This essay won the Barbra Naidu Memorial Prize for Personal Essay 2020 in the open category. The theme was Making Do.
The judge, noted writer and journalist, Samanth Subramanian has this to say: “In the best tradition of the essay, Hema Mythili’s piece revolves around the minuscule — the one-rupee coin — but spins out into memories, meditations, and rich description.”
‘Four o’ clock’ struck the long hand of the faded brown, grand old time master, who had adorned the dim white fortification of the laboratory since the time the wall was first painted. How many happy and gloomy moments would it have been a witness to, how many emotions would it have been a spectator of, how many questions and answers would it have heard, I wonder, as I look at the grand master on the wall, pleading with folded hands, to help me with its years of memories. And suddenly, there was a pat on my shoulder followed by a question, “What is the procedure for administering this test?” As I was trying to compose and orient myself back to the scene of the semester viva-voce examination, the big eyed examiner did not miss a second and asked the next, “How did you score this?” While my efforts to recover from the impact of the pacer was in progress, came the third, “What is the interpretation of this test?” To all these questions posed at a medium height, curly haired, chubby girl who had represented the student body and delivered her greatly applauded speech on the ‘Teacher’s day’, same time the previous day, the only answer I had was a pair of star struck teary eyes. The situation was further dramatized by the rosy red cheeks and, oh yes! the third musketeer, Ms. Sweaty palms could never miss gracing such an occasion. And that is as perfect as a trifle layer pudding for a graduate student facing the final semester viva-voce examination.
Ashamed and embarrassed, as soon as the grand master struck ‘Five o’ clock’, I picked up my bag and raced through the corridors of the quadrangular building with the same swoosh as Harry Potter often flew on his broomstick. My speed left many faces in awe for the farewell took place with no good byes, a lack of ‘see you tomorrow’ dialogues and the much talked of ‘a small curve that brightens the world’ – my smile. As I marched swiftly towards my second home, the shopkeeper on the way was also deprived of “The exam went perfectly fine, Uncle” routine. My stride double turned the heads of the sportspersons walking to the ground for their afternoon session. And all this, just to run and pour out my shattering experience and emotions with my beloved people.
Under the sharp gaze of the blazing sun, bracing through the humid breeze, I skipped and hopped, jumped and crossed every stone on the dry brown path, until…welcomed by the glorious and historic, long and never ending line of people at the doorstep of my dearest second home – Maithreiyee Girls Hostel, whose legacy is a piecemeal art without a mention of the traditional, grand and sacred few minutes of experience with the lone red box, next to the grilled green window. The heritage of this structure is an unsolved puzzle without the missing piece of the ‘wait’ to feel the arm of the lone red box, caged in an iron stand. The entire experience of dwelling in the Maithreiyee Girls Hostel is like a half-baked cake without the feel of pressing the white buttons of the lone red box – the one and only defendant against the army of 250 women power. Presenting to you dear readers, the lone red box, to which Alexander Graham Bell would have never missed a chance to wave his hat, Ladies and Gentlemen, the lone red ‘Coin Phone’ of Maithreiyee Girls Hostel, the only means of immediate connection with my beloved people residing in a distant land.
The long queue of ten inmates wishing for a lucky charm from the Goddess of time, while they eagerly and optimistically wait for their turn to connect with their folks, through the lone red ‘Coin Phone’ felt like a mountaineer watching the peak of Mt. Everest from a close angle. But, as she stretched her arm to reach, she fell short by just an inch. This small measurement levelled the ground for my sensory receptors to play their own form of Merry-go-round. As the optics caught the visual stimulus of the clock ticking fifteen minutes to six, the occipital lobe registered the impulse and Mr. Brain proceeded with its calculation: Thirty minutes to the bell and ten participants, ‘Do you have a chance?’ And, the output was tears welling up in my eyes to make a pool. Simultaneously, the auditory senses fell into action and receive stimulus in the form of conversations from my to-be competitors, “I have been standing since four thirty”. In response, “Doesn’t look like we can make it today”, “But, I am not stepping off the line!” This time my temporal lobe called, ‘Do you have a chance?’ Just in time, the ever vigilant olfactory senses flared up to the aromatic stimulus from the hostel mess and screamed, “Hey! It’s the Chole Batura day”. Answering the call, my taste buds started dancing to the tunes of ‘Hottie and Spicy’ thus, throwing my mind and heart into an uneasy battlefield. After a small sword fight, the heart won and commanded my hands to move towards the jingling coin pouch in my bag to count the silver round plates with the number ‘1’ stamped on it and directed my confused feet to be the eleventh lock of the chain.
