Everyone, even my reticent, reclusive grandfather was on the verandah waiting for me.
“I got through,” I informed them in a trembling voice.
I was even more grateful now than when I saw my results on a bleary screen in the Internet Café. If I hadn’t qualified, how much disappointment and misery I would have been responsible for!
“He Devi Maiya! You have showered your blessings on us. I knew it, I knew it. All these years of devotion I have shown to you couldn’t have come to naught. I will ask Pandit Ji for a date for jagrata as soon as possible. God bless you my son. God bless you.”
I was surprised. I had never seen my mother so voluble and loud in my grandfather’s presence. What was even more surprising was that even he didn’t seem mind it.
I had to go in the order of seniority. So, despite my mother’s outpourings, I touched my grandfather’s feet first. “Well done!” he said as he patted my back. That was more affection from him than I had received in my lifetime. My father too must have noticed the anomaly because his eyes grew moist. I had done what he couldn’t do. His father’s pride was satiated. Nothing else mattered in the world. Not until he thought of Bose Uncle anyway.
“Meet me in the evening,” my grandfather said before leaving. Unrestrained by his presence, my mother kissed me. Then she busied herself in the kitchen to prepare my favorite dishes for dinner. My father wanted to go to Bose Uncle and announce my result to him. How proud he had been that his son got into NIT last year. What would he say now? I was to get into an IIT.
It was left to my siblings to dissect and appreciate my performance further, specifically my rank.
“So, you will get Computer Science?” my younger brother was incredulous. I was the studious one in the family, but studying Computer Science at an IIT was still something that other people did, those other extraordinary kids whose names appeared in local papers and who doled out advices for aspirants. I was one of those kids now. My brother would no longer snigger at me for being too sissy, too much of a bookworm. I had earned the right to be so.
Since that evening, my father started treating me like a grown-up, an equal. I couldn’t believe my ears when he asked for my advice on which school to send my sister to!
My mother had not changed. She was even more solicitous of my comforts, health and meals than ever, because I was to go away from home now. It was an overkill, but not really a fundamental change. Still, an affectionate grandfather, a trusting father and a respectful younger brother. The world might as well have turned upside down for me.
It is difficult to explain, but I am sure that when others start thinking of you differently, you become different too. In a few hours of announcing my results, I was a changed person. No longer the insecure, uncertain, mousy little boy. I was the future of the world. I was destined to do great things, to change the world!
That evening I followed my grandfather to his room after his evening walk as he had asked me to. Once in, he took out an old, tattered book from his box and handed it to me. “For a young man who has to go away from his family to build a better life for himself, there is no greater teacher than Mahatma Gandhi,” he told me. The book he had given to me was the Hindi translation of Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth. “If you ever find yourself giving into the wrong temptations or if you are ever afraid of people stronger than you, this is the book you need, this is the man you need to look up to.”
My grandfather was an enigma to us. We tiptoed around his room. We wouldn’t dare be noisy or fight with each other when he was around. My father always spoke to him with bowed head. My mother always covered her head and spoke in whispers in his presence.
To say that his speaking to me like that gratified me would be an understatement.
I changed a bit more.
It was a hot August night. If the cool evening breeze had any effect, it was countered by the excitement and tension everyone felt. Over hundred first-year students were gathered in the lawns of Bheema Hostel, where the till-then-dreaded final-year students lived. It was the tradition. To mark the end of a month-long ragging period, the first-years would go to their hostel and shout abuses at them. To their heart’s content. And then some more.
The shouting made no sense to me initially. I, the good boy of the family, had not been to the town cricket matches, where the kids watching the match shouted like this. I, the good boy of the family, was not used to swearing. But then I had changed. Not only because of my family’s changed perception of me, but also from the experience of the previous month, one I had shared with the people surrounding me. At that moment, there was a bond made stronger by the immense crowd, stifling heat, and deafening noise. I also found my voice and shouted at the top of my lungs. “Bheema Hostel ki Ma kaa…”
The final-year students were all looking out. From their windows, balconies and corridors. They took it sportingly, remembering their own days as the freshers. To keep up the spirit, they shouted back, booed, and even passed empty threats. It was cathartic for me. All these years of stress, of studying hard, preparing for the entrance exam, leaving home, and of coming here to a threatening environment of ragging and overwhelming academic pressure – all the pressure and anxiety seemed to leave my body. My swearing vocabulary was limited. But I was catching up quickly. I shouted once again, outdoing myself.
“Who is this son of a bitch?” Suddenly a voice roared in the hostel corridor. The shouting from the lawn ebbed into a confused murmur, “Shakti? Really? That’s Shakti?”
Nobody knew for how long Shakti had been at the institute. The most conservative estimates put it at eight years. He had been an enigma for the first-year students that whole month.
“Oh! You are crying for this? What if Shakti had ragged you?” was often the refrain of seniors when a fresher broke down too quickly. “Good for you, Shakti is drinking too much these days to bother with ragging freshers,” they said.
The final year crowd in the corridor squeezed to make way and the mysterious Shakti came out – in flesh and blood. And flesh and blood he was, with blood-shot eyes. Much larger than any of the seventeen-year old freshers there. He had a whiskey bottle in one hand, and brandished his hockey stick with the other.
“Who the motherfucker is abusing my hostel?”
Even the murmurs died. The second year students, who had hauled us all for this bit of entertainment, were exchanging silent, questioning looks. Was it the time to retreat?
