LMS Hostel, 1995

The alarm rang with significant fanfare, garnering little enthusiasm and much irritation in the sole listener Jubin, helpless in the next room of the hostel.

“Are you getting that?” Jubin shouted.

He plummeted his head into his pillow and shut his eyes. In fifteen minutes it would give up its lament, he told himself. The sound reminded him oddly of his mother, the same false cheerfulness she employed to wake him up to study. ‘Rise and Shine’, she’d repeat thrice with a sing-song effect. Rise and Growl described him better.

A loud snore joined the escalating chorus, the breath grating in its descent like a stubborn engine on a cold day. It was classic Raghuram. Jubin turned and stared at the yawning gap above the dividing wall, just below the sloping tiled roof. That oddity that had its advantages. Should he hoist himself into the other room and turn off the pestering noise? And then perhaps turn off the alarm as well. He smiled at his wit. He should try that on the gang later. He looked at Anup sleeping peacefully through the acoustic storm, his pot belly rising and falling with Raghuram’s snore. The cough syrup would have knocked him off and he probably smoked weed even in his dreams.

Perhaps their door was unlocked! They were careless enough. He got up and trudged out of his room, to behold the bright and early face of the hostel warden.

“Father Levi…” His voice filling with the sweetness of pandering. “Going to church?”

“Well, it is a Sunday,” the warden said, scanning Jubin’s pyjamas.

“I…um…of course. I was just coming.”

“Well, you look ready enough,” said the warden. Jubin cringed inside, a lame smile appearing on his face.

“I heard you moved Gerald to a single room,” said Jubin, biting his tongue as the words slipped out. The warden looked at him as if he were a speck of mud splattered on his long white habit. Then he sighed with a tight smile, years of self-control softening his face.

“Well, if you want to follow his footsteps, consider following his deeds. And as you know, there is a waiting list. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Gerald is waiting.”

“Well, I’ll see you there. You have a good day, Father,” Jubin called cheerfully as the man walked away. Asshole. Should he try paying the man? Was he not Christian enough for a special favour?

“Ha. Your morning charm not working on the Mule?” Jubin turned. It was Wasim, with his curly long locks wet from generous splashes of water, falling as curls over his almost Caucasian skin, streaks of glistening gold and brown running to a shoulder length. His jeans clung to his legs as if stitched in situ, and his shirt was a fluorescent yellow.

“You were awake?” spat Jubin, “Why can’t you turn off the damn alarm in your room?”

“Sleeping on a Sunday? Tut tut…shouldn’t you be at church with the good men. I am disappointed in you Jubin.”

Jubin followed Wasim into his room.

“And why are you up so early?” said Jubin.

“Didn’t you hear? We lost a comrade today. The good lamb Gerald. You should learn a thing or two from him. We have a vacant bed in our room now. You want to move in?”

“Why, so that you guys can roast my brain some more? That’s like the third guy you’ve scared away from your room. What do you do to these boys that they run as if on fire? I’m sure its this guy’s snoring! Wake up, Raghu. Are you driving a fucking truck in your dreams?”

“Wh…”

“Let him get his beauty sleep. Yesterday’s intellectual discourse has tired him out. Your Prime Ministers’ decentralisation and foreign investment plan still upsets him deeply. Where were you last night?”

“Why, did you guys need someone to lynch? My father thinks it’s great for the market. All kinds of interesting products. I don’t want to drive a Chetak Vespa when I go to college.”

“Petty bourgeoisie,” swore Raghuram, his eyes still closed, “I don’t expect anything more from a petty bourgeoisie like you.”

“Get up man,” said Jubin, “You’re bringing the hostel down with your snores. Brush your teeth and we’ll go have tea.”

“Teach us to brush and sell us toothbrushes,” mumbled Raghuram, “then teach us to brush twice a day and double your sales. The guy who drank coffee for two rupees now wants Cappuccino for twelve. Is this progress or is this greed?”

“This guy can literally give a speech in his sleep,” said Jubin, “Come let us go quickly and grab a tea before my Prime Minister raises the price.”

