How I Failed At Cosplay

It has been a long time since I wrote something here. I think the sheer size of what I have to say now necessitates putting it here. It has to do with personal experiences, but I think this will resonate with many people who cosplay, and I seriously believe others as well will find things they have experienced; in particular, I think writers may find common ground. This might sound a bit like gamers versus US Marines, and I’m sorry that it does. There are many people who work as hard as I did all the time and don’t get thanked for it. But I’m writing this because it might make interesting reading; as I blush to admit, I might also be writing because to write is possibly a therapeutic act.

The things that happened suggest the existence of preternatural powers. Saying this at the outset is, I understand, rather reminiscent of the 1997 Berserk adaptation, which I haven’t found time to see yet (but don’t stop reading this on account of that). One of those things that makes me say this is that I seem to have a slight power of premonition. It’s quite unpredictable, and, needless to say, does nothing to lift me off the mortal plane. I don’t think I can erase time yet, but I did fall asleep once and wake up quite suddenly when I was a child. Anyway, about my cosplay, since this is what it’s about: on Saturday, I got the feeling that I should say I failed. I already had a lot to say and I planned to write it – maybe on Facebook – but with the crippling exhaustion I felt then and with my cosplay due by Sunday, I accepted failure. Of course the first things that came to mind were that I hadn’t really failed, and that there are silver linings to failing, too. Nevertheless, I failed. On Sunday evening, as I watched people on stage, I accepted failure in the present as well.

I tried, I really did – just like that deep-fried meme with the gun. I must have got the idea to go as a gender-bent Nero (Fate) early this year; I thought I’d dress as a man for a change. When a senior cosplayer who I’m friends with went as her, I asked her if it was okay if I did it, too. Of course it was. It’s just that cosplay is something you dedicate yourself to fully, when you make a costume. I want to talk about this; I want whoever’s reading this to understand a little about me, and what this dedication itself means. There are doctors I know who stay up after busy days working on foam. There are students I know who go without sleep to bring Batman villains to life. I have the privilege of knowing an Indian soldier – or he might still be in training – who makes time for cosplay. What exactly do I do, and what went wrong this time?

Now, if I have an aesthetic, it’s cloth. After last year’s Comic Con Delhi, I knew I wanted a costume that you can put in a bag and wash if you want. Just stand in the rain if you want. Go for a walk in it, eat in it; ideally, sleep in it if you want. I recently finished watching Naruto and I have mad respect for that guy Deidara – man turned himself into his art, he loved it so. And cloth isn’t easy. You might have heard about some small controversy not long ago; I saw this post by a cosplay judge on Facebook about cloth cosplays. Apparently, some fools somewhere didn’t like the decision to award someone in a cloth costume. To them, I myself have to say, “By DIO, I will give you a taste of my shoe”. Cloth cosplayers dedicate their hearts. Just because foam looks different, and armour can look impressive, doesn’t mean it’s simple to tailor something to your body. Even with professional equipment, you need a great deal of experience – and that’s if you have the equipment to begin with. Cloth is like water: take a metre of polyester and it will fall around your skin. It’s also like a shy pet: sometimes it does what you want, and other times you take life as it comes. In short, just because some people make it look easy – and I’m not there yet myself – doesn’t mean it is.

I was telling my friend a while ago today that I can’t let someone else make my costume. It’s okay if someone does, and obviously, you can buy a costume from the net, but when I wear a costume, I feel compelled to shape it. Cosplay is about appearing, and to me, that ‘appearance’ has to start by making it; you can think of it as a sort of Green Lantern suit, being materialised by the wearer’s own will. Like the triadic bed, for me, making a costume is envisioning something foldable and washable on my body, based on a fictional costume. For instance, in this case, whether I went as the Nero in the franchise or a male one, the dress she wears doesn’t look like she could put it on herself. Now the historical Nero that made it to the Throne of Heroes probably had someone to dress her, and as a Servant, she can use prana. But at Comic Con, I won’t have that luxury, or I can’t count on it, so I tried to make something I could put on myself. Planning began around July, or maybe a little earlier. My parents are quite supportive of their disappointment of a son, and they suggested that I should start working. Looking back, there’s no way my initial design would have worked (not that my ultimate one did, either).

I like to avoid last-minute panic, and I hate hard work. This last one is my defining quality. I didn’t score enough in my 10th tests to stay in my school, and I didn’t take any entrance tests (really, not one) before college. My marks were too low to get into most places in Kolkata, and the one that did take me couldn’t have a year later when the cut-off was slightly raised. One thing led to another and I found my way to Delhi as a Masters student. My rank wasn’t very high but I don’t think I cared. These days, though, I have to study just enough to keep myself afloat, but between open-book tests and a wide scope of study, that’s not so hard if you’re going for a ‘B’. As it is, however, October is when you finish one set of submissions and start another, and November ends with final tests. Cosplay needs focus and leisure – the kind of leisure that implies not ease, but the freedom to work. Quite simply, you’ll think about nothing else and do nothing else. As I said, there are full-fledged doctors out there making new costumes every few weeks, but I’m the kind of guy that barely logs in to Fate/Grand Order every day, because tapping screens is hard work for me. So I tried to get started as November rolled on, but I could only do so much until my tests ended on the Saturday before Comic Con.

It’s sad, really. Maybe if I had a better sense of time, I could have finished. I only had about a week of dawn-to-night work for my Robin Hood. But it’s not as though I didn’t try, and I always finish my assignments early. Maybe it’s experience I lacked. One of my friends said a week would be more than enough, when I told her some time ago. I told her it’s not easy, but she said she knows the kind of work and it’s not hard. Despite my inner irritation, I found myself apologising for my lack of skill. She even gave me a tip – pull your needle up when you’ve made a few stitches. It was unpleasant to hear this at the time, because I thought it was the first thing to know anyway, but I really would do something like that; only I did that thing like a running stitch where you fold the cloth itself in on the needle – saves time by hours. But the work isn’t easy. Even if you know the tricks of the trade, and really, even if you have equipment, it’s not easy. It might be easier, than, say, a hundred-man kumite or surgery or something, but that doesn’t make it absolutely easy.

