Akash, Amrita and Sanchit stared at the empty abode of the Old Monk lying in front of them. They had just finished singing cheesy Bollywood numbers accompanied with dance moves to suit the occasion and put many a Khan to shame and were, understandably, exhausted. The air had just recovered from their cacophonous assaults on it and was settling heavily into a calm, forcing them, in turn, to ponder.
‘So-o, my warriors, what’s next on our menu? A game of charades, is it, my lady?’ Akash had not yet bid goodbye to the Monk.
‘So, this is it, then? This is how it is all going to end, isn’t it?’ Sanchit had, well, bid goodbye to a lot of things.
‘What are you talking about, Dodo?’ replied Akash, mildly perturbed with the disturbance to his sweet farewell.
‘I’m talking about our careers, you idiot! There are less than twenty four hours remaining for the Thermo Final and look at us! Look at what we’ve done!’
‘Roop tera, Mastana… Pyaar mera, Deewaana…’, ventured Amrita, smiling to herself, no doubt imagining herself to be a Bollywood diva.
‘Come on, guys! It’s 9 PM already! Let's get the heck out of this lab and back to our rooms.’
‘Bhool koi hum se na…’ Akash joined in, never one to disappoint when the demand for music arose.
‘Guys! 9 PM!’ Sanchit held up his wrist for emphasis. Then noticed that there was no watch on it.
‘Wait, what? 9 PM? Christ, I need to go back to the hostel or they will chuck me out!’
‘No hostel-wostel, Amrita. You stay here, who will teach us?’ Akash’s pragmatism had started its return journey.
‘Are you nuts, Akash? How can we stay here? It's dirty, dark and creepy. Besides, we would be breaking a gazillion rules.’
Amrita jumped to her feet and started looking around for her stuff. Her stuff, having a mind of its own that night, attempted to spin out of her reach, thereby making her come in contact with Akash’s shoe and embrace the ground in a resounding thud.
‘Shut up, Akash! Oh lord, I’m in no condition to go back. One look at my face and they are going to have my parents on the next flight to Delhi!’
‘There, there, you see? I told you, Akash, we are doomed. Doomed! Thermo Final tomorrow and unlike you geniuses, I only had an eight on my mid semester paper. And just look at us now, cannot even walk straight, unbelievable! Frigging incredible! Who’s idea was this, anyway? I must say it was stupid in the extremes, I have never heard of a dumber thing, I…’, rambled Sanchit, on and on and on, hardly stopping to breathe, his hands gripping either side of his head.
Amrita and Akash regarded each other somberly. An unspoken idea was exchanged. Together, their heads turned to look at Sanchit’s pathetically blabbering figure.
‘Tanhayeee… tanhayeee… meelo hai phaili hui tanhayee…’
The monologue hit a roadblock.
‘You rascals!!!’ he cried, flinging a shoes in Akash’s direction.
Such is the power of Bollywood music, it takes only a carefully selected track to flip the atmosphere of a room. The clouds of despair and desolation lifted from the chemistry lab and the three offsprings of trouble looked upon their situation full of smiles and optimism. Donning their thinking caps, they tried working out a favorable solution to their situation.
‘So, here’s what we will do. The night watchman comes in once at 10 PM to check the locks on these rooms. He is an indolent fool. He will not approach the doors but only regard them from a distance to confirm the presence of a lock-like object. So, I think it is safe to stay inside, provided we are very, very quiet.’ said Akash.
‘Okay, but, we will need the lights on, to study…’
‘Hmm, Sanchit, we will keep them shut till 1030 at least, just to be safe and then we can switch them on. We can study quite comfortably here, too. Look, there are textbooks on that shelf. Who knows we might find a copy of the paper or something, here’.
‘Okay, Akash, but how will we get out of here in the morning without getting noticed?’ said Sanchit.
‘Ah, that is the tricky part. Hey, but why am I the one doing all the thinking here, huh? What kind of engineers are you dumbasses?’
‘Engineers, yes, we are very able ones indeed and the answer to that lies in the noble Art of Jugaad, which we must practice when the hour calls for it’, replied Amrita wistfully.
Chetan Singh strolled down the empty corridor leisurely. He had just treated himself to a juicy paan and the flavor had begun to dissolve in his mouth. Swinging his wooden stick as he walked, he tapped at the closed doors, merely to hear the sound reverberate in the empty space. It was the same monotonous story every day, so he had taken to inventing little games to keep himself entertained on these night wanderings. For instance, today, he was looking for an unmarked expanse of wall to decorate with a delectable cocktail of betel juice and saliva.
The laws of the Universe dictate that when you really, really want something, all of the mystical forces around conspire to make you obtain it. Little did Chetan Singh know that his need for excitement was to be answered generously by the Universe that very evening. Having reached outside the Chemistry lab (where else?), he had just prepped himself to propel the paan projectile when he heard a low, soft, hardly-there sneeze. On any other day, Chetan Singh would have just pretended not to have heard anything and left the scene. After all, who wants to go messing around in dark, empty rooms? Who knows what creatures might be lurking around the corners. Chetan Singh never flattered himself with any notions of bravado. He did not like surprises, they made his heart flutter. So, Akash was right about his indolence as a security guard, but, tonight was about the mystical forces messing around with their lives and shuffling things up. Hence, Chetan Singh had no option but to let Destiny guide him to the majestically worn out door of the Chemistry lab and beat at it with his stick.
