After they exited from the exam centre on the last day, they would slip away, in ones and twos, towards the back of the campus, where a crumbling wall serves as a boundary between the college and dirty undergrowth and sewerage. A short walk in the mud would get them to a near forgotten by-lane which winds through clusters of houses interspersed with nothingness for a kilometer before ending right in the middle of Dhule’s busiest market. There they would wait till the last of them arrived and then collect all their bags and suitcases from the stationary shop nearby, where they had deposited all of it the previous day. That was the plan.
It was all necessitated by love. With six months to go before they’d graduate and be gone, one of them fell for a girl in college. That in itself, however, was not reason enough for the matter to precipitate into the strife that it had, for there were several dozen others who were already in love with said girl. It was that the girl decided to reciprocate. The boy offered her a bar of chocolate and she smiled and accepted it. Then, she tore the wrapper and took a bite and then offered the remainder of the bar to him. The two had never spoken to each other before then.
That evening there was a knock at the door. Kaushik opened it. Two boys, friends of theirs, walked in. These two, everyone knew, were the messengers, the bottom rung, of the campus’s tough-guys gang. They explained to Kaushik and the rest of his friends that the leader of their gang was himself smitten by the girl and that he was not currently looking for competition. The lover-boy reiterated his unshakeable love. Kaushik pointed out, laughing half-heartedly and backslapping one of them with the intention of conveying that he meant it as a harmless wisecrack although he was fully aware that it would not be considered so, but unable to let pass the opportunity, that the gang leader’s only attempt at conversation with the girl had ended in her slapping him full on one cheek, and then the other. After a few moments of silence, which allowed everyone in the room to draw closer, one of the two messengers punched the lover boy in the stomach.
Now, the campus and its goons, over the years have developed a code of conduct and propriety, which they follow to every last detail. This explains why it was the lover boy who got punched instead of Kaushik. Over the course of four years, each student is rated by the then existing gang on a moving scale based on how many members of the gang are friends with the individual, if there have ever been ugly run-ins between him and them and how indiscrete he has been in foul-mouthing them. Whenever the opportunity arose to beat someone up, the gang referred to this scale and only when there were sufficient delinquencies and a sufficient number of them found him despicable, was he beaten up. Kaushik, by virtue of his near invisibility, had always been near the better end of the scale. If these messengers went back to their bosses and explained to them that they were involved in a brawl with Kaushik and that he had to be dealt with, there was absolutely no chance the case would be taken up. The lover boy, on the other hand, stood no chance. Thus, the punch in the wrong stomach.
The punch was returned with a punch to a face, which resulted in a nosebleed. The other messenger started to throw a kick but was surrounded by the half dozen inhabitants of the house by then. While they went to work on the poor boy, Kaushik wrapped his arms around the boy with the bleeding nose, ostensibly to keep him from entering the action, although with that nose it was unlikely he even attempt it. Later, when the two boys were gone, the rest cornered Kaushik and asked why he hadn’t involved himself in the action.
“I was making sure the other guy didn’t get into it! I held him so hard the air must’ve been squeezed out of his lungs!”
“Bullshit,” someone said, “it is just that you don’t have any balls. Not even tiny pea sized ones. You’re a fucking embarrassment!”
Kaushik looked at the group with steady eyes, which he narrowed, so the tears would be less visible, and thought it over. He knew what they said was right. He just didn’t see what was wrong with what he’d done. Yes, he’d avoided a fight. So?
“Oh, just fuck off, all of you,” he said, “now they’re going to come after all of us anyway.”
Strangely, they didn’t. Not immediately. They spent the night - all of them wide awake - plotting their defence when the inevitable knock on the door came. It did not. They did not attend classes for an entire week, staying confined to the house and venturing out only for food and always in groups. By the tenth day, everybody was fed up with the waiting. They’d resume classes, they decided, but all together. They’d spent the entire day in college and only when everybody’d finished their lectures would they return home, together. For the rest of the semester, their attendances were the best they’d ever managed.
Slowly life returned to normal. It had been decided, evidently, that retribution would wait till the last day of college. This, too, was a ritual. Every year, after the last exam was done, there was a massacre outside the campus gates. Dozens of students gathered, armed with hockey sticks and cricket bats, and scores were settled and resettled until the police siren was heard and everyone fled. And so, Kaushik and his friends spent the rest of the year leading regular lives and discussing details of the plan to escape through the walls on the other side of the campus. The lover boy never spoke to the girl again.
After they’d collected their bags and suitcases, they went to a restaurant on the outskirts of the city for dinner. They had never been there before; the usual hangouts were too risky. They spent two hours there, continually glancing at the entrance and the clock, and chatting absent-mindedly. Afterwards, they arrived at the bus station together; all of them had buses to catch to some place or the other. They waited in a dark corner keeping wary watch on the road for known faces. Kaushik’s bus was the first to leave. He embraced his friends and they all promised each other they’d be back in Dhule after a couple of months for a get-together.
He later learnt that all of them had escaped without incident. None of them ever returned to Dhule again.