Friday, 1 May 2015

Something or the Other - Chapter 1: The Beginning, begins

The beginning, as with everything else, depends upon the perspective. According to some, the universe just came into existence as it was one fine day – fully furnished with customised galaxies and designer star systems. Others believe there was nothing in the beginning – no time, no space, no life, nothing but the endless void. All the matter was supposedly crunched up in one tight little ball that, like a terminal gastric patient, decided it could take it no more of its internal pressure and blasted away in the most spectacular event in the history of the universe. The beginnings of my misadventures, however, were extremely humble, being as far from the Big Bang as the Eiffel Tower is from Uranus. But things were about to get interesting.
“I can dictate”, I said moodily to Ritwik Singh as I threw down my pen in disgust, “better than this lousy idiot”.
We were in the middle of a lecture, making a show of jotting down the ‘notes’ in our ‘notebooks’. Others were busy making notes; I was busy admiring the professor. This one was a real beauty. Short of stature and dark of skin, his mug was a great piece of art – abstract art. And on top of it all he was really, really arrogant. He was supposed to be teaching us the Fundamentals of Information Technology or FOIT, but was essentially reading out paragraphs from the prescribed book that caught his fancy. Oh yes, we get books prescribed to us, much like drugs and painkillers; only they aren’t effective (the books, that is. The drugs could rock the party).
“Bloody idiot!” Singh said with a passion and to no one in particular. I couldn’t be sure whether he was addressing me or the professor, but for the peace of my mind I assumed it was the professor his abuse was hurled at.
“Bloody idiot!” I echoed him happily.
So much for a fresh start, I thought sardonically. I was tired, plain and simple; tired of professors boring us with the irritable habit of reading paragraphs that packed enough punch to put a person high on espresso in coma; tired of them showcasing that modicum of authority in their hands called internal marks; and tired of the college just a week into college life. I was also tired of jotting down notes without really knowing what I was writing. So, in the true blue spirit of the rebel, I decided to draw figures on the back page of my notebook instead. Swords and shields, yin-yang stuff, stick figures, aliens in UFOs, birds and the trees, happy naked kids running around in the sun, Egyptian hieroglyphs; you name it, I drew it.
“You there! Is there a problem?” a voice cackled. It wasn’t a bellow (there was not enough authority), but it brought me out of my trance.
“I am talking to you, the one on the fourth bench.”
I began figuring out which person on which fourth bench was being addressed, and had my answer soon.
“You, next to Mohan! You, with the specs!” the cackle had gone up a notch higher and was now threatening to become a screech.
Someone nudged me. I looked up to stare at the professor’s face, which was dark with anger (as if it wasn’t dark enough already).
“Me?” I inquired with an incredulous expression. He nodded angrily.
This is a fine start, I thought. It hadn’t affected me as much to be pointed out in front of the whole class as it hurt me to be called ‘the one next to Mohan’. Didn’t the professor remember my name, despite having asked the entire class for introduction thrice in three different lectures? I was hurt at this apparent slight.
“Why aren’t you noting down?” he asked me.
I kept silent, resisting the temptation to point out that his entire lecture could be found word-to-word in my FOIT books had I bothered to look, and resisted following it up with a reply on the lines of ‘I was trying to be environmentally conscious by saving both ink and paper’. The silence had its effect. He marched down from his elevated altar (the classroom was like a church; only noisier, smaller and less peaceful). I stood still.
“Where’s your register?” he demanded, and I showed him the rough notebook.
“No fair register?”
Utter and complete silence greeted his question. He flipped through the pages irritably.
“Where are today’s notes?”
The disquieting quiet continued. He stared at my face, I stared at his. The entire classroom watched the spectacle with interest. People in India have this particularly charming habit of standing on the by-lines of a public scene and enjoying the free entertainment on offer when someone else is in trouble. I speak from experience; I’ve been amongst the spectators plenty of times. Thankfully, the bell came to our rescue just then, signalling the end of the lecture and our uneasy standoff.
“What’s your name?” he finally asked.
“Ritwik Kargeti, Roll no 40,” I replied.
