Although I trusted that my friends had believed the story originating in a sheer whim, I still had my own misgivings as to the credibility of my story. ‘I was just being facetious’ would be my second line of defense, if every they found out that the story was only a fancy idea. I could get away with it, so I said to myself again and again to reassure myself. But then there was the fear that my truthful statements would not be taken seriously. I would be like a shepherd crying, “Wolf! Wolf!” when the crunch time came. And this kept troubling me. The other way out was find another occasion and prove exactly what I claimed. And prove myself carefree, rebellious, fiercely independent and smart and lascivious.
On Monday after the first lecture, I was invited to join Mohan, Bhaskar, Vijay, Suresh, Virupakshappa, and the three girls in the university canteen. I was not formally introduced to the girls, for it was taken for granted that we all knew each other. But I was reintroduced to the characters of my friends, the one that I had not seen earlier. It was a new façade that all the boys had worn. Not that I wasn’t aware of why and how the behaviour of the guys changes when confronted with the girls. Even the dumbest of the guys tries to act smart and show himself to be the brightest. Every guy wants to show off. Suddenly he becomes very self-conscious. He tries to be funny, intelligent, jovial and attractive. He won’t allow any opportunity to flirt slip away. Girls too change. They start giggling without any reason. The smile will stick to their faces as if it is stuck there with glue permanently. They laugh covering their mouth with their hands, at the poorest of the poor jokes. Whether a boy or a girl, the person will try to present his or her best self, highlighting all good qualities, or the qualities that are thought to make one popular. Although the whole air becomes artificial, nobody seems to take notice of it. It is but natural for all of them. In a group, these things become more pronounced, for each guy or girl wants to outsmart the other, as though it is a competition, a race for life, to be won. For me it is great fun watching, but at times, most irritating.
If this was what I had missed in the graduate college, I thought I missed nothing of much value. But I still wanted to play on. I thought there might be more to it. The real stuff might be coming later. Whatever it might be that this would take to, I did not want to miss it. For what I really not wanted was to be left alone.
There were many similar groups in the canteen. Some groups had better-looking girls, dressed to look modern, beautiful, and even voluptuous. They had curves, cleavages and courtesy. They even had pretense and pomp. Boys were very loud, raucous, and at times obscene. Boys acted funny, and girls giggled shamelessly. Boys acted like tamed wild animals giving performance in a circus; the girls like graceful, wonderstruck onlookers.
Coming back to our group, when the waiter came, Mohan asked all of us what we wanted to have. When Nirupama said she wanted masala dosa, he said with mock anger,” See this is the problem with rural people. The first thing they want to do when they come to the city is to watch a movie and eat masala dosa! I am sure you have submitted your rural certificate to avail admission to the university.”
“She doesn’t need one,” I said jocularly, “ Her appearance is enough. Her face itself is a rural certificate.”
I expected her to be offended at my remarks, but she laughed with all others and conceded, “I can’t deny the fact that I am from rural area. What is wrong with that? Most of us are, in fact, from rural areas or small towns.”
We all ordered according to our taste. It was mostly dosa or pulav. After eating only a couple of spoonfuls of pulav, Vani declared it was too much for her. “I am not used to eating so much!” she added.
Mohan said adding a measure of sarcasm in his tone, ”Aaha, it is one of the problems with the girls these days. They just won’t enough, especially when the boys are present. But if you leave even a spoonful of pulav, I am going to put that into your vanity bag.”
For this, Bhaskar added, “You know when the girls go to the canteen on their own, they would have only half cup of ordinary tea. But when they are escorted by the boys, well, they say ‘I don’t drink tea. I drink only coffee or bourn vita!’”
Everyone including the girls laughed but indeed the girls did not drink tea in the end. After coming out of canteen, the girls headed to the department and even before they started, I lighted a cigarette. Mohan and Bhaskar would not think of smoking in the presence of the girls. It was grossly inappropriate to them. But I derived the pleasure of shocking the girls; it was my own way of letting them know that I did not care, that I was different. But later when I thought about it more clearly, I began to think that I was no different from the crowd of boys, trying to impress by doing bizarre things.
Thus began our routine since then. Almost everyday we would go to the canteen. Saroja would join somewhat infrequently. But Nirupama and Vani would always be there. What was more interesting was that the girls paid all the bills. Shortly thereafter, Mohan and Bhaskar also began smoking before the girls. Above all, we would take money from the girls for not only cigarettes, but also for liquor, and liked to boast before the girls about our drinking bouts.
