The Crazy Memoir of an Impossible Dream

Nikhil Amarnath, a real character and one of the NPS debaters for the Battle of Ideas, has written this long, but amusing, account of their journey from the OET to winning the DM India Y5 Final.

My story starts in my eleventh grade classroom; a debate about whether the media is justified in invading the privacy of public personalities. It was a rather ordinary day; a rushed bit of googling the previous night and half a notebook sheet of about five points carried me somewhat through a rather poor speech, where I quoted vague statistics related to the French press. Arguing through some rebuttals with even more vague points and then with instinctive common sense, I was then informed that I’d been selected to be part of the school’s team for Debating Matters India 2012-13.

Yeah, not much of a story yet. We’d been told that we had to write an Online Elimination Test after which, if selected, we’d get to go to Chennai for the Regional Finals. It was a pretty massive step up from a classroom debate, and we were pretty anxious. An hour to answer five questions related to Population Growth; we prepared ourselves for quite a while until the day came. And when the day came, we wasted as much time as we could so that we didn’t have to go to class. Saturday school, after all, is a real mood-killer. So, under the pretext of “debate research”, we sat three hours in the computer lab looking up things like “Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo” (that’s grammatically correct, by the way. Courtesy Pratik for showing it to us). A few doodles later, and the time to take the test finally came. Opening the link, the first question; I don’t remember it clearly. It had something to do with the Ehrlich equation. I’d read that up pretty thoroughly, and disagreed pretty strongly, so I took dibs on the question. The others had split the work amongst themselves just as efficiently, and within no time, we’d drafted quite a bit, considerably fast. We had about 15 minutes to spare, and we clicked the submit button. (I omitted quite a few panicked moments; not the most amiable of moments.)

The next few days were incredibly dreadful. We didn’t want to, but we imagined going to Chennai; the horror of not being selected loomed in our minds, and I was so afraid I hadn’t answered the one question I stole for myself appropriately; did I meander? Did I write too much? And then (it wasn’t so quick, there was a lot more of this self-questioning in between), there was a new post on the British Council website. Results delayed. That gasp of air I’d been saving up, ready to either celebrate or to admit defeat, never came. The self-questioning continued. And it happened again.

Then, one evening, I got a text; results out. Not wanting to inflate my hopes, I opened the page with a collected mind. The South India section was right at the bottom. Third name on the randomly ordered list; National Public School, Koramangala. We were in. A wave of texts now; the others had seen it too. We were going to Chennai, to participate in the Regional Championships. It was an incredible feeling. We were elated, overjoyed. People were congratulating us. Seventh on that list was National Public School, Indiranagar. Rival/sister school. Now there was pressure. See, if we were through on our own and we lost, people will tell us that it’s okay and that we tried. If they went further, we faced the inevitable comparison to them that would seemingly reduce our efforts. Perhaps they felt the same too, but no one said it. It was a time of celebration, not rivalry.

Preparation for Chennai was not as intense as people would believe. I frequently lost attention and if it weren’t for my friend Sanjay I’d probably have gone in there with almost zero research. But once we started, we really went deep into the topics. The team wanted me to speak for the opening round and the final as well, so I prepared myself to support the UID and to support the belief that clinical trials in developing countries are exploitative. The night before, Pratik stayed in my house, and we were supposed to finish our speeches.

Didn’t happen.

The train ride was pretty fun. Pratik and I got in at Whitefield station, a couple of stops after the others; it was closer to my house. But we ended up with seats on the other side. We asked two guys if we could trade seats (rather nervously); one said yes, and the other stoutly refused without any consideration. What could we do? We sat there quietly in our seat for another ten minutes. My mother and Ilhaam’s mother had accompanied us for the trip to Chennai. Ilhaam’s mother now got up and began talking to the stubborn man; after some negotiation, he conceded his seat. She smiled at us, and we nervously made our way to the other end of the carriage. The ride was otherwise uneventful; we attempted to stream a Russell Peters video on the train using my phone as a tether, but there was absolutely no signal halfway through the journey. The lunch on the train was unappetising. Ilhaam pulled out a muffin and began to unwrap it, but then when she saw us looking at her, she began to wrap it again. “I can’t eat when people are looking.” That was our amusement for the next five minutes as she repeatedly wrapped and unwrapped the muffin, finally eating it. The debate was off our minds for the time. And after a few excited hours, we caught up on some sleep.

