Tony Singh was not shocked when the Sensex fell. But reading his son’s bleeding report card brought tears to his eyes. In almost every subject he had failed. Except for chemistry in which he did remarkably well. It was no consolation because the Principal during the meeting had categorically specified that Bittu Singh would not be allowed to appear for the board examinations.
Bittu’s mother, herself a schoolteacher, reacted differently. His excellent score in chemistry thrilled her. Tony Singh was sulking while his wife was ready to pick up a quarrel with the Principal.
She argued, “I am also a teacher, Madam. I always encourage students. My son is not dumb. He is intelligent and focused. He is like scientists who do not do well in class but they have great minds. You see he got 98 in Chemistry.”
The Principal said firmly, “It is okay, but for promotion we consider the entire result. A failure in one paper or two is acceptable, not so many. Being a teacher you should know it, Mrs. Singh. Anyway, I have warned you. It is up to you to tackle the situation.”
The Principal pressed the bell. It was time for the next guardian waiting outside her office.
The mother bought chocolates for Bittu when they came out. Perhaps the first boy to get a treat for failing in the exam!
She tried to cheer up her husband, “Our son is intelligent. Chemistry shows his greatness. He will be great like my Jijaji.”
Tony Singh lost his temper when this comparison was raised. Throughout his married life, he had been reminded of the fact that her brother-in-law was great while he was just a petty businessman. She aspired that her son should outsmart him in this field.
Buying ice-cream for her prodigal puttar, she said, “Make me proud, dear. Be a scientist.”
Before slurping the cone, he promised her, “I promise to become a scientist if you help me.”
“Arrey beta, you have to be just that,” she stressed, “Tell me what you need.”
“What about his studies? Why send him to school and waste money like this?” Tony Singh asked his spouse, looking into her eyes with confusion.
“Don’t say that. It is not that you have never failed. Should I expose your performance to your son?”
He cut her short saying, “Getting late. Let us go home now.”
Tony Singh went towards the parking zone when she began to tell Bittu how many times his father had flunked. Both mother and son shared a hearty laugh.
Inside the car, his wife and son occupied the rear seat and discussed scientific matters. Bittu felt encouraged to demand 5000 rupees to set up a laboratory.
“Let us reach home first and then finalise the issue,” his mother said when Tony Singh amplified the stereo playing the Daler Mehndi number.
Tony Singh had been a hardcore businessman. Bittu Singh’s scientific temperament came as a big surprise. He often wondered why this boy hated business and loved science. At times he felt he was not his biological son. That meant harbouring suspicions about his wife’s character. It was true that during pregnancy his wife had admired her Jijaji, who had come home for vacation. And during those days she was pretty impressed when he spoke of new creams he was working on that would take care of spots and wrinkles in old age. She glowed about him and his greatness as if he would very soon qualify for the Nobel Prize. Perhaps she dreamt of giving birth to a scientist. She went to the extent of reading journals and magazines on science.
The responsibility of bringing up the boy was taken up by her. She believed Tony Singh had not much to impart. She wanted the similarity with his father's features to be the only similarity.
Tony Singh travelled a lot for business expansion. When home, he was glued to the stock pages. He finished his parental responsibilities by bringing plenty of toys and games, by taking him to the doctor for vaccination and polio drops.
The signs of excellence became apparent quite early in life. She saw that Bittu observed a lot and questioned everything around him. How much of it was on account of natural curiosity and how much scientifically linked became clear as he grew up. Bittu began raising questions on scientific matters and she had to hire a science teacher to supply him with answers. She was just about to call him a child prodigy.
The tutor praised the young boy, “He picks up fast and has mature questions.”
He was admitted to a good English medium school. Over the years his interest in science grew while other subjects were ignored. Gradually his grades started falling and now the performance was so bad that his father had been summoned by the Principal.
Bittu was having a closed door meeting with his mother.
“Mummy, apart from money I need to convert a room into a lab. How is that possible?”
“Take the upstairs room, the provisions one. It is big and vacant. Is airy too,” she suggested.
Within a week Tony Singh saw the arrival of chemicals, funnels, jars and other equipment. He wondered what was going on in the house.