At times, in the hostel we used to engage in making fun of it. “The girls are rich, they don’t have costly habits like us. As long as we are enjoying, who cares?” Mohan would say.
Thinking back of those days, I sometimes wonder how could have I spent countless days, engaged in unintelligent conversation, drinking cheap liquor, smoking cigarettes, with people all around me having mediocre ambitions. Thousands of boys and girls took admission to the university, nearly half of them to the social sciences, humanities and language courses. Majority of them never read any book; they simply read the notes passed onto them by their seniors. They couldn’t read books anyway, for they could not understand English. There were very few books written in Kannada. The huge and awesome collection of thousands of erudite books in the university library was of little use to the students. Nor could they have been of much use to a large chunk of the teaching faculty. Small talk, parochialism, jealousies, backbiting, groupism based on non-academic interests, self-aggrandizement and politics among the teachers were visible even to the dumbest of the students. Mediocrity just hung in the air, academic or intellectual activity limited to a few professors, a few seminars and symposia. But amidst such mediocrity there were quite a few towering personalities too on the campus keeping up the reputation of the university. But by and large, mediocrity kept staring at my face everywhere I went on the campus.
The redeeming feature for me was the scenic beauty of the campus. And the friends, howsoever mediocre, were close to my heart. They respected me; awed by the way I took on the professors in the class. They loved me, for I was so human while I was with them. They ignored my egocentric, sometimes eccentric manners, abrasive conversations, and bulldozing my opinions. Just as Mohan and Bhaskar initially hurt my ego, by treating me as an outsider, I too might have hurt them in many ways. I was blind to my faults and highly critical of others’ wrongdoings.
When the rains had receded, it was time on the campus for Youth Festival. I did not participate in any event, and did not represent my department in any event. However, I went to the department of English on the request of a friend there, to play guitar for a couple of group songs by the girls. I got close with the girls in the course, and to know that my friends, including the girls envied me added to my hauteur.
Youth Festival was more a fair than a festival, many events taking place simultaneously at different venues. Boys and girls dressed in their best, sometimes fancy and gaudy apparel, ambled here and there. The central locations were the Gandhi Bhavan and the university canteen. The acoustics of the Gandhi Bhavan was irritating. But the dance competitions were a hit. At all venues, there were guys behaving like hooligans, yelling, hooting and yodeling. It was all so much fun, as long as it ended.
It was during the Youth Festival that I found the opportunity I was looking for. I saw a familiar face near the canteen when our group had just emerged out of it. She undoubtedly was from my college back in Belgaum. I had seen her in the college canteen, in the department of geography and also at the bus stop, several times. I could not be mistaken. When I was staring at her, she looked at me and smiled. I approached her and asked, “Remember me?”
“Sure. You are doing your MA here?” She replied in Marathi
“Yes. And you must have come for the Youth Festival representing our college.” I too broke into Marathi.
“Yes and No. I am now studying here in the Karnatak College, in the second year of BA. I left Belgaum for some personal reasons.”
“I am sorry I don’t remember your name”
“Malati Mane. And I do remember yours, although we were never got to know each other while in Belgaum! I know your nickname too. Girls used to call you pundit”
“You are waiting for someone?”
“No. I came to watch the events here. I am alone”
Mohan came near and whispered into my ears, “You carry on boss! See you later”. He left giving me an imperceptible wink.
“Why don’t we have a cup of tea together?” I suggested to her. She readily agreed with a nod.
She was short and plump. She was wearing a black skirt with a red top. I noticed that she wasn’t wearing high heels to enhance her height. Her clothes seemed to be cheap. I had never observed her this closely in the college. My breath became uneven on noticing that she had a huge swell on the chest pressing against her blouse. She saw what I was looking at but didn’t seem to give a damn. However, I felt guilty as well as shy. She was fair, but why wouldn’t she blush, I asked myself.
When I asked her in the canteen when the waiter came, what she would like to have, she said she would have something very heavy to eat since she was starving. “I skipped my breakfast, you know!” she added by way of explanation. I ordered vegetable pulav and some pakodas for her and just a cup of tea for myself. When she started eating, I felt as though she had not eaten for ages. Contrary to my expectation, she was not at all shy eating before me. She kept on munching very fast and even before I finished my cup of tea, she had finished every bit of food on her plate.
