Our latest English assignment gave us a thrill. It was so much better than boring precis writing or essays — we had to come up with a concept for a radio show and record it on tape! True, actually broadcasting it would have been more fun, but this was a huge step up from scribbling answers till our fingers ached.
‘Let your imagination run wild,’ said Vaani Ma’am, as she announced the assignment in class. ‘Be creative and put your different talents to good use!’ She was usually a good sport, and her encouragement was like a breath of fresh air. She allowed us to choose our own groups; I was in one with Sudhir, Vikram, Raghu, and Vishal.
‘Now, I have a few ideas,’ announced Raghu, the creative one of our group and an incurable romantic. We were in Class IX, we were approaching the dawn of the new millennium, and boy bands were all the rage. Sudhir had a Casio keyboard, Raghu had Backstreet Boys cassettes, and Vishal had a massive crush on a girl from another section. This was a potent combination. Vikram and I were the practical ones who went with the flow, content not to create a ripple in the natural order of things.
‘We need a theme.’
‘Backstreet Boys and all is fine, but we need some original music. I’ll play some of my tunes.’
‘Let’s interview Sadagopan Ramesh!’
‘A science quiz!’
‘Hush! Not bad ideas at all, but I have a plan. Listen.’
We spent a couple of days writing out our show in detail. Ideas were conjured up and shot down. We listened to the radio a great deal, making our parents question the veracity of our assignment. We played our few English cassettes repeatedly to pick out songs to ‘play’ on our ‘show’.
After not a little conflict, the script was ready. We took our parts seriously. Vikram, Sudhir, and I were the quiz participants; Raghu and Vishal brought their O’Brien skills into their role as quizmasters. Sudhir also provided the background score and managed the recordings.
The recordings of the class were to be played across two days and we were the last group. We were quite thrilled, because as we heard the others, we felt that our show was miles ahead in its creativity and content. We were sure to sweep our English teacher off her feet.
‘Ah, Raghu, I look forward to seeing what your group has come up with,’ beamed Vaani Ma’am, looking at her second-favourite student with great confidence. Vishal, her prime favourite, was unfortunately away with a skin rash. The rest of us shuffled to the front of the class with Raghu, certain that by the time the English period ended, our teacher would have a few more favourites.
Raghu slid the cassette into the tape recorder. Sudhir’s music came on, followed by Raghu’s radio jockey-like introduction. His sunny tones caught the classroom’s attention, and as he announced the theme of the quiz show — Valentine’s Day — the faces of our classmates lit up in anticipation. They grinned as the quiz participants introduced themselves, along with their imaginary valentines. We cast occasional glances at Ma’am, but she just sat there poker-faced.
The quiz show began with Backstreet Boys’ As Long As You Love Me, followed by a series of questions on Valentine’s Day facts. Each question was followed by a song snippet chosen by the participants. We did pretty well for the pre-Wikipedia era. A few more English hits about love and longing followed. Then, Raghu announced a caller (Vishal) on the show.
‘Happy Valentine’s Day, Vishal! Tell me, do you have a valentine?’
‘Yes, her name is Meera, and she studies in VIII-B,’ said Vishal.
The class let out a collective gasp. Meera was a year junior to us, and top at everything — academics, sports, singing, dancing, painting — you name it. She was also considered the best student ever in the history of the school by Vani Ma’am.
Even as our classmates looked petrified, Ma’am kept her poker face intact. We didn’t know what was coming next, but we let the cassette play as Vishal waxed eloquent on his love for Meera and requested a plaintive ballad, which closed our radio show.
Do you know what it is like when it is frigid and bright at once, like being on the English coast on an early spring day? Our teacher’s countenance was not that of someone who had stumbled upon cheerful daffodils, waving merrily in the prime of their youth, but she didn’t look like Miss Havisham either. We couldn’t really tell what she was thinking. Nor, clearly, could our classmates.
‘Alright, boys. Please return to your seats.’
Far from gaining favourites, Vaani Ma’am might have lost some. She collected her books and walked out of the class without a word.
We felt slightly deflated. This was not the kind of response we had expected. Vishal was the most dejected of all when he heard of the happenings — but his misery was not to end there. His crush got wind of the happenings through the school grapevine, and his love story was nipped in the bud by the end of the week, thanks to a stern talking-to from Meera.
A couple of weeks of suspense later, Vaani Ma’am told us that she wanted to give us our marks from the radio show. This time, she clearly resembled Miss Havisham.
‘All the teams have scored a zero, thanks to their lack of imagination and mediocrity. One team did well, impressing me with their creativity, but their juvenile antics led to them scoring negative marks, bringing the total to a neat zero.’
The name of that team remains a mystery to this day.
This, by the way, is what Vaani Ma’am probably expected of us.