Monday, August 3, 2009


My daughters are having their first-term examinations, and I am all tired out with study-supervision, pencil-sharpening and all that. Thankfully, they are too young to be burdened by any sense of fear or nervousness about exams.

When I was in high school and college, exams always made me high-strung. Especially the big, career-deciding, life-changing ones like the tenth-standard (ICSE), twelfth-standard (Higher Secondary), graduation (B.A) and post-graduation (M.A) exams.

Like most of my friends, this fear and uncertainty made me a prey to all sorts of superstitions and strange practices, which I would follow obsessively.

I was always (and still am) a late sleeper, preferring to study during the night. Often, I would while away the day reading storybooks or newspapers, flipping cursorily through my books, dilly-dallying till after supper, even when the exam was on the next day. Then, when the tension would reach fever-pitch, and time would be running out at the speed of Usain Bolt (or Carl Lewis, the world champion runner of the 1980s-90s), and the rest of the family would be settling down to sleep, I would take out my books to study in earnest. My best and most concentrated study would be done in these final few hours before the exam, when it would be dark and quiet and undisturbed-except-the-ticking-of-the-clock, and I would barely sleep the night before, catching a few winks as the dawn-sun reddened the horizon.

I would sometimes meticulously prepare small chits with important notes minutely handwritten (no micro-xerox for me). I would stuff them into pockets and other hidden places, saying to myself that if I forgot something, I could always go to the washroom and take out the chit to aid my memory. But, funnily enough, the very act of writing the chits would aid my memory so much that I have never needed to take them out and cheat during any exam (as we used to say, God promise, that's the truth!).

Bolstering my confidence with these invisible chits, I would also take along a huge (and very visible) bottle of water mixed with Electral (a rehydrating salt) to the exam hall and sip from time to time, quite in the manner of tennis players who sip re-energising drinks during match-breaks.

Many of my schoolmates came to exams accompanied by their mothers/fathers/both/more. I remember one classmate particularly. During our twelfth-standard exams, she would come with an entourage of two. Her anxious father would be holding her books in front of her at eye-level, while she would hurriedly read aloud from them, swaying her body to-and-fro in rhythm with her sing-song chanting. Why couldn't she hold her books herself? Because her equally-anxious mother would alternately rub and massage her hands with a hot towel (preparing her for the marathon three-hour writing sessions), and would take some home-cooked food from a huge tiffin-box and push them into her mouth (during the pauses in her sing-song memorising). The rest of us would pause in the middle of our own last-minute frantic studying to watch this amazing spectacle. As we grappled alone with Economics, or History, it was fascinating to watch this two-parent-team preparing their daughter like a star-athlete, all three of them swinging like a trio of pendulums.

My poor mother, in an unusual outpouring of maternal concern, had decided to come during the break on the first day of my tenth-standard ICSE exams, lovingly carrying an apple and some hot home-cooked food. Unfortunately, I felt that I had not been able to write that day’s paper as well as I had hoped to (it was English, my favourite subject). And so, being touchy and extremely superstitious, I forthwith banned her from accompanying me to any other exam in future.

I always carried a huge number of surplus pens (fearing that the ink would run out sometime during those two/three/four hours of manic scribbling). But perhaps the oddest quirkiest thing I did was to make my watch go ‘fast’ during the exam. I would start the exam with my watch 10 minutes ahead of the actual time. As the exam progressed, I would randomly keep turning the hands of the watch five minutes ‘faster’ from time to time, till I lost track of how 'fast' it actually was. Often, by the end of the exam, my watch would be over 45 minutes ahead of the actual time (if my exam ended at 1 p.m, my watch would show 1.45 or even later). I don’t really know why I did this. Perhaps I wanted to cheat time, perhaps I wanted the false but reassuring security of feeling that there was still plenty of time left. Because for me, exams were always a race against time.

And another final quirk. After the exam, as we all left the hall exhausted but relieved, friends would inevitably ask, “How was the paper?” Some deep sense of uncertainty and insecurity would never let me say, “Good”. I always, for all my exams, said “So-so”. Because for me, the exam was not over till the results were declared, and I dared not boast about my performance till the proof was in my hands.



