I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while now, but I haven’t been able to because of exams and other hold ups.
A few days ago, my best friend and I met up in the college campus. (We don’t go to the same college, but our colleges share a campus.) The paths leading to the colleges are a bit confusing at first and if you haven’t been given proper directions, you could end up hopelessly lost in the Bhavans Campus. To make matters worse, those paths have been under construction for the past month, so diversions make them so much more confusing.
Our college campus also has a lake, a nursery( the one which cares for plants not children) and a temple of lord Shiva and we see a lot of elderly people visiting it.
The both of us were simply ambling down the path behind the temple when we noticed this old man. He looked slightly confused and we stopped to see if he needed help.
We walked up to him and immediately saw what the problem was. There was a break in the path and an uneven, rocky way was the only one to get to the temple, which he wasn’t going to be able to manage.
It was at this point that he noticed us. “beta, do you have any idea how to get to the mandir? (the Hindi word for temple)
We nodded and my friend explained that he would have to go all the way around and then reach the front entrance.
He sighed and looked at us with a smile.
“It wasn’t so complicated back in my days, this whole area was simply a forest, now everywhere you see there are roads.”
Now, my college is relatively new but some of the older colleges have been there for almost 50 years.
“But this building is 50 years old, isn’t it uncle?”, I heard my friend ask politely
” Yes, but at the time only 45-50 students would be here. My college only had 45 students in total”, he chuckled at our astonished expressions and continued,
” I got my BA degree from Elphinstone College in the city. Those were tough times. Money was low because of the world war. We were living in a 14×14 dorm ( in feet), and there were 14 of us.”
I’m pretty sure our eyes we’re as big as saucers now. 14 people in a 14×14 dorm?? That was insane!
” Most of the time, there was no place to study except the gallery( I assume he meant the balcony), the street or sometimes even the cemeteries (he said smashaan since we(Hindus) don’t bury our dead, we offer them to the funeral pyre)”
We visibly winced at that.
” A cup of tea cost 5 paise(approximately 1/1000th of an American cent today) and a cup of coffee cost 10 paise. Now they cost 25 Rupees(approx 40 cents) in all these fancy shops.
My first salary was 30 Rupees”
We glanced at each other quietly, standing under the blazing sun on a hot afternoon in Mumbai. A single glass of Nimbu Paani (lemonade) would cost us 10 Rupees. Between the both of us, 30 Rupees wouldn’t last us a day.
He seemed to have caught our look and laughed, ” Things were cheap too! We didn’t have much to spend it on anyway. We were interns, and the canteens were subsidized. We would work by day and attend classes in the evening.
Then I decided to do a degree in Law. My salary jumped to 60 Rupees.”
This time, he said it with a slight smile, anticipating our reaction. We didn’t disappoint. Both our jaws nearly hit the floor. 60 Rupees. A jump? That would mean an average of 2 Rupees a day.
” 1942. A cinema ticket would only cost 25 paise. That was the year in which a Marathi actress appeared in a swimsuit for the first time. Now there are calendars with girls wearing lesser clothes than that!”
We suppressed smiles.
“Of course, it wasn’t as open minded a generation as today’s is. You wouldn’t see a single girl come near this area. It was a forest. I remember this area being lined with dead bodies”
Our faces drained of colour. He said World War but I think he’d gotten the 1992 riots mixed up, I wouldn’t know for sure.
These tales only existed around campfires and as tales of a haunted campus. We had heard stories of bodies being tossed into the lake because there was nowhere to put them.
But it was one thing to hear it from a senior who was obviously trying to scare you and another to hear it from a man who had clearly been there.
His eyes had lost their mirth and his face was serious.
“They were everywhere. Wherever you looked. ”
Often when you read a book, you picture the scene within it. The details in the book enable you to add the finer touches to the scene you have created in your mind. He did that without mentioning a single detail.
We nodded, our faces sombre.
“These walls are old, but they have seen a lot of things. Not all of them were good. Yet, everyday I watch new faces leaving their imprint on these walls. Hopefully someday the last traces of that dark time will disappear.”
He looked to his left. We had arrived at a fork in the road. He was to take one path, we, the other.
He smiled at us quietly and began to shuffle towards the temple. As we turned around, we heard him call out
He was shuffling towards us with a smile on his face.
“Thank You” was all he said.
As we carried on down our path, I couldn’t help but wonder how much the old man had to share with the world.
Under the blazing sun, on an extremely hot afternoon, behind a temple, he entrusted a part of his memories to us.
As I am doing to you. The facts might be wrong, I may not have heard correctly.
But uncle, if you’re reading, or if someone is reading this out to you, I want you to know that we listened. We learned.
The two girls on the forked path