The Great Bank Note Exchange

It’s not every day that my father gives me a torn Rs. 2000 note and asks me to get it exchanged. In an attempt to be the ideal dutiful son, I agree.

It’s not every day that I walk into a public sector bank branch and ask the lady at the “May I help you?” counter for help. It’s funny how the people sitting at such counters never seem to be in a helpful mood.

It’s not every day that I wait patiently in line, only to be told by the cashier that she can’t exchange torn bank notes. Oddly, what she said seemed to be at odds with what my Google search results were telling me.

It’s not every day that I patiently try to explain RBI guidelines to an impatient middle-aged lady manning the cash counter in a crowded public sector bank branch. Or at least that’s what I tried to do, until she politely asked me to fuck off instead of holding up the queue.

It’s not every day that I ask the “May I help you?” lady if I can meet the bank branch manager. “Oh yes, I insist. I want to meet the manager now.” She gives me an ugly look and storms off, to summon the ever-elusive bank manager.

It’s not every day that Ms. Bank Manager is summoned in the middle of a lazy afternoon by a sweaty, but angry young man. She manages to make that very clear. She refuses to exchange my torn bank notes and proceeds to interrogate me much to the amusement of the other people in the bank:

Bank Manager:
'There seems to be something wrong with this note.
It seems to be fake.'
(holding it up against the light,
in an effort to see Gandhiji better)

Me: .....

Bank Manager: 'Where did you get this note from?'

Me: 'My father got it from an HDFC bank ATM.'

Bank Manager: 'Then why don't you go exchange it
at HDFC Bank? Do you have an account there?'

Me: 'No, I have an Axis Bank account.'

Bank Manager: 'It's not every day that big
private bank customers walk into a humble bank
branch like ours to exchange torn notes'

It’s not everyday that I find myself losing my temper, but I think it’s only natural to do so when someone mocks you in front of an entire bank branch. I try bringing up the RBI guidelines again, in an attempt to enlighten the bank manager, in a scene straight out of those irritating Idea! internet advertisements.

It’s not every day that Ms. Bank Manager has to say ‘No!’ twice before someone gets it. But this was definitely one of those days.

Me:
'Ma'am, in that case, may I have your name?'

Bank Manager:
'Why do you need that for?'

Me:
'I'll need it for the complaint that I'll be writing
to the RBI. And ma'am, I'm pretty sure that I can
find your name online anyway. Have a nice day!'

Bank Manager:
'Wait a minute! If you have valid ID proof, you
can exchange your bank note here. No need for any
complaint business!'

Like I said… It’s not every day that my father gives me a torn Rs. 2000 note and asks me to get it exchanged.

Q&A

The funny thing about memories is that they tend to fade away until you’re often left with little more than a feeling. Feelings stay with you forever, especially regret.
 
Being a quizzer, I’ve come to enjoy the glorious uncertainty that comes with hazarding a guess while you’re on the buzzer. I’ve experienced both the elation that comes with getting it right as well as the dejection that accompanies a wrong answer.
 
Ask any quizzer and they’ll tell you that the worst feeling is when you think know the answer to a question. You can feel it coming. It’s right at the tip of your tongue. You start explaining the answer. The quiz-master starts nodding his head, because you’re going in the right direction but then you see dismay on his face. You were unable to give him the answer that he was looking for. As much as he wants to award you points, he can’t because there are other people waiting with the correct answer.
 
I can still recollect the feeling of helplessness that engulfed me when my parents asked me who she was. They say that mothers know everything about you. If so, I wouldn’t have been asked this question at all. It was a sitter, way too easy. And the worst part was that I wasn’t prepared for this question. Deep down inside, I knew the answer though. I tried my best to put it into words but couldn’t do so properly. In the end, all that I managed to say was that I needed to talk to her, and that it was extremely important for me to do so. Unfortunately that wasn’t the answer that my parents were looking for.
 
Almost five years have passed since, and I don’t think I can answer that question any better now. I just hope that they don’t throw the same question at me again.

