From the bicycle rickshaw I could see the Victorian building of the country’s best college. They said it had been rated as the best in several discipline for several years. I didn’t go to a good college, nor did I take great interest in required reading; the actual learning came to be much later when I was exposed to a very harsh environment. I wasn’t awed, but I was curious to find out what was inside the best college of the nation: a sprawling clean campus with serious students working till midnight in their comfortable hostels, active students playing some sports taking the view of practical education and, perhaps, a place where a debating environment was vibrant. Those were certainly some of the stereotypes that had crept in the mind of a man who had been battling the rising mercury in this capital city of India.
One evening about the area, where I had rented an eyrie-like room, I ran into an undergraduate student. She was busy slurping her ice-cream beside a store, and I was busy elbowing my way to get a bottle of chilled water. I managed to ram my hand in the trouser pocket but the chilled bottle was almost hurled at me and I, realizing the unused circumstances, also hurled the money, a five-rupee coin wrapped in ten rupee note, at him. It hit the storekeeper’s hairy chest exposed by the unbuttoned shirt. He chuckled exposing his betel juice-stained teeth.
She said she had heard so much about me on certain networking website; people around her were familiar with my photography. I said it was just a hobby. Just to return the gratitude I thought I should have a small conversation with her and beside I was in no mood to return to my oven-like room where I had been enduring with a wet towel over my torso. While telling me more about herself she was very mindful of the ice-cream in right hand and the large smart-phone in another, and she lifted her legs every now and then to shake off the flies which were as thick as the dust. She said she was at the “prestigious college” in her final year specializing in English literature. I expressed my interest, encouraging her talk more. ” Nostromo” and “Midnight’s children” confused her and there were “talks” that some of textbooks were hard to get in their library. Each time I talked the hand holding the dripping ice-cream came up quick and the mouth was occupied, and then her phone beeped, the eyes were cast sideway. With the dripping ice-cream in her mouth and her both hands holding the smart-phone her fingers began fiddling the phone. I gestured I was leaving, her right hand grabbed the stick and the free mouth moved, “I’m so sorry. Could you…” With a smile I turned on my heels and left her to her ice-cream and Chinese smart-phone.
The following day the temperature shot up to 45 degree Celsius; my wet towel dried up within half-and-hour. The thought that I could spend few hours in a swimming pool nearby came to me, and through Google I managed to get one which happened to be in the campus of the “prestigious college.” I was rather convinced that the place was certainly different. I put on a wide-brimmed hat, packed my waterproof bag and ran out from the unbearable room. The rickshawallah downstairs was rolling on his passenger seat, legs dangling over the edge of the seat, head resting against the bar supporting the roof and the lean hands on his chest. When I woke him up, he brought his knees against the chest and put down the legs on the platform and with the hands pressed against the edge of the seat he asked where I wanted to go. When I mentioned the name he instantly wagged his head, indicating he knew the place, but when I asked if he knew whether the college had a swimming pool his eyes squinted and in the ears pricked a bit as though he was trying to fetch some remote memory. He wagged his head again.
The traffics had been driven off the road by the heat, but for some unknown reason few vehicles behind rickshaw and few before honked and honked as though without honking they couldn’t drive. The double swing gate was half opened, behind it was a few tall trees casting thick shade and in that shade sat a man in a chair. Seeing me enter the place in cargo shorts he stopped rubbing the tobacco in his left palm and gestured to ask where I was going. I said I wanted to use to the swimming pool and asked if the college would require me to fill out a form. His left hand threw in the ready tobacco to his mouth; his tongue ran inside the mouth, placing the tobacco in the corner of his mouth, then he took his hands sideway and clapped to get rid of the lime and tobacco dust. He spoke, “winter ended only yesterday, there is no water, but soon we will fill it up.” His tongue was busy inside: it had been gathering spit while he was talking and he spat out sideway and it landed on the tree trunk right behind his chair. Now I only wanted to know when it would open. I got my answer, ” 25th of this month, certainly and you make sure you decide which payment you should make, the 1,700 rupee, 2,000 rupee or 3,000 rupee.”
I believed he wanted to talk more, but I hastily thanked him and left him to enjoy his tobacco. I didn’t leave, I wanted to see the campus for myself. The long corridor of the college building was airy and the structure looked as imposing as it must have been during the colonial time. My further walk about the office area gave me a different picture: the red pillars and the walls were covered in handbills and ground was littered with pigeon droppings. The office must have been an often-frequented area and because of that importance they had fixed a Plasma television set on the wall. Some students were watching IPL cricket match with their backs leaning against the pillars and some against a wall.
At the back of the building was a large football field with old trees casting shades on the edge of the field and it gave the impression of a wonderful area where one could play some sports and do some exercises. In that heat and in that moment I couldn’t think of any exercise, but it held me back from walking further. I picked a spot: below a peepal tree with its leaves rustling; the place seemed to be completely insulated from everything unpleasant outside. I was induced to linger. I wasn’t the only person ,there were young couples taking advantage of the insulated place.
An ant bite woke me up; the poor creature was unnecessarily punished. The red disc hung low in the distant right above the tree tops and now there were people who had come to play football; it was a big wonder to see the absence of cricket, and few individuals were already jogging around the field. I was fresh after the afternoon nap and the sight of active people stimulated me instantly. I walked about the field and slightly warmed up I jogged couple of rounds in my cargo shorts, lucky that I had come out wearing trainers. I sat down again to watch the people in the field. The air was cool and fresh and the noise was natural, it was now just a perfect oasis to me.
Then from one corner, over the fence, plumes of smoke rose high and it started spreading over the field as though someone wasn’t happy at all and the individual wanted to contaminate the whole insulated area. Soon the spreading was over and now it began to pervade the gaps between the trees. People lingered in, may be they were used to that and they hadn’t done any discussion on environmental pollutions.