“What events you are interested to watch?” I asked her to keep the conversation going.
“None. Nothing is interesting today. I was thinking of going back to my hostel when I met you.”
“I am going to the city. I can come up to your hostel.” I said, hoping she would say it was not necessary. But at the same time, since she was aiding me in furthering my lie to my friends, I wanted to go with her.
“Why not. You may walk to the city from there. We can sit for some time in the garden near my college and talk.” She was barely into her twenties, and was bold and uninhibited. She was totally carefree and nothing like what I expected a girl to be. I asked her if she would have tea. She refused. I thanked god that at least in this one respect, she did not fail my expectations!
When we sat in the bus, she occupied two-thirds of the seat. I sat at the aisle. “Why did you change your college? And choose to come thus far off from your place?”
“You know, my father is not supporting my education. He is against me going to the college. I could not afford to be in our college in Belgaum. It was way too costly. One of my distant uncles got me admission here in KCD with monthly financial assistance from the government or the university I am not sure which. It is so, I think, because KCD is a constituent college of the university. I had to come. I am free and happy now.”
“You might be feeling homesick with all people speaking in Kannada around you. Your mother tongue obviously is Marathi.”
“No. I have never felt homesick. I never had a home. I never felt it was my home when I was staying with my father.”
“Your brothers and sisters…”
“I have one brother, happily married and settled. It is almost half a decade since I saw him last. He never calls on me, never enquires about me, and doesn’t care for anyone apart from his wife and kids”.
For a moment I did not know what to say. She was in all sorts of problems. She was young and unsupported. She was not a looker. It was as though sadness was permanently residing in her eyes. I remembered someone telling me that she had an affair with a much older man in Belgaum. I never knew who it was, nor was interested in knowing. That guy might have ditched her. Or her father might have come to know of her affair and shifted her to Dharwad. I wondered if she was telling the whole truth. I did not know if I was supposed to console her and if I was supposed to help her. I could do neither. The more I thought about it, the more her story began to sound familiar to me.
I was startled when she poked me to tell that the place where we had to get down had come. We calmly got out of the bus and walked towards her hostel. But she stopped me after going some distance, and pointed towards a big plot of acacia plantation. “That is a better place”
My heart began to pound. What did she mean by that? Better for what? But I had to be a man and lead her. I could not backtrack now. I had to play along. How could she be so straightforward? I could not believe my ears. I thought she meant a better place to sit and have a talk. Nothing more than that. Why was I imagining something that could not be there? I was nuts, I thought. A girl would never suggest such a thing even indirectly, I had been told by novels and movies and friends; and I believed in it firmly.
There were no benches in the acacia plantation. We had to sit on the ground. I chose a place that had more shade, and would not be directly visible from the road that meandered in the plantation. I spread my handkerchief and sat on it. Then I thought of her small handkerchief, which she held in her one hand along with a tiny purse, in another. It was not wider than her palm, and she certainly had hips that had flared! Just as I was smiling thinking of all this, she sat before me, somewhat awkwardly. Since she was wearing a skirt, when she was squatting, I had a glimpse of her thighs and her brown panties. I was again startled. Did she do it deliberately? There was no way I could be sure. I only concluded that she was too inelegant and ill mannered. She was just unconscious of the fact that she was a girl.
“Well…?” she said.
She had not asked a single question about me till then. She had talked only about herself, her situation, her problems and her woes. I would not have volunteered to talk about me, without any provocation of course.
“What are you planning to do after your graduation?”
“I am not sure if I would be able to complete my graduation in the first place. I may try to get a job, of course.”
“Your father may not be interested in your college education. But certainly he would spare no effort to marry you.”
“Who will marry me? He cannot afford to pay the dowry.”
“I heard sometimes back that…that you…” I could not complete.
I expected her to deny the whole thing. Rumours would always be afloat about girls, especially about the ones who are outspoken, unconceited and are bold enough to strike friendship with men. She, however, had a surprise in store for me.
“I know what you are talking about. It is true. Rather it was true. The problem was he was already a married man. I would have been happy even being his second wife. But he would not agree to that. He would not leave her wife because she is the daughter of his eldest sister.”
“Was he, er in love with you?”
“He never said so. Although I could never believe he did not. I could glean from his actions, his behaviour that he loved me.”