As I said, my tests ended on a Saturday. I’d read enough to write a few pages, but I think I was still the first to leave. I pulled my bicycle up the ramp and cycled out of campus to a mall to buy makeup. I don’t really have any and I’ve never bought any; one of my older friends, a rather famous cosplayer, had given me a list of things to look for, and when we were waiting for the question earlier that day, a classmate had said the mall has a nice store. Only I couldn’t find it after going around all the floors, and I thought she must have meant the other mall when I saw an ad – not sure what they’re called, ‘banners’ or ‘legends’, probably – and I took the escalator down to finally find it. They looked happy to see me, but of course I was very nervous. I can’t actually afford makeup in that sense. After enquiring what shades those were that the lady had shown me (hoping to buy online), I blurted out that I needed a lot of things since I’m a cosplayer. She showed me a palette of contours and highlighters that could double as foundation. It wasn’t very expensive, so I asked for it. Five minutes later, they said they were out of stock, so I agreed to take something 50% more expensive as long as it worked (I’ve never bought makeup before, so giving me a brand name doesn’t tell me what shades I need; I need a human being to tell me what to wear). They swiped my card and asked for my pin; it declined, so they asked me again, quite nicely. Payment failed a second time. I affected a nervous laugh and asked if there was another machine we could try. She wasn’t smiling when she said that the machine was fine.

I went up to look for the ATM they said there was, and when I did find it, I couldn’t take out cash. I had to slide it in just right and hold the card there, and when it did work, it still wouldn’t give me cash. I let people go ahead of me twice before giving up. A man guarding a store said there weren’t any other ATMs here, so I’d have to walk. I thought of apologising to the store, but left. Back on campus, when I tried to take out cash, they said my card was blocked. I might have been on a strict diet for the Con, but this made me cave and I went and bought lunch with some of the cash I had, feeling doubly guilty while spending. The bank’s helpline stressed me out even more by asking my card number, of all things, but anyway, the fact was that my card would have to be re-issued from my home branch in Kolkata. They said I could withdraw cash with a cheque. I walked up to my room, took out my chequebook, walked back down and cycled to the bank on campus. The token machine was offline but the man at a counter generously offered to cash my cheque for me. I’d never done this with a cheque before, so I made a dumb mistake the first time. There was an error with the passbook, too. Anyway, I got that over with and cycled back. My tests were over, but the real test was only beginning. I remember downloading anime to watch because I thought I should kick back and rest, but I spent the rest of the day taking makeup guidance from a good friend who is another well-known cosplayer. I almost ordered some expensive makeup online, but there was no guarantee it would be my shade, and that it would come in time. I can’t remember starting work because I couldn’t focus without getting my hands on the makeup. Yes, that sounds childish, but I’m sure it’s understandable. Remember that my Robin Hood had taken about a week, and I was only going on Sunday, and I’d already done some work. Little did I know that all would be lost.

My phone chargers were busted so I was surviving on borrowed cables and battery mode. I took screenshots of the directions to a dedicated makeup store near me, and, after cycling down busy roads, across a never-ending river of cars, and up and down streets and lanes, I had not found it at the end of what must have been several hours of searching. I took a risk and tried using my phone’s map, and I wasn’t far. I found the lane. I parked my cycle at an unimpressive market, and walked around to where the store was supposed to be. I found 98 and looked back at 96, which was just a large house. I stared at the back of the market building and decided to look inside; inside, there was a dog with a splint, as I recall, and several pet food stores. Thus, I cycled all the way to the mall from the other day, and went into the still more lavish mall next to it. More searching, and all for nought, because they didn’t have what my friend had recommended. Back to the other one; resting exhausted on a public couch, and nagging my friend for more help; a visit to the store from yesterday, where they still had my palette, and seemed to have my original choice in stock as well. But now a different man suggested I buy either of two palettes for contouring, while a man upstairs had what my friend said was an acceptable alternative to her recommendation. This latter being cheaper, that’s where I went. After waiting in line behind one man for quite some time, I was allowed to leave.

It’s not easy for me to describe the next few days. I can’t distinguish them, for reasons that will become clear from the details I can supply. Already I was on a strict diet, with single-minded determination to walk into Comic Con in full costume. This time, I thought, I would give my all, and make my first full costume – makeup, earrings, contact lenses, and all. My friends would be there – Sasuke, the Akatsuki, the photographer who also cosplays… At first, I certainly took my time. Between spare meals, I knew I had to focus on working, so I can’t say I really took breaks. I did watch the Golden Age trilogy, but I paused to keep working (I’ve read the manga anyway. Call me when they animate Lost Children). There was also the problem of my sword in mind. I didn’t want to do without a sword, but how would I fit a sword in a bag? Interfacing wouldn’t work. Maybe buttons… or elastic here, elastic there… maybe I’ll make a sleeve and – but I don’t have a cane… Meanwhile, the shorts I had made as a masculine form of Nero’s clothing were giving me a great deal of trouble. Normal shorts or pyjamas, made of cotton, are cut quite loose. If they are to be contoured in a certain way, elastic has to be brought in, which I did, and stitches have to be strengthened, which I hoped to be able to do. What I did make was surprisingly functional; yet it only gave me more and more problems. More than anything, my goal – or, as it was quickly becoming, my dream – was to make something I could ride an Uber in, and hypothetically be able to wear for days on end. It should function, if I may suggest so, like male clothing, analogous to what Nero can normally be seen wearing (as a matter of fact, I added an element that had much in common with her Bride costume).

