Sameer and Goutam were inseparable. They lived in a small town named Jalpaiguri, on the plains below the majestic Himalayas – but at the opposite ends of the town. Their school, Fanindra Dev Institution was almost midway between their homes. Goutam’s friend Sourabh would give him a lift on his Hero Jet bicycle to the school; Sameer had to walk all the way from his home to the place he enjoyed the most.
They both were from very poor families – their parents couldn’t even afford to feed them two square meals a day – sometimes they’d have only water for dinner; buying them bicycles was out of the question – and they could sympathize with their parents’ condition too, and never demanded anything from them – nothing at all.
Goutam was a “good” student, which means he could score high marks in the exams. Sameer wasn’t very dull too, but he wasn’t interested in marks and all; school for him was a magical place where he could learn new things and be with his ‘friend’ and play cricket and football. Goutam’s parents were very hopeful that someday he’ll get a very good job and all their troubles will be gone. Sameer’s parents wanted him to pass high school somehow and get into some work.
Goutam was outspoken and everyone seemed to like him very much – he had many friends. Sameer on the other hand was an introvert; he didn’t talk to others very much – Goutam was his only friend. They were really good friends but the beginning of their friendship wasn’t a fairy tale kind of meeting. Actually they didn’t even know each other after being in the same class for almost a year. They had nothing in common – at least they didn’t find out until after the mid-terms.
After the mid-terms, when the fifth graders were no longer newbies in the school, they enjoyed their share of ground-space in the school ground. One day they were playing football – Goutam played right wing while Sameer used to play as left back – and Goutam was charging forward with the ball in a counter attack, Sameer was the last man and had no choice but to make a strong challenge. Goutam cried out in agony and fell. Nobody liked Sameer very much and Goutam was very popular, being the class topper in the mid-terms – and hence almost everyone was at Sameer’s face calling him names and pushing him around. They were about to beat him up when Goutam came limping and shoved the others off of Sameer. ‘He had no choice but to tackle’ Goutam shouted pushing others away. Sameer finally found a boy he liked.
From then on they would play only in the same team and Sameer would rather hit a difficult ball across the pitch to Goutam than make an easy pass to the left winger – others would get pissed at him for this. But Sameer had practiced crossing the ball to Goutam so much that when the inter class tournaments came this left-back right-wing combination was what won them matches; because other teams never expected a fifth grader to pull-off such difficult long passes. Goutam was unmarked most of the times.
Their friends started to call them Karna-Subarna after the tournament. Karna has two meanings: ear and diagonal, and Subarna means gold. Now Sameer used to make the diagonal crosses, hence Karna and Goutam won the golden boot (obviously there was no real gold involved), hence Subarna. Also their classmates had just learnt from history text books about a historic place in Bengal named Karna-Subarna and they thought it had a nice ring to it. But their nicknames had more meaning to it. There’s a saying in Bengali Kaan Taanle matha aase, if you pull the ear the head will come along with it. So they used to joke that if you spot the ear, Goutam then the head, Sameer the golden boy will surely be nearby – that is how inseparable they were, like the head and the ear.
But come eighth grade with the growth hormones and everything changed. Goutam’s father had died before the annual exams, and there was no one to provide for him and his mother now. The school teachers called his mother to the school and gave her some money, they also arranged for Goutam to get the textbooks for free (from the sample text books they got from the book stores). But the money ran out in a few months and Goutam’s mother could only earn as much to feed themselves only once a day. Goutam’s normal growth started to seize. He became weaker – not visibly, being always short and thin – but he could feel it.
Goutam’s mother and school teachers started to pressurize him on studies – he was a promising student and they thought he ought not waste time and energy in stupid sports like football. In ninth grade Goutam had become very timid. Sameer would try to cheer him up but in vain; a hungry stomach cannot be filled even with friendship or love. Sameer could see that Goutam was not able to concentrate properly – he was getting weak from inside.
Goutam rode along carelessly on the Hero Jet, he borrowed from Sourabh. The board results were out. He got the highest marks in the history of his school – in the history of his town. Every parent and teacher wanted to steal a look at this wonder-boy – but he was off on his friends bicycle; his best friend hadn’t come to check the results. Why didn’t he come? Did he know he was going to fail? Why didn’t he talk to me about it? I could’ve helped him pass the exams. How did I not notice this? Countless thoughts were rampaging inside his mind.
Goutam didn’t know exactly where Sameer’s home was. So he had to ask around a bit to find that out. When he got there the bamboo-fence front door was ajar and a woman inside the house was sitting on the ground, crying.
‘Aunty, Where’s Sameer?’ he inquired.
The woman looked up at him and broke into tears once again. Goutam knew how she felt. Her mother would have felt the same had Goutam failed – no, had he even passed with low grades. Sameer didn’t want to bother her anymore. Sameer must have gone out of home, not being able to face his mother. He must be at the ground, Goutam thought. He was about to go out when the woman from behind said in low sobbing voice ‘They have taken him to the government hospital.’
‘What!’ Goutam couldn’t believe his ears. Sameer isn’t as weak as to trying to commit suicide. He is a strong person who brings out the best in others. How can he even think of such a degrading thing? ‘What happened?’ he asked when he realized that something else might have happened too.