Chennai. Steamy, hot, sweaty Chennai. Nothing welcomes you better to a city than a mad auto driver nearly running you over the minute you step out of the station. A good start, obviously, right? We got in the cab and made our way to Harrisons, the hotel we’d make our home for the night. And the research began. We hadn’t made our speeches for the next day; the race against time was on. This race began with us turning on the TV; the news channel. What’s the latest on the news? Milking. That’s right. After planking, the latest trend; emptying gallons of milk on your head in a public place.

Yeah, we were an incredibly focused lot.

Our preparations went on until late in the night. Literally sweating, we turned up the AC to full and retired for the night, with Pratik promising to wake up early to finish his work. The parents were not happy; we should’ve been done by now. Though I felt I was done (I believed that I could speak from my notes without an actual speech written), I set an alarm for 4:15 for Pratik.

A freezing four hours later, my alarm blasted heavy metal and deafened us from our slumber. But no one could get up. I pulled off the blanket and nearly froze; uttering a whole bunch of expletives, I ran to turn off the damn thing. And after all this, Pratik decides he won’t wake up. I couldn’t go back to sleep, so I got ready. I turned on the news one last time, and the UID was in the news. They’d decided to implement cash transfers through mobile ATMs in a pilot project. I hastily added it to my notes. The day was upon us. I put on my lucky blue socks (I have no astrological bent of mind, I just like the socks) and we headed out for the debate.

It was an insane day. Our opening debate was effortless; it took more effort to stay awake, unfortunately. Our opponents were quoting from the background guide. They’d carried 200 sheets of paper to the table which intimidated Sanjay and me; we had two sheets. But we brushed them aside pretty easily. My favourite moment was this guy from the crowd of 16 people watching it who began this extremely illogical anti-institutional string of questioning, trying to convince me that any government project is an evil attempt to destroy our souls and take away everything we hold dear.

Pratik and Anjani had a really intense debate, and we didn’t know which way it was going to go, while Ilhaam and Avantika who debated simultaneously in another room said they’d won pretty easily. Pratik didn’t eat his lunch. And then, they announced the winners of the next round, and NPS Koramangala won both debates; a sigh of relief and then pure numbness; we had already qualified for the National finals. Our opponents were none other than NPS Indiranagar; we were elated. NPS had swept through the South zone. Both of us had already qualified.

Pratik and I walked forward to speak in the finals, when Pratik told me he was feeling horribly sick and dizzy. The finals was a crazy blur; I was fending off questions for both of us and Pratik occasionally didn’t know what was happening; and NPS Indiranagar, knowing that the finals didn’t matter, chose not to prepare properly for it. The final concluded rather oddly; people had probably already written us off for the nationals after that performance. We’d won it though. Good enough for us at that point; we never expected to reach this far.

We got a trophy to take home, and we went back to the hotel, elated. Sanjay went to a relative’s place and said he’d meet us at the station; unfortunately without him, we proceeded to the restaurant to celebrate. We ate a “The Last Time Ever I Saw My Waist”. The train back was in the middle of the night practically, and we were exhausted after an entire day of debating.

We returned to Bangalore, elated about being Regional Champions. There had never been a National Champion from South India, and our teacher had mentored a team from our school two years ago which came close; though this was our goal, we laughed at it. We’d give it a shot, why not? We got this far.

