Shashank Redemption

It has been hardly two months since I entered the most memorable phase of my life-my college days. The excitement never ceased to stop. My college had everything I could dream of. Far from the conservative societies of South, it had the perfect liberal, cosmopolitan ambience. It was an NIT, the second rung of premier institutions in the country, next to the IITs. The campus was located in the heart of city with sprawling 250 acres of lush greenery. It had lots of adorable girls to drool for. What more could I ask for?

I had been waiting impatiently since my school days to leave Chennai. It was not because of the city. It was because of the people with whom I studied with. Their parochial mindset sickened me. I felt claustrophobic. However, I still loved Chennai despite my discomfort. Come on just because your wife has some extra flabs; you don’t stop loving her. However, I decided to move on, rest assured that I can return to my true love whenever I felt I missed her. Now the time was ripe to move to a bigger world to seek my identity. To contort what Jack Welch had said, I wanted to be a small fish in a bigger pond, rather than be a big fish in a smaller pond. However I knew that it wouldn’t be so rosy. I was leaving my comfort zone, entering a big bad world. I was so tired of my well wishers’ long discourses on the importance of my brahminical tradition and the need to be a good boy with no bad habits. Luckily, unlike Gandhi, I was not asked to make vow of abstinence. I packed my bags and left for the west (of India). I reached Surat.

It was the first day of my college. As soon as I walked beneath the huge towering entrance arch of my college for the first time, with the fresh smell of the paint invading my olfactory nerves, I felt something really nice about the college. I felt I had taken a good decision in traveling 1777 kms away from home to this institute. My father had accompanied me to ensure that I find my feet at the new place and also help me with the administrative formalities as I didn’t know Hindi. I looked in awe 360 0 around, admiring the new world before me where I would be spending four most-cherished years of my life. Hearing us speak Tamil, few guys from nowhere approached us and greeted with warm, friendly pleasantries. They introduced themselves as my college seniors from Tamil Nadu. They projected an aura of bon-homie. They enquired about my journey to Surat. They asked “Which department?” I proudly asserted “Mechanical”. One with a long hair enthusiastically added “I am also from the same department”. He looked at my dad, with a fraternal tone, added. “Don’t worry, Uncle, we will take care of him. We are his seniors. We are here to help him to acclimatize to this new environment.” They took leave from us, assuring that they would meet me later. I felt euphoric. How nice these guys are!! To hell with all those Cassandras who had warned me that in a college seniors are always cruel, sadistic beings!! 

My college suddenly seemed like a college straight from the sets of Suraj Bharjatya; All nice people around, with lots of camaraderie and goodness. Even the campus looked like an exotic resort with all buildings ensconced amidst lush greenery. I completed my administrative formalities and headed towards the hostel-1. As I was walking forward, just to ensure I was on the right path, I casually asked one of the persons who were standing by the corner. “Is this the way to the hostel -1 ?”. The long haired guy gave me a sinister look and with a tone of a sarcasm and mockery, replied “Oh...Yes” As I walked ahead; I had a discomforting feeling that this guy was one among those who met me near the entrance. I didn’t give it a much further thought. My father, smug by those confident words from my seniors, left the next morning.

Classes began and every day turned out to be a tremendous learning experience. Everyday I was meeting new people of various ethnicities, regions. Languages which I had heard while switching channels in television had now begun to echo through the hostel corridors. I was slowly picking up Hindi. My mind, conditioned by several years of acquaintance with south Indian names, took some time to remember the hitherto known names with their surnames. I was nicknamed “Illad”, a generic term branded to south Indians in general, coined from the only word most of the North Indians knew in tamil which meant nothing, “Illa da”. The irritating sights of dilapidated hostel buildings, typical of any government college, chuna wali walls with lime mortar with several cracks gradually turned tolerable to my eyes. The most popular term “Ragging” became the most talked about issue. Wherever I went, I could hear students narrating exciting stories about ragging. Few were cracking jokes over the funny things they were asked to do during their room calls. I was eager to experience ragging. I had seen ragging only in movies, in the popular AR Rahman hit song ”Mustafa”, the cult song from the movie Duniya Dilwalon Ki (World belongs to lovers) which portrayed the zest la vie of a campus.

