Some are afraid of the snakes, some have got fear of the dark, some have phobia of lightning and thunder, what scared me though was just a number. You must have heard of triskaidekaphobia, the fear of number thirteen. May be you thought that's the number that made the hair on my neck rise. No, it was not 13; it was the number 98 that dried up the saliva in my mouth. It was 98 that made my skin crawl. My Achilles heel, my Lord Voldermort. You must be wondering why anyone would be frightened of a harmless looking number like 98. It's a long story. If it was a few months ago it would have been impossible for me to spell the tale because I would have shivered to death uttering the number during the story. Things though, they have changed.
There is only one language that God knows. Needless to say it's Mathematics. That's what He used to create this cosmos. I was couple of years into my teens awaiting the results of the 10th grade finals. I had always scored 100% in any Math’s exam that I had appeared in and it was writing on the wall that it would remain the same this time around as well. My school awarded a trophy to any student who scored a hundred in the 10th grade Mathematics final exams. It was known as the "Isaac Newton" trophy. The day had arrived. I was wearing my brand new white shirt that my dad had gifted to me. "After a gap of three years a student has won the Isaac Newton trophy", the principal exclaimed on the podium. I took my first step towards the stage. The crowd started to clap. "Saagar Mehta". That name stopped me dead in my tracks. Did I hear that alright? The claps and loud cheers went mum for a moment and were back again. It was as if someone had pressed the mute button for three seconds. I saw Saagar emerge from my right. He was walking towards the podium, face glowing, pride rising through his chest but all eyes were on me. The three hundred odd pairs of eyes were all jabbing a pin in my heart and screaming a word. "LOSER"! After collecting the trophy Saagar turned around to sneer at me. I couldn’t look him into the eye. I lowered my head and tried to cry but even my tears gave up on me that day.
I remained in denial for a couple of days after I looked into my mark sheet. I saw a 98, not a 100. It must have been a bad dream. My parents consoled me but it was all in vain. Whoever checked my answer sheet must have made a mistake. After I urged, my dad agreed to get my paper checked. My trembling world came crashing down when I found that I had failed to add two numbers while solving a problem. I could add numbers bigger than those in my sleep. I would give you the correct sum for those two numbers instantaneously but for some reason I had miscalculated it in the exam. I must have blanked out for a second while adding those numbers. I had not cried till that point but it was time. When it rains, it pours. I cried for weeks. That day changed me or you can say defined the rest of my life. I never scored a hundred again. The curse of 98 became my friend. I always missed the finish line by a mark or two. The number 98 became a monster, the 9 appeared like a string with a noose that would tighten around my neck, the 8 seemed like a handcuffs that I would remain tied to forever. The mental scars of that fateful day have never left me.
I turned 45 but never went by a day when I didn't feel the hurt of missing out on that trophy. I dreamt of those eyes, those never blinking eyes, all making fun of me, I saw myself running after a figure that looked like a hundred, I gasped for breath, my heart was about to explode but still I kept running, I got close, I laid my hands to it but it slipped out at the last moment. 98 was to blame for my misery.
My life would have been perfect if not for the bane, the frightening number but then who gets a perfect life? Triska had no interest in Mathematics and maybe that's why I liked her. She knew that there was something wrong with me and maybe that's why she liked me. People often tell us how we are just perfect for each other. I can't imagine marrying anyone but her. She is not just the love of my life but is a tremendous support. Whenever I found myself headed towards irrationality's den she was always there to drag me back. She completes me. She is the most wonderful thing that happened to me after Math’s. The second apple of my eye is our daughter Ankika. She has brightened our lives every day since the day she was born. She has inherited her broad forehead, perfectly arched eyebrows, brown eyes, high cheekbones and innocent looks from her mother. As far as the left brain is considered, she got it from me. She is brilliant when it comes to Mathematics. I have personally mentored her on the subject since her childhood. She learned counting when she was two and by the time she joined kindergarten she could add and multiply. However, despite of all her brilliance she has never been able to score a perfect 100. May be she got that curse from me too. Every time she appeared for an exam, I would urge her to focus, to make sure she doesn't leave a stone unturned, and to make sure that she rechecks all of her answers twice. It all went in vain as just like me post that black day, she kept on missing the perfect score by a mark or two. I never told my wife or Ankika about the curse. In fact no one knew how the number 98 would freak me out and how it kept on hurting me like burning red charcoal in my heart.
