Ignore the chipped nails, please! Notice, instead, the middle finger... do you see something? I am not sure whether it has come out in the photo, but it is very much there, I can assure you... a slight protrusion, just below the rim of the nail, on the left side of the finger. It used to be a solid tiny ball of swollen flesh once, with distended skin, abrasive to the touch. A gift from Exams taken 25/30 years ago.
Those were the most defining Exams of my life – Higher Secondary, Honours and Masters. HS was the toughest of all, as it entailed writing two 3-hour papers on a single day. Every day. Yes, 6 hours of writing, with a one-hour break between the two papers – in which I gulped down small tetrapacks of Frooti, or a daab, while hurriedly going through notes a final time, with Baba persuading me (mostly unsuccessfully) to have some food.
Exams days were his duty: he would take me, hair dripping with oil and a curd-dot on my forehead, to the Exam centre and then back home in a taxi and stuff me with goodies all the way. He was least interested to know how the Exam went, his chief concern being how much food and drink I have had during the day and that I should commute comfortably - “aram kore” - after having conquered the world with my answer scripts.
The same ritual - from the 6 hours of writing to the Frooti and taxi-rides - was repeated for my BA Pass Exams, 2 years later. And for 4 consecutive years from then on, for my Honours and MA Exams. Each of which had 4-hour Papers. Since my subject was English Literature, there was a lot to write - and the 4 hours always seemed not enough to write them in. In fact, while I wanted to shine in every paper, I secretly wished to have at least one question in each that I didn’t know well… so that I would have a little less to write for one answer! Knowing all equally well would either mean a) not being able to finish the paper, or worse b) finishing in a hurry, unable to ‘show off’ in the answer! This was also the case with the 3+3 hours Papers (as all Arts subjects asked questions that necessitated descriptive answers).
For half a decade, my life was defined by the inevitability of those annual Exams, a whole year of myriad academic activities invariably leading up to a few days or weeks of gruelling Exams, the cruellest part of which was writing tomes within 3 / 4 hours. The brunt of that pressure, quite literally, was borne by the middle finger of the right hand. Because, while the pen was held between the forefinger and thumb, the pressure of the instrument actually fell on the middle finger – just under the rim of the nail, on its left side. Pushing the pen vigorously and fast against it, for hours, over days, pushed the flesh of that tiny area up into a protrusion. It used to pain a lot then, the area bulging a wee bit more with every successive Exam, the pain freshly renewed each time. Over the period of the next 2 decades, however, the bulge would decrease, but never quite go away, nor the abrasiveness of the skin soften.
I found myself involuntarily touching that bulge repeatedly today, after the bombshell that Calcutta University dropped on us last night and enraged posts from students and teachers alike poured out in social media about the insanity of preponed Exams in an already much reduced Semester and the inhumanity of thrusting 6-hour Exam days on students.
I am myself most concerned about the preponement. The 6-hour Exams are not new to CU, as I’ve just recounted, but we need to remember that this current schedule is far worse than what we faced – because the students will also have to scan and upload their papers (a panic-stricken exercise for all concerned, given the number of things that might go wrong) in the one-hour break they will have, thus considerably reducing their time to eat and take a breather. At the end of 3 hours of incessant writing and racing against time, fingers usually go numb, it is a torture to go through the hurried scanning process anyway after that; to do it twice over in a single day is to wilfully increase that torture.
I carry the tiny bulge like a tatto on my finger – a lifelong reminder of years of toil and aspiration, tinged with the hope of a bright future. Of merit rewarded.
My students, too, have the same aspirations, I know. Can we please stop playing with their future?