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Up Campus, Down Campus

By Avijit Ghosh

Click here to buy Up Campus, Down

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

Every university campus, like a song, has its own cadence. Anyone who steps inside must discover its secret rhythm. The lucky ones find something more than home. Others just meander through a bunch of semesters meaninglessly and leave without memories much like a
careless day-tripper.

But locating the pulse of a campus can take an awful lot of tact and time. It can be terribly tedious too, especially if you are fresh from the dustbowls of Inner India, without any degree in the nuanced art of listening and you arrive in an alternative planet called JNU, the famed Jawaharlal Nehru University.

The truth is that a new place, far away from family, can be unusually disorienting. The hours and the days don’t move with the easy rhythm and certitude of a clock, or, a calendar. They are a goulash of chaotic moments which jump at you and vanish in equal haste.

It’s equally true that there’s no single, complete and definitive story of any campus; its social life and secret history, in this case, also its contagious politics. There are many JNUs and it depends on which one you went to. It is like a story with many versions: everybody has a version
of his or her own.

And this is Anirban’s version of his first day in the campus:
‘When I slowly pushed the door open and stepped into my hostel room, I saw a young man and a younger woman spring apart, as if they had been electrocuted. I cannot say for sure what they were doing, but the girl seemed to be shellshocked. When the dude looked at me—just picture the moment and take a guess—he seemed to be holding two imaginary cricket balls in his hands.’

Of course, Anirban should have knocked on the door. But back home in Bihar where he had grown up, such manners were often confused for pansy behaviour. If you are up to something, why don’t you bolt the fuckin’ door? In any case, a girl was the last thing he was expecting inside a boys’ hostel on his first day in the campus.

The girl’s colour, Anirban observed, was like carrot blended in cream. She was remarkably tall, with a clever nose that defined her face. And her body was premium real estate. Clearly, she was a foreign student.

‘Who are you?’ the guy’s voice was soft even though the bulge in his boxer shorts wasn’t.

‘I am Anirban Roy, your new roommate,’ he replied, rather embarrassed at the interruption now.

‘Oh,’ the guy sighed in a way that implied resignation.

‘I am Ravi Bhatia. As you must have found out, I am your roommate as well.’ He flashed a half smile.

The girl, by then, had jumped out of the bed. Rather boldly, she put her hands inside her red T-shirt that clearly had seen better days, to adjust a bra strap, which seemed to have been displaced from its preferred position. She didn’t smile at Anirban or wish him hello.

‘You have learnt nothing from what I taught you last night,’ Bhatia was addressing her in Hindi.

He was ribbing, not rebuking, her.

The girl, who was definitely taller than both Bhatia and Anirban, suddenly folded her hands like an Indian Airlines air-hostess. ‘JNU mein aapka swaagat hai, manyavar,’ she said. Anirban smiled—not because she spoke in Hindi but because she had said ‘manyavar’, a word probably last used in a conversation in the eleventh century CE. Only a foreigner who had learnt the word from a book would be using it. But Bhatia was triumphant. He patted her cheek. And Anirban couldn’t help thinking that perhaps he might have employed a more intimate way of expressing his approval but for his roommate’s unexpected presence.

Pleased at the welcome, Anirban too, replied in all seriousness, ‘Dhanyawaad. Aapse mil kar bahut khushi huyee.’ She smiled for the first time. ‘Mera naam Svetlana Pashkova hai. Main USSR se aayee hoon,’ she said.

Her manner of speaking reminded Anirban of the Russian heroine in Raj Kapoor’s mega box-office turkey, Mera Naam Joker. Svetlana probably wanted to prolong the conversation but Bhatia cut her short. ‘I will see you in the evening,’ he said. She seemed sore at being stopped midway but decided against saying anything. She adjusted her bra strap again, opened the back door, flashed a quick sideways glance and slipped away.

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