When the monsoons receded, it was time in the department for the annual ritual of taking the students on an excursion. The places to visit that year were Badami, Aihole, Pattadkal etc. I was not too thrilled about it since I had visited those places several times. It was not a mandatory study tour. But Mohan and Bhaskar were not lacking any enthusiasm; in fact, they were filled to the brim with it. Two mini buses were hired, one for the juniors and the other for the seniors. Mohan, as a class representative, had a lot of stuff to do. Packaged food was ordered, buses were hired, route was worked out, the costs calculated and the amount was collected from the students who were joining the trip. Mohan also got a new pair of clothes for the trip. I had never gone on any tour, study tour or otherwise, with my fellow-students. I never found it attractive or interesting. But now I could not say no. As a matter of fact, nobody even asked me whether I am willing to go or not. It was just taken for granted that I would accompany them. Mohan had already paid my contribution on my behalf. So everything had been arranged, without any participation on my part.
We were to leave at six in the morning. Vijay woke me up half an hour earlier, after he had taken bath. I got ready but still it was a couple of minutes more than six. The minibus had arrived and the driver was honking the horn impatiently. Both of us ran out and found both Mohan and Bhaskar running too. I was the first to enter the bus and found that but for the first two rows, all the seats had been occupied. The seats of the first row were facing those of the second. Nirupama, Saroja and Vani were seated. I waited for a while so that the seats opposite the front row would be occupied and the one by the side of Nirupama where she had kept her bag would the only seat available to be occupied. That way I would be sitting with her. However, as Mohan entered the bus, Nirupama beamed her brightest smile, and removing her bag, she made a gesture to him to sit. He took the seat immediately. I sat on the opposite seat with Bhaskar and the jealousy began to burn deep inside me. I felt so hurt that I withdrew myself into my shell. I could not hear what were joyous hoots and yells all around me. I could not hear what Mohan, Bhaskar and the girls began to converse enthusiastically. I could only see that Nirupama was beaming, blushing, and laughing at whatever it was that Mohan said. Then I closed my eyes as if I was falling asleep.
So finally I had lost and miserably failed, I thought. It was excruciatingly painful, as though my heart was being pierced with a sharp knife. I was never used to failures, or rather I would avoid doing anything in which I would fail. My ego deflated, burst would be more appropriate, like a balloon that is poked with a burning incense stick. I was absolutely sure that I was not in love with Nirupama, but she hurt and bruised my ego by not choosing me, and more so by choosing Mohan over me. Whenever I opened my eyes, the proud face of Mohan and the blushes of Nirupama smarted me. I would not open my eyes for the fear of looking at them and for the fear of keeping my face straight. I was ashamed of myself for being so frivolous, so silly and so commonplace. I could not think of anyone knowing my feelings. I would not, at any cost, let others deride me for being so trifle. I was afraid of logically explaining my petulance and peevishness. I felt Mohan’s behaviour disgusting, but could hardly justify my feelings, even to my own self. I had failed noticing the fireworks between him and Nirupama earlier. He was always there when we all made fun of her, called her nothing less than a whore. And he too used to contribute immensely to our slander of her character.
Of the two mini-buses that were hired, the teachers were occupying the other one and our bus was all left to ourselves. At the earliest opportunity, I exchanged my seat with Suresh who was sitting on the last row by the window. Bhaskar and Vijay tried to ask me why I was going away from them, but I just waved them away. I would dare even look into their faces. As soon as I settled in the seat, I lit a cigarette. I could feel many surprised faces staring at me. Who cares? I said to myself. I had brought two packets of Flair that had just been introduced to the market. It was cheap and strong. With my emotional state, the very first puff gave a strong kick.
When we reached Badami, we were served breakfast on the lawns of a park. I refused saying I was not hungry. I strode away from all of them lighting another cigarette. Everyone was engrossed in his or her own conversation and it seemed nobody took any notice of me. I halted under the shade of a huge banyan tree and staring at the horizon, tried to push away all my feelings. It was nine in the morning and I feared that it was going to be a long, long day. After a while, when I turned back, I saw Saroja approaching me. I didn’t want to talk to her, or for that matter, anybody. But it now seemed there was no escape. “What are doing alone here? All are leaving for the caves. Aren’t you feeling well?” she asked me.
