Baba was more interested in having fun and impressing girls during his college days. He never focused on studies that much and there came a time when he decided to drop Honours course in Physics as it seriously interfered with his lifestyle! However, as fate would have it, he did pretty well in his exams and so was allowed entry into the hallowed halls of City College. This place was a grave place. An air of intellectual melancholy hung over the campus and permeated the very walls of the university. No one laughed that much. No one laughed, period. Professors hurried along hallways with intellectual purpose while students spoke efficiently and crisply about matters far-related from everyday life. The steely grey ambience of the place would have been quite suffocating for Baba had he let it.
He didn’t of course.
Once every year a few students put together a play and entertained the very solemn student body. Very solemn professors occupied the front seats, their grim countenance a reminder that laughter was at best, an incovenience. Bored, Baba offered to be part of the next play. On one condition. He did not want to come for rehearsals. “Something to do with the joy of spontaneity”, he vaguely mutters, sipping his black, Java coffee. Baba was to be the dance instructor in a play called Mess No. 49 by Birendra Krishna Bhadra. But the problem was he knew nothing about dance. So for the very first time in his life, he buys a movie ticket. A Bollywood movie where pretty woman danced for better half of the movie. He had three things on his list ( You can’t really get the science out of science students, can you?):
- The sideway, rhythmic head nod
- Hand movements
With these three things in mind, Baba sat through one Hindi movie after the other until he felt he was ready.
The day arrives. Curtains rise. The play begins. Silence. Then, Baba walks in. A twitter of laughter followed by loud guffaws across the auditorium as he does the head nods and flicks his hands, imitating the Bollywood bevvies. Later, long after the laughter had died down , a friend of Baba’s came to tell him how he watched (in sheer disbelief) the professors sitting on the front row. Dignity forgotten, they cackled with uncontrollable mirth.
The next day, Baba comes to college. Another ordinary day. Not so ordinary people were walking around with the same air of purposefulness. As he walks down the corridor, one of the grim looking professors struts by…and stops. “Hey Balai, is that you? I really enjoyed the play. Well done, Man!” he laughs. Shaking his head he continues to walk down the hallway.
Baba listens intently. As he listens, you can actually see the cogs of the wheels inside his brain whirling at an inordinately high speed, regurgitating and assimilating information. This information transforms itself into delightful anecdotes during morning hours at the breakfast table, usually over a cup of very strong coffee.
Baba is sitting in the staffroom in Chongwe, quietly marking maths papers. Chongwe is a remote city, around 50 kilometres south west of Lusaka as the crow flies. In another corner, some of his Zambian colleagues are laughing and chatting about the days events.
In walks Mr Whomweshallnotmention, an Indian compatriot whom Baba is not too fond of. Short, stout, full of himself.
“Did you know that Lal Bahadur Shastri has…..” his voice trails off as no one responds to his presence.
One of the Zambian teachers looks askance and finally asks, “…And who exactly is Lala Bahaudu Shastri Mr Whomweshallnotmention?”
According to Baba (and we should reserve judgement here, as Baba often exaggerates just to make the story more palatable), Mr Whomblahblah’s eyes widen with horror while his jaws drop several inches into his neck.
“Don’t you know who this man is!!!” he exclaims in horror. “Are you serious?!!!!” This man , I’ll have you know, is the Prime Minister of India!! Do you know that he used to walk 20 miles a day to go to school??!!!”
At which point Baba’s phlegmatic countenance finally relents. A grin softens the furrow between his eyes, while a sardonic smile hovers at the corners of his lips.
Who is Mr W talking to? he thinks. His mind trails back to a journey he had made with a Zambian colleague a year back. Mission? To fetch a cow from a remote village. Down the winding road, the truck chugs along slowly, its wheels grating against the red craggy gravel. The brown, dry countryside reluctantly shimmers under the bland yellow stare of the sun. After almost half a day later, they arrive at a little school. The woods have been hastily cleared to make way for a small building. He looks around. The place is quiet. The students had left a few days ago.
They continue their journey. On the way, Baba sees s a tiny figure in the distance. As they approach, a boy not more than 12 years of age, sports a huge suitcase atop his head. He turns to raise an arm in a cheerful greeting.
“Yeah…they all walk for over 25 miles just to come to this school,” Baba’s companion mutters, as he steps on the brake.