“Tell me,” said Raghuram dragging himself along with them drowsily, “When Rahulji and his sister eventually squabble and divide their family property, what will you do?”

“Yes, this is an interesting question”, chimed in Wasim, “Which side will you pick then, Jubin?”

“Wasim, you should not even side with Raghuram. What kind of communist has nine pairs of jeans and seven kinds of shoes? You are the biggest bourgeoisie.”

“You know the biggest sign of a bourgeoisie?” said Wasim, “Selfishness and miserliness, which you have in plenty, my friend. Here. I dare you. Buy some peanuts.”

“It’s early in the morning. I don’t even need peanuts.”

“The only way he is buying peanuts is if it is ordained by the Church,” said Raghuram, “Just like all his independent political decisions.”

“By the way, Raghu,” said Wasim, “We need to get some rum for after the movie. Let’s not go bar hunting at midnight. Get back in the hostel before Father Levi finds out.”

“What! Which movie?” said Jubin.

“Mission Impossible. And you are not coming. It doesn’t feature a crucifixion, so it’s not gory enough for a believer. Don’t waste 20 rupees. Father Levi is playing Passion of Christ again on the hostel TV by popular demand. Don’t miss that.”

“Come on, guys. This is too much.”

“I agree,” said Raghuram, “If I had it my way, you’d be watching The End of Poverty or Motorcycle Diaries. Learn a thing or two beyond your father’s rubber fields. But still, it’s a bad idea. You stay here and watch the Sunday matinee on Doordarshan.”

“Guys, please. I want to come too.” He had to go for that movie. Curfew was 10PM at the hostel. And nothing could be more pleasurable than sneaking in with the guys right under Father Levi’s nose. He’d pay precious twenty rupees for that.

♦♦♦

Jubin’s feet landed heavily on the crunchy grass.

“Shhh,” hissed Anup, pressing into the small of his hand. Jubin tugged at it angrily. Being drunk was no reason to be treated like a child. Hadn’t he proved his mettle? Jumping the hostel wall and waiting as the four others walked stealthily through the back door of the hostel. They had still left him for last, even drawing lots before leaving him with Anup.

Thirty paces forward. His breath was heaving with fear and exhilaration.

“Ok. Now…slowly,” hissed Anup, “Don’t even think of running. The old man has the ear of a hound.”

He wouldn’t run. He would glide. Like an eagle sweeping over the grass. His heart beat wildly at his chest. The daring high of leaping out of the hostel was never quite the same on the way back in. And it weakened as he neared the back door. What if Father Levi was standing right there, waiting at the entrance? Twenty-Five Paces. Maybe the others have been caught too. Father Levi on the way to call their parents. Have the lot expelled from the hostel.  What would his mother say? Twenty Paces. He’d have to find a lodge. Or get a rented room. It was all so expensive. Ten paces. His father’s face flashed into his mind.

He broke into a run. A crushed yelp shot out of Anup’s mouth. Jubin ignored it.

Anup was running too now. Through the entrance. Through the pathway. Anup and Jubin crashed into the first familiar room.

Raghuram flashed an angry glare at him. Most of their fellow offenders seem to have chosen this room. Wasim passed them a hand of cards, and the pair of them quickly sunk into the role of idle card players lounging around a friend’s room.

The heavy footsteps approached in minutes. Father Levi opened the door.

“Hello Father Levi”, said Jubin, exuding his charm, his eyes squinting at his cards, deftly arranging them in game sequences.

The warden stood at the door in silence.

“Something wrong, Father Levi?” asked someone, the tremble of his hand barely visible.

“So how are things these days, Father Levi?” said Jubin using his expertise at small talk.  Father Levi could have been sitting across, playing with them for all he knew.

“I’m taking a general survey on whether ten o’clock is too early for the gentlemen of the hostel,” the warden replied finally.

“Early!” said Jubin, his voice, the high tenor of innocence. “We were just discussing how lucky we are to have a warden who cares that we study! We need our discipline, Father Levi.”