All I’d do during research was look up the Barbican Centre in London; a trip to London was the prize for winning the National Championships. But we’d got this far, so we wanted to try everything to win. We had our share of arguments, deciding lineups, who’d speak on what, and the like. It was finally decided that I’d open with Sanjay again. And then I was suddenly passionate about the debate on free speech. That was of course, the final where Pratik and Anjani were debating, but it held some sort of appeal. The organisers from the Institute of Ideas had all written about it rather passionately and I was drawn. And then I came across Asia Bibi in my research on blasphemy. It stayed with me; I ended up writing a poem about her later. I always find it hard to focus on things that I’m supposed to do, and Sanjay had to draw me back to our topic on celebrity culture. And then we came across this 56 page PDF document titled “The Cult of the Political Celebrity”; Sanjay dismissed it as too big. I wanted to annoy him and so I told him we should read it. Somehow, a combination of ego and annoying nature got me through the entire thing and we’d landed upon a goldmine. The author, Andy Miah, had defined an “attributed celebrity” and an “achieved celebrity”; semantics aside, we had a defining turning point in our research which turned out to be pretty pivotal to our stance. If I were Sanjay I’d have strangled me. He showed admirable restraint; no doubt he thought of doing that several times.

The buildup to the nationals was incredibly tense and nerve-wracking; and the day finally came for our trip to Delhi. I reached the airport half an hour before the others, and ended up waiting in the CCD in the terminal. The debate was off our heads again; only the elation of going to represent South India in the nationals was in our heads. That and a whole bunch of Red Hot Chili Peppers songs in my head. I’d been playing the Zephyr Song over and over and I’d also downloaded their new album, and ended up marathoning on the 54 songs of theirs in my iPod. We reached Delhi, and when we entered the YMCA, I felt small. I don’t speak for the others but I felt like a kid all of a sudden, and insignificant. All of us were eleventh graders with the exception of Ilhaam, and I’m not tall by any means; incredibly average in height. It didn’t help my nerves much.

On the first day of Debating Matters India National Finals, there were mock debates on the topics, termed Expert Witness panels, where professionals debated on our topics. I was feeling very confident with our topic after the Andy Miah article; our stance was now strong. That night, we played around on Pratik’s GarageBand, making a song titled “Jannat”, the inspiration from Anjani’s mispronunciation of Janpath. The next morning, there was the first round of debates; the topic was clinical trials. Our debate was only in the afternoon, but we sat in, having nothing better to do and wanting to see the standard of debate. The previous evening, we’d met the students of Paljor Namgyal Girls’ school, who were from Sikkim. They’d travelled a lot, and there were only four of them, so two of them would have to speak on two topics. Since we’d spoken on clinical trials, they asked if we could share points with them and we agreed, though why we never eventually did is beyond me; I had forgotten. We’d discussed how nice it’d be to be in the finals together, because (atleast we did) we felt like underdogs. The next day, when they were debating against Bluebells, I didn’t want to put my research to waste. After all, our regional final had gone awry. The Bluebells team showed incredible confidence, and the PNG team were strong as well, coming up with several witty counters. I got my chance during the audience questioning session to put in my own few thoughts, and felt pretty happy with myself. I stood up to ask a question, and began to organize my thought when a loud, buzzer like voice behind me shouted, “NAME”.

Austin Williams; we didn’t know much about him at that point, except that he had a really cool bag and spoke his mind and acted how he liked. Everyone laughed, and then I went ahead with my question.

In the evening session, our debate came up. I’m glad to be alive; after interrupting Sanjay and not letting him answer questions and even playfully fighting on stage (at one point, Mr Dolan Cummings, the chair of that debate, said that he’s giving Sanjay speaking time otherwise Sanjay would punch me). And then there was Question Time.

Question Time was an opportunity for us to ask meaningful questions about the society at large and the problems plaguing it to an expert panel with a lot of important people on it. There was a form given to us with two boxes to fill, for one question each, which happened the previous day.

