Cold wind from the windows rushed past my face, the long strands of my hair fluttering around and almost getting slicked with syrup. “A treat,” Meera ma'am had said, winking, handing me the popsicle, “Win this thing. We'll be cheering you on.”
After the initial few bites, I had simply started staring at it, looking at it but also somewhere far away, lost in thought. It wasn’t even that good and even the cool air hadn’t prevented it from starting to melt.
Licking off the chocolate running down my fingers, I finished the popsicle with a final bite, staring at the bare stick for a moment before chucking it into the bin at the side of the bus. I pulled back my hair, tying it up as best as I could, and took a deep breath. My mouth tugged up at a corner, the excitement finally catching up to me.
I had half an hour before I got on stage.
"..and now, the long awaited HAM!"
Garry's voice boomed across the amphitheater as he called out the list of students who would be participating in the competition, along with the schools they were from.
One of them would be mine.
I stood in silence with 11 others, all dressed in the best and most immaculate uniforms. I felt shabby in comparison- our school didn't have jackets or blazers. I wore only striped trousers and a white school shirt. They were probably looking at me and wondering how che-
Silencio, I scolded my brain. It didn't matter. Their pristine clothing would be useless unless they could speak just as well. Even if I was the worst dressed, I could still win this. I closed my eyes, inhaling the biting cold I would never get used to. As I heard my name being called out on the speakers, I released it. I could do this.
I marched up the stairs and onto the stage, behind a tall boy, taking my place behind a red buzzer and mic on a table with my number on it. Number 7. Almost dead center. Dammit. Awesome.
I had avoided looking at anyone and anything other than Barry himself, and his absurdly silver podium as I walked up, model student behaviour but as I turned forward, facing the audience, my breath hitched.
An abyss of pitch black reflected back at me, the absolute darkness only disturbed by the outlines of people. Terrifying figures that loomed on the wide steps, silhouettes without features. I could see the shapes of spotlights up in the sky, far far away, their lights directed on us, on me, rotating cameras that captured every moment and displayed them on huge screens. It felt as if everything had stopped, come to a standstill, and I could hear the sound of Garry's voice blabbering away, saying something that made the audience laugh, laugh and laugh, but it was as if it was coming from a distant place. A wall was between me and everyone else.
Too late, I saw the others sitting down from the corner of my eyes, settling into their seats until I was the last one left standing. I stumbled onto my own, smiling nervously to cover up my delay. As I sat, the satin of the table cloth rubbed against my arms, sending a shock through my skin, jerking me back to reality.
I looked to my sides, trying to see if the others had felt the fear I had. The boy I had followed sat to the left of me, his face expressionless, his arms folded on the table in front of him. To my right, a girl, short but with a bright smile and confident eyes. They were both looking ahead, not the slightest nervousness in their faces. I gulped, turning forward myself and shook my head slightly. Imagine there really is nothing out there, I told myself, there's no one but you, no one to judge or hear, so focus. I had to concentrate.
Barry was going through the rules.
"...have to click the buzzer on the table. As and when they do that, they'll have the chance to speak for half a minute. Of course,” he directed a knowing smile at us, "Others may interrupt in case of a grammatical error, stammering or stuttering, irrelevance or other no-nos. If I had to list them out, we'd be here all night,” he paused as the audience laughed and then turned a grim face towards us. "But I hope all the participants are very clear about that. One mistake is all it takes."
I didn't like his otherwise happy and joyful face just then, it seemed grave and full of warning- Do not let them take it away from you. Speak. Don't stop.
He caught each one of our gazes, and turned back swiftly to the audience, back to the position of the fun host.
"Let's start this show!"
It took a few moments for the applause to die down, and a few more for Barry to settle down, before he looked up right at me. It was only for a second, my heart skipping a beat, before he swung his gaze to everyone else. My heart, however, recovered and started racing at twice its usual speed.
"Which of you would like to go first? Now, don't hesitate, we're all friends here, and I might just award 2 bonus points to the first volunteer." He winked conspicuously, eliciting more laughter from up front.
Before I realized what I was doing, my hand was up in the air. I looked around; no one else's was. Cursing silently at myself, I smiled at Garry and the void in front for good measure.
"Oh, the young lady! Sharada, right?" He said, looking at the notepad clutched in his hand. "As promised, you get two points!”
I smiled again, my hands clutching the mic set on the table. I’d be the first one to speak. The spotlights were on me, my face reflected on the huge screen. A thrill went through me. Was this what you felt when standing in front of hundreds of people? It was an exhilarating one.
