brooding; and it was her task to mend the wound gently, as if rubbing a sponge on a soft stain of caked mud until it disintegrated. She knew also that her efforts could only be 90-per- cent effective, at most, for every stain, no matter how skillfully and carefully removed, leaves another stain behind it. The keener minds among the vil- lage recognized that the shared bur- den of 65 failures had made them mirrors of each other. Devi Das and Ram Balram walked in perfect point- counterpoint, the cup of her palm propping up his left elbow as she leaned into him ever so slightly, not quite touching the loose folds of his white cotton kurta. This small assis- tance, the light touch of another human being that was little more than the tickle of a feather on his dry elbow joint, was the only help Ram Balram accepted from anyone on the half-kilometer walk to the school. For a full 10 minutes the crowd stood looking at the pair with some measure of awe and remained speech- less, except for one middle-aged Sikh fellow wearing a yellow turban. “The bastard, the poor bastard,” he mut- tered repeatedly. Suddenly a cheer rose from the middle of the large group: “Best of luck, Ram Balram! You’ll do it this time!” Ram Balram raised a shaky hand toward the well-wishers, with the air of a detached politician. L istening to the slightly nasal drone of his aide-de-camp briefing him on the new computer testing system, state education minis- ter P.D. Dixit remembered that his own family tree, going back six gener- ations, had its roots in Ram Balram’s village. P.D. glanced briefly again at Ram Balram’s dossier. He noticed the date of birth and did some rapid calculations. The sheer enormity of Ram Balram’s inability to achieve was difficult for the minister to compre- hend. Sixty-five failures. Enough to crush the hardiest of psyches. Was the man really so unflap- pable? To think of all that time and energy wasted. He had read that Ram Balram had refused any sort of tutoring, though he knew it was cer- tainly not because of any lack of avail- able teachers. Maybe it was for the best, he speculated. If the fellow really was incapable of learning, to try and teach him only to watch him fail would be bad publicity for his educa- tional plans for the district. He imag- ined his opponents campaigning: “Under P.D. Dixit, a state of 20 mil- lion people cannot teach a single old man to pass an exam.” It was sadly ironic, thought P.D., that a man should ever reach a point where help was no longer an option. Sighing and reconciled to the changes that were beyond his control — for the moment, he reassured himself — he motioned to his aide- de-camp and to the small attaché case he was carrying. He gathered the sheaf of papers that would be his speech, and began to mentally rehearse. A two-hour discourse on education to a captive audience. It would be a long day. Longer still if the old man didn’t pass. People became angry too easily these days. He wondered if, in the sum of things, it would have been better to leave modern technology out of this kind of matter, and out of the village, as the computerized testing would certainly be one of the first scapegoats in the event of Ram Balram’s failure. No matter, he thought. He could always blame the Americans. R am Balram arrived at the entry to the school, where he glanced at the large dais that had been set up for P.D. Dixit’s speech. He then noticed that the windows were closed inside the classroom where he would take the test. “I’m sorry, Ram Balram,” the superintendent apologized, “but we didn’t want you to be disturbed by the noise from the minister’s speech.” The exam room was empty except for a small desk centered in the front of the room, wires from the comput- er balanced on its surface trailing toward a large mess of plugs, cords and humming lights on the wall. The superintendent explained the process of the test in a speech that Ram Balram had nearly memorized by heart over the past 65 years. He would have three hours. If he need- ed some water or a bathroom break, he only needed to signal the test monitor standing by the door. Did he have any questions? Ram Balram listened to the whirring of the computer’s cooling fan and asked what he had been thinking of for some time now: “If it is all right, please allow Miss Devi Das to remain.” O utside, the crowd seemed to be breathing sleepily as P.D. trudged to the end of his speech on the promise of high technology for education. The excitement of Ram Balram’s entrance into the school had worn off, and updates were severely restricted by the superintendent, who shooed away the little boys trying to peek through the windows of the school, the glass too high for most of them to see through. 46 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / J U LY- A U G U S T 2 0 0 6 Matching Ram Balram vow for vow, she had tied herself to him with a bond stronger than an actual marriage.