There was some time before the lecture of the day was to begin. I just wandered down the verandah and read the nameplates of all the lecturers, readers and professors. All but a couple had Ph.D’s and a couple of them had their degrees obtained from abroad. Well, quite impressive, I thought. As I entered the lecture hall, I found that it had been fully occupied and I had to take a seat in the last bench. I had never been a last bencher in all my student life. But this didn’t disconcert me. For everything there is a first time. There were about fifty boys and only five girls. My roommate got up from the middle of the rows of bench and joined me. There would be three lectures every day with a lunch break of 45 minutes, I noted from the time-table I had copied from the notice board a while ago. Three courses were compulsory and one was optional and I had opted for Parliamentary Institutions while filling up the form. Everything around me felt so unfamiliar that I yearned for my undergraduate days. But the very next moment, I was happy that I would no longer be going to the college. Somehow you develop a distaste for anything you do or you hold for a long time, although in retrospect, 3 years in the college do not seem to me to have been that long. I was just looking forward to the new, trying to forget that part over which I had no longer any sway. I would certainly have changed a thing or two if indeed I could.
However, there was very little that was different now. Instead of a large number of highly fashionable girls, there were a very few unfashionable, bookish type of girls. Instead of sitting in a large lecture hall, I was sitting in a smaller one with wide windows situated on the highest floor of a colossal building. Instead of familiar and friendly faces all around me, there were unfamiliar and grim faces with anxious eyes. Instead of hearing different languages including English, now I was hearing only Kannada being spoken. Before long, I came to know that only 4 students will be writing their examinations in English and all others will continue to write in their mother tongue as they had done in their undergraduate classes. Difference for them will be listening to the lectures in English.
My first lecture was truly uneventful. I quickly realized that it is going to be the same as it was in my undergraduate classes. The same course further elaborated with different emphasis and stress. The professor who delivered the lecture was immaculately dressed and made some impression with a few opening lines. However, it didn’t take long me think ‘thus far, and no further’. What was to be noticed was that very few students showed any response to the lecture as long as it went in English. They kept their head low and pretended to be taking down whatever was being said. Some simply stared at the black board and some had a blank look on their face. The moment the professor switched to Kannada, which was not very often, they looked at him and showed the expression that they understood everything and even appreciated it.
The other lectures for the day were suspended because there was to be the inaugural function including the welcoming of the freshers by the seniors. It was scheduled at 3 pm and we had about three hours of recess.
Not knowing what to do, I, along with Vijay, followed the boys going downstairs. There was a tall boy with athletic figure wearing uncreased striped gray shirt and light dark pants, speaking loudly with a short heavyset boy. The taller one was swarthy in complexion with thick moustache and was clean-shaven. The shorter one was very fair wearing a light blue shirt and dark trousers. After clearing the landing and the portico, they stopped under a gulmohur tree by the side of the asphalted road within the campus and without any hesitation began to smoke cigarettes. As we approached them, Vijay whispered to me that the taller one was Mohan who had topped the merit list. He said that both of them had studied in the constituent college of the university and were not newcomers to the place at all. As we approached the boys, Vijay talked to them. They were already acquainted with him and he introduced me to them. I spoke to them in English and asked a few questions. But soon, I could understand that they were not very comfortable with English. Soon I drifted to Kannada to accommodate them. Mohan offered me a cigarette.
It triggered a surge of memories…
For the last three years as an undergraduate student, the only pleasure, apart from reading the books, I had was fag. It all started as an effort to show myself and be counted as a grown up. It seems it is what is called growing up. Everyday along with the few friends I had, it became my routine to visit the college canteen and smoke a cigarette after having tea. In the beginning it was with a lot of effort that I could smoke one cigarette and there is to be very little inhalation. Later, I began to enjoy it. Due to my lean physique and lack of sufficient hair on face, I looked much younger than I was and I wanted to make up for the same with my deep male voice and stern mannerisms. Smoking, I supposed helped me in this endeavour. I was vastly different during my undergraduate days from my fellow college-goers, or I suppose I strenuously tried to keep me different. All the guys in the college wore fashionable jeans and trendy clothes. But I always wore only kurtas, many of them made of khadi, over my trousers. However I never carried any bag to look as ‘jholawalah ‘ intellectuals. All others must have felt very strange about my choice. But still I persisted with it and I never mingled with other guys and girls in any festive celebrations, playing pranks, trying to impress each other, bunking the lectures and so on. Never did I join them for tours and picnics for the fear of looking smug… for I did think all of them to be too commonplace and materialistic. It is said that every individual has three characters, one which he thinks he has, the second which he shows to the others and the third which he actually has!