He opened the attendance register and probably marked something on ‘Roll no 40’. There were disappointed sighs throughout the classroom at the apparent anti-climax. Maybe I came across as a poor, tongue-tied kid to the teacher and many of my classmates. I didn’t care. It wouldn’t do to screw my internals just for the fun of harassing a professor. Not so quick, anyway. His time will come too, eventually.
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“And so, the structure of a crystal is generally decisive in determining the co-ordination number of the crystal.”
It was the Chemistry lecture and one of the only classes where the professor actually knew something about what he was teaching. His name was Anoop Shrivastava, but we didn’t know that for the first few lectures, instead calling him the ‘Sir with Pen Drive’ after the big yellow Kingston pen-drive he always had hanging down his neck. He, unlike other teachers, hadn’t been too keen on intros. And, unlike many other professors, he projected an aura of knowledge and authority. Plus he was fun. He liked to take a break at the end of each lecture and joke with us.
“But sir, how do we determine the co-ordination number from the structure of a crystal?”
“Well, that’s easy. It is the number of equidistant atoms from a reference atom in the crystal lattice. Let me show you,” he said, demonstrating the crystal lattice on the green board. “Is it clear now?”
Asking that was a big mistake; questions peppered him from all corners of the classroom. It’s like that at every new place you see. People are extremely eager to make an impression, generally a good one. I hadn’t understood what coordination number was either, but I had the Chemistry Wizard Ritwik Singh sitting right next to me. I could ask him explain it anytime I wanted.
“Okay, so who is the one with the funniest bone around here?” he asked once the questioning voices quietened down.
Now, as you may have guessed, I am fairly entertaining and can be quite puntastically funny when I want to be (see what I did there?). Anticipating my classmates to chant my name like a holy hymn, I took a deep breath to calm myself and prepared myself for the widespread acclaim.
“Madhav!” I had already half-way out of my seat when they cried out in unison.
Those who have been in a similar situation would realise how embarrassing it is to stand up to receive recognition, only to see it being awarded right in front of their eyes to someone else. Dazed and disbelieving, I plopped down back on my seat like a sack of potatoes with as much dignity I could muster and craned my neck to see who this Madhav was. My jaw dropped in shock and disbelief. A dark-haired, dark-skinned, slim boy resembling a weasel was strutting his way to the podium. The first three buttons of his shirt were open, revealing a lean, stick-thin frame I felt like snapping in half. My jaw dropped even further when I realised Singh was also busy urging Madhav to go take his rightful place as the funniest lad in the class. This is what Caesar might have felt as he was stabbed by people he thought his friends, I reflected, this is what it feels like to fall from grace when your own friends deceive you. I shrunk back into my seat to sulk and nurse my injured feelings, having lost all faith in any justice in the world. Madhav, on the other hand, went up to the podium with all the pride of an Olympic medal winner and the grace of a lynched weasel.
“So, you’re the funniest person. What do you do to make this lot laugh?”
At this simple question, echoes rang out from different corners of the class, making it feel like a fish-market. No, the analogy is wrong; a fish-market would’ve been less noisy.
“Tiwari sir’s mimicry!”
“He’s really very good at mimicry, sir.”
“He can mimic most of the Bollywood stars too.”
“Okay, show us something,” Anoop sir ordered as he dragged his chair to a location with a better view.
The weasel complied with the request and began his performance. Our new public entertainer was from Kanpur, the city with which I had had a hate-hate relationship going. I wasn’t real sure it was going to improve.
“What happened to you?” Singh, who’d studied for three years in Kanpur, looked at me crossly.
“What’s it to you?” I replied sulkily. I had been most hurt by the defection of my own personal Brutus, whom I’d entertained through boring lunches and even more boring classes, and pulled no stops in letting him know I did not like it.
“Suit yourself,” he replied with a shrug and turned back to watch Madhav perform. The fact that he genuinely was funny only added further insult to the injury, more oil to the fire, rubbed salt in the wound – you get the gist. I sulked some more, consoling myself that one day I would get back at everyone for this treachery.
