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Of a certain power, and my first wrist-watch

When I was eleven, I was summoned to the tenth-grade classroom by the school principal, a stern-looking nun who taught mathematics, in a sleepy suburb of what was then Bombay. Surprised and even scared, unsure about what wrong I had possibly done, I gingerly ventured into the room where senior girl students much taller than me and with their hair combed into two tight braids sat without expression. Sister Irene asked me to go to the blackboard and solve a simple math problem involving fractions. I finished the task and turned towards her still unsmiling face.

“Even a sixth-grade girl is able to solve the problem. And look at you. You have the board exams coming up and don’t know how to solve this,” Sister Irene reprimanded her silent audience and dismissed me with a flick of her wrist. I stood outside the class for a while, confused over what had transpired, unaware that this would be the day I understood my super power (not in math, in case you are wondering).

Right from pre-school, I loved to learn, and learnt things quickly. Alphabets, numbers, multiplication tables and poems. Memorisation came easily and homework was a daily duel that I won by completing it quickly so I could go down and play. I wasn’t good at art. I spent two years learning Bharatanatyam but couldn’t keep up. Track and field did not hold my interest. Basketball was the only team sport I ever participated in, more as a way to hang out with my friends than from any natural inclination towards the game. But I was good at studies, plain and simple.

And I went through my school years honing my ability to listen and learn, developing the knack to crack those examinations by understanding question patterns and teacher expectations. Doing well in exams was my super power. Not being a dancer nor an artist and certainly not a sportswoman. I was just a girl who did well in school — and was amply rewarded for it.

My parents and my extended family appreciated my academic performance by giving me token gifts: chocolate bars, a treat at the local vada pav shop, and sometimes, cash. This I saved along with my pocket money, first in a piggy bank and later in an envelope that I hid under my book pile. At some point I handed over the tattered but bulging envelope along with the associated responsibility for safekeeping to my mother. By the time I finished high school in the mid-1980s, I had accumulated the princely sum of Rs. 500, a surprise fact that my mother pointed out one summer afternoon.

Doordarshan had started displaying advertisements a few years earlier and one of the most aspirational items that appealed to my teenage sentiments was the HMT watch. There were various models, with round and square dials, with black and white backgrounds, in gold and silver configurations, with metallic or leather straps, for men and women. I decided to convert my hard-won treasure of cash into a ‘ladies’ watch.

My mother and I took the train to Santa Cruz one afternoon, to check out the collection at the nearest HMT showroom. I could barely contain my excitement at the prospect of owning a shiny new watch. The air-conditioned showroom was a magical palace full of shimmering objects that everyone could covet but not all could afford. I felt almost like Cinderella, a misfit who had ventured into this palace of wonder by mistake.

My mother drew my attention to the section that had women’s watches, and the salesperson pulled out a few trays with rows of watches. They all looked wonderful. How could I choose? My ever-practical mother made the selection process easier by announcing that our budget was Rs. 500. Thus the offerings shrunk to a handful.

I was at once dismayed by the meagre pickings but pleased that I did not have to be paralysed by a mountain of choice. I picked up each watch and held it against my bony wrist. I lifted up my hand, tilted it this way and that, walked out into the sunshine to see how it looked in natural light. Did a circular dial look better, or was it a rectangular one?

The one I liked best had a square gold dial with a cream-coloured face and golden arms that fit perfectly on my wrist. The metallic strap put the total price out of my range but even with a simple leather strap, the total price was Rs. 550. I went back to look at others that would fit within my means but I couldn’t find anything that called out to me.

Heartbroken, I told my mother we should just leave. I couldn’t afford the one I liked and the others weren’t good enough.

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “Let’s buy the square gold watch. I will pay the extra 50 rupees.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. By paying the difference, my mother was giving me the best gift of all, the ability to own my first watch, an HMT watch, that day. I hugged her with sheer joy and kept looking at the box. I held it tightly in my hands the entire way home.

I wore that watch every single day for the next ten years. Even after I could afford more expensive brands, this watch, with its frayed leather strap and tarnished edges, remained my favourite, for it was proof of my super power.

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 11:22:15 PM |

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