“Yes this is my opinion. Because at the end of the term, it is I who must face the poor parents, robbed of their lives savings, by sons who while away time and money, breaking curfews, drinking, and slipping away for movies. Perhaps I make it harder for everyone?”

The room fell silent.

“Ohhh, Father Levi. Some boys…” said Jubin finally, shaking his head as if distraught. He cringed as Raghuram dug hard into his feet.

“Anyway. It is time for mass. Have fun boys. Do change into something comfortable. Isn’t jeans a bit too much for playing cards?”

♦♦♦

The boys sat in a circle on the floor, a pile of newspapers for a makeshift carpet, chicken bones, cigarette butts, and empty soda bottles were strewn around. A half empty bottle of rum stood amidst it all commanding the boys’ attention. Jubin lay on the floor, in contemplative roof gazing, admiring the scribblings and drawings that the previous occupants of the room had artfully sketched, after treacherously scaling the wall.

“Guys, guys”, said Anup, his glass wavering in his hands, “This is an engineering entrance question…repeated question…in 1991 and 1993…ok…listen…”

“As if you have seen an entrance question in your life,” said Wasim in his long drawl, “You haven’t been near a book anywhere in the last three months. Unless 5000 MCQ is your new dumbbell.”

“Hey…listen. You want to hear? Else, go. The to and fro bus fare for the Entrance coaching center is Rupees two. To save this money, our good man Jubin walks. How much money does he save at the end of seven and a half months?”

“This is a repeated question from the third standard. Not engineering entrance exam.” said Jubin in a huff.

“How much? Answer…”

“So…considering 150 days, it will be 300,” said Raghuram, “But obviously you have a different answer. Tell.”

“OK…here is the clue. Despite knowing how much he saves, miserly Jubin still takes the bus.  Why?”

“Really? Impossible. You are going by bus now, Jubin?” Wasim’s voice filled with concern, “What happened to your savings plan?”

“Guys, my slipper costs 300 rupees. And it will break by the end of eight months. So I’m taking the bus now.”

“My God Jubin…you are a miser. You really calculated all this?” said Wasim.

“Hey…that was the last cigarette,” said Anup.

“Jubin will get us some,” said Wasim.

“I’m not going.”

“Yes. We need some chips also,” replied Anup, “I’m hungry. Here, take my slippers.” This sent a peal of laughter among the boys.

“No man…it’s late. If Father Levi catches me…I’m dead.”

The thought of Father Levi brought a silence to the room.

“Rubber,” spat Raghuram at Jubin.

“What?”

“His backbone. It’s made of the rubber from his father’s field. We told him not to run. He is as chicken-hearted as he is miserly.”

“I’m not chicken-hearted. I’m just practical. Guys…look at this ceiling. 1966, Sam Manoj.”

“Don’t change the subject,” said Raghuram, “He’s got the deviation tactics of a true congressman,” said Raghuram.

“No, I’m not deviating. I am truly baffled. Can you believe that someone scaled that wall thirty years ago, and scribbled that up there? He must have lounged around doing absolutely nothing just like us. And where do you think he is now? What do you think he’s doing?”

“Well, if he was lounging around back then, I doubt he’s doing much else now. Just like you are going to be, Jubin”, said Wasim.

“Guys…why do you always do this to me? Don’t destroy my future dreams.”

“You need to toughen up to survive even hostel life. Forget the outside world. Scaredy cat,” said Wasim.

“I don’t know yaar. I thought I’d get thrown out of the hostel. Where would I stay then? I just ran.”

“Hey, I’m sure St Claire’s ladies hostel will admit you in immediately. Don’t worry,” said Wasim.

“Ha. The girls there have more spunk,” said Raghuram, “Chillies of Kandhari, that’s what they are. Our man here will be burnt and eaten alive!”

“You guys! Just wait. I’m going to show you. I swear!”

♦♦♦

Manoj looked at his father with little hope. A word of encouragement, a pat on his back, perhaps. Something like, ‘It’s going to be OK son’. Was it so difficult? It all came so easily to his mother. And his father forbade her from coming. Manoj felt like a featherless bird pushed early out of its nest. He held on to the little cross she’d pressed into his hands.

