Somewhere in the middle of the 30 feet descent, I walked backwards, araam se, like I do every once in a while. Only I was hanging on a rope. My legs stood firm like they had never been – for once they decided to listen to me. But only a few minutes ago, they had been quite an oxymoron – on vibrate mode.
Outbound Training Programme it was called, and true to its name, it was outside bounds. From rock climbing and rappelling, to crawling under rocks, it was as exciting as it was scary – one slip of the foot, and you could end up in an AC room for a decided amount of time – in a hospital.
The climb left me quite breathless – I don’t even bother to climb stairs. Sheeet, how it made me wish I had climbed all those floors in my apartment. The beauty of the place — right in the lap of nature – was that if you stayed still, everything around you came alive. Everything that you had assumed to be still, is not so anymore.
But at the top, everything around me was still, except for my own body, with my heart gasping for breath. So loudly that I could hear it everywhere– including my arms and legs. Here, one of the instructors divided the eight teams into two large ones: Spartans and Warriors. After a few breathing exercises, and a few games out there, we decided to return.
Now if anybody ever thought that climbing down was easier, I urge you to think again. The hill, combined with the Earth’ gravitational force, has only and only one aim in their lives – to pull you down; literally. At one point, we had to slide down a bit. How I wish they had actually made a semi cylindrical depression, with bars to hold on to. But this was more of strategic sliding. You had to slowly almost sit and crawl, sitting in the tiny craters so as to not slip. But unfortunately, my body weight easily pulled me down, and if those two guys had not been standing at the end of it, I am sure I would have effortlessly made it to my destination in lightning speed.
This was followed by walking on a slope — through it. The only thing around were bundles of lemon grass; comfortably rooted, sitting like fountains, laughing at us while we struggled to get a grip. And right after this, was a big rock – and we were to go under it. I began contemplating whether I will fit in there at all. Finally I did manage to fit in — barely. I crawled out of it as fast as I could, during which I wondered if anybody would know if something or somebody had died in there. Once out, one of my teammates apologised for having scrapped my bag a little – the only two girls in our seven member team decided they wanted to carry their bags; and we all took turns carrying them (only two bags were allowed per team). That poor guy did not realise I was too happy that we all had managed to get out of that tiny cave in one piece.
In spite of having such co-operative and supportive classmates, as well instructors, I had been carrying all this while the one most uncooperative thing with me — or rather I should say wearing them: my shoes. The soulless creature’s soles were coming off. Sadly, irrespective of whether the footwear I am wearing belongs to me or not, they are most rebellious – this definitely was not the first time this had happened.
Three years ago, in the last year of schooling, I was on a study tour with my class. A hosteller at that time, for some reason that I don’t remember now, I ended up borrowing somebody’s chappal. We had stopped somewhere near a beach, in the nattucha veil (burning hot afternoon). The chappal decided to die on me; and since the only support in it had fallen apart, I had no option but to walk barefoot. On the sand. Till the bus.
At a point in the descent, he asked us to stand with fellow Spartans and Warriors. He then asked us to find our way back to the kitchen. A beta version of human GPS managed to find another stone underpass. Thankfully, it was more spacious than the previous one. It did not really matter to me, as long as it took me to the kitchen.
After a satisfying meal, we all chatted for a while. None of us really had any idea what they had planned for us. All I wanted was a nice spot under a tree and a good nap. An instrumental version of the All India Radio whistled away, while we relaxed. And then two instructors, went into a room for equipment. Equipment??
I dragged myself, following others to another part of the campus, where military and police recruits trained. While others ran and jumped through the first obstacle, which looked like stepping stones on land, I preferred walking through it. Then there was one where slabs of stone projected off a wall: you had to climb through a side and get down the other. I don’t really recall how, but I managed to climb up, after which I was stuck. The instructor suggested I watch somebody else do it, and I agreed. I called out to a girl and warned her that I was already up there — hence it was not a good idea to climb up. I did manage to turn around and keep my foot on one of the projections, but after that I could not see anything except for the huge slab I was holding on to. I climbed down a little, and then jumped. The instructor said I was lucky to not have been hurt by a pointy slab.
It seemed wiser for me to simply stare at the rest of the obstacle course, while a few others tried some out. From there, we were taken to the cliff, or rather a 30 feet rock, where the Spartans were climbing down, with ropes and harnesses. Warriors had barely begun, when it started raining, and we were asked to return. I walked around in my Sherlock Holmes raincoat, even though the rain stopped the moment I had put it on. I had to consider the effort I had taken to put it on. Five minutes later, we were called back, as the weather seemed to have improved.