Kavi said...

You brought back so many memories. For exams are an indelible and incredible part of the growth story ! :)

I had many of your quirks. the 'so-so' bit was one.

But the chit writing was never there. I was scared to death about being a labelled a cheat ! ( Ok, i am willing to consider the God Promise !)

And the multiple pen carrying was there too. And when the exams were through, the most important part, was to smile when others discussed the answers.

A smile, if the answer is right. A smile if the answer you wrote was wrong. And that would send everybody else mad !!


The times !

Anonymous said...

When u write a post, u say it all actually ;)

That girl who ws being pampered by her parents must hv been a real sight na!

LOL @ making the watch go fast!

I was also the kind of 'Yuddha kaale shastrabhyasa'[Learning the use of weapons only @ war time] though my fav time was early mornings. I had to retire to bed by 11-12 but wud be up by 3 a.m or so and start studying :P

Well abt superstitions, I remember grandma or Mom feeding me some dahi before I left for the exams

BTW, how r u dng? Been busy? Nt seen u arnd my blog for long. Hv moved to Wordpress!


ZiLliOnBiG said...

chit thing i so well relate, i even carried for the 10th public exam. And we used the chits.

Nice post, brought back all the nostalgia surrounding exams. How stressful the days were, though feels like bygone times.

Anonymous said...

I only few years back realized what is SUPERSTITIONS.

Lazyani said...

Exams were always a time for hyper activeness at the last moment. But being a mediocre student and having non-pressurising parents helped fight the phobia for me. In fact, I used to indulge in 15 minute football sessions in the interim period of 2 papers during ICSE.
The result , alas, is there for all to see.

Nona said...

Lucky you didn't get caught with the chits!

I dreaded the question "How was your paper?". I always ran out to avoid jinxing the outcome!

lopamudra said...

I always wore the same dress if the paper turned out good.who was the 12th grader? can u give the first letter?

Rajesh said...

The preparation for the exam used to be till late night. When in hostel, we would to go out late in the night for tea and egg toast. I always had a favorite shirt that I used to wear for some exams. With that shirt, I was sure that I will do very well in the exam.

Miss M said...

Oh about studying last minute.. that is SO me! Also the so-so bit. Mom would always ask "only so-so?"..and I would always tell mom in a very matter-of-fact tone, "Ma, what if I BARELY pass the exam..then wouldn't you haunt me with questions like 'but you said your exam went well!'.." haha, this used to alarm my mom instantly! Things I've done to tease my mom! :P

Another thing I used to do is I never NEVER discussed the paper with my friends after the exams. NEVER have I done that.

I never hated exams. Exams have always been fun. Its the results that I hated!

Priya said...

hahahaha...superstition went hand in hand with exams during my school days...i differ from you on saying "Very good" if asked about how the exam went. and for those with mom and dad standing outside the exam hall, we had coined a term for them "sandesh-bhai"...many moms would open the tiffin box and from those popped out varieties of "Sandesh" mother never had the urge of accompanying me to the exam hall instead she was almost fainting once she saw me singing hindi (filmy) song on my way to school on some exam day.. :D:D:D

seanag said...

The testing system seems very different here, although in some ways, I think it is more like that now than it was in my day, the difficulty of getting into the college of your choice being so much higher.

I have to say that though I was a good test taker, I never really went through this kind of stress about it. It's not because I was so confident, it's just that I could never really figure out what the results would mean for me. Basically, I am a slacker.

The one time I really remember freaking out about a test was when I applied at the grand opening of a major drugstore chain here. I was so appalled at how badly I was doing at the math portion after a couple of years away from it that I went up and said I'd changed my mind about applying, even without the test being scored. This was definitely some sort of fear of humiliation kind of thing at work, so I'm sure that if I'd been in your testing system, I would have exhibited many of the same behaviors you all described.

my space said...

cant really remember any quirks while growing up...though in recent times yes..
I started training in hindustani vocal and 4 years , in a row, i wore a pink salwar kameez for all my practical exams!!I would wear it just once a year on the day of the exam! And last year i burned the dupatta and guess what?? Took a drop from singing and don`t think want to give any more exams!!!

