Strangers No More
[Guest post by Baljinder Sharma who studied Electrical Engineering at MNIT Jaipur and migrated to Mauritius in 1993. He is an occasional writer and has been published in leading newspapers in Mauritius where he presently lives.]
[Prologue: Twenty five years after they have left engineering colleges, students – now full bodied professionals with fat wives and unpredictable children, are invited back to their alma mater to celebrate (their) Golden Jubilee. Attendance to such events is going down in the age of cheap 24X7 connectivity via Skype, WhatsAp and Facebook. At the forthcoming alumni event at the college, a past student makes a case for his batch-mates to attend.]
In coming to Jaipur, Rajasthan’s capital city in 1984, I had escaped an impending plague in Surat, a medical education in Ahmadabad and my small town mentality in Anand –a town, that, in fact, had barely a reason to exist except in the mind of an enterprising milkman.
Little did I realize that I had bigger losses to face – my teenage, my innocence and my yet unformed relationships!
There I was – surrounded by three hundred other students struggling to overcome their own losses. They had not only left their towns and villages they had left their states, their languages and their cultures. Regional engineering colleges like mine were meant to encourage a form of regional integration and national unity across India. For many it was shocking to discover that people who looked Chinese were actually Indians with mongoloid feature – that the south Indians showed up inside Dining Halls wearing nothing more than knee length wrap arounds and a vest. There were myths spread by the North Indians that the South Indians did not take bath and consumed rice mixed with curd – they did not cut their nails and used them to scratch their balls. The Manipuri Indians ate dogs. The Bengalis ate fish -and smelled it from a distance and believed in communism. The Guajarati did not join the Indian Army because they were cowards. The north Indians were aggressive, arrogant and violent and ready to fight. The Biharis smoked cheap Gandia, did not attend classes and gambled all night – including before the exams. They leaked examination papers, intimidated the professors and ran the college politics. The various tribal groups kept to themselves unsure of their place within the apparent divisions and constantly forming groups. There were foreigners who owned motorbikes bought from the generous Indian government grants and brandished them to impress the few girls who chose to become engineers rather than simply become their wives.
We were, each one of us, different and yet we found ourselves locked inside classrooms, group sessions and hostel facilities that we had little power or judgement to choose. Our differences allowed us to uncover our own identities while at the same time teaching us that these very differences could be the basis of our friendships and respectful relationships.
Four long years, at the end of which we were awarded bachelor degrees were barely spent in studies. There were many distracting reasons. At first, there was alcohol – chilled beer that tasted divine, the uplifting whisky, the rum and coke and sunny winter morning’s gin and tonics. There were all kinds of film shows and pornographic magazines. Unending window-shopping and… fruitless bargaining for items that we had no money to purchase – given our middle class backgrounds. There was unstoppable loitering around, bitching about, rumour mongering and bad mouthing – all harmless but engaging enough to pass time in an entertaining manner. Studies, for most, showed up at the end of a long list of reasons to be a student – for many – absolutely dispensable for others boring to death.
Then there was false pride, uncontrollable arrogance and youthful violence -all mixed up and ready to act. There was politics, groupism and its lowliest manifestation – casteism, gripping our impressionable mind and consuming our testosterones.
Four years passed like a three-hour film that we wanted to see more. On the day I was leaving the college to take up my first job, I was not sure if I had made more enemies than friends. My evolution from an innocent school goer to an engineering graduate hurt many of my fellow students, my teachers and my friends but ultimately it hurt me.
Twenty-five more years have passed. The lecture theatres have remained the same but entirely new academic blocks have emerged. The library has fallen to the use of Internet and wifi. There is a girls hostel. Roads have been finally paved. Students have motorbikes and cars. Professors have money – after the Sixth pay commission. A new canteen is sanctioned, a technology incubator is planned and the college has become a University.
Shrubs have become trees.
Tilak, the tiny man who served awful tea from a dirty shack outside the small gate has died. I learnt that he been killed by policemen in Delhi who took away his one room dwelling in one of its slum. His wife had left him. His mother passed away long before. The old lady who sold cigarettes close to the canteen has moved outside the gate – to a better life. The canteen is still dirty and the barber will try and retrieve his unpaid dues if you happen to cross him by accident.
Ram, the entrepreneurial shopkeeper outside the main gate who sold everything from sandwiches to bicycle parts has settled his kids and is winding down his tin shade. There is a supermarket few hundred meters away and students prefer to spend time in air-conditioned Malls and drink at the Cafes than waste their time and life on the stone benches outside his shop.
Many of you will not come this December for the Reunion – I have learnt. You have important works. Kids are growing up and they need to join universities. Finances are tight. Inflation is killing. Credit cards have maxed out. Wife is not too excited to meet a group of morons you have not considered worthy enough to keep in touch with. Some of you actually hate others for the way they behaved with you and most of them are not people you would call your friends.
We were strangers once who met by accident. We are prejudiced, opinionated, unequal and pretentious now. Twenty-five years of time has done untold damage to our soul. Shortly our bodies will start failing us. Then we will die.
There are hundreds of reasons not to come to the Reunion this winter – extreme cold is one of them but let prejudice not become the guiding one. It is hard to replace experience with innocence but remember there was once an experience called innocence. That experience still binds us.
This Reunion is our rite of passage. If for no other reason – come to replenish – the mysticism of innocence?
Come as strangers.
[Image courtesy: web.trinity.edu]