Rema always stood first in class since attending school and nothing ever seemed to get in his way. He worked harder than most students but he was also gifted. His grandfather had named him Lalremruata, and every time his results were out, he would boast that his grandchild was indeed “God’s mighty plan” as his name suggested. When Rema was only 12 years old, he was already in Class 9. He had a knack for what were considered difficult subjects like Mathematics and Science. However, he enjoyed reading all kinds of books, whatever kind were available for him to read for free.
Every morning Rema’s grandfather would sit at the ‘tapchhak’, at the corner of their house, attending the fire and smoking his locally made pipe. He was an inveterate smoker whose smoking pipe was lit from early morning till evening. Despite his old age he still had the vigour to process a whole leaf tobacco himself. The arduous process usually took him days but he relished being praised for its fine taste. He would stomp and grind the pile of tobacco leaves he had collected with his feet for long hours to remove excess liquid, and dry it. He would later crush the dried leaves with his old wooden mortar and a long iron pestle with a sharp pointed end that could grind the leaves to his satisfaction. Although the process would drain his energy thoroughly, nothing felt better than having enough to smoke for a few days.
Their house was a typical humble Mizo hut with thatched roof, bamboo floors, and walls. However, houses like that have become rare even in villages. Rema would wake up with the break of day, prepare tea for his mother who would often rush to the farm to collect woods, and be back home in time to prepare the morning meal. Every so often, Rema would also go to fetch water at the local ‘tuikhur’ which was a few distance away from his home. On some certain days nonetheless, before the busy hours of school, he would be seen seated near the window enjoying the morning sun while reading a book. Rema enjoys the quite morning hours before his young siblings would run around the house screaming, and blasting loud enough to wake the dead. A heavy laughter would be followed by a loud yell, and at regular intervals one of them would cry. As this was the regular routine around the house, Rema had been drilled to learn to cope with it. He had intrinsically developed ways to have his mind fixed so intently in his books that he seemed unbothered by the loud racket made by his siblings.
Rema’s school principal stepped in their house, one morning, unannounced. Rema’s mother who left at sunrise to fetch wood came back with her ‘Em pai’ stacked with wood and a few vegetables she picked from their farm, just enough for the morning meal. When she saw the unexpected visitor, she wiped her sweat with her dirty puan and rushed inside to offer tea. As he sipped his black tea and licked his ‘kurtai’, Pu Thanga spoke charismatically about how he would love to offer Rema the opportunity to study in Aizawl. He told Pi Puii that his son’s intellect was undeniable and that it would be a huge loss to not give him the opportunity to pass his matriculation from a better school. After all, he said, making a mark in the State Board Exam will pave way for a better future, for him and his family. He disclosed the good news that after discussing with his wife, they had agreed to pay for the necessary fees for a year if they have her consent as his mother.
As was expected, Rema passed Class 9 from his village with flying colours. The next year he left his mother, grandfather, and his three siblings to study in the city. His father, who was a hardworking farmer, died when he was only 8 years old and that seemed to have a huge impact in his life. Losing his father at a young age had been awfully devastating;since then, the idea of developing any strong relationship with others terrified him, and he had alternately been avoiding his feelings so as not to be overwhelmed. As an adolescent, he had difficulty in expressing longing and was always reluctant to express his emotions even to his mother.
His father was his best friend. Even as a kid, he saw how his father was always driven and passionate in what he did. He was the first to start a pig farm in his village while others thought it not worthy for a business. He always had the passion to learn, and would be ready to get up and start again even after a time of failure. Rema always enjoyed spending time in his father’s farm. When he was 5, his younger twin brothers were born and the next year his youngest sister. His mother never had a time-off ever since he remembered; she was someone who would unceasingly put blood, sweat and tears for the welfare of her family. Rema appreciated his mother’s sacrifices, despite his lack of emotion in showing his gratitude.
After his father’s untimely death, he found refuge in books and considered them as his only companion. He loved to spend all his free time in the small YMA (Young Mizo Association) library unlike other boys his age who would take every opportunity seeking adventure in the nearby forest; hiking, chasing birds, swimming in the river, and whatnot. He particularly enjoyed reading classic English novels that were available in Mizo translation. The Count of Monte Cristo, The Prince and the Pauper, Sherlock Holmes, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and books on Greek Mythologies, were among the long list of books he had read, some from the YMA Library and some he borrowed from his teachers. He prized a great book as it offered him many extraordinary experiences that life in reality could not offer him. He had no one to call his friends and that did not bother him. His siblings too seemed rather distant as he never had time to play with them. There was one thing he was thankful for, his mother, though he never showed it. He could not deny his mother’s immense sacrifices in order for him to read and perform well in his studies. She never complained even when her life seemed non-existent at times.
