The first day in college is a life changing experience – stepping out from the comforts of home and parental supervision, away from the known and into the unknown. It marks the beginning of a cycle of maturity, of developing from an adolescent into adulthood. You have to make the right decisions, and you have to take responsibility of those decisions. There is a lot of meaning attached to college – so much so that it can sometimes be a bit too much to process for a 17 year old fresh out of school. For me on that fateful day in August, however, the most pressing concern was not that of the impeding responsibility; it was about reaching college on time.
It started with the traditional Indian ceremony of tilak in Lucknow – a long drawn out, slightly irritating ritual which is meant to bless a new endeavour. I was in the courtyard of my sister’s place, waiting for my mother to complete her ritual with a growing impatience. My father was standing next to me in the courtyard, as was Rajesh jijaji. Renu di was standing at the door with her two little brats. A quick glance at the watch informed me it was 0810 hrs; my college was due to start at 0900.
“Here, eat this.” My mother held out a spoonful of sweetened curd for me to eat. I frowned, but complied.
“Hurry up maa,” I said, feigning irritability. “We are already late.”
She smiled indulgingly at me and anointed my forehead with the sacred paste. I touched her feet to complete the ritual.
“Come on,” my father was pacing around in the courtyard with an agitated expression on his face (he has a short fuse). “Do you want him to miss his class on the very first day? He already got up late enough to begin with.”
Being the model son that I was, I said nothing about being up late the previous night discussing trivial topics such as my career and professional future, and whether I should switch my branch in my second year. I motioned to my mother to hurry up and walked towards the cab. The driver was standing at the gate, smoking. I coughed involuntarily as the acrid smoke entered my lungs.
“Chalo, bhaiya,” I said, asking him to back the car out. My father and mother were going with me to see me off to college, as was Rajesh jijaji. My family stayed in Bareilly (part of the reason why I opted for a college in Lucknow), and were unfamiliar with Lucknow’s outlay; jijai was to act as their guide. Our driver started the car and soon we were out of the society’s gate.
“Babu Banarasi Das College, please,” announced my father.
Disaster struck as soon as the words were uttered. Another car, which was coming in from my left, hit our car a glancing blow to the rear, smashing the taillight. Our driver stopped the car and started hurling abuses at the offender.
“Look at this, you fucker,” he shouted. “Look at what you’ve done.”
The offender, being a true UP wallah, barely slowed his car before turning the corner. The driver hurled a few curses after him, and then got back into the car. This time, however, he drove slower than before. Much slower. I glanced at my watch – 0830 hrs.
“We are going to be late,” I commented as our driver, stuck in the traffic, honked his horn. “This driver is very tardy.”
Maybe it was what I said that sparked the reaction, maybe it was the way I said it. Maybe after his heated exchange a little while ago my comment finally pushed him over the edge, or maybe it was just whatever he’d been smoking finally hitting his sweet spot. Hadn’t I mentioned at the very beginning that being on time was my major concern? Well, you could now add staying alive to the list of priorities. His feet floored the accelerator, breaking the traffic signal and leaving a traffic policeman whistling and waving in his wake.
“Watch where you’re going!” my father screamed at the driver as he turned into the wrong lane.
“Is he drunk?” I commented, holding on to my seat for dear.
My father shook his head, expressing his ignorance on the topic. Jijaji tried to sniff any traces of alcohol from his vantage point in the passenger’s seat.
“Not drunk,” he passed the verdict. “He just seems to be naturally crazy.”
The driver seemed oblivious to our discussion. He, as a matter of fact, seemed utterly oblivious to everything in the world, including the traffic on the road. He zigged this way and zagged that way without a care in the world, drawing out more curses from my father and screams from the rest of us.
“I don’t want to die,” I sobbed, holding my mother’s hand. “I’m too young to die.”
“Don’t worry. Everything will be just fine,” she said, patting my head reassuringly. I looked up and saw she had her eyes tightly shut. I don’t have to say I didn’t feel very reassured just then. I tried closing my eyes to see if it helped, but somehow my imagination made the situation much worse than it was.
I genuinely do not know how we managed to reached the college. The car had twisted and turned this way and that, breaking every rule in the traffic rulebook and a few others that weren’t even there. The rest of the details were a bit hazy due to the trouble I had processing the cars whizzing by my nose and my entire life flashing by in front of my eyes, but I believe it had something to do with my mother’s prayers.