The bell tolled, signalling the end of the lecture and start of the lunch break. One by one, my classmates filed out with their lunchboxes, leaving me wallowing alone in my misery. All, that is, except my bosom buddy Singh, who was bent over his notebook and busy scribbling in it. My mood had lightened a bit since the recent Weasel-gate scandal just a few minutes ago, but I was still feeling sulky. I was not on talking terms with the rest of class, but the pity was they didn’t know it. They didn’t know because I wasn’t talking to them, and telling them that I wasn’t talking to them would have kind of defeated the entire purpose. I had relented in Singh’s case though; only he was too busy scribbling something in his notebook to truly appreciate my magnanimity. I ignored him for a while, but eventually curiosity got the better of me.
“What exactly are you doing?” I asked Singh. He said nothing.
I asked again. He still said nothing. I thought about leaning down from my perch atop the desk to see what the fuss was about, but then thought better of it. Then I thought again and leaned in to see what he was writing. What I saw surprised me; it was a list of groceries he planned to buy that evening, and some that he had bought the previous evening.
“Fuck you!” I said dispassionately. The bloody ass still did not grace my comment with a reply. I felt like rapping the side of his head.
Phlegmatic, which by the way does not mean I had a heavy cough or cold, I surveyed the almost empty class. Apart from me, Singh and a couple of real studious types who had stayed back to discuss what the professors had taught (or narrated, or dictated, or sang, depending upon their style of “teaching”) since the morning, the class was empty. Some were busy scribbling in their notebooks. I didn’t bother peeking into their notebooks to see whether they were revising or just making a grocery list. I had better things to do with my time (brood, for one).
Bollocks, I thought with disappointment, this is college. There was hype surrounding college life that just wasn’t real. My life had once again fallen into the boring tedium of leaving the house in the morning and returning in the evening. The professors weren’t worth it; there were no fun or extra-curricular activities to speak of. Except Ritwik Singh, my friends were practically non-existent, and there wasn’t even a remote chance to get a girlfriend anytime soon. In fact there weren’t even enough girls in my batch. Those that were there were not worth a second look, which coming from an Adonis like me is pretty damning. Lectures were boring, nothing was happening. Au contraire, everything was non-happening.
To while away my time I did a quick calculation of the male-to-female ratio of my class which, I realised with a start, was poorer than Haryana’s state average, generally considered to be the worst in the country (Haryana has 827 females for every 1000 males, or exactly 8.27 for 10. In my class, there were 7, maybe eight girls in a batch of 60. You do the maths).
Bollocks, I swore again, somewhat passionately. This wasn’t what I’d planned, but then again when does life ever go as you plan it? Fate, it seemed, had something else in mind for me, and I would have bet whatever you had in your pocket it wouldn’t exactly have been rosy.
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“What exactly are you doing?” I whispered furiously at Singh, tugging at his shirt.
People were returning to the class after the lunch break. He said nothing. I asked again. He continued to say nothing. I opened my mouth again, but then decided to keep it shut, getting a particularly obnoxious sensation of déjà vu of having had the same conversation with someone at some other time (or maybe even the same person at some other time).
“Hey, come on over,” Singh beckoned, “come over to our seat”.
No, this certainly was going as planned. He was inviting Madhav to come sit with us. But hey, even the best-laid, well thought-out plans get fucked, and mine wasn’t even very well laid or particularly thought out. I almost moaned out aloud in disgust. The Ferret-face was already at the seat, bringing in his entourage as well. It contained Harsh Rajan Shahi, who stood up leaning like the Tower of Pisa at roll-call, as well as Sumeet Yadav and Saras Dubey.
“There isn’t enough space for two more people on the bench,” I put in helpfully, wishing Ferret-face would leave and take his posse with him.
But Singh wasn’t taking any. Mohan Sahni, being a helpful prick, left on his own accord to sit besides Nilima Gupta, who sat on the row ahead and had a very uncanny resemblance to a very popular and universally despised item girl in appearance. Now there were seven of us, and the seat was ideally designed for seating four. Five could have been seated with some adjustment (a very Indian trait. We are very compromising people), but seven was definitely out of question. The problem was solved when Saras, Sumeet and Harsh decided to sit on the vacant bench behind. So, it was me in the corner, Mr. Ferret-face next to me in the middle, with Ritwik Singh and DP on the right-most corner. Madhav tried to initiate some conversation; I grunted the suitable reply and continued chatting with Mohit about something just as the professor was droning on about something.
