Last month, Papa encouraged Leena to continue online college instead of trying to transfer her credits elsewhere. Inaya got addicted to past papers because she wanted to score higher in her second attempt at O Levels exams. Leena approached Jasir to ask him to help her break Inaya out of the past papers trap.
“I don’t know.” Jasir considered Leena’s appeal for a few moments before saying, “You think interfering in her O Levels preparation will help her?”
“This isn’t exam preparation we’re interfering with.” Leena shook her head. “This is an unhealthy addiction to past papers I’m talking about. She thinks she’s improving her revision but she’s just scanning all the papers looking for repeat questions and lost in her own calculations of which questions might come up—all day and all night. She’s stopped sleeping properly. She brings past papers to the dinner table. She’s even stopped checking her phone to save more time for past papers. She needs a clear head to take her exams. If she goes straight from past paper land to exam land, she’s going to be in trouble. We need to bring her back to reality.”
Jasir looked at his studious college-going elder sister with all the seriousness a thirteen-year-old school-going little brother could possess. “You sure you need me to help Inaya with this? Don’t you need someone with a little more, ah, experience?”
“Experience?” Leena looked puzzled. “What kind of experience? I need your help to get those past papers out of Inaya’s sight well enough that she won’t find them or know where to look for them.”
“You know who has the most experience doing that sort of thing, right?” Jasir asked.
Leena stared back at him, still confused. “I don’t get what you mean.”
Jasir’s face broke out into a huge grin. “Let me show you.” Gesturing for Leena to follow, he made his way across the house until he spotted who he was looking for. Mama looked up from where she was watering the houseplants. “Yes?” she asked. “What do you want, children?” Leena raised an eyebrow at Jasir.
Jasir grinned even wider and said, “Mama, we have to ask you about something.”
Leena’s eyes widened and she shook her head at Jasir, trying to stop him, but he went ahead and said, “You know how Leena is so good at studying. So experienced.” Leena blinked rapidly, trying to tell where this was going.
“Ah, yes, my bright Leena, so hardworking,” Mama said, turning away and tipping the watering can over the potted plant next in line.
“Leena knows a way Inaya can score higher in O Levels,” Jasir said. Leena kept quiet, deciding not to interrupt unless he went too far off track.
“Hmm?” Mama finished watering the plant and gave it a gentle pat on the leaves closest to her. “Now grow big and strong, you hear? Look, all the other plants are bigger than you. You’re going to be left behind.”
“Mama!” Jasir tugged at her sleeve.
“I heard you the first time,” Mama replied. “How do you think Leena can help Inaya score higher in O Levels? Leena did Matric when she was in school.”
“Study techniques,” Jasir said. “Inaya has had school teachers and academy tutors, but guess what she doesn’t have? A student coach!”
Before Leena could interrupt, Mama said, “What on earth is that, now? Is it something else that we will have to pay for, and she will attend?”
Jasir clapped a hand on Leena’s shoulder. “What I mean is that Leena found a mistake that Inaya is making, and Leena doesn’t know how to tell Inaya to correct herself. We need your help.”
Mama immediately stood taller and looked more attentively at Jasir. “Tell me what Inaya needs, then.”
Jasir shot Leena an expectant look. Leena said, “Inaya is wasting all her time on past papers and isn’t actually revising or doing academy work. She’s distracted and disorganised. We need to give her a break from past papers, but she won’t let go of them.” She spread her hands out in a pleading gesture. “We need to get those past papers out of her hands.”
Mama looked keenly at Leena and Jasir and nodded. “If you say she needs that, let’s do it for her.” She glanced backwards in the direction of the children’s bedrooms. “She should be out on the rooftop with one of those slips of questions she carries around all day. Leena, you go ahead and start collecting the past papers into one pile. Jasir, go get a cardboard box from the store room.”
Jasir sped past Mama the moment he heard his task, ready to do his part. Leena paused. “We’re doing this right this minute?” she asked.
Mama walked past her and said, “Hurry up, you can tell the past papers apart from her other study materials better than I can.”
“And you know where to put them where she won’t find them?” Leena hurried along.
Mama smiled. “I’m your mother,” she said.
