Who knows a city better? Someone who lives in the city or the tourist? Someone who struggles daily or someone who is embraced by the place in all its colours and comfort? Someone who knows how things work here or someone who worked hard to reach here? Someone who has seen the city become what it is or someone who knows about the decisions that shaped the city into what it has become?
A more straightforward question is - who belongs to the city? Or whom does the city belong to?
IIT-B has been the dream of every JEE aspirant ever since it was established and the city is one of the reasons for it. Mumbai as a city is far ahead of many Indian cities. The financial capital of the nation attracts so many people who wish to turn their lives on its head and IITians are no exception. IIT-B has a history of producing one of the finest men in the nation, and it is no surprise. One has to ace the exam to be at the prestigious institute, and it is undoubtedly worth it.
14 lakh people appear for the first round of JEE MAINS after which around 2 lakh qualify for the JEE Advanced. There are 23 IITs in India, but IIT-B is the first preference of almost every aspirant. If everyone got what he wanted, India would have only one IIT with a campus as extensive as the city itself to host 14 lakh people, every year. However, it would have not remained as prestigious then. An IIT seat is celebrated because the student did what thousands could not. It is the sheer ruthlessness of the selection that makes qualification an achievement in itself. To commemorate a dream, more than thousands need to be crushed every year.
December 2019, I got the opportunity to visit IIT-B to be a part of my college contingent for Inter IIT Cultural Meet. I will be lying if I say I was not excited. I had enjoyed Chhichhore through and through and wished to visit the place where it had been shot. I knew my life would never be the same after this trip. Once you know what the best looks like, mediocrity repels you even if you were comfortable earlier. I knew this fling with Bombay would seriously affect my outlook towards Dhanbad. For good or for worse, only time would tell.
I reached the station at 4 in the evening after travelling for more than fifty hours from my hometown. I was exhausted, and it was warm in December. When my taxi dropped me at the gates of the college, I was already awestruck with the city. The place was what most of the cities in India aspire to be, yet it had India in every bit of it. It had the widest roads I have ever seen and still struggled with traffic. The most lavish building in India co-existed here with the biggest slums. The city has the toppers of JEE Advanced of so many batches as well as Bollywood. The city is a beautiful paradox.
My team members had reached earlier that day and occupied one of the many rooms allotted to our contingent. I registered and joined them soon. My event was scheduled for the next day, so I did not have much to do. Hostel 16, the place where we were supposed to have dinner would put my hostel mess look like a concentration camp. In our hostel, we don't have lids on water jugs as we would never even bother replacing them. Sometimes, when we forget to take glasses, we would simply pour water in our mouth and quench our thirst. This mess was so clean that we could not help but replace the lid involuntarily. The glasses were available on the table. There was nothing messy about this place at all. It felt like barbarians had been brought to civilization in an instant, and we struggled to absorb everything.
I filled my plate with the dishes offered, and it was then I realized I had set the standards too high for itself. After all, it was still a mess. The first bite of the food was so bad, I missed my hostel mess. We might not be the cleanest, but our food is worth chewing and swallowing. It was as heartbreaking as getting to know that your crush likes Justin Beiber. I drank some water to help in gulping it down, and I knew the culprit. It was the worst water I had ever tasted, and I had had enough.
After eating just enough to survive until the next breakfast, I left for a walk on the campus. I had been strolling aimlessly when I ran into her. She looked at me and smiled. I wondered if it was meant for me, so I turned around to check. She walked to me and said, "Hi! I am here for the Cultural Meet, and I want to try something I never have. Will you be someone I remember just as a beautiful dream?"
I said, "Sure! I am..." She stopped me midway and said, "The part of our brain that allows us to dream is unable to read and has a terrible memory. We are running out of time so don't waste it introducing yourself. Let us discover each other and maybe, ourselves too."
There were so many things that were going in my mind. She could be anyone! She did not know anything about me and would neither allow me to introduce. She looked safe, and that is why I felt more unsafe. She was undoubtedly a movie buff, probably an Imtiaz Ali fan and I believe I could connect with her on that. Maybe I was about to get robbed. The next words would decide my experience in this college. A denial meant safe, and according to the plan and acceptance meant absolute risk and insanity. Before I could say anything, she said, "Holy cow!"
I thought she was offended, but there was literally a cow behind me. It was raging towards us, and I noticed it was not alone. Without any second thoughts, I took her hand and walked away quickly from the conflict areas. She looked flushed too but was giggling. As we reached a safe distance, I left her hand. She asked me, "Are you okay?" I nodded with a smile.
It was 10:45 PM, and the campus was bustling with life. Most of them were exploring the campus. A few students were wearing hoodies, and it was not even cold enough for it. The girl next to me was humming a song I was not aware of, but it seemed to have grown on me. I did not ask her right away but made it a point to ask her before we parted ways. It had an indie vibe to it, and I was sure it was some folklore.
"What are you going to write about tomorrow?" she asked, out of the blue. I was shocked. There was no way she could have known I was here to participate in the Creative Writing competition. I believed it was a guess, so I tried to play. "I am not here to write. I am actually the lead singer in my college band", I smiled at her.