If life was a shape, it would be a circle. After almost thirty years it gave me another chance, an opportunity to wash away the blemish, a promise to find the panacea that would heal the wound, a hope to convert that dreaded ninety-eight into a hundred. It was six months before Ankika's 10th final exams that it all came back to me.
It was the day I met Ved. It was 7th October, Ankika's 14th birthday. We hosted a small party at our home and invited all her friends from neighborhood and school. The list of her friends was very long and it was evident she was a popular girl amongst her cohorts. The list of special friends was limited. I knew them on finger tips and had met all of them. There was one boy however whom I hadn't met. He had recently been added to her special friend's list and she had described him as a genius. Ankika had told me that he had joined the school six months ago. In a short span of time he had become a very special friend. The common interest in Math’s helped blossom their friendship. "Dad, this is Ved. The Math’s champion that I told you about". Even before he said "Hello uncle" I knew that I had seen the boy before. That chocolate colored face, those round eyes, the pointed nose and those metallic glasses. "Hello Ved", I said still trying to locate that face scanning through my brain. "He makes everyone else in our class look like a daft", Ankika said. "Great", I smiled at both of them. She introduced me to few others but that face did not leave my head. I focused hard on that face but all in vain. It was when I was about to go to bed that it struck me. It shouldn't have taken me as long as it did.
My first reaction was that I was mistaken. I closed my eyes again and brought up a face from the store room of my memory. The resemblance was evident. Yes, he looked like Saagar. I rushed and located some old school pictures. Ved didn't just look like Saagar, he was an exact replica of him! There was not even an iota of difference between them. The same face, same smile, same body language, same hair cut, same glasses, same lean frame, it was all the same. I didn't meet Saagar after "that" day because we had moved to different schools. Here he was making reappearance in my life. It was as if I was time traveling into the past. Saagar, who had snatched that trophy from me, who had dethroned me. Obviously I couldn't sleep that night.
I left early for the office and mulled over the last evening for hours. The initial few hours were spent coming out of denial. After that I thought of asking Ankika to break up her friendship with him. No, that didn’t sound like a good idea. It was late in the evening that the bane became a boon. Saagar's reappearance in my life was not a coincidence. It was a blessing in disguise, a chance that God had presented to me to reverse the tables. Ved as per Ankika had always scored cent percent in any Math’s exam. She on the other hand had never been able to achieve the feat. Thirty years ago, it was me in Ved's seat and Ankika in Saagar's. The memory of "that" day would no longer hurt me if I could make the history repeat. The number 98 won’t freak me out if I could return back the punch that was hurled at me thirty years ago. It was matter of two simple equations. Ankika needed to get to the 100 that had eluded her so far and Ved needed to be left stranded on 98. If somehow in the next six months I could make these two equations work, it would wash away all the tears that I had shed. My daughter would do what I couldn't do. She was after all in the same school and would win the trophy that I could not lay my hands to. "My life will be devoted to this task for next six months". That's what I promised myself while driving back home.
It was obvious to me that both the equations were tough to meet. There was some level of control that I had on the outcome of the first one but Ved would have to do me a favour for the second one. I thought I would worry about the second problem later, after I have set the wheels rolling for the first one. I had never left a stone unturned to motivate Ankika to go for a 100. It had never worked. Difficult situations demand difficult measures. It was time for the disclosure. "You have to score a 100 Ankika. There's no other choice. It was my dream to win that trophy. I missed it by two marks and I want you to do it for me", I urged her later that night. I told her the story of "that" day and how it kept on affecting me throughout. I told her about Saagar and how Ved resembled him. I told her about the fear of 98. A couple of minutes into the story and she was in tears. I had seldom seen her cry. All these years she had never displayed an emotion whenever she missed the 100 percent. She had all of it stored within her and my revelation tore her apart. She cried for me and then for herself. I took her in my arms. She held me tightly and said, "I will do it for you". I looked into her moist eyes before she went to bed and those eyes gave me faith that she would take care of the first problem.