“Here you are.” The driver announced, stopping the car with a loud screech in front of the college entrance. No one moved for a full minute, disbelieving the evidence of their eyes. I clambered down with my bag and touched my body to see if any part was missing. Thankfully, everything still seemed to be in order. The rest of our party disembarked as well, taking deep breaths to reassure themselves they still could draw breath.
“What the hell was that?” my father lost his cool, turning red with rage. “You could have gotten us all killed back there.”
“But you’re alive still,” replied the driver casually. “And you got here five minutes before time.”
My father’s red face got even redder than before. Just as he was about to blow his top, jijaji interjected smoothly.
“Leave it, chachaji,” he said, putting an arm around his shoulders. “I’ll take care of him.”
Words were exchanged between the driver and Rajesh jijaji, with jijaji doing most of the talking. The driver simply nodded. Cash exchanged hands and he was off on his way.
“Got rid of him,” jijaji informed cheerfully. “We’ll get another ride for the way back.”
Once the shock of the terrifying drive wore off, I took a long look at the place that was to be the site for my new beginning. The massive brick red building loomed large in front of us. Surprising, all the excitement that I’d imagined at the prospect of joining college had steadily trickled away the closer I got to college. Standing at the entrance then, I seemed curiously devoid of any feeling, any emotion (it might have been a side effect of the gut-wrenching journey). In fact, my parents seemed more excited at the prospect of going to college than I was.
“Your first day in college,” father slapped my back.
“My first day in college,” I agreed, a little foolishly. Thankfully alive, I thought to myself.
“My son is a big boy now,” my mother was positively beaming. I returned her smile and nodded.
It was time to go. I touched my parents’ feet for their blessings. My father kept his hand on my head in benediction; my mother, on the other hand, chose to lavish my cheeks with kisses. A few students entering turned their heads to watch the family drama playing out. I turned beet-root red as a group of girls giggled at the sight of my mother straightening my tie.
“Enough, maa,” I disengaged myself from her grasp, feeling slightly irritated. “I am a grown up man now.”
“My dear son, all grown up and going to be a college student,” she said, pinching my cheeks. “Aren’t you darling?”
I refrained from pointing out that grown men do not have mothers pinching their cheeks, nor do they have parents dropping them off on their first day in college. I was not a little schoolboy on his first day to kindergarten. No, I was an adult (well, almost) who could make his decisions and take the responsibility of his life in his own hands. With such determined thoughts swirling through my head, I bade my farewell and started walking towards the entrance with resolute steps.
And turned back almost immediately. The big black entrance gate perched ominously underneath the darkened horizon suddenly seemed as appealing as the gates of Mordor. I knew I was supposed to pass through them, but somehow the intimidating build and daunting presence did not make me feel very welcome. Doubts which I hadn’t realised existed suddenly sprang up from hidden corners – was I mature enough to handle college? Was I mature enough to stay away from home and take care of myself? Would I be able to do something good in college and life, or would this all be just a big waste? Would I be able to adjust at all?
“Go on, son.” Someone nudged me in the back, almost tipping me over. I turned to find myself looking at the round-faced visage of my father with a smile on his face. “Get going.”
“I’m trying.” I muttered underneath my breath, turning to face the gates again.
I looked down in order to assure myself my feet hadn’t turned into lead bars fixed in a vat of concrete. It felt like a childhood nightmare come true, only thankfully I had my pants still on (don’t you dare laugh. We’ve all had one of those dreams). I turned back with a pitiful expression in my eyes. My father’s smile had turned into a smile-cum-grimace, partly because of the stifling humidity and partly because of my inability to move forward. My mother was beaming at me over his shoulder and nodding her encouragement as she probably urged me to walk when I was a toddler (I never did. I ran instead. Always shot for the stars, I have). My father’s profusely sweating face, however, was definitely grimacing more than it was smiling by now, steadily growing red again. Taking my hint from the warning signs, I walked through the entrance with a rapidly sinking heart into uncharted territory.
