By Upendra Mishra
BOSTON—Moving from a small town to Allahabad was a huge deal for me. First, I was going to live on my own for the first time and that too in a big city; second, I would be making my own day-to-day decisions; third, I had turned 18 and had graduated myself almost as an adult; and finally, the excitement of joining the University of Allahabad, known as the “Oxford of the East” with its beautiful campus.
Moreover, I was assigned to the Sir Sundar Lal Hostel, one of the top five university-run and managed hostels, located right at the intersection of the university’s main entrance and the vibrant University Road. I felt like I was living in a dream word after making some silly decisions. The most ridiculous was enrolling myself in the English medium instructions for my university courses—a daring step for someone who had studied only in the Hindi medium. At the university, I had signed on for three subjects: English Literature, Philosophy and Political Science.
I could handle English as a subject. But dealing with philosophy and political science—which I had not studied before (I was a pure science student throughout)—and classroom lectures in English was too tasking for me. I grasped only 20 percent of the lectures because of language difficulty. The rest I thought I could catch up from textbooks. But when I started to read textbooks in English, I was spending most of my time on English-Hindi dictionary than understanding the core subject matter.
The best part, however, was my philosophy class. This was the first time I sat in a classroom with girls. Prior, I had studied in only boys-school. The girl-boy ratio in my philosophy class was almost 50-50. Half on the classroom on the left was occupied by girls and boys occupied the right half. Almost all students in the class had studied in English medium. But hardly boys and girls talked with each other. Then there was a Bengali girl in my philosophy class I could not take my eye off.
I still vividly remember her long dark flowing hair, oval face, fair complexion, big black eyes and thick eyebrows. She always dressed like 1960s-70s Bollywood heroine-style tight and elegant clothes and always had a white dupatta. I would often try to be the first one in the classroom so that I could see her walking in and sitting in the class. That is all it was. Slowly, however, I found myself awestruck by her charm and beauty. She would not talk to anyone, not even the girls. But my fascination with her kept growing as time passed and became unstoppable. I also knew my chances of courting her were limited because I could not speak English fluently, and I did not want to show my language weakness.
Eventually, my fascination with her turned inward and I began writing poems. Slowly the word spready among hostel mates about my poems. I would every so often find some hostel mates and gently force them to listen my poems. Obviously, I liked my own poems, but slowly a lot of people started to enjoy what I was writing. One of my hostel mates knew a family friend working in the All India Radio and mentioned to him about my romantic poems. He asked me to meet him.
I went to the local All India Radio station with my poems, which were all written in Hindi on a large thick blue color notebook. He asked me to read two of my favorite poems. He loved them and agreed to record me reciting my own poems and broadcast them on All India Radio’s Yuv Vani program. Overnight, I felt I became a star (remember those days radio was only main communications channel). My interest in writing enhanced further and I started enjoying my poetic journey. I got a real high listening to my own poems on the radio. It was a huge achievement for a village boy at an young age.
As I was enjoying my mini stardom as a rising poet, an idea popped in my head: Why not I should copy my poems in a beautiful flowery book and present it to this girl. With All India Radio, my self-confidence and self-esteem had started to build, my English language had improved significantly and I had also started to speak broken English after practicing this foreign language with my hostel mates.
Somehow, I became so confident in English that I started to teach Wordsworth, Keats and Shelly poems to some of my hostel and classmates who were having hard time with English. For me, it was a chance to practice my English speaking. One day, one of my hostel mates said “Upendra, I will not have dinner tonight because there is a headache in my stomach.” I wanted to laugh but then I stopped and told him nobody can stop you from speaking English now. He asked: Why? I said because “you’re not afraid of speaking English anymore.” In fact, this was a great lesson for me. Practice what you preach.
I immediately went to a bookstore and bought a beautiful flowery notebook and a nice pen that we had to dip in ink and with a slight pressure one could increase the size of the font. I went to my room and started copying my favorite love poems. I still remember it took almost entire night to copy about 20 poems. The handwriting had to be great. Great titles. Nice presentation. Selection of poems. And, Oh God! my new-found courage to speak English.
The very next day was my Philosophy class. I had made up my mind that today I would give that girl my book of poetry. A mini movie had already started to play in my mind. I would give this gift to her after the class. I will walk up to an area where usually not many people are around. I would walk to her and say “excuse me. I have a gift of poems which I have written for you.” She would smile, walk away with book with butterflies in her stomach and immediately sit down somewhere and would read. After that, we would become best friends for ever—even marry. My grandfather may not approve this marriage, but I would not care.
After the philosophy class was over, I did exactly what I had planned. I waited. As she was passing by, I went to her, and then I completely forgot what I had rehearsed in English. I told her the same thing but in Hindi. I knew I had made a big mistake because her response was exactly the opposite of what I had thought. She said: “Look, if you do this again, I will have to talk to my dad.” But somehow, she took my book of poems with her. I often wonder what she would have done with those poems. Did she throw them right away? Did she read? What did she think of poems if she read them? Has she still kept those poems with her? I am sure I would have kept them dearly.
This was very disappointing chapter in my romantic life. I slowly began to share my pain and hurt with two close friends of mine. I did not tell, however, my friend about how she had rejected everything and what she had said. May be when they read this column they would find out for the first time. Both friends are very dear to me and we have always been in touch since then. One still lives in Allahabad. The other had lived in US for his studies and Ph.D, went back to India and now is back to US for good. He is also the one who arranged my marriage (this story later.)
As they saw my pain, one of them suggested that we should organize a university-level function with various types of competitions—from quiz, debate, poetry, painting, art and drama to creative writing. She might participate in some of them. If not, we will invite her as our guest in the final banquet and award ceremony and we will impress her. I loved the idea. The three of us agreed. This was for the first time I was a co-producer of an event of a large scale. The function was a super hit, and hundreds of students from all across the university and hostels participated.
As the luck had it, she had also submitted a creative short story for the competition. I still remember the title of her story: “The Intense Desire.” She did not win any prize. But she did come for the final function to out hostel.
It was a beautiful evening. The dinner and award ceremony was organized in the open in the hostel lawn. Beautiful natural flowers and rows of plants and vines, decorative lights, music and again it felt like the Heaven had descended on the earth. Among all hustle and bustle and the crowed, I saw her sitting on a table, lost in her thoughts. So many times I thought I should go and say hi to her, greet her, welcome her and thank her for coming. But her word “Look, if you do this again, I will have to talk to my dad” kept echoing in my head, and I felt too embarrassed. I could not gather courage to go closer to her. I hid myself from her.
This time when I visited India, I did not go to Allahabad. But in the past I had visited Allahabad most of the time. A few year ago when I went to Allahabad, I met my friend and hostel mate who still lives there. He told me that philosophy girl still lives in Allahabad and if would like to see her. I said: NO.
He shouted back: “Do you know she had come to our function only for you?” I did not say a word. He added: “You stupid left Allahabad for JNU without saying anything to anyone.” As he was talking with me, “Look, if you do this again, I will have to talk to my dad” kept ringing in my head.
Stay tuned for India-5.
(Mr. Mishra is managing partner of the Waltham, MA-based integrated inbound marketing and PR firm The Mishra Group. He writes about his three passions: marketing, scriptures and gardening.)