They were walking, his father and the hostel warden, to the room where he would learn to become a man, whatever that meant in his father’s head. They walked the dingy narrow path of the hostel, almost a badly lit street, with cynical laughter rising from the rooms on the side. The air was musty with beer and drying clothes. A few boys lingered in the corridor, baring the spurts of freshly grown hair on their chests, dressed in the bright lungis wrapped precariously around their waists, their daring thighs leering at him.

“New boy? Which room, Father Levi?” asked one of the more cheekier ones.

“302”, the warden replied in a dead voice that implied that it was none of the boy’s business.

The boy sniggered. A few of the boys began following them, and Father Levi let out an exasperated sigh along with a, “Don’t you boys have anything to study?

The little crowd reached a bustling corner, an L shaped junction of three rooms. The middle room dished out a soulful Hindi number…Aashiqui…he thought as they stepped in. The feeble light struggled to enter the hazy reluctant windows as if the sight within wasn’t really worth illuminating. The floor let out a suppressed groan, and the cupboards loomed on either side adding weight to the shadows.

The boys themselves lay scattered around, introducing themselves one by one. The lanky one, Raghuram, sprung up from his stretched rest on the bed, his eyes and lengthening smile resting on Manoj for a long moment. When his father told the boys that Manoj had already cleared the entrance, had joined the engineering college close by and was embarking on his first ever stint off home, Wasim, with his eyes as warm as the gold of his hair, looped his hands around Manoj with the appreciation and warmth of a brother, long lost. There was Anup from the next room, cracking easily into a bright grin at a jibe, at the darkness, at his face. “Yes, can you see me better now with my bared teeth”, he said joining the banter. They were friends here. All of them. And the sniggerers at the door could be damned for all Manoj cared.

But then he caught it. The uneasy flash on Anup’s face. Manoj looked up.

High up there, in the little gap between the wall and the roof, sat a human being, perched precariously on a heavy slab, his hand frozen in the silent grip of hardwood. A boy. Manoj felt a tremble at his lips, as the chalk dust on the boy’s fingers grazed his lips, in a mimed order for silence. The boy had been writing something up there. Why? Was he imagining things? Manoj looked at each of the boys below for a meaning, an answer, and met the ominous glint in their eyes he had missed. His eyes fell on his own feet, covered in shoes polished carefully by his loving mother, now reflecting his eyes, and the startle within.

His shoes stayed frozen to the spot, deaf to his silent screams. Run!

♦♦♦

Manoj felt his jaw drop open as he stared at the tiny medical store that had materialised in what was to be his designated cupboard. The bottles of Ayurvedic medicines bore down on him, their unpronounceable names rife with condescension, packets of ground herbs and powders sending through him waves of nausea.

“Oh, we’ll get Anup to clear that mess for you, I’m sorry,” said Wasim, his face twisted in exasperation. He took in Manoj’s confusion. “Anup just returned from his Karkata Chikitsa.”

“That’s Ayurveda for the Monsoon,” explained Raghuram, stretched back as a cat on the bed nearby. “According to Anup, it’s the best time for treatment. The rain falling in the hot summer aggravates his ailments and disease. Purging his dosha, is what he’s doing.”

“Disease? But what is wrong with him?” said Manoj. The mere thought upset Manoj. For a sick boy so young and away from his home, it must be terrible.

“Ohh everything,” said Wasim shaking his head. He began to move the medicines to the table nearby. “He is a victim of disease, our Anup. He is just 17, but a man of 70. The medicines are lined in order of ingestion time and severity, and each of them he prepares and ingests at different times of the day, sometimes even between classes. It’s all so terrible.”

“But what exactly does he suffer from?  What disease?”

“Ohhh…nobody knows”, replied Wasim, “Even Anup for that matter. Simple things. Headaches, chills, body pain. He is diseased all the time, poor soul. The plus side is that we never have to visit a medical store. We are all leeches that way. Oh, you have a lot of creams, I see. Take my advice. Hide them away. You don’t want Jubin to get his hands on those.”

“Jubin?”