Now for those who do not know, the first day in an Indian engineering college is not the fun, amazing experience that it is generally portrayed to be in popular culture. There are no awesome people around looking to welcome the freshers into college, there is no music playing in the background, no hubbub of a hundred conversations going on over coffee, nor are there students meeting and mingling with each other like there’s nothing else for them to do. To a fresher, the atmosphere in an engineering college feels like a jungle – tightly drawn, right on the edge. It is deathly quiet, and the only students can be seen are the ones generally rushing to attend a class or away to avoid one. Moreover, there was a threat of seniors lurking in wait, stalking, looking for a fresher to walk into their trap unaware. As I walked down the long road to my building, all the stories of ragging that no one ever missed a chance to recount began to swirl in my mind. Left and right I glanced, wary of anyone who looked askance at me; with my brand new uniform, my crisp tie, my side parted hair, my boyish, slightly child-like appearance and the bright orange tika on my forehead, I probably stood out like a beacon to all the seniors as a potential prey. I looked around, searching for something, anything that might provide me with a tactical advantage. Aided by my high powered glasses, my keen gaze zeroed in a thin, long-legged individual ambling along pleasantly some distance ahead. His outfit marked him as a fresher, just as I was. Following the first rule of the forest – there’s always safety in numbers – I went from a walk to a brisk trot to catch up with him.
“Hi.” I said, huffing slightly from the exertion.
“Hi.” He replied with an easy smile.
“Which year are you from?” I said, eyeing his crisp shirt and brightly coloured tie with interest.
The abrupt question wiped the smile off his face.
“First year, electrical engineering,” he replied, eyeing me suspiciously. “Why do you ask?”
“I am too.” I extended my hand, grateful to find another companion soul. “Ritwik Kargeti, Electrical first year.”
He looked relieved. “Dipen Prakhar Srivastava.” He took my hand in his bony grip. “We’re classmates, I guess.”
“Yes, I guess.” I agreed.
An awkward silence fell between us after that initial exchange, the kind of silence that falls between two people who know they ought to converse with each other, but cannot figure out how to. And it was in silence we walked down the long road to our building, looking rather like the number ten (or zero and one, depending on the perspective) – he with his long, thin body, and I with my short, slightly pudgy self. My entry in college, barring a life-threatening joyride, had passed off without too much of an incident.
As is the tradition with any new class, professors came in one by one. Introductions were asked for time and again, and introductions were given with due diligence time and again. The first half of the first day whiled away giving intros no one really cared about. By the afternoon, I knew all there was to know about DP. Well, the stuff that I was interested in anyway. He was born and raised in Lucknow, lived in Indira Nagar locality, passed his standard XII ICSE boards with 87 percent marks and was generally an all-around good guy. I quickly decided to befriend him. College for me was chance for a new beginning after the fiasco of my intermediate examination (loooong story, this one), a chance to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. No more bad lot, I promised myself, I was in Lucknow for education, and that is all I was going to focus upon. At least, that was the general idea. Unfortunately, that twisted being called destiny, as we all know, has a particularly obnoxious habit of throwing up a few surprises when you least expect it. It was going to deal a particularly curious hand to me.
I was sitting by the window next to my new best buddy DP at the third bench of the furthermost corner. It was lunch, and I was already bored.
“Hey Ankush,” I turned to Ankush Srivastava, the third person on our bench. “What’s up?”
“Ceiling,” he replied, focused on the notes that he had written down in the previous lecture.
I resisted the urge to hit him on his head. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Bareilly,” I continued in an attempt to keep the conversation going. “Must be lovely place, Sultanpur. A typically quaint, picturesque town complete with fields and farms.”
“Nah man,” he finally shut his notebook. “It’s a hellhole. I just wanted to get away from it for a while.”
We sat in silence for a while as I tried to figure out a way to restart the conversation.
“What do you do for fun?” I asked Ankush as his hand inched towards the notebook again.
The moving hand froze. “Fun?” he replied, obviously confused.
“Yes, fun.” I replied, with an amused expression on my face. “The thing that you have when you’re enjoying yourself, remember?”
“No, I don’t remember,” he replied stoically. “I’ve been preparing for IIT the past three years.”