I sat down, looking at others climb down, and another who stood at the bottom to help them. Though, I was extremely tempted to try it, I did not trust my shoes at all. My classmates encouraged me to try it out nevertheless, and one of the instructors (who was sitting with us) reassured me the shoes were not a problem. Since the shoe was still in one piece – somewhat, I decided to go ahead anyways. One of my other classmates, also changed her decision: she decided to give it a try.
I knew that walking down backwards was not the challenge, it was to begin smoothly from the edge of the cliff. And that was the only thing that worried me. I collected the harness and gloves, and climbed up. Here, I almost lost my way— which I had suspected I would — but managed to climb up. It was then that I realised that it was less spacious than it seemed from down there. Three of us were waiting for our turn, two instructors were giving a fourth instructions, and there was another who clicked pictures.
I tried to stand still, so I would not tumble down. Looking around, or looking down was not a good idea, because this cliff was on top of a highly elevated landmass. As I waited for my turn, one of my classmates started thinking out loud, “What if I leave this hand?” I begged him to shut up. As he climbed two steps down, he paused to ask, “Are you not clicking pictures?” The other girl decided to go back, but nevertheless she did not move. And then, one of the instructors told her, “There is only one way down from here.”
I was initially standing so still, that I could barely move. I walked towards the edge, and one of the instructors spoke to me in Malayalam, while the other tightened the straps of the harness. For the first time, my knees were dancing — even though I didn’t ask them to. As if to show one last sign of rebellion, my shoelace came apart. I thought it could go die, I was not going to tie it.
I managed to begin smoothly, holding on to the ropes real tight. As I climbed down, I felt as if I were riding my office chair in reverse, back home – which I do when I am too lazy to get up and open my door.
H 302, they said. That was where the first year EJP students had to assemble, right after the orientation. There was the college anthem, college choir, the principle and of course Cheriyan sir – who had to be stopped for lack of time. From the huge, closed auditorium with large speakers hanging on either side of the stage, like the fangs of a tiger, I entered a golden room with brown benches and chairs. An amusing name it was, like in apartments – the block, the floor and then the room number. Undefined fuzzy faces chattered with excitement, P wore spectacles that were almost frameless, S sported a watch that had a dial whose diameter equalled the length of her wrist, and there were at least three girls who had chosen to wear blue that day. The seniors walked in and explained their experience of the course to us. We were a class of 52 – and the numbers were to come down, they warned.
The next day, I searched for my classroom on the notice board outside the block, as it gazed down upon me. H 407 it announced, and after a lot of hard work the destination had arrived. It was larger than the previous class, and was pale yellow with light brown benches. On the second bench, right under the fan, I almost froze to death as my three fourth sleeve was not warm enough. Everything after the first half an hour went in a trance, while I tried hard to concentrate and not fall asleep. During break, the canteen was tested on – houseful, but spacious enough to figure out the separate billing counter. After almost vomiting the once bitten fried, dried up mixture of potato, peas, carrots, onions and Maggi masala that they called vegetable cutlet; I tried to adjust with the chocolate they gave as change and the mineral water I bought (for fear of further experiments that day).
Post lunch, the first hour was language, and this time it was H 305, hid behind an open cube, almost a terrace garden. It was a dusty brown, with cold brown benches. A few minutes into the class, the Welfare Officer came to collect me. He walked me to the lift, and warned me to take care of myself in the Bangalore climate. (Only later did I realise it had been royal treatment, for later that year others had to write 250 words on why they had used the lift.) I went home, and did not attend college the following day.
The next day, it was H 308, a blue room with wooden brown benches, and dark blue curtains. The classroom was opposite the open square space, which had a few potted plants. I would cut across, in order to reach my Hindi class faster. That was a classroom we all loved, every one of us had our own place in it. It was essentially in that room that we had the best movie screenings, the most hilarious classes with AM every day of the week, except for Saturday. That was where we had after – movie question – answer sessions with him, after the two hour slot on Thursday afternoons. AM would throw space age cows, flies, and bird brains at us, when we ask, “Why was the movie screened in class?”, or “Why is the movie called so and so?”. And if at all one of the cows dared ask him what the name of the movie was, he would roar, and stroke his beard before throwing the question out the window.