My upper clothing, moreover, steadfastly resisted me. A year from now, when I hope to know more, perhaps these will seem like the faltering steps of a child, but this time it was overwhelming. I would take measures and cut cloth, but on the whole, the thing wouldn’t sit right. That really was the final problem. It began with my left sleeve. Let it be wide at the hand, and cling to the rest of my arm, I thought. Surely this just needed elastic? No: flexing my hand would make this difficult. At my level of experience, it became impossible to make a tapered sleeve that fit my arm; I can’t count the hours – possibly whole days, though not nights – I spent trying to solve this, till a certain set of measures, together with copious ugly sewing, finally gave me a working sleeve. I dimly recall posting on Facebook that my design had worked. I must have made the right sleeve after this; I don’t remember exactly. I made it too loose but that would be the least of my problems. I thought this was almost done. “Some cloth here, some there, and we’re done. Golden borders if we have time,” I thought. The white waistcoat could be fixed, I decided, since that might save time. “I must get a Santa bag. I’ll walk around singing the Padoru and give lozenges to people all day,” was what I was still thinking. Around this time, after vigorous pacing in my room, I hit upon an idea for my sword which would really serve me well; when I ran out of time later, like someone drowning, I thought I’d change it into a whip. “Male Nero, with a rose whip, just like the other rose bishounen,” was what I’d clung to before I completely failed.

Phantoms began to haunt me then – possibly around Thursday, or earlier (deadlines magnify while one’s sense of time shrinks, as one works). I stitched and stitched, often with my phone switched off, and now eating small amounts of normal food rather than small amounts of diet food. I thought of what my friend had said, and I began having endless arguments where I kept saying to various listeners that it’s not easy. The harder I worked, the louder these voices spoke in my head; on one level, the level that kept me going, I knew my ideas were untrue. My friend does not look down on me; it’s my brain looking for illicit excitement with unpleasant memories. I’d read that brains do that on a comedy website (you know the one). My mental safety net, like the one I use to submit by Monday if the weekly deadline is Wednesday, was being pushed back. There was no time for despair. Get up, try it on, works (or not), sit down again, keep sewing. I would keep fighting till it came out, take one good night’s sleep, put on makeup in the car, and that would be that. Yet at the same time, this mysterious costume, being materialised from a world of fiction – summoned, as it were, by this poor amateur who’s only ever summoned three SSRs – would not work. Parts were deducted, others added, but to no avail. If I raise my arm, the whole thing rides up, or might split. If my epaulettes are fixed here and here, then suddenly it’s too small. My perfectionism did not leave me. I had to make raised shoulders like Nero had, with frilled epaulettes that would hold up my manly lapels. These were nearly impossible to make. Interfacing doesn’t let you make tetrahedron-like shapes so easily. What if I cut a diamond shape? I did so with great care, to no avail. Surely just stitching these at an angle wouldn’t work? If only I could solve the problem on one arm, the other would follow. ‘Victory’ was always just a few more hours of do-or-die work away. But try as I might, if I fixed one thing, no matter with what difficulty, another problem would crop up; and I hardly solved anything.

Ashol ‘fighting gold’ to ami-i,” (“I’m the real ‘fighting gold’”) I thought to myself, referring to the opening song of Part Five of the JoJo anime. It was around Friday that I reached the limits of life as I knew it – my “inochi no kagiri”. I had to get more cloth for my boots, contact lenses, powder, and other things. I walked to some stores, was briefly watched by a creepy stranger, almost wasted money on long-term contacts before finding the ones I needed down the road, and was walking back towards my room exactly two hours after I’d left, armed with a small packet of coffee. I hope my mother doesn’t read this, because what follows is a common but pitiful story. I’d allowed myself to have breakfast, and didn’t have time for lunch. As my friends know and my parents don’t, going without food is child’s play to me (ironically, the expression for “child’s play” in Bangla means “rice and water”). All day long, from four in the afternoon when I’d come back, I worked. Scissors going blunt, a sense of defeat constantly battering me, real fatigue weighing me down as the sun set, I sewed. I feared for my eyesight, having watched needles so closely as I tried to thread them; I had to cut thread again very fast to make it clean enough to use, and the expelled piece flew off like bullet casings. Work was always almost done. Soon, very soon, I would be done, and it would be over. And still I struggled, always on the verge of quitting. I’m the kind of guy that hands in work early because I don’t like to work too hard, come what may. On Friday night, I knew with an animal’s instincts that I could not and would not sleep. Coffee with honey was my dinner – calorific, true, but as I have neglected to mention, a sudden sore throat had become a fever by Wednesday night, and the only concession I had allowed myself these past few days had been oranges. I must have eaten oranges for lunch, and helped myself to honey that night, and then I plowed on.

As preparation for something I want to write, I chose to play some music (a friend had lent me his charger), and I had found a three-hour long album of Salil Chowdhury’s music on YouTube. This was already in its second cycle, and still no end came. You can imagine what my only break was; that, and coffee, while I was sometimes working even as my kettle boiled. On Saturday morning, I would wash my gorgeous costume and take a nap, I thought, and then get ready for Sunday. I can’t remember what the night brought; it would be difficult to say. Orion passed in the unusually clear night sky. Surely the stars would pity me, too, like in the song? Something I did take note of for later writing has stuck in my mind; as I talked to myself, I knew I would set this all down; I had known for days that I would write of my struggles and my frustrations. Near four or five in the morning, I had a bizarre idea. I was sewing cloth onto my shorts, when the thread gave me the idea of a story of two people, a man and a woman, whose exes were each other’s exes, or something – or that they were the ones who the exes had cheated with, or something like this. It’s not that I don’t remember the impression, just that I don’t know what the whole sensation means; I truly cannot put it into words, and I don’t normally say that. But what gave me this idea? Nothing of the sort had ever happened to me, and I couldn’t think of anyone to whom it had. I made this commentary on the idea itself as I sat there. I knew my stumbling, teetering mind had finally lost control, and that I had to sleep, but I made sure to finish what I was doing, even though my hands were shaking. I was doing this for me, as I had assured my mother over the phone on Friday; I’d talked longer than usual because I would be too busy afterwards.