*thud* *thud* *thud*
*thud* * thud * *thud*
Three pairs of paranoid eyes widened in fear inside. Slouched in unflattering positions on the ground, they dared not bat an eyelid for the predator was in such proximity. It was Akash who had sneezed, as a reaction to some evil smelling concoction stored in one of the many beakers lying around. He reclined curled up on the floor, his head between his thighs, trying with all his might not to let his nose betray him again. But it did. And then, again. Amrita had given up breathing, she was praying to the gods to convert her into an inanimate object.
Chetan Singh mentally calculated the risks involved in opening the door. At best, it could be just a dog, having missed the closing bells and forced to spend the night inside. There could be absolutely no possibility of it being a robber or something similar: you don’t get those folks in labs, the staff rooms are the places of interest for them. Whatever it was, man or animal, it had to be a product of the college itself. Unless, it was some phantom. But ghosts didn’t sneeze, did they? There is only one way to find out, said Chetan Singh to himself and unlocked the door.
Sanchit’s heart beat so furiously it would have made Bolt reconsider his pace. A measly wooden desk separated the predator from the prey. His cerebral muscles were on overtime, trying to figure out the best excuse to extricate themselves from the situation. ‘We are being pursued by Dawood. This was the best place to hide.’ Or, ‘we were spying on the teacher and the lab assistant. We think they are having an affair’. He could just make the faint profile of his foe, fumbling around in the dark, trying to locate the light switches.
Chetan Singh had just realized that he had hit gold. Hidden inside the lab was no normal man or animal, but a bunch of students and, judging by the combination of aromas in the air, it was a couple, an inebriated, mischievous couple taking advantage of the college premises. Oh, his colleagues were going to be so jealous of him tomorrow. Now, if only he could find that damned switch…
Amrita realized the risk she was exposed to if she allowed herself to be caught in this position. The guys would face action too, but for her the consequences would be excruciatingly painful. She needed to act quickly. Reaching in to the back pocket of her jeans, she took out her can of Mace and leapt forward to spray it into his face. His cries confirmed that she had got his eyes, as intended. The sudden burst of activity spurred Akash to his feet too and, finding no weapon around but the wooden stick, he struck it across his head and had him collapse to the ground, unconscious.
For what seemed like an eternity, no body moved. Time stood still. They looked at the motionless figure on the ground and tried to grasp the significance of what had happened.
‘Is he dead?’
‘No, he’s breathing.’
‘What do we do now?’
‘I have no idea’.
‘We have to get out of here’.
‘We can’t just leave him here’.
‘Let’s dump him in the car and get out of the campus’.
‘Yes. When he wakes up we can plead him to let it go. Give him the exam speech or something’.
‘Money. We will have to bribe him’.
‘Let’s get out of here’
‘We will never get out of the gates with a girl in the car’
‘Hide the girl in the boot’
‘You heard me. You are hiding in the boot’.
‘And him? They are going to recognize him in that uniform.’
‘Oh, I know, hide him in the boot’.
‘That doesn’t solve anything, Amrita! We only have one boot and two unwanted passengers’.
‘That is a problem…’
They say Man must be careful of what he wishes for: they come true alright but not always in the form expected. Chetan Singh was being subjected to something similar. Observing the ‘oh-so-fly’ demeanor of the college ‘studs’ and the way girls hovered around them, he too had visualized himself clad in trendy denims with tee shirts bearing motifs of popular bands, enjoying the attention of the opposite sex, but only expressing the relish ever so subtly. Tonight, his wish had come true, in a way.
‘If he is wearing my clothes, what am I supposed to wear?’, asked Akash, stepping out of his jeans.
‘His clothes, obviously’, said Amrita.
‘You must be kidding me! I’m not wearing those! Who knows when he had his last bath? He stinks.’
‘No room for a naked hobo in our car’, said Sanchit.
‘Not like your clothes smell of sweet perfume. Just when did you bathe last?’, said Amrita, holding Akash’s jeans away from her body as if it were a dead insect.
So, Chetan Singh became one with the hip college crowd. After all, clothes maketh a man, don’t they? As for his general appearance, the beard, moustache et al, the guys reasoned it would make no difference. Being exam time at the university AND no shave November, even a Neanderthal would have felt at home in the campus.
The next hurdle was getting their illegal accomplice and accidental victim in the car. The victim was easily seated on the back seat. Akash re-arranged his hands and feet to give him a nice contemplative pose indicative of deep intellectual activity. Amrita tried hard to avoid the dark comfort of the car’s boot, suggesting hiding under the seat instead, presenting her relatively petite figure as backing to her case, but in vain.
‘Now, remember, not a sound from you. No movement.’