If you’re still reading this article, then you’d know how my question was. I wrote one question across both boxes. Sanjay and Pratik sighed. “Who’ll read this?” But it was too late, and I felt the length was necessary to truly explain the question, just as how this article needs to be this long to recount all the memories from this life-changing experience.

I was a bit disheartened that I couldn’t shorten it, but I submitted it. And before our results came out after our first debate, we had Question Time.

A whole bunch of questions about the recent Delhi rape case; the atmosphere was incredibly hostile. To be honest, it was the one time I was actually afraid to speak out; Pratik and Sanjay agreed later in the hotel room as we ranted. The male panelists were also struggling but they were braver; they spoke out. And they got fiercely shot down, as if they were tormentors of the female population. We felt out of place.

I had felt my question was important at this point, but I resigned myself to thinking it was too long, and sat glumly. And then suddenly my name was called out and I was asked to say it. I somehow fished it out of my pocket and decided to shorten it. I spoke so fast, being so nervous that it was too long (and that people would groan on listening to so much); even I can’t understand it after the video of Question time was posted online. But Claire Fox, the director of the Institute of Ideas, who’d picked out my question, made me feel much better; she said it was incredibly important, and reiterated it in a simpler form (something I couldn’t do), and concluded. It felt great. It also felt like a moment to gloat over Sanjay and Pratik, but I was still dazed a bit. The semifinals and the finals were on the next day, and we were really busy preparing.

One morning, we’d gone shopping in the Delhi streets. My mom hadn’t let me pack slippers and I hated going down in sneakers to breakfast, so we saw a slippers store. A pair of knockoff Vans slip-ons caught my eye; they were 650 rupees. Not worth it. But Pratik didn’t let me walk away. “Let me handle this.” He walked casually up to the shopkeeper with the best poker face I’ve ever seen, and in a cool tone, said, “How much.” The shopkeeper replied matter-of-factly, “650”. And then, to our shock, Pratik replied, “Okay. I’ll give you 50.”

We pulled Pratik out of there and walked away quickly while the shopkeeper stared into the air out of shock.

The dinner that evening, we met with the PNG students, and they told us how the Don Bosco boys were so annoying with their loud singing and partying. Then we realised they were talking about us and our GarageBand adventures. Nervously laughing, we told them that. They laughed; “It couldn’t have been you guys! You’re all so innocent.” And then they realised it really was us, and then they laughed and said they were so irritated by it.

Ilhaam and Avantika were nothing like Sanjay and me. Sanjay laughed as we watched them prepare in horror; they’d prepared counters to counters to counters to counters…much like the Buffalo sentence. With chains extending up to 8 counters in a row, they’d prepared over 300 flash cards. They were facing off against NPS Indiranagar; this time, it was a crucial debate. Everything was at stake. I felt lost; the topic was complex too. After a while, I went back to Pratik and gave him what input I could with the free speech topic, something I was more comfortable with.

A long and uncomfortably close debate with NPS Indiranagar finally ended. The announcement;   “And the winner is…NPS!” Frustrating. Then, finally, the next word. Koramangala. I felt torn. I couldn’t celebrate, not with them knocked out like that. I imagined Amol and Upasana, their team for the finals, who hadn’t even gotten to speak, and Raaga and Srishti who’d just lost, and Riya and Sujot, who, like me, had won their first debate and had no control over the result anymore; and my own fears of losing came to mind; they’d faced it. It was almost as bad as losing ourselves, and I had no control over the finals either. I spent the time after lunch with them. Raaga and Srishti had debated at an entirely new level, nothing like how I’d just debated playfully (I felt so awkward that I’d concluded my debate with a Spiderman quote.) But now, it was time to move on; it was finals time. Pratik was almost going to skip on lunch again; I got angry and put food forcibly in his plate. The food was amazing at British Council Delhi; one of the real memorable experiences from the trip; the previous night had been with gas torches in the outdoor courtyard as well, warmth and good food in the chill night air.