What The Book Exchange Brought About…

I received a bucket-load of messages on Facebook in response to one of my recent blog posts, The Facebook Book Exchange Scam. Through today’s post, I want to share what happened after a girl named Liz from Kochi messaged me. Here’s what she had to say, “First of all, I appreciate your concern. It was really kind of you to share this with everyone rather than keeping it to yourself. And to answer your concern, yes, maybe someone may get left out without any book. For all I know, it could be me but instead of taking it in a negative sense, why can’t you try and look at it positively? Maybe some random stranger will be getting the most advantage out of this chain, but apart from your little loss, it is only books that they are receiving. Therefore even if someone is lucky enough to get the most of it, it doesn’t cause any harm. Instead it causes only good. Remember you’re spreading an infinite amount of knowledge. You are gifting a book that will probably brighten the life of a stranger. I’d say that it is probably one of the best ways to start the new year. And in your post, you say that it is better to gift a book to your friend instead but kindly tell me how many of us would have normally gift a book to a friend? You have decided not to participate in this chain, which is completely your decision and I respect that, but I think it’s okay if we sometimes choose a path which is not so ideal to make someone happy. If we start reacting to each and every flaw that you come across then there will be no real existence for any of us. We live in completely imperfect world filled with imperfect people. So I request you to please focus on the bright and positive aspect of this activity. And I’ll admit that in my Facebook post I should have written that you ‘may’ receive 36 books.”

After reading her message, I was kind of shell-shocked for a myriad of reasons. For instance, I couldn’t believe that someone would actually take the time and effort to compose such a long, heartfelt message to a random stranger like me. I was also quite unsure as to how to respond to her but I guess it was the cynic in me who finally replied, “Since you’re happy enough sending a book to a random stranger and spreading knowledge, would you send me a book for Christmas even if you knew that I wasn’t going to send one back?” I was fervently hoping that she would say ‘No’ but she actually said that she would be more than happy to do exactly that.

For those of you who know me personally (and for the few of you who know me through this blog), you might already know that I’m extremely cynical at times. According to Wikipedia, ‘A cynic may have a general lack of faith or hope in the human species or people motivated by ambition, desire, greed, gratification, materialism, goals, and opinions that a cynic perceives as vain, unobtainable, or ultimately meaningless and therefore deserving of ridicule or admonishment. A common misapplication of this attitude involves its attribution to individuals who emote well-thought-out expressions of skepticism.‘ By such a definition, I really don’t know whether to call myself a cynic or a skeptic. All I know is that while optimists and pessimists might argue that a glass is half-full or half-empty, I’m the kind of person who thinks that it’s better to just chuck the glass altogether and drink straight from the bottle!

All the same, the manner in which I replied to Liz made me feel bad at first. It was only on the afternoon of December 30, 2015 that I started to feel downright horrible about it. That is when I received a package from Liz via post. It contained a copy of The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara. In it, she’d written a quote by Che, ‘If you tremble with indignation at every injustice then you are a comrade of mine.’ I was absolutely shattered on receiving Liz’s package. There are a lot of questions that I need to ask myself (for instance, where does all this cynicism stem from?) and I am pretty sure that finding the answers to them won’t be easy.

Have you noticed all those memes that say ‘Faith in humanity restored’? Liz, I think that’s what you’ve done to a certain extent. Thank you for that. I really don’t know what else to say at this point of time. I still strongly feel that the book exchange is not a great idea but at the same time, I’ve decided to change my outlook towards life. Maybe tone down the cynicism a little bit… I’ll try to, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride…

Pensive

I first saw her on the opening day of school in seventh standard. Do you know that feeling when you feel like talking to someone the very first time you see them? That’s exactly what I felt as she walked into class that day. As always, she was late and you could see her go red as the teacher scowled at her. She meekly walked into class and took her seat somewhere behind me. During the English period, our teacher asked us to read the poem ‘Daffodils’ and try to make sense of it. As luck would have it, she didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘pensive’. She tapped my shoulder and asked me if I happened to know the meaning. Coincidentally I didn’t know the meaning either but I was never one to shy away from a challenge, nor the kind who admitted to not knowing something. She was looking at me expectantly and I simply had to give an answer. With an easy swagger that came out of knowing that nobody in class had a dictionary, I assured her that pensive meant solemn. I knew it was something close enough and that was all that mattered then, I guess.

*
You know how there is this certain point when someone goes from being a friend to a FRIEND? Sometimes the change happens so slowly that it is almost imperceptible but sometimes you just know when it happens. In our case, it happened one afternoon during the Biology period. Our teacher used to ask us to bring our workbooks once in a while and she’d go absolutely ballistic if anyone happened to forget. As luck would have it, I just couldn’t seem to find my workbook in my bag. I know what you’re thinking right now but honestly, I’m not as forgetful or absent-minded as Nikhil would like you to believe. I remember becoming extremely flustered as I went through the contents of my bag over and over again because I remembered seeing the book in there that morning. Nikhil seemed to notice that something was amiss and smirked. I could almost imagine him grinning while Anitha teacher scolded me and chucked me out of the class. Seeing that I was close to tears, he simply pushed his Biology workbook towards me… ‘Take it. I don’t mind getting kicked out of class. I’m used to it anyway.’ I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. For the life of me, I couldn’t imagine why he’d actually do something like that for me…

*
Sounds like a pakka movie at this point, na? Actually I just didn’t give two fucks about getting into trouble because I was so used to it by then. What difference would standing outside class one more time make? And besides, I knew that she needed that book way more than me. When you know that someone else wants something much more than you do, it’s so much easier to make that sacrifice for them. But in the end, she did find her workbook and neither of us got chucked out of class…

Good morning, chetta!

