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 Sukanya Verma

  I refuse to be a rat
India is my country and all Indians are my competitors.

Why? Because some are born competitive, some acquire competitiveness and some have competition thrust upon them. I belong to the last category.

For me, it began with my first brush with school. Kindergarten did not just teach us to read and write; it also taught us to compete in cutthroat fashion with our fellow classmates. We had to face constant peer pressure. Prove ourselves in the eyes of our parents and teachers. Belong to the cream of the lot. All this led to a constant feeling of rivalry. And, without anyone really teaching us, we learnt the arts of diplomacy and backstabbing.

I remember having a dictation test at school. I practised very hard for it and I was sure I would get get full marks. I really wanted to be applauded by my teacher and receive the mandatory three stars. So, when the test began, I hid my textbook under the desk and began copying the right spellings. As Fate would have it, I was caught. Red-handed.

I was just five then, but I still remember how humiliated and worthless I felt after being spanked with Mrs Kilpade's hard, wooden stick. Oh, the shame I felt! That was when the seeds of competition were sown! As I proceeded with my academic growth, I discovered that the Big C (competition) not only killed fellowship; it was the sole cause of jealousy and unnecessary rivalry among peers.

I donít know about charity, but competition certainly begins at home. Having an extrovert for an elder brother did not help matters much! He was constantly winning awards, medals and accolades in extracurricular activities. This became quite a problem for an introvert like me. Like him, I too wanted to be a winner. I wanted to show off my prizes to my friends. I wanted to make my mother proud.

Unfortunately, whenever I tried to be like him, just the opposite would result!

After watching him win countless fancy dress competitions, I decided I should take part in one as well. Luckily, our school decided they would hold one on Children's Day.

A bunch of grapes, that's what I would be... Quite easy, I thought. A green piece of cloth, on which I'll stick lots of green balloons, and drape around me...

On D-day, I found myself nervously standing in the wings, as I watched a hall full of enthusiastic contestants. There were around 45-50 participants and I was amongst the last since my surname starts with a V.

My movements were restricted, thanks to my sheet and balloons. I couldnít move my hands, I couldnít sit. I could walk, but at a snail's pace. And if you thought, that was the end of my problem, you could easily think again. I had to constantly escape some naughty senior boys, who were only interested in bursting my balloons.

Suddenly, I heard my name being called. It was my turn to go on-stage. Mom's words echoed in my ears, "All the best, donít worry. You'll be fine. Give it your best shot."

I went on the stage and introduced myself as a "bunch of grapes." And all I had left on me was one measly balloon. Suffice to say, this remains, to date, the most embarrassing moment of my life.

Grrrr! I wanted to kill myself for even thinking I could be like my brother. I was no competition to him as far winning awards and being cynosure of the public eyes was concerned.

Did that make me give up? No way!

I decided my strategy needed a complete revamp.

Instead of beating him in his arena, I decided to choose my own battlefield. I would become a doctor. Until I finished junior college, I was quite happy with my decision. Then came the bombshell. My HSC results were abysmal! There was no way I was going to be a doctor, or even a dentist. In fact, with the kind of marks I had scored, I was sure no one would even consider hiring me as a compounder.

Though my mom made several attempts to convince me to switch over to the Arts steam -- that is where she thought my future lay -- I stubbornly stuck to my guns. With, of course, a slight shift in gameplan. Exit medicine. Enter a Bachelor's degree in science.

So I lived happily ever after?

Not really.

It took me three years of dissecting pigeons and rats and mugging botanical taxonomy to figure I didnít want anything to do with Science. May God bless the souls of those countless cockroaches, earthworms, rats and pigeons I operated on!

I did derive something from all this, though -- I discovered I had wasted many precious years of my life trying to be someone I was not. I had created an ideal for myself. Tried to pursue an alien dream not designed for my eyes. I wasn't meant to be part of any rat race. I'm different. Maybe I won't win any laurels, riches or fame. But, at the end of the day, I am satisfied and happy with whatever I get, because I earned it my way.

Surely all poets and philosophers, irrespective of stature, must have faced severe criticism as good-for-nothings in their lifetime and placed on the pedestal after they were dead. I am sure no one expected William Shakespeare to sit for an IAS examination. They lived their lives on their own terms. That they went on to become famous is, for me, purely incidental.

Correct me if I am wrong, but isn't happiness the fundamental aim of life?

Then why is it that, from the moment of our birth itself, we find ourselves fighting for the best place? I pity all those people who wear the mask of perfection 24 hours a day. In striving to be the best, they are missing out on the small things that constitute true happiness.

I have seen so many people giving up everything in their later stages of life to pursue something their heart desires. Why can't they apply this rule at the very onset of their lives?

When I open my eyes wide to see the world as it is, do you know what I see?

A man running to board a moving train.

A student nervously mugging every line of his medical entrance exam text books.

A model dieting herself to death so that she can flaunt a perfect, hourglass figure.

Is the struggle really worth it?

Sukanya Verma insists she will continue to chart her own course through Life.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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