“Life’s a struggle when you’re a muggle.”
Whichever Harry Potter fan posted that on Pinterest was a genius.
This not-so motivational quote was what Ruth Mathew would have used to describe her life, if she had been asked. At least, that was what happened in the conversations that took place in her head. In ‘real life’ as other people put it, Ruth said very little. And that very little rarely included her opinions on her life, and was mostly restricted to “Yeah”, “No”, “Bad idea”, and other such answers to the questions posed to her.
Despite outward appearances, Ruth was probably had more going on in her head than anyone else you would ever have met. Maybe the reason she never spoke much was because she was involved knee-deep in the worlds of philosophy and science and math and people and everything else under the Sun.
This is her story. The story of a girl that people considered a robot, who was stereotyped as a nerd, as a typical boring brainiac who always had her head buried in a book.
Ruth wasn’t the only student who felt her hands trembling as Ms. D’Souza entered the classroom. The Anglo-Indian lady was a constant source of terror to every single student in the class, and in fact to the entire school.
The High Towers was a school which, despite it’s extremely British sounding name, was a typical private school in the South Indian state of Kerala. The teachers spoke in ‘fluent English’, with varying degrees of Malayali accents, depending on their place of birth and their level of education. They dressed in either saris or churidars. The male teachers wore black pants with white shirts that hardly concealed their pot bellies.
Although this may sound like an extremely dull setting, the school was in fact comparatively better than most others in the country. It was renowned for its magnificent architecture, and for its football team, who had snagged the ‘All India Football League for Schools’ trophy every year for the past century, as well as for its amazing science labs and its theatre productions. It even had a stage production company of its own, along with a recording studio for aspiring musicians. It has been the host of the International Robotics Tournament or IRT, for the past ten years. It has produced many world-famous actors, scientists, politicians, sportsmen and women, and basically, prominent people in every single field.
The competition to enter was immense, and once you were in, it was a dog-eat-dog world. High Towers was a real-life embodiment of the proverb of the early bird catching the worm. It wasn’t about doing well at all; it was about becoming the best among equals.
It was in this highly competitive school that Ruth did her entire schooling.
That year, she turned twelve and found herself in Ms. D’Souza’s class. And Ms. D’Souza was exactly the sort of person that Ruth detested.
Though Ruth respected intelligence in any body, she equally despised people who were what she described as ‘all show and no substance’. Ms. D’Souza loved those students who were extremely confident, bordering on arrogant, who acted like prim and proper young Victorian maidens, sucked at math, and could juggle their social life, academics and extra-curriculars around in perfect harmony. And Ruth certainly did not fit in these parameters.
Ruth was an odd sort of character, who people kept trying to second guess, because they thought they understood her. But they never realized that she barely ever lived in this world. She was constantly exploring all the possibilities, thinking and overthinking every word she said and heard. Exceptionally smart, but equally unconventional. Always the class topper, but rarely the teacher’s pet. Surrounded by people who called themselves friends, but terribly lonely and confused. That in short, was Ruth Mathew.
And so, Ms. D’Souza glided into the room. The woman herself was a formidable presence, enough to make even the most fearless of jocks steer clear. She wasn’t very tall of stature but made up for this lack with an extremely wide girth. Her short black hair was put up, as always, in a messy top knot secured by one of those weird Chinese hair stick things. Her attire comprised of brightly colored boho-style loose flowing full-length frocks, paired with flat-heeled Mary Jane shoes large enough to house an elephant.
An unseemly quiet fell upon the room as Ms. D’Souza scanned the class with her beady little eyes, scrutinizing everybody and everything, trying to point out every tiny little error they made. A frown came into being on her extremely plump face, as her eyes rested on the overflowing dustbin. Some of the more artistic girls had been making a chart on good values, as Ms. D’Souza had asked them to do. But Ms. D had failed to estimate the amount of refuse that would be produced as a result of their outburst of creativity that presently lay on the ground, abandoned by its makers who had gone back to their places to get ready for the class. The floor was a veritable carpet of pink glitter and sparkles, as well as large drops of paint that had splattered on the floor, along with other odds and ends.
“Ah.” She sighed theatrically and took off her enormous tortoiseshell spectacles for a minute, and then put them back on again. “I realize that it was remarkably foolish of me to entrust you with such a Herculean task Anna, which I should have foreseen, you were bound to botch up. My apologies. This entire mess is thereby my fault I suppose?” Ms. D flung her arms up in the air, gesticulating wildly as she spoke.
