The three holy wounds of Ranju Mamachan.
Where a once militant atheist bends his knee to religious experience
In the four years that I lived inside my college, my soul was broken and remade and then broken again. I left it behind twelve years ago. It is funny that in all that time I have never known how to describe it. Don’t get me wrong, I know what it looks like. Picturesque, concrete department buildings standing erect like forts on small green hills, tarred roads on winding paths, a white painted library building behind the cafeteria kiosk. But if you lived as viscerally as I did in my time there, you know that every photograph of the place appears deeply flawed, every video seems 2X’ed, and every description, no matter how gifted the writer, will miss the point.
A few years after passing out of my engineering college, I had a teaching job at Royal College of Engineering and Technology, Akkikkavu, Thrissur, where the work culture was a source of daily rage. I was making the once-monthly trip to Kollam from Thrissur and the bus took a stop at Kottayam. It was about twelve in the night and I bought myself a cup of coffee. But instead of getting back on my bus I got into another. This one was heading to Nedumkuzhy, where my college was.
What were you thinking?
What was your plan?
The streetlights on the campus had been a resigned lot even in my time, and as soon as the sun sets, the college falls into a timeless primordial darkness. Walking the college paths alone some nights had brought me close to a heart attack when I was a student there. It had taken the bus about one and a half hours to get to the college. I walked unspotted past the main gate. But as I approached close to the second gate, I heard young voices, laughing, talking, making fun of each other. I was reminded of my own homos, Mithun and Sruthin. But it was fast approaching two in the morning and they were both dead asleep. I avoided the second gate to avoid arousing suspicions. I knew another way to get into the college, a mud road that passed alongside one of the hostels.
It was only once I was inside the campus that real fear took possession of me. What would I do if someone confronted me? Was what I was doing legal? What if they called the cops? And if the police questioned me, what answer would I give? What if they called an institution for the insane?
The only time I had felt my heart beating as in that moment had been in another moment on that same campus years ago. I remember standing next to a pillar, talking to a girl, trying to put in words that I liked her, while all around us the campus was bursting in shouts and screams and the beating of drums. That place of memory was, unluckily, not on my route tonight because I was taking the shortest path out of the campus without getting arrested.
On the opposite edge of the campus was a gate that led to a tarred village road which intersected with my only way out of here. The gate had always been open. I know because on the night before an exam, my homos and I would usually take the gate to a favorite haunt where we would stand around chatting about everything except the exam. That gate was closed. My heart was leaping out of my chest. If I turned back, there was a good chance I might get caught. The one option open to me was to jump the gate, which would have required athletic ability. At that moment I chose it over courage. I threw the bag over the gate and then climbed it myself.
“Guess where I am right now?” I asked Mithun.
“Hmmph,” He snorted through his sleep. I explained where I was. He asked me, quite innocently, what I was doing there. Not knowing what to say, I cut the call.
The village road was lean, arcing, rubber-tree-lined, and like the college, drowning in darkness. I had to switch on the flash on my Nokia phone to see where I was going. I was afraid. Not of police and people but of the dark, of the quiet evil lurking behind gnarled trees.
I called her, the girl who is my wife today. I told her what was up as if it was the most natural thing in the world. She asked me if I had lost my mind. But she kept talking and it helped. It quieted my nerves until I got out of the village road and found my way past the second gate.
I saw the ATM with flickering lights and a nonchalant cow chewing cud as if it was done with this bullshit called life. It was three o’ clock in the morning and the sight made me laugh like a maniac for some reason. The bus arrived in fifteen minutes. I took back-to-back buses and got home early in the morning.
Despite knowing that I was back in the safety of my own home, fear didn’t leave my bones for the next few days.
The second time I was there I was with Leon Ravi. He had taken me to his alma mater, Government Engineering College, Thrissur, many-many times, repeating to me, every time how he had no doubt that his college experience had been the shittiest college experience on the planet. So, one day I decided to take him to my college to tell him some of my own tales. We were both drunk on toddy, him more than me. By the time we reached it was dark, and I was about to start my bullshit night prowling again. But Leon said we should book a room nearby and visit the place early in the morning like normal human beings.
We stayed in Summer-sand. In my college days, I had developed the feeling, born mainly out of crippling poverty, that it was an elite hotel meant only for the upper-class brats. But now that I could afford the dime, it looked its real self: dull, damp, and dead.