I slept for about an hour and a half, and woke naturally. After coffee and honey for breakfast, I went back to my work. Yes, it was my work. By now I’d started thinking of it as “my art”, like our friend Deidara, and I had invested enough in it to call it so even in general terms, as it were. Cosplay is something I take pride in. In my heart, I even harbour certain unseemly thoughts about other cosplayers, which – to go by an outdated model – my ‘superego’ is forced to push down. I allow myself to feel pride in cosplay. It hurts no one, and yet it takes skill – it’s one of the purest things to take pride in. I had planned ahead to eat lunch downstairs, where I knew the food would be good, and I ate as I always do when I’m truly hungry. I knew there would be no dinner, and quite probably not much to eat on Sunday. Onwards and onwards I sewed. I had become a different person, or a different expression of the same person. Working for a damn grade meant nothing to me; this costume was now my “ultimate art”. I did this for myself, and it was the tangible product of my pride and dedication as a cosplayer. But this concerns a different discussion. At one point, I discovered a different version of a ladder stitch that made work much easier. I wondered that I had never made the connection before. But I have Naruto’s complaint; I pick things up when I apply myself, but I’m not too sharp on the whole. This discovery was like Deku realising he had legs. It made me ‘power up’. It was coupled with a closely related understanding of sewing which would make my subsequent work much faster. It must have been around this time that I felt like writing on Facebook about being a failure; that I’d failed as a cosplayer, whatever my consequent experience and regardless of the silver linings. I would add my comments on people who don’t respect cloth cosplay enough. I anticipated the comments, but I knew what I meant; as it is, I’ve seen this kind of reaction before. My second premonition would prove much less pleasant.

It might have been around evening when I though to myself, “Heh, be pretty bad if I lost this needle”. That night, at around 10:44 or so, I did. I hunted for it like a madman and wailed out, as you can imagine. This was the night before my cosplay. I was ready to believe a lot of things; I’m glad I stayed strong. The gate was closed for some reason, but I was let out; I cared nothing for my light clothing as I walked. The man at the late night store had several kinds of scissors, but no needles. The other stores were closed. It was then that I decided to borrow a needle. A man I knew on the first floor didn’t have any, but insisted on going around to five rooms he knew with me, where they had no needles. I came up; here, no needle; there, no response; there, a locked door. Misanthropes and loners are the true wretched of the world. One person did generously lend me their needle, but it was so thick that it needed double thread, so I set it aside. An hour had passed by now, and then, through the crack in my door as I looked back to see if someone would answer, I saw someone pass. Maybe I could ask a random stranger? But wait – it’s the man from across the corridor! And a needle he did have, which he generously fished out by standing on a table. I couldn’t thank him enough, and he said I could keep it as long as I needed to. Thus began the last leg of the struggle; and to think I was still going! More and more I worked; a piece I’d set aside without having use for came into use. I had never gone without a night’s sleep, even if I’d taken that sleep in the morning. Normally I just sit down at nine or ten at night wondering how to pass the time till sleep and breakfast. Now, I applied my new skills to what I had left. Thus the morning came. What happened in the meantime must be understood. I kept working. I wasn’t done by ten; I wasn’t done by eleven.

I can’t remember how far I got when I decided to get bathing and shaving over with. It must have been around two, or thereabouts, and the only reason there was water left to be used was that it was so cold it hurt. I shaved, and, in short, by 3:15 or so, I’d gotten ready enough to bundle everything – not forgetting the wig – into my backpack and call an Uber. This poor man didn’t know where to come, so after wasting some time, I found his car, and clipped my nails and sewed more in the car (I was careful to get the clippings inside my bag – which reminds me, it needs cleaning). There I made my way behind the stalls and sat down to finish my work, which went on and on as the day progressed. I saw some friends, who spent time with me before getting back to their own costumes. There, on a carpet at the con, I sewed more. If only I knew I’d made a fatal error – or rather two. The cotton I’d bought for boots was useless, and even bold improvisation failed. The sun set. Seams in my shorts had given way, leading to unacceptable conditions. I stood there in the dark, with no white cloth in my bag, just some red I’d brought to tie my hair, trailing on the ground as I tried to just hide it, however badly. My needle I stuck through a paper bag. Elastic snapped. My lapel had gone on the wrong way. One last mad effort to dab makeup on in the men’s room while the men styled their quarter-inch hair in the mirrors with tap water. Hadn’t brought scissors or the right colour… they were in the bag with my friend whom I’d given everything to. Then, as I ran through the dark, in shoes, bare legs, a joke of a short/skirt, a top coming off from the shoulder, and a stupid wig, holding my paper bag in front of me like a lantern, I was about to feel different. I looked at the cosplayers already on the stage – the contest was well underway – and felt that it was time to quit. It didn’t feel like giving up. The urge simply came from within – or rather the wish. Here, my story ends.

As my Facebook cover reads, I am a failure. As I have insisted while presenting on Halberstam, focussing on the silver linings of failure isn’t a good method of thinking. Failure is failure. I make cosplay costumes to wear them to events, and I couldn’t wear it to stage. But I will, again. My mother didn’t have to console me when she asked how it went, this morning. That is because this is what I do now, and this is what I am now. For the first time in my life, I went without sleep. Whether I have been transformed or have come into my “true form” is irrelevant. What matters is I can answer her now. A senior of mine once said, “Oh, so you’re a cosplayer!” when I said I’d gone as Robin Hood. The appellation embarrassed me. A cosplayer was an experienced, dedicated artist, and I knew many respected cosplayers, some of whom had inspired people they had never met. Who was I to even think of myself as one? You see, I once read that if you suffer a wound in the French Foreign Legion, you’re given automatic citizenship, because you’ve shed blood for France. I did the unprecedented for cosplay, so I’m now a cosplayer. Sewing things like this is what I call “my art”. I have ideas for my next costumes, and I’ll be sure to sew them well this time. They will be washable and durable, and they’ll fit in a plastic bag like a wig.

Between the archetypes of Indra and Ashura, I felt I’d been channelling Indra a lot, drifting away from people. This cosplay made me rely on people, and I’m grateful to them. To those who have been concerned, rest assured that there’s no one to blame. And to those who insult cloth cosplay, verily, I say to thee – katsu!

Advertisements

Fugitives on Earth

I had a nightmare in the early hours of the morning after Good Friday, and scribbled down what I remembered in my phone. This is a poem based on my dream.

When did it turn?
We looked up
And didn’t know.
The moon had curled like a worm.

Strange father.
Hunting neighbours.
We cannot remember
If someone had said
There would be no water.

Trace your steps back
To the woods
Familiar and unfamiliar.
Five men, old and older,
Their beards short and grey,
Smiling, and he
Is going to burn her.

