It has been nearly half a century since I first stepped into the amazements and apprehensions of campus life. The move from rundown village schools to the sprawling grandeur of an illustrious city college was an awesome experience. The central building of the college looked awesomely immense, opulent and classical. Vast grounds surrounded the imposing edifice. It slowly dawned on me that I was a total stranger in a alien terrain. And I felt pathetically alone and out of place…
Barring a few like me, the students in my class had all come from celebrated English medium schools. Their parents held glamorous professional positions like doctors, engineers and college professors. Some were in business. One boy was the son of the local Police Superintendent. A couple of students in my class were catholic priests who attended classes sporting their official vestments. Such predominance of glamour and affluence made me overly conscious of my on humble background.
I had come from a rural agrarian background. I had never seen an English medium school leave alone studying in one. Although I was a topper in the school I had come from, in the ranking made by the college, my position was much below the halfway mark. I had to accept the disconcerting reality that I was not even half as smart academically as I had considered myself to be. I did not possess the ability to articulate even a single full sentence in English with any reassurance while my classmates around me kept prattling in English.
It was a co-ed college. A sizeable part of the freshers in the campus was meeting each other for the first time. Yet it took them very little time to freely interact and make friends. I envied them for their easy manners and brimming confidence. (It would kill me even today to initiate a conversation with a stranger). It surprised me to notice that campus friendships recognized no gender barriers. But, being too self-conscious of my sorry background, I did not dare even to speak to my male classmates. I was under the constant fear of making myself an idiot and the butt of the joke of the elite English cackling lot. This made me withdraw more and more into my own shell. (Incidentally, these terrors have stayed with me to haunt me in my later life too. Even today, I feel like a fish out of the water in the midst of strangers).
As time passed, my discomfitures with the campus glam seemed to ease a bit. I managed to return the few smiles that came my way. I started speaking to some of my classmates. But I made it a point to interact essentially with people whose backgrounds apparently matched mine. Eventually, I managed to have some kind of a working relationship with a tiny knot of students from my batch. There was nothing intimate or informal about those relationships. And it did not include the fair sex. This was not because I was misogynistic. (I have never been so and my career friends would vouch for it!) I was simply too terrified then to interact with a girl.
I found that romance was part of the thrills of campus life. Most boys were often found in the blissful company of girls. I envied them for their guts and their good luck. I cursed myself for my underdog status in the campus. But it did not deter me from dreaming of campus romance. I often visualized me sitting on the green grass under the canopy of one of the huge trees dotting the sprawling campus with my sweetheart on my side. It was not that I was unconscious of the impossibility of such a thing ever actually occurring. But rationale has no place for people drowning in the whirlpool of romance. So I decided to take the first step. I started my hunt for my campus sweetheart.
I chose to restrict my search to my own batch. I had noticed that girls usually enter the classroom together just before the bell rang for the commencement of the session. It was easier to watch them in the sly as they filed into the classroom through the sole entry point. The advantage was that since most boys (already inside the classroom) would have their eyes riveted on these girls, an extra ogler would have attracted no special attention. The only requirement was that I had to be inside sufficiently in advance. That I mostly managed. I tried this ‘sneak peek’ for a few days. Then I realized that there were too many girls making the ‘selection’ tedious. In statistical jargon, the size of the population was too large. I had to cut down the size of the population. One approach to achieve it was through a process of elimination i.e. discard those who would obviously not qualify.
A good number of the girls in my class belonged to the Anglo-Indian sect – people of mixed English-Indian ancestry who were left back in India when the British sailed off the Indian shores for good. These people mostly held on to the English patterns and lifestyles. Thus, Anglo-Indian girls those days wore bobbed hair, painted lips and miniskirts and of course spoke in Queen’s English. Since I have always been fiercely fond of Indian ways, the Anglo-Indian lot was clearly out. (Well… to be more honest, with my sordid background, I, perhaps, had no chance with them). The next to go were the girls who too conspicuous in flaunting the airs and aura of their English medium heritage and sophisticated upbringing. I simply did not dare to imagine any of them to be so foolish as to partner me in an affair. That left very few potential candidates. Then one day my eyes fell on Jane* and ‘Mone, manassil laddoo potti’ (Beta, man me laddoo phoota).
Jane was a bit darkish in complexion and somewhat plump for her age. She had curly hair, long eyelashes, wide forehead, dimpled cheeks and a noble countenance. She always dressed in typical native style and never covered her up in cosmetics. Her indigenous charm and coy looks gave her a unique radiance. “That is your girl”, a voice muttered within me. And from that moment, I felt transported to some paradise. It was sheer joy just to keep looking at her consummate charm. I thought she was the cutest and the most adorable thing that ever came out of the creator’s production line. I started eying her in secret. Just looking at her (always from a distance) would send my pulse rate spiking and my whole body shivering like an aspen leaf.
Soon, Jane became an obsession for me. I forgot all my underdog delusions. I discovered that love certainly was not only blind but also an idiot. I also discovered that romance was an experience of unbounded bliss. Her very sight would trigger a sudden panic inside me. My mouth would go dry and my heart would hammer against my rib cage. I soon lost interest in everything, but her. Her images flitted ceaselessly across the mirror of my mind. I was unconscious of the solid earth under my feet. I was walking on the cloud. I hardly ever heard or cared about what the faculty taught or the class discussed. She was there when I opened my eyes. She was there when I closed them. For the first time in my life, I was experiencing the exhilarating thrills of being in love… (Lovers beware that such thoughts arise in the hearts of every fool bitten by the love bug. Ignore it. You have nothing to lose but the tragedy of a fanciful wedding and an embittered life ever after).
