The Foreign Service Journal, July-August 2006

J U LY- A U G U S T 2 0 0 6 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 45 first Hindu to have put ideas to paper. An original exam existed that should be used, this set insisted. The matter was sent before the magistrate of the district, who quickly and wisely passed the buck to another set of scholars. They, in turn, promptly asked for 20 years more time to research the matter thoroughly, hoping that Ram Balram would either pass the test in the interval or pass from this world into the next, rendering a final pronouncement on the mat- ter moot. Whatever the story, each and every villager understood that beneath it all, Ram Balram was an embodiment of their posterity. Generations of youngsters came and went, but over six decades Ram Balram had proven that in this world of patterns, cause and effect and complex algorithms, unpre- dictability alone was the rule. He was the only one in B_ _ who faced the future unblinkingly. I t was one subject or another in the test that caused Ram Balram’s downfall year after year, but the wrinkle this year was the administra- tion of the exam. For the first time, Ram Balram would be taking it by computer instead of with pencil and paper. The United States govern- ment had quietly provided funding for the computerization project, tying a small Texas software company to B_ _ by way of kilobytes, cash and the efforts of an excitable and somewhat determined USAID officer. This was not as upsetting to the locals as one might have expected, though arguments had been going on from the moment word of the new format had reached the village. India had turned into the world leader in information tech- nology and IT services. Internet houses were beginning to dot the larger towns that surrounded B_ _, dominated by pairs of young men crammed into drab cubicles in front of computer screens. Plans were afoot to create an electroni- cally literate army of millions (and downloaders of pornog- raphy — an unfortunate side effect), said India’s leaders, and demand for education in programming was being felt in a growing number of state capitals. Let the Americans pour their money into India; hadn’t they taken the best and brightest Indians for so many years? The USAID officer and an education ministry represen- tative had held a meeting with Ram Balram to explain the new testing procedures. “There’s nothing to worry about. It’s modernization,” the American said reassuringly. “Quite simple and quite efficient. The questions do not require more than pushing a button.” Ram Balram made a mental note to do some finger exercises, for his joints ached when making many small movements. “And what’s more,” the American added, “P.D. Dixit, the state education minister, will attend your test here in B_ _. You will meet him when you are done. That’s exciting!” The education ministry representative nodded wisely in agreement and leaned back in his chair. “With the new sys- tem, we’ll know your score within minutes.” O n exam day, as in the past 50 years, Ram Balram was accompanied from his home by a woman named Devi Das, who, somehow in this small village, was completely unrelated to him. Notwithstanding this odd circumstance, Devi Das had, in a display of bravado or stupidity (though quite remarkable in its matter-of-factness), taken a vow never to marry until Ram Balram passed his exam. Although every year a few naysayers argued that by swear- ing such a silly oath, she had unnec- essarily piled mounds of pressure onto Ram Balram’s much-pressur- ized shoulders, Devi Das generally garnered an incredible amount of sympathy in her own right. “She is a poor nutter, that woman,” people said, “doomed to be a spinster and useful to no one.” But, in truth, this was not quite accurate; for by match- ing Ram Balram vow for vow she had, in essence, tied herself to him with a bond stronger than an actual marriage. Devi Das was clearly in love with Ram Balram. To be honest, this love was unlike anything anyone in the village had ever seen: unarranged, topping the deepest of spiritual trances in its self-absorption, surpassing the most passion- ate of touches in its utter lack of physicality and outstrip- ping the most heart-rending songs in its futility. It was pure 1950s cinema. Devi Das thus somehow managed to achieve her own film-star status, and every year a large proportion of the (male) crowd unabashedly seemed to show up better dressed than was befitting an event like the secondary-level exam in hopes of catching the starry gaze of a spinster who had eyes for only one person on the planet. When asked, Devi Das claimed that she was only help- ing Ram Balram focus on the exam, and accompanying him to the school. Inwardly, she wished to spare him from the corrosive harm of constant failure. Were she able, Devi Das would receive the failures upon her body like blows from a policeman’s stick. She knew that the harshest dam- age from failure was always on the inside, unseen and Let the Americans pour their money into India; hadn’t they taken the best and brightest Indians for so many years?