March 14th, 2010.
It’s a lazy Sunday afternoon; I reluctantly take up the task of sorting and cleaning out my engineering books after a lot of procrastination. I go through the books which have been lying untouched for over two decades while I hear the chatter of some hindi saas bahu type of serial playing on the idiot box in the adjoining room. As I go through the contents of the engineering volumes the pages of which have turned yellow with time. I am reminded about the days I spent reading these books sometimes even nights. As I keep shuffling through the contents, I come across a dusty file containing the old letters which I received from my family and friends during my college days. One thing that catches my eye is a telegram which had been sent by my college principal addressed to my father and it read as follows “Urgently contact principal regarding your ward's absence from hostel without intimation”.
I realize with a smile that this telegram was wired immediately after we went on a common off. I am transported back in time and nostalgia strikes me…… I start reliving those moments which I want to share with my readers.
PERIOD: JULY 1984
This is the period of my life which I cannot forget. The place I am talking about is BLDE College of Engineering, Bijapur. This is the place where I completed my degree course in engineering.
Way back in 1984 this city of Bijapur was not at all happening in terms of development and even the climate was extreme. In summer the max temperatures would soar to 43 deg C and sometimes even touch 45 deg C and winters would be pleasant with minimum temperatures ranging from 10 to 15 deg C.
I remember the first day I reached the historic place of Bijapur along with my parents. They had come all the way from Mumbai to drop their only son (of course me) to college because this was the first time I was to stay away from home. Actually they were more worried than me and all through the car journey they were advising me on the “art of living on your own” but thinking back in time now I feel they were doing it because they were not convinced that I could manage on my own.
But I was all the while getting irritated trying to convey to them that I was a no more a kid and could manage on my own because I had just started working out and had fantastic physique at 48 kg (my misconception).
We reached the college campus which was way out of the city limits of Bijapur and I noticed that there were acres of barren land surrounding the college building (a part of which was still under construction)which looked gray on that cloudy afternoon. The vast emptiness of the land was interrupted by small shrubs which had survived the harsh summer and just as if to add a little greenery to the pattern which caught my eye there were number of cactus trees and small plants which had thorns all over them. The whole set up did not appeal much to me but I had no choice because my father had already paid the fees for the college as well as the hostel. There was no back tracking now……..
The hostel was at walking distance of about 15 minutes from the college premises and was kept separate from senior student’s hostel because the college authorities wanted to avoid incidents of ragging. The construction of the hostel building was unique. It was a single storey building which was constructed with black basalt stones and the layout of the rooms were such that they were constructed along the square periphery of the building with a large open space in the center of the building where an unsuccessful attempt had been made to cultivate a garden. On the south side of the building was the entrance to the hostel which had a large collapsible gate which was the only way one could enter or leave the hostel.
The warden’s room was located in such a way that he had a straight view of the people entering and leaving the building. The warden of the hostel was actually a college professor in the mechanical engineering department and doubled up as a warden after college hours. He was in all probability made the warden of the hostel by virtue of the location of his residence which was right behind the North end of the hostel.
The hostel had a special caretaker with a special name called “Sakri” which in the local Kannada language meant sugar. His name was a misnomer as far as the students were concerned. He was short and thin even by Indian standards at about a little more than five feet and was always dressed up in local traditional clothes i.e. in white kurta and pyjama. He had a habit of updating the warden about the smallest things seen or heard in the hostel even though insignificant, he was definitely not very popular and what made things worse was that he was non-corrupt and could not be managed with money or favours. He used to generally be there for night duty. He would report at 3.00 PM in the afternoon and leave the hostel premises at 9.00AM the next morning. He was a stickler for discipline and would shut the gates of the hostel at sharp 10.30 PM and would not compromise even if a resident student was late by five minutes. After he closed the gate he would mark the attendance muster. The absentees would be immediately reported to the warden the same night it self. Nobody wanted to get into the bad books of the warden because he had a say in how the term work would be assessed at the end of the year. There were only three chances a student could get after which he would be expelled from the hostel.
After a brief stay at the hostel I realized the value of home food. The food which was served at the hostel mess though unlimited was laced with edible soda so as to give a temporary feeling of having had enough. But the resultant gas formation thereafter never ever affected the cook or the mess owner because they were released in the confines of the hostel room all through the night suffocating the roommates but nobody ever complained because they were all culprits.
