I was in my final year in the University. I had virtually dropped out, not attending classes, and doing everything else possible in those laissez faire days of Delhi University.
By a stroke of good fortune, a classmate, a minor Dada or Don at the University, had decided to mentor me not only in nefarious activities, but also in had through his unique logic persuaded me into taking a few competitive exams. He in fact paid the fees, as I had spent all my allowance in less productive activities, and even woke me up and dropped me to the exam centres. I will write about him in a separate story.
Having taken these exams without preparation and barely awake, I had little hope of clearing any. But I did get interview calls, but having previous experience of how I tend to offend the interviewers with my general appearance and attitude, I had no expectations. I was certain I was unemployable and that I would fail my exams too.
But on my return from a crazy adventure in a forest, about which I have written earlier, in Close encounters of the Wild Kind, I found an appointment letter waiting for me.
Receiving the appointment letter was a godsend. My concerns regarding a bleak future of unemployment and poverty being allayed, celebrations started on a serious note. The relevance of the final examinations thus becoming negligible, I gave up all pretence of studying.
My colourful friend, unconventional philosopher and extreme lifestyle guide, who, as I said earlier, was instrumental in getting me employed, was also selected by the same organisation, and posted to my hometown, Calcutta. I was posted to Madras as it was then known, in the Deep South.
The joining date was a few days after the final exams, and it was a two day journey across the length of the country by train. In order to avoid confrontation with my going to be disappointed parents, who wanted me to study further and prepare for the IAS, I decided to join first and inform them later.
Now that my creditworthiness was established, as I was about to become a class one officer in a government organisation with what seemed in their impoverished state a princely salary, I jointly with my friend threw a party involving crates of bliss which lasted through the weekend. This merged into another farewell party that our friends threw for us, and a few very hazy days later, my friends uploaded me, barely awake, on the South bound train along with my Spartan possessions in a rucksack.
When I finally woke up the train had reached the badlands of Chambal, and the deep gorges and ravines and steep banks took me straight to the stories of the Wild West that had fired my imagination as a schoolboy. The men around me had spectacular moustaches and colourful pugrees, and the women wore brightly hued sarees with thick silver jewellery and veils pulled over their face. A number of men carried muskets. They spoke Hindi with an unfamiliar lilt.
Next morning I woke up to a new world. My co passengers had changed and everyone around was speaking in a strange incomprehensible guttural tongue. There also was an unusual smell, which I later identified as a mixture of coconut oil, jasmine and camphor. The women wore long skirts and had flowers in their hair. The men wore white lungis. The calls of “chai, garam chai “ was replaced by “kaffee, kaffee”. The vendors sold coffee, and tea was nowhere in sight. The breakfast or tiffin being served was in banana leaves, and newspapers in an unfamiliar script, and consisted of idlis, vadas and curd rice.
This was the first time that I had ventured South of the Vindiyas. It was almost like being in a new country. I could not communicate with my neighbours except through sign language.
Early next morning the train rolled into Madras. I was bewildered and lost in a sea of humanity whom I could not understand, and was being solicited by a mob of touts shouting “Hotel! Taxi!” and a string of incomprehensible words.
Suddenly out of the gloom there emerged a beacon of joy, in the shape of a man in white uniform and chauffeurs cap carrying a banner “Welcome Mr Mukherjee”
This completely unexpected angel of mercy guided me to a white Ambassador car, with white seat covers, which a very grimy boy, covered in two days worth of the dust of the nation, was afraid to soil. This scruffy untidy unwashed being in much stained tees was thus bourn regally to a hotel in Maylapore, my home to be for the next six months.
The novelty of being in a hotel, getting a wakeup call with tea served in the room along with the morning newspaper, proper meals served buffet style with plenty to eat in a proper restaurant, seemed like a dream, just out of my university hostel.
A telegram home informed my parents of my latest whereabouts and career choice. Two thousand kilometres protected me from their displeasure.
I got used to waking to the strains of ladies practicing Carnatik music in the neighbourhood, and the sound of temple bells. I got used to men in white with foreheads streaked with holy ash. I got used to demure women with jasmine in their hair. I got used to polite people in buses, who would not sit in a ladies seat even if it was empty, in sharp contrast to the uncouth louts in my earlier city.
I discovered a new country, the Deep South