But was I happy doing all this? In fact I came to think that I had stretched it so much that began to look like an enigma. I was withdrawn to my own cocoon and built a formidable wall around me through which very few could break in. All the while, I was compelling myself to believe that everyone was in fact, trying to break in. More girls than the boys…I liked to believe. Sometimes I wished that I would get all the sympathy, love and attention due to the veneer I had smeared around my personality. But against all my hopes, none took notice. Girls were attracted by looks made up of trendy clothes, sports-shoes, idiotic talk which they thought to be witty and laughed unnecessarily as they had been tickled to death, and of course, bikes! Intelligence, wit, hard work, industry, sincerity, honesty, punctuality, appreciation obtained from the teachers – all these utterly failed to impress them. A couple of girls were indeed impressed, but they didn’t have a sustained interest in these. It was limited to getting help with their subjects, getting my notes to be copied and discussing with me all sorts of personal problems they were encountering!
It was Mohan whose voice I heard again. “ Don’t you smoke?” I had already decided that I would no longer be what it never paid me. I wanted to get rid of all sorts of walls around me. I had already changed my dress code. Now I was wearing pants and full-sleeved shirts, tucking the shirt inside the pants and had also purchased Woodland shoes. However, I had not grown my hair long and I did not comb them without parting at the side. Further I couldn’t develop the mannerism of brushing my hair from temple to neck very often, as it had become a trend then. Mohan had developed such a style. His hair was long and straight and he was pretty handsome in spite of his slightly dark complexion, or rather because of it.
“I do, but this is too close to the department’, I said. My roommate Vijay too supported me. He said,” You know, university is like the primary school. I have been told that if any of our professors catch is smoking, talking to girls, or anything they don’t like, you will be marked out. You never know how they may react”. Now was my turn to be surprised. There wasn’t even half the regimentation in my college. “Come on brother, let’s go the canteen,” this time it was the other boy, the shorter one, who said it addressing Mohan more than anyone else in the group. I observed that he too looked older than me. He was good looking, thanks to his fair skin, black eyes, straight but short nose and thick moustache. His name was Bhaskar. He too was good looking and there was a glint of mischief in his eyes. We moved to the canteen but instead of entering it, we decided to walk through the big plot of thickly grown trees towards the library. Now I took a cigarette from Mohan and lit it. Vijay did not smoke but he had no problem being with smokers. As we trudged on the meandering path, we started talking about a host of things. But the conversation was dominated by Bhaskar. The topic was their college and their former classmates. Both Mohan and Bhaskar had studied in the same college and had been friends for the last more than three years. Vijay hailed from the same town as Bhaskar and knew many of their classmates. I knew nobody, but Bhaskar was a real story-teller, a very funny one at that.
“You know Vijay, the other day I and the Big Boor were passing through the passage between our college and the public school. You know who was coming in the opposite direction?” He didn’t wait for the response. “It was the Mosquito-Coil”
I could understand that the Big Boor and the Mosquito Coil were nicknames. I was curious to know who they were. Bhaskar said looking at me, “ It is quite a story why that girl is called the Mosquito-Coil, Harsha! And a very interesting one. He lowered the pitch of his voice and said, “She is so kind and compassionate to all the guys, that she never says no to anyone for anything. And she is so understanding, that she is not worried about the place she will be taken. Most of the guys, being the students of our college, cannot afford to take her to a nice place. It is the garden around the college where they take her. Some times a couple of guys together take her. She is too accommodative. But it is only during the dusk that they take her to the garden there. It is full of mosquitoes. She is least bothered. Even when a guy is using all his strength and vigour, and panting between her legs, she remains unaffected. She doesn’t even look at the guys. She will be busy in swatting the mosquitoes. That is why some boys once took a mosquito-coil there. But even then, there was no reaction or response from her during the act. That is why guys started calling her Mosquito-Coil”