Like other Saturdays, as the shadows lengthened, a curious stillness gripped the campus. On other days, this was the time when the place appeared most alive - the health conscious ventured out in appropriate gear for their evening jog, excited voices and the sound of studs thudding against the earth rose from the football field, a steady flow of bikes whizzed in and out of campus and the canteen and the coffee shop benches remained full.
Come Saturday, it all appeared muted. A significant number were asleep in their rooms, in preparation for the long night ahead. Several others were engaged in assignments and project discussions in the library and meeting halls, the usual past midnight schedules for such activities brought forward. Those going out to the city had left much earlier, eager to return before the clock struck ten.
The Community Centre, a short white building, stands about 50 meters from the Students’ mess. It was intended to serve as a facility for mass addresses, cultural programs and lectures, as evidenced by the raised platform at one end. It is, however, rarely used as such. Instead, it has become the venue that hosts the ‘Insti Party’.
Around 10 PM, the place started to fill up, although it wouldn’t start overflowing until near midnight. Kaushik, as ever, was amongst the earliest. Most of his close friends, the ones he went to the party with, were non-alcoholics but spirited revelers. When the music started to blare and the whiskey started to flow, they too would prance around, like everyone else, with wild abandon. Kaushik found this utterly weird; he could never do that until he was well outside the confines of sobriety. The ladies always came in late, letting enough time pass for the place to fill up entirely, so they could get resounding receptions.
The alcohol was stocked in staggering quantities, vodka and whiskey, and it was free. It was distributed in transparent plastic glasses that made wonderful crunching sounds when they were crumpled after being drained off the liquid they held. The expenses eventually did get added on to their monthly food bills, but since they would be added whether or not they partook in the plunder, it hardly mattered.
The music was as an extraordinary mixture of Punjabi Hip-hop, Hindi film songs and heavy metal. Even Pink Floyd and The Doors made an appearance. Kaushik couldn’t ever fathom how one could use ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ or ‘This is the End’ on the dance floor, but when those songs played, as they inevitably did, he too shook a leg and sang at the top of his voice. The crowd favourites were Metallica and The Guns N Roses. Everyone seemed to remember their songs by rote. And whatever bits they did not, they filled with hysterical shrieking. Right next to the enormous speakers, a bunch of boys and girls, their legs spread apart, stood with their eyes closed, their waists and necks shaking violently, evidently to the music. By the time the night ended, they would be up on the platform screaming and singing and drowning out the actual songs.
At some point during all this, Kaushik managed to break away from the group of friends he’d arrived with. They were not the people he was looking for when his head swum. And so, he gradually extricated himself from the bunch, moving around the place in widening circles that eventually took him outside, away from the noise and the strobe lights. He sought out Raakesh, the lanky long haired fellow from Tamil Nadu, and they set off for a cup of coffee.
Raakesh spoke little Hindi. Before Lucknow, he had never ventured outside Tamil Nadu and had, therefore, never had to use it. In his time at Lucknow, he picked up a handful of popular Hindi slang and decided it was as far as he would like to get himself acquainted with the language. He harbored ambitions, well founded, of becoming an author one day but rarely managed to produce anything beyond a page or two. It is this shared goal and abject failure in achieving it that, in a way, brought together Kaushik and Raakesh. That, and the pleasure they derived out of deriding people in general.
“Just need to get the Booker off my chest man! Once that’s out of the way, I can start concentrating on writing without pressure”, they would quip.
“Yeah…after that the Nobel is only a matter of time, I guess.”
And so it went.
Their walk to the coffee shop inevitably turned into a walk around the entire campus. Coffee cup in hand, they would stagger on ahead, the cool breeze of the night wafting through their perspiring bodies. The thump from the woofers followed them for a time, beyond which, only the constant buzz of insects remained. The road, more deserted than ever, led away into the darkness, dissipated by the feeble glow of the yellow street lamps. During the winters, when a dense fog descended thickly over the campus, the lights appeared like hazy blurbs in the distance, as if one was looking at them through teardrops.
They talked of literature. They were both still in that phase where they had not yet ventured beyond the early 1900s – and so, they spoke of Dostoevsky and Faulkner and Woolfe and Kafka. When Kaushik would reflect on those conversations later, or whatever little he could remember of them, he found it strange how little they actually discussed. Their conversations simply sifted carelessly through a maze of novels, each naming one and then waiting to name another. They were conversations that were two parallel monologues spoken to a wall.
“Just finished with Notes from Underground.”
“You liked it?”
“Yes, it was awesome, wasn’t it?”
“Oh yes. I’ve nearly finished The Way of All Flesh, by the way”
“Hmm. Will borrow it from you after you’re done.”
“Sure. I’ll complete The Castle after this. Been lying around half-finished for a while now. Might as well get it over with.”
It was a pattern that Kaushik would later find replicated in his conversations on films with Ritankar and Ashish. He wondered if this was because they could not or because they were simply too wrapped up in their own thoughts for other opinions to matter.
An hour later, they returned to the Community Centre. Most of the people had exited by now; they sat on the road and on the concrete near the entrance, smoking and chatting. From a distance, Kaushik, much sobered but with eyes still glazed, peered hard but couldn’t identify individuals. He suspected they couldn’t recognize him either. They waved to each other and smiled broadly anyway. Inside, bland white lights had been turned on. A few lay scattered about the floor, still grooving softly to what remained, in their heads, of the music that had long since stopped playing.
A year from then, the novelty of the ‘Insti Parties’ would have worn off considerably. People would make only brief appearances. Some would skip it altogether. A few would even have project discussions during those hours. Only a faithful few would trudge to the Community Centre, Saturday after Saturday. Kaushik and Raakesh would be among those.