Anna, an earnest child who was a wee bit stupid when it came to anything other than art, took her hands out of the extremely deep pockets of her baggy track suits, and started fiddling with her many rings, as Ms. D’Souza continued to rage on.
The sight of the paint brushes sticking out of Anna’s pocket enraged Ms. D even more.
“Anna darling, could you please explain what the significance of a paint brush is in an English class?”
Anna was momentarily stumped by this completely irrelevant question. As she gaped at Ms. D’Souza, mouth half open, the already infuriated teacher’s tiny eyes shrunk to a microscopic level.
“Answer my question Anna. Or is it some form of artistic burst of inspiration that is causing you to stare at my face in that ungainly manner? Have you suddenly discovered the tenth muse? Or perhaps, you have attained nirvana? Do tell us what has happened Anna. And while you’re at it, please throw some light on the connection between beautifying the walls with posters and turning the floor of my classroom into a landfill that rivals all others in India.”
“Uh, what was your question again ma’am?” Anna murmured.
Ruth was watching this entire scene unfold with the detachment of one who isn’t affected at all by the matter at hand, when Ms. D called her name.
“Ruth! You seem to be having a relaxing vacation over there. Now, explain the significance of a paint brush in an English class.”
“By significance, I assume you mean the connection, ma’am?” Ruth said.
“I think I recall asking you for an answer to my question Ms. Mathew.” Ms. D said, her patience fast depleting.
“Yes ma’am, I seem to recall you posing a question to me too. A painting is a medium of expressing your opinions, your views through art, and so is a language. A paint brush is a tool that aids you in this, and so is English. Also, a paint brush certainly doesn’t seem like a major source of distraction for anyone. And so, I would say that a paint brush certainly doesn’t not not belong in an English class.” Ruth paused, and held her hands halfway up ready to counter even the most painful of blows.
Ms. D’Souza burst out laughing. The class stared at each other apprehensively, unsure as to whether they should laugh or cry.
“You certainly do have a way with words Ruth. Pity that you don’t have the ambition or passion to take it further.”
“I assure you ma’am; I have no intention of ever taking up something which enables me to sugarcoat the hard solid facts. I would rather tell a harsh truth than a pretty lie.”
As Ms. D’Souza’s eyes started showing signs of shrinkage once more, Talmeer stepped in.
“What Ruth means to say, Ms. D, is that the expression of art through a language as fine as English is not a skill that everyone is up to. We can’t all be you, no matter how hard we try. Geniuses aren’t born every day. Ruth is merely frustrated that she is unable to measure up to the mark. Forgive her, ma’am,” Talmeer said, pouring oil on the troubled waters as always.
The buttery and utterly delicious flattery on the part of Talmeer worked its magic, and Ms. D’Souza calmed down.
“Anna, you will clean up this entire mess by the end of this slot. The crew that created this mess can help you with it. The rest of you, turn to page one sixty-nine. Veda, start reading from where we left off yesterday.”
As they all scrambled for their books, Ruth stamped Talmeer’s leg. “What the hell did you do that for Tal?”
“To save you from the clutches of the monstrous dragon, oh sweet princess. I understand why you don’t appreciate me now, oh beautiful lady. This brave knight has faced many adversities, but your stone-hard heart is far by the cruelest. Now, I would appreciate it if you quit kicking me Ruth.” Talmeer said.
“And I would appreciate it if you limited your flattery to Ms. D, Tal. ‘Cause this princess can fight her own battles.” Ruth said.
“And your third wish Aladdin?” Talmeer asked.
“Get your leg out from under mine, wouldja please?”
Talmeer shrugged dramatically, with the air of a persevering medieval knight who refuses to accept defeat. “Now, you want me to go away Ruth. But one day, when I’m gone and I’m faraway, you’re gonna miss me real bad.”
He turned around and started arguing with Rahul, as Ruth muttered under her breath “You’re hopeless Tal!”
Satisfied that he had gotten under skin, Talmeer triumphantly swept back the stray strands of hair of his shaggy brown hair that had fallen into his eyes.
As Ms. D’Souza picked up where they had left off in their reading of The Merchant of Venice, Ruth lost herself in the story, and forgot everything else.