The canteen white – white tables and chairs, white walls, and two old alien menu boards with spelling mistakes. It was one place, where one could always find students, but still there would be a place to sit. That was where AM would send us occasionally for assignments that could only take shape in his head. Our work could be done efficiently, sitting at college, thanks to the Wi- Fi.
A year later, we were shifted to H 403, a white room with milky brown benches, where in one could barely see what was projected on the white sheet – due to absence of curtains. I would sit in the middle row, second bench, as always. The room was right next to the one which seated our juniors, and our poor seniors didn’t really have a permanent class. Teachers changed, classes changed, posts changed; the number of students and our work increased. We saw lesser and lesser of AM, and the floor would be crawling with BCom students. The open square space was converted to staffrooms at both the third and the fourth floor.
And here, Cheriyan sir would often complain about the absence of curtains in the room, at the same exclaiming, “ Oh! What a wonderful view you have.” It is also where we had numerous arguments with VJ, our class mentor; but she would never let us win. I remember her mentioning in one of the first year HRD classes that she disliked kids, for they were noisy. But she was like that stubborn kid, who no matter what argument you gave, wanted us to give her a better reason to give in. “Why did I make you read this piece? Because I liked it.” She would say. In one of her creative writing sessions , P interrupted my trip to the past since he had forgotten why he had thrown a stone at his cousin brother. I had to snap out of my head, so that I could remind him that he had intended to throw the stone at a pesky rooster, but the stone had adopted another trajectory, and he had to immediately teleport from there.
In another one of her classes, H had narrated – with what-the-hell written all over his face – his experience at a small hotel in Palakkad. More like what we call a thattukada, I believe. He had ordered for a Poori Masala, his brain’s dictionary had autocorrected it to Masala Poori. But alas, when the food arrived he was shocked to see what he called Poori Bhaaji. P and I, almost killed ourselves – kollu kollu kollu. I facepalmed so hard that my eyes almost catapulted out of the socket, and landed on the bench – facedown. Evidently, he had not noticed that we get Masala Dosa in the canteen, and not Bhaaji Dosa.
More cameras popped up at every nook and corner, and there were prohibitions on mobile phones, among other things in an attempt to make our lives more scientific and organised. The Wi- Fi would never work, and there were new restrictions on it – you could never access social networking sites or apps, or sites which have content that come under entertainment, fun or even hot – sites on food, and food writing that is. The large media lab had undergone binary fission, resulting in two unequal media labs, with big technical names. An these were often used for Disciplinary Meetings. Students started sitting outside the canteen, due to improper seating arrangements.
And then, the college realised that students outgrew the college, and they decided to perform plastic surgery on the humanities block. Apart from covering the face of the block, this also resulted in live background noises. Another year later, the operation is still going on. Faces popped up outside the windows of our classroom, on the fourth floor – and no, they were not levitating. With canteen 2.0 just four floors away, students started buying parcels, and eating it in class. It also led to, “stuffing your faces” as AM called it. Though it has multi-cuisine , and idly-dosa over it, this canteen did not have any of these. It mostly had samosas, coffee and tea.
H 408 is handicapped for our course, as it does not have a projector. It divides the class into two wide rows that extend up to the last benches. And with no more middle row, anywhere I sit is too distracting – either too front, or too behind. During Ingnitors, it took us 20 minutes to reach the ground floor from H408, and another five to reach the allotted classroom in the science block. AM does not directly meet us anymore, other than for one of the electives, or for Disciplinary Committee meetings. Externals for our first and fourth semester Journalism Practicals, became our professors. The entire college works by the shift system, but we go home only to eat and sleep. Storms will come, throw cows, trees and birds at EJP, but EJP will not budge. The one professor that has remained constant would be ER– he taught us Optional English in the first semester, still does.
The strip from the stationary, the space in front of canteen, all the way up to the auditorium has been converted into a ramp for students and bikes. The strip is a potential accident prone zone, and in future, will probably exhibit a sign announcing the same.
While waiting outside the Department of English, one cannot ignore the ground, which beckons you into the windy sandful centimetre squares it covers. Students were mere iron fillings in it as they assembled for sports day, beginning with the march past. Nobody loved to walk around in the sun, and in the second year it was not that sun but the rain that made me frown at the idea. Moreover, after an almost failed attempt at a quick brunch before the march past, while the sun had directed its energy to dry up the ground in time; I was interrupted by the realisation that one required permission to grow long hair.