She underplayed it, “Nothing much, just some preparations for his science practical lessons, so that he is quick in his lessons.”
Bittu Singh seemed happy with the spacious room. It gave him a sense of privacy, with nobody hovering around to disturb him. The window opened in the direction of the Chawla Villa where he saw a young girl in shorts sitting in the balcony, drying her long straight hair. The hormonal flush of youth was overpowering him now and she proved to be a distraction for the senior secondary candidate though he interpreted the intermittent voyeuristic spell as healthy relaxation to soothe his jangled nerves.
Bittu Singh got the white coat of a scientist, cap and gloves. He fiddled with test tubes, lit the Bunsen burner, and mixed several chemicals and solutions in either liquid or concentrate form. He bought these using his pocket money. He felt proud that he was a committed fellow who did not waste money on porn flicks, beer and pizzas like other boys of his age did. He drew inferences and wrote them down in a copybook. Fumes and pungent odour emanated from the room and wafted in the air. Sometimes mild explosions occurred: test tube burst.
Bittu was conscious of the fact that he was keenly watched by the girl in the balcony, who tried to see what he was doing. He had a fixed time to conduct experiments, mostly in the afternoon. That is when she came up to dry her hair after a bath and spread her garments on the clothesline.
A Hindi tutor, a bald man in his forties, had been engaged for Bittu Singh. One day, he gazed at his bald pate while he was explaining a poem.
“Sir, I have a formula, to solve hair problems. Want to try it?” he asked.
The tutor thought he was joking, or perhaps he was trying to suggest him a product available in the market.
He said with a tinge of sadness, “These products promise results. Used many. Nothing actually works.”
“But mine will,” Bittu said energetically, “I have a solution, made by me in the lab. You will be the first to try it.”
When the tutor wondered why he was being chosen for the experiment, he was stumped by a blunt statement.
Smartly he said, “You don’t have anything to lose further, Sirji! Why don‘t you try?”
The tutor got angry and complained to his mother that Bittu was making fun of his baldness.
When charged by his mother, Bittu clarified, “Mummy, I have hit upon a magic formula. I am confident it will work so I thought of helping Sir.”
She explained to the tutor that her son was very science-oriented and he was always thinking of something or the other. To show he was serious, Bittu fetched a bottle containing some solution and held it in front of the tutor.
He declined to accept it and said, “I have lost the desire to grow hair. Why don’t you try it on your own head first?”
After this episode, the tutor stopped coming, perhaps afraid that he would be approached for various other experiments on his body. He spread the word around that the boy was over-smart, pampered by his mother who thinks she has produced another Einstein.
These words somehow reached his Tony Singh’s ears. He had a tiff with his wife when she tried to defend Bittu’s trials with science and medicine. Tony Singh threatened to smash the laboratory if he ignored his studies and insulted tutors like that. Seizing the opportunity, she also threatened to leave him forever because she was capable of bringing up the son single-handedly.
Bittu Singh grew long hair to resemble a workaholic scientist, an eccentric genius lost in research, about to eureka any time. His mother had to climb upstairs when he was busy in the laboratory – with almond milk to provide intellectual nourishment to the boy struggling for the benefit of mankind.
As the selection exams came near, his mother grew worried, anxious that poor grades would annoy his father who had requested the Principal to give one chance.
Bittu confidently declared, “Mummy, I know more than what a textbook can test. Isn’t that important?” She was convinced because she herself had been a vocal supporter of the abolition of the examination system that tests learning by rote. Her reason was, however, different: the burden of preparing questions and then checking those bundles of answer scripts.
One day his mother asked him what he was working on and he disclosed, “Mummy, people like Papa suffer from dirty yellow teeth. I want to prepare a chemical powder which can make them sparkling white.”