She looked deep into my eyes, and I felt naked. It was a piercing gaze, and I thought she could see right through me as my naughty self tried to find something to hide behind, but there was nothing that could save me from her. I stopped smiling. She looked ahead and said, "Why would you lie to a stranger? How insecure are you?"
"Why do you think I am lying?" I shot back. I was lying, but it still hurt to be called a liar. Maybe it was a desperate attempt to cover my naked self. She said, "If you can guess the song I was humming, I will apologize and tell you my name. If you fail, you have to promise that you won't lie ever again."
"That's insane. I can't guess it. It can be any song", I struggled, my self-respect suffocating under my lies. She stopped walking and turned towards me. "I can read minds, and honestly, you are very loud. You are trying your best to come up with explanations of what is going on. A part of you is enchanted by me, and it is completely normal. Everything that is happening here is too much for you to comprehend, and it shows."
In life, there are moments where what you believe in and what you witness do not agree with each other. Science suggests you accept both and find the missing link between both of them, but that's all it can do. Knowledge prepares you for what can happen but does not prevent it from happening. It is these incomprehensible moments where one must choose between hanging on to his beliefs or surrendering to his instincts. Maybe I was too tired to argue and look out for all the hows and whys, and I had already stepped on this untraveled path. "Fine! You got me. I am sorry", I said and sounded more apologetic than I intended to.
She looked me into my eyes with a hint of mischief. My pulse was surging as I was trying to prepare for the next surprise, and she did not fail me. Taking my right hand into her left, she said, "It's okay! Now tell me, what do you plan to write about tomorrow?"
"I want to write something that changes its meaning when you reread it. It should contain symbols, metaphors and everything that has been foreshadowing and yet, people would realize everything only when they have reached the end of the story. I know the answer is not very precise because I am yet to figure out how to get the effect. I know what I want my readers to feel, but it will require perfectly weighed words with the right amount of information shared in every line", I said. She looked at me and spoke only after I was quiet for a minute. "You are quite passionate about this one. I hope you find your story soon."
It was late in the night, and we had reached Infinity Corridor; a long pathway at IIT-B which connects many areas in the campus but the path itself is beautiful. If you talk, your words guide you with echo. If you are quiet, it's your footstep. There was a sculpture at the heart of the path where iron bars from old Infinity Corridor had been turned into hands cupping upwards. On the top were 3D printed hands reaching out to them. She kept looking at it for a while and said, "Can you write about us?"
I smiled at her innocence. "I don't even know how I would describe you, us or what we are doing here in the dead of night. Whatever it is, twelve hundred words is too less to do justice to it", I shrugged. She kept staring at the sculpture and said, "I am sure you will be able to write even after the competition. Maybe a book or a blog. You made a terrible decision to stay awake all night with a stranger. Bad decisions always lead to good stories. You can write about what happened and add details as per your wish. If people read, they might find meaning, or they might question the authenticity of the story. You don't have to tell them everything."
She was not someone I can describe and paint a picture in your head. She was elegant and straightforward, but not someone you can't stop thinking about. It was her words that did the magic and her voice that perfectly complemented it. "Stories and sculptures are dead. The readers and observers are the ones who add life to them. One can decipher countless theories, ideas and stories from a combination of words or a splash of paints or some twisted iron bars, but they will stay what they were. Art is not absolute, so you need to have faith in the calibre of the readers too. What do you make of this sculpture?"
I said, "Hands reaching out to each other. Nokia - connecting people?" She giggled and smacked my head. We started walking ahead, and she said, "For a writer, you have a terrible sense of observation. What I think is this is about connecting the old and the new. The old being the iron bars used and the new being the 3D printing technology. I know it might be a long shot and wrong, but at the end of the day, these are just twisted and shaped materials put out for display."
After walking for an hour, we decided to sit somewhere. We found a bench and sat there. Her touch no longer felt awkward, and a part of me actually relished it. She was so close that I could smell her shampoo. She said, "Do you want to know how I knew you were lying about not being a writer?" It struck me then that I had forgotten about it altogether. I also knew there was another question that I had on my mind, but it was lost in the train of thoughts. I nodded.
"Well, I observed you. You have a stiff body so you could not have been a dancer. You walk so straight that it seems like you are practising for a parade. You have a low voice so you would have been a liability for the dramatics group. A painter would have been practising hard so their nails would have some speck of charcoal or paint. You could have tricked me if you would have said quizzing because your voice is too melodious to be a singer", Sherlock finished her deductions and Watson looked at her, speechless in admiration. She was a keen observer. It also meant she had no clue what the other question was. It was lost forever.
A group of students in hoodies were walking by. She walked up to them and asked them something. I could not listen, but the way they moved their hands animatedly made me believe she was asking for directions. Maybe she was bored and wanted to go back to the hostel. It seemed I had let her down. She wasn't really sleepy, so this had to be the only explanation. She came back and asked me, "Shall we?"