Run with her,and dive
Like the hunted hare into a cab.
Drive like mad –
The empty highway will try top stop you.

Run to the river
(Is there water?)
Alone,
Moving back
Through the crowds;
But there he is.

He grabs you –
Someone grabs him –
The nightmare ends
Clinging to the bars
Of an old window your hands found.
Where were we, and who were they?

This may be unlike anything I’ve ever written, but I think it isn’t too bad. Not that many of my friends will like it, of course, but we can’t please everyone – certainly not with our own dreams.

The Return Journey

We’d meant to drink tea together in the morning, but my friend was pressed for time. He dressed and left, and I took my time getting ready. My train was in the afternoon, so I had plenty of time to do absolutely nothing. There was a pleasant wind up, and it was a nice day. My laptop decided to work, since it now had no reason to, and I sat on a bed watching films. I realised that I hadn’t been myself for the last few days. In order to do something, I’d forced myself into a rigorous routine that also wouldn’t let me do the things I like. However, on that note, we should remember that sometimes a sacrifice like that is worth it for the people who make it, when they know what they want. The MUN was certainly worth it.

My friend came back and did laundry, pausing briefly to watch Superbad with me for a few minutes. My ride to the station was already booked, and we walked out for lunch together. The first place we went to was closed but then he took me to a modest eatery where we had South Indian food, and then to one of those ice cream parlours where they make ice cream with natural ingredients. They let you taste flavours before you buy, and it was delicious. It actually melted into water as we walked back.

It wasn’t for long, but this brief stay was good – relaxing, enjoyable, and no pressure involved. I said goodbye as the car started later that day for the station. It didn’t take as long as the previous night to get there; the driver got my suitcase out of the trunk, and I said, ‘Thank you, bhaiya,’ congratulating myself for my Hindi skills.

The train was already there when I got to the platform, but boarding didn’t begin for a while. I had the upper bunk again, and the journey was what you’d expect. When we were pulling into Howrah Station the next day, I couldn’t stop telling one of my co-passengers how the wait was killing me. The train had stopped just outside the station, as is due process, I think, and being this close but far away was unbearable.

Baba was waiting for me. I hugged him and we went to the car – our car – and drove back home. Baba, as always, couldn’t stop telling me which landmark was which and what road lead where, but this time, I didn’t object. Oh, and he’d brought a Monginis burger.

When I got home, I made a blog post that you’ve probably read.

On the Doorstep

I let the man put my suitcase on his scooter, and then I got on. I’m the kind of person who always wears a seatbelt in the car. There, I didn’t have so much as a helmet, and I’d never even been on a scooter before. I’d probably never been on a two-wheeler before. He drove us through a gap in the wall onto a humble street, full of streetside stalls on two sides that seemed to be selling cloth. I recalled seeing a street like that when we’d crossed the river on the day I arrived, on our way to the hotel. My rescuer and I started talking, but I don’t remember in what language. I told him where I was from and what I came to do, and he must’ve misunderstood, because he took me to one of the Symbiosis campuses. I explained where I wanted to go, and he turned ’round and drove on. You can see the Marriott rising into the night sky from far away in Pune. He took me to the crossroad where the hotel stood on the other side. I thanked him, and walked away. I was close to where the socials were to be – a place called ‘Tales and Spirits’.

I turned down a quiet lane and came to it after some walking. It was a comfortable-looking place, and I’d walked right in. I was greeted by a few (more or less) familiar faces at the table nearest the door, when a waitress (?) gently asked me outside and stamped my wrist, after verifying my name from a register.

Seated at the table, a bearded man who’d been in the International Press asked me why I still looked so formal. Of course I hadn’t changed since the MUN had ended. Sooner or later, we got around to the food, which was unlimited for those registered, like us. I’m not being paid to say this, but it was superb. Let me just check their menu online to titillate you fine folks. There were jalapeno and mozzarella cigars, pizza, penne pasta, cakes that I can’t name and wish I could describe, and more. If it weren’t so expensive I’d think about going there again sometime.

The toilets/bathrooms/lavatories/washrooms were behind a sort of hidden door, which blended with the wainscoting (if you can call it that). Behind it, in the short corridor outside the two rooms, I found Pusheen and a couple of her friends. I exchanged a few words, and then, resting my arm on a wall and with swagger, I asked, ‘So, whatchoo doing later tonight?’

As I’ve said, I’m often under several layers of irony. I hope I was then. Sometimes, though, it’s easy to lie to yourself, not to mention to other people. I want to believe I was joking, but was I being completely ironic?

Her tall friend pointed out that what I’d said was creepy, and coming up to me (he might have been a foot taller), asked me the same question. I was quick to say that I was joking, and politely left.

Not many people came to the socials. My friends from earlier didn’t. One of my roommates was at my table, though, I think. As a matter of fact, I think I met him later, in Kolkata, but I can’t be sure. The owner of the restaurant was also a Bengali, and I managed to slip in a word, ‘Bhalo’ (Good), to his smiling face as he was passing. Goodbyes were said in due course, and we stepped out, ready to leave. Then Messy and Co. showed up in an auto. Dressed casually, Messy explained that they’d taken it easy at the hotel; it was 11 o’ clock then. Too bad for them, the party was over. The Secretary-General, ever the perfect gentleman, easily took charge when I helplessly gave him my phone – he told the cab driver where to go, and with his help, I was soon on my way.

I let my friend know I was coming, and sat back in the car, watching nighttime Pune going by. It’s more or less how you expect a metropolitan Indian city to look like at night. I was certainly charmed. The drive took much longer than we thought, and even with my map, I had to ask my friend for help for the last leg of the journey. I tried to get him to talk to the driver like a helpless fool again, but he told me where to go, and I managed. He was there to pick me up.

What else can I say? It felt like home. He’d cooked something for me, but I said I’d eaten. He gave me a place to sleep and a shower to bathe in. All I could do (and this was more a help to me than to him, I think) was give him the leftover butter and pickles from my train ride. We stayed up chatting till four in the morning about remotely controlled vehicles and Assassin’s Creed – at one point, I couldn’t help pointing out how geeky it was.

