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A Better Place
14th of December, 2020

“Bye. See you soo-- I mean, um, nice to meet you…” I fumbled, as I got ready to leave.

“When we meet again, it’ll be in a better place than this.” I heard him say, with a strange, wise air. It felt easy to believe him. I wanted to believe him. Barely able to keep my composure, I stepped out of the car and closed the door.

He pulled out of the narrow street, and I waved as the car left, not sure if he could see.

I shouldered my green messenger bag, and took a few deep breaths as I walked to my house, readying myself to return to the world from this almost otherworldly, meditative state I was in. It felt like the end of some long journey, even though it had only been about thirty minutes.

It had all started an hour earlier, when my math tuition ended.

My tutor sighed, and I thought I could sense a little disappointment. I'd gotten used to disappointing people. "Ooookay. We're done for the day. Next time, I'd like you to finish all of your homework. And I want you do it patiently, with focus, or there's no point... it was filled with mistakes."

"Yes, sir. Sorry." No matter how hard I tried I'd always seem to get stuck at one point or the other, or make a silly mistake that cost me the problem.

"There's no need to be sorry. Just concentrate. How are you going home?"

"Oh, I'll be taking an Uber. It should be here in a little bit."

The car arrived without incident, I got in the front seat, and we started the ride. The inside smelt faintly of incense. The driver seemed to be middle-aged, a warm glow emanating from his eyes, his brow crinkled from what seemed to me was frequent smiling, lending him a kindly look.

I wasn’t planning to do anything on the way except listen to music, but as luck had it, I didn’t have my earphones, so I just stared awkwardly out the windshield, trying not to look to the side and initiate contact… People skills aren’t my strong suit.

He struck up a conversation. “So, you’re going home from tuitions?” Obviously, he’d noticed the bag and deduced from there. He had a deep, comforting voice, and this combined with his peaceful countenance made me a lot more comfortable than I would have been otherwise.

I was still a little nervous, though, and the fact that I couldn’t speak the language too well didn’t help, either. “Um, yeah. Math tuitions.”

“Oh, okay. What grade do you study in? I have a daughter in the ninth, she’s very bright.”

“I’m in the eleventh grade, right now.” I said.

“And where do you study?”1

I told him, and he said, “Where is that? I’ve never heard of it.”

When I described further where it is, I saw his eyes light up in recognition. He made a sound of acknowledgment, and asked, “Isn’t that an English-medium school?”

Swelling up with a pardonable2 pride, he told me his daughter was in an English-medium school as well. It was incredibly sweet, I thought.

The conversation progressed, mainly in the form of him asking questions and me answering. He asked about my family.

"What does your mum do?"

"Oh, she works at an eye hospital."

"And your father?"

"He works in marketing for a firm in the city."

"Do you have any siblings?"

I told him I had an elder sister and she was studying at an IIT3. I guess he thought I was pretty smart, because he asked teasingly, “Will you be going to an IIT too?”

Instantly, dread washed over me. I felt a familiar anxiety building up in my chest, and let out a nervous chuckle. “I- I can’t.” My voice quivered.

It was true. I was barely passing my classes at school, I wasn’t sure if I could clear my finals, I didn’t know if I’d go to college or get a job, and all of it was constantly weighing on my mind.

He looked perplexed for a second, then quickly regained his calm demeanor. One word. “Why?”

“Because I just can’t. Some people can do that, I can’t…”

A stern expression took over his face. “It’s not that way. Do you have a wallet?”

“...Yes?” I said, uncertain of where this was going.

“Your abilities are like that. You choose how to spend your money, don’t you? But here we all start out with the same amount of money, we can all do the same things - and it’s your choice whether to do them or not - whether to work towards them or not.”, he said, the soothing nature returning to his expression. “Learn as much as you can while you still have the support of your parents. That’s how you get ahead in life. Don’t approach things with so much negativity, there are people that love you and support you and who are rooting for you - they just want to see you succeed.”

I was almost overcome with emotion, but I steadied myself to a mild lip tremble, and said, “O-okay.” It’d been a while since I felt that it was worth going on, and this complete stranger expressing all this trust in me and providing so much support… I doubt he knew how much it meant to me. Or maybe he knew exactly how much I needed it.

We talked for a while more, around related topics - I was still a bit quivery, but for the first time I didn’t want a cab ride to end. Usually it’s the means to an end, but this time I cared about the journey. I wanted to become friends with this wonderful human. Most importantly, for the first time in months, I felt renewed - I felt the energy to continue. I felt like I would make it, that things would be okay.

The car pulled into my street, and slowed down as we approached my house.

“Bye. See you soo--4 I mean, um, nice to meet you…” I fumbled, as I got ready to leave.

“When we meet again, it’ll be in a better place than this.” I heard him say, with a strange, wise air. It felt easy to believe him. I wanted to believe him. Barely able to keep my composure, I stepped out of the car and closed the door.

He pulled out of the narrow street, and I waved as the car left, not sure if he could see.

I shouldered my green messenger bag, and took a few deep breaths as I walked to my house, readying myself to return to the world from this almost otherworldly, meditative state I was in. It felt like the end of some long journey, even though it had only been about thirty minutes.

I didn’t get his phone number, I was too engrossed in the conversation for that - but in retrospect, what would we have talked about, had we stayed in touch? The moment we shared in the taxicab was gone - we were strangers again.

But I hope he understood the gratitude I felt, and how much it meant that he consoled a stressed out student, something he was under no obligation to do, and how much it helped.

I wish I could tell you my smashing success story and say that I made it into the best IIT or something, but no. I’m at a regular old uni, nothing to write home about, although I’ve met some wonderful people and had some wonderful experiences here. However… I made it somewhere, and I don’t think I would have pushed on until here without him.

And for this I am grateful.

1The conversation seems mechanical, but this is in part because I was extremely awkward at the time, in part due to my not being able to remember it that well, and in part due to my poor writing ability.

2In my opinion the fascination with the English language and foreigners in general that Indians (especially those of the working class) have is an effect of post colonialism, and it’s regarded as the ticket (or maybe the minimum prerequisite) to a better life, and it's a big deal to be able to provide this for your child.

3An Indian Institute of Technology is one of a series of government-operated and owned technological universities - the best in India. Getting in is extremely hard, requiring one to clear two progressively harder exams consisting of physics, chemistry, and math questions, and a coveted feat. 9 million candidates appeared in 2020, competing for only about 15 thousand seats.

4“See you soon” (literally, “I’ll go and come back”) is a common Tamil expression and the preferred alternative to simply saying “I’m leaving” as it implies the speaker will live to come back.

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