What could I possibly do for the second problem? I was not someone who was going to simply sit back and hope for things to happen. In this case though I didn't think I had a lot of options. I had six months which I thought was plenty of time. I was hopeful that I would be able to find a way to solve this riddle. I didn't know however that it was only two weeks after meeting Ved that the doors were going to open. My boss Rishab approached me discussing a new business opportunity in Japan. I was required to travel to Tokyo for a couple of days to meet a prospective client. I tried to persuade Rishab to send someone else but he didn't agree. "K, you are our best shot", he said. Rishab and I had worked together more than 10 years and despite he being my boss we had been beer buddies and family friends. Triska and his wife gelled well too. It was hard to say no and in any case it was just a matter of 2 days. I asked Ankika to keep her focus on the goal while I was away. I bade goodbye to my family with a heavy heart.
I checked in, collected my boarding pass, seated myself in the lounge and ordered a beer. Gulping the beer down I glanced at my boarding pass. The reference number printed on it was 9H98I8. H and I are the 8th and 9th character of the English alphabet respectively. I sighed at the fact that I got a 98 triplet to start my journey. I observed that my seat number was 62A. A hexadecimal 62 converts to 98 in decimal. I tried to get my mind away from the dreaded number and get few hours of sleep. Just when I had succeeded the head air hostess made the announcement that they would be serving dinner. After the dinner I picked up a magazine and made a futile attempt to solve crossword to divert my mind. "Answers on page 98". That was written just below the crossword. I put the magazine aside. I couldn't sleep at all after that. It was raining when the plane landed in the Narita airport. I had been to Tokyo before so I knew my ways. I briskly walked towards the limousine bus stop. My hotel was in Shinjuku, an hour and a half drive from the airport. After the customary bow at the reception the receptionist checked me in. "Here is your room key. Room number 980", she said. I frowned. "Is everything OK"? "Yes. Can I get a different room please", I asked. "Sorry sir, this is the only room available. The other rooms won't be ready for another two hours". I had the client meeting in an hour so I was left with no option but to check in. I shuddered as I entered my new home, number 98. I shaved, took a shower and opened up the mini fridge to fetch a beverage. All cans and bottles were tagged with the same prize. 98 yen. I had never seen a price tag like that in Japan where almost anything you buy costs you a round figure. I closed the fridge and rushed out.
It was time to meet Mr. Kazuki Murakami. He owned a local construction company and wanted to discuss outsourcing some of the back office work to my company. My boss had done all the talking with him so far and had briefed me about the deal. I had had no time to do a thorough research on the Japanese company but I had the basic facts with me. I reached the hotel lobby well ahead of the stipulated time. The lobby was vibrant with people from all corners of the world. I picked up a subway map from the concierge and seated myself on the round sofa located in the lobby. "Mr. K", an old man exclaimed. I nodded. "Welcome to Tokyo K-san, this is Kazuki". Kazuki was a short man with white hair and a small wrinkled face. He spoke fluent English. He must have been in his mid-sixties. It was his t-shirt though that caught me off guard. It was a white t-shirt with a crimson tinge. I was suited in my formals and that's how I expected him to be, that's how every formal meeting in Japan goes. It was not however his informal clothes that had surprised me, it was the number 98 that was printed in the center of his t-shirt in large bold red letters. I felt like getting up and screaming "what the fuck is going on". I got up and bowed to him hiding my anxiety. "I have heard that you like spaghetti, so I have booked a table for the two of us at a restaurant that's a couple of blocks away. It's best that we walk". It was a surprise to me that he knew about my love for spaghetti. He handed me an umbrella and we started our stroll. The number 98 was printed at the back as well. I sighed. I needed some beer.
