebellion, his lost years of study!
He remembered the pride with which he stubbornly insisted on studying undergraduate political science. His parents regarded the idea first with derision, then anger, before settling into resigned disgust.
“Who wants to study computers like everybody else?” he had said at the time, “I want to change the way the world thinks, not help it along a destructive path. Technology deadens the mind and dulls the spirit!”
He had kept this way for some time. What could his parents do? It was either political science or allow their only son to go uneducated, something which they had sacrificed too much to allow to happen. So they grit their teeth and paid; and Ramesh halfheartedly studied Plato and Machiavelli, Kant and Locke, Marx and Ricardo.
But what a bore it turned out to be after all! The essays! The pointless, endless discussions! The indecipherable 18th century prose! When thinking of his university years, Ramesh remembered most the shuddering joy with which he had his first alcoholic drink; the nights spent on his motorcycle, cruising about the city; and the friendships he made, so heartfelt yet so short-lived. His classmates were all married by now, all with children and most with comfortable university positions. More than anything, Ramesh’s envy created the distance between them. He had drunk too eagerly from the cup of freedom; lingered too long in the vestibule of adulthood, and saw himself now struggling to catch up.
When he graduated, Ramesh found himself at the bottom of his class, holding what turned out to be a worthless sheet of paper. A year of confusion followed. His parents’ disapproval became more vocal, his search for employment more desperate, his sense of failure more complete. As it turned out, there was very little one could do with a degree in Political Science. His dismal marks precluded a university appointment or law school, and employers treated him with scorn. Most days he idled at his parents’ house thumbing through magazines, dully staring at the television, mulling over why he didn’t try harder in school. He could not think of what to do next.
Finally it was his father who suggested he write the Indian Civil Services Examination. Why not? Ramesh had thought at the time. It was one of the few conceivable things he could do with a Political Science education, and who knew? Maybe he would get in. He had considered the ICS exam before, but had dismissed the thought as impracticable. The effort required to study for that exam had seemed too great, and Ramesh was not confident he could even pass the preliminary round. But now, after a year of dreadful idleness, the exam seemed attractive. At least he could tell people he was “doing something” then (“Oh, me? I’m studying to take the Civil Services.”). As things stood, he was a useless lump, eating his parents’ food but bringing them nothing in return.
Thus began four years of study, examination, and disappointment. Each aspirant got four attempts at the three-tiered examination structure, each attempt taking a year from start to finish. They had to navigate a preliminary round, a main exam and a interview, where in 15 minutes one had to explain to a bored civil servant what set him apart from the millions of other applicants. Ramesh had never reached that stage, and he regarded it with fear and anticipation. His first two attempts he did not even pass the prelims, and on his last attempt he was eliminated after the mains.
And now he sat, halfway through the first of four essays in his last examination attempt. His pencil quivered as it sped across the page:
“In regards to the land conundrum, it is clear, or at least it should be by this juncture, that the only proper solution, in fact one might say the only possible solution, lies in redistribution and collectivization of land. In the 1950s, Nehru attempted to do this, but of course was impeded by the various bourgeois elements within the villages, and also in the cities. The key to understanding Nehru’s failure, and the failure of collectivization, lies, one must admit, in….
He already knew he would fail.
Four hundred students poured out of the examination hall into the dusty, chaotic streets. The air hung heavy with smog, leaving an acrid taste at the back of Ramesh’s throat. Before him unfolded the cacophony of every Indian city; the cars and motorcycles, the seething mass of people filling every open crevasse, the labyrinthine side-streets opening into dark, unknown alleyways. Thirty feet away, a hawker was peddling the cheapest sort of plastic toys, crying rhythmically, “Bommalou! Bommalou!” Games, Games.
Ramesh fell in step with his batch-mates. He had been with this group for years; their friendships forged on the anvil of a thousand study sessions. He remembered with a shudder those interminable nights spent poring over past civil services examinations and preparatory booklets. They had helped one another stay awake during the small hours of the night, quizzed each other, and offered consolation whenever one of their group became overcome with anxiety, a frequent occurrence. They were Ramesh’s closest companions; he felt closer to them than even his own parents.
