Times have changed since I was 14. At that time, my school, probably with good intentions, began preparing us for the all-important SSLC (Class 10), a public examination held for students throughout the country. Just like me, many must have felt it is a make or break deal. Our school system was a throwback to the industrial age, with the onus on producing results. It is drilled to the bone of every student that failure to score well spells disaster for your entire career. So the pressure is up there as I strongly suspect it still is.
The awareness over the stress that students routinely face was less in 1990-91 than it is today. I was profoundly ill-equipped to navigate the landmine that was my up-and-coming academic career. Like a lot of my classmates, I crammed, only to forget most of what I learned during the exam. A part of me was never convinced that school, as I experienced it, was the only route to a successful career. I never felt I belonged in school. This, despite the fact that my father was a sociology major.
There are valid reasons why I harboured such an unorthodox belief system at such a young age. I wasn’t simply raised like that. My father ended his role in my studies with enrolling me in a school for which I already had the marks to qualify. He was absent in all the parent-teacher meetings, a crime that my school never did forgive him or me for. At home, as long as I stayed out of sight in my upstairs refuge, I never go into any trouble.
When I came of age, school became a dreaded affair. I only attended because I didn’t have the nerve to bunk. I was busy discovering new facets to my hometown Nagercoil, all for the first time, now that I could go out unaccompanied. I would often stop at stores to buy candy or gum. The excitement over my aimless wanderings across town was not to be exchanged for the droll confines of my class.
It is in this situation that insomnia began its cruel attack on me. My parents never openly asked me to study, but it was clear that it was expected of me. There was nothing more than the sound of the alarm clock set to ring early in the morning that I was scared of. I would wake up hours ahead of the bone-chilling sound, my heart pounding so hard that I could hear it. My shirt would be drenched with my own sweat and nightmares plagued me all year long that I had flunked. I now know that what I was facing extraordinary levels of crippling anxiety and palpitation, but back then I was more frightened because I did not know what I had. My father’s hands-off approach, frankly, did not help at all.
My mother had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system that prevented her from running the house the way she would have wanted to. My father too had lately developed alcohol dependence.
My teachers, even the ones who were good with their subjects, were unsympathetic. With the appallingly poor student-to-teacher ratio in my class, personalised attention was impossible. We were 65 students each in two different sections (more were trying to qualify) in a school that didn’t care for anything except your marks. The way they assessed character was even more bizarre. I remember being pulled up for whispering in class more than once. It turned out that I had a rather loud whisper which all present could hear anyway.
The problems of mathematics, trigonometry, in particular, haunted me. Ill-informed about the applications of this branch of maths, I found the subject obscure and trivial. And, in a way, I was right. Never in my life after those years, did I find a need to apply the elusive equations of Sin, Cos and Tan.
Maths and sociology classes were ruined by the raucousness of my classmates. They got busy making fun of the teacher as they could always make up for it in their tuitions. I had made the bold and ‘wise’ decision of not going to tuitions for Class 9. That was probably the best thing to happen to me all year. I had a very good teacher for Biology. It was he who made me realise that I did not have a head for cutting up frogs. But options are limited for students who are neither good in maths nor science.
My father, indulging in a moment of sympathy towards my brother and me, bought us a VCR on which one could play VHS tapes. Thus began my raiding of local video stores for movies. I wasn’t very particular about what I watched. My education in movies had started truly. I was a big relief to watch movies instead of watching the clock tick by every night.
I found comfort in playing cricket and escaping to the darkness of movie theatres. I must have bicycled to most parts of Nagercoil and a good many villages which strictly were not part of town. I had graduated to Agatha Christie and Perry Mason from Enid Blyton and I sought solace in these pages I found hard to get elsewhere. Not that your average murder mystery solved all the weighty philosophical problems of life.
Deep inside my heart, I was wracked with guilt and this in a most troubling way fuelled my anxiety about the future. Most people who exhibit depressive behaviour or have mental disorder usually trace their problems to this bout of insomnia they had when they were still young. I still didn’t know what fate awaited me. The trait carried well into my adulthood. When I was a reporter, I could not sleep if I had to travel for a story the next day.
In India, insomnia is prevalent in 9% of the population. As many as 30% have sleeping disorders one time or the other. At least 28% have trouble initiating and staying asleep, reports the Neurological Society of India. All of us hear stories from friends and family about how they just couldn’t sleep the other night. Most of us experience nights in which we toss and turn and can’t just switch off. But when you are 14, all of this is terrifying.
It seemed that in school there were two kinds of students: the ones who got the grades and were good at that, and the ones who flunked and cared little about it. Even among my closest friends, there was absolutely no conversation about how strenuous the process of not scoring was. Between all this, there was the odd student who was there because he was athletically inclined. Amid this group, I was isolated, alienated and alone, despite having a couple of very close, trustworthy friends.
In an all-male school, there is, as you may guess, a lot of talk about sex. We didn’t really talk about girls. I remember lunch hour whiling away in what now seems an absurd obsession about what was between our legs. Between shared omelettes and juicy titbits, my friends endlessly regaled each other about the pleasures they hadn’t known before. None of us even entertained the idea of having a girlfriend.
This is really not a healthy atmosphere to grow up in and I didn’t make the connection between my sleeplessness and the simple need to express myself. I did not know this problem was not unique to me. It constantly felt like a huge part of me was locked inside myself, aching to go out and be free. I was plainly worried about a whole of lot of things I couldn’t figure out and taking them with me to bed definitely did not help.
And, so unbeknown to my family, I began smoking. It made me, at least for a few minutes, feel like an adult, who could take on the challenges of the world. There are many harmful effects of smoking especially at a young age, one of them being that it affects your sleep pattern.
From yoga to breathing techniques, there are many ways an insomniac can combat his condition. You can stop drinking caffeine after 6pm. You can take out your frustrations in a gym. But it seems the most important thing is to not be scared when you can’t sleep and believe in yourself. There are many websites which tell you how to alleviate your problem so I will not go there. But, if you think there is a root cause to why you are not sleeping well, you should aggressively address the issue.
And oh, by the way, if you are wondering how much I scored in Class 10, it was 382/500, which got me a seat in the maths-computer science group of the Sethu Lakshmi Bai Higher Secondary School in Nagercoil.