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.

Border Tales II : The (Fl)Acid Trip

Why does Joy surprise me with every sentence? How is it that he writes so well that when I think I’ve seen what he has to say, I’m taken aback the next moment? How does his friend Kabir know where to put the perfect memes?
We’re lucky to read things this good.

The Explosive |?!|

It must have been the muffled hustle of rush hour, combined with laziness-inducing grogginess, that made the half-hour or so at the Sealdah canteen (yes, ‘restaurant’ would be putting it too charitably) seem like a blur. Not that the coffee we had did us any good. ‘Dishwater!’ one of us exclaimed, while the other passionately reminisced far better brews from establishments around town.  Neither of us knew what lay beyond Hasnabad, the last – and easternmost – station on the Calcutta suburban rail network. Except, of course, Bangladesh. Given that our previous trips were mostly smooth and hassle-free, it was natural that we expected this sojourn to the border to turn out likewise.

Until reality so rudely intervened…

When travelling to spitting distance of the Bangladesh border, kerb service is not to be expected. A touch of fearless decision making, a touch of spontaneity and a BUCKETLOAD of patience is…

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