“Good morning maaaaa’m”, the class bleated obediently like a herd of sheep, Subbu among them, as a stern looking Miss Prema entered the room with a thick book in her hand. She eyed the class suspiciously and dropped the book on the table where it landed with an resounding thud. The class fell silent and Prema ma’am spoke in her high pitched voice, “This quarter, we have a lot of History to cover. So, we will not waste any time and continue where we left from before the test – ” Chapter 5: The Rise and Fall of Alexander the Great”. Subbu frowned. Why was she starting off on the first day? More importantly, had she corrected the papers yet? But he didn’t dare interrupt her as she read monotonously, “The land of Macedonia was already a great military power …”.
He instead nudged Venky, his best friend who always sat next to him in class (or rather they’d grown close as a result of being made to sit next to each) and said “Hey, why don’t you ask Prema ma’am for the marks. You did well in History no?”. Venky looked at his friend with a mixture of pride and condescension that Subbu had not only assumed his prowess in the subject, but also entrusted him with a task that he was too cowardly to do himself. “Okay you chicken”, he commented as he cleared his throat in preparation, a little louder than he’d intended. “Venkatraman!”, the teacher yelled, “What is it? Why are you making sounds?”. The lion in him had shrunk into a kitten at the admonishing and he mewed incoherently. “What is it boy? Speak up!”, she yelled again. “Ma’am..Can you..Can I drink some water ma’am?”, he managed to squeak. He was disapprovingly given permission and had to make a show of going to the back of the class, fetching his water bottle from the array of baskets and drink it despite not being thirsty at all. Subbu looked back at his courageous friend, disappointed that the soldier had fallen without even getting a chance to yell a war-chant, let alone draw a spear. When he returned to his station sheepishly, Subbu had half a mind to taunt him, but seeing the ashen expression on his face, thought the better of it. He gave him one last look before shaking his head and looking to the other side for another chess piece to move.
“Muralii”, he hissed at the boy seated at the edge of the bench in the column next to his. “Ask ma’am for test marks”, he mouthed, half voicelessly. Murali gave him a puzzled expression. He repeated his request once more before giving up hope in the method. He tore half a sheet from the last page of his neatly covered notebook , wordlessly begging Saraswati Devi forgiveness for having hurt her so and scribbled his message on it. With as much ninja skills as he could muster he casually passed the folded slip to Murali. Murali grabbed the note and read it. Then he scribbled something and passed it back clumsily to Subbu who received it with surprise. He had not expected that there would a second phase of transactions. “Ask her yourself.”, the message read. Subbu cursed under his breath , then closed his eyes and exhaled. He raised his hand and waited patiently for Prema ma’am to pause at the end of the paragraph she was impassionately reading and look up at the class to make sure no one had slept off. Their eyes met and she called, “Yes, what is it Subbu? Do you also want to drink water?”. The class laughed. “Silence! “, she barked and there was. Subbu realised at that minute what Venky must have gone through and a sudden rush of sympathy for the boy washed over him. But he’d powered through the fear and asked, “Ma’am , have you been able to maybe, correct our papers yet?”, with as much respect and doubt as he could fuel into the sentence. “Is this what you were thinking about then? Were you not paying attention to the class? When was Alexander born?” . Subbu was stumped. He hadn’t yet received feedback about his performance in the previous test when here he was being posed with a new one! Never mind the fact that he had no idea what Alexander’s birthday was! Why, he didn’t even know Venky’s birthday! Involuntarily, he felt ashamed that he was unaware of such an important detail about his best friend. Meanwhile Prema ma’am had decided that this silence was proof of inattentiveness (a valid accusation) and told Subbu to stand at the back of the class. Subbu was aghast. Not only had he not got an answer to his question, now he was being punished? But being the anvil, he had no choice but to meekly comply.
He walked to the back of the class like Venky had and stood next to a blue basket, facing the board. As he stood there, his eyes flicking from student to student and occasionally to Prema ma’am, he wondered if Alexander had ever taken orders from his teachers like this. Surely they wouldn’t have conferred the title “Great” upon his if he had been so cowardly? Then again, being the son of a king probably came with perks like not having to listen to anyone. He stood there for what felt like a long time, day-dreaming up his own version of what Alexander’s life would have been like. Eventually, the end of the class arrived and as the students grew restless, Subbu slipped out of his reverie and saw what was happening. The class monitor, Maran was distributing the answer sheets! He waited until all the sheets were distributed and waited for the teacher to call him and give him his paper. She called out, “Subbu, because you interrupted my class, you will not be getting your paper today. Come for it tomorrow.”
Subbu stood at his station, dumbstruck. But after a few minutes, he comforted himself that he was probably sacrificing himself in a war for his kingdom like Alexander the Great. After all, it was because he had asked for the papers that Prema ma’am had allotted time to distribute them, he told himself. He had fought bravely, just like Alexander had, for the sake of his people and perished valiantly. Once the papers had been collected back, she said she would complete the last para that she had paused at. The class groaned but had no choice.
He listened, despite himself as she finished –
“…At the young age of 32, Alexander died of chronic liver disease due to excessive drinking, thereby ending his glorious reign.”