She listened in rapt attention. She had suffered a lot because of her husband’s dirty yellow teeth. She was proud that her son was getting inspired by real life examples concerning people, trying to find scientific solutions to those problems. When he said he would need some more money to buy one costly chemical, just 20 grams of it, she agreed to finance his experiment by postponing buying an OTG for herself. No scientist should be deprived of what he needs otherwise he is compelled to leave the native land. History has many such examples. His commitment impressed her and she promised she would sell off everything she had, if need be, to make him a scientist. Such words injected confidence and he started shaking vigorously the test tube as if he were a magician about to perform a trick. She was enthralled with his dedication and came down smiling with the empty glass of milk.
A few weeks later, when Tony Singh was away on a business trip, Bittu Singh did not go to school, pretending to be tired working in the laboratory. His mother agreed to let him stay home and study. She went to school, keeping his food cooked. He went to his lab and opened the window. For some days he was disturbed that Miss Chawla was not appearing on the balcony. She was proving to be a source of inspiration.
He began heating some test tubes and washed others. Then he took some chemicals and poured them into a container and placed it on the heater. He looked outside. There was no sign of the girl. A gentle breeze was blowing. He decided to come downstairs and have a shower. He freshened up and sat in the living room, surfing channels. Suddenly he was hooked to a channel on science: an experiment was underway and the scientist went on explaining it. He imagined himself being recognised like the scientist and interviewed in the near future.
Sirens of the fire brigade were audible. His door was thumped in an impatient manner. He thought perhaps his father was back. He ran towards the door. He was scared to see the firefighters with hosepipes in hand. They broke the news that his house was engulfed in fire.
“Fire! Here? Are you crazy?” Bittu Singh retorted. The firemen barged in without wasting time. They ran upstairs. He followed suit. The area was filled with smoke; fumes were billowing out. He remembered the test tubes and the container on the heater. What a blunder!
The firemen doused the flames within half an hour. The room wore a gutted look. After the operation was over, they grilled him, sought details of what went on in the room. One of the firemen noted piles of lethal chemicals stocked in a corner. Bittu Singh was arrested. He came out crying, explaining that he did nothing illegal. Chawla babe stood at the main gate. She was patted for her alertness. She had first seen the fumes. But for her alertness, it could have been a major disaster. Bittu Singh stopped sobbing and looked at the girl with mixed emotions.
At the police station, the inspector asked for the details of the nefarious activities.
Bittu Singh said, “I am a scientist, Sir, I conduct experiments.”
The inspector asked him to explain the process of making a lethal explosive and he promptly gave details of the compositions he knew in order to impress the officer. It actually worsened his position.
The inspector pulled him by the collar and said, “So you know all about bombs. You are a mastermind.”
Bittu Singh was thrown into a cell in the august company of petty criminals.
When his mother got to know about the incident, she rushed to the police station. She pleaded innocence on his behalf and urged the officer to set him free.
Rejecting her maternal pleas, the cop stuck forth, “A thorough probe has to be carried out. Your son will be in custody till then. Are you aware of what he does in your absence? Where is his father?”
“In Dubai,” she answered, “On a business trip.”
The officer noted the information she provided. She tried to convince him that the boy had a scientific mind and he did various experiments. It was a case of negligence, just an accident. There was no reason to set his own house on fire. She broke into tears and muffled her sobs with her dupatta.
The outbreak of fire was a strong evidence of his irresponsibility and the officer, despite being offered an attractive bribe, was not ready to release the boy.
There was no option left but to call up her husband and narrate the details.
Tony Singh was livid: “I knew such a thing would happen one day. This mess is your creation.”
“Will you stop accusing me and tell me what to do?” she hollered.
“This hopeless son of yours would make a mess -” he again shouted before giving some names and telephone numbers. She wrote them down on her palm and started ringing up his lawyers.
Bittu Singh was in the lock up, spreading his hands out through the bars to draw the attention of his mother busy with the phone in the corner, promising never to conduct any scientific experiment in life.
“Mummy, I have decided to quit science. Just ask Papa to get me out of here. This is hell. I can‘t stay here,” he implored in a voice loud enough for the entire police station to hear.
His mother was confident after speaking to the lawyers. Trudging up to him, she comforted him and said, “Just a matter of few hours, beta. You will be free. The lawyer is coming. But get one thing straight. Never, ever say that you will quit science. Remember, you have to become a scientist like my Jijaji. ”