Sakshi said...

ROFL at the athlete girl and her parents. I made chits too and like you said that is how it stayed in my memory. Well did I ever use it...ahem..coconut promise I think I didn't but am not sure coz now a days my memory is not that sharp.

I didn't have any superstitions but I always wanted to sit by the window seat because I always felt a relief to take away my eyes from the paper and look out.

I am a night owl too. I can vouch that I have never ever studied during the day time :)

Anonymous said...

OH MY GOD! Don't remind me! The tension is building up in my stomach again.

I used to tell the truth about how my paper was to everybody with the added statement.."lets hope the teachers think so too!!"

No chits ever...I don't have the guts! I wish I did, but I don't.

Watch...he he...good point...I would tune my mind to the new time....and besides what if something happens to the watch while you try and change and it stops working....imagine???

Pens....yes....always many as possible...

I still have stomach issues when my kids go for exams.5th and 7th std Q papers are nightmares already ;-)

Ugich Konitari said...

In our last year in college, my hostel roommate and I were so firmly superstitious about clothes. We used to have to use fountain pens (as opposed to ball points, which were, for some reason banned), and these pens would be clipped amidst the buttonholes of our blouses. Occasionally the inked leaked, and created a odd blue patch , right in front. I remember, we did well in a particular paper, and we ended up wearing the same blue stained blouses for all the papers , changing only the skirt. Interestingly, no one gave us a second look.

Being in the hostel, there was no one fussing or asking after us , but we firmly believed in this lucky blouse thing. By the time the last paper happened, I think it probably kept the invigilator away from us, sniffing away in wonder ....:-)

Aparna said...

No superstitions but I remember the obsession with extra pens.
Our times we still were using those fountain pens and so also had to carry the ink bottles.
Never carried chits. Was never the gutsy types.And always went alone for the exams. But now that my daughter is in 9th, I think I will be too nervous to sit at home and will accompany her. Might even turn out to be like the mother you mentioned, rubbing her fingers. Horror.

seanag said...

No, Aparna, that's actually very dear.

Pradip Biswas said...

I was always follwing the advises of my Late father. Make every day your exam day and then only there shall be no fear. I did bad in few exams and then follwed him. I used to sit in my exam hall= New class room with a new mode of study. Answer these questions. You read the whole book so answers are known to you.

sujata said...

I was very cool with exams. Never a superstition,but was the complete opposite before results..i prayed and promised a whole lot of goodies to all my gods and the neighbour's gods as well. Never carried chits..was too gutless

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Thoroughly enjoyed reading this lovely piece. You can look at things from unusual viewpoints and you have the rare gift to laugh at yourself and to talk about your insecurities.

I have a question. You are a teacher outside West Bengal; have you seen parents doting over their children so much, particularly during exams, anywhere else?

Let me share with your readers something that came in papers, because the parents in this case overplayed their role even by the Kolkata standards. A mother carried a portable coal fired oven to the exam hall and believe me, (God promise!) she fried "luchi"s (puries) for her daughter on the road outside the exam hall during the recess!

Sucharita Sarkar said...

Thanks everybody, for sharing your exam fears and fascinations with us. That is a phase of life best forgotten, no?

You are right. In Mumbai, mums and dads hardly ever come to the exam hall (if at all, they maybe give their wards a lift in the car). And the 'luchi' story takes the cake!

Vijay Kumar Sappatti said...

exam memories remain forever in the mind and heart.. aapne bahut accha likha hai .. we all paas through these experiances..



pls read my new poem "झील" on my poem blog "

Peter Rozovsky said...

In college, I once took a hit of speed so I could stay up all night and study for an exam. I fell asleep. This cured me forever of the desire for any stimulant stronger than coffee.
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