‘I don’t know. Last night he told me to eat all the rice as he wasn’t feeling hungry. I thought he must be tensed for the results today. Today morning when I woke up I saw his pillow covered with blood. He was senseless and his face and mouth was bloody too. He had vomited blood.’ She was short of breath and started to sob heavily.
‘I’m going to the hospital’, Goutam rode on the bike without waiting to hear anything more. His friend needed him.
Sameer’s father and two neighbors had brought him to the hospital. Goutam could never remember how he found Sameer – but he did, in the general ward. The neighbors told him that Goutam had some sort of chronic ulcer or something; the doctor told them it happened due to starvation – not eating regular meals. Goutam was devastated by the sight of his friend. The doctor had said that Goutam needs good treatment and lots of good medicine and food; without that he was as good as dead.
Sameer had three more siblings, all younger to him. Sameer’s father was struck dumb – he was cursing the bad spirits for doing this to them. He was wondering why God has chosen to put him in such dire condition. Is being poor my fault? Why do poor people always have to suffer? And then he reflected on himself. Why didn’t I go for vasectomy after Ramila was born? Bringing up two children would have so much easier. Now if I buy expensive medicine for him, Ramila and the infants will be the one who starve. This is all my fault. O Merciful God, please have mercy on me. Please show me the way. He closed his eyes, but there was nothing but darkness.
Goutam had forgotten all about Sourabh’s bike which he was supposed to return. Suddenly he realized it and told Sameer’s dad that he will come back later. Meanwhile everyone at the school was wondering where the hell Goutam was. This was his moment of success – how can he miss it! Meanwhile his mother was battling “brave dutiful” journalists at her home. She was very happy for her son but she never imagined that she’d have to face cameras and answer questions such as ‘What’s your role in Goutam’s success?’, ‘Kemon laagchhe aapnar?’ (How do you feel?), ‘Would you like to say something to parents who are poor like you?’, ‘What’s the secret to Gautam’s success?’. She repeated the same line to everyone who asked her any question, ‘If only his father was alive today … to see this’.
She was a poor illiterate skinny woman – and the media loved her; nothing could have been better: ‘The lotus blooms in the mud’, ‘Sabar pichhe, sabar niche, sab-harader majhe’ (god/good is among people who are the farthest behind, the lowest in the society and who has nothing), ‘Mother India raises wonder-kid’, ‘Nature prevails, nurture fails’, ‘Khali pete Banga joy’ (Bengal invaded with empty stomach) – the headlines flashed in front of their eyes. And when the articles came out in the newspapers each story was different from the other explaining how Goutam had achieved it.
When Goutam reached the school some boy pointed towards him, and all the reporters turned away from the teachers and ran towards him. The teachers couldn’t finish telling the major roles they played in Goutam’s success. Ghosh-Babu (Mr. Ghosh) told the media how he helped Goutam overcome his fear in History and it was his suggestions that Goutam followed. Goutam was always good in other subjects, so without his critical role Goutam would never have got to the heights he reached. Mitra-Babu was convinced that he being Goutam’s class teacher (A teacher with the main responsibility for a class) twice, in the fifth grade and ninth grade, had an enormous impact on how Goutam’s studies shaped up. He was the one who encouraged him to do well and always helped him with his lessons even after the class. And other Babus had many other stories to tell too – cut short by Goutam’s arrival.
Goutam didn’t know what to do; he was happy and he was sad, and he was overwhelmed. He put up an awkward smile for photos and answered the questions with whatever came to his mind. He was only interested in something a man had whispered in his ears while he was pushing through the crowd, ‘There will be a lot more reporters coming to your home. When they interview at home tell them that you used to get coaching from Egiye Chalo (March Forward) Coaching Center for free, and we will pay you ten thousand rupees. Here’s two thousand in advance. And don’t worry; we’ll pay you the rest when we see our names in tomorrow’s paper.’ He slipped an envelope, with four papers with Gandhi’s face printed on them, in Goutam’s shirt’s pocket. It was no gamble; the kid is poor, and poor people will do anything for money. And it’s not like we’re asking him to do a bad thing, the man thought.
He was poor but his mother always taught him to be truthful. It’s better to starve to death than be dishonest, she would say. And here this man was offering him so much money (It was a LOT for him) just for telling a harmless lie. And there his best friend was struggling for life in the hospital bed. Will it still be wrong if I accept this money for him? Sen-Babu said in the class once ‘Too much morality will kill you’. Why am I even thinking all these? Isn’t the answer clear after what he did for me?
He went to the hospital before going to home. Next day, some of the newspapers mentioned about Egiye Chalo Coaching Center in Goutam’s interview. But none of them got to know what Goutam had actually planned to say to them. He never told anyone what was going on his mind when he first came to know his extraordinary feat. He didn’t want them to belittle a great human being by twisting his story in any way.
He had practiced it many-a-times in his mind: We didn’t have much money to feed ourselves. And my mother wouldn’t let me work because she saw a bright future for me. But I was getting weak. Eating once a day is not enough to make your brain work properly. Then, one summer day in ninth grade, Sameer – my best friend – was going off to play football during the recess and asked me to keep an eye on his sack. ‘Look inside’ he told me with a playful smile – ‘there’s something for you’. In it was his lunch box. Everyday till the board exams he would leave his sack with me during the recess.