Then, Pratik stepped up to stage with Anjani, against none other than PNG. Our first day’s pact had come true, and we were in shock. Each day at lunch, I’d remark to Avantika; “We’re in the top eight.” “We’ve reached the top four.” And that day, “We’re in the top two.” And all the memories from qualifying in the OET flashed through our heads, and then that London trip as a reward. We had gone incredibly far, mindnumbingly far. I’d been named the Best Individual, tied with Amol, at the regional finals, and that had felt extraordinary, but this was a whole new level. But they seemed up to the task. That stage did wonders, gave you confidence; an incredible thrill and elation. But while I’d spoken to 25 people in the crowd, Pratik and Anjani were addressing a full house and over 10,000 other people who were watching the live stream.

The debate was incredibly entertaining, with ridiculously clever and funny comebacks from both sides. And the audience question round came, and I duly got a turn to ask my question, which I’d made it a point to do in all the debates. This time, I said something along the lines of “You can’t stop people from voicing their opinions; it’s like passing a law to stop people from going to the toilet, they’re going to relieve themselves anyway.” That brought some rather mixed reviews from the crowd, some shocked, some laughing. Pratik and Leah discussed fighting on stage as well, which brought more cheers from the crowd. The debate kept edging either way, and then it was over. The judges went into the room to decide who won, and the audience vote was split.

Then the judges for the individual prizes went into the room, and came out. Amol, Pratik, Raaga, Ilhaam and others got mentions, and then when all the mentions were over, Sanjay next to me told me I was going to get something big. I hated these prize ceremonies because whenever I expected something bigger, I usually ended up with nothing at all. Dolan announced that the third place went to Taufique of Bluebells, then announced Ribhu’s name for the second place award and now Ilhaam said I was definitely getting it, and my head went numb. Dolan then announced that the individual champion was a confident person (I, for a second, resigned to the thought that it wasn’t me because I didn’t feel confident in any way), then continued, after a pause; “…perhaps too confident. But he does it not without reason. If you haven’t guessed it by now, it’s Nikhil Amarnath.” I stood up and my knees nearly buckled.

So much for confidence.

Even while climbing the stairs, my knees were trembling and knocking. Again; from celebrating about qualifying for Chennai to this, it was too much to grasp. But I was by no means happy; I felt worse now. If we didn’t get the London trip now, after all this… I put the nice bag Claire had given me as part of my prize, right over my head. Avantika was in tears. We were listening to the judges. They all spoke, and they were telling us what we could do better, which made us feel like we’d lost. But we listened carefully, agreeing with every word. Then Austin began. He waited a few moments. Then; “Ahem. It’s me speaking.” Even with all that tension, we laughed. The previous night, Pratik tells me that they’d talked to Austin over dinner and that he’d demolished the premise of their entire argument casually over a plate of curry. Pratik felt indebted to him for that because it reinvigorated their stance. But anyway; then, the moment came. We all held hands, and I somehow got the nerve to remove the bag from my head. “And the winner… NPS Koramangala.”

No celebration. Nothing. Absolute stillness, and conflicting emotion. The gasp of breath we’d held in went, but to no avail. We were going to London, we’d won, but it did not sink in. They brought the runners-up trophy for PNG and I stood up to clap for them. I looked around; the others had done the same. We had made incredible friends here, and we remembered again that very first night, where we felt like underdogs. And then we received our trophy, and then my phone died.

Of all the times to die.

Everyone was trying to call to congratulate us. The others were talking while I sat there, occasionally being handed a phone after they were done with a caller, and just thinking about what had happened.

Now, with our London trip fast approaching, the old feelings are back; the tension, and also the goofing off. Here I am, writing a 4,200 word article instead of preparing to face off against our British counterparts in the International final. Some things don’t change.

But a lot of things do change. That past self, the one who googled the irrelevant facts about the French press, he’s gone. Debating Matters has made me look at things so differently. And the things we’ve experienced along the way, the views we’ve come across, the people we’ve met, they’ve forever changed all our outlooks on this world.

London, here we come.

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