“You’ve kinda met him.  The guy up at the roof? ”

“Oh!” said Manoj for a lack of better expression. The vision returned to him, branded in his memory. So it wasn’t some weird hallucination caused by his homesickness. “But…why was he…up on the roof?” The words fell out of him cautiously.

The air in the room froze for a moment. A heavy glance between Wasim and Raghuram, a long sigh, a quiet shake of the head, and finally a nod. Had he touched a topic best skirted?

“What?  What is the matter?” said Manoj.

“Like Anup…he’s also…its…I don’t know if I should tell you this,” Wasim was wringing his hands, “But it’s best you know, I guess. You are to be almost his roommate, anyway. Though he’s also from Raghuram’s room. The adjacent one. Ok, please don’t freak out. Our Jubin is…is….”

“Crazy!” completed Raghuram.

“Crazy!” repeated Manoj, a cold bead of sweat forming on his knitted brow.

“It’s nothing serious”, said Wasim quickly as Manoj felt another wave of nausea. “But still, we need to be careful. The poor boy wrote the entrance exam last year and failed. Like all of us, of course. Except for smart ones like you. But the blow was heavy on him. Had a nervous breakdown, and was even hospitalised I think. We don’t ask him about it too much, poor soul!”

“Parental expectations can be tough on a young mind,” said Raghuram gravely.

Manoj thought of his own father. Yes, he could understand.

“His parents know about it,” said Raghuram, “But what can they do? I mean, we can’t just abandon him. We care for the poor dear…”

They sat in silence for a long moment, listening to the hopeless whirr of the desolate fan. Wasim looked out of the window. “There’s one more thing. He might come to you, you know.”

“To me!”  Manoj felt his heart beat wildly against the cross at his chest. His hands pressed against it.

“Yes, for advice and stuff. Just give him confidence. Just tell him he has what it takes to clear the exam. And not to worry. And you don’t worry. We’ll all be there. We won’t leave you alone with him.”

Manoj breathed heavily. Perhaps it will be alright. “But I still don’t get it. Why was he on the roof of the room?”

Wasim glanced at Raghuram again. “Chemistry equations!” said Raghuram. “He was writing chemistry equations. You know…practicing…”

♦♦♦

“My man, Jubin!” Jubin looked up at Wasim as he stepped outside his room. “Come, come.  We have been waiting for you.” Raghuram stepped out of the room, and they hurriedly closed the door behind them.

“For me?” said Jubin. Wasim looped his arm around him, and Jubin walked with them, as the two whisked him out of the hostel.

“Where are you taking me to?”

“To give you your golden chance,” said Raghuram. Their usual hangout was milling with hostel mates, and the trio walked to the end of the road, to a tea stall at the far end of a parallel lane.

“Father, give us three teas,” said Wasim. The man started at his fluent Malayalam sending Raghuram to a wide grin. It was always the same with Wasim. It was as if he was a foreigner to the land and to the time.

“My chance?” said Jubin.

“You know the new boy that’s in my room? The one that walked in on you when you were playing Da Vinci on the roof?”

“The one fresh off his mama’s bosom?” said Jubin with a smile.

“So we convinced him that you are loony. Crazy. Cos you were on the roof writing chemistry equations, fresh out of a nervous breakdown. You even did a stint in the loco house at Paroor.”

“What?” Jubin bursting into laughter.

“Yes, a stroke of genius by our Raghu.”

“Great touch, man,” said Jubin, with a friendly thump at Raghuram’s back. He felt a burst of affection towards Raghuram and Wasim, their political differences evaporating in the rush of boyish glee. It was great to not be at the receiving end of their pranks, “So what’s the plan?”

“The plan is that you act a little weird and fool him. You know, go to him and ask him advice for the entrance exam. How to prepare. Which books to read. How many hours a day. A sincere student who wants to do well.”

“Like a normal person…” continued Raghuram, “Ok. No need to do anything crazy.”

“Ya Ya. I’m gonna ace this thing. You guys are going to have a brain freeze, I tell you.”

“But don’t overdo it. The boy is so freaked out right now, just seeing your will make him cry. So don’t even try anything loony.”

