Monday, February 15, 2010


"This is Banaras HINDU University my dears, and we, as student representatives of Hindutva, must make our presence felt in bringing down the Babri Masjid. Advaniji has almost reached Ayodhya, so we must go NOW. Who all are joining me?"

The response, painfully loud, harsh, and animalistic, pushed me away. But the ABVP activists, among them our own seniors and batchmates, had turned into different people somehow. They didn't have the time for our usual student conversations and their eyes somehow had that glassy look, as if they were living in a waking dream. All of them. I even tried to dissuade some that I considered my friends... "Will take you to the girls' hostel this evening. Why don't you meet some of my friends there?" Not that I had any friends there, but because there were many pretty girls from my town, people thought I was the lucky ticket to the girls' hostel. But then, nobody was interested in meeting the girls any more. There was this madness that reminded me of stories of Hitler's propaganda against the Jewish. The Babri mosque was apparently built on a temple of Lord Rama, whom we all knew as nothing more than a powerful mythological character. And these guys, incited by the right-wing political party BJP, were suddenly up in arms to save what was erstwhile a temple. They were planning to do kar seva, carry bricks from all over India to rebuild the temple after demolishing the mosque.

When I was walking back towards my hostel, I befriended another Bengali guy, Biplab. He looked downcast, definitely troubled.

"All this isn't good," I mumbled.
He looked at me for what seemed a long moment and nodded his head.

"I mean, The Ramayana is a great epic. A fantastic piece of literature. To me, it isn't anything more than that. And moreover, after Michael Madhusudan Dutt's Meghnadvada Kavya we don't really have a lot of respect for Rama, do we? He is more a North Indian hero to me, and wasn't a man of great moral strength either."

Biplab had a smirk on his face. He was unusually fair, had a shock of hair on his head, and walked with his head stooped. "Why do you say that?"

"Compared to the heroics of whoever was on Ravana's side, consider the cowardly and dastardly acts of Rama." I offered, happy that I had a chance to argue my case. "First was when he killed Bali from the back. Which hero would do that! How can one idolize a guy like that? But forget idolizing, these guys are worshiping him as god.

"Compare with Indrajit. He fought like a true hero. How did Laxman kill him? By sneaking behind him when he was deep in prayer. And we worship these guys as our heroes?"

"But then, Ari, Ravana took away Sita too, didn't he? Rama was just out on a mission to save his wife."

"Hey, if he loved her so much, what was the need to burn her at the stake after rescuing her? That was dastardly. That wasn't heroic at all, was it?" And then I went on and on about why Ravana was actually besotted with Sita's beauty and couldn't resist abducting her. I had a soft corner for Ravana, who I always felt was a true king, and although I couldn't really defend why he abducted her, I didn't see anything wrong in it. It happens everyday. People seduce others' girlfriends away by promising the moon. He probably didn't have the finesse, so he used force.

We were digressing from our topic. And we both agreed that Babar was a more flesh-and-blood character than Rama, whose existence our Indian historians have laughed away. If Babar built a mosque in the 1500s, five hundred years later, it was part of our history and we must protect it. There might have been atrocities by the Muslim rulers, who destroyed temples and built mosques all over North India, but the concept of exacting revenge five centuries later seemed either foolish or was a harbinger of dark days to come. And this wasn't the India I wanted to live in or be part of. 1992 was a dark year, followed by even darker decades. And today we can safely say that the Congress government's allowing of the mosque to be eventually demolished was a sly political game and the event as shameful as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the taliban later.

Biplab and I walked to a T, where we parted. We promised to catch up later. He could be found in the economics class.

As I was nearing the hostel, I could see a lot of commotion in the distance. There were the proctor's guards and the state policemen running around, chasing students. I could hear teargas shells. A student passed by on a bicycle as if his pants were on fire..."they are sealing all the rooms, don't go there, just flee, man...they will arrest us all..." he screamed as he rode past.

I had nowhere to go. My stuff was in the hostel, my parents lived 600 km away in Durgapur, and I was almost a km from the main gate of the university. I could see many students running towards where I was, trying to flee the police. I started running with them too, and my mind went numb. It was not time to reason if I had done anything wrong. It was time to run, and running I was. I ran to my right towards the huge water tank opposite the Sanskrit students' hostel and before I realized anything, I was on top of it, with two other students.

The view from the tank was awesome. It was as if we were waiting in a clearing of a jungle to see tigers below. As the night descended, I felt like Jim Corbett. Only wished I had some Odomos handy. One of the guys had a packet with litti chokha in it. Delicious Bihari dish, and we savored it together. "I was reading my Competition Success Review, man, when I heard the firing. What are they clamping a sine die for?"

"A sine die? As in sealing our hostels?"

It turned out that because of the violent protests by the ABVP activists, inciting students and creating mobs out of them, the university decided to vacate the hostels and cleanse the menace. It meant hell for many of us who couldn't immediately leave, but we realized it was for a greater good.

Around 8.00 in the night, after having spent four hours on top of the water tank, we came down and walked out of the campus. There were policemen everywhere. I didn't have any money on me, but looking back, it wasn't much of a bother those days. We had credit khatas at any tea stall, and the stall owners were happy as long as we paid them at the beginning of the month.

"Mausiji, e'go bun aur chai dijiye." I sat on the bench, waiting for my tea. Looked to my right and there was Biplab.

