Ghosts are dead and only those close to death could be afraid of them. It is the living who scare us. Decades ago I stayed in the hostel at a university campus near Chandigarh. It was a unique experience for protected youngest child of north Indian Sikh family. Hostels are generally dingy places engulfed in seething smell of suppressed dreams, of boiled stupid food, butter lonely living and made worse under the specter of an insecure future. Loneliness makes people treasure their independence because they learn to adjust with it over time. Millions are pushed out every year from the imaginary security of hostel walls out into the shelterless job market painted with crude hopelessness. It is like the trauma a child experiences emerging from the safety of mother’s womb into the big bright world.
Life in India is like travelling in an underpowered vehicle swerving and screeching on some frozen snowy kutcha road hoping to stop someplace with least injuries.It’s normal during summer vacations for students staying in the university hostels to head home. If you happen to visit a hotel at that time you would be drenched in strong scary smell of vacant locked rooms. With ninety percent students gone home, and one of the two main kitchens shut, hostel wears a strange lean look accentuated by silence of falling water from some leaky dark washroom and an occasional grunting of the solitary guard trying to establish his presence while sitting on hunches at the entry gate that is hardly used by most. When wind picks up a little in the usual pre monsoon season you could also be visited be the fragrance of unripe mango fruits from the trees in hostel compound. The unkempt hostel building, walls, mess and lawns tend to look much worse with the swarm of students gone home and their absence leads to greater attention to the state of such things. Although we do not complain about the quality of infrastructure of the hostels as most are mature adults are expected to be resigned to the destiny in India.
Well hostel look much the same even after a gap of twenty years. It is like an unbelieveable near super natural experience. Ghosts do not threaten the youth anywhere. Probably it could be explained as the willing suspension of disbelief of fear during the youth period. It is the living who threatens us. In India we avoid working hard as we understand that life is going to be very hard here so it would be wise to keep the hard work off as long as possible. But still there are exceptions to the rule. Some Indians start working hard early in life and some of them succeed also. I had a friend who lived in the next cubicle and attended the same class with me in the faculty of business management. He was of slight build, fair complexioned and had naughty eyes and a brooding forehead. He walked slowly and spoke in a loud clear voice. We were known for making a quite a noise in debates on issues threatening the existence of India. These issues have failed India time and again in the last couple of thousand years and have once again at work to push us away from the march of life and living on the Earth into the ghetto of our so called ancient wisdom and glory.
Such debates and discussions are quite common amongst the youth in the university campuses all over the world. Why our country is not among the league of rich and developed countries? What are the reasons, and who are responsible for the current state of affairs in India? Why have we not solved our major problems of abject poverty, weak moral values, and lack of work culture, illiteracy, population and mushrooming of so many varieties of religions, sects and complete lack of trust in fellow humans? Finally what can we do to solve such dreadful problems? The question is do we need to look backward in order to succeed in the future? University are ideally suited to find answers to the problems facing humanity though our Indian Universities have seldom tried to even attempt in such a direction but the young restless minds swarming the university compounds have head full of bright ideas that could lead us onto the path of glory amongst the nations on this beautiful earth. Off course sexual escapades and the lack of them also form a major part of our discussions. Why religious people are afraid of discussing sex openly? Why they deny its power?
Such debates turn quite noisy and would also eat into time kept for studying to pass in examination after examination so characteristic of our education system. You must have noticed that some young people debate very passionately even if they do not much substance to contribute. And some of us would keep on zealously defending our view point once made that we also find weak or wrong on second thought. One evening while gossiping about girls, we stumbled to discussing the impact of near death experience early in life on the personality of person. Some of the great persons had to go through near death traumatic experience very early in their life. Who can find fault with Hemingway’s life and death? How many of us had felt the chill running down our spine on learning about Dostoevsky’s sentencing to death by a firing squad at age of eighteen? Youth gets excited by exciting stuff. No one aspires to be a sitting duck. It was during such a discussion that we started discussing the idea of Sin and morality in life. Please do not presume that the young are generally not careful about moral issues. In fact it is the youth who would surely be bothered about the moral side of an act before going through it unlike the mature middle aged wise persons, who let themselves be guided by their objective and interest without much regard to the moral aspect of an action.
