Classroom sessions ended, twice every year, at the end of a semester, well before the exams began. The intervening period – ‘Study Leave’ was the college’s name for it – comprised of a marked increase in alcohol sales, comfortably above the annual average in Dhule. The nights were spent in frenzied binges that ended, near dawn, when hands could no longer guide a glass to the lips. Bodies lay sprawled in hostel corridors and out on the street until they were deposited into a room by sweepers. There, they remained until the next evening, covered in slowly drying, flaking sweat and, often, not much else. And then it began all over again. It is likely that, had the weeks of soot and grime been washed off these bodies during such times, it’d be found that their complexions had turned decidedly fairer, for the Sun hardly ever shone upon them. They may as well have been living on the Arctic Circle.
In the middle of all this, there came and passed a mock examination that the college conducted in anticipation of the actual university exams. Not even the most dedicated students appeared for it, choosing instead, to go back to their homes and spend that time studying on their own, while being taken care of by deliriously happy mothers . Kaushik, too, chose to go back home.
The going back itself, he had turned into an adventure. Since there wasn’t a train station in Dhule, the prescribed and widely used method of travel was buses, privately run, that looked like they were occasionally cared for. There were several that plied, daily, between Dhule and Ahmedabad; a ten hour ride through the night while one slept as comfortably as is possible on a reclining seat. This, however, wasn’t Kaushik’s preferred travel plan; he took the groaning, cracking at the seams, stiflingly crowded state transport bus. It rattled along minor streets, instead of the main highway, and stumbled frequently into empty bus stations, where it shuddered to a stop, thus nullifying whatever little wind its motion artificially created, and remained for interminably long periods. He rode it up to Surat, a city of much wealth and enterprise but no aesthetics, halfway between Dhule and Ahmedabad, having slept fitfully throughout.
One time, he had boarded the bus and found two girls from his college, one pimply and the other plump, both love interests of friends of his, already seated. He stopped abruptly when he saw them, considering whether or not he should show himself, while scanning frantically for seats where he could be hid from their sight. The moments wasted in this state of indecision absolved him of having to make a choice, for the pimply girl spotted him and waved a cheerful Hi. He reciprocated with as much cheeriness as he could muster, given his conversational skills in the company of women. Besides, he was returning at the end of nearly six months and, in his mind as much as in others’, stank unpardonably. The second of his concerns was relieved within a few minutes, for he soon realized that they were returning home after a while too.
Of the two, his preference was distinctly for the plump one, who, as soon as the bus began to move, fell asleep. The pimply one, who Kaushik wished would fall asleep, did not. So he spent the rest of the night, grunting and offering the odd interjectory word while she rambled on about, amongst other things, how she wished to work at NASA – an ambition that Kaushik thought hilarious for he was convinced she couldn’t tell a capacitor from the resistor. When Surat arrived, he got off the bus as quickly as he could, before the girl could get halfway through an ominous sounding sentence, one that he imagined would end in a plea to stick with them for the rest of the way.
In subsequent years, especially when his fumbles and struggles with Ritika began, he looked back upon this and other occasions and wondered he should’ve been more open, tried harder to be interested.
Once in Surat, he had the option of continuing on in the bus or taking a train for the remainder of the journey. He usually took the train.
The train station was a quarter of an hour away from where the bus left him and he walked to there, feeling the slight chill of the night, no matter what the time of the year - an indication that the desert underneath, upon which the cities of the region were built, still breathed. Yellow-orange halogen lights lorded over empty streets, lightening them but not the constructions on either side, which was just as well, for had they done so, the illusion of romanticism would’ve washed away. It occurred to Kaushik in subsequent years, when he tried to recall those nights, that such streets – halogen-lit and dark at the corners where imagination was allowed to fill in the rest - always appear the same in memory, no matter what city they belong to.
The train station too, at those hours, looked like it had seen grander times. The queues at the ticket counters were short, populated only by haggard looking men off night duty or with a stack of newspapers around them. The platforms were long lines of white tube-lights and nothingness - the odd porter hurrying along, smelling of dried sweat on decayed leather, a rare sign of civilization. Sometimes, the sound of running water on utensil, flat and gradually dampening, punctuated by harsh clamours of the most recently washed joining the rest of the pile. The occasional lonely hoot of a locomotive on its way to the shed. Shuttered tea, snack and newspaper stalls. An empty bench in an unlit corner.
He waited at the station until about four in the morning, which is when all at once, a flurry of trains begins to arrive, and the world comes alive again. He never reserved a seat and therefore entered into one of the unreserved ‘General’ compartments that were attached at the front and rear ends of the train. There was hardly ever a place to sit; he usually sat on the floor near the entrance, his legs dangling outside, the wind blowing into his face, tiny bits of used match sticks, cigarette butts and groundnut shells pinching his backside. Food was passed around, offered and accepted with soiled, sticky hands and grins stained with tobacco. He overheard conversations, mundane and exotic, and sometimes indulged in them. Seats were magically found whenever an old man or woman entered the compartment. And there was much bargaining with hawkers and bickering amongst themselves– men’s loud voices and women’s mumbled responses. It was all before Kaushik had an IPod or knew of phrases like ‘the human condition’.
He reached home before his father left for work and the family had their breakfast together, over which, the two elders explained to him the safety and good sense in opting for private buses and the lack of both in how he travelled. He laughed them away, stating he’d saved more than a hundred bucks this way and pointing out how the same father, in years past - when he’d thrown tantrums for having been bought a regular pencil instead of one with a tiny plastic hand at the top which, the manufacturers claimed was to let kids scratch their own backs during the prickly heat of summer - had intoned gravely, ‘A rupee saved is a rupee earned’.
In his own mind, however, he liked to think that that wasn’t the point.