In those days the only way we communicated with our parents was through postal letters and we used to endlessly wait for a letter or reply from them. Whenever the postman came to the hostel all the hostelites used to make a beeline impatiently checking with the postman if their letter had come. Back then there were no mobile phones and internet facility to communicate instantly. If we had to make an urgent phone call we would have to go the city post office to book a trunk call. It used to be a wait of over an hour before our call could be connected. Even after our call connected we would have to shout at the top of our voices so that the person at the other end could hear our voice because the voice quality was very poor. We also had to keep a tab on how much the call was being charged because of our limited budget as students. It was cheaper to call at night after 10.30 PM but we could never take advantage of this as it clashed with our hostel timings and with Sakri at helm of affairs there was no scope for flexibility.
The water in summer was scarce and used to be supplied once in 3 to 4 days. The first time I saw the mossy green coloured water which was home to small worms I thought how could any one drink such water but later on I resigned to the fact that there was no other alternative and would have to make do with this situation. It used to be a ritual to clean the water by adding alum and filtering the water before it could be used for drinking.
The hostel atmosphere was very interesting because we had boys from all parts of the country. In due course of time the boys formed groups based on the state or city to which they belonged. It was very important to be a part of some group or the other because there was an unspoken rule according to which these groups were protected by seniors belonging to that region and no senior from other region could rag the boys affiliated to a particular group. There were four to five major groups in our hostel i.e there was group of boys from
My room partners were Shailesh & Arun Ramchandra from Bombay, RamaRao from Hydrabad and Siby Thomas from Kerala. One more friend I cannot forget is Subhash Chandra from Jamshedpur who was always a part of our room though he resided in another room. We all used to assemble in my room and have arguments on various topics which invariably ended up on one topic i.e about how good the place from where we hailed was. Sometimes the arguments used extend late into the night but no one ever got disturbed because most of the students in the hostel were more or less nocturnal.
Cooking was strictly prohibited in the hostel but anyone who attempted making even tea or coffee could not escape the watchful eyes of Sakri. He had a typical style, he would not make a big hue and cry even if he noticed anyone flaunting this rule, the best part of it was no one ever noticed him noticing and all the students kept wondering how the hell he came to know even when the doors and windows of the room were closed while carrying out this illegal activity. Sometimes the students used to abuse Sakri in Hindi or some other language right on his face thinking that he could not understand any other language other than Kannada but Sakri invariably understood such things and made it a point to report this to the warden. All this made the hostel atmosphere very tense and the “Sakri factor” did not help either. On a sunny July afternoon the leaders of all groups got together and decided to go on a “COMMON OFF”.
Before I go ahead with the further narration I would first like to explain to you what the term common off means. It was the tradition which was set by our seniors. Every year the college reopened in June and the students used to attend college for about fifteen days thereafter they would decide on a date to go on a common off. On the decided date all the students together would go back to their respective hometowns. This was usually done by the senior students starting from the 2nd year onwards but never by 1st year students but this year was going to be different. The boys had become homesick and the tough conditions they were facing for the first time after leaving home prompted them to take this bold decision.
A lot of planning was required to be done because of the restrictions in the first year hostel. The senior’s hostel was different because they did not have a “Sakri” to report matters to the warden and no responsibility could be particularly fixed on any student for master minding the common off. All the leaders from different regions started having series of meetings with each other but care was taken to hold meetings in different rooms and the quorum of the meeting was always kept at a minimum so as to avoid arousing any suspicion. The meetings were generally held late at night and it was made to look as if a group study was going on. Whenever Sakri would peep into the room and see the leaders pretending to discuss study he could not digest the fact that all the notorious characters of the hostel who were more inclined towards anything other than studies were studying and that too jointly! He had a disgusted expression on his face as if he had seen all the villains from the good old Hindi movies together. He knew with all his years of experience that something was definitely cooking up but as usual he did not give any reaction…..
After a series of meetings the group leaders came up with a fool proof plan. There were almost 180 students in the first year hostel and it was herculean task to get a common consensus for going on a common off. Most of the students were prepared to go on a common off but there were students like the character “Chatur” in the movie “Three idiots”. Infact there were quite a few of them who were averse to the idea of common off because they were worried about the consequences of such action. However they were constrained to tow the line of their leaders because some of the leaders came with a reputation of having criminal background (how far it was true nobody had verified).