Yet close as he was to them, Ramesh had always felt himself apart, somehow deficient. His friends were all much stronger students than he was, had all performed better as undergraduates at more prestigious universities. They had had an earnestness from the start which Ramesh lacked, a willingness to work hard, to subordinate their desires to future goals. They had endurance, stamina; they stayed up long after Ramesh retired for the night, were sharper, more focused, and understood complex ideas far easier than Ramesh could. He had always felt inferior to them as a result, and felt secret gratitude that they should allow him into their club. Ramesh was the only one of their group who had exhausted his chances at the exam, the only one for whom the exam they had just taken would decide the future.
They strode in silence for some time, each attempting to calculate his score, either adding or subtracting ten points from their first estimate according to temperament. A motorcycle narrowly missed hitting Ramesh as they walked past a chicken shop. The reedy smell of caged animals filled his nostrils, and he heard the dull thwack of a knife on a chopping block. The frantic squawking grew louder from the cages.
Mukesh, who had a habit of boastfulness, finally broke the silence.
“Well, no use in waiting for your results, my good fellows!” he cheerfully remarked, “We already know who the top scorer is. I tell you what – since we’ve been through so much, I promise I’ll pull some strings and get you a nice secretaryship in my office. Won’t that be nice? You should thank your stars you have such a good friend as me.”
His remark broke their reflective mood, and they began a friendly game of one-upmanship, a long-cherished pastime. Ramesh usually remained silent during these conversations, feeling as though he had nothing to brag about.
“My balls!” countered Venu, “You wouldn’t be fit to clean the toilets of my office! But you’ll always have a job laying bricks at all the new buildings I’m going to have built in my village.”
“You’re both idiots!” said Gautam. He was older than the rest of the students, but by an application of India’s affirmative action was allowed a few more attempts at the exam. The rest of the students carried an unspoken resentment toward Gautam for his stroke of luck.
“We’ll see who works for whom when I’m making my crores per month,” Gautam continued, “I’ll be the richest man in India! Richer than Ambani!”
Richer than Ambani! They paused to contemplate the dream. The thing of it was, it could happen! With shrewdness and a flexible moral compass, they could all be millionaires by age thirty-five. And with a squirm of delight they imagined how it would be once they secured their civil services placement: the lines of villagers waiting to pay tribute; the hard-nosed businessmen whose projects rested on their good will; the lush, decadent lives they would have as landed members of India’s new gentry.
They wandered into a tea shop and sat at a stall, eager for refreshment after hours of grueling concentration.
Ramesh always prided himself on his lofty sense of ethics, but, of course, he had never been tested. No one ever offered him a bribe. Still, he thought, or liked to think, that when the time came he would turn up his nose and refuse, content with his civil servant’s salary. But a part of him always doubted whether he could resist when the time came.
Still miserable over the exam, Ramesh tried to salvage some dignity and interrupted Gautam’s reverie.
“Think it’s nice, do you, taking money from poor villagers?” Ramesh grumbled.
The mood instantly shifted from playful camaraderie to the tense seriousness that comes when one openly invokes a taboo.
“Chai!” called Venu to the waiter.
Gautam picked up the gauntlet.
“So what of it?” he replied, “Look how hard we work! What, you think I kill myself over books, eating nothing but rice and dal for my health?”
As usual, Ramesh had expended his courage on his first remark.
He stuttered hesitantly, “What about helping people…?”
“Oh, I’ll help people,sure!” cackled Gautam, “Just so long as they help me in return. And you know, just because you mentioned it, once a year I’ll help someone for free. Are you happy now?
His sneering tone infuriated Ramesh.
“Why take any bribes at all? Don’t you see what it does? Our corruption is the joke of the world! Every American, every European laughs at these greasy babus who will cheat each other for a single Rupee!”
It was Gautam’s term to get angry.
“Watch who you’re calling a greasy babu!” he growled, “And who does it hurt? Answer me that, Ramesh! You think I’ll take from these destitute peasants? What could they give? No, I’ll only take from businessmen, kingpins. They’re all corrupt anyway – you know they are. Will you cry big tears for the corrupt businessmen?”
Venu sipped his tea. “He’s right, Ramesh,” he said quietly, “We can’t change the system – we’d be mad to try. Things have gone this way for some time. Who are we to object?”
“And what is so bad about gifts?” chimed Mukesh, “Things are only good or bad if everyone agrees they are. It can’t be so wrong if the whole country does it.”