In fact, I was more interested in the bench in front than my own. Next to Nilima sat Lavleen Kaur, a stick figure exactly like the ones I was drawing in the FOIT lecture, and Surjeet Bagga, who had formed a quick bonding with Lavleen on the fact that they were both Punjabis. I was busy checking out all three girls, while appearing to talk to Sahni. None of them were perfect, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and I was real desperate at the time. So, here I was, busy covertly flirting with three girls all at once without even talking to them (so covertly they didn’t even knew) when my eternal nemesis, Mr. Ferret-face once against decides to poke his finger into my matter.
“Nilima, got a spare pen?” he asked.
Nilima shook her head; Lavleen obliged by offering her pen instead. My blood boiled at this unrequited intervention. Goddamn it, I swore inwardly, I could break his prissy neck and hand it to him on a silver platter. Just the thought of such an absurd deed cheered me up a bit. I visualized it with eyes closed, and smirked.
In fact, I was still visualizing that pretty scene when I heard a very stern, “Are you sleeping in my class?”
I opened my eyes with a start. Shit, shit, shit! I cursed myself.
“What’s funny?” The Maths professor, N.D. Tiwari, glared at me.
“What’s funny?” I said, regretting it instantly.
He looked at me crossly as if I was demented (and probably thought I was on drugs too, or something equally hazy). As he walked down the long way from the green board to my I seat, I suddenly remembered I still had that stupid smile pasted on my face. Cursing myself for getting caught in such a fix, I made an appropriately sober and mournful face. The transformation was spectacular – while earlier I had been mooning like drug addict, my face was now composed in an expression that belonged to a funeral procession. A prof grilling your chestnuts over not paying attention is as tedious, and about as fun.
“Where’s your notebook?” He said, looking at the rough register at my desk.
“Haven’t brought it,” I replied shameless, and hoped it didn’t show. When you get called to stand up in every second lecture about something, shame somehow doesn’t enter the equation.
“Where are you noting the lecture?” He asked again.
I wasn’t. I held up the rough register. He examined it.
“This isn’t what I taught in this lecture,” he commented.
How bloody insightful of you, I thought to myself, maintaining the poker-face expression. He flung the register theatrically.
“Where are today’s problems?” He shouted, shooting spittle over my glasses.
I pointedly removed my spectacles and cleaned them vigorously before putting them back on. It took some effort to not point a finger at him in reply to his question, reminding myself he held fifty marks in his hand. He glared at me for a few moments to establish his disgust and finally came around to the business end of it all.
“What’s your name?” He asked.
“Ritwik Kargeti, Roll no. 40,” I replied almost without an effort.
My head was spinning by the time he asked me to sit down. Four days into college, and two professors had already noticed me for unbecoming behaviour. Good going, I thought bitterly, I might even get a third one soon. And by the gods, I did.
Well, it surely wasn’t my day, but I did not need a further confirmation. Our next lecture was on Professional Communication, i.e., about etiquettes, body language, mannerism while conversing and language employed when dealing professionally; we, after all, were professionals in the making. There was a talk about pronunciation, and the way people give certain signs from their body language. It all bored me no end. I had had too tough a day to focus on this stuff, and was anyway busy watching the scenery outside the window. The blue sky was littered with white clouds that hid the sun. It was beautiful.
“Yes you!” someone called.
I ignored it, having no doubt in my mind that I was the one being addressed by the speaker. With the kind of day I was having I’d not have been surprised if some local dignitary got hurt in a car crash and the blame was levelled upon me, despite the fact that I do not own a license, or an automobile, and do not know how to drive. In all honesty, they would have added those to the charges against me. I’d have been slightly disappointed if they didn’t.
“You there, specksy!” came the voice again.