Barry’s voice brought me back to my senses.
“Well, young lady, you have the privilege of starting this competition! Are you ready?”
”Yes, sir.” My voice was steady, loud and reaching.
”Ah, confidence! That’s what I’m talking about!” He exclaimed. “Without further ado, let me give you your topic.” He glances at the notepad for barely a second and looked back up, a glint in his eyes. “Promotional? Maybe, but bear with me. ‘Gor High School is certainly taking a step in the right direction because....’ Thats your topic!”
My mind worked overtime, thoughts tripping and stumbling over each other, each vying for my attention. Gor High School. The school I was at right then, that had set up this event. A step in the right direction? The students- they’re smart and knowledgeable. They’re also kind. Solve my problems. There’s something moving in the far back- no I’m not going to look there. They have a swimming pool in the hotel we’re staying in, and it’s also pretty cheap. The Principal’s not a great guy though- he scolded me the other day. The song of the school is pretty cool- caste and creed is no bar or something? Oh! And there’s the whole sightseeing thing that they’re taking us to.
Thoughts whizzed through my mind at breakneck speeds, there a split-second, gone the next, half sentences, nonsensical sentences, everything passed through my mind in but a second.
”Well, dear girl, you can go ahead and speak your mind on this topic now! Just remember, be careful, no mistakes!” I knew he was stalling, giving me a few extra seconds to collect my thoughts, arrange them to make sense. I took it.
“Hey, you guys, ready?” He asked the tech team. Getting an affirmative response, he turned back. “You can start speaking... Now!”
I hefted the mic and put it to my mouth, my voice coming out shrill and wobbly this time. I started well, repeating the topic verbatim and starting a new sentence. I could do it. I paced my words well, speaking, although in a weak voice, overall, clearly. I could hear my voice resound through the amphitheater, and it even felt like the black in front of me wasn’t pitch black, not really. It had lightened, and I could almost see my schoolmates there, sitting there and cheering for me, encouraging me silently. Everyone was looking at me and I revelled in it.
10 seconds- I felt good, maybe I could go the whole way.
But then it happened. Maybe it was my hubris, my blind belief that it was easy and I could do it, or maybe it was simply a mistake that had slipped out, but I stammered, placing a terrible ‘uhm,’ in the middle of my speech. I realised it a split-second before a buzzer beeped, marking my slip. I looked at where it had come from. Table one, girl with plaits, determination in her posture.
“Sir, filler.” Straight to the point. I put my hand down, clutching the mike even tighter under the cover of the table cloth.
Barry gave a hearty roar. “Yes! Absolutely, a filler right there, the use of ‘um’. Good catch, Nandini! Well done. Two more points to Sharada for speaking so long, and two for Nandini! You can now continue the topic, as I say the trigger word.” He paused. No more time for others. Only the first speaker gets some time to think. “Now!”
And speak, she did, the rest of the twenty seconds, without a single interruption. I couldn’t concentrate on what she said, because I was still reeling from my mistake. All I registered was that she kept talking and talking, for ages and ages, and no one disturbed her. No one pointed out any mistake. She just kept talking.
It wasn’t fair.
I took a deep breath, trying to concentrate on what was happening. She was awarded 4 points, for not getting interrupted and for ending the topic. I looked at my own count. 4. We were still equal. This mistake could be excused. I could still get ahead. After all, the others were still at 0.
I put the mic on the table, stretching my fingers and folded my arms. One hand was on top, just a few centimetres away from the buzzer. I would find the others’ mistakes, I would speak.
But it never happened. I watched, a bystander, as new topics were given, people were interrupted, debates were fought over whether or not the argument was valid, as they spoke and spoke and spoke and none of them were me.
Laughter from the faceless audience, as some contestant said something witty, gasps from the audience, as a buzzer sounded without any seeming mistake occurring, and then thundering applause as the interrupter explained his reasons and won points. Applause, not for me, not for me.
It was hard to see through the haze of the lights fixed on the stage, blinding bright.
It blotted everything else out. The chill air attacked my skin, goosebumps erupting all over, and the dark had returned, imagined familiar faces slipping through the grasps of my mind.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t trying. I was. I paid attention to every sentence trying to spot a mistake but I was always too late. Not fast enough. The others were lighting quick with their buzzers. I think somewhere in between, I realised that I was hesitating. I wasn’t putting everything into pushing the buzzer. Some part of me was scared of pushing it. Scared of being interrupted again if I spoke.
I looked down at my hands. I was shivering, and it wasn’t all from the cold.