The road was clogged with vehicles and they appeared to have come out only to honk and honk. I didn’t go up to my eyrie I hurried toward the store to get some water. The undergraduate lady was there again in short skirt and a tight-fitting T-shirt. A lady in those clothes at night in Delhi was only inviting trouble, but she had been in the city for some years and must have read or come across so many rape cases. All the men, old and young, were ogling at her and she was oblivious.
I went back to the college; the man wasn’t at the gate. But there were few men sleeping in the shade on the grassy lawn beside the gate; a few metre-long pits had been dug up; their pickaxes scattered about. A man wearing a well-trimmed mustache was in the office sipping some steaming milky tea from a stainless steel glass, his eyes were fixed on the Plasma television, which he could see through the office windows, others seemed to have gone out. I asked him about the swimming pool, no word came. I asked one more time; the man was irritated, but he spoke without disengaging his eyes, ” on the left! A white building, you ask!” He made me feel like a senseless child who had annoyed the sensible, busy adults.
There were people working on the front of the building: two men on ladders painting with tiny paint brushes. Since they looked busy I didn’t bother to ask them. A man was sitting at a table reading a Hindi newspaper and smoking a cheap cigarette in a “smoking free zone”, and over his head the old, furry ceiling fan moved fast, subduing almost every noise. And through the window behind his back I could see the drained swimming pool. I told the man about what I was told by the watchman at the gate, he chuckled and said, “That man! He doesn’t know anything. I’m the person in-charge.” Angry though I was, I couldn’t take out my anger on the man, so I told myself to get some more reliable information from this “in-charge man.” The pool would open on the 1st of next month, people were still at work. He said he was certain.
I spotted a kiosk which was swarmed with students, they all looked rich with their expensive shoes and American clothes. Some of them were drinking the ubiquitous milky tea and some milky coffee. I got a cup of nice, cold lemon tea and stood near the kiosk. Before I could finish my tea they randomly dropped the paper cups right in front of the kiosk and walked off giggling aloud. Where would they keep? There was no sign of waste bins around and the man manning the kiosk was a messy figure: unshaven face, the shirt colourless, his hands greasy and the long nails trapped with black dirt, and every now and then picking his nose and wiping the fingers on his grey trousers.
At night the lane in my area was packed with people dancing in Punjabi style and the band members, in bright red uniforms playing all kinds of musical instruments, were among the people. Children from the neighbourhoods rushed out and mingled with the crowd. No one could pass through the crowd, on both sides the vehicles were honking, but the people seemed to be having the time of their lives. Though they had been honking, expressing their wish to pass through, no one came out or came down from their vehicles to tell the joyous crowd; the crowd jumped to the cacophonous music and the stranded vehicles kept on honking. Suddenly the music ceased and the dancing crowd sloshed toward one gate, where a few middle-aged men, their heads bound in bright red sashes bearing the nagiri prints, started handing out deep-fried cutlets in paper plates. There were no lines, the dancers just scrambled; the stronger ones got first and returned for second plate. At last, only children and veiled ladies were left. Some asked for two but were rebuked. The dancers now stood by the lane enjoying the rewards of their vigorous dance in ear-shattering music, and then the paper plates were all over the lane. The band members walked and started the music and few joyous dancers followed, but many stayed behind, as though they were contended with the cutlets. Finally, the unspoken motorists honked their way through.
The neighbours began installing cooling machines, there was indication that the temperature would drop. My wet towel-wrapping was still useful but it was rather uncomfortable. I began to think whether I should buy one as well, then I wasn’t sure how long I would be in this place. I had come to write. Just like that. I was living in the city possessed by that ambition. Ambition could be another name for addiction, but man without it would be nothing; he would be only living out a life millions had lived out before.
If man could be trusted every word he used and he was worth as much as his word, then the world would be a meaningful place. Sometimes, people just say things because they know words and in return for the words they get words. What are words to them when theirs are the same which were no different from the ones used by the people before; using words for the sake of using.
I returned this time with all my swimming gears after a long day of reading. I couldn’t concentrate long on what was before. It was Monday, but the gate was closed. On both sides of the road along the college India’s wealth was displayed: all kinds of imported cars in long lines, stretching for kilometres, with a driver for each and the bosses in clean clothes and their eyes behind shades and sunglasses. Only a corner gate of the college was opened, it was manned by a man uniform. I asked if I could enter the campus through the gate. He wagged his head and tried to ask the “parpose.” I had no patience for that; I rushed in playing in my mind the nice pool filled up with clean chlorinated water just ready for a dive. The gate was opened and over the steps and over the ground a tiny black pipe ran. No one was inside; not even the desk, but the fan was at work. The pool was filled up half ,and surface was below yellowish tree leaves. Observing the quantity of water going down from the tiny black pipe I felt it would take another day to fill up the pool. Few more days or another few weeks could be spent on chlorinating the water, depending on the flexibility of their overwhelming lethargy.
Infuriated and knowing no channel which could be pursued I came out with a contemptuous smile on my face: mocking the people. On the walls and the pillars near the office there were handbills bearing big modern words, ‘IT India”, “let’s look forward”, ” We can do it again!”, ” India, a superpower?” People do love words, big words, and they must have them to feel big and different from others. The guard in uniform began firing words as I neared his place, ” it’ll take few days” rubbing lime on the tobacco in his left hand, ” you should come when the office is opened to fill out a “faerm” , then you can swim.” He must have done that kind of talking to others several times before. I hailed a bicycle rickshaw and the man compelled me to bargain. I said he was driving away his passenger, his face blushed and turned his head to offer me a lower fare, still the double of the normal fare. I thought to myself: maybe I should walk off the fury.