It was unusual for that a discussion point would become a serious issue of debate that would continue to generate heat and adrenalin for days. What is sin? What is a commensurate punishment? Let us imagine that someone has slapped a hardened criminal and then a genuine good fellow, is the crime same in both the cases? A hardened criminal may not mind it much but the other guy could kill in return for a slap. The debate kept going on for days and many other joined in with their positions. It was during those days that something unusual happened with my friend that stocked the fires within us. He used to get up little late around lunch time and would emerge from his tiny room at the university hostel. Since he was particular about taking bath every day, not a popular activity amongst youth, would straight head to the common bath room. Bathroom in university hostels are like jails, dark, dirty and dingy almost like the enlightenment our universities profess to promote in the minds of people.
Therefore he would start his bath even without opening his eyes fully. It was a custom to open the eyes only after the classes were over for the day. The silence in the hostels in June to July is over powering as the place remains virtually empty. One Tuesday when he woke up at noon, shove the toothbrush into his half open mouth, and picked up plastic bucket with left hand, threw the towel on his shoulder and headed to the great refreshing place for a bath. Since bathrooms do not have a place to hang clothes some students hate to carry unnecessary clothes, so he too would not break the rule. Our bathrooms do not have the shower attachment and the water falls like a thunderbolt from the pipe directly on the head or the place chosen by the person. So generally you offer your feet first followed by shoulders and then the head. And the complete bathing is over in less than a minute due to the smells filling your nostrils coming from the adjacent toilets. When he was about to wrap the towel around his waist he spotted an expensive wrist watch lying on the floor. It was a truly expensive Swiss watch. Some of the students bring expensive cars and other stuff to hostels. He took the watch and after dressing up went to the warden’s house to hand over the watch.
The warden did not like his visit to his home and took the watch from his hand coldly. He was expecting to be appreciated for this act of honesty which was not at all a common here. Moreover the watch was worth the price of a car so he didn’t expect a cold reception. He met us in the common room and explained the incident. All of us advised him to ignore the event. He did so promptly. But we were amazed when he found another expensive watch in the same bathroom. Then he brought it straight to us. He was not wearing anything except the wet towel. We went together to the warden’s house to return the watch. It was lunch time and the warden was sleeping after a heavy meal. We woke him up and got the expected cold reception from him. He looked at the watch and took it inside to show his wife. He was reminded promptly by the lady that her father had given him a gold plated watch studded with diamonds in dowry gifts.
The following day our friend got up early and went to the bathroom on the other side of the building. He promptly finished his bath and headed back to his room. In the long passage way he saw a cheap watch like object lying on the floor. On reaching near that he found a very cheap watch of Indian make that most students from poor families get to wear. He left the watch in lying there and went into his room. There he thought that if this watch gets in the hands of someone who did not care to return it then the poor owner of this watch may be hurt. So he went out again and picked up the watch. He brought it back into his room and leaving it there headed for the mess for food. He was disturbed and amused about his watch finding expertise. Why was he the only one to score a watch finding hat trick? He did not share the latest find incident with anyone and went alone to see a Hindi movie in a newly opened multiplex in a mall. He did not return till late in the evening as he felt disturbed. What the warden and others are going to think of him when he would go to return third watch in exactly same number of days.
When he returned to hostel it was after dinner at around ten. He saw warden addressing the assembly in the common room. He went closer. Warden looked at him and asked him to come by his side. The warden told the gathering, “Look at this boy he found two luxury watches and brought them to me. He is our hero. This is an example of good character and moral values. And now when a poor boy has lost the only possession of his life given by his father some bloody immoral person has not cared to return it, what a shame. What a shame. How i wish to fish out that thief.Isn't it is a cold blooded crime to steal a watch”.