Someone sure was feeling inventive with words. I still ignored it, having done my fair share of grovelling for the day. Then I felt someone bonk my head, which was a bit more difficult to ignore. I turned around with murder in my eyes to find Singh pointing towards the professor (I swear to God if it was anyone else, I would have planted a fist on the jaw, fair and square).
“Prof’s calling you,” he whispered helpfully.
The Prof, Saras Shukla, was leaning forward with both his palms planted firmly on the table. It was his favourite stance when he was teaching.
“You have trouble hearing?” He asked.
A few of my classmates sniggered; I simply marked them out for future confrontation. Singh shook his head (his small head). He wasn’t paying attention either, but he just seemed glad he wasn’t the one pointed out.
“I asked,” he repeated, “if you have trouble hearing?”
“No, sir,” I replied, when what I really wanted to say was ‘What? Can you repeat your question?’
“You seemed a bit lost in thought,” he asked.
“No, sir,” I replied plainly.
“No? Hmm”, he seemed to ponder over my response. “Then tell me, what I was talking about, just before you interrupted the class?”
I disturbed the class? I thought sullenly. You’re the one who’s so keen on knowing if I have a hearing disability.
“You were talking about how the posture in which one sits or stands in front of his peers determines how they treat him. If one sits straight in front of a senior, he thinks one is eager, disciplined, capable, attentive and willing, and thus makes a favourable impression. If one sits with a slouch, then he or she is considered incompetent, lazy, and compromising by all, his seniors, juniors, and colleagues alike. In front of colleagues and juniors, one should sit with ease, and grace, but with a distinct control. It grants one a sense of power in their eyes, and thus earns respect and admiration.” (See? I didn’t have a hearing disability. I heard it loud and clear. I just wasn’t paying attention to it.)
“And?” He replied simply.
“And what?” I replied, surprised. There was more?
“And what were you doing, staring out of the window? Enjoying the scenery?” He asked, ready for the kill, “It’s not bad, I’d give you that.”
So, I thought to myself, he does want to harass me. It is honestly very complicated why teachers first ask you what they’ve been telling when they think you’re not paying attention, and in case you answer them correctly, ask you what you’d been doing when you were not paying attention. Why can’t they cut to the chase and come straight to the topic at hand?
“I wasn’t looking at the scenery,” I countered, “although, now that you’ve brought it to my notice, it’s not bad, I’d give you that.”
He laughed. “You weren’t?” He queried with a quick wink, “Then what were you looking outside for?”
“Counting cars,” I lied smoothly.
He looked puzzled. “And how many have you counted so far?” He asked again, refusing to give up easily.
From the corner of my eye, I saw around fifteen cars belonging to faculty members that were parked directly beneath the building.
“Eight,” I lied again. He laughed again.
“I like your quick thinking,” he said finally. “And your wit”
You’re not the first one, I thought to myself with a smirk, and you sure as hell won’t be the last.
“So what exactly were you looking at out there?” He asked. This time, I laughed (to myself that is. Outwardly, I gave an impish grin).
“The scenery,” I replied. He smiled back knowingly.
“What’s your name?” He asked.
I gaped at him open-mouthed. The only reason he would ask for my name was to mark it in his register for future reference, and here I thought I had done enough to save myself from any further remonstration. But there was nothing else to do.
“Ritwik Kargeti, Roll no. 40,” came the well-rehearsed reply. Damn you, I swore.
He asked me to sit down; I promptly sat down. Singh was still shaking his head (his small head, I noticed again. Funny how these things stick with you). Damn you too, I swore at Singh. I damned the rest of the class in attendance with (un)happy abandon to make myself feel better. If the professor had trouble with me for not paying attention again, he was free to do whatever he wanted about it. I’d had enough.
“Okay,” the professor flopped in his chair after a while and massaged his temple, “you all are going to write about your first day in college, and read it out aloud.” He checked his watch. “You have fifteen minutes.”
The entire class began to scribble frantically; I did too. At least, it gave me something else to focus on except my dismal day. I’ve always believed creative writing has been my forte. But then again, I’ve also believed I play good football; and that I am a witty, charming, good-looking human being who is sensitive yet tough; and that I am a secretive, uber cool dude like James Bond, only sexier. And so I penned down my frustration on paper.
