In addition to the whiskey and vodka, there was also wine to mark the occasion. The open spaces of a shapeless grassy lawn behind the hostel buildings was chosen, for it was estimated that the crowd would far exceed the average and could not, therefore, be contained in the cramped confines of the Community Centre. It was March. Winter had melted away slowly and its meager existence was now evident only in the agreeable chill of the evening breeze.
The day had been spent running frantically around campus, returning books, handing over keys and signing documents. Outside each hostel room, a pile of papers, notepads, plastic waste and bottles of alcohol lay in a heap; the doors to the rooms, all open, since inside could be found only packed cartons that were ready to be shipped and unwieldy to be stolen, swung in the strong wind of that morning, and crashed into the heap periodically, toppling the highest objects from their perch. Loud music blared from some of the rooms; Ozzy Osbourne’s “Mama, I’m coming home’ appeared to be greatly in favour. Kaushik wondered if someone would play Altaf Raja’s ‘Tum to thehre pardesi’ to counter this unnecessary western predilection. In the end, nobody did. Now that would have been something.
As always, Kaushik was one of the first to reach the lawn. He spotted a few small groups scattered around but did not find anyone he wished to be in the company of. He walked around for a while, familiarizing himself with the dimensions of the scene, seeking unobtrusive corners that could be utilized later in the evening when he was in need of a few moments of relative aloofness or a place to puke. He was determined to avoid the alcohol counters at least until one good friend turned up.
A DJ, well known evidently, had been paid for and brought from Delhi, for the night. His wares, when he began to peddle them, did not appear very different from what they’d been hearing all through their time on campus. It did not matter, however, for before long they were all too drunk to notice. After a few glasses of whiskey, Kaushik, having found another willing friend, tasted the wine. White. He wasn’t aware what kind and, after two tentative sips, decided not to bother finding out. Near the middle of the evening, as always, the whiskey would run out and sometime thereafter, the vodka, while the wine would remain almost untouched.
The ladies, it appeared, had collectively decided to wear gowns for the occasion. They came, in swinging, shining, bunches of reds, blacks and blues, their bare arms folded bewitchingly below the breasts. The conversations in the lawns stopped momentarily and the music became suddenly audible again. Kaushik chuckled inadvertently, too conspicuously, for the guy next to him looked towards him and smiled. “Yeah man. We’re such miserable losers.” He said.
Raakesh was nowhere to be found. Kaushik strolled around the lawn, the whiskey glass never empty, looking for him. He ran into the same people all the time, and each time, they hugged and said, “Man, it has been a good two years here, has it not?” Sometimes, he found himself in the middle of a group indulged in wild dance and they forced him to match steps for a few minutes. He did, and when he was confident they weren’t looking, slipped away quietly and resumed looking for Raakesh. Ritika had appeared in a ravishing red gown and he ensured he was always aware where she was so he could steal glances every once in a while. He never, however, passed too close to her, afraid she might notice.
He gave up after nearly an hour. Raakesh had, evidently, not turned up. He would come to know later, when he would chat online with Raakesh the next time, that he’d been smoking pot and drinking all afternoon and had passed out well before the farewell celebrations had begun. They would chat often in subsequent years but never meet. But since Raakesh did not turn up on that last day, Kaushik would never recall the last time they did meet - an occasion that had not registered as one of enough consequence to assign to memory, for he couldn’t have known it would be the last.
Kaushik spent the remainder of the evening drifting from one group to another. He danced with them in short, outrageous bursts, and then when he felt too tired, broke away and walked about. When the whiskey ran out, he turned to vodka and then, ruefully, to wine. Once in a while, he stumbled into a sloshed bunch engaged in animated, tearful, conversation. It reminded him of Dhule. These were men and women, who would, a couple of months down the line, walk into fancy organizations, discuss serious corporate issues with solemn countenances and earn abundantly, in some cases, obscenely. But right now, they were just people who had had too much to drink.
Well after 3 AM, when most of the congregation had been reduced to a mass of human beings sprawled on the grass, with their arms held up, lazily swaying to the still preposterously loud music, he heard Ritika’s voice behind him. “Hey, Kaushik,” she said.
He was still standing, with a whiskey glass full of wine, staring intently at the stars in the sky which looked to him like they were all merging into each other in what he fantasized was a celestial orgy. He turned slowly, deliberately, for his body had lost its appetite for rapid movement much earlier in the evening. One of the sodium lamps traced a defused white path just below her waist.
“Hi” Kaushik said, “Up early?”
She smiled and embraced him. “Man, it has been a good two years here, has it not?” She said.
“Yeah, well,” he mumbled in response.
He let one arm hang limply by his side, for he was not sure what to do with it, while with the other he still held the whiskey glass. He breathed deeply, searching for a smell that he could remember for the rest of his life, and write about, but found nothing.