That explained the sincerity and lack of humour, I thought to myself – the IIT hay fever. There were 1.21 billion people in India, out of which nearly 1 billion people either wanted to become IITians, or wanted their sons and daughters to crack the entrance. Students spent years in IIT coaching and tuition centres in order to clear the entrance and be selected, for becoming an IITian was supposed to be the cure to all of life’s ills. It mended broken families, brought people closer together, and even helped someone’s love life back on track. It was, and still is, India’s Holy Grail for most students of a college-going age. I patted Ankush on his back in sympathy; he nodded his head and went back to his notebook.
With nothing else to do, I assessed the classroom. Now the first day in college is like the opening of a new mall or apparel store – people are excited about what’s on offer, walk around a lot to gauge if there is something they might be interested in, like some things instantly and dislike others in a moment, and tend to gravitate around the corners that they find most appealing.
“Hey,” said DP as he plopped down on the bench. “What’s up?”
“Nothing,” I replied absently, as my hands worked at removing evidence from the preceding day– a roll numbered sticker left over from an entrance examination – on their own accord. It was lunch, and I was horribly bored.
“So I was just talking to Promit Khare,” DP enthused, “He’s from Lucknow itself, from Mahanagar Boys. Nice guy.”
“Who’s Promit Khare?” I asked, finally managing to get the little chit unstuck.
“That guy there,” he replied, pointing out a stocky guy of medium height with a unibrow like a Neanderthal.
“Yeah, seems like a nice guy,” I agreed, trying to keep the sarcasm out of my tone and the chit from sticking to my hand. “What’s that thing there, though?”
“What?” DP turned in the direction my finger was pointing, giving me just enough time to slap the still adhesive slip of paper with a pat on his back.
“Never mind, it was nothing,” I patted his back again, making sure the slip stuck well. I looked around to see if anyone had registered the offense; no one seemed to be interested.
No one, that is, except one rogue-like individual sitting in the last bench. Being the only person in the class wearing a denim shirt and jeans, he’d naturally stood out from the rest of the class from the moment he’d entered. That, combined his thick beard and an apparent disregard for the professors’ authority, added to his impression as a disrupting element.
He smiled at me at the prank. I returned the smile, not wanting to come across as hostile with such a rowdy individual. What I hadn’t counted on was him wanting to chit-chat. I felt a little surge of fear pass through me as he approached my desk.
“Hi,” he said, calmly removing the sticker from DP’s back.
“Hi,” I replied evenly, assessing him. He did not seem as threatening up close; as a matter of fact, he was slight of build and shorter in height than I was (not many people are). That fact gave me certain confidence.
“Hi,” DP said as well.
“What’s your name?” He asked. His voice was deep and slightly gruff.
DP and I looked at each other with confused expressions on our faces.
“I’m sorry,” DP said apologetically, his normally cheerful disposition slightly dampened by the confusion, “but which one of us are you talking to?”
“Him,” the guy told DP as he slapped the paper slip back on his shirt and winked at me. I suppressed a laugh.
“Hi. Ritwik Singh, from Mau,” he extended his hand.
“Hi. Ritwik Kargeti, from Bareilly,” I shook his hand warmly, glad to find someone who shared my name.
“Why don’t you come over to my seat? The lecturers are boring anyway,” the other Ritwik pointed to the backbenches. “It’d be fun.”
Taking into account how I was looking for something fun just a few minutes ago, the offer should have been appealing. But I was reluctant to join him; this guy had managed to ruffle more than a few feathers in just three lectures, and I did not want to be counted as a bad apple in college (particularly after my school days). I was still looking for an answer when DP interjected.
“Yeah, why not,” he said cheerfully. I looked at DP with murder in my eyes.
However, despite my misgivings, DP and I soon shifted to the last second-last bench in the middle row with all our belongings. Ankush chose to stay by the window; partly because we didn’t ask him to move with us, and partly because there was no more space available on the bench, what with a sweet looking Mohan Sahni already seated there.
As we talked through the rest of the day, I realised I had formed an incorrect first impression about Ritwik Singh. The bloke was a good four years elder to me and despite his outward appearance had a first class working brain. He had been preparing for his IIT entrances for the past three years, making it to the IIT extended list on his first attempt before losing his way in bad company. Moreover, it seemed we shared more than just the first name. He too had joined engineering to redeem himself in his own eyes, just as I had; he too shared a similar ideology as I. I was happy to have found such good friends on just the first day of college. What I hadn’t realised, though, was that fate had just rolled the first throw of the dice.