The tug of war was the only class event we participated in by choice, but we did not have enough boys for a boys team. We lost to the same team both in the first year and a second year, and had managed to upgrade to a silver in the second year, from bronze. The first year, around five of us had fallen down, oxidising our silver grey shirts into an apple brown. The ground was also where we had fests like Footprints, and Exodus – ramp walks, and various performances with food stalls orderly sprinkled across.
At the far end of the ground, on the left side was a diamond net which separated it from the Quadrangle. Or rather The Banyan Tree, as AM preferred to call it. It cannot be a quadrangle – he had tried to explain once, looking at all of us with his eyebrows almost knit into each other – because it is not closed on all four sides. And then, end of discussion. The Banyan Tree was the main venue for Meta, the LitFest run by the English department. Where I had missed, and also enjoyed numerous performances, jam sessions, and panel discussions. “I am going to be making decisions, and you are not going to like it”, AM had announced during a jam session in Meta 2016. The first year, I remember volunteers almost hanging off the first floor of the science block trying to take down the web of painting that had been up on the stage.
On the right side of the ground, are new unmarked buildings. It has let bikes and scooters be parked on it, and footballs no longer break bones. At the far end of the ground, near the basketball court, stand skeletal steel structures, on spaces that are yet to be swallowed.
The moment the prayer had finished, a voice shattered the speaker. The Giant – he suffers from a surplus of growth hormone among many other phenomena, and thus the name – was shouting at the mike.
“Regular Boys Batch, second bench, the second boy. No, the red t-shirt. Come down to the office.” He announced.
That was when I, or rather we, realised that the tiny cameras in our rooms actually do work – CCTV cameras. At least the ones that are not broken.
That Thursday evening, the air around me was like drinking water after eating amla. and perhaps for that same reason, my head too reciprocated that feeling. Or maybe it was also because it was a Thursday – when I had Zoology at the coaching class (CC). I wondered if I would ever write about that particular phase of my life, those two years ; and if I did, then how would it be?
I looked out the window, staring at all the dirt on the slant sheets of roof that had accumulated for the last so many years. So much that I could not decide if it was mud, or just dust. The window, at least that is what I call it, had no glass. You could not close that thing, it was made of tiny green squares, and spread across -as if it were a graph sheet- two walls of the room, in an L.
I liked when it rained heavily, there was no way anybody could stop it from racing into the class. The green cubes were irritating, it had a green house effect. All sorts of annoying creatures were let in, and they never left. On the other hand you were trapped – you could throw pencils, or even tiny stones out the net, but you could never throw yourself out of it. No matter how tiny you were, no matter how hard you wished. A decomposing rat was the perfect example of this ultimate truth.
I wish, I wish – but you simply couldn’t. You were not allowed to, to wish, to think, to dream. They locked our brains away, and one by one would roast , fry and grill our brains. I am convinced the Giant does eat brains – after all he had told students staying at CC’s hostel that they should not be bothered by the food made available to them, or even the worm they had discovered in it. Only think of studying, but then he had already kidnapped that ability of ours.
The weather, to me, was perfect for writing. Cold. Cloudy but not rainy. Such that you could take a walk without fearing the Sun, who had lost complete voltage. But I was not sure what I should write , nor did I imagine that I would end up writing all the time those two years later. Writing , was and maybe even is, perhaps the only way I had my revenge at everything that tortured me. And the CC was no less than a concentration camp. A mental holocaust.
My best friend was in another class – she had Math while I had Biology. And therefore, I could not look at her across the room, exchange glances, or mean jokes on all noises the teachers made in class. There was one who always asked us to behave by narrating stories about himself – when he was our age – just to tell us how misbehaved he was. Just because he ended up in a good position, doesn’t mean we will – is what he intended to imply; but perhaps it got lost amidst the air molecules. My class only had girls, and it was supposed to be a warning for us. But for the all-boys class perhaps it was a sort of encouragement to remain directionless. But I always wondered, was he truly happy with what he was doing?
Then there was the botany sir, whom we called H2O, because he made us drink water in the middle of the class. His mechanical voice came out like the branches of a tree. He event went on to do Bharatanatyam on the platform, to explain the arrangement of leaves in plants. One day, half way into the first year of higher secondary, and the coaching class, I realised that one of our chemistry sirs whom we called Apoopan (grandfather) rarely said anything out of text; and that rare occasion would be an example equation. But in general, all of them hated our school, ignoring the fact that the species constituted 98% of the evening batch.
Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzuup. Unwind into a line. And zzzzzzzzzzzuup back into my pouch.
Antara could not stop playing with her brand new magical pouch, which was in fact one long zip. It zipped all the way into a pouch, and almost looked like a zebra with alternate black and olive green. And this was where she kept all her precious stationery : her favourite pen, her special calligraphy pencils, stapler, and lots of other colour pens.
It was only it’s eighth day, and it had already grabbed surplus attention. Antara was not sure if she was happy about this, or fearsome. She dismissed her fears and decided to enjoy the limelight. School was almost over, fifteen minutes to the bell, when her class teacher glided into her classroom, with evaluated answer sheets.
Oohhh… Finally! Thought a very nervous Antara, as she eagerly waited for her roll number. She did not dare to look at it till she’d sat down in her seat. Slowly, she opened her folded answer sheet, which was bleeding at the margins.
44 and half out of 50? Wow, this is one of my best performances this year! I don’t remember the last time I did so well in any exam, Antara mused.
She immediately dumped her books in her bag, and ran off to the hostel. She hated it there, but she really had no choice – she was stuck there. But nevertheless, that day she was in a very good mood. After dinner that night, she decided to use the ‘study hour’ to study. The study hour was compulsory, and was to be utilised for homework, and for studying – but she never did either. She did all that she wanted to, anything but studying, only to stare at a random book when the wardens are watching her.
But that night, for the first time in a long time, she was in a studious mood. She dug her hand into the bag to fetch her books and her pouch. The books landed with a thump on the metal table, but the pouch did not make it.
Where is it? I had kept it inside the bag today! It must be here somewhere. Antara ransacked her bag in vain. Oh no! Did I leave it behind in class? Antara realised that she had been in a hurry that day while packing her bag. She spent the rest of the study hour in memory of her special pouch.
Next morning, she stood staring at the large white door. It was latched, but not locked. The class was empty, and she ran inside. Her desk had no trace of her pouch. It had simply vanished into olive green dust.
It’s not there in the hostel, not there here, not in the lost and found. Where could it possibly have disappeared to? Did somebody steal it? Haaw. What if somebody has it and does not want to return it? After all it has all my precious stationery.
A tearful Antara was frustrated.
Well, whoever has it, I wish you’ll never have a chance to use my special pencils. They’ll also lose it the very next day. Then let them go around searching for it like I did.
Akshara sat in class, happily remembering the look on Antara’s face the day before when she couldn’t find her pouch. She could not bear Antara, and was tired of all the attention that had been so cruelly snatched away from her. And so, when she came across the pouch, while leaving class, she did not bother to return it. She couldn’t wait to lay her hands on those pencils everyone was talking about. She ran to the hostel as soon as the bell rang, but even after raiding her room twice, she could not find it.
Nisha had fallen in love with those calligraphy pencils ever since she’d laid eyes on them. She was not sure at first, but that pouch under Akshara’s bed was definitely the one that once belonged to Antara. Initially she did intend to return it, but then she wondered what harm would it do if she decided to keep it for a day? Just to give those pencils a try. She ran to her room after the study hour, and took out a beautiful royal blue pencil. But before she could even put a full stop on the page, Akshara entered the room – she immediately hid it.The next day, during the Library period, she realised that it was no longer in her possession.
Saara was the last to leave the library, and the only one to notice the olive green pouch all alone in a corner. She vaguely remembered it to belong to somebody in her class, but she was not sure whom it belonged to. Later, as she walked out of her class with her bag, she was not sure it belonged to one of her classmates anymore. So she dropped it at the lost and found counter.
The next day, Nita ran in search of Antara. She was bursting with excitement – finally she had been able to locate her best friend’s most valued possession. Antara could not believe her eyes, she had lost all hope. She held it to herself, she didn’t want to lose it ever again. She was happy she had got her pouch back a day before her practicals. Now she could write her practicals with her favourite lucky pen.
The following evening, Antara had had her coffee and was on her way back to her room. She was in a good mood – her practicals had gone really well, and now that all her stationery was back, she could sketch again. She sat on her bed, took out her pouch and her book. But something was missing – there was no zip. It wasn’t her pouch, it was only stripes of olive green and black.