After they had dealt with a few paper cuts, uncooperative scotch tape and a ball of packing string with a mind of its own, the box of confiscated past papers sat ready in the backseat of the car. Leena had shown some astonishment when Mama had directed Jasir to haul the box into the car. When she had come up with the plan, she had thought of Jasir’s room as the best hiding place as Inaya would never think to look there. Mama appeared to have other ideas regarding the fate of the box, ideas Leena could not guess.
“Who is that boy you’re always messaging?” Mama asked Jasir.
“Awais,” Jasir said without hesitation. He seemed unsurprised by the question.
“You will tell Papa the address of this Awais boy,” Mama said. “I will tell him to take the box there. Tell Awais to take care of it, all right?”
Jasir nodded. Leena took a deep breath. Before anyone could question the decision, the past papers were out of the house and out of sight. Leena exhaled a long breath. She thought of Inaya coming down from the rooftop, practice paper in hand, expecting to see the sections of past papers she had so carefully divided up from the original binding right there on her study table. She thought of Inaya searching fearfully through her study things, continuing to look even after it was clear that it was all gone. She thought of the initial shock wearing off, anger setting in, Inaya throwing her study notes across the room, the air filled with fluttering papers marked in different shades of highlighters. She thought of all the strength it would take not to give in to Inaya begging to have them back. She headed into the living room and waited.
Tea time came around with the family digging in the biscuit tin for their favourite ones. The dunkers dipped their biscuits in their tea, the crunchers alternated between sips of tea and bites of biscuit. Leena searched among the usual types of biscuits, checking if any of Inaya’s favourite chocolate-dipped ones were left. She saw Inaya come into the living room out of the corner of her eye. Turning around, Leena put the biscuit in Inaya’s saucer and set the teacup in front of Inaya’s place. Then she looked up to meet her younger sister’s eyes.
Inaya stared back with an expressionless face. She accepted her tea silently and sat there until it had gone cold. The family talked around her, trying unsuccessfully to draw her into conversation. Leena studied Inaya’s blank look and felt her heart sink. She had expected Inaya to react angrily and make demands, but she couldn’t have predicted that her sister would be shocked speechless. She speedily tried to calculate how many days there were left until exams and how many Inaya would take to recover and return to exam preparation, then felt silly for treating it as if it were a matter of numbers. Leena was afraid that Inaya would enter the exam hall in the same shocked state she was in now. If the family didn’t do anything to follow up on their original plan of physically removing past papers from her, Inaya would be in trouble.
“Inaya, it’s your turn to help me clear up after tea today,” Mama said, even though it wasn’t. Inaya merely blinked at the untouched tea and biscuit in front of her. Mama started to pick up the tea tray herself. Inaya suddenly leapt up and took the tray from her and into the kitchen. In the middle of cleaning up and putting away the tea things, Mama spoke up. “Inaya, you like going to places not just to study, but also to learn how to study?” she asked.
Inaya kept drying the dish in her hand without responding. Mama went on, “I talked to your Papa about a better place for learning in the evenings than the academy you already know about. It’s a crash course where they revise everything you already know. They won’t be teaching it to you as if you don’t know it already. That sounds good, right?”
Inaya put the teapot back in its place of honour in the kitchen cabinet and said, “That’s not what I want.” She crossed her arms. “I want to look at them again. At least once more. I don’t feel ready without that.” She didn’t need to mention the past papers for Mama to know what she was talking about. Mama looked thoughtful.
“How about I take you to look at them for thirty minutes and then bring you back?” Mama asked. Inaya’s face lit up. “Go get Jasir to ask about taking you there.” Inaya ran to the computer table and told Jasir, who pulled up an instant message window without looking away from his video game. A minute or so later, a response popped up on the screen. Jasir looked up quickly to see if Inaya had seen it. The look on her face said it all. Gone was the blank mask of shock, replaced by angry redness spreading across her cheeks. The screen showed Awais’s reply, which was simply, “I don’t have them anymore. I sold them to the raddi wala (scrap dealer)!”
Has the family helped or hurt Inaya’s chances for improving her O Level grades? What will exam season bring for all three siblings? How much did Awais get for the past papers? All this and more in next month’s episode of Hackschool Project.