“That might have been just out of compassion for you, because you were in trouble.”
“I wouldn’t think so. I would…. Anyway, now there is no use crying over spilt milk.”
I kept quiet for a long time. But I was not thinking anything. My mind had gone blank. I just could not understand the girl. Not at least from what she was telling. That guy might have tried to help her in some way. Or he might have taken advantage of the difficult situation she was in. It is the problem with married men. The grass at the other end always seems greener to them. Why can’t they restrain themselves? These were my initial thoughts. Then I began to be amazed at how freely she was sharing with me, the innermost, perhaps the darkest things and feelings of her heart. It was unconceivable for me. In a similar situation, I could never unburden my feelings before anybody, least of all before a person who was nothing less than a stranger. A girl doing this, I would be damned, I thought.
“Do you go to Belgaum frequently?” I queried, being afraid of silent.
“I can’t even if I wish to. What are you doing this Sunday?” she asked.
I had no plans for Sunday. But I did not want to tell her. In fact I wanted to run away from that place, from her. I could not think of anything to reply her.
“I may go home. It is still not decided.”
“May I come with you?” she asked with a hope in her voice and expectations in her eyes. I felt trapped. I was in panic. I cursed myself for putting myself in this situation. What if she wanted to take me for a ride? What if she claimed that I was in love with her? What really did she want of me? I just wanted to escape.
She moved slowly towards me and sat so close that I could feel her breath. I had already been put off. The smell of pakodas she had devoured made me cringe.
“I am sorry but we cannot go together. I will be going with a friend of a mine. I am going to attend a house-warming ceremony of their newly constructed house,” somehow I blurted out. Then I was amazed at the lie I had been able to concoct so fast.
I had used the word ‘griha pravesha’ for house warming, which literally means entry into the house.
“God knows when my pravesha will happen!” she mumbled. Oh boy! I was left spellbound. She was telling me that she wanted an entry! Indirectly she was also suggesting that she had not yet been penetrated; that she still was a virgin. It was then I began to hate her. Her audaciousness was lewd and disgusting. It was not what I expected of a well-bred girl from a respected family. This act of hers was looked to me like that of a whore. It was deeply insulting to my idea of romance.
My idea of virgin was not confined to the physiological aspect. If somebody enters your mind, then too you lose your virginity. In hindsight it seems to be far-fetched. It was my middle class morality, against which I was constantly struggling. But in crunch situations, it over took me, beat me and left me numb. I suddenly got up on my feet, and told her that I remembered that I had an urgent work to be attended to. Was there disappointment on her face? Did she feel offended by my rejection? I could not tell, for I could not bring myself to look at her face. She got up slowly, and as soon as we reached the road, I said “Bye” and abruptly left. I could feel her eyes staring or blazing on my back, but I did not dare look back. I was pissed out and was on the verge of retching.
I did not look back for almost half a kilometer, although I had taken a couple of turns on the way.
I did not stop to take a bus to the city bus stand, where I wanted to go. I just trudged on and by the time I reached my destination, I was perspiring profusely. I wanted to sit in a cool place and ponder. I saw a wine shop, which had a hall for serving liquor in its backyard. Who will drink in the after noon? The hall would be there all to myself. Thinking thus, I was surprised to know that there were as many day drinkers as there would be night drinkers. I wasn’t in a shape to turn back and find another, calmer place. In the corner just under the ceiling fan, I sat and gulped my quota of liquor munching peanuts.
I got back to the hostel and instead of going to my room, I kicked open the door of Mohan’s room and slouched in the chair. “Oh boy, I am really tired!” I blurted.
Bhaskar woke up from his nap and sat up on the bed. Mohan lit a cigarette and offered me one, which I took. “ Look at him! He has been drinking in day time.” Bhaskar said. “What have you been up to?” Mohan asked.
I narrated them the whole story but with a different twist at the end. I just stuck to the facts but I did not give any names. They were shocked after hearing Malati’s remarks about ‘gruha pravesha’
“My God! How could you do it in such a place?” Bhaskar asked.
“There is no problem with the place buddy,” I replied, “ It is sufficiently secluded plantation and not easily visible from the road.”
“Yes, I have heard of some boys using that place” Mohan concluded.
“Ok guys. Let me take some rest now. Aren’t we going to the city in the evening?”
I asked them and without waiting for their response left for my room.
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