“Oh, that’s just moral relativism,” countered Ramesh. Gaining strength, he continued, “You have to realize what an effect this has on India. You can call it a tax – fine. But it’s unevenly applied, and ends up harming the poor in the long run. It’s ultimately these ‘gifts’ that allow the Tribal Indians to be bombed out of their villages.”
“What do you know of it, city boy?” he spat, “You talk with your moral airs, but the only reason you can is because your father already has money. What, he’s a mid-level bureaucrat, right? Ha! When have you ever starved? That is why you cannot understand: Money is everything. Money is the reason we’re sitting here drinking tea instead of out on the street.
On a roll, he continued: “You cry big crocodile tears for the poor, but you’ve never seen them, have you? If you had, you would know – the poor will always exist. It’s all you can do not to become one of them. You think that if I sit piously refusing bribes for the rest of my life, eating rice and dal and clothing my children in rags – you think that would somehow help the Tribals? The mining companies will just go to another, smarter officer and give him a gift! So who does it help? You should worry more about your own situation and less about others, Ramesh. Isn’t this your last chance at the exam?”
Ramesh deflated. The others shifted uncomfortably. Gautam was thirty and had had the examination rules relaxed by virtue of his “OBC” – Other Backward Class – status. His friends knew Gautam had grown up poorer than they had, and this became a source of vague guilt. More than once it had allowed Gautam to end an argument.
“Come, come friends!” said Mukesh, “Tensions are certainly high – we’ve all been through a rough day. But let us not take it out on one another! We’ll have another round of tea and talk of something pleasant this time!”
They talked of something pleasant. But Ramesh kept thinking of what Gautam said. He was right, of course – Ramesh had as much real knowledge of poverty as he had of quantum chemistry. Deep down, Ramesh knew he could never live as the poor in India do; blackened by the equatorial sun, never knowing where they would get their next meal, defecating in front of their aluminum shanty tenements. It was this ignorance of true poverty, this revulsion, that made him all the more guilty for his unearned luxury. He remained silent.
Having finished their tea, the four friends parted ways.
“I’m going to visit my ammiyah,” boasted Mukesh. His girlfriend.
Venu, Gautam and Ramesh went to their respective homes. As he trudged down the dusty side-streets, Ramesh passed a well-dressed young businessman urinating against a wall. Next to him sat a wizened, toothless old creature dressed in the most abominable rags. With leathery skin flayed by a thousand suns, the old man stretched an arm out. Ramesh slumped, then dropped a two-rupee coin into the gnarled hand. He walked away quickly.
Ramesh entered his parents’ house as silently as he could. It was a squat, one-story structure of adobe, similar to thousands of others around the city. His father had risen halfway through the ranks of the Indian bureaucracy, earning just enough to own a house and employ a servant. It was his father’s life’s goal, and he was content in having achieved it.
Ramesh’s mother heard him enter. A plump, bulging woman, the years of idleness had made her incomparably bitter. She had just missed joining the generation of women for whom it was all right to work. When she grew up a woman’s place was still firmly in the home, and so there she remained, growing fatter and more malevolent by the day. More than anything else, she cursed the life of adventure she might have led, and thus felt double contempt for her timid, ineffective son.
“There he is, the rascal!” she shouted by way of greeting, “Come in then, take off those filthy shoes. I suppose I need not ask you how the exam went?”
One look at Ramesh’s face gave her the answer she needed.
“Ayyo Rama!” she wailed, “What a son you have given me! What laziness, what stupidity! I don’t know what crime I committed in my previous life, but Rama, I am paying for it now! Look at him, the base animal! He doesn’t even have the decency to tell his own mother how it went! But I know! One look at that pathetic face tells it all! Speak! Speak! Don’t just stand there like an idiot! How badly did it go?”
Ramesh stared at his bare feet.
“Well, maybe I did alright…” he began, “I knew the answers to a few of the questions for sure…. I think I might pass this time.”
“The impudence!” his mother roared, “How dare he!” She appealed to his always-stoic father, who, as usual, barely glanced up from his paper.
“The same lies he told us the previous three times! And every time a failure! I don’t know what god is angry with us, but I say we have a curse on this house, a curse! How else to explain my useless son? Why else would I have been given a son like this?”