“I’ve got it man, I’ve got it.”

♦♦♦

Manoj began placing his clothes in the cupboard. Even empty of their previous odorous occupants, he felt the pungent herbal wave strangling the inside of his throat like a mutant vine, and breaking out grotesquely through his mouth and burning his tongue. His first day of college tomorrow, and he was going to stink.

“OK, Manoj. He’s coming. Jubin is coming.” Wasim had stepped into the room.

“WHAT?” He began to blink rapidly, his knuckles white as they gripped the cupboard.

“OK, Calm down. Do not make any sudden jerky movements. You don’t want to terrify him into an attack…”

“ATTACK?” Manoj shrieked, “You didn’t tell me he was violent!”

“Violent? No no…He’s not. Not if you tell him that things are going to be OK. It’s all in your hands. And stop worrying like this.  He senses these things and it upsets him.  Think calm….calm…!” Wasim’s voice trailed off as the door opened behind him.  Jubin stepped in.

Manoj collapsed onto his bed as Jubin flashed him a genial smile.  The energy around the boy was charged, his movements jerky as a squirrel, his eyes darting as it took in Manoj in his entirety. The boy stepped forward and sat down on the bed beside Manoj, suddenly letting out a nervous feverish laugh rife with delirium. Manoj felt an urgent need to relieve himself. Half an hour, that’s how long his father had abandoned him.

The boy picked one of his engineering textbooks and began browsing through it. Manoj felt his breath tighten at his throat, terrified of a loud exit.

“So Manoj, you cleared the entrance exam?” Jubin said suddenly, his voice a high pitched twang, the slang thick with the slur of Kottayam, alien and bizarre to Manoj’s Malabar ear.

“Yes. I’m starting college at Barton Hill.” said Manoj.

“This is great man, great!  You are so lucky!” Jubin was wide-eyed with wonder, as if in the presence of a childhood idol as if he would touch Manoj to check if he was real.

“I’m also studying now” Jubin said with a sniff, “But, the tension is so unbearable.” Jubin’s head hung low. Manoj’s eyes darted to Wasim and Raghuram, and they flashed an urgent nod.

“Don’t worry. You only need to study well,” Manoj said

“I’ll get through, won’t I?” Jubin looked up at him, his eyes filling with hope, his voice almost dreamy. “Is it true that you can clear the entrance if your math is strong and your chemistry is a bit weak?”

“Yes, yes. Don’t worry. You just have to study,” parroted Manoj.

“I had scored good marks in my tenth, but now Chemistry… is so frustrating,” continued Jubin, shaking his head, his voice high, “The equations, they change like the wind. I balance equations at the risk of my own mental balance. Sometimes there are Moles, sometimes there are Masses. Who decides these things? Just when I think I begin to understand this world, something radically different appears to destroy everything…I…don’t know what to do…”

Jubin’s voice was breaking, Manoj winced and inched away from him. It was coming, Jubin was going to thwack him. Manoj felt a sour taste on his tongue as he let out a suppressed gasp, his breath long and pained. “It’s ok,” he tried again, “Don’t worry. You just have to study.”

♦♦♦

In a span of a few hours, Jubin had turned into the veritable hostel hero. The tale of his performance was spreading fast, and the boys, small and big, met him at the corridor with a look of secret admiration mixed with trepidation. He had entered the big league. The witty, hard ass tormentor.

“That high-pitched laugh in the starting,” said Anup in admiration, “That was enough. You’re a natural, Jubin”

“A bit too natural, huh, Jubin?” said Wasim.

“Ha. Ya. I was so excited about fooling him, it just came out like that. I didn’t plan that.”

“But man…your acting. Super. I didn’t know….”

“I know. I told you guys to trust me on this,” said Jubin, “I can’t wait to see that guy’s face when we tell him.”

“He should be here. He must have started from his college,” said Wasim. “It’s almost five.”

“And where is Raghu?” said Jubin. “I want him to see this.”