The day he departed from home, his mother hugged him and sobbed. It was as if she was apologising on behalf of his father, feeling sorry that she could not provide him a better life. That moment triggered something in him. He felt deep in his heart that he had to endure anything to have something to give back to his mother. His grandfather stood proud, waving his grandson goodbye until the Maxi-cab disappeared with the first hairpin-turn of the road. Rema could see from the rear mirror of the vehicle, his siblings holding their mother’s hand, looking rather muddled as to why their big brother should leave their home. It was unlike them to stand motionless for a long time. As they were nearly out of sight, Rema could hear his youngest sibling shouting, “Come back with lots of sweet and Waiwai from Aizawl.”
Though he had never been to the city, Rema’s determination was bigger than his fear. He left with the principal who promised to take care of his school admissions and hostel lodgings. His village was 200 kms away from Aizawl. Had his father been alive, he surely would have been to the city numerous times accompanying him running errands from time to time. After his father’s death, his mother had to sell his father’s pig farm and their old house for her children’s education. She bought a small abandoned house that came with a small farm, which was a few minutes’ walk from the house. Since then, she had enabled her children to study while she bore the brunt of her husband’s absence, managing the household, and trying to feed her family from her small farm.
The bus ride from Rema’s village to Aizawl was bumpy and unpredictable, and it took them the whole day to commute. For the first time in his life, Rema felt a sense of displacement from home, something he never understood before. As they drove farther away from home, a flood of thoughts and emotions rushed through his head. The regular faces and mundane life of his village that he took for granted and never paid attention to, suddenly appeared so clearly in his mind and he felt somewhat empty and fragile. When they reached Aizawl, the principal took him to his relative’s house at Dawrpui. He promised Rema, who was now looking all timid and lost, that everything will be taken care of the next day.
That night, Rema felt the weight of his decision and the responsibility he believed he owed his mother. He missed his father terribly. What a life he had in his village; he was considered invincible in his school, but now he felt so small and helpless. Rema was no stranger to the city, atleast the city of his imagination, a place that intrigued him in the many books he had read, despite never having travelled beyond his village. He was consequently, not stunned by the expensive looking houses, the dominant Church buildings, the numerous shops, the vehicles and the sea of people he met on their way to Dawrpui, the heart of Aizawl city. What he had not anticipated, however, was the heaviness he felt in his heart because he missed home. That night he cried himself to sleep.
The next day, the principal took Rema to one of the best private schools in Aizawl, hoping to get him admitted. The main gate of the school was wide open and old students could be seen swamping the small office window trying to give their admission fees. A stern-looking tiny woman with huge spectacles, who was sitting inside the office, was persistently yelling at students to stand in line. Needless to say, Rema was a bundle of nerves as they entered, and he was overwhelmed by the whole scene. For the first time in his life, a school compound and the face of other students scared him. After a few hours of waiting with bated breath, Rema was called inside the principal’s room for an interview. He broke out in a cold sweat and forgot to greet the principal who was gesturing him to sit on the empty chair in front of the huge desk. Rema went straight to the chair and sat like a lost sheep opposite to the rather hefty dark serious looking man. The man gave a loud cough, looked through Rema’s file and asked him a few questions in English. Rema looked desperate and was tongue-tied as he could not string a meaningful phrase in English. He was then handed a test sheet which he was asked to complete in half an hour. As Rema scanned through the pages, he was relieved to see a few questions on Math though the portion on essay writingin English petrifiedhim. The principal from his previous school did his best to convince the School Managing Board that Rema was no ordinary child, and that a brilliant student like him deserved a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Though Rema flunked his test, he was admitted on the condition that he would be expelled if he failed his first terminal exam.
The first few weeks in the hostel felt long and lifeless. He was punished and humiliated numerous times by the hostel warden for being caught speaking in Mizo. He was bullied as the ‘farmer’s son’, because he dressed and talked like a farmer’s son, his classmates would tease. His awkward disposition, and his difficulty in making friends, all the more gave his bullies reasons to pick him out as a ‘village boy’Though he had always aspired for a better life, he felt in his desperation that he was destined to be a poor village boy. He was like a catonhotbricks whenever he was around other students as he could not join their conversations on music, sports, popular TV shows, and basically any topic that city kids were interested in. The long study hours gave him a chance to escape those awkward moments and once again, his books became his home.
The first Saturday of every month was visiting day in the hostel, the only day when the rules were bent, and students could enjoy what was not allowed on usual days. Students lined up to call their parents on the phone in the morning. Some went with long lists of the things they wanted their parents to bring, from all kinds of eatables to stationary items, change of clothes and other nicknacks they could secretly take in the hostel. At 10:00 am, some parents arrived in fancy looking cars carrying huge bags and hampers packed with what had been requested. Hostellers who were waiting in the corridors could see the school ground and everyone that arrived. Students eagerly waited for their names to be called out so that they could meet their parents in the school hall and greedily devour all the food packed for them. As the students left one by one, Rema stood in the corridor alone. He imagined his mother coming to visit him. She would certainly have felt extremely out of place but a hug from her would make everything bearable. Rema sat on the ground and sobbed. He longed for a relative or a friend he could talk to, let alone bring him something good to eat atleast for a day. He never felt more alone in his life. He knew in his heart that visiting day would be the day he would continue to dread the most, for months to come.