The leaders from each group had been given responsibility to brief their group members and also to arrive at a tentative date on which the group would like to go on a common off. Accordingly the leaders summoned the members of their group and a date was decided, I don’t remember the date very clearly but it was in the last week of July 1984 and it was a Saturday night. The name of the operation was appropriately named as “Saturday Night Fever” because nobody wanted to use the word “Common Off” by mistake even in casual conversation least Sakri heard it. He was very smart though uneducated, he could hyperlink words heard and interpolate the context in which the words were being used and the conclusions he arrived at were seldom wrong.
I and my roommates Shailesh, Siby and others often used to pull Sakri’s leg and used to ask him if he would come with us for a Saturday night fever. He used to draw a blank expression and used to wonder why we were laughing. He used to get irritated and admonish us to go and study or else he would report us to the warden.
Nobody was aware about the blue print of the operation “Saturday Night Fever” except the group leaders but I and Shailesh were privy to the discussions during the so called group study sessions because we were considered important members from the Bombay group. Before going any further I will explain the plan which all the future engineers had crystallized and wanted to implement.
Details of operation “Saturday Night Fever”:
The time for the commencement of the operation “Saturday Night Fever” was at approximately 11.30 PM on the proposed Saturday i.e. a good while after Sakri locked the hostel collapsible gate and went off to sleep after ensuring that all the hostel inmates (that’s how we actually felt at that point in time) were either sleeping or studying. The plan was that all the 180 boys would form 6 batches of 30 boys each and on the decided night each batch on receiving the signal would stealthily move up the staircase to the terrace along with their luggage so as to avoid waking up Sakri. All the boys had been strictly instructed to carry only a single bag. I and three others were given the responsibility of standing over the building chajja which could be approached after crossing over the terrace parapet wall from where it was convenient to hand over the luggage to the respective student after they got down from the hostel terrace using the down comer pipes. The logistics had been all worked out in detail. After the boys got down they would get into waiting auto rickshaws which would immediately take them to the city bus stand. Thereafter they would take pre-booked mini buses to Sholapur. Each batch was to leave after an interval of 10 minutes after the previous batch was out of the hostel. We were supposed to be the last ones to leave the hostel after the last bag was handed over.
All the mini buses would then proceed to Sholapur irrespective of where the boys had to go. This was being done to ensure that none of the boys could go back to the hostel as an afterthought or for fear of the consequences. On paper the plan looked foolproof but it was decided that the plan would be disclosed to a select few who could be trusted and the leaders reached a unanimous decision that all the other students would be briefed about the operation only on the day it was to be executed.
All the responsibilities for the arrangements to be done for the common off were mutually divided among the group leaders according to their convenience. The leader from the Chennai group was in-charge of arranging the auto rickshaws and minibuses. The leader of the Bihar group was a very aggressive guy with a big build and a reputation of having a criminal background (the names of the persons involved have been with held to avoid hurting any sentiments). He was responsible for collecting the funds required to finance the operation “Saturday Night Fever”. I and the other guys from Bombay were given the charge of coordinating the activities on the day of the operation. It was a very challenging task because some of the students were not willing to go on a common off and the task of convincing them was also in our scope.
The day of the common off finally arrived and all the leaders went into a huddle to discuss the timing for announcing the common off. Sakri usually left the hostel in the morning at 9.00 AM after his night duty and would be back at 3.00 PM. So it was almost six hours on hand to announce the common off and also convince the boys to cooperate by hook or by crook. There would be ample time for the hostel residents to arrange cash from the bank and also pack their bags. All the leaders called their groups as soon as Sakri left and announced the plans to their respective groups. There was a wave of excitement in the hostel and surprisingly there was no opposition to the common off. All the boys seemed enthusiastic and got busy preparing to go on the common off within the time constraints. They had all been asked to be in a state of total readiness before Sakri arrived.
The Final Countdown: The night for action had finally arrived. The atmosphere in the hostel was enthusiastic but tense. The boys looked as if a fresh wave of energy had swept over them, after all most of the boys were away from home for the first time and were home sick. Before the 3.00 pm deadline all the bags were packed and ready. The boys had been briefed about the operation “Saturday Night Fever” but had been strictly instructed to behave normally in front of Sakri. As the evening set in the boys in the hostel were trying to behave normally but the excitement of going home was getting better of them. There was hectic activity in all the rooms; all the students were keeping their daily essentials inside the cupboards as they would be away for a couple of weeks. Sakri noticed it but did not make much out of it at that hour (6.00 PM).