One day, while I was returning from my class, one immediate senior of mine accosted me and ordered me to follow him. He started walking briskly towards the gate. With a sudden frisson invading my whole body, I followed him. My excitement faded into fear, as I walked near the gate. Walking by the gate was crucial, as the guards’ suspecting eye fell upon me. Many a time, they have caught hold of my friends walking behind the seniors. Their eyes have been groomed all these years to distinguish a first year-ite from the rest by his gait. A hesitant walk, lurching forward reluctantly; eyes bent down as if the corneal muscles have become stiff, partially immobile hands as if joint muscles had been drained of its lubrication and hands very much close to the body. I became aware of my bodily movement and I found myself swaggering through the gate. As I walked towards the main road, two guys came in from thin air and asked me to get inside an auto. I could identify their faces; they were the ones who took responsibility to take care of me. I gave them a warm smile and asked them, “How are you anna?” addressing them as an elder brother affectionately in Tamil. They started laughing aloud and I was left in a dilemma whether to give back a smile or not. They seemed friendly. They took me a nearby corporation park. What transpired for the next one hour or so can be simply termed as collection of gag videos with me playing the lead. Yes, I was ragged to create those gag videos. Picture this. I was made to sit in a bench where one old person was seated next to me, so lost in his world and thought. I gave him a one eyed glance and imitated whatever he did. I moved my hands in quick succession whenever he moved and whenever he looked at me, I was staring at the sky. It didn’t seem so easy at the beginning. But there was so much bonhomie with my seniors that I began to enjoy doing it. I was asked to sing and I happily sang my favorite song. I happily went back to my hostel after that fun filled trip. My friends couldn’t believe what happened at the park. They told me that the seniors were behaving meanly with them. I simply dismissed it as a joke. Strangely, whenever I gave them my accounts of their niceness, they didn’t rebuke, but simply gave a wicked loaded smile.
As time passed by, things turned grim. All those funny stories turned into tormenting stories of ragging. Many of my friends, after ragging sessions came back with bloated, rosy cheeks. Room call became the hot buzz word in the hostel. When a senior gave a room call, the junior despite all the restrictions to enter the seniors hostels, had to find his way to his senior’s room and act according to their whims and fancies. The guy who lived besides my room suffered from bruises after he tried to jump off the fence of the hostel, while returning from a room call. My friends had room calls the whole week.
On one fateful day, it was my turn. I had the faintest idea over what would happen that night. I was pretty excited since morning However as hours passed by; a sudden queasy feeling engulfed me. It was a windy night. The tall trees were swaying mildly to the tune of the rustles of the dried leaves. I found myself unable to appreciate it. With fear moving up my spine, it only seemed like those ominous signs of an eerie calm before the storm, typical of the old-fashioned noir movies. While I was leaving my hostel premises, I made a mental check up of the things which were necessary to be taken for a room call. I had taken my intro list- a sheet containing the personal details of my friends who had come from Tamil Nadu. I was carrying my technical id. Condoms are euphemistically referred by this name. I had bought one from the medical shop the previous day itself and as per room call protocols; I ensured that it had a lewd photo in the cover. I also had my white handkerchief. While I was moving along, I opened the intro list and quickly recapitulated all the addresses with their phone nos. Since morning, I had been studying it faithfully. As I entered the doors of Hostel-3, I was engulfed by a wave of hostility and fright. I was accosted by few seniors in the corridor. I recognized them. Today, they looked different. They looked at me with the same disdain a Gestapo officer would look at a Jew. They asked me where I was going. Words refused to come out of my mouth despite my effort. I stammered “DDDDF-5”. Before the number 5 could reach their ears, one among them shouted. “What did u say…?..How dare you?” I shuddered. It took me a while to realize what I was telling. “Sorry Sir…D Block First floor Room No: 5”. Things suddenly seemed terribly mis-fit. I couldn’t juxtapose the image I had conceived about them with what I saw in front of my eyes. I feverishly climbed the stairs and reached the room. I looked at the mahogany door scribbled with lurid sobriquets of the occupants. I took a few deep breaths and knocked the door. A voice filled with hatred resembling Punit Issar (Duryodhana of The popular, Indian serial Mahabharatha fame) came in through the door. “Get in”. I slowly opened the door. There were six guys in the room. It seemed as if they had cleaned the room just before I entered the room. All the six of them were cosily seated over two wooden cots put together. “Shall I do the traditional entry dance?”, I asked looking at their eyes while standing near the door. It was part of the traditional protocol for the room call. “Hmm…” came the reply. I moved my hands together in unison and bent my knees to resemble a disfigured lotus. It is actually a traditional bharatanatyam step which is done in the beginning of a concert. Here I was performing the step making myself ready for this ragging concert. I entered the room. My eyes only then noticed a frail woebegone creature who squatted on the floor in one corner. He looked like an exhausted mine worker after a hard day’s work. It took one persistent glance to realize that it was my friend. His cheeks seemed rosier than never before. I could understand who would have done the make up for him. He seemed to be in a trance state. I could feel some creature moving along my cheeks. I quickly touched my cheeks to wipe the sweat. One seated in the centre talked to me with a tone of sarcasm.” So are you the guy who refuses to shave every day?” My friends had told me about this rule. But I vehemently denied it as I was advised by my dad that regular shaving would lead to lots of stubble in my face. I didn’t have the courage to say the reason behind my decision. The question by itself irritated me. What was the need to ask that question when he knew that as a fact. I however took care not to express my discontent. I bent down my head gluing to the neck, so that the loath could not be seen. One more voice came “Have you brought all the things which should be brought?” I said “Yes” “Show me your intro list” I quickly took it from my pocket. I bent forward slowly and handed over the sheet of paper. He peered into the sheet and his eyes ran across the huge maze of rows and columns with eagerness to spot a mistake. “Tell me the date of birth of Balaji”. I responded in a jiffy. “25th May 1986 Anno Domini”. He was taken aback by my quick answer. He checked the column and said with a tone of authority “Hmm...Good”. By the time the word hit my auditory nerves, my facial muscles in a state of reflex, moved in perfect sync to give a smile over what was not meant to be a compliment. I partly showed few of my teeth. A voice came roaring in” Don’t show your yellow teeth to me you. The same muscles moved again to show a frown. One more voice came in. “How many buttons do you have in your shirt” I quickly responded “16”. I had already counted it. One dark complexioned guy, wearing shorts suddenly barged into the room and grinned dryly, “Oh ragging” Hey dude! Have u got a ciggie? “ One amongst my seniors jumped out of the cot and took out a cigarette from his left pocket and a lighter from the right. As he lit it up, the smoke blown drifted across my face. I turned my head sharply in disgust. The guy sneered at me and took the cigarette out from his mouth and brought it near my mouth. “Have u tried one before” “No”. He shot back “why?” I asserted with a sermonizing tone, “Its bad for health sir.” He began to laugh and thrust it across my mouth in a jiffy. I was totally unprepared. I resisted it by clenching my teeth tightly. The pungent smell of nicotine made me sick. I began to cough. One senior suddenly turned magnanimous, “Machan Leave him .Poor Chap” He continued. “Tell me …Are you ready for the GK game?”; “Yes”, I replied. He continued,”I’ll tell you the rules. You have to ask me questions from any field you wish. But not more than 4 questions from the same field. For every question I answer you have to unbutton your shirt. For every question I don’t answer, that little puke who is sitting there will unbutton his shirt. Is that clear?” It took me some time to digest all the things that were told. After a brief pause, I said “Yes”. I was pretty average in general knowledge. I suddenly gained a bit of confidence over myself. I however looked at that frail creature who had come out of the trance state then and listened to what was told. I gave him a piteous look. He didn’t have any ounce of emotion in his eyes. His face crimsoned, his mist filled eyes had nothing to say. Probably, it was the sign of acceptance over what was destined to him. I asked my first question. “Who is a spin doctor?” I knew for sure that no one would answer this one. As I expected, no voice could be heard from the other side. I was thrilled to hear those moments of silence. .However my happiness didn’t last for long. My friend unbuttoned one button from his shirt. I couldn’t bear to see his face. I lowered my face and started thinking about the next question.

