Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Museums Victoria

Two pages into the exam and sleep begins to say hello to my eyelids like an old friend I haven’t met in a long time. I press my eyelids and think of the new film releasing next summer, the upbeat song on the radio—anything that’ll keep me awake. 

I look around at all the bent heads and hands furiously scribbling their answers. The students don’t copy and even if they do, it’s over code words and innocently shared erasers and water bottles. My eyes fall over a classmate whose name I do not know and face I cannot remember, hidden by her mask. She’s lying over the desk with her eyes closed.I am reassured, I am not alone. 

The wall next to her flaunts a forest green patch of algae. All drowsiness is evanescent as I shudder at the ugly bubbles and swirls of the algae. I pry my eyes away from it, looking back at the question paper at hand. Question 36 mentions Faraday and I’m trying to recall his laws when a shadow falls over my desk. It stays there for a while before dancing toward the desk beside me. The shadow, it belongs to the invigilator.

She wears glasses, the invigilator, round and large ones. They magnify her dry eyes as they loom over every inch of the exam hall. She looks at the students, observes the wall and checks her fingernails in a sequence of dance steps practiced several times before.

Just as sleep greeted me, boredom greets her. She pulls her mobile phone out of her sequined pink handbag, places it onto the table, and looks around the room to see if anyone catches her in the act. Her eyes lock with mine and I look away in haste, fixing my eyebrows in a frown at the paper in my hands. Moments later, I peek a glance at her stealthily.

She’s checking her phone, eyes crinkling, from a smile or anger—I don’t know. The cloth mask she wears slips down her nose in slow motion, but she doesn’t notice. Even if she did, I don’t reckon she’d bother. Her eyes don’t move from the phone she hides in vain beneath her table. The students take advantage of the situation and she doesn’t notice their mischief even after their whispers turn into loud voices. I turn my concentration to the doodles on my question paper. 

A few minutes later, or hours, I am not counting—I hear a loud voice and flip the pages in a reflex, plastering an innocent face. 

“What is happening in this class?” the voice thunders. It belongs to the invigilator from the next room.

She has her hair curled into a tight bun over the top of her head, sharp nails painted in neon colors with jewels studded in them and a single chain of cockleshells around her neck. She pauses by the door of our room and scans the room with her eyes like slits. I pull a pretence of blinking at her in confusion. I wonder if she’s bothered that the students were so freely copying, or if the invigilator herself was slipping away from her duties and swiping through her phone. 

At that thought, I peek at the invigilator who stands as straight as a soldier. Unlike a soldier who would strap her hands to the sides, my teacher has her hands behind her, hiding a bright Whatsapp screen. 

“Students sleeping during the exam!” the other teacher yells with even more anger at the lack of reaction from her previous statement. “Is this the place for this?”

The student in question, my friend who was asleep all this while, wakes up with a jerk. She stands up, knocking over the table in front of her but catching it in time. She drops her eyes to the floor, out of guilt or drowsiness, it’s hard to tell. 

“One last chance,” she says. “You do this once again, and we’ll have you barred from the examinations forever!”

I could swear that my friend perked up at the last sentence but she morphs her face into a sorry nod before I could be sure.

“And you!” the teacher roars, pointing a well-manicured and yet oddly colored finger at the invigilator. “Teach this student some manners. It’s like I’m the only invigilator in this entire school. Students eating during the exam, students sleeping during the exam, students—” 

With that she’s off, mumbling to herself about the plight of the school and its students. 

“See you shouldn’t do this,” begins the invigilator, her shoulders now relaxed from its previously stiff stance. She places the phone she tried to hide all this while over the table, her charade crumbling. “You shouldn’t sleep in an exam hall.”

“You shouldn’t look at your phone in an exam hall too!” screams a voice from behind, followed by raucous laughter that I lead in volume.