11 years ago we were 32 little good boys and girls, studying in what was then the brand new classroom of our brand new department building. We had successfully made it right past the halfway mark through college and were just beginning to feel grown-up. The second batch was now filing past with their eyes glued to their third buttons, since we ourselves had done that, walking like sheep back and forth from hostel to classes and various other "orientation" activities.
Amongst the many good things that we learnt at college that semester - things that have helped us be better professionals and human beings, no doubt - was a course on Signal & Systems, taught by Professor Ganapati Panda. Prof. Panda had to his credit rubbed shoulders with the author of the very book he taught - Alan V. Oppenheim. This is the only thing that I still remember from what he taught in that class. Anyway, for whatever reason, Prof. Panda had decided to not show up for his two-yawn-period long class, and a rather delighted class trundled out of the classroom about as silently as 32 19-year olds are capable of trundling out of any classroom when they are delighted. At that time, most of the boys (yes, that's how we were, boys and ladies, as in Boys' Hostel and Ladies Hostel) used to turn right from the department, walking past the workshop building, then under the big banyan tree next to the High Voltage Lab, the Mining Department and the Chemical Department and the shortcut to Hall 2 or Hall 5, stopping only at what used to be the location for Keshto's old joint for tea, a cigarette shared between 5 buddies, or if we felt really extravagant, a biscuit, exchanging news, notes, "purchis", gossip and profanity (I guessed, we exchanged profanity with the same spirit as regular society exchanged greetings). Now it so happened that one of us - Prasit - used to choose a somewhat different path back from class. Prasit who sat immediately behind the first row (the traditional parking spot for the ladies) used to rush out of the classroom first and wait outside the rather juvenile, upstart tree outside our nascent department, that was destined to become a mature, densely foliaged one over the years, then walk with the ladies and took what seemed to use lazy bums a rather convoluted way going out in front of the little temple just outside the boundary of the academic area, past the ladies hostel and back to the hostel along the scenic route along the Pushpa Lake/Naga Pond and the rolling Bondamunda Hills.
Now we all know that 19-year olds do not usually like nonconformists so if Prasit was admired for his tenacity to pursue his daily walkathon ritual, it was only in private. And like in all 19-year-old-all-male-(oh-such-a-pity) congregations we too had pranksters who were avowed to entertain, mainly at the cost of the nonconformists. So, it happened, on this fateful day that Prof. Panda had graced our class with his absence that Vikas Mehra, sitting right behind Prasit in class had attached a piece of paper to the belts of his trousers, that read, once bleached of all non-parliamentary/non-congressional expressions, the phrase "I am an idiot". And as Prasit rushed out with the piece of paper following his well-rounded self closely the class let out a roar of laughter (well at least the boys did - the ladies claimed they saw nothing - whether that was due to bad vision, the maternal instincts of forgiveness or the grace and modesty that made them ladies and the lack of which kept us as boys, I am still not sure). The roar was loud enough to rouse the virulent, oops, I meant to say, venerable N.C. Sahoo, Esq., from his sadistic stupor to sadistic activism (I think I should just get rid of the adjective "sadistic" when referring to him, since he was the sadism personified. I understand that he is serving as a visiting professor in the University of Kandahar after Mullah Mohammed Omar learnt of his research in that particular field). Anyway, NCS walked over to the office of our beloved HOD, Prof. R. K. Chhotaray, the sound of his half-torn sandals flapping lost in the din created by a piece of paper flapping behind Prasit. Now, RKC, whom we all knew as one with significant mood swings, hardly needed a fraction of the talents of N. C. Sahoo to be aroused to his natural quick state of anger. Things also did not help much that our truly venerable Dr. Harekrishna "Abhi to mein jawan hoon" Parhi was also in RKC's office, ostensibly discussing the future of the department. I am certain Haria Parhi must have added that his oh-so-well-behaved-MCA class would nevvvveeeer do such a thing.
So here we are, rushing out of the class, heaping praise on the Lord and Dr. Panda, with mirth derived from, and at the expense of, Prasit, when we see Dr. Chhotaray emerging from his office, verrrrrrry angry. His gaze fell straight at me for the first time (this gaze was usually reserved for the empty first bench to the left of the classroom when he taught) and he yelled and screamed the meaning of which did not register except to tell me that for some reason he thought that I personally was the cause of all the commotion. I said what I started saying pretty early in my life "Sorry, sir" and tried to make a quick exit, but that was not be. As soon as I got to the gate of the department building, the departmental peon called me, "Chhotaray-babu dakichhonti! (Dr. Chhotaray is calling you)". My heart sank. Why me, I wondered and looked at my 27 friends. Suddenly there seemed to be only 3 of them - Panda, Priya and Madhu - the rest, having morphed into apparitions, had disappeared in thin air in the meantime. All 3 offered me their moral support, and then to reinforce it, they lived up to the time-tested adage of "BE 3 rushes in where MCA fears to tread" (I might have the nouns confused, but I guess there is something similar). All 3 offered to join me on what seemed to me as the death march. When we got there we found Prasit had already been talked to and he left red-faced and sweating, shortly thereafter (it just struck me that I have till this day not asked him what path he had taken to get back to the hostel). We were arraigned before the court - I thought it was funny that my three attorneys also ended up being in the party of the accused. The prosecutor was N.C.Sahoo (May God give him eternal life in the Spitsbergen Islands of Norway, 100 miles south of the North Pole). The judge was RKC himself, and he did not need any further deliberations since he himself was the prime witness. Sentence was passed rapidly and Dr. Parhi was given the task of carrying it out. The punishment was rigorous verbal abuse. I do not remember much about what Madhu and Priya had to hear but I thought mine and Panda's were funny enough for repetition. Mine went as follows:
HKP: "Where are you from?"
AC: "Meerut, sir. Meerut, UP."
HKP: "What is your father?"
AC: "He is a professor of maths., sir." (RKC in the background: "Very good. Baapa professor, phua rickshawallah.")
HKP: "I think I know your father. I have been to Meerut University. Very beautiful city...(smiles)....BUT YOU ARE UGLY!!!!!"
For Panda it went on similar lines:
HKP: "Where are you from?"
HKP: "Oooooo, where in Balasore?"
MKP: "Balasore town."
HKP: "Tell me where in Balasore town. I am from Balasore. DO NOT DEFAME ME!!!!!!"
We were let go after a few more verbal threats of action against us, the most serious of which was that a letter would be sent to our homes. Once the audience was dismissed, we walked out silently, red-faced (I take that back, only Panda was fair enough to turn red-faced, the rest of us could only have turned burgundy, which I don't think we did). We did not even stop at Keshto's but kept walking on, taking the beaten path by the stadium bypassing Hall 1 and on to Hall 2. Vikas approached us from the opposite side. He was going back to the department to own up, because he thought too many of the "innocent" audience had already got into trouble - talk of another storming of areas where some other people would fear to tread. It turned out later that when he got there to own up, RKC had completely forgotten about the whole issue. We never heard about it again. Shortly thereafter NC Sahoo, the departmental rasputin was banished to the deep, dark Electrical department, never to darken our days again. The letter, if it was ever sent out, never reached our homes. Looking back I wonder how our respective parents would have reacted at the time to a complaint that their 19-year-old were caught, well, laughing.
I wonder at times how much we have changed since then. I guess we have now turned into men and can take our rightful places beside and not behind the ladies of our class. But it would still be nice to go back to being boys again, even for a day. One more reason I look forward to the reunion that Palash proposed a few weeks ago.
(E-mail sent on November 2, 2001 to CSEA buddies).