It was a ten minute walk from the hotel to the spaghetti place. We didn't talk business. It was a casual discussion on how my flight was, did I eat OK on the flight, did I sleep well, have I been to Japan before, do I like Tokyo and so on. It was after we had ordered that we started talking business. It was the shortest business discussion that I have ever had in my entire career. "We have made the decision. The deal is yours", he said gushing. "Thanks Kazuki-san", I said unable to hide my confusion. He started laughing. "Apart from the fact that you guys are the best in business what made it an easy decision was the date you decided to travel on. Today is my company's annual day. This company was formed by my grandfather 98 years ago. That's what this t-shirt represents. I thought it was best to give you the contract", he said pointing to the number. I smiled and thanked him again. It was time to order our food. "You have to try the item 98 on the menu", he said. Something was definitely wrong with the world.
"Wait a minute. I have got something for you", he picked up his bag, pulled a similar t-shirt and handed it to me. I accepted it with the thoughts of throwing it in a garbage bin and was about to put it in my bag when he said, "You can use the washroom here to change". I would have sworn at him if he was not a client. "I will change later Kazuki-san", I said trying to find a way out. "I am sure your intention is not to disrespect the glorious 98 years of my company by not accepting to wear this t-shirt now", he said and made a face that meant it was virtually an order. I was cornered and had no choice once again. "Not at all", I said and rushed to the washroom. My head was hurting and my hands started to tremble when I changed. I looked myself in the mirror and frowned looking at the number 98. "You are looking good", Kazuki said. I was back to the table. We gulped a couple of beers and finished our meals quickly. The spaghetti tasted like grass. The deal was won and I wanted to run away as soon as possible. "What are you doing this evening", he asked me on our walk back to the hotel. Before I could say a word he gave me another order. "Cancel if you have got any plans. There is going to be a party tonight celebrating the 98th year of the company. Be there at 7 tonight, of course wearing that t-shirt".
I was back at my hotel room. I was in a precarious situation. Kazuki was a client and I couldn't afford to skip the event that seemed so dear to him. My mind had stopped working. All it could see was the dreaded number. I looked at the cream colored walls and there were thousands of 98's floating on it. I tried to cover my face with my hands but the lines on the hands made 98's. "Relax", I told myself and removed that t-shirt. I called up Triska and then Ankika but no one picked up. I changed into denims and a white shirt. I came out of the hotel and started to walk towards Takashimaya, one of the largest department stores in the world. Shopping which is considered to be a thing of the women is a therapy that can help everyone. I needed to divert my mind badly. I thought I would do some shopping for Triska and Ankika. It was a twenty minute walk for me to get there. It was the early evening just before the rush hour so the streets weren't really crowded.
After a few minutes of walk I felt as if someone was chasing me. I turned around and noticed a tall man wearing a hat busy talking on the phone. I had seen him at the hotel lobby as well. Why would someone chase me here? My mind must have been playing games with me I thought and kept walking. Takashimaya was only a couple of blocks away. I turned around again and the man was still there. A small teenage girl in a short skirt with a bunch of roses emerged from behind him and screamed, "Sir! Help me. Please buy two roses". "Indeed", I said and smiled at her. She handed me the roses and said. "That will be 98 yen sir". I almost lost my cool. Anger though is like water vapor, it accumulates. I could feel a storm building up inside me. I handed her 100 yens, did not bother for the change and picked up my pace. At Takashimaya I picked up a couple of fragrances for Triska. I got candies and few Pokémon games for Ankika. I was getting late for the event so I decided to take a taxi back to the hotel. I rushed out of the building and bumped into a man. It was the tall man in the hat. "Why are you not wearing the t-shirt", he screamed and ran away. "What the fuck" was all I could utter. I grabbed a taxi and got back to the hotel. My thoughts were centered on getting back home. I got a note at the hotel that a taxi would come to pick me up.