“Who wrote the book “My presidential years ?“. It was one of my favorite questions for obvious reasons. I looked at all the six guys who started to discuss it among themselves. Every second they discussed about the question seemed joyous. Time began to freeze. Those six seconds duration seemed like six minutes. I was happy to see their quizzed faces. I started looking at my watch admiring every step the second hand took. All of a sudden one voice howled “Venkataraman”. That was the first time in my life I felt bad to hear my own name. The sound clutched my heart with talons of shame. I felt as if I was incarcerated in that dingy room. A weaker part of me urged me to plead him to leave me. My mouth remained sealed tight. My eyes suddenly moistened and blurred my vision from my spectacles. I was in the cusp of breaking down. However something inexplicable within me gave me the courage to stand still and endure. I inhaled quickly. I glanced at my shirt and my fingers gradually caressed the top most button of my shirt. My hands however refused to move further. I was marooned in a whirlpool of emotions. I started cursing them terribly with no noise. My ego started throwing in abusive words which I had never uttered into my mouth. However my lips didn’t cooperate with it. One among them was keenly observing the reactions going on in my face. He was enjoying my tableau of emotions. I couldn’t bear to see that face smiling at me. I started imagining how awesome it would be if I could produce concentrated H2SO4 from free air and throw at that smiling face. Like those deconstructionist movies, I was devouring the sight of my apparition pouring the effulgent chemical, burning his face and every fiber of his skin. A sudden jerk grabbed me by my collar to awareness. I unbuttoned one button from my shirt. I resolved to ask the most difficult question they ever heard in their lives. I quickly scanned through the room and found a guitar lying in the corner. Bingo!!! “The title song” Kal ho na ho” is based on which south Indian raga?” I knew for sure it had some strains of Valaji. Who gives a damn? I knew that none of those morons would be able to answer this. Information asymmetry came handy. 

