As I stepped into the hallowed grounds of the college hostel where I had stayed for 3 years when studying for my under graduation since 20 years before, I thought that it had not changed one bit. The hostel comprised many U-shaped blocks of 3 stories spread across a vast acreage. The open space was occupied by a well-tended garden with concrete pavements intersecting the grass beds and canopied by tall coconut trees with cement benches in their shades on which no student sat for obvious reasons. The garden was maintained by the students themselves since it was part of the community service obligations requisitioned from them by the hostel warden. In this manner, the hostel campus, behind the college, became an oasis of tranquil verdure in the heart of Chennai.
It was a weekday and a scorching noon when I went to that part of Chennai for some business and the idea of visiting my former hostel formed in my mind. Not one to miss a chance for a dose of nostalgia, I galloped forward. I saw a smattering of students as I entered the hostel campus. I stood in the veranda surveying the landscape and twiddling my fingers, and someone slapped my shoulder. I recoiled at this unexpected intrusion and turned around to quarrel and beheld my long-time-no-see friend Settu.
Settu said enthusiastically, “Hello, Siddhu.” The hostel gentry called me Siddhu in lieu of Siddharth. Settu had grown older and darker for sure — nonetheless he remained the Settu of yore.
It was a men’s hostel attached to a men’s college. Here, 4 scholars shared a room and Settu stayed in the room next to mine. I was a first year student of physics and he philosophy. The first time I saw him was when he was being interrogated in his room by his roommates. I was told later, Settu’s roommates divined that the cause of the malodor in their room was Settu’s itty-bitty wardrobe. Within a few days of domicile, Settu raised such a stink, literally and figuratively, his roommates were forced to launch a fact-finding probe and came to the inevitable conclusion. Settu spilled the beans in the interrogation. He was then threatened with public humiliation if he did not resolve his sartorial dilemma. This unnerved Settu so much he immediately packed his dirty linen and set out to his native village to wash it.
The next I saw him he was wearing squeaky clean clothes except that he had neither brushed his teeth nor taken a bath. He had jumped into his clothes and brought up the rear of the prayer congregation along with other students of similar disposition. The warden had made it mandatory that every hostel resident should attend the prayer at the small Saraswathi temple built at the center of the hostel campus. The prayer time was 6:00–6:30 am. The front rows comprised the usual currying-favor, warden-appeasing specimens. They participated in a lively bhajan-singing competition where each tried to outdo the other with his mercurial performance. Meanwhile, the rear of the congregation comprised the droopy-eyed, half-asleep, sleepwalking students who evaded the warden’s attention by slipping away surreptitiously in the course of the prayer. But novice Settu was caught by the warden. A quick reprimand, and Settu was marked for the rest of his hostel life. Many unsavory incidents later the hostel in general and its warden in particular were convinced that Settu was firmly on the road to perdition.
It was like this in bits and pieces that I came to know Settu rather well. Bumptious Settu was simplicity itself. His precociousness led him to much avoidable ados. I remember the day when he got himself almost whacked by one of the Buddhist monks from Thailand. Poor Settu had no way of learning in his village that the Thai do not like their heads touched. So when the monk hunkered down in doing his gardening community service and his clean-shaven, shiny scalp proffered itself to Settu’s merriment, he can no longer withhold himself so he scurried to the monk and ran his palm over the scalp with a look of complete satisfaction in his face. The agitated monk then bellowed loudly and chased Settu out of the hostel. A few students intervened and tried to pacify the enraged monk. He could not be consoled and after his community duty was over, it was said, he opened a bottle of his favorite rum sitting at his study desk, and drowned in his pool of misery. It was thus he came to be known as “the young monk with the Old Monk.”
The hostel life was a gastronomical disaster for Settu. The miracle of subsisting on a vegetarian diet vexed him to no measure. He often frequented the small, budget-friendly hotels dotting around the college and serving up a varied non-vegetarian platter. This led Settu to another unpleasant run-in with the warden for whom wastage of food was anathema. Somehow Settu was not aware that the inconspicuous warden’s assistant marked attendance at the mess hall during breakfast, lunch, and dinner times. He brought it to the notice of warden that Settu was missing his lunches and dinners quite frequently. The alarmed warden was convinced that Settu was starving himself to death. He met the recalcitrant pupil one night and proceeded to instill in the blockhead the necessity of nourishing the body. I and a few others were in Settu’s room before the warden’s appearance and Settu was waxing eloquent on the sublime delight of the pepper chicken that he had for dinner. So we all put forward a congenial countenance as the warden spoke about starvation of the body and its nasty corollary and Settu sat through the discourse without batting an eyelid. We feared if the warden would smell either the pepper or the chicken, but he betrayed no such knowledge. We waited until the warden was beyond earshot and then collapsed on the bed and let out peels of suppressed laughter.