The taxi reached on time. The taxi driver was wearing the same t-shirt that I was. The horrendous number. What mess I had got myself into? I was dropped outside a high-rise and the driver asked me to take the elevator up to the 37th floor. I was welcomed by Kazuki himself wearing the number at the elevator gates on the 37th floor. "Welcome K-san", he said with a big smile on his face. Apart from the t-shirt he had a blue cap on, the number 98 imprinted on it. He walked me to an empty hall. "You are the first one to arrive". It was a well lit and big hall with giant TV screens all around. "Wait, I will get a drink for you", Kazuki said and disappeared. There was a sound of click. I turned around to see that the door was locked. I rushed towards the door and tried to open it but in vain. There was another noise and all the lights in the room bumped off. Darkness engulfed me. The hair on my arms rose. "Don't panic", I told myself. There was a thud and the TV screen in front of me turned on. Another thud and the screen next to it was on. Both the screens displayed the same thing. One by one every screen turned on and displayed the same thing in different colors. It was the awful number once again circling all around me. I rushed to the screen right in front of me to turn it off but could not locate the switch. My head started to spin. An electric guitar started to play a slow riff.
2 less than a hundred, 98 is a magnificent number.
98 has the curves, 98 has the verves.
2 less than a hundred, 98 is a magnificent number.
Why are you scared, it's just 2 into 7 squared.
2 less than a hundred, 98 is a magnificent number.
I felt a whisper in my ear. It was a female voice. Slowly the volume increased and I realized it wasn't a whisper. The whole room was buzzing with the voice. The same lines were being sung in a tune that I had heard for the first time, again and again. It was like a cell phone ringer buzzing forever. I started to scream. I screamed for Kazuki to get me out of there. I don't know for how long I screamed before I fainted.
I found myself in a bed when I regained consciousness. It was an effort to open my eyes so I kept them closed. I opened them in a flash when I realized that someone was holding my hand. I knew that touch. It was Triska. She was crying. "Where am I"? "We are in Tokyo", she said sobbing inconsolably. "How are you K"? I looked up. It was Kazuki Murakami. He was wearing the same t-shirt. What the hell was going on? "Please forgive us". It was Rishab. "We had to do it for you", he said. "Please lie down", Kazuki said as I tried to get up. I was out of my wits. "Let me explain it to you as it was all my idea", he said. Triska pressed my hand.
"I was on phone with Rishab when he got a call from your wife on his cell phone. She had overheard your conversation with Ankika and had called him for help. She scanned through your school pictures. There was no one in those pictures even closer to Ankika's friend. It was all your imagination! All the 98's that you saw around you were never there. It was a problem that was bigger than the phobia of the number 98. You were sick and you needed treatment. I heard chunks of the conversation and Rishab explained the situation to me after I told him I could help. Your wife agreed to be part of this plan. It has been a week since you went for the party. This is all my team." The hotel receptionist, the girl with the roses, the tall guy and the taxi driver were all there. They all smiled at me. "I surrounded you with 98 so that you are no longer afraid of it. So that you don't imagine things based out of that fear. We set 98 all around you throughout that day. After you fainted in the hall we drugged you and you have been half asleep since then. The whole room buzzed with the voice that you heard that day. How do you feel now?" My head felt very heavy. I looked at the number imprinted on his t-shirt. "2 less than a hundred, 98 is a magnificent number" came out of my gut. There were smiles all around. "I love you dad", Ankika rushed into the room and kissed me. I was no longer sick.
We decided to stay in Tokyo for a day and then head home. Kazuki drove us to the airport. There was one question that was killing me. As we bade good bye to each other I couldn’t help myself and asked him. "You didn't just do it because you wanted to help me, did you". He smiled. "Thank the wonderful number. The deal your company got was never yours. You got it because of 98. I did it all for 98. 2 less than a hundred, 98 is a magnificent number", he said and winked at me.
Six months have gone by since my trip to Tokyo. I am no longer afraid of 98. In fact never goes by a day when I don't wear that t-shirt. I have changed my phone number, it has a 98, two 142's, and a 62. 142 in octal and 62 in hexadecimal are 98 in decimal. I marvel looking at my tenth scorecard and adore that number. I have got the blue cap too. 98 is my wallpaper, 98 is my tattoo, 98 is my 100.
We danced last night celebrating the "Isaac Newton" trophy that Ankika has won. She looked at me and cried while on the stage. I threw a party yesterday to celebrate the occasion. The truth is I planned it to cover up what I feel deep inside. After all, 2 less than a hundred, 98 is a magnificent number.