Karthik stared at the tall, rusting wrought iron gates emblazoned with the familiar insignia of the institution. He smiled wryly. He clearly remembered the day these gates had replaced the short wooden picket fence that had originally guarded the entrance to the college. They had watched from the hostel, as the iron bars were lifted off the back of the truck and placed vertically, erect like sentinels standing guard to a castle. The gates had been put up to serve as a deterrent to late comers from entering the campus after a night out. But what the college administration didn't realise was that Bikram bhaiya (brother), who proudly manned the gates in his khaki uniform was easily bribed with a bottle of rum and a plate of half-chicken from Velu Military hotel down the road.
Extinguishing the cigarette in the ashtray of his car, Karthik got out. He smiled as he caught the eye of the pleasant faced Nepali guard who sat at the desk near the gate. As he walked up to the entrance, the guard got up from his seat and gestured towards an open- register on the table. Karthik leaned over, signed the register and picked up the pass that the guard handed him. As the gates creaked open giving him access once again to a place that was etched in his memory, a wave of nostalgia swept over Karthik. He slowly ambled down the corridor of the first block, lightly running his hand along the short wall that ran the length of the corridor. Though most of the class rooms were empty, there were a few students around. While some of them had their heads bent over the desks, some others were deep in conversation. Karthik smiled. He was sure they were hostellers, undoubtedly skipping the nuisance-ridden dorms, wandering along the corridors, books in hand and chanting away formulae like they were reciting a holy verse. He’d been one of them too, a long time ago.
He glanced at his watch. There was still plenty of time to kill. He slowly walked up to the stairs and started climbing them, one step at a time. He casually glanced at two girls huddled over a thick book, hastily scribbling in their long, unruled Classmate notebooks. As his shadow fell over their notebooks, they looked up at him and smiled. Returning their smile, he pushed ahead slowly, his left hand firmly placed on the cement hand rail of the staircase. It took him a little over ten minutes to climb up to the sixth floor. He looked at the thick set wooden door that was in front of him. The door was latched with an Aldrop bolt and secured with a rusty padlock. As Raju kaka had promised, there was a rickety wooden chair by the corner. Karthik lightly ran his hand under the seat of the chair and found what he’d been looking for - a bronze coloured key.
As he opened the door that led to the terrace of the building, he felt a light vibration in his shirt pocket. He decided to ignore whoever was calling and shut the door behind him. Whilst most of the terrace was open, there were a set of cylindrical domes that ran along one side of the terrace providing a relief from the harsh Chennai sun. Karthik walked under one of the domes and perched carefully on the parapet wall. Leaning against one of the pillars, he slowly lifted his left leg and let it dangle from the roof. He glanced at the boy’s hostel in the distance, where he could make out the bustling activity that accompanied every normal week day. He smiled as the memories came rushing back.
Hailing from a reputed middle-class Iyer family, Karthik had initially found hostel life tough. And that fact that it was his first time away from home did nothing to help ease his woes. His first couple of months had been a nightmare. It involved night-time ragging by the seniors, surprise raids by the hostel warden, long queues for the toilet, a maddening dash to finish bathing before the water stopped, sub-standard food served from the hostel mess and waiting by the phone room for the permitted weekly phone call, to name a few. The list had been endless. But as with everything in life, he had eventually settled in. The ragging almost stopped, the raids became less frequent and with a little bit of smart planning, he had even managed to ensure that his morning ablutions proceeded unhindered. He had even surprised himself when after a few months, he had actually started to enjoy his new found freedom. He enjoyed having friends around all the time and gradually started exploring experiences which went beyond academia - the thrill of secret clubs, the adrenaline rush of smoking on the roof, the sweet intoxication of alcohol, the “high” of rolled up marijuana, the carnivorous delight of meat and sinful pleasures of the flesh.
A continuous toll of ringing bells from the hostel brought Karthik’s attention back to the present. He smiled as he pictured sets of hardcore religious students going about their morning prayers asking their favourite deities to bless them abundantly, whilst secretly hoping that their “gods and goddesses” would throw spanners in the progress of the non-believers.
Karthik inhaled deeply. He desperately needed a cigarette. Cursing himself for leaving the pack of the cigarettes in the car, he took another deep breath. The smell of fresh, deep-fried medhu-vadais (doughnut shaped golden brown coloured crispy south Indian snack) along with the fragrant smell of sambar (a spicy south Indian dish consisting of lentils and vegetables) wafted up his nostrils, causing his eyes to water slightly. He glanced at his watch again. He needed to leave if he wanted to accomplish what he had in mind. Karthik walked back to the door and exited, shutting the door carefully behind him. Having bolted the door and secured the padlock, he re-attached the key beneath the seat of the rickety chair with a piece of cellophane tape that was left there. Slowly, he walked down the stairs and got off on the third floor. He glanced down the long corridor. The room he was headed for was at the very end.
As he opened the double doors to the room that had been his classroom for four long years, Karthik stopped. Suddenly he wasn’t sure if coming back here was a good decision. He hesitantly stepped into the room. Though his association with this classroom had officially ended almost two decades ago, it still held a special place in his heart.This classroom had made him what he was today. It was here that the foundation stone for his successful career had been laid. It was here that he had spent nights and mornings trying to cram up equations, theorems and modules that helped him pass his engineering degree with flying colours. It was here that he had made friendships that had held strong through the tough times. It was here, that he had found his true love - Divya Nair. Suddenly Karthik felt a bit dizzy. He stumbled over to the nearest desk and sat down. The memories were coming fast and strong now and each caused a new surge of emotion in him. He could feel sweat beads starting to form on his forehead. In a bid to shut the emotions, he wiped his eyes. As his eyes refocussed, he looked around the room. Nothing had changed. He got up and walked to the second desk in the last row. Though plenty of students had left their mark on the desk in the form of initials, names, equations, caricatures and other graphical art forms, his eyes settled on a small engraving in the top right corner of the desk. It was so small and inconspicuous, that most people would not have given it a second look. But not Karthik. As he ran his fingers over the tiny compass-engraved heart with the initials KI and DN, he felt his eyes start to well up as he thought about Divya.
He could still picture her walking towards the wedding mandap (covered structure with pillars) where he was seated, draped in a gorgeous ruby red sari, the shine of her jewellery no match for the mischievous twinkle in her hazel brown eyes. Though not a believer in fate, at that instant he had silently thanked his lucky stars for having brought her into his life. They were complete opposites, yet strangely similar. And that had been the secret behind their long lasting relationship. But life had other plans. On 2nd July, 6 years after their marriage, Divya and their daughter, Shruti, had been killed by a reckless drunk-driver who had jumped a red signal. Karthik had gone into shock from the grief and it had taken years of psychiatric help and support from friends to get him to accept the truth that Divya and Shruti were no more.
Karthik splashed his face with water from the tap. The cold water helped soothe his pain, even if it was temporary. He looked up at his reflection in the mirror and noticed that his eyes were still bloodshot. He rapidly splashed his face with water again, taking special care to rinse out his eyes. After a few attempts, he stopped. His eyes were still red, but at least he no longer looked like a drunkard. He put on his round-rimmed spectacles and straightened his hair. It was time.
As Karthik entered the room, everyone fell silent. He slowly walked up to the table and placed his satchel on it. He noticed the group of young women in the front row watch him intently. He slowly walked up to the board and wrote the date - 2nd July 2014. He turned around, flashed all of them a pleasant smile and spoke slowly. “My name is Karthik Iyer. And this is Digital Communication - 101”. It was time to restart his academic journey in the same classroom that held all his memories.