There are kids who decide early what they want to be when they grow up. Then, there are kids, like me, who dread going to the barber because they don’t even want to decide the kind of haircut they want. Luckily, growing up I had to pick between short and medium haircuts.
Celebrations were in full swing as India turned 50. Schools, in particular, had elaborate plans. My school declared that the whole week leading to the 50th independence day would be celebrated. Each day there were events, competitions and the tricolor was everywhere on the campus. Tuesdays had a library period. We would sit at one of the long tables in the center of the library. Usually, the librarian asked us to pick books and read them for rest of the period. At the end, we would get that book issued for a week. I knew where my favorite books were. I had a sense of how books were categorized in the library. I had helped the librarian organize them once. I enjoyed reading and books were exciting.
However, that Tuesday, we had an art competition. It must’ve been told but I rarely remember such things. Some kids came prepared with crayons. Perhaps, the same kind of kids that know what they want to be. Perhaps, the kind that use multiple colors to write answers in exams. One for headings, another for answer and a special one to highlight things. I resorted to diagrams when I knew an answer very well. Otherwise, diagrams filled the space that an answer should have occupied but hasn’t. So, these kids started to draw. Since, the theme was Independence, they drew the Red Fort, soldiers, flags, and celebration.
The problem with art competitions is that they are, well, competitions. Their aim is to declare one expression better than the rest. Actually, it is difficult to compare expressions. Such competitions wouldn’t work if one kid draws a circle and another draws a square. So, they introduce themes and criteria must be set. This is a way of telling everyone to draw a square so they can be compared. We do not accept creativity without comparing. It would be overwhelming if kids were allowed to express. Art, dance, and even noise are medium.
I sat blank. All I could think of was a picture of Mahatma Gandhi from my Hindi text book. It was from a story by Gandhi. He didn’t have a watch so he used to guess time by looking at clouds. As with all guesses, it worked against him one day. He was late to school. He was punished despite telling the truth. One of his many experiments with truth.
Once, I was slapped despite being honest. It was reasonable, I thought, until a slap met my cheek and virtues met life. In fact, I was so convinced, that I had walked up to the teacher to explain that I couldn’t do homework because some guests visited us. They were in town to meet their relatives and we had to accompany them. We returned home very late and so, there was no time for homework.
“So, your relatives stopped you from doing homework?” She yelled and slapped me.
I returned to my desk with humiliation and confusion. Unlike Gandhi, I didn’t experiment with truth further. I stuck to lying whenever needed.
In the library, I started to draw Gandhi’s portrait. I had drawn it earlier, it started to look surprisingly well. The otherwise quiet and strict librarian watched over my shoulder. Then, she taught me how to shade the cheekbones. With a small piece of paper, she taught me how to smudge. I used that technique on the cheeks, the ear and forehead. Soon, there was a fair amount of interest in my drawing. Many stood around me watching as I gave finishing touches to the portrait. I felt happy and amazed that it turned out so good. When the time was over, we headed to our classroom. On the way back, I held the sketch with pride, occasionally stopping to show it to students.
A couple of days later, results were announced. Prizes were given for the first, then second and third place. Then, a number of consolation prizes were distributed. These were tiny gift wrapped boxes, just big enough to hold a light bulb. I didn’t get one. I don’t know why. Sometimes, I think they thought I cheated. Then, I think it was because they wanted colored drawings. Mine was a black and white pencil sketch. Maybe, the ear was disproportionately big, as our neighbor had pointed out. Maybe it was judged by people like my neighbor. I didn’t want a prize, but a consolation never hurts.