Ramesh stood frozen. His mother frequently lapsed into such histrionics; they came on like a storm, and Ramesh had found the best strategy was to simply wait them out. His mother had grown more and more impatient with each successive failure, and now stood as little more than a hateful bully.
“Oh, god in heaven, tell me what to do and I will do it! I’ll recite Suprabatham ten thousand times! I’ll tear out my eyes! Oh, anything but to have this useless lump in my house day after day, year after year, eating and failing as though those were the only things he is capable of!”
She had a habit when angry of speaking of Ramesh in third person, as though he wasn’t standing right there. Perhaps she knew how much this tactic hurt him.
“Rama! What will you do to me now?” she continued wailing, “Everything my son touches turns black and dies! How many lakhs of our money he wasted!”
And she began to mock him.
“’Oh, I want to help the poooooor!’”, she imitated, “’I don’t want to be an engineer like my friends, I want fancy-schmancy Political Science!’ Well, look at where he is now! Such a fool that he didn’t even want to study, graduated at the bottom of his class,” (she spat the word bottom as though it left a taste in her mouth) “Thinks he wants to help the poor but doesn’t know the first thing about them! Oh, what a wretched life he gives me, his poor mother!
She could not help herself and continued: “How will I get him married now? What woman would marry him? Oh, my only son, and now I must go without grandchildren too! Where will he go now? Shall I keep feeding him like a baby until I drop dead?”
His father cleared his throat and looked up from his newspaper.
“The test didn’t go well, son?” he asked curtly. Ramesh could not tell which reaction hurt him more, his mother’s over-the-top melodrama or his father’s quiet disapproval.
“I guess not…” said Ramesh through a closed throat. He was close to tears.
His father sighed. “It is time for you to decide where you want to go in life, Ramesh. We’ve spoken about this before. You’re 28 years old. Your peers all have wives, children, stable careers.”
“I know…” said Ramesh miserably.
“Cheh! Don’t waste your time on that good-for-nothing!” his mother broke in, “He’ll go work as an office clerk for 5000 rupees a month – and that’s if he’s lucky! He’ll probably end up a day laborer, hauling cement for 100 rupees a day.” She continued, maliciously, “But for a fine son such as mine, no fate less than that of a coolie is appropriate! You’ll like that, won’t you – hauling bags around for rich train passengers?”
And she spat upon the floor, so great was her revulsion at the thought.
Ramesh’s father cleared his throat and began again.
“What I mean to say is – well, we can’t keep supporting you forever. It wouldn’t be fair to you, and it certainly wouldn’t be fair to us.”
“What… What are you saying?” Ramesh whimpered, “Where will I go?”
His father frowned.
“Let us see how your exam turns out. We’ll decide then.”
Dejected, Ramesh trudged to his room.
Weeks passed. Ramesh spent them like a man condemned, fitfully studying for the interview and trying his best not to worry about his results. He alternated between self-assurance and defeatism. Enough time had passed since the exam that his memories of it were distorted; in the same day he could feel total confidence in achieving top marks and the deepest despair that he had failed. More than anything else, he wished the results would arrive immediately. He would have given anything to end this period of waiting and uncertainty.
His parents softened their criticism for once, but he knew it would begin anew with untold fury if he should once again fail. He spent his days poring over the volumes of preparatory materials with his friends, but he increasingly felt the futility of the gesture. Why bother studying when one already knows the outcome?
It had become a recurring theme for him. In those countless study sessions, which seemed to swallow his waking thoughts, he had caught a good glimpse at the distance between him and his peers. They seemed so glib, so capable of dealing with this stress! Their minds were of far superior stuff to Ramesh’s – he could see it in their work, their mannerisms, even their posture. Was it not destiny – Karma – that made some people ‘winners’ and some ‘losers’? Was it not said in Hinduism that you are born with your fate already written upon your forehead?
Ramesh had difficulty following his thoughts beyond this point. For the truth, then, would be too terrible to imagine. All of his previous failings – his half-baked idealism, his poor university marks, his abortive civil services examinations – came into context when he viewed them thus. And looking into the future he could see similar disappointments, similar failures.
He knew with clarity at these moments that he would fail his final attempt at civil services. Then would begin another few years of confusion, wallowing in his parents’ house, enduring their abuse, eating their food, and wondering what to do next. He would turn thirty, perhaps even thirty-five or forty in their house. Despite their bullying he knew they would never turn him out of doors.
