This is going to be another one about coming home. I keep doing that again and again. After two months away after having moved back home, I’m back once more. Today I attended the congregational Friday prayer at the mosque in the university where I went to engineering school.
When I was seventeen, which was seventeen years ago, I remember I would play basketball on the university basketball court. I was not in the University at the time. I would just go there to play. The court was ruled by a bunch of boys from the locality that were way tougher than I was. They had better game, obviously. Not just technical, also psychological. These guys were growing up in tough homes, most of them in the government run schools spending most of their time outside class. I was in a premiere private school, softened by parental supervision and finessed with good manners. This left me with basically nothing on court. Still, these guys were always nice to me. But you know its bad news when the guys are “being nice” to you on court. It kinda bummed me out but I didn’t really mind because honestly, I didn’t want to see their A game. Once I cut off this guy on his way to a lay up and maybe I threw a little too much elbow in there. He made the shot anyway then smiled at me and with a weirdly feminine voice said,
“Tumhe bhi lag jaayegi phir.” (You might get hurt too then).
It was a friendly reprimand, nothing serious but it was enough for me to back off. The thing was I wasn’t that much worse than them. They never looked at me like I was a burden they had to put up with, or else they wouldn’t let me play. It was just that when I had the ball, they played it clean and proper. It wasn’t personal. They respected that I was not from their world and I accepted my place as the nice boy. I thought way more about them than they did about me. I think this is true about most people in my life.
Other than the crop of standard rowdy basketball players, there was a boy who was unbelievably good and very graceful to watch. He never played rough and it was him who first asked me to play with them when I was just kind of skirting the court to see if anyone would bite. He was very lean and short but he ran like a bullet. Insane accuracy and agility. Overall athlete. He even had that face. The good-athlete face. Sunken cheeks, floppy hair and a sharp nose. For the purposes of this discussion we shall call him Wasim.
So, back to today. After I finished praying my father who is a professor, took me on a customary tour of the university. He would do this when I was young too. At that time, I did not realize the value of knowing all of his colleagues and all the wisdom and affection I was getting for free. Today I went to see a physics professor who appears and acts more Russian after his stint in the erstwhile U.S.S.R. He listens to the opera in Volgograd and reads the poetry of Pushkin. I remember him from my adolescent years. I once visited him at the Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune while I was interning there as an undergrad. He was not too well, recovering from a cold but very happy to see me which he expressed by feeding me raisins from Tashkent out of a polythene bag.
After this, I met a mechanical engineering professor. A devout Muslim and very dutiful teacher. He never actually taught me but he told me he wants me to give a talk at the department. Then, on the pretext of introducing me to the dean of the faculty my father took me to the dean’s office. Though on the way there he mumbled something about a very eligible young lady being a member of the teaching staff. He thought I didn’t hear it. I had. I feigned oblivion to make matters less awkward. We went in and we were greeted by a late thirties gentleman of small height and a demeanour of outward calm. He had a name like Sharif or Shafa’ul or something. He was the head clerk of the dean’s office. So, you have to understand. These guys exist by the thousands in the University. They are the bulk that the administration stands on. They are the secret keepers of all the professorial rivalries. They are the ones who keep students at bay and wreak havoc in their ranks by befriending a small group of them and then stamping their forms on time while keeping others waiting. They implement all the petty schemes of the administrators, get people out of the proverbial hole, put people in the proverbial hole. They hold your future in their hands. In the form of marksheets, degrees, rubber ink stamps, affidavits, time tables. They own you. But you would never know it. Their faces look like some demon is sending them death threats everyday, like some calamity is about to befall them or they just got slapped. They are always wiping their brow with a handkerchief or driving solemnly down the road on their scooters. They inevitably have the limp handshake. The moment they see any figure of authority, they go into this infuriating obsequious mode. This particular gentleman was of a more sober variety and didn’t froth at the mouth at the sight of my father. I wasn’t exactly paying attention because seated on a stool at the back was Wasim. The basketball player. He got up obediently when he saw the man and my father. I recognized him instantly but it took me a few seconds to recall his name. He looked at me and then walked into another room past a glass door. Meanwhile the clerk told my father the dean was not in. That should have been the end of that. I kept standing in the corridor looking at this figure of my long forgotten past. He looked just the same. Lean, boyish. He saw me looking at him so he came out. I asked him if he remembered me. I had to remind him that I had a white basketball that I brought back from the United States. That seemed to do the trick. At least he pretended to remember. I asked him what he does.
“Non-teaching staff,” he said.
Meanwhile, my father and the clerk were staring at the teacher’s time table.
“You wait here,” said my father.
They then disappeared while I asked my friend whether he still played. It turned out he did and I said I wanted to play as well but he didn’t seem too excited by the idea. It was like we were back on court. He was being polite but he didn’t really care if I played. My father and the clerk returned and I heard my father say to him,
“I will ask my wife to call you.”
The clerk gave me his A+ poker face. A face he has practiced diligently through at least a decade of administrative diplomacy. I in return, gave him mine. We shook hands. Sure enough. As limp as dead fish.