There is a problem with me, you see. I like perfection, and although I am far from perfect, I am the most perfect imperfection I can be. No, that’s not the point. The point is that I write something, then edit it, then cross it out, then rewrite it again in a different manner, edit that too, and cross it all out, and start writing again. I am confused as to what approach must be taken – witty, sarcastic, emotional, touching, mysterious or escapist – with the end result being an extremely confusing all encompassing jumble.
Fifteen minutes turned into twenty. Half the class had already finished and read their narratives. Without being too critical, they were dull. Boring. I could have done better after taking two sleeping pills and sleepwalking all over the city, waking up with a headache and a hangover, and finally after taking two more pills, in my sleep. Saras Shukla was watching me like an expectant father (It’s just an analogy. I wasn’t expecting his child. Or anyone else’s for that matter).
“You finished your piece, Ritwik?” He asked.
“Not yet,” I replied.
Twenty-five minutes. Almost all the class had had their narratives read.
“Finished?” He asked again. There was an edge in his voice.
Twenty-eight minutes on the clock. There was no time to stand up and read. I hurriedly zapped through the end of the narrative and ran up to him just as the bell rang. Shit, I thought again, all that hard work, all that ingenuity, for nothing. The class started to trickle out of the hall. I was still standing by his side. Don’t get me wrong, I’d have ran out the first chance I got, but for two things – one; he still had my register, and two; I knew he would appreciate what I wrote. I wanted to bask in the praise. Singh stopped back, standing at my side (role-reversal. Now it was I who was looking at Saras sir as an expectant father), whispering in my ear, “Ask him for your copy. We’re going to be late for the next class.”
Like I cared. I wanted to be praised, to be told how beautiful the language was, how intricately words were connected together to give just the right inflexion of mystique and grandeur, how there was a subtle…..
“Not what I expected,” he said simply, “not good enough”.
I jerked out of my reverie. What, I thought. My mouth echoed my thoughts. It came out rather like a croak (I was very, very astonished at that moment).
“What?” I said again with more composure.
He shook his head. I wondered if there was anything in it; I also wondered what kind of sound it’d make if I hit it with a hammer. Would it reverberate like a hollow space, or would it make a squish like a ripe melon? (I still wonder. I should have tried and tested)
“You see, the prose is too prolix, and the words, though captivating, are not too imaginative.”
Easy for you to say, I thought bitterly. If he could have done better in twenty-eight minutes precisely, I’d have danced naked all over the Piccadilly.
“Also, you’ve drawn the start long but you’ve ended it abruptly”, he mused, “The ending, in particular, needs some working.”
As it would; I ended it as quickly as I could within the deadline. Twenty-eight minutes, I reminded myself with a deep breath.
“Anyway, it’s better than most,” he said, returning my notebook.
Tears stung the back of my eyes. This was the final straw, the ultimate humiliation. I gathered my notes and bag and went out of the class, just in time to run smack into Ferret-face. He was looking positively and disgustingly cheerful. I made myself a silent promise to reshape his face.
“What happened?” Singh asked him.
“Mass bunk,” he replied matter-of-factly.
He saw my expression, nodded from me to Singh, his look questioning. I waited patiently for him to open his mouth so that I could hear the satisfying click of his jaw dislocating when I planted my fist in it (well, I really was in a mood).
Singh shook his head (his small head. I won’t repeat it again, promise). “He messed with the PC professor,” he replied.
“Him too?” The shock was apparent on his face. I scouted for the next sweet spot I’d hit after his jaw and settled on the nose.
“What, you’re trying to create a world record or something for pissing off Profs?” he added with a snigger, “Ritwik Kargeti, world record holder for the maximum number of professors pissed in one day”.
Maybe he caught the threat of violence in my expression or the bloodlust in my eyes, but something caused him to shut up. He changed tact and put a consoling arm around my shoulders.
“Shit happens, yaar,” he said earnestly. “It’s just the first week. There’s still five more months to go in the semester.”

Yes, just the first week. And I’d had just about as much I could have taken.

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