An opportunity to participate in the college debate competition led to so much more
Years ago, on an uneventful afternoon, I lazily walked through the college corridors to get to my last lecture for the day. A notice hanging on a noticeboard grabbed my attention as I walked past. The college debate team had lost a member and they were seeking a replacement. I read the notice and walked ahead a few paces. Then, I stopped abruptly and went straight to the Dean’s office to register my interest in being the replacement debater.
Each college needed a team of two to participate in the inter-college debate competitions. One participant spoke ‘for’ the topic of the debate and the other spoke ‘against’ it. There was a competition the following week in a nearby city, and the debate team were in dire need of a substitute debater. So I was given the green light. Untried. Untested.
Never before in my entire life had I ever stepped on to a stage or participated in anything extra-curricular, but something within me just urged me to try it out.
We were provided the topic of the debate 24 hours prior to the competition. I went home and earnestly jotted down my thoughts on the stipulated subject and drafted a speech.
Next morning, I fronted up for the competition. There, I met my debate partner for the very first time, Jashan Brar, an extremely confident young man, renowned throughout the university circuit as an accomplished public speaker.
Jashan spoke before me. True to his reputation, he set the house on fire with his confidence and oration. I watched him in awe from the audience as he tore apart the opponents with his succinct opinions and well placed arrogance. He descended from the stage to a rapturous applause. Something he was quite used to.
As the applause died down, I heard my name being called. As I made my way up to the stage I could feel my intestines curl up as the tied in several knots within me. Being on the same team, the audience perhaps was expecting me to unleash the same fury that Jashan had just before my act.
A giant lump kept sprinting up and down my throat as I fiddled with the microphone stand to adjust it to my height. The wooden stage was a bit squeaky and so were my rattling knees. Somehow, I made it through the next four minutes as I stuttered and stammered my way through my script.
I knew I had let my partner down with my below par performance. Big time. We did win a prize, but that was more for Jashan’s brilliance than any of my efforts. Instead of complementing him, on that day, I was perhaps a liability for him. But Jashan was extremely gracious. He thanked me for my efforts and encouraged me for next time.
For the next few days, I questioned myself and my capability of being a good debater or public speaker. It was quite clear that I was not a natural. Neither did I possess the maturity at that time to string together and articulate opinions of my own. It was a dreadful feeling. But somehow, I kept at it. I kept participating in competitions and trialled different partners.
Soon enough, the thrill of being on stage became an enjoyable feeling. The oration became a bit more self-assured. I started cultivating opinions within me along with the strength to trust those opinions and stand by them. I was able to express ideas in my own words and speak with authority. A self-belief evolved within me.
A few years later, as fate would have it, in my last year of university, I was teamed up with Jashan once again for debate competition in the North Zone Youth Festival. We were to represent Guru Nanak Dev University (GNDU), Amritsar. The venue was the Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana.
This time, again, Jashan was the first to speak. He had the audience captivated with his performance. I went after him. And this time the applause for me was equally deafening. We won the competition and went on to represent GNDU at the national level.
“So you are the two GNDU guys who stole the show today,” was a remark from a local academic after the competition. It had taken me a few years, but finally on that day, I felt I was able to hold my own next to the big fellow. I was not a liability that day. At least, I didn’t feel like one.
Jashan and I continue to be friends. He is a successful lawyer now, and a family man. I am sure his oratory prowess makes him a winner in his court room battles as well. Watching him speak in that first ever debate competition was instrumental for a shy kid like me in finding my own voice.
And never since that day have I lacked the courage to state my opinion.