‘Be a log.’
‘Yes, be a log’
Amrita resignedly dragged herself into the trunk and adjusted her body inside.
‘I wish I could just stupefy you’, murmured Akash.
‘Petrificus Totalas’, exclaimed Sanchit with the appropriate hand movement.
‘This seems to be a situation straight out of a Potter book, isn’t it? Trouble, trouble everywhere’, Akash said to Sanchit as they closed the door down on Amrita and made their way to the front of the car.
The drive to the first check post was pretty uneventful, much to the relief of the trio. The security guards patrolling the exit were used to students panicking and hovering around in the night during these crucial months and paid no heed to the quiet and contemplative gentleman in the back. The second check post was the final obstacle separating them from freedom and peace. Also, it would not be enough for them to jump on the pedal and go whooshing past the gates; they would have to stop and make an entry into the outgoing register recording their movement.
Akash was getting nervous. His hands, in spite of the cold, were starting to get clammy on the steering wheel. He switched on the radio and then switched it off on account of his heart beating synchronously to the rhythm of Honey Singh’s latest pop number.
‘Alright, Sanchit, this is it. I will park the car at some distance from the security desk. We will get out, make some story about him… we should give him a name, don’t you think? Hmm, who’s that nerd in our section, the one with the uni-brow?’
‘Yes, so, Champak is gravely ill and he can’t come out of the car and we need medicine, okay?’
‘Okay, let’s do this. May god be with us.’
Akash and Sanchit got out of the car and exchanged the customary fist-bump. They had never experienced such bonding before. The walk to the security desk took a considerable amount of time, each step being a task in itself, requiring a handsome supply of courage and self-confidence from the repository the guys had only recently discovered inside them. Also, they had independently decided on theme music to accompany them on the challenge and syncing their steps with the beat required considerable effort. Akash was the first to reach the desk and immediately took hold of the register. Meanwhile, Sanchit faced the security guard (let’s call him Ram Babu) and, looking him straight in the eye, took out his cellphone and had an urgent, imaginary conversation with his mother. Akash could barely conceal the admiration he felt for the bravado displayed by his friend. In fact, his hands shook with pride.
‘Hey, what about the boy sitting in the car? Call him, he has to sign the register too’, said Ram Babu in a sleepy tone.
‘No, sir, actually he is very ill. We are going out to get medicine for him. He can’t come out of the car. We will sign for him’, Akash tried his best ‘we just want to help a sick friend’ face.
‘Is he too sick to even come out of the car?’
‘He is resting, sir, we do not want to disturb his sleep. Exam tomorrow, na’.
‘Hey…but…’, the guard was cut mid-sentence by a loud rattling noise coming from the car.
If there is any such thing as the soul relinquishing one’s body out of pure trauma, the boys experienced it, rooted to the cold pavement. Chetan Singh alias Champak had woken up and was beating at the car windows like a mad man. Ram Babu was on his feet when Sanchit did something his parents would be proud of till their last breath. He grabbed the guard by his arms and, locking eyes with him, told him, ‘Sir, he is crazy. He needs psychiatric help every now and then. Out of respect for his family, we have not told anyone about this condition of his, not even the college authorities. But, please, let us go now, sir, or else he will keep up with his destructive activities all night and not take the exam tomorrow’.
‘Do you think I’m a fool? I can see what you guys are doing here. He must be one of the sincere students of your class and you just want to spoil his career! Scoundrels!’, Ram Babu detached himself from Sanchit’s grip and started advancing towards the car.
‘Sir, I beseech you, stop! You know not what you are doing. If you let him out, he might turn violent on you. Last time, he almost bit a boy’s thumb off. Who knows what part of your anatomy he would aim for’.
Ram Babu halted and considered the anger ridden face of the guy. He thought he could make out crazy eyes. His thumbs tingled. The mad man was pointing his finger at him and shouting now. Ram Babu cursed and turned to face the boys.
‘Boys, deposit your identity cards here and be back by 9 AM tomorrow morning. I will confirm the well-being of your friend and only then let you take the exam, understand?’
‘Yes-sir, thank you-sir’, and they were back inside their four-wheeled heaven in no time. Akash stepped on the gas while Sanchit wrestled with their crazy co-passenger.
They say flattery can get you anywhere but they really were talking about money there. Having calmed their new friend down, they had made their way to a Dhaba and were discussing the terms and conditions of their impending separation.
‘Five thousand rupees each and a month’s liquor supply’, said Chetan Singh as he sipped on a masala chai, the requisite accompanying beverage to every important business transaction in North India.
‘That is too much, Chetan Bhai, we are only students, after all!’, Akash, though immensely relieved with the turn of events, attempted negotiation.
‘Oh, yes, innocent students, are we? Do I need to remind you what the consequences of your actions tonight could be if I take it to the authorities?’, retorted Chetan Singh.
‘Alright, Chetan Bhai, drink your tea’.
‘Oh, and one more thing: I get to keep these clothes’, said the guard, hiding his smiling face in the tea cup.