This short-story was first published here

In the uptown Srinagar’s Gonikhan area, Syethe – a neighbourhood bully sat on a shop front in a melancholic state. It was a cold winter evening, with mini clouds of breath preceding the people, and under the cover of darkness he lit a cigarette and took deep nervous drags. In his late teens now, Syethe had taken to smoking after one of his friends had made him believe, “smoking is dope and it chases away all the worries.”

As he smoked frantically, he realised that his anxiety was growing with each passing second. Syethe was poor in studies and especially poor in Mathematics. A few days ago he had sat through the matriculation maths paper at the SP Higher Secondary School without attempting to solve a single question for most of the allotted time, wringing his hands in the mortal fear of flanking the dreaded subject. In the examination hall he tried every trick to copy from his most trusted and loyal lackey and friend Aashqe, who was sitting in the next table. But the wily and strict examiner noticed his desperation and made him sit in the lone bench at the front under his stern and watchful eyes.

Together the Syethe-Ashqe duo had embarked on countless (mis)adventures all through their lives: snatching kites from kite runners, sticks from kids who rolled discarded tyres, robbing pencils, sharpeners, geometry boxes, lunches from the bags of their classmates during the morning assembly; they would occasionally sneak into the staff room and rummage through the cupboards looking for question papers or any other useful stuff. But in the examination hall it was like a doomsday situation: EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF.

As he contemplated the implications of his failure, he came up with myriad excuses to save himself from the possible disgrace the episode will bring forth on him at home, with none plausible than the usual “the paper was totally out of syllabus”.

In a stroke of luck, however, the examiner took pity on the helpless boy in the dying minutes and allowed him to rejoin his friend. The overjoyed Syethe embarked on the marathon copying spree and scribbled whatever his friend showed him. The leniency exhibited by the examiner emboldened him so much that Syethe passed his continuation answer sheet to his trusted ally and asked him to fill it for him. But even after such a show of magnanimity from the examiner, Syethe couldn’t compensate for the lost time and only ended up copying a handful of questions. Syethe left the examination hall with the same scepticism about his chances as he had had while he entered.

Syetha’s cousin, a no-earning journalist who survived on the largesse of his elder engineer brother, was world famous in the area for doling out free tuitions to the neighbourhood kids. He always obliged when the neighbourhood women requested him to help their children prepare for exams (for free, mind you). At any given time the footfall to his home would have matched the mad rush to any mystic. He had written/rewritten/edited news stories, articles, dissertations, Twitter/Instagram bios, and WhatsApp statuses for friends, their girlfriends without receiving even a mere “thank you” in return.

As the schools shut down for the winter break, the neighbourhood kids used to make a beeline to his home to seek his assistance in the completion of assignments. He taught trigonometry, theory of evolution, laws of thermodynamics, wormholes, intergalactic travel, astronomy, quantum mechanics and circadian rhythm biology to the dumb neighbourhood kids.

However, before the impending matriculation exams, the house became out-of-bounds for the other kids. Their grandmother – the great matriarch of the house had instructed his cousin to not to entertain other kids and invest all his energies into preparing Syetha for the exams, especially treating his Achilles heel – Maths. Syetha’s cousin racked his brains to teach him the basics of the subject, but it all seemed futile. After all the failed attempts at making him grasp the subject, everybody lost hopes of Syetha passing the paper by fair means.

But Syethe was an eternal optimist who believed that whatever that can’t be achieved through fair means can either be achieved by foul means or through divine help.

He may not have been outwardly religious but in his heart of hearts he believed he was a devout kid who helped the Molvi sahib discipline the non-conforming kids by lifting them on his back for the usual thrashing-on-the-posterior punishment.

After stubbing out the cigarette, Syethe decided to invoke God’s help to change his fate. So, he dashed straight to the Dasgeer sahab’s shrine, located in the neighbourhood, and engrossed himself in deep prayer in one secluded corner. Then, when no one was around, he quietly took out a Reynolds pen from his pocket and wrote these lines or something similar, on the Nerolac painted wall, in a perfect mishmash of Keashur, Urdu and English: “Myani Dasgeera mujay math paper mai pass karna… my roll number is 7228222.”

After a few months when the results were declared, turned out, Syethe had, quite (un)surprisingly, failed in maths paper. The neighbourhood boys got a whiff of the matter and a few of them decided to see for themselves what the notorious lad had written on the shrine wall. The news that spread left the neighbourhood in unceasing fits of laughter as Syethe had, quite (un)surprisingly written the wrong roll number.

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