When we switched the lights off, the whole room fell into implacable darkness. Leon went to sleep almost immediately. I, on the other hand, lay awake, not knowing why. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something was watching me from a corner of the room. As if it had something to say. But I could never understand so it wouldn’t even try.
We visited the campus the next morning and found it empty. The only thing of interest to Leon was a political poster stuck on the canteen walls. The writer started off denouncing the violence of his political enemies and ended with the promise that blood would be avenged by blood.
“Wow. Dude went from Gandhi to Old testament in four lines,” Leon said.
I did not know what to say. I never know what to say when it comes to my college. The replicant from Bladerunner might have seen attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. He might have also seen C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. But has he seen KSU guys being beaten to a pulp one day after losing the election? I have. I have also seen seniors telling us to pack our bags and stay out of campus for a few days because a fight was about to break out between them. I have also seen a rare instance of all-party unity in the college when they joined forces to beat the shit out of three guys from an outside private college because they had said something to a girl.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, “Poster or no poster. Someone is getting their asses kicked election season.”
“And in all the other seasons, looks like,” Leon said.
The third time I was there was yesterday. My financial lot has improved considerably but I am still dead-broke which is a sentence that makes sense when you are a writer with a job in your thirties. My wife and I had been driving south from her home to Kollam when she suggested making a detour to visit the college.
“It is not a convenient time,” I said.
“Convenient time is 2 AM in the morning?” she asked.
I took the next right turn to leave the highway. We entered a narrow road undulating past rubber tree acreages and paddy fields and toddy shops and frugal churches and plantains tilting as if to catch a glimpse of the travelers. And what travelers they were inside the car. She and I. Lighting up the paths with our laughter. And what place it was that we were joyriding towards. Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Technology, the great earthquake of my being.
I steered left, driving through the main gate, the same one I had walked through in the dead of the night about a decade ago. The students were scattered around the place, trudging in love, sipping coffees in love, starry-eyed in love, hurrying and lingering in love, shouting and laughing in love.
I parked the car in front of a shed inside the campus.
“What if they open the shed while we are here?” she asked.
In my four years here, it had never been open. We used to be so sure that we sometimes lay here watching the night sky talking about songs and poems. So yes, I know. It will never be open. You could dispute this. Please do. Call it a case of bad induction, but that same Godrej rust-eaten lock still hanging on for dear life on the door of the shed proves that I am right. When it comes to this place, I will always be right.
I was sobbing in the driver’s seat. My wife was laughing at me. I don’t blame her. I would have laughed at her in that position too.
It was laughable. I was laughable. What reason did I have to cry?
I wiped my tears with my fingers. Pulling my handkerchief out would require that I acknowledge my own crying. We got out of the car.
Haven’t I become stronger in everything, in everything since I left this place, in the essential sciences of friendship and love, in the trivial arts of sciences, in the dark arts of literature and laughter? I have.
Tears ensued and so did fits of laughter. The soil of the college had been annexed over by temperamental grass, leafy trees, and the sound of crickets.
“I don’t know why I m crying,” I finally said to her, “I have no rational explanation.”
“I know,” she said, “I wish I had this for my college.”
I didn’t understand.
“My college life was total shit. Not a single memory worth reliving. I feel nothing when I go to college,” she said.
“Seeing you now I hope I get into a government college for my Master’s. Because this is something else. I hope I have this — whatever this is — ” she was pointing at my face, “I want to have that for a place. I want to have fabulous memories.”
We went to the cafeteria where I asked for a glass of tea from the Chechi who saw tears rolling down my face(yup, they hadn’t stopped. So I just pretended it wasn’t happening and walked around with those tears on my face.) (I was normalizing men crying. Stop judging me) and knowingly smiled.
Two boys argued at the counter if one owed the other ten rupees or twenty.
If you are lucky your college teaches you that the despair of poverty isn’t cured by wealth but by friends you can count on. And what friends I made in this place and how splendid our tales.
She allowed me my passenger seat of silence through the rest of the drive. After an hour or so, I asked her to park the car on the shoulder of the road.
“I want to write.”
“I don’t know. But if I don’t write it now, I will forget it.”
She began laughing again, steering to a patch of mud along the side of a road.
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