The silence was so absolute that I could hear my heart beat. The sight of Shakti and his friends who were as old and big and drunk as he was sent shivers down my spine. Just like the idea of standing before a crowd and saying something did. I had been a fearful person for as long as I could remember. I was afraid of my parents’ admonitions, of teachers’ refrain, of big boys who looked for nothing but an opportunity to pick a fight and bully the weak ones like me, and of any kind of failure. I was also afraid of my batchmates here, those who came from big cities, who seemed to know everything, and who spoke English like glamorous TV anchors.
The second-year students had made up their mind. They were nudging the freshers closest to them indicating that they should move out. The show was over.
This was so unfair, I found myself thinking. We had earned the right to swear at the final-year students. We had suffered the indignities of ragging for over a month. How could this moment be taken away from us? It was just not right. Retreating was cowardice. Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography, and his smiling, resolute face as I had seen in the movies and posters, flashed before me.
I had changed. I wasn’t the same person who shivered at the thought of having to defend himself even in a verbal argument. Gandhi ji would bear pain over indignity and injustice any day, and so would I.
While my friends in the crowd were slowly moving away, I pushed my way to the front. I looked Shakti in the eye, took a deep breath and shouted with all my might.
“Bheema Hostel ki Ma kaa…”
Stunned silence descended on the gathering again. But this silence was loud. So, loud that I could no longer hear my heart thumping.
Even Shakti was stunned. He hadn’t expected this. It was an affront. He had to respond somehow. He had to ascertain his power. He slapped me – hard and loud. I could feel my teeth rattle. That was fine. Violence did not mean I had to step back. I shouted again.
“Bheema Hostel ki Ma kaa…”
This time it aroused the crowd. The retreating freshers came back. They all started shouting. Even more excitedly than earlier. This was no longer just a ritual. This was war! A matter of ascertaining their rightful place in college. They were here now. They owned it as much as Shakti and his friends did.
Despite being drunk, Shakti had enough sense to know that he could no longer deal with it publicly. He grabbed my collar and dragged me away from the crowd, inside the hostel.
He dragged me all way to his room in the last wing of the hostel.
The first thing I noticed about the room was the smell. No, not smell, the stink. Of smoke, and of buttermilk gone sour. I had never seen an alcoholic up close in my life, let alone know what one smelt like. My mind must have shut out the inhabitants of the room and the noise outside in an attempt to cope with impending danger, because I was able to notice other details of the dimly lit room too. There were posters all around. Of large, muscled men. Body builders? Sylvester Stallone? Arnold Schwarzenegger? I had heard those names, but I couldn’t have identified them because I hadn’t watched their movies. And there were bottles, more of them than I thought could fit in that small room. Some brown, some green. Some were the familiar soft-drink bottles. Despite my ignorance about the smell of alcohol, I was sure the others had alcoholic companions. Empty. So many of them. Probably consumed in the last few hours, by these five boys… no, men. This thought would have broken my reverie if my eyes had not darted towards the magazines lying on the bed. My breath caught in my throat and I gasped audibly. There was more female flesh on those magazines than I had seen even in the ads in women’s magazines in my moments of guilty pleasure, my best exposure to porn till then. I would have stared at them longer had I not been recalled to the real world by stinging slaps and unfettered abuses. “Bhench… Abusing my mother, my hostel…”
At first I could hear some commotion outside. Surely someone would come to my rescue? All these people with whom I had shared my life for a month, but the voices started dying out. Were they all leaving? Or had the constant punching, slapping, knocking and smashing affecting my hearing?
Whatever it was, my hopes were dying. They had known me only for a few weeks. Why would they risk anything for me? I was going to die here. In this stinking room, at the hands of these drunk bhench…. And why? Because I had stood for my rights. For the rights of my fellow students. Another punch in my stomach! Things had gone so bad that they could only grow better from here. I knew by then what beaten to pulp meant. I was about to pass out. But I struggled to not surrender.
“You can beat me,” I heard myself growl in an unfamiliar voice, “But you can’t break me.”
“What?” I had managed to surprise them.
“It was our right to shout abuses at Bheema Hostel.”
“Saala… Gandhi ki aulaad… Maderch…”
More punches came in, but soon they were tired; the effect of alcohol was ebbing away, they slowed down and finally stopped. Then Shakti signaled to one of his friends and he kicked me out of the room.
The pain was excruciating as I walked the unusually deserted street between Bheema hostel and my own, but my pride was stronger. Who could have believed that I, the good student, the weak boy, would survive a bunch of drunk bullies and still stand up for what was right! I had done it. Almost the entire hostel was gathered in the hall quad. They were waiting for me. Those who spotted me first ran towards me. “What happened… You look bad… First aid… Health Center…”
“I’m fine,” I found my voice rising above the din.
The hostel president, a third-year student, walked up to me and asked me what happened. He was unusually tense.
“They beat me. But they could not break me. I told them that we were right. I just want to go to my room and wash up.”
“Right. Go with him,” he ordered two second-year students, “And make sure he is well. Get some Dettol and Crocin. Stay with him for night and take him to the Health Center in the morning.”
“Bugger has got it in him. He is not just a Maggu!” I heard the president mumble after me and appreciative grunts followed.
And then somebody shouted, “Bheema hostel me Ma kaa…” Others joined him.
I was a hero. Who would have thought?