“So he’s waiting for you in your room again. The mad boy, Jubin,” whispered Raghuram as he caught Manoj at the hostel door. Manoj’s eyes looked ready with tears. “No”, he mouthed back, his legs weakening. “It’s Ok” whispered back Raghuram. “He’s a bit better now. It happens sometimes. It just gets better. He’ll tell you himself. That he’s not crazy. Don’t fall for it.” They opened the door.

“My man, Manoj,” Jubin said exuberantly. He was already comfortable on Manoj’s bed, head thrown back over his arched body and balanced on his outstretched hands.

“Hello Jubin,” said Manoj entering the room, walking towards his bed. He dropped his satchel on the bed.

“Come, come. Have a seat,” said Jubin, patting the spot next to him with a fatherly smile, “Tell us everything. How was your first day in college? Any good chicks?” he said with a wink.

Manoj sat down beside Jubin and stared at his hands. He hung on to the little cross in his hands, fidgeting.

“Um….no. I guess. I didn’t look so hard…and…” Manoj was exhaling short breaths.

“Didn’t look for chicks! College is all about chicks,” said Jubin, thumping Manoj on his back. Manoj flinched, his muscles tense.

“Jesus, you are tight,” said Jubin, “Hey, man. I know I scared you earlier. But it’s OK, man. I’m not really crazy.”

“Ok. I know. You just need to work hard,” said Manoj, running his hand over his head.

“Ya. About that. As I was saying. I’m not really crazy. It was just an act, you know. I was pulling your leg. That’s all.”

“OK. It’s fine. I understand. Just work hard. Don’t worry about it,” a tremor crept into Manoj’s voice.

“I’m not worried.” shouted Jubin, “Jesus. Are you stupid? I’m telling you I was joking. I don’t care about the entrance. I mean, I do. But not enough to go crazy.”

Manoj’s lips trembled, his eyes rolled up pleadingly towards the boys.

“OK, ask them,” Jubin said, “Ask the guys if I’m crazy. Guys,” Jubin turned to the others, “I can’t get through to him. Can you guys explain things?” They stood frozen in their places. Anup on the bed, Wasim and Raghuram at the door, their back to the wall. “Guys? Why are you standing there?”

Wasim and Raghuram jerked as if responding to an order. They walked quickly to Jubin’s side.

“Just explain to this guy that I’m not crazy,” said Jubin looking at Manoj. He looked up. Wasim and Raghuram loomed close, on either side. “Jubin dear,” said Wasim, comfortingly, “Calm down. See how you’re scaring the boy?”

“Why are you standing there? Just tell him that I’m not crazy.”

“Of course,” said Wasim, “Nobody thinks that you are crazy! Manoj? Do you think he’s crazy? See, don’t get upset?”

“I’m not upset. What’s wrong with you guys? Are you crazy?” Jubin screamed and Wasim and Raghuram clasped his shoulders tightly, “Why are you holding my hands. Let go.” Jubin began struggling violently. “ASSHOLES!” he screamed wildly. They push him down on the bed. “All the while, you bastards were tricking me?”

Anup stood before them, with a bottle of Ayurveda medicine in his hand, snatched from the table. He opened it and poured an ounce into the cap.

“Now, this is for your own good,” said Wasim, gently.

“What are you fuckers doing?” Jubin yelled. Raghu clasped Jubin’s mouth into an O, while they held him firmly down. Anup stepped forward and poured the medicine down Jubin’s throat.

Jubin clenched his eyes and jaws for a terrible second, as the revolting liquid fell into his mouth. He stopped struggling, the bitterness of the liquid was far worse than even his current fate. The boys stared for a breathless second.

A prismatic rainbow of Ayurvedic medicine squirted from Jubin’s mouth, a spectacular parabola, a rapid shower that drenched without prejudice, the droplets luminous in the brilliant tube light.

“Rascals!” The swearing resonated through the corridors of LMS hostel, and Manoj’s eyes suddenly swept skywards, chancing upon the etched scribble on the roof of the room – Jubin, 1995.

♦♦♦

Twenty Four Hours, sighed Father Levi as he rummaged his drawer for the keys to the single room. That’s how long the new kid Manoj had lasted in that room.

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