As months passed, he literally learned the English dictionary by-heart. Despite his inhibitions, he was able to understand and communicate slowly in English. Whenever he had the urge to give up, he reminded himself of Einstein, a scientist he admired not just because of his work but of his zeal to strive towards his goal when others thought him incapable. He once read that Einstein would silently mouth words to himself before speaking them out aloud and it would take him forever to answer his teachers. He too constantly found himself in a position when he would shake like a leaf in front of other students when asked to speak in class. He could not get used to a huge classroom of around eighty students, when in his village there would be no more than 20 students in a class. He reminded himself that if a person like Einstein who was initially considered retarded by many, could rise above his adversities, his problems comparatively look trivial.
Rema escaped the disgrace of being expelled as he got through his first terminal examination. There were times he was rewarded and even called out for scoring good marks in some subjects, while at other times he was discouraged by the humiliation of failure. For a long time, he could not feel emotionally safe as students who failed in any subject would be severely punished overtly. He often wondered what it would be like had he not studied in the city, and still lived comfortably in his village where life seemed to move at a much slower pace.
However, in the course of all these adversities, he stumbled upon a teacher, who unlike others took time to smile and talk to him, and remember his name. This teacher seemed to understand his situation as he would patiently comfort him and gave him guidance on his adjustment issues with an education system that used carrot-and-stick approach towards students. Rema felt he finally had a shoulder to lean on, and as he was given the assistance he needed, he slowly regained his confidence to take a leap towards his goals. In the meantime, his positive disposition progressively helped him overcome negative situations. For as long as he could remember, Rema took to heart what his mother had always told him about education; that education holds the key to his success. The support and warmth he received from his teacher helped him to focus on his studies better and school now finally started to feel like his second home.
By the time it was mid-December, students left the hostel as Christmas holidays had begun. They were to report back in early January as the Board Exam was scheduled on February. Rema had no money to go home. While he assumed he would be staying in the hostel alone, the principal brought Rema to his home to stay with his family during the holidays. Christmas time in his village, as he always remembered, was when families spend quality time together, and when the most-hardworking person like his mother, would finally get a time to rest. He remembered how his mother would send him to the only house in his village that owned a rice huller, and how he would have to wait in a queue since early morning. His mother would make the best ‘Chhangban’ or sticky local rice dumpling from the rice flour. On Christmas day after Church, they would enjoy the glutinous rice flour boiled in a banana leaf with kurtai(jaggery) and tea. As he thought about home, Rema could hear a choir in a distance. He left his studies and went to the window to listen to the choir and the Church congregation joyfully singing Christmas songs. He felt the warmth of Christmas despite being alone. He embraced his books and convinced himself that he had to endure for the greater good.
When the Board exams were finally over, Rema anticipated a good result because he knew he performed well by dint of sheer hard work and dedication. He had pulled out all the stops till he reached the finish line and he was most proud of himself for not giving up. As he sat in the backseat of a dirty Maxi Cab (Tata Sumo), Rema heaved a sigh of relief as he was finally heading home. Remembering his younger sister’s request as she waved good-bye, Rema used the fifty rupees remaining from his sumo fare to pick up a few sweets and three packets of Waiwai from a variety store near the busy traffic point at Zarkawt, and carefully arranged them inside his school bag, which he placed under his seat. As he looked around, he could see a line of Maxi-cab waiting for passengers. Some people could be seen with huge bags rushing towards their vehicles while some others devoured the roadside paratha and chhangbankan with tea, as they sat nonchalant, unbothered by the shouts of impatient drivers calling their passengers to hurry. This time, Rema felt like a new person, self-assured yet humbled by his experiences, full of the joys of spring, feeling thankful that he survived a difficult year.
When the State Board Examination results were finally announced, Rema secured Distinction class and got letter marks in a few subjects. The farmer’s son did his school proud as he secured the 10th position along with two other students from other schools. The whole village rejoiced hearing Rema’s result as it was the first time anyone from the village was ever placed in the Top Ten in the State Board Exam. Rema was instantly offered free admission for his Higher Secondary education from his school. For the first time after her husband’s death, Rema’s mother felt like a heavy weight had been lifted off her shoulders. His son, who had always breezed through his studies in the village, now had the resilience to cope with adversity alone, in the city, far away from home. Through his difficult learning experiences, the farmer’s son finally developed the optimism and hope to face whatever lies in the future, even if it meant doing it alone, without the support of a father.