The boys also had their dinner at the usual 8.30 PM in the hostel mess. After dinner most of the boys usually changed into their casual night dress but today was different, most of the boys were dressed as if they had to immediately go out and they were still wearing their shoes instead of the usual slippers or chappals. Sakri’s antenna was up; he knew something big had been cooked up and he became alert but as usual did not show it. At sharp 10.30 PM Sakri closed the only collapsible gate of the fortress called “the first year hostel” as if by default. But instead of going to sleep as usual he sat on a stool which was kept at the gate from where Sakri kept an eagle’s eye on all the activities in the hostel. All the leaders went to each of the rooms and asked all the boys to pretend to be asleep by switching off the lights in the rooms so that Sakri also would go to sleep, this would enable the boys to sneak to the terrace of the ground floor building batch by batch.
But Sakri had smelt a rat and was determined not to sleep. The boys were getting restless as all the auto rickshaws would be there in a short while from now and the noise of the rickshaws in the middle of night would definitely raise suspicion in the already alert Sakri. He was capable of putting two and two together and make it four. The Chennai leader had a brilliant idea he laced a holy prasad from a temple with some sleeping tablet and offered the same to Sakri because he knew Sakri would never refuse the holy prasad. The boys kept a watch after he had consumed the prasad expecting him to fall asleep any moment because the tablets were supposed to be strong. But alas! Sakri’s sincerity and determination could not be put to sleep by a mere sleeping pill. All the leaders were very tense because it was already nearing midnight and there was no sign of Sakri going to sleep. Moreover the auto rickshaws would be there any moment. The leaders had a emergency meeting and it was being suggested that the operation be called off. But the Chennai and the Bihar leaders who were more aggressive had other plans. They discussed amongst themselves and told the others not to worry. The Bihar leader told the others with a cold look in his eyes “let’s wait and watch” and it made others wonder what this guy was up to? Was he living up to his reputation of having a criminal back ground?
Just as the emergency meeting concluded we heard the auto rickshaws outside our hostel premises and the leaders started looking at each other. The leader of the Bihar group was the first one to react, he told the other leaders to get their groups ready and proceed to the terrace as planned, I and three others were told to take our position on the terrace to facilitate the movement of luggage from the terrace to the waiting auto rickshaws and further added that he and the leader from Chennai would take care of Sakri.
The noise of the engines of so many auto rickshaws had also alerted Sakri. He must have been wondering what so many auto rickshaws were doing in the middle of the night in the vicinity of the isolated hostel. He knew there was something fishy going on outside and suddenly his attention was drawn to the commotion at the far end of the corridor near the staircase to the terrace, just as he was trying to figure out what the hell was going on, he saw the leaders of the Bihar and Chennai group standing very close to him breathing down his neck. His diminutive figure was dwarfed by both the heavily built leaders. They were giving him a wicked smile while they told him to be quiet and let all the students go out through the main gate because the students were going on a common off. At the mention of the word “common off” Sakri started yelling “warden”, “warden” …… Even the calm and composed Bihar and Chennai leaders panicked and started shouting instructions to their counterparts to let go all the batches out of the hostel at once. In the meanwhile they did not understand how to control the Sakri who was shouting; for his small size he had an amazingly loud voice which was piercing the silence of the night. Not understanding what to do they caught hold of Sakri and started searching the key of the hostel gate in his pockets. They did find the keys! But the key bunch was so big that they did not understand which key was the right key to the gate and moreover there was no time for trial and error. All the keys looked so similar and Sakri would in no way cooperate. He just continued calling the “warden…..warden” in the same rhythm….. But this only made matters worse, all the 180 boys climbing up the only staircase to the terrace panicked and there was a stampede like situation with all the boys pushing each other up the staircase. The brave Bihar and Chennai leaders also panicked and pleaded with Sakri with folded hands to be quiet, but Sakri was “Sakri”! He would not relent. The leaders were conscious of the fact that the warden stayed right behind the hostel and all this commotion would definitely wake him up which they did not want. Not being left with any other option both the leaders physically lifted Sakri and held his mouth tight to prevent him from shouting. Seeing their leaders struggling with Sakri the other boys also joined in. They lifted him and took him in a procession towards the toilet block, in the melee somebody brought a bed-sheet and wrapped Sakri in it, finally they locked Sakri in the toilet who was still shouting “warden…waaa…rden”.
