I feel that the idyllic memories of schooldays, the nostalgia for the carefree happy days of school, without worries stress and tension, are largely exaggerated, and fuelled by alcohol induced amnesia.
The horrors of homework, the trauma of tests, the torture of trigonometry, tremors of titration, frustrations of first love- who says school was tension free!
Real freedom happened in college. Free from the restrictive shackles of home, routine, uniforms, compulsory attendance and unwanted subjects; we were finally free to get an education, without the irksome interference of studies thrown in.
Sadistic school teachers were replaced by laissez faire lecturers, dull uniforms by cool casuals, lunches packed in Tiffin boxes by coffee and cutlets in the café, and the opposite sex was in the next seat, not the next school, to be glanced at through barred gates like zoo animals. This was bliss.
Of course there was a price to pay. After the comforts of home, hostel life was a glimpse into the rigors of real life. The less than hygienic common loos and mass produced bland mess fare for food was the price of freedom.
Then there was ragging. A rites of passage initiation ceremony harking back to our tribal past, meant to break the ice, forge bonds and make men out of boys. Well, it shattered the ice and all vestiges of diffidence and shyness, and turned us into scarred veterans if you escaped becoming nervous wrecks in the process. The process involved ‘interactions’ with seniors, entertaining them and doing chores for them.
During one such interaction, the task set was to procure invigorating libation for these seniors extracted from Malt or Molasses. Ours was not to reason why, so, finances and directions being provided, a very nervous fresher – the tag we newbie initiates went under, I left on my quest.
In those days, such outlets for liquid refreshment in our capital city were strictly government controlled and few in number besides having early closing hours. The nearest to the University required changing buses, and standing in a long queue with the unwashed multitudes and a policeman keeping rioting at bay. I was a sheltered shy youth of 16, thin, bespectacled, with no knowledge of Hindi, the local language. Moreover, I was well below the drinking age, a teetotaler, law abiding goody goody boy, just out of school, whose experience of adventure was limited to the pages of the books I was addicted to. Having reached the dispenser of spirits near closing hours after seeking directions in atrocious Hindi from tough looking citizens, causing much mirth, I quailed at the prospect of the queue under the stern gaze of the law keepers. But the prospect of meeting my seniors empty handed spurred me on. I tried to wait with eyes downcast, hiding my face, avoiding the gaze of the policemen and onlookers, of whom I was certain someone would know my parents and report back my extracurricular activities in college leading to prompt withdrawal from this brave new world.
Ultimately my turn came, and no age related question was raised either by the vendor of spirits or the guardians of the law. The transaction consisted of thrusting a bundle of currency through a grill and shouting” ‘Do Puri” – 2 whole- and 2 bottles of amber liquid was thrust out of the window. No package, carry bags or anything to disguise the merchandise.
Initial relief at completing my task without jail, exposure, bodily harm or mugging was replaced by the horror of having to carry 2 exposed bottles back in public transport under the gaze of potential informers or policemen or college authorities or anyone who could ruin my career character and reputation made me almost faint with fear. But having spent the money I had no option but run the gauntlet. Ulysses had it easy I thought, Homer made unnecessary fuss over his journey.
Wilting under the stares of the conductor and myriad co passengers, I embarked on the journey. Imagine the picture, a stripling youth, facial hair yet to appear, grasping 2 bottles of liquor for dear life, trying hard to look invisible, being jostled in a crowded bus, then creeping along the empty roads of the university, wishing he could melt into the ground.
The final stretch, through the college lawns to the hostel was pure purgatory, as I imagined every professors eyes boring into me, with disgrace expulsion and subsequent interview with my parents flashing before my eyes.
I reached the sanctuary of the seniors’ room without any such mishap and all but collapsed from the stress. The omnipotent seniors then started the rituals of libation after complaining of my tardiness, and as decorum demanded, I was asked,- “ A drink fresher?” My instinct, indoctrination and intuition demanded I politely refuse, but the memory of what I had undergone to obtain this offering combined with the desperate need for a pick me up made me respond- “Yes Sir, thank you” and proceeded to enjoy the fruit of my expedition.
That was the beginning of my liquid path, and I haven’t looked back since.