I’m normally not a late sleeper, but that night was an exception. I turned in around dawn, and probably slept better than I had for days.

Not At Home

I woke up early again the next day. If I recall correctly, I rolled over and did a few pushups before getting up to brush. We were going to have to leave that day and my things were all over the place. The morning was spent packing with difficulty, with four or five people in the room. Sometimes you wish people weren’t looking when you’re packing your bag. Without much time to pack, the one suitcase I had was barely closed, and I couldn’t even shave properly. What really annoyed me was that the others didn’t seem very concerned. One of them was in my committee, and he sauntered in an hour after the session started.

Before I left, someone reminded me to pay my share for the water bottles and coffee. I hadn’t ordered coffee, but I was late (by my standards, anyway), and they knew it. I put down a fifty, saying it should cover my share of the expenses. Guess what the receptionist told me downstairs? The net cost of everything ordered in my room was thirty rupees.

An elderly attendant in the lobby, as I believe he may be called, stepped onto the road with me to help hail a taxi. This might have been unnecessary, but I accepted the help. ‘Don’t forget to tip him,’ I chanted in my mind as the minutes leaked out of my watch. Then a taxi pulled up, and he helped me put my bag in, and we were on our way. I only remembered a second before we left, and gave the man a ten-rupee note; he seemed pleased.

At SSE, I had trouble getting to the room. The whole campus, like the city, is weirdly mountainous – one might even say ‘non-Euclidean’. The road simply inclined up or down as in hill stations, but the buildings, rather than being on fixed elevations, incorporated these curves; the garage in one building sloped downwards; the canteen, as I said, divided the floor into two levels; two buildings might have several stairs and slopes in between. I was walking up one such incline with a bulge in my bag when I ran into one of the organisers. Turns out he was Bengali, too. He offered to keep my bag till the session ended, and, thanking him, I got my shaving things out of the front chain and put them in my suit pockets.

I told a logistics member on my way up to let someone know I was coming, or maybe I’d only asked if committee had started. I stopped at the floor below and shaved in the men’s room, getting a bit of my suit wet. I entered committee as I was putting on my tie. Things went on till lunch, after which we were taken to a different room – a large classroom, where the resolution would be drafted.

Australia, who was just fourteen years old, was in our block, and so was Spain, who never said anything and wore a woollen cap. Our problem was that we couldn’t type fast enough – it was Australia’s Mac, and he wasn’t a fast typist, and when I tried, the keyboard shortcuts I was used to on Windows wouldn’t work. Despite our efforts, we weren’t going to get anything done.

Later, when I was yelling at the typist in the other camp to incorporate our point in their draft, he did, but when I asked for credit (as a sponsor or signatory, I forget which), Pusheen told me everyone had put in helpful points, so I wouldn’t get credit. Then, out of the blue, the Secretary-General asked for me, and I had to leave the chaos when I had to be there the most. Why? My parents were worried because I hadn’t called all day. Sometimes you’re too busy to be angry.

Anyway, committee was over and we wrote a few lines in each other’s placards. We stepped onto the grassy area where we’d had lunch, where the prize distribution ceremony had already started. In the darkening purple evening, with lights throwing the sky into a contrast that inspired silent awe, we crowded around on the grass. There was a hill behind us that Japan had been meaning to help me climb for the view, but we never got around to it.

A couple of us made the Nazi salute when the Barbarossa delegates won prizes; my roommate was among them. Pusheen and Palestine (who was an Observer State) won awards for their respective committees. For the first and last time, I won something at a MUN – Special Mention! The Chair praised my extraordinary diplomacy and asked me to do better research next time. When that was over, some of us stood around to chat. Many weren’t coming for the socials. When we were parting, I realised – and said out loud – that these people I’d known for a few hours – I would never see them again. There they were, in the white light against the evening.

Bags were taken out and I found mine. Would I leave for the socials now? Messy, who was one of the chairs in the FIFA committee, was leaving. His co-chair, Z, was there, and so were a few others, including Palestine. Wait, would I leave now? See you at the socials? Oh, wait, we’re going together? What?

Not only was this a little confusing, my memory is too bad to recall what confusion there was. I ended up in a taxi with Z on my right and one of Messy and Z’s friends and roommates on my left, navigating to a hotel. If I’m not wrong, he was the one who tried to help me with the cuffs that morning. At one point he asked where the hotel was, and we told him he was the one with the phone. We were talking about something relevant, I’m sure, when I asked Z (this has stuck in my memory since) ‘What’s it like being a woman?’ I believe she said that it was good but different.

We paid the fare and wheeled our bags into the hotel, where we’d wait for the socials. But I didn’t want a hotel room. We sat in the lobby, and I was given the glass of water I needed. The others were here; Z and Palestine got a room; I learned that the navigator from the auto was Bengali (I hate how they kept saying ‘Bong’); I sent Palestine a text when she was sitting in front of me but she didn’t react. Then, I took my leave, and stepped out. There was plenty of time to walk around Pune and I wanted to make the most of this night.

Following the map on my phone, I took turns till I was walking down a wide, busy street, pulling my wheeled suitcase after me and occasionally lifting it around parked bikes and cars. There were several large stores, including a two-storey Starbucks, as I recall. Imagine my pleasant surprise when I found that my way went through Fergusson College, which one of my teachers had asked me to try to visit. I crossed the road and entered through the gates, and in all the time I was in there, no one stopped a young man in a suit with a suitcase walking around at night. There seemed to be some kind of garden on the right – I hesitate to write ‘medicinal garden’ – and I walked past another gate, and saw the college building. There were white lights on and around the building, but it was nonetheless difficult to appreciate the architecture in the dark. I realised that I was like Jude when he first went to Christminster.