I thought of making a lasting impression on her, hoping she would change her mind. I was enjoying her company and did not wish this night to end. I asked her, "Do you know what lucid dreaming is?" I had read about it on my trip, and it seemed like an exciting thing to try. She looked at me with her big, dreamy eyes, and for the first time that night, I was not the curious one.
"You must have seen Inception. The movie was far-fetched science fiction, but there is some truth to it. One can control his conscience in his dream if he practices. In that way, you can be alert and make active choices in your dreams. You can make things happen at your will. It feels real, and people have been practising it for ages. Science has been making progress in this area recently. Still, it is believed many Buddhist monks could ace it with meditation and concentration", I spoke softly, to create an aura of mystery. She paid absolute attention to every word that I said.
"So what would you do if this was a dream?" she asked me, bringing me back to reality. I thought a bit. I knew the campus had several places to visit, but we had selected choice then. Even if this was a dream, I would not mess up the believable factor. I'd rather be part of a dream that felt real than a dream where I was sure of its fleeting existence. "I know where I would wish to be", I said.
She gave me one of her enigmatic smiles and said, "If it is the place where we are heading to, I would love to see the expression on your face." I thought I had failed to excite her, but she had definitely tricked me into believing that she was interested. She would ace in Mono-Act. Maybe that's why she was here, though I could not be sure about it. We didn't speak much and padded. The silence was the only thing I could enjoy now, apart from her fingers interlocked with mine.
The campus had a significant amount of green cover with big hostels. Birds were cooing in their nests, and I noticed dawn was around the corner. The night was coming to a close, and for the first time, I felt tired. We walked next to the guest house and reached down a road where a few people were jogging. As we took the final turn, I realized where we had been heading to all this time.
Powai Lake spread in front of us in all its grace. The calm waters were occasionally disturbed by tiny insects that created ripples which died down as they progressed. Dawn seemed to compliment the lake beautifully, and the whole place looked magical. It was too much for my senses to take after the night. I sat down on one of the benches. She sat beside me and said, "Was I correct?"
I held her hand firmly and said nothing. A lone tear slipped out from the corner of my eye, and I didn't care to wipe it away. She said, "You know Mr Writer, I think you should stop looking for answers for everything. When the question is unanswered, you tend to look for it, and the question stays with you. But once it is answered, the question is lost and forgotten. Some things are beautiful only until you can't make sense to them. Because once you do, you realize you have done the worst thing you could do to them. You stripped them of their magic. Ask yourself, what is important? Is the answer worth this surreal feeling you are experiencing now?"
She looked in front of the lake, and I looked at her. She seemed to be blushing in the orange glow of the morning sky. Her phone rang, and the tone sounded familiar. She saw the name but didn't answer it. I told her what I decided at that moment, "I will definitely write about us someday."
She looked at me and asked, "Have you figured out what you will write finally?" I nodded and said, "I will try to make a believable story. She came close to me and looked me into my eyes. I will never forget that intimidating gaze. She was so close that our lips brushed when she spoke next, "Will your readers believe this too?" She kissed me softly and smiled. I could not see her, but I knew she was smiling. She was so close.
"Do you know about Zhuangzi's butterfly paradox?" she asked me. I had been incessantly smiling like an idiot, and she brought me back to senses. I shook my head, and she said, "It's a story which questions what is real and what is not, much like your lucid dream story. It suddenly struck me. It goes something like this :
"Once Zhuang Zhou dreamed he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuang Zhou. Suddenly he woke up, and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuang Zhou. But he didn't know if he were Zhuang Zhou who had dreamed he was a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuang Zhou. Between Zhuang Zhou and a butterfly, there must be some distinction!" So tell me, who are you?" she finished and looked at me.
Her phone had been ringing all this while. I could not read the name on the caller id. Maybe the exhaustion of the night was taking hold of me finally. I asked her who it was, and she continued smiling without any answer. Finally, she said, "I hope we meet again." The Sun had risen, and it felt too hot now. I could no longer keep my eyes open and noticed I was sitting alone.
I woke up in my hostel room next to my friends. They had been awake and were getting ready for breakfast. The transition was too swift for me. It felt so real that it was heartbreaking for me. I rose and walked out of the room when I noticed the song again. Rushing to the place where the sound came from, I opened the door and saw my contingent members who were practising for their song. They looked at me and asked me what I wanted.
"What song is this?" I asked.
"Bombay Dreams by KSHMR and Lost Stories", the singer replied. I could not help but smile. This song had played on shuffle when I was reading about lucid dreaming on my journey. It was a sad smile of what it was and what could have been.
I went for breakfast with my friends. As I walked into the mess, I experienced déjà vu. I noticed her sitting with her team in the mess. I smiled at her, and she looked confused. It felt so stupid. I took a plate, served myself and took a seat among my friends. The breakfast was better than what I had expected it to be.
I kept looking at her from the corner of my eyes. She had absolutely no clue about me. Her phone rang, and she picked it up after drinking some water. I smiled and went back to my breakfast. I knew the ringtone now.
|Find me on instagram @a.b.rudra|