The lone red coin phone had a deal cut when it was installed, ‘One minute for one coin’. So, after slight investigation about the number of coins in each investor’s folded fists and clinking pockets, my mental mathematics team woke up from slumber, turned on the ignition mode and began its work out: an approximate five coins/ person multiplied by ten stakeholders, equals to, fifty minutes. ‘Do you have a chance?’, the defeated mind squeaked. At that right moment, few hungry participants made their way to the mess thus, allowing the optimistic ‘Never give up’ attitude in me to make a grand entry, for the chances were still high. As the clock ticked, the wise angels of experience reminded me of history where, as the closing time drew near, a few girls would run to wind up their usual hostel-chores and a handful of others would give up their wait in the ‘n’th moment.
With this unrealistic hope, I look at the hands on the white dial which read ‘Five minutes past six’. Swirling in a turmoil of mixed emotions and hungry belly, joy and sorrow sang a duet with anger on the drums and hope playing the flute, as I am next in line for the call and the time reads ‘Ten minutes past six’! Unfortunately for the person on call and fortunately for me, the recorder played, “The subscriber you are trying to reach is currently not reachable. Please try after some time” in three different languages. With a heavy heart, head held down and coins tinkling back to her pocket, she finally gave way. And that moment, I felt numb, for all my dreams of reaching the phone came true. Without further delay, I dropped a coin into the horizontal slit on the forehead of the phone and speedily dialed the ten digits on its chest. Crossing my fingers to not hear from the familiar recorder, as is my fate most of the times, I intensely count the rings while simultaneously looking at the clock, ‘Three minutes to quarter past six’! On the ninth tring-tring, I hear my mother’s voice and that was the final nail in the coffin. I break down! Listening to me sob and unable to be by my side, she asked in her worried tone, “What happened, dear? Why are you crying? How did your exam go?” Amidst a lot of hitches, sobs and tears, I murmured, “I went blank in the viva. I did not answer well”. For it was crying out in the open, a few seniors walked by, looking at another common visual, some friends patted and tried to calm me down, a few batch-mates reminded the time and finally came the warden, not to console me but to pull the plug of the phone. I heard the last words of the dying call, “It’s okay dear, it is just an exam” and the line went ‘teeeeeeeeeeeee’ leaving me and the three coins in my fist weeping for the ‘lack of time’.
Days, months and years have gone by. But, every snippet associated with that lone red coin phone holds a special memory. The day I confront a bus conductor or rickshaw wala for not returning a change of Re. ‘1’, I am time travelled back to those days when I used to collect those coins to make calls. Beginning a day by enjoying a mug of coffee, soaking in the mild rays of the sun in a balcony, was a wish meant to be fulfilled by Santa Claus cos, reality was different. Those were the days when our ears would yearn for the jolt of the iron rod on the iron ring hanging in the corner of the mess, for the sound liberated us from hiding behind doors, holding a book and pretending to grasp better near the green grilled window, booking a place in the queue after another inmate – who would have secured her slot after someone else – who would be running to track the next person in line to iron her clothes. This morning dose of entertainment was just a teaser before the race to join the long queue outside the warden’s chamber, to collect the restricted 10 coins/ day for an exchange of a crispy note.
The tales of the unavoidable protocol to reach the phone, the queue, brought along a different perspective to life. What usually began with a formal wave and greetings, would most often end with giggles and chatter. This way every unknown became a friend and every friend, a bestie. I hardly thought about this pattern, until recently, when I attended an interview. Being the second interviewee to reach the venue, I exchanged greetings with the first followed by a small talk. Rewinding myself to the journey of the queue, by the time of departure, I had created memories with most of the fifty participants at the place. Irrespective of the positive end result, I was surprised by the meaning and impact associated with the power of small talk, for it spread smiles and made every experience a beautifully crafted reverie.
The constraints on the number of minutes ruled by the number of coins inserted, promoted the style of ‘Long stories cut short’. The shortage of the precious resource encouraged the live demonstration of ‘Sharing is Caring’. Least expected, the waiting saga was an unknown spurring ground for qualities to be developed by a ‘To – be Psychologist’ for the situation forcibly instilled the quality of patience and taught to believe in the process of events. Seasons changed and life bloomed. The coin phone was replaced by a mobile phone. I still recall those initial days with the brand new gadget, like those moments cherished by a newly married couple. The waiting period reduced from hours to nothing, but, I still felt comfortable recoiling in the time I used to spend with myself.
As I turn the last page of my memory lane, I am transported back to the present and the thoughts of saving the phone numbers of family and friends in a pocket diary creates a sense of nostalgia. Today, I live independently, travel to different places and interact with multiple people. While making the smallest of the small decision, ranging from the choice of vegetables to asserting myself at work, the experience of those few minutes paused at ‘Two minutes to six fifteen’ play a musical in my heart. For, those few minutes unraveled the chord of emotional intelligence and paved the way for grooming a better ‘Me’.
A grand salute to Rupee ‘1’!
Featured image credits: Bradford J Salamon