I walked on, taking the paved road through a turnstile of sorts, where a booth stood; I was not stopped or even looked at. A man was walking abreast of me, and for quite some time I wondered if I should tell him that I’m new here, so he could say a few things about the campus, but I decided against it. The campus, for lack of a better word, grew wild, with large expanses of grass broken by short buildings at slight distances. I had to retrace my steps once because the GPS didn’t seem to have followed me properly. Growing a little wary, I walked on through the dark, phone in hand and a laptop in my suitcase, which was rattling over an uneven path now. After some time, I was quite confused. I’d been walking for a fairly long time and I was still inside the campus. I looked around the moor, as it could be called then. I was new here, and I didn’t speak Hindi very well (or anything else). There were a few fires at odd places, with people huddled around them, and what they were doing was, to me, inscrutable.

I was wondering how to proceed when I saw a headlight approaching. I must have hailed them and asked for help in Hindi – it was a scooter with a young man driving and a woman of about his age riding pillion. He pointed me in the right direction, and drove off. I was walking away when he came back, this time without the lady, and offered to drop me off.

If you were approached by a stranger on a scooter in a strange city, in a dark campus – almost a heath – with shadowy fires burning around you, what would you have done?

Riddles in the Dark

No points for guessing when I woke up the next day: ten minutes to five. I think it must have been dark still. I got busy getting ready, because the opening ceremony was at ten and I wanted to study. The next thing I remember, it was nearly time to leave, and I went over to Messy’s room to ask how to get my cuff-links on; he was in the shower (??) but one of his roommates helped (turns out you need cuffs for that). We knocked on the girls’ door, and one of them said her friend was in the shower (no one mentioned last night). I felt a tinge of annoyance at their being late, but I would later realise that female delegates were probably under a lot of pressure to adhere to certain standards. Male delegates can show up with stubble, but many female delegates seemed to be compelled to be punctilious in their appearance.

Breakfast would be served at the MUN, so all we had to do was head over there in a taxi (which, as goes without saying, would be the type of vehicle called the ‘auto’ in Kolkata). My roommate was dressed in a shirt and a bowtie, and I was in the large-ish suit we’d had made in Kolkata. Pusheen and Palestine wore dresses. ‘Say something,’ I told myself, and said something like, ‘I like your dress’.

At the MUN, we registered and got leather folders and IDs. Everyone split up to talk to people in their committees, and Messy (who stood apart) said we should, too. By ‘we’ I mean this girl I ran into who was in my committee – Mauritius. I told her later last year that I was Mauritius at JUMUN 2016. We were asked inside a little afterwards for the ceremony. It was nice. The woman (or girl?) next to me was Belgium in my committee – I told her about the theory that Jon was part-Targaryen. She was a student there, too. I’ll stop now.

Someone led us to the GA – it was a small room three or four floors up in one of the buildings. The GA was quite small – must have been less than 20. I think the quorum was set at 8 on one of those days. Pusheen was there, too. I started my GSL speech by quoting Tennyson’s Ulysses. They’d arranged for Italian food for meals. There was penne pasta and mousse for dessert, among other things. Belgium, Japan, and I tried to team up. Japan was a student there, too, and an anime fan. He told me to watch Shigatsu a month before other people started talking about it. The day was long, and the committee was a little different from most MUNs, I think, because it was only for two days. I was drowsing when a crisis came up about a French tourist ship in Cuban waters. Cuba dug himself into a hole arguing against me, even though I had no experience. I remember his stubble, curling into a spiral on his cheek, which must have made close shaving (like I prefer) extremely difficult. I argued with Costa Rica during lunch, I think, trying to explain free market economics to him (or was that on Sunday?). Good times.

I’d decided to walk home – I mean to the hotel. Japan and I walked together for some time, talking about collaborating. I kept walking as evening came. Then I met Ali, walking from the other direction with a friend. He was one of the organisers, and he’d been at the orientation. Very fun and upbeat personality. There was a problem at the hotel, though. Some error in the booking process meant everyone had to leave their rooms a day early: the extra money for that one day could be given as the fee for the socials. Good thing I had a friend in Pune.

On my way back I walked around in the giant Pantaloons mall, wondering if I should get new… ahem. I took the stairs at the hotel and a couple of women told me the light wasn’t working; I apologised and said I didn’t work there, but offered a light from my phone (they refused – the stairwell was short). My new roommates were here, making us four or five in total. I borrowed someone else’s shower and then I think we headed down for food. I’d meant to starve myself but the peer pressure was real.

We were with the girls now; I was letting Pusheen use my phone’s data, and at some point we were joined by Brian (not his real name), who was probably staying upstairs. He was a Christian, and brought with him the light of civilisation – a game called Cards Against Humanity. It was quite entertaining, and Palestine, cute as she was, genuinely surprised me with the dark genius of her mind. Ryan got up to leave after some time, and one of the girls needed a walk outside.

Messy came in later and we played Never Have I Ever. The girls ordered a late dinner from McDonald’s. We’d been playing for a while, and I think I’d decided not to leave my room just yet, since my friend lived far away. Messy asked if we’d ever sent nudes and I accidentally took a shot.

Then we got out of the room – Messy, my roommate, and Palestine – and took the elevator to the roof. Why? I don’t know. Things like this confuse me. This one time, my friend in school stopped to talk to a teacher about private classes and I didn’t know better than to just stand there next to them. I don’t know why we went up there, but I judged that it would be safe. It was a nice view from up there – not very high, but pleasant. Then we went back down. That’s right, no smoking or drinking or snorting cocaine; just right back down to our rooms. I must have decided to go to bed, because the next thing I remember is walking into my dark room, and taking the empty bed on the floor.

A Warm Welcome

We went into Room 101, and I found I already had a roommate. There was a king size bed near me, and I saw two smaller beds: on the sofa (actually a ledge of the window made into a sofa for the room, with blankets and a pillow added to make that sofa into a bed), and one on the floor. They needed to keep as many people as possible in each room: they weren’t cheap. The Sec-Gen said we’d have more the next day. He repeated that there were restaurants below, and the other two organisers came up to the door for a moment. I don’t remember if they said anything. The Sec-Gen told us to rest, and to attend the orientation in the evening. There would be WiFi if we paid some money, and we decided to wait till we had more roommates. Then they left.

