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     Volume 11 |Issue 48| December 07, 2012 |


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Food for Thought

Survival Skills

Farah Ghuznavi

The ultimate test of a good education is supposed to be that it teaches you to think. It should then logically follow that the quicker it teaches you to think, the better the education must have been. As the product of a Bangla–medium education at Holy Cross, I have heard many critiques of the shortcomings of our educational system. There is merit to much of what is said, but I would still argue that many of the skills taught to me in my years there have, in subsequent times, come in very useful indeed.

What skills am I referring to, you ask? Hmm, how can I put this delicately? Well, when we were at school, we used to refer to this particular skills set as chapabaji mara. To the uninitiated, this can be described as the capacity to spin a yarn on short notice. One that is sufficiently convincing to get you out of whatever soup you have landed in. After all, when you're part of a group of free-spirited students operating within the parameters of a school whose unofficial motto is "discipline, discipline, discipline, girls" (I have lost count of how many times we heard these words ringing out with bell-like clarity in the dulcet tones of Sister Marie or one of her sorority, the American sisters who ran our school), nothing teaches you to think on your feet faster than being called to account for your behaviour by a stern-faced nun.

Photo: Star File

Don't get me wrong. I love my school, and I would not trade the education I received or the experiences I had there for the world. Quite apart from anything else, those experiences have already provided me with material for one short story - and I have only begun to mine that rich vein of literary material. Besides, one person's chapabaji is another's uposthit buddhi. Thinking on your feet is widely regarded as a useful survival skill; one that in modern-day management jargon is described as "thinking outside the box".

There are many situations where such an approach can come in useful - a quick retort to salvage ones dignity, for example. My classmate Waheeda was gifted in her wickedness and capacity for chapabaji mara. Once, a group of us had gone to the National Stadium to participate in a choreographed exercise programme involving girls from different schools, when we found ourselves placed next to students from Bharateshwari Homes. Since that school has always been feted for their athletic achievements - in comparison to the slightly geeky reputation of Holy Cross girls - there was a frisson of tension in the air. The first salvo came from one of the Bharateshwari girls, who addressed Waheeda, "Ei, tepi!" She had picked the wrong victim. Without missing a beat, Waheeda responded, drawing roars of laughter from all sides, "Ki-rey, gedur ma?!"

Not being nearly as sharp-witted as my classmate, my main use of the chapabaji tactic did not emerge until my Matric exam (yes, I was a distinctly late developer!) when I was faced with a tough geography paper. Some would say that my preparation had been inadequate, but in my defence, I rose to the occasion. Calling upon my hitherto latent skills, I fabricated an answer worth 10% of the total marks allocated for that exam- well enough to get a letter mark in Geography! The question was something to do with the industrial sector of India, and I managed to drop enough Tata-Birla type names to convince them that I actually knew something about it - which, of course, I didn't.

Earlier this year I found those very same “improvisation” skills coming in handy on an equally serious occasion. A short story of mine had recently placed second in the Oxford GEF Short Story Competition, held at Oxford University and judged by the British novelist and Guardian newspaper columnist, Bidisha. The winning stories from the competition were published in an anthology entitled "Lady Fest" (available for download on Amazon and SmashWords websites), and launched at Covent Garden, in London. Although I was unable to attend in person, I participated through Skype the organisers having kindly made arrangements for a projector and screen that enabled me to be present there as a rather larger-than-life version of myself.

As anyone who has ever had to rely on technology for this kind of event will testify, there were inevitably some technical issues - which of course emerged in the most unpleasant form possible. I hate public speaking, so the prospect of reading out two pieces of short fiction was something I had been dreading, though I was less bothered about the question-and-answer session at the end.

Anyway, you can imagine my horror when - as I began reading the first piece - I started hearing this peculiar sound at the end of my sentences which bore an uncanny resemblance to a cat being tortured. The strange thing was, I was facing the audience (the computer having been placed conveniently in order to facilitate that) and I could see no sign that they were disturbed by this dreadful howling. Marvelling at the audience's self-control, I waited for the organisers to stop me, to tell me that they could not make out what I was saying. But no-one did. So leaving it in God's hands, I kept reading - making sure I did so with a straight face.

As if that wasn't bad enough, for most of the event, the sound quality fluctuated horribly, so I couldn't actually make out much of what was being said. Concentrating very hard, I decided to focus on whatever I could hear, and base my answers to questions accordingly. I just hoped that I would hear enough of the question to give a sensible reply. Once again, the reactions from the audience seemed to indicate that they were satisfied with my shot-in-the-dark answers.

At one point, while one of the other contributors was reading her story, the sound disappeared altogether. At this point - keenly aware that the audience members could observe my every reaction on the huge projector screen - I looked very carefully at the reactions of the audience in general, and my two cousins (with whom I share a sense of humour) in particular. Based on their reactions, I smiled when they smiled, laughed when they laughed and attempted to look thoughtful when they looked serious and engaged.

Convinced that my participation had been a total disaster, I braced myself for feedback during my subsequently chats with family and friends who had attended. I was relieved to hear that my responses to the audience questions had been well received. And it turned out that whatever caused the sound of the cat being strangled had been some kind of glitch on Skype, because the audience in London heard nothing at all apart from my voice reading the pieces. But the biggest surprise was the reaction when I confessed the degree of improvisation I had undertaken while the other writers were reading their stories.

Everyone I spoke to - including my publisher, the following day - fell about in shock when I said I hadn't had a functioning sound feed for much of the event. "How is that possible?" asked my cousin, "We saw you! You were smiling in all the right places when Cherish read her comic piece - and you looked so sad during Rosalind's tragic story - how could you have reacted like that if you didn't hear anything?!" I told them about my mirroring tactic, and initially, they refused to believe me. Only afterwards did they finally realise how different our experiences of the event had been! So, decades later, I can definitively say that I learned some of the most important things I would ever need to know during my years at Holy Cross (even if my teachers wouldn't want to take credit for those lessons).


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