The scene on the terrace was equally tense and chaotic. All the boys were hurriedly getting down the drain pipes, the volume of luggage I and the others had to handle had increased because all the 180 boys were leaving the hostel at once. There was total chaos on the terrace as the baggage just kept piling up and because of this we were forced to throw the bags down. The auto rickshaw drivers had not seen anything like this before. They could not comprehend what was going on…… they thought that they were unknowingly taking part in a mass theft or decoity. They panicked and started their rickshaws in an attempt to abandon their prospective clients but the boys who were already down got the better of them and forcefully got into the auto rickshaws literally hijacking them. The silent neighborhood had suddenly been transformed into a hub of noisy activity at this late hour.
The noise levels also attracted the attention of a passing highway police jeep which was patrolling the national highway parallel to the service road connecting the hostel. The police stopped their vehicle and came to enquire what was going on. The student leaders noticed the only police constable who was coming towards the hostel like a lone confidant warrior but they did not want any more hindrances. They were all charged up and one of them just started shouting “maro….maro” (attack), on hearing this all the boys who were struggling with the auto rickshaw drivers started charging towards the constable as if they were possessed. On seeing this mad mob of around 25 to 30 boys the police constable panicked, turned around and started sprinting followed by this mad entrouge carrying battery operated torches. It was a scene straight out of the cartoon “Tom and Jerry”. The irony of the situation was that even after being a police man he was being chased as if he was petty thief, he ran as fast as he could towards the campus compound wall and jumped over it at one go like an accomplished athlete despite his pot belly and reached the police jeep. The jeep sped away in the darkness of the night.
After a maddening 30 minutes most of the boys had got down and were busy locating their baggage in the pile which had accumulated at the place where I and my colleagues had dumped them. In all this chaos Sakri’s voice was constantly being heard in the background like a stuck gramophone record player calling out to the warden from the toilet. It was obvious his determination had got the better of him and he did not seem to get tired and in contrast I and others who were still handing over the bags to the last few who were still to leave were dead tired. We were mechanically playing our part in the operation “Saturday Night Fever” by handing over the bags to the boys without noticing who was collecting them. Suddenly I noticed that all the activity on the ground had come to a halt except for Sakri’s shouting who had still not given up.
The others who were with me on the chajja also retreated without giving me any intimation, thinking that fatigue had caught up with them; I resigned to the fact that I would have to fight it out all on my own. I was feeling like a brave soldier fighting a lone battle. With this mindset I shouted aggressively at the only person who was standing down in pitch darkness because the boys who were holding the torches also had vanished. I shouted orders to him “come on catch the bag”…in return he asked me in a calm deep pitched voice which was not familiar “what the hell is going on”? I triumphantly told him with a sense of pride “Common off”, “we are going on a common off” and asked him “who are you to ask”? This enraged the intruder and he told me “bloody fool I am the H.O.D of mechanical engineering department”. I did not know the head of department of mechanical engineering but this was the last place where I expected to meet him.
Even at this cold hour I was sweating, all the bravery, enthusiasm and sense of pride had been deflated like a punctured tyre. I bet the others too must have been sharing my feelings. It was only after a little while I realized why all the boys had become quiet.
Being sure that the professor had not seen our faces in the darkness, the leader of the Bihar group shouted “bhago , bhago” (run…run) and as if by instinct all the remaining boys clambered down the pipes and started running with the remaining baggage while the professor stood still like a statue of Buddha.
After running a fair distance we stopped to calm our nerves and get back our breath, from a distance we could see the illuminated entrance of the hostel where Sakri was making gestures and probably explaining to the warden (who was finally there) and the HOD what transpired through the night. In the meanwhile we saw a couple of police jeeps with armed policemen probably thinking that there was a serious law and order situation, but all the harmless culprits had already escaped. We were all waiting to go home but not without a burden of what we had done the night before.
When I boarded the minibus to Sholapur, I thought I was hearing my thoughts, but it was not so…..my friends were echoing the same sentiments which I was feeling deep down inside me. What we had done was not right and a straight sincere person like Sakri did not deserve something like this.
Every experience in life is a lesson, a learning process. It brought home a fact that acts done in mob frenzy can be dangerous, one should always think before you act.
Though our professors, parents and college management took a lenient view of all that happened on that night. We were all let off with a mild warning. This incident made us more mature and wiser…….As I sit back and reflect on my thoughts while the evening tea is served …. I sip on the strong masala tea and I thank god …….I thank god that I have grown up.