The peace within

I was returning home after some tuition classes one day. This was when I was in class 11-12, (for my readers in the US, this is your "high school"). In a more or less crowded mini-bus, a stranger with a stubble of a beard and a "knowing" smile came and sat beside me. He was about 45 years of age. Lungi clad, unshaven for a couple of days maybe, with a "jhola" in hand from which two or three plastic bags and vegetables were peeping out: this person seemed very friendly and simple. We exchanged pleasantries and he commented on the school bag I was carrying. Out of courtesy, I told him that I was a student at that time and I was returning back from some tuitions, preparing for my JEE and Higher Secondary exam and stuff like that.
- "Where do you study?"
I answered. The next question took me by surprise, though:
- "Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?"
-"About what?"
-"Oh nothing big... just about some stuff you learned at school"

I was immediately a little skeptical. This seemed rather unusual. He tried to reassure me: "Oh nothing tough... some basic things you learned at school ... like Bengali, History, etc."

Now it was frightening... Bengali as a subject was never my forte. But being quizzed by a stranger on a public bus about the subject, especially if he starts asking me questions "out of syllabus", I would definitely be stumped. My first response was, "Oh I don't know much Bengali"

He persisted, "Oh I wouldn't ask you any weird questions! Just five questions, say?"

How hard could it be, I thought. I was a good student. Surely I could handle a quiz of subjects I already knew? I agreed to the quiz then.

I don't remember the questions exactly, but I don't think I answered any of them correctly or to the satisfaction of my "examiner". What I do remember, though, is that most of them were either fact-based or an obscure footnote reference in some book somewhere - when did this historical nonentity die, what minerals are found in the soil northern Bihar, stuff like that. I had no idea that the questions would really be that weird. It was very, very, frustrating to be reduced to a nincompoop in a bus full of strangers after being quizzed over stuff I had just learned less than two years back. This made me desperate. I pleaded with him, "Okay so ask me some other subject - Physics, Bengali!"

He laughed and told me, "Oh don't worry - you already told me that you don't know much Bengali. I wouldn't bother you much with that". I think he asked me one last question and then we sat in silence for the rest of the journey.

Believe me, at that time I was supremely frustrated not just with him but also at myself for allowing this debacle to happen. It was like ignominy that I had brought upon myself on purpose, having made a fool of myself. Me - the good student could not answer a few questions?! What did I learn in school, then? This man, who I had very little regard for earlier was now sitting beside me with a smug look on his face. And although I knew that my knowledge was not limited to those five questions he had asked me, the insinuation that I had learned almost nothing in school was killing me inside. And before I knew it, time had run out and I had to get off the bus.

Ever since that day, I have relived the moment a lot of times in my head. I have dreamed of questions I would have asked him, from the strangest facts I know of History to the most complicated paradoxes in Physics. I have thought of "only if I had challenged this absurdity then" or "only if I had persisted with why did he want to quiz me in the first place". It has eaten away at me over many solitary moments. And only recently have I realized something that prompted me to write this post.

The point is - it does not matter. It really doesn't. The fact that the man knew these tit-bits from the textbooks was good for him. But the fact that he would quiz random kids in schoolbuses to prove his mental mettle was unbecoming. It tells me now that in fact, he wasn't "educated". The more I have pondered over questions to ask him, the more I have tried to find such esoteric facts, I believe I have lost my own dignity more and more in doing those. Yes, even when he was not present. I have realized that I had nothing to prove to him. The frustration of not having answered those questions was there, but the urge to prove myself to him by cross-questioning or challenging him was unbecoming of me. It was against what I had internalized from my own education. The closure that I sought outside was actually within me all the time. And I am now at peace with myself, for not being able to answered those questions. To me the high-school-going-teenager it mattered immensely that I should be able to answer those questions and more importantly trounce my "opponent". To my present self, it does not. I know what I know and what I don't. I have found this peace within.


  1. Most people act off showing their attitude- oh, you don't even know so much.
    Happened to me recently at office when someone commented- you don't even know oracle queries. I replied back-if u know it doesn't mean others should 've worked on same thing!

    I was happy having replied so though I was rude. Matter of self respect.

  2. Manasa, off the top of my head, I can think of a better answer you could have given: "Yeah I consider doing those menial Oracle queries below my dignity - you said you are good at it, right?" :P

    And yeah - don't bother about the rudeness. Some people deserve to be told off.

  3. The best answer is "I know the answer, but I won't tell you!"

    That stranger must have thought you looked like a perfect target of his instant "quiz". I think on the whole you came out as well as could be expected under the circumstances. The fact of his seniority in years gave this person a wholly artificial sense of superiority.

    I think that every generation has a few of these "know-alls" who are desperate to prove that they are still worth something. Mostly they are the ones who have not achieved much in life and spend their sunset days trying to prove a point to themselves as much as the world around them.

  4. Hari, ah-ha! Thank you so much for that idea. Wait till the next guy asks me a smartass question. :) And I like your analysis: some people just have a hard time letting go.

  5. Sudipta- He might actually have been trying to prove to himself that he was better than a school-going teenager! It was not about you - it was about him:)He might have been trying to attract attention of the bus load of people and what better way !
    Look at it this way- Your not answering the questions might have given him some self respect:)There are some ridiculous people in the world and it is not worth spending your time over them.

  6. Mita, I know I know - just that it took me almost a decade to understand that. :)


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