I work as a teaching volunteer for an NGO called Make A Difference (MAD). Every weekend, around a hundred of our volunteers head to shelter homes across Trivandrum to teach English and Maths. Our objective is simple, yet daunting: to provide after-school support to the children in these shelter homes so that they can acquire the necessary certification to pursue higher education or career opportunities. In simpler terms, we want to ensure that our kids clear their tenth standard board exams with grades that enable them to fulfill their ambitions.

You might be wondering, ‘Why are tenth standard grades so crucial?’ Children in shelter homes are often forced to leave when they turn eighteen. They don’t always complete their schooling by then. Boys who leave shelter homes, more often than not, become drivers and watchmen whereas girls are often forced to take up jobs like tailoring or data entry. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? No, a steady salary of say, Rs. 10,000 a month seems okay at the age of eighteen. But what happens once you get married and have kids? It’ll be that same salary that’ll have to feed a family of four because regardless of whether you’re a fresher or have a lifetime of experience, your salary as a watchman is going to look more or less the same. The prerequisite for almost any steady job with salary increments now is a tenth standard pass certificate.

In the words of Renjith, one of our volunteers, ‘These kids have been through more traumatic situations than you and I could possibly even imagine. Considering what they’ve been through, it’s not surprising that education is probably the least of their worries. It’s more about getting on with their lives. It’s about survival.’ Coupled with a malnourished upbringing, it’s not altogether surprising that many of the children that we teach have learning disabilities to varying degrees.

The government schools that these children attend often don’t have the resources to provide them with the support and training needed to overcome these disabilities. I’ve also been told that the policy at government schools is to promote students up until tenth standard regardless of their actual progress at school. I can’t imagine that any sane government would actually implement such an absurd policy! I’ve also heard that it’s possible to score marks by answering the English paper in Malayalam! I guess that’s what it takes to muster an SSLC pass percentage of close to 90%. If this is the situation in Kerala, India’s most literate state, you can imagine how appalling things must be elsewhere!

As a result, the ninth standard kids that I teach didn’t even know the meaning of simple three letter words like ‘fat’ at the start of this academic year (before we started classes). Their school syllabus is pretty demanding; they are expected to study short stories like ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much’ by Alexander Baron. The gap that we’re trying to bridge, between where they stand and what is expected of them, is huge, and it’s nigh near impossible for us to set right years of apathy with regards to these kids’ education with just three hours of intervention every week.

Teaching them a short story is relatively easy while poems are tougher to digest. The toughest part for them however is answering the textual questions in English. Even though they might know the answers, getting them to put it across in English is very difficult, considering that most of them still have trouble reading. However, we’re making progress, slowly but surely. My kids have now learnt how to frame simple sentences. If you ask them a question in English now, they’ll be able to give you an answer in English, albeit sometimes missing an auxiliary verb or an article.

The most rewarding moments as a teacher aren’t always curriculum-related. When I started out this year, I noticed that there was a girl named Krishna in my class who was extremely reticent and lacked confidence. She was very hesitant about answering questions because she wasn’t as competent as her peers. But over the past few months, my co-teachers (Ajith, Ameya and Lekshmi) and I have managed to coax her into answering questions in class. Krishna now wears a smile on her face when I walk into class. She recently said that I looked like a junglee, because of my afro, much to the amusement of her classmates. Last week, she even asked if Ameya could help her out a bit more with spelling and reading. It’s moments like these, that keep us going back to class, week after week.

At times, the work that we do can get immensely frustrating. Sometimes the reality of how our weekend class actually pans out might be in stark contrast to what we plan. We might not see results that are proportional to the efforts that we put in but sometimes all it takes to make a difference is being able to tell my kids, ‘Mole, chettan adutha aazhchayum padipikkan varuum.’  And I can feel it every Sunday morning, when I’m greeted by eight smiling faces and their chorus of ‘Good morning, chetta!’