Sunday, 15 April 2007

The beginnning of a journey

I stood on a crowded platform on an evening in the month of May in Delhi. The platform beneath my feet radiated a heat the seeped through the soles of my shoes. The “junta” milled around me and I waited for my dad to get back with a glass of cold drink. Suitcases and cartons surrounded me and I surveyed them going through a mental checklist. Having never set up my own abode, I wondered how I would go about it. A thousand mundane concerns ran through my head – where would I buy things? How would I do without the beauty parlour being next door? The questions never ended.

Dad came back with a paper cup with a bright orange liquid... Fanta… ah… that felt good, parched as I was. Two minutes later I threw the cups into a near by bin and moved hurriedly out of the way of a coolie wheeling a luggage barrow. Didn’t want to come under that one!

The deafening noise that marks the arrival of a train reached my ears. Ah! There it was the super fast (so they say!) Rajdhani from Delhi to Ahmedabad. It chugs in 5 minutes before its scheduled departure and the waiting crowd pounces on it as I look around me in dismay. “I am never going to make it aboard with all that luggage despite coolie and my dad being there.” But still an effort had to be made and so I ran after the crowds too with whatever I could carry and in one of those unexplainable incidents, my dad and I both made it aboard and plonked ourselves in our seats, luggage stowed safely underneath. And then began the interminable wait for the train to leave for how much ever we may think that a privileged train like the Rajdhani will leave on time, it does not. So we all feel like fools for having run after it in the first place and realize that like much else in life, it simply was not worth it.

The songs play on for the duration of the 14 hour journey across western India. A pity that it must be a night journey for the scenery is rather picturesque and breathtaking as I discovered on a later journey on the same route. But then there were other things to stare at. The women traveling in the cubicle opposite ours for one. Middle aged to aged gujarati (or perhaps Rajasthani, I am not really sure) women with earnings so heavy that the piercing in their lobes had grown into a hole the size of the lobes it self! Ears hanging under the weight of their own ornaments! It did make my jaw drop for a minute.

If Delhi is sweltering in May, the experience of Ahmedabad cannot even be described. Sweaty and tired, dad and I reached the hotel that my would be local guardian and distant relative of mine had booked us into. How exactly he is related to me I am still not sure. A very distant third cousin of mine he is I think. And this ambiguity puts me into another quandary. What do I call him? He is much older than me, married with kids. So I can’t quite call him by first name. “Uncle?” It doesn’t quite role off my tongue with ease. Oh well, I’ll figure something out!

The Le Meridian is a pretty well known hotel and very comfortable. So I spent a relaxed afternoon recuperating from the train journey and the heat and enjoying my last few hours of a comfortable bed and air conditioner in summer, dreading what I was going to be faced with the next day.

The sun had gone down, behind the banks of the Sabarmati River by the time I woke up and peeked out of the covers. A cup of coffee later, dad and I set out to get me a mobile connection; a task of prime importance to me and to him for his daughter could not be left all alone without a means to reach her. An auto ride to Bharti House, the office of Airtel in Ahmedabad solved that problem and we decided to walk back to the hotel. So, down Ashram road we trudged looking at the buildings, the people, breathing the air of a new city, trying to get its measure.

My memory is a little hazy here and on it are super imposed the impressions of later visits to the city. But I remember two things distinctly. One was the buffeting wind as we walked across the Nehru Bridge. It was a wind that I did not expect on a day as hot as that had been and it threatened to blow my top up far more than decency would allow. And so I pressed my father to walk on before I landed myself in a very embarrassing situation on my first evening in the city.

My second thought was well rather more mundane and boring. “The city isn’t as polluted as the news reports make it out to be!” I thought. First impressions don’t always last and I found out why soon enough. Journalists aren’t that sloppy and I shouldn’t doubt them so much considering I studied to be one just about 9 months ago. And I am glad to say I repose more faith in my journalist brethren now.

A sumptuous dinner with my LG and a fitful sleep later, I was once more surrounded by a multitude of bags and boxes which we all tried very hard to cram into the boot of the car. No luck. I pretty much ended up sitting on one of them as it sat on my seat all the way to MICA. A colleague of dad’s from his erstwhile bank joined us for the ride and pointed out some of the landmarks in the city that came along our way. Didn’t seem too bad… nothing like Delhi though. No place can ever be like that. Home in the way that that city is to me.

The roads were deserted, owning I think to the rather early hour at which we departed and also the fact that we really didn’t get into the heart of the city and were outside its municipal limits before we knew it and on the highway.

For four people (including the driver) who have never been to that side of the country, we found MICA without too many hitches and the road map that the institute had mailed to me turned out to be accurate enough. A rather uninteresting ride I might add except for the last 5 minutes when I received the shock of my life and realized where I had landed myself geographically.

Off the main highway, a small road winds to the right. A black board says “Ambli” in what appears to be chalk but is not. It is crudely written, maybe by somebody who has just learned the art of writing, like a child. Everywhere along the road is cow dung, the distinct smell of which is almost a sign board in itself. On both sides of the road is lush greenery, even in the middle of the sweltering summer. It would grow even greener as the rains come.

All the way to MICA, you could see villagers walking by, kids playing, men herding cattle whose milk you would never drink once you saw how clean they were. A few hutments here and there were the only signs of settlement. Two kilometers down this road was a huge white sign board bearing the twin triangles that are the symbol of MICA and the name of the institute in three languages.

The gates approached, I signed in and looked up my hostel room , my home for the next one year, in the register. Thus, was my first introduction to Thakur ji, the man who keeps watch at MICA, head of the security, who lives and sleeps in the little room next to the gate, be in summer of winter, rain or storm. He handed me Prasad to mark an auspicious beginning, conferring the blessing of the Ganesha, whose temple was just a few steps away in the campus. Ganesha – the lord of learning.

Getting back into the car once again we made our way down impeccably maintained gardens and lawns, the directors’ residence, drove past the canteen and the administrative buildings towards the point beyond which the car could not go – in front of the Silver Oak Plaza.

MICA has eight hostels, all named after trees – Kachnar, Chandni and Palaash where the first years would reside, Amaltas, Chinar and Gulmohar where the seniors were housed, Champa where those who enrolled for the short term courses stayed and lastly Silver Oak which served as a guest house for parents and other visitors as well as the hostel for international students (and Indians who were willing, to well, pay in dollars!). Each a red brick building. The unfinished look so typical of educational institutes in Ahmedabad, be it IIM or NID or SEPT or MICA.

So here I was, with a whole lot of luggage in front of the first hostel, mine, as Murphy and his laws would have it, being right at the back. I rushed ahead, with whatever I could carry, my father, his friend and the driver in tow. My first sight of Kachnar/Palaash was rather astonishing. In the common lobby, on the wall that greeted us the grafitti of a man and a woman making out, “Foreplay – Absolute Overkill” written on the sides. Ah well, this was going to be interesting!

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