In two days, Nidhi would write the most important exam of her life. Fifteen years old with a long future at hand, how she performed would seal her fate. She would compete with thousands of people her age. Unless she came off doing better than most, she was ruined.
The sound of crickets chirping filled the night, interrupted by the occasional howl of stray wolves. Cool breeze rustled grass and leaves, blowing away traces of the approaching summer. The moon, round and pale yellow, played a game of hide-and-seek behind wisps of grey clouds that skirted across the vast skies.
She sat by the window, bent over her voluminous Physics textbook, oblivious to the beauty of the night. The light shining over her desk was her moon, and the formulas and voices floating around in her head were the crickets. The clock hanging by her wall read '1:34'.
She checked the number of pages left. The '65' that danced in front of her did not look exciting.
"You're silly," she told herself, a frown on her forehead, "You had the entire year, and you kept this waiting till the last day? How could you be so careless?"
She longed to close the book and sink into bed once again, without a million things to remember. She wanted to read the latest novel her favourite author had released. She wanted to call her friends and hang out with them like she used to so many days ago. She wanted to tuck herself with ice cream melting on her tongue.
How long had it been since she'd done any of those things? Five months? Six? She'd lost count. She couldn't read novels because her parents told her it would distract her. She couldn't hang out with her friends because it would be a waste of time while she could be studying, and she certainly couldn't eat ice cream. What would she do if she caught a cold?
Her eyes zoned in and out of focus as she ran them over the scores of words and terminologies that barely made any sense to her. Once upon a time, Nidhi loved reading facts from her textbook, but as time passed, she realized that people cared only if you got marks. And that was the sad part. It didn’t matter whether you understood your subjects or not. You only had to score well.
Right then, Nidhi was essentially memorizing her book cover to cover.
She shuddered when she thought what her parents would say if she didn’t do well. She could imagine their disappointed faces and harsh words already.
"We didn't raise you for this." They would say, "Look how well your friends did. They prepared ahead in time- you didn't. We're disappointed in you, Nidhi."
Her teachers and classmates would look at her as if she had done something monstrous. She would have her marks etched onto her identity forever.
She shook her head and trained her gaze on the book again. She tried her best to take in all the information she could. She moved on to a chapter on Astronomy and began conquering its hefty pages. Sixty remaining pages turned to fifty and fifty turned to forty. Yet, was it any surprising that at the end of it, she didn't feel like she'd gained any information? She could repeat lines and lines without stammering, but what good was it if she was only going to forget everything after the exam?
She sighed and let her eyes wander to the garden outside her window. The moon peeked at her, craters adorning its surface. Something in it made Nidhi stare at it transfixed, her breath held.
"We can see only one side of the moon." She whispered to herself.
She gazed at all the stars – the millions of stars that glimmered in the sky like tiny sequins plastered to the heavens. They looked so minute, yet, their real sizes were beyond comprehension.
“There are a billion trillion stars in the observable universe.” Nidhi said, her voice a little louder, “A billion trillion.” For the first time, the meaning of that sentence dawned on her. She found herself closing her book and getting up from her window-side seat. Something drew her towards the gardens.
Before she knew it, she was out in the open, under the dome of the sky. Her exhaustion fled as she stood in the darkness, with the company of loneliness and solitude.
“Did you know,” she told herself, “Looking at the stars is like time travel. If anyone could see the Earth from there, they would see the dinosaurs.”
That sent shivers down her spine. She gazed at the thousands of little twinkling stars, her neck craned up. Something caught her eye: it was one of the smallest stars, with a barely inscrutable line running across it horizontally.
“Saturn,” she said, “we can see Saturn without a telescope.”
Being out here felt so wonderful and heavenly. Nidhi longed to stand staring up at the stars and sky forever. A tiny, silly part of her imagined staying in the gardens, unaffected by time and watching the world whizz past.
“There was something about wormholes in space.” She said, “I don’t remember what it is, but there definitely was something.”
Within moments, she had rushed in and brought her book out with her to the gardens. The moonlight shone on the pages and she squinted at the words.
“There,” she said, “Wormholes connect two places in any space or time.” She looked up at the sky. “So that means we can potentially travel to any place or time, even to the future or the past, huh? But it’s a one-way ticket.” She continued reading, the absence of proper light not fazing her at all. There were pictures of everything from actual snaps of planets to computer-generated possibilities of black holes.
“And,” Nidhi said, “Neuron stars spin at 70,000 kilometres per second, and each spoonful weighs at least a billion tons.” She squinted up, just in case she could see anything of that sort, but obviously, it wasn’t possible.
Nidhi imagined the skies watching her leaf through the pages, and it felt strangely comforting. A young girl standing in a loose cotton dress reading from her textbook at three in the morning? That didn’t happen every day.
“Funny, isn’t it?” she spoke to the skies, “Just a while ago, I was trying to memorize this holed up in my room, when all the while, I had it right in my backyard. Did you ever think Quasars and nebulas and dark matter could be so interesting?”
And for a while, time didn’t pass, at least for Nidhi. She literally dove into her book neck-deep and took everything in like a young child learning the ways of the world. She read the same things she’d read an hour or two ago, but this time, it felt like someone had opened her eyes. She didn’t merely see facts and information. She felt them.
The dome of the sky over her shifted slowly, rippling westwards as the night progressed. No one saw or heard Nidhi’s midnight revising, and she carried on like she was on fire. For the first time, her textbook was not just something else to be afraid of.
She no longer saw blocks of unconquerable text.
She saw stars in between the pages of her book.