The rest of the competition passed in a blur. I was able to interrupt twice, pointing out errors, but no sooner had I spoken for 3 seconds, than I was interrupted too.
I couldn’t speak.
I stared at the score count. While I couldn’t look away from the pathetic 8, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a few other numbers- 16, 15, 24, 30. I averted my gaze to the last one.
Thirty. Thirty points. The highest score. The winner. I looked at the board closely. Rishikesh. Who?
Number 6. With a start, I looked to my right. It was the tall guy. He’d won it. All while keeping any sort of expression away from his face.
I congratulated him, quietly from the side, and he nodded, the slightest hint of a smile on his face.
I turned back to the board- 2nd, Nandini. 3rd, Rahul. My first interrupter. And Rahul- I remembered his speeches. They bordered on insolence and had the entire audience laughing. Me too, whenever I wasn’t trembling.
But there were 2 zeroes too, and three people with scores below mine. I stared at the board. I wasn’t the worst person here?
The rest of the event passed so fast it felt unreal. I kept looking ahead at the pitch black, standing with others for photographs with my certificate and obligatory bag with snacks, while they held prizes and headphones in gift wrapping. It didn’t feel like it was happening to me- I could see my body moving on the stage, exiting the stage, heading back to the seats, but it wasn’t me in it.
I don‘t quite remember what happened after that. I sat down on the place reserved for me, the teachers patting my back with a small tight smile. No one talked much to me, maybe because I asked them not to.
Dinner. The ice cream tasted bland.
Roll call outside campus.
The bus. I sighed with relief as the cool air swept past my face, the rush making me forget everything for a moment. I closed my eyes, head to window, simply feeling the wind against my skin, cool and peaceful. It was only after the bus had gone halfway back to the hotel that I allowed my thoughts to return to the day.
It came to me all at once- the way I blubbered as I spoke, stumbling and making mistakes, letting the others take everything away, and worst of all, the feeling, the feeling that I would never be able to reach that level, that I would forever be weak and stupid.
If I couldn’t even do this, of what use was I? Was there nothing special about me?
Even with the drying wind, I felt the tears escape my eyes and make their way down my cheeks. The thing about tears is, once the start falling, it’s hard to make them stop. I didn’t blub or sob, just sat silently crying.
This whole trip was a waste. The principal would be so disappointed, my friends would be disappointed, my parents would be disappointed. Everyone would be disappointed in me. I was disappointed in myself. Pathetic. Absolutely-
The seat dipped beside me, a warm weight settling down. I almost turned before realising I was still crying. I hastily wiped my face with the back of my hand, and then looked up to the smiling face of Meera ma’am.
”Ma’am I-” My voice came out croaky. I cleared it frustratedly, trying again. “Ma’am I’m so-”
She cut me off herself. “Sorry? Whatever for? I thought you were really confident down there, sitting right in the middle of everything and still smiling. It must’ve been terrifying,” her eyes crinkle kindly. “You did a good job.”
I didn’t say anything- I couldn’t say anything. I just sat there looking at her, my hands trembling again, the tears resuming their flow.
She opened her bag from the row behind, removing a lollipop.
“Here,” she said, handing it to me. I took it, holding it in the air between us. “You’ve earned it. It’s chocolate and vanilla, your favourites.”
I peeled the cover off gently, and put it into my mouth. Delicious. Even better than the popsicle. Who needs a popsicle when you could have a lollipop? They were the best things in the world.
I looked up suddenly. My mood had shifted completely within a span of seconds. Ma’am likely noticed that, because she smiled at me and got up to return to the other students at the back of the bus. “Finish that and join us. We’ll be waiting.”
As she left, I turned back to the window. The coolness of the wind combined with the chocolate and vanilla melting in my mouth filled me, and somehow it made everything alright once again excitement ran through me. It reminded me of the poem by Robert Frost- A Dust of Snow. A lollipop to save the day I had spent rueing. Rueing. A small laugh erupted out of my mouth.
I didn’t faint on stage, did I? I didn’t score a zero either. Worse things could’ve happened. I did try my best, and it wasn’t enough. But maybe I could better the best.
Next year, we would be invited to the competition again- and I’d come once more. And I’d do better. Would I win? Maybe not. Would I be better though? Definitely.
I smiled around the lollipop, finally feeling like myself again. I sucked on it, leaning my head on the window but not closing my eyes. I looked outside- the dark sky, the black trees on the horizon, fields of grey stretching out for miles, the never ending tar road. The colours would change in the light of the morning- green and yellow and brown and white.
I would change too.
I continued sucking at the lollipop, getting up and making my way to the back of the bus.