It must be four decades since I asked my teachers in school: “How will knowing this make the slightest difference to my future?”

The “this” in the question kept changing. It might have been the area of a circle, the formula that tells us the equivalence between force and mass times acceleration, or the last words of King Lear. It might have included the colour of a flame when potassium was dropped onto it. Or how many trees Asoka or Akbar (can’t remember which since they both had the same surname – “Thegreat”) planted in northern India.

Not the slightest difference. None of the above has come in handy at any stage in my life; even today I am not sure what happens when you mix hydrogen peroxide and manganese dioxide. One of them is a catalyst and the other is not. I haven’t thought about it all these years. And does that combination produce oxygen or carbon dioxide? I’ll have to google to find out.

Yet I recall the days and nights spent trying to work such things out and remember them on the day before the examination. There were always trick questions. 

If we were taught about hydrogen peroxide and manganese dioxide, the question would be about manganese dioxide and hydrogen peroxide, thus throwing half the class into a panic. We were too young to know then, but peroxides were to play roles in many of our lives, although not in the way the school intended. Many developed the ability to tell peroxide blondes from 50 paces.

How many middle-aged people can answer eighth standard question papers correctly? Perhaps  fifteen per cent? In a group of 35, how many will do so? That’s a tough one isn’t it, involving fractions and all?

Actually, I do my younger self an injustice. There was one question that never made me sweat, wish I’d disappear or hope that the school building would collapse and force the cancellation of exams. And that was this: Describe how you spent your summer vacation.

I made up whole stories, lied about the excitement of going ice-skating on holiday or helping the local police catch dangerous criminals along with four other friends and a dog. Actually, I merely sat at home and read books that described such things. Ice skating in 40 degrees hadn’t attained the sophistication of today. Perhaps the teachers were looking for a combination of imagination and innocence – the former to make up the stories, and the latter to think nobody would catch on.

This has served me well – even if I can’t recognise manganese dioxide or hydrogen peroxide or any of their cousins. It hasn’t stopped me from writing about them. Like here, for instance. 

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