My eldest brother was in IIT-Kharagpur. There was a time when he was a scourge. Imagine a male version of that female mama alien in James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’ and you’ll be thinking of my Dada (elder bro).
Of course, the years have mellowed him. Now 64 and retired, he walks around with ear buds, listening to the day’s podcast of The Economist, a mild smile of bemusement at the world playing on his face. Julius Streicher, ex-Gauleiter of Bavaria, used to have the same mild, bemused look at Nuremberg in ’45.
I don’t know about Julius’s but Dada’s gattas were held in awe. Every Bengali is familiar with a gatta, which is a bare-knuckled rap on the occiput that elder bros feel within their rights to mete out. Sometimes I’m convinced that the low IQ scores I got in college, were a direct consequence of Dada’s gattas. He has apologized recently, over drinks at his Mumbai flat, after I told him I was thinking of suing him for my lack of drive. I’m not sure but I think Dada is fairly harmless now. And too far away to cause me any serious physical harm unless he has chanced upon a military surplus predator drone.
It’s ok to deride his old alma mater. We at IIT-Chennai looked upon KGP guys condescendingly – we saw them as a bunch of coarse, quirky guys, lacking in intellect and good only at extreme forms of ragging. If Saddam Hussein’s Mukhabarat were recruiting, KGP guys would have a job right after they graduated, with joining bonuses.
My brother once took me along to watch the fun called ragging, back in ’67. I was 12. We arrived at his hostel, the Azad Hall, a day early and Dada immediately set about organising a reception committee for the newcomers who would be coming in the next day.
When the first taxi arrived, brother dear and his goons were at the front porch, a bunch of T-Rexes, waiting for the leaf-eating diplodocuses coming in. This is probably an obituary. Please, I beg you to take off your hats and wear black while readin’ this.
A wimpy, nerdish, shrimp of a guy got off the taxi and shuddered, closely followed by an even more apprehensive mother. The front of his pants did look a bit wet but then I may have been mistaken.
Dada stepped forward and spoke with the nerd’s mother. “Ah, there you are, Mashima, hope you had a pleasant journey. Hey Poritosh, Ajay, pick up the luggage please” then, turning to the shrimp,” What do they call you, Bhai?”
“N.n.n.n.Nimai”, the boy stuttered. Though he must have been 17, he looked much younger, with his baby face and frail build. A faint shadow had just begun to form above his upper lip. Come to think of it, on second thoughts, his pants did begin looking soiled.
“Nimai….Nimai…ah, what a wonderful name,” Dada expanded,” My late chotokaka was also Nimai. Poor guy, fell while stealing mangoes, broke his legs and was never the same after that. Amazing how people change after they break their legs”. The monologue sank in.
And then Dada turned to the mom and said, “Mashima, Nimai is in good hands.” My brother pointed to Manjeet, a 6ft carnivore in 2nd yr, mining and metallurgy. Manjeet stepped up, grabbed the teenaged nerd’s arm and propelled him forward, disappearing through the hostel entrance.
“These sweets…and bananas…I..I…he forgot them.” Mommy dearest stammered, holding out a plastic bag. Ten sets of green reptilian eyes gleamed. The sweets were already on their way down ten elementary canals that were larger than the Sagittarius-A. “Now, don’t you fret, Mashima. We’ll make certain he has every one of the bananas. In fact, Prasenjeet here will personally pop them into his mouth.” He gestured toward a shrewish guy, with larger than normal canine teeth, 2nd year, civil engineering.
Evil glint no longer necessary, my brother was radiating malice by now, like some radio-active isotope.
Mashima said,”I think I’ll…maybe…go have a look around his room…you know.”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary, Mashima. We have his room all done up and ready. Don’t we, Bambi?” He turned to a baby-faced reincarnation of Heinrich Himmler in 3rd year computer science. “And besides, the taxi meter is running and you might miss your train back.”
Mommy decided not to push it. “OK then, Baba, if you say so. I..I..I’m so relieved he’s in such good hands.” her voice, uncertain, tapered off and she got into the taxi, looking forlornly back at the hostel entrance as if Nimai would appear magically and she’d be able to give him a final parting hug .
The driver put the jalopy in gear and as it lurched forward, my brother shouted,” We’ll make sure he writes, every Saturday…er…won’t we, Ghanada?” This time he turned toward an emaciated, hawk-like specimen, 4th year mechanical engineering, who grinned back, baring teeth stained with nicotine from those harsh Charminar cigarettes.
The day was a blur. Hapless young freshers trooped in with their parents, naked terror in their eyes. Dada paced up and down the hostel front porch, slapping a wooden ruler against his thigh like a riding crop and barking orders to his minions, like a sturmbannfuhrer of the Totenkopfen. After all the new arrivals were in, registered and shown to their rooms, Dada took me with him on a tour of the freshers’ rooms, to check on them.
Nimai’s was the last room we entered. The room was in darkness except for a shaft of light slanting in from the corridor outside. The first thing that struck me was the plastic bag of sweets and bananas. It was lying on the bare study table, unopened. Nimai was sitting on the edge of the bare cot, looking down at the floor, trying to come to terms with a new life, one that he would begin to learn to live, on his own, away from his loved ones.
As we entered, he avoided looking directly at us as his eyes were brimming. Suddenly I felt sorry his mother wasn’t able to give him a parting hug. Dada must have felt the same way, for he stepped forward and sat down next to the boy, snaked an arm over his shoulders and gently rocked him as his tears started rolling down and sobs shook his frail frame.
“This is life,” Dada said,” It seems like just yesterday that I came in, like you, a fresher. And now? I’m having the time of my life. You will too. Trust me. Now go and wash up. The mess will open in another half hour.”
Within a week, before the term load started in full swing, Nimai wrote home as promised by Dada. Only thing, the postcard was one among many that had been mass-produced earlier. Only Nimai’s name had to be entered in it. It said,” Ma, I’ve decided to give up this material life and set off into the mountains to meditate. As soon as I can dye my jeans saffron and find myself a mountain.
But…er…tell Baba not to stop sendin’ money though, OK? And don’t call me. I’ll call you. Pronams from your ever loving son, Nimai.”