“My mood is off,” I said without looking at her face and started towards the minibus. I was rude. I cursed myself for that. But I couldn’t go back to her and explain what was wrong with me. What could I tell her? All the students started climbing the stairs leading to the famous caves. Someone was asking all the students in a raised voice to join the teachers immediately. Saroja started swaggering towards the group and I followed her at a distance.
The group of students, along with a hired local guide went from cave to cave. I kept myself away from the group and climbed till the last cave that overlooked a lake filled with greenish water. It would take another hour for the group to reach that place. I lit another cigarette. I should calm myself. I am making myself too obvious. Why should I be so mean? It might have been just a chance occurrence that Mohan entered the bus last and the only place available was by her side. I tried to console myself thus. But the flash of Nirupama’s eyes when he entered, and her gesture of immediately taking out her handbag to make place for him, kept coming before my eyes. I couldn’t convince myself that it was merely coincidental.
I sat there on a rock. The winds were blowing gently and my hair was coming over my eyes again and again. I liked the soft touch of the breeze. I liked the clear blue sky. I liked the panoramic view of the lake. But yet I wouldn’t feel good. I pulled hard at my cigarette and it burned my fingers. Only then I learnt that the fire had crossed the filter. I threw it and immediately lit another.
I could hear the guide explaining the features of the carvings in the caves. He had a peculiar high-pitched womanish voice. Some guys were making some funny remarks and the girls were giggling. Sooner it is over, the better, I thought. I cursed myself again and again for not agreeing to join this excursion.
“Harsha!” I lifted my head and found Vijay standing near me. “What is wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing pal. I have seen all these places. Nothing new for me.” I had to lie with some effort.
“I have also seen all these places. I just came for the company.” He said implying what I had told him was not the real reason.
“Well. Sometimes my mood is off. It is just that” I gave another evasive reply.
Although he was not satisfied with my answers, he did not persist. Thank Goodness, I thought.
“Ok. Let’s start climbing down. Let them take their own time,” he said and patted my shoulders. I didn’t want any company, but I had no choice. I rose and we started towards the landing.
“Why don’t you join others?” I asked him softly.
“I am bored of their silly jokes man,” he said.
When we reached the place where our buses had been parked, I saw Mohan and Bhaskar standing behind a bus to hide themselves and smoking. “Hello,” Mohan shouted. “You don’t seem to be in good mood,” he said to me as we approached them.
“Yeah” I replied briefly.
“We have to finish the cigarette before the group comes down brother,” Bhaskar reminded him eyeing the cigarette between Mohan’s lips. Mohan inhaled deeply and handed the cigarette to Bhaskar. They were smoking only one cigarette together, as they very often did. Now it was necessary due to the urgency to finish smoking.
Bhaskar took two puffs and threw the cigarette away. Forthwith both of them started towards the group that was advancing towards us. Vijay hesitated for a moment and then asked me whether I would like to join the group. But I refused asking him to carry on. He followed Mohan and Bhaskar. I climbed the bus and lit yet another cigarette.
Just as I finished my cigarette, I saw that the students were moving towards the buses in clusters. I also observed that Mohan and Bhaskar were with the girls. All them seemed very happy, adding to my misery.
This continued for the whole day. When everyone was having lunch in Mahakoot, I refused to have it and walked away to a nearby shop with a thatched roof and had coconut water. I was not hungry but coconut water quenched my thirst and saved me from dehydration.
I followed the group from a distance at Aihole, Pattadkal and Banashankari, but never actually joined others or tried to strike a conversation. I felt this was the worst day of my life. My pride, envy, disgust, self-hatred, anger and anguish, all consumed me till I was literally exhausted. I had smoked not less than three packs of cigarettes and by the time we reached Dharwad, I was nauseated.
When the bus stopped to drop some students near the bus station, I quickly got down before anyone noticed and took huge strides towards a bar.