"Hey, so they threw you out too, did they?"

"Umm...not really. What about you?"

"Dunno what to do. Will probably hop on to a train tonight without ticket. There's a handsome chance I won't get caught by a TC...apparently many students are just taking the trains without bothering to buy tickets."

"Why don't you stay with me tonight? It's Friday, so you have only one train at around 10. Tomorrow you can withdraw some money from the bank and go." But where did he want to take me?

"I am in the International Hostel. We don't have to vacate. And I was coming back from the local mosque when I met you."

The mosque? Why on earth?

"Oh, I am Biplab, Shah Muhammad Ahsan Habib Biplab...from Bangladesh," he held out his hand to me with a smile, "I think I will wear my fez some other day."


P.S.: I and some others stayed with Biplab for more than a month, and he and his friend Zaheer looked after us and protected us from the proctor's guards. They also fed us and never took any money later when we offered to pay them at least for the provisions. That was one seva I won't forget even if the shame of kar seva fades from my memory.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Burn it down, mates!

"Let's burn the post office then?" suggested Abhay bhaiyya.
And we all screamed in unison. Yes, that will be our contribution towards the fight against the Mandal Commission. I didn't have the vaguest idea what this Mandal Commission was all about, but from what was happening all around me, I knew it was going to ruin our future because most of the government jobs will be reserved for candidates from the backward or lower castes. It seemed only appropriate to burn the post office being the juniors in college because the postgraduate students had already volunteered to burn the railway station that night.

We were all very excited. If the railway station of Varanasi gets burned down, VP Singh will definitely listen to us and scrap the Mandal Commission and make all the government jobs open to all. We all hated VP Singh, and even though I could never understand the implications of the Mandal Commission or was even touched by it, I enjoyed the news of his prolonged suffering and ultimate death. Mar gaya saala kameena.

Having absolutely no clue about how to burn a building, we formed a committee and chose students with a dubious past to give us some advice. From what it turned out, even they didn't have any clue. I was frustrated. We always grew up listening to stories of how the Biharis were always burning this and that and here I was, with a bunch of sophisticated Biharis from the best missionary schools, who had no idea about burning buildings whatsoever. They were all looking at me for inspiration...

"Abbe Bangali, why don't you tell us something? You guys are forever burning buses and trams in Calcutta? What did you learn there?"

"But, but buses run on diesel, don't they? The post-office is a brick and mortar building after all! And from what I heard, bricks are already burnt in kilns to make them strong..." I tried to defend a Bengali's choice of burning a bus over a post-office. But by then we had found a solution: we had to somehow procure diesel, petrol, or kerosene. This sent us off on a tizzy because petrol and diesel were too expensive and the sale of kerosene was rationed by the government. You had to have a ration card to procure kerosene. How much kerosene would one need to burn down a post-office with three rooms? It was a beautiful little building at the back of the Acharya Narendra Dev (AND) hostel and all my letters used to come from there, I thought, already attributing it to a thing of the past. Maybe now the letters will come from the main post office? Was there another inside our university? Or will they come from somewhere outside the campus?

The letters that I received from Madhumita were the toast of my batchmates. Even the senior guys from our wing of the hostel would borrow them and have a gala time. Madhumita's letters were nice and juicy and she always talked about what she would like to do to me once I visited Calcutta for the summer hols. Madhumita let her guard down while writing those letters, secure in envelopes addressed only to me and opened always by Abhay Singh Bhura, a guy with red hair and green eyes. Although I knew I was letting her down, I scored in front of my friends who envied me like crazy. Sometimes the letters came back to me crumpled or wet, arousing dark suspicions, but the attention they got me was enough for me to ignore their physical state.

What will happen to these letters now that the post office is no more? But I was not one to allow my personal preferences come before patriotism. And today we were about to do something for our country, which is above all else that Madhumita promises to do to me.

Some money was collected and it was a fairly handsome amount because people donated generously towards the cause. A bunch of us went outside the campus to buy kerosene. The money was in my pocket because according to Amit Vidyarthy I didn't have a moustache and hence looked the most innocent of the lot.

Right behind our campus were three shops, one where we had jalebis every morning, one was our ration shop, and the third one that of a guy who ran a video cassette library.

Very boldly we went to the ration shop and asked for ten liters of kerosene.

"What for?"

"Oh, to run our mess, you know. We have run out of LPG and want to cook food for the entire hostel." It was spoken with a lot of conviction, but the ration shop owner was not having any of it.

"Bhaiyya, you first need a ration card to purchase anything here, and even if you get ten ration cards, I can't give you ten liters of kerosene, find someone else."

Amit and I looked at each other. We hadn't lost heart, but the smell of hot jalebis was very tempting. And that night when we all sat to watch porn borrowed from the VCR fellow, our seniors came back from the railway station bruised and beaten (the handful of GRP were enough to send them packing), having made no headway. The movie was famously called Emmanuel in Denmark, and it soon managed to soothe their bruises and hurt egos. Nobody talked about the post office or the railway station after that, but the mention of Emmanuel always elicited a satisfied smile from every one of us.

Madhumita's letters kept coming for a few more months, after which the frequency came down, till she stopped writing to me altogether. The Mandal Commission fever gradually left us as almost everybody starting preparing for written tests and group discussions. Apparently there was a degree called the MBA, which made you immune to the problems of the caste.