(Another piece retrieved from my garbage of jewels...again undated...safely guessed from the pre-2000 dinosaur era...)
I was happy the day I got my first report card.
It was white with my name on it and had become a small part of my identity. By then I had already acquired another token of entity, a birth certificate, but had not learnt to associate more than nostalgia to the yellowing three-fold document. I knew it was instrumental in getting me admitted to school but was more fascinated by the fact that it had my name in it, my parents’ names and the details of my birth. It was dear to me because it was my birth certificate and could not possibly be anybody else’s.
I was taken by the idea that it had existed before ‘me’, my consciousness of myself, and marked the beginning of my existence. I had an obsessive preoccupation with my life at that tender age, a sense of being special that appealed to me.
Quite a narcissus in the making.
The report cards kept piling through the years and my little life was held to ransom over the insignificant scrawls inside them, one mark less here, a small improvement over there. I was a good student when I set my heart to it, usually making it to the roll of merits at the end of the year. Sundry prize books, certificates, two medals added to my coffer of achievements.
Story books stopped being doled out as prizes on the last day of junior school. They lost me there, the flavour of acing exams gone forever.
I did not perform well in my first public exam, belying the mountain of hope piled on me. The mark sheet, photocopied and attested, became my first sententious document of recognition as I stepped into adult life, as I applied in colleges.
Every time I apply for a course and if the institute is too particular, on my CV under the heading ‘Academic Records’ it is the first milestone from which I recount my steps, begin telling my story.
If the Secondary was a letdown, Higher Secondary was a total washout. I could no longer continue studying Science, ending forever my every chance at being 'successful', or so I was made to believe at that time, and took admission in an inconspicuous college studying what my mother had once deprecatingly said was the only thing the alumni of my school were capable of: English.
More application forms were submitted, more fascimilies and attestations. And thus it has been so far – every new project of my life is officially presented and accepted accompanied by the bundle of useless paperwork that keeps accumulating every year. I say ‘useless’ because they say nothing of consequence about me. If spread out for an overall estimation, at best they reveal the various organizations I’ve filtered through in my life, silent and non-committal about the many I entered but came out of without taking a certificate. As a prospective employer is going through my bio-data I often look over his head and think, ‘This man isn’t getting to know I’m a non-stickler. I will leave the minute I tire of his job which is more soon than later. He doesn’t know.’
So the person keeps deliberating, searching in my papers for the clues about the right questions to ask as I sit ruminating, half amused, the complete waste of his efforts.
The marks in the school report books, once the bane and pride of my existence, no longer matter. No one asks after them like young nieces and nephews one hasn’t seen in a long while. After I earned an MA, people stopped enquiring after School Final. Though a forgone conclusion, it is still a formality that demands mention each time because to not do so is not the norm. It per se will not draw ones attention so much as its omission might. A puzzled interviewer may ask the obvious, “You haven’t sat the School Final?” or “I can’t see your Secondary scores.”
The next question would be tougher to explain. Why I abhor de rigueur isn’t something I can expound to a stranger. I’m not an enthusiastic radical. Speeches are exhausting and any public spotlight on my private musings acutely discomfiting. Besides, one doesn’t argue with the man who promises you livelihood. So it continues to make its way into every autobiographical note I distribute, one of many tags I’m yet unable to slough.
As I have moved further from studentship, the nature of my testimonials has grown steadily non-academic. Ration card, passport, bank pass book, voter’s ID, none of these ‘essentials’ were matter-of-factly gained. I applied for each with misgivings that were so justified during the hours of odious wait it took to process my request. The long-winded corridors of power, reams of red tape, the deliciously slow pace of a file moving from one desk to another, the many phone calls and journeys undertaken in broiling tropical heat were child’s play compared to the task of convincing a host of skeptical officials that I exist, that my mother was married to my father and I was lawfully begotten of them, that I do live in the address where I claim to reside.
For the first time I realized how difficult it is to prove who I am, standing patiently in government offices, crowded with similar hopefuls as I, wooing people who don’t budge an inch to make the necessary investigations they are obliged, as part of their jobs, to do. The onus of validating yourself is your own. In my case things were more difficult because my mother was married before the Supreme Court of India ruling made marriage registration mandatory and has no certificate to show for it, my father had abandoned his family and was absconding and twelve years ago we had shifted residences. I had no money to grease palms and was absolutely determined to not consider the idea.
I had lost the beloved birth certificate in the meanwhile and was informed, the Calcutta Municipal Corporation, itself no longer in existence as the city I was born and brought up in is no longer Calcutta, doesn’t issue duplicates to those above twenty two years of age. One makes do with a paltry parchment released against a fee that states the Corporation has ‘No Record’ in its register of his/her birth.
So now I have every conceivable document to prove I exist except the one which says I was born.