It turned out that my roommate was also from Kolkata, and on top of that, he’d been in the coach next to me on my train. He seemed to prefer English, though. He was a year younger. I don’t mean to connect those two thoughts. We decided to take the bed, since we were the first there. He let me take a shower first. I left my suitcase next to the bed, and implicitly laid claim to a small, round table next to it, and a wicker chair. I had three hangers, and there were more in the wardrobe, but I’d end up needing several. Anyway, I took my things (soap, razor, etc.) into the shower.

It was pleasant. I don’t think I’ve ever showered barefoot, but I couldn’t resist trying the stone floor. It took me a long time to get everything running, though – there were things to be turned and pulled. The city was really warm, as my friends had said, but warm water, at long last, was welcome. I apologised when I came out, but my roommate was as polite as ever. He went in, and I tried to figure out where to keep my things – a problem that would plague me for the next few days.

As always, the order of things escape me. I do remember taking a good look around while I was alone. It was a comfortable room. Outside, after parting the curtains next to the sofa, I saw the broad. busy, sunny street I’d crossed. There was a hill close by, on the other side of the road, at the end of a lane. I might as well say this now: Pune is a surprisingly hilly city. Living in the literal artesian well that is Kolkata, I found it remarkable how compound walls were built like stairs, or a room could have part of its floor a step below the rest of the floor. The Symbiosis campus itself was all about walking up and down as much as horizontally.

Now, as I recall, when my roommate came out, I said I was going to eat something, and he decided to busy himself with his laptop. I went down in my modest pyjamas to Papa Johns. Now, I know this casts me in a very plebeian light, but I’d never eaten at Papa Johns before. I went in, and it looked good enough. I had to pay first, then sit, and have my order brought to me – a method I found not unpleasant. I ordered a farm fresh pizza, I think; it was nice. After lunch, I went into the bright sunshine and had a look around. My room was directly above the restaurant, itself immediately left of the entrance to the hotel.

I guess I must have gone back up, after calling Ma. My roommate was sitting on his side of the bed, studying on his laptop. He’d been to several MUNs – ten, I think – and he was in the Nazi War Cabinet. They had to plan Operation Barbarossa.

I never could figure out where to put my stuff. I just set down my razor and soap on a small table, and my socks under it. I’d taken my laptop, but of course it wouldn’t start. I fiddled with the RAM, having brought my trusty screwdriver, but it wouldn’t open, so I just read on my phone.

The next thing I remember was getting dressed to attend the orientation (or call it what you will). I was in my dress shirt and trousers, the way most people remember me from my school days. The two of us went out and took a taxi – they look like autos in Kolkata, the way taxis all over India look. The Symbiosis campus was a few minutes’ ride up the road I’d followed earlier – past the Marriott this time.

When we got there, we couldn’t figure out which was the entrance, because we’d been told to be at one gate, but the security officer asked us to use the other one. But that was the wrong one, and then we went in through the other one when the Secretary-General met us. There was some sort of fiesta on campus, and I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like if that kind of thing happened back home. We walked past the multiracial and multicultural dancing students, to the canteen with a couple of young ladies, whom the good Sec-Gen introduced as fellow delegates and our neighbours at the hotel. The Sec-Gen bought tea for the four of us; I had a coffee. The canteen had a strange feature I don’t remember seeing before: a large part of the floor was a step down from the rest. This is how the hills are carved into Pune – even the rooms have them. My roommate went ahead to the orientation with the Sec-Gen, while I finished chatting up the ladies (let’s not call them girls, shall we?). I asked them if I owed the man a date; he’d payed my taxi fare and bought me coffee, all in the same day.

The orientation went as you’d expect. Some very fun people dressed in casual clothes explained MUNing. It was quite fun, actually. Towards the end, some guy with messy hair came in. I thought he was a delegate; turns out he was one of the coolest people I’d ever meet.

I remember leaving with the Sec-Gen, the ladies, my roommate, and the new guy. We went to a restaurant nearby, where there was supposed to be free WiFi. It was exactly like the low-key eateries you see all over India (including back home), and probably the humblest place I had  the good fortune to be for some time. We drew up chairs to one table and the Sec-Gen and the new guy – let’s call him ‘Messy’ – started giving us free advice on how to MUN. Eventually, we left and crossed the road to get taxis to go back. We all had rooms at the ‘acco’ – the Sahara Hotel. I was in a taxi with my roommate and Messy, and we took a little detour before going back.

Back at the hotel, I went to Messy’s room and met his roommates. Two of them were chairing, if I remember correctly. Very interesting people; value their privacy. I went by the girls’ (let’s call them ‘girls’ for convenience) room next, and helped the one in my committee a little with research by sharing data (something I rarely have to begin with). Let’s call her Pusheen; she was wearing shorts with Pusheen pictures. We’ll call her friend Palestine. They were from Mumbai; turns out it’s okay to call it ‘Bombay’. Palestine said she lived near the cinema in Coldplay’s Hymn for the Weekend video.

It’s been almost a year now, and my memory often fails me in a matter of hours. I think we went to dinner; I couldn’t find my roommate at first. I learnt it was harder to be Jain than vegan, because a Jain eats even fewer things. I made a racist joke that I think everyone liked.

We went back up to Messy’s room, and I know I felt fine. I asked him about how he got into MUNing, and I think he put on some music – he was some sort of music afficionado. Anyway, something about me made him walk me back to my room. Now, look. I know what I felt, and I’m sure I could see the floor straight. Messy insisted, anyway. I do not remember talking to the girls then, but I might have. My lapse in memory now is largely thanks, I repeat, to time. I changed and went to bed. This had been a day when I’d woken up at ten to five, where I normally do at around 7 or 8; I hadn’t slept since, and it had been a long day. I was abnormally tired, and it must have shown.

So in the dark room, I heard my roommate talking to the girls in the room opposite, and I thought I heard them referring to me. Must have seemed drunk when I wished them good night, I thought, and I sat up and got out in my shorts. I went over and told them I was fine, and added that Palestine was really cute.

Anyone who’s known me for a while knows I’m always close to irony, and sometimes, in unguarded moments, I can be a couple of layers of irony down. This was one of those times, I’d say, but it’s pretty hard to defend now. I was later told I was slurring my speech. Impossible, I maintain, but there you go.

And that was it for my first day in Pune. Good times.