It was all very well except for a small problem. Jane had no idea that I was heads over heels in love with her! I knew nothing about her. We had never had a word with each other. It was quite possible that this girl had not even noticed me among the seventy odd students in our class. I almost never had an opportunity to stand up in the class either to ask a question or to answer one. I was a silent and sidelined backbencher whom the teachers ignored by default. In my dhoti, most people might have assumed me a country bum. But I had no time for such commonplace realities. I was too intoxicated with love to care. I decided to foray ahead in the hope that the pieces would fall into place in due time. I decided to keep my ‘love affair’ as my own little secret, at least until it developed into the next stage.
But we humans have an inherent ‘engineering problem’ when it comes to secrets. We are simply not constructed to keep a secret to ourselves for long. Eventually the secret would turn a burden in our hearts. With every passing moment, it would increase in weight. Soon we reach the breaking point to spill the beans. The process is repeated in the person with whom the secret is shared. Thus, it spreads. And it would soon be no secret. This has been true from the hunter-gatherer of the primitive age to the technocrat of twenty first century. The ancient man had his own ingenious ways of unburdening himself (Remember, the palace barber of King Midas who shouted the secret “King Midas has ears of an ass….” into the Echo). The modern man has social media release options like Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter.
My secret to was going through the same stages. Before long, I was groaning under its immense weight. I had to find someone to share it. But there was hardly anyone in the campus close enough for me to empty my heart. Then I remembered Kishore*. I had worked out some kind of a friendship with Kishore. The truth was none could have resisted being friends with Kishore. He was a jolly fellow and a showman of some merit. The way he dressed in Khadi, the dramatic eloquence with which he spoke in chaste Malayalam to the faculty and the funny mannerisms he displayed to the uproarious hilarity of the whole class, all had suggested a promising future for him in politics. (I happened to meet Kishore in my office a few years back and learnt that he, indeed, was in politics although he practiced as a lawyer for a living.)
Because of his disarming charm and simpleton ways, people often poured out their intimate secrets to Kishore. He thus had a stockpile of juicy stories on the romantic affairs that apparently mushroomed in the campus. (I realized in due course that much of it was manufactured by the campus grapevine). Naturally, Kishore too was afflicted with the inherent human fallibility with regard to secrets. He might have believed that as a loner, his scintillating secrets would be safe with me. So, at times, he would let me into some of those confidential stories. We had thus come, kind of, close to each other. So, I decided that if there was one person to whom I would disclose the secret of my ‘love affair’, it was Kishore. And I waited for an opportune moment to make the disclosure.
The opportunity presented itself a few days later. Kishore invited me to join him for a snack in the college canteen. It was the first ever occasion when Kishore (or anyone else) had sought my company for a canteen visit. So I was rather touched as well as intrigued by this sudden invitation. In any case, I was looking forward to a private meeting with him to share my secret. I thought it was a god-sent chance. I went with him. As we walked towards the canteen (some 100 metres or so away from the main block, as I now remember), my mind was fully occupied with thoughts of how I would deal with the task of the disclosure of my secret.
We entered the canteen and Kishore pointed to a vacant table at the window. We sat down and Kishore ordered two plates of steamed bananas. (Banana, as the reader would know, was a commodity that was abundantly available in Kerala. Incidentally, times have changed. Now, like everything else that Keralites consume, the bananas too, mostly, come from the neighbouring states.) What Kishore had ordered was ripe banana, steamed, peeled and sliced into thin rounds, and set down on a plate in its original cylindrical shape. A fork was used to pick up the pieces from the plate. The order was served. I finished my plate quickly and looked at Kishore. I noticed that he was painfully slow in picking up each slice. He worked his jaw wearily to munch each piece. His eyes remained half-closed as he chewed. It was clear that something serious was nagging him. I wondered whether he too had burden to lay down.
I kept quiet and sat their observing Kishore. From the spot close to the window where we sat, we could see the pathway that linked the main block with the canteen. I had noticed that, occasionally, Kishore lifted up his head to look at the pathway. There were assorted knots of students walking it – some coming towards the canteen and others heading back to their classes. After a while, he looked straight into my face, opened his eyes wide and said, “I am in love with a girl”.
There was nothing earth shattering about Kishore’s confession. There were always adoring eyes on him from the female benches, whenever he got up in the class to raise some doubt or make a comment (often silly and always in Malayalam). With so many admirers around, he could leisurely pick up any girl. Or so I thought. “Who is the girl?” I enquired. “You will know soon”, he said looking out on to the pathway through the window. It suddenly struck me that Kishore had deliberately chosen the table at the window to keep an eye on the pathway. He was expecting someone particular to come walking down that path…
Kishore looked out of the window again. I saw his face suddenly lightening up. He jumped up from his seat, pulled me by my hand and we rushed out of the canteen. I still did not fully realize the reason behind his tearing hurry. We reached the pathway and started walking towards the main block. There were several student gangs on the pathway. A few headed for the canteen were coming towards us. There was no reason to pay any particular attention to anyone walking on the pathway. I simply walked on looking straight ahead as usual. Kishore walked by my side.
We covered some fifty steps. Suddenly I felt a frantic pull on my sleeve. I looked at Kishore. He appeared highly excited. Then he brought his lips to my ear and whispered, “Look, look, the girl in the black long skirt”. I glanced sideways. A bunch of girls was about to pass by us. Yes. There was a girl wearing a black long skirt at the head of the group. I lifted my eyes and looked at her face. She briefly turned her head and smiled. My heart skipped a beat. I looked at Kishore. He was grinning from ear to ear! Then I saw it. With the slightest motion of his right hand, he waved to her. My legs were melting under me. My head was spinning. I gasped for breath and desperately grabbed for the hand of Kishore …
Yes. You guessed right. The girl was Jane…