Such and similar incidents led people to believe that Settu would not amount to much in life although his close friends knew otherwise for Settu at rare instances exhibited that street smartness innate in native populace. Once Settu and I went on a bike and Settu drove. I was thoroughly distressed as Settu teared through the traffic with scant respect for the rules of the road. Later when I confronted him, he gave me some fine advice. He told me with a lilt in his voice and a twinkle in his eyes, “Siddhu, rules are for losers. Be clear of your destination but don’t quibble about your path and don’t let the things on your path distract you. Pinpricks of consciousness are a disease of the mind that you must vaccinate yourself against.”
Settu had a many friends in the college. Once I helped him to become a hero amongst his friends. In a bout of generosity, I revealed to him that I would be going to my friend’s home that night to watch a porn movie. He wanted to come too. So I told him to join us at my friend’s home and gave him the whereabouts. Settu presented himself along with a dozen of his friends to our consternation. Now this friend was from a rich family that owned an independent bungalow in a tony district and he had a room all for himself where, shielded from parents, he could do whatever he wanted to. We crammed into his room and watched the movie. In those pre-digital days, we watched movies on the video cassettes played on dedicated players. The movie did start off well but, to our dismay, the images got scratchy at the what-we-all-came-to-watch-for scenes. The gunk on the magnetic tape scarified the screen and we ended up forwarding and reversing the tape to display those edifying scenes. We gorged on whatever we could salvage from that video cassette. After the show was over, Settu and his friends filed out and were gone after thanking my friend and me for our do-goodedness. I stayed back to be reproached by my friend for having put him in jeopardy. In the morning, Settu admitted to me it was the first time he had watched a movie of such intense love.
During the course of the under graduation, we hostel residents came to know Settu quite well. He had a knack of building up relationships with all and sundry. He seemed to know everyone. I witnessed him transform from a rustic nincompoop to a no-nonsense urban citizen. His parents visited him once a month and brought cash and snacks. His parsimony made his money go the distance. We spent many twilights sitting on the roof of our hostel block, watching the flocks of birds up above speeding to their nests, and the weary human beings down below trudging to their concrete caverns, and Settu enthralling us with that dear delight called philosophy.
Time just flew by. The 3 years under graduation concluded quickly. Finally, it was time for us to split and proceed on our own individual paths. After the final exams were over, we went for an evening movie and then for a dinner. We tried to make the best of the next few hours that we had to spend together. We were all a bit emotional as we recollected interesting vignettes of our hostel and college life. We discussed about what each of us were planning to do — some wanted to study further, some wanted to sit for recruitment exams, and some wanted to join the workforce. I shared my plan to pursue post graduation in physics. Settu soliloquized he was free from the iniquity of future plans — and we let him be for little we could fathom that philosopher. After stuffing our bellies with stuffed parathas, we travelled hanging from the footboard of an overcrowded metropolitan bus to our rooms and then proceeded to have a night of fun and laughter. In the next week, member by member, our band split. We continued our contacts through email, but that stopped after a few years. Many years and many life-defining moments later, my hostel life was but a faded portrait — a monochrome image, missing in details, and damaged here and there. Nevertheless, the moments of a life long ago always brought a delectable flavor to my mind, imbibed as it was with a carefree life hale and hearty, a true life of jollity, a mind in elation, a soul in euphoria, where the world was our oyster.
Needless to say, it was a pleasant surprise meeting Settu on that sweltering noon. Like gentlemen, we shook hands, which we had never done in our college days. We imbued our conversation with labored respect. All these novelties made us a little awkward, but we laughed away the discomfort. Sooner we hit our natural rhythm with some artificial insemination of realpolitik. We spoke about our families and enquired about our common friends we had lost track of in the hustle and bustle of life. Behind his somewhat sclerotic countenance, Settu was still the same old dainty dog — he had not lost the zest for effusive garrulity.
I spoke about my work in the pollution control board of the state government. Then I asked him, “What are you doing?”
I cannot say I was surprised at his answer, “I am working as a lecturer at our college.” On further prodding, I came to know that Settu had continued his higher studies, earned a doctorate, and had joined the philosophy department of the college. I thought it was an appropriate vocation for Settu to vent his erudition on the hapless students and told him as such. It pleased him. He said, “They asked me take care of the hostel, too; hence, I have become the warden.” I cannot say I was surprised; I was flabbergasted. The warden role was an antithesis of everything Settu — our warden was his veritable antagonist. He despised the warden’s every rule and ran a feud with him throughout his stay at the hostel. Settu’s face showed understanding of my confounded state and smiled wickedly.
Settu invited me, “Let’s go to my office.” In his office, Settu served a glass of orange juice from the refrigerator and poured one for him. After getting ensconced into our respective chairs, we spoke at length about the changes in the hostel then and now. Settu told me that he had done away with the many mandatory requirements of the hostel that so annoyed him. He said he had freed up the students’ time and had provided them with an environment free of distractions so that they can concentrate on their studies. The ever-practical Settu was firmly set in reality. I shared my admiration of Settu with him. He had grown into the position from where he could change the system.
After a long conversation, we exchanged our contact information, and I took leave of Settu. As I trundled over the concrete pavement of the hostel, I knew the hostel, despite its familiarity, was a very different place.