The year was 1999. I was 16 years old and in the 11th grade. And for the majority of Indian kids who had stumbled into the Science stream like me, this also meant the year that our parents would impose the dreaded entrance coaching classes upon us.
One name reigned supreme in Kerala’s entrance coaching world – P.C.Thomas. You had either heard of him or worse, experienced his classes.
I was unlucky enough to check off both of those boxes.
Every Onam and Christmas holidays, I was packed off for his Vacation Batch classes. The name itself was a contradiction. It was anything BUT a vacation. And till this day, if you ask me whether I would brave through potty training a stubborn toddler or go through another entrance coaching class, I’d ask, where’s the toddler, lets get this party started!
The only good thing about these vacation classes was that my sister and I emerged temporarily thinner. A combination of starvation, sleep deprivation and upset bowels from exam tension did that to us. Which when you’re 16, and Christina Aguilera was Genie’ing all over TV, was a mighty advantage.
To understand how I ended up one fine day, crying inconsolably before a priest, I need to explain a little more about the entire PC experience.
Firstly the hostel run by Catholic nuns.
Growing children needed food for energy to study hard. And the nuns understood this. They provided food alright. Quantity wise the nuns were plentiful. Quality wise not so much.
Plenty of water in the weak tea we were served in the morning to wake up our weakened spirits.
Plenty of plain rice to eat. If you could stomach whatever vile concoction of a curry it was served with.
Bread with ‘goop’ was a breakfast staple. I think the goop had yam in it but my PTSD prevents me from remembering the exact contents. And this might be a good thing.
Then came the classes. Which weren’t actually that bad. Except there was a lot of problems to solve. Most of which you would never utilise in real life as I had suspected even back then. But the professors (all transported right out of the 1800s) had a way of making you feel that if you didn’t know your sin’s and cos’s you were destined for eternal damnation.
Then the sleep deprivation. This is key. Sleeping was frowned upon. I remember going to bed like a zombie at 2 am and waking up 5 am everyday. True story.
If the lack of sleep didn’t kill you, the loneliness did. They turned us kids against each other. All around me I saw children cowering behind their books, each regarding each other with suspicion. Anyone who got a better rank than you obviously was only going to upset your perfect college placement. Extreme competitiveness was encouraged.
And if you were Catholic like me, you won the jackpot of this entire saga which was waking up at 5 am for daily mass.
Every morning I woke up bleary eyed and looked at the non Christians sleeping soundly and I hated them with as much passion as my sleepy heart could muster.
On one such grey morning, I headed out to the chapel. That day we had yet another mock exam to conquer. I had spent a long night poring over sample questions. And all the multiple choice answers danced before my eyes, A, B, C, D, none of the above….arrghhh!
And I sort of lost it. I remember kneeling down for mass with this nylon dupatta on my head which thankfully served a shield for the water works which were going to ensue.
The tears started at the corners of my eyes. I blinked hard, trying to stop them. But by the time the priest had finished his sermon, the tears were streaming down my face. I couldn’t stop them. I was so tired, so scared about the exam.
I looked at those around me and noticed that everyone was just as lost as I was. No one glanced in my direction.
After mass we queued for confession. The line inched forward slowly and I wept quietly into my dupatta.
Finally it was my turn at the confessional box.
So here I was kneeling before the screen, behind which, sat the priest. All the time, the tears kept pouring down my face.
I tried to start speaking. Hoping my voice wouldn’t fail me. But it did. Words started to fall out in hiccups and sobs. My entire story came out as one big confession. I told him how scared I was that I wouldn’t get a good enough rank. How my parents would be disappointed in me. How I got tensed seeing all the other children studying so hard.
And he listened. I couldn’t see his face but I could see he was listening. I half expected him to call two nuns who would drag me off to a prison for those who dared to speak a negative word about the place.
But he didn’t do that. He nodded. He waited for me to finish what I had to say.
An then he asked me something, which I’ll never forget….
Author’s note : If you’ve read this far, take a break. Go grab a cuppa and come back. This is where this purely autobiographical misery memoir finally gets a dash of hope! Read here for the second part.