But the uselessness – the dreadful ennui of such an existence! Ramesh could barely bring himself to consider it. Year after year of utter idleness! He had no clue what sort of work he could perform, and had horrific visions of himself as a 50-year-old bachelor, never having married or begat children, eking out a meager existence selling vegetables on the street, or – he trembled to think it – begging. He could see no alternative to this future once the path had been set in motion, and indeed, it seemed he had been traveling that path for some time.
Consequently, the results of his examination took an inflated importance in Ramesh’s thoughts. At times it seemed to decide his entire future – oh, if only he would pass! Then he could finally look upon his peers as equals; his parents would stop their harassment; and he would at last have evidence that he was capable of some success. That his future, both financially and socially, would also be assured was an added bonus. Never before, not even during that first year of idleness with his parents, had Ramesh felt such acute anxiety.
The steady rhythm of the days beat on until one day, quite unexpectedly, the results were announced. Ramesh knew the day was coming, counted it down on his calendar, but still managed to be amazed when it finally arrived. He mourned the pleasant purgatory he spent between taking the examination and that day – as usual, he wasted it fretting rather than enjoying the bliss while it lasted. For today, his fate would be decided.
He plodded with leaden feet toward the auditorium where the results were posted. He had the insane urge to simply turn around and inform his parents he had failed, to make his own fate and decide his life from there. But he couldn’t – it would be too humiliating to give up a civil services appointment for a moment’s caprice, and besides, he still had a sliver of hope that he might pass after all. Somehow he knew if he passed this exam the interview would pose him no problem. The city looked surreal as he walked to the auditorium, the screams of the cars and buses seemed to come from underwater, and the swarming masses appeared, momentarily, to resemble the same person, cloned ten thousand times, shuffling randomly in and out of stores.
He arrived at the auditorium. Already a crowd had formed. He recognized a few faces, and began shoving through the thickly packed bodies to the notices pinned on the wall. His heart in his mouth, he scanned the alphabetical list. Venu had passed this round, as had Mukesh. Ramesh didn’t see Gautam’s name, but that was alright – Gautam still had two chances left. A sinking feeling came over him as he realized his name wasn’t on the list. He looked it over once, twice, then three times. His name wasn’t there.
In a daze he walked out of the auditorium. Around him, students were either celebrating their success or quietly mourning their failure. One student was so excited he ran around in circles, whooping at the top of his voice. Ramesh saw Venu and Mukesh across the yard with enormous grins on their faces. He turned around and walked in the opposite direction.
A raft of emotions washed over him, as he aimlessly wandered through the desolate alleys. First fear, then panic, anger and finally a grim fatalism went through him. He had known this was coming, had nightmares about this very day, but now that it was here it seemed so much more horrible than he could ever have imagined. How could he go home now? What would his parents say?
He was seized by a kind of hallucination. In quick, successive scenes he could see his life unfolding before him – the upcoming years sponging off of his parents, the imposed sexual abstinence, the desert of happiness, the flood of despair. Never before had he felt so useless, so utterly unworthy of his so-called ‘ideals’. He, help the poor? He wasn’t fit to lick their feet! And he saw, with painful clarity, his own death, fifty years hence, having lived a life of boredom, failure and regret.
Something snapped within him. He knew what he had to do. He walked toward the lake at the center of the city. It had to be done quickly, before he had time to change his mind. Luckily the sun was setting, and few would see. He passed a construction site and filched a concrete cinder block and a length of rope. His face was a mask of anguish as he approached the lake. The sun had set completely by now.
Deftly, he tied one end of the rope to the cinder block and the other to his left ankle. Holding the block in both hands, he stared down into the brackish lake. One last failure to prevent a thousand more, a few minutes of discomfort to escape a lifetime of despair. If it was truly written on his forehead that he should live a life of idleness and contempt, at least he could make one meaningful decision and end it on his terms. The water lapped the rock he stood on. Perhaps he should go back home – after all, he could bear his parents’ disappointment. But he could not bear his own. The tears oozed from his eyes as he remembered his wasted life, and his body gave a mortal shudder as he contemplated the waste to come.
He dropped the cinder block into the water.