This went on for an hour before they got exhausted with the whole GK thing. I threw tough questions from my favorite subjects: economics, psychology and music. My obsession with arcane English words also came handy. Throughout, I looked straight at the wall like those masked cabbie horses. I didn’t have the guts to turn and see my friend sunk in despair. He was asked to leave. He sank behind the door without a trace. I stood pretty close to the balcony door. I could see the moon illuminating the dial of my watch. It was 2 AM. One chap suddenly spoke in a soft, benevolent voice. “Your general knowledge is pretty good man Keep it up.”. My face generally lights up whenever I receive a compliment. I instead stared at him blankly as if I had turned deaf. A vaguely familiar face walked through the door. “Hey Shashank.!You have come at the right time. This guy hasn’t broken up!!”. He looked very much like the typical ruffian you find during a fight sequence. His long, shaggy uncombed hair with a thick moustache and beard however didn’t stir any amount of fear in me. He asked with a tone of mockery, “You were the one right who asked me the way to the canteen in English despite the fact that you knew I was a tamilian. Trying to show off huh? What the hell do you think of yourself? I didn’t know what to say. I stared at him blankly, standing firm like a soldier caught as a prisoner of war. He continued, “You must be wondering by now, why you got special treatment from seniors. It wanted them to. I like feeding the chicken before slaying its head off. I have been hearing quite a lot about you and your attitude. You think you are too smart huh??”. He pushed me a bit and swayed his hands slowly to check if the distance was perfect for a perfect landing in my cheeks. He asked me to close my eyes after removing my spectacles. It was the worst form of torture I could ever endure. I didn’t know when I would be hit. Many a time, he brought his left hand in quick motion, slicing the air breezing across my face from the balcony, only to drift farther away. 

Every time, when he brought the hand near me, I could feel the shudder of fear reaching a crescendo and fizzling out. My eyes began to tremble. He moved his hands quickly and caressed my cheeks. I was exasperated. All of a sudden, the hands came in menacingly like those blades in the grooves of a guillotine. Time stood still then. I could hear the tick of the second hand of my watch. The whole world blackened out for the next two minutes. My body which went cold, got warmth from the heat generated in my cheek.. I found myself caught in void. I felt as if I was the only creature trapped in a vast expanse of molten pitch. I was thrown into a bottomless pit. I returned to my senses when I tasted a viscous fluid in my mouth. I had never tasted that before. I couldn’t identify how it tasted like. I suddenly spitted it out. As I opened my eyes, I could see stars revolving my head. I had seen it in my favorite Tom and Jerry cartoons. Today I saw it in my own eyes. As my eye balls moved, I could see those white stars moving along with. I refused to believe what I was seeing. I tried to move my body and I felt writhing pain. I became numb and stood like a statue, staring at Shashank. Looking at him, I realized that I had no single emotion rising within me. He looked petrified. His eyes clearly showed the frustration brooding within. Much to my own surprise, I didn’t feel an iota of hatred for him at that moment. I began to pity him. After all, you don’t blame the postman for bringing the bad news. He couldn’t stand to look into my eyes. I saw the face which I wanted to throw the chemical. I smiled. For few moments, I felt like Andy Dufresne, exhilarating in the spirit of freedom. He was the redeemer of the movie Shawshank Redemption, a heart rending story of hope and redemption, set in a prison in America. I remembered Andy saying. there are things in the world not carved out of gray stone. That there’s a small place inside us they can never lock away. I knew I could screw his entire career, with one single complaint to my hostel authorities. I didn’t have even the slightest desire to do it. I redeemed him for his sins. Despite his efforts to chain me, I was free to grant him a parole. I opened my jaws and I felt the excruciating pain. However I could distinguish the pain from me. I realized that I had the power to keep them separate. I noticed a tree pirouetting in glee to the wind’s song. I was in that room for more than three hours. I hadn’t seen it. The world looked so beautiful, delightfully silent as if the cosmic keeper had pressed the mute button. I simply walked out of the room. As I walked out, I felt the weight of each and every bone of my body. A divine force pulled my legs to my hostel and I collapsed in the bed.