It was like meeting a very old friend. But, it had only been 1 year and 3 months. Everything was familiar, yet alien. Minute changes here and there to throw me off balance. But, the essence still the same. The smells, the feel, the air and the surroundings, the coolness of the wind and heat of the sun, the bicycles, the uniforms, the gates that were kept closed, the walls making a dead end, the grounds and the lawns, the trees that I used to look up to with dreams in my eyes, they were all the same. Only the people were missing.
I visited my college after an year and 3 months with excitement fluttering in my chest and anticipation stretching my lips. I walked in with a swagger that is born of that place and immediately felt enclosed in its warmth. For a moment, I was back home. Then, the faces turned and gave a look of scrutiny. A stranger in their midst, walking in wearing ankle-pants and a slept-in t-shirt in contrast to their creased, cream-colored uniforms and smart maroon ties. I was once in their shoes, the very same brown oxford shoes. Not any longer. My swagger dropped and my heart felt exposed for the entire world to see its fibrillating anxiety. I was back, but maybe, I was not welcome.
Then, I realised that these new faces were just old faces in new light and I, too, had once belonged here and walked these roads like I owned them. I remembered what my college taught me, that to bow down to fear is to surrender and in army, we don’t surrender. I might not be in the army anymore, but I still had the cadet in me. I straightened my back and lifted my head and put the swagger back in my walk.
The faces that stared then understood that I’m an old hand, that I was once their comrade and their stares creased into smiles. At that moment, I owned the world and everything was once again the right way up.
I settled into the little guest room they gave me and prepared to enjoy my visit to this old friend. I wanted to walk from one end to the other and reassure myself that my misgivings at the gate can be left at the gate and my beloved place was still the same as it was.
I began to walk. I walked for a long time, past the tennis court where we cheered for a friend, past the squash court that I waited outside of for a boyfriend, past the computer club where I spent hours working on a 2-minute speech, past the library where we drank more coffee than was worth the pages we turned; I walked past the canteens where conversations went on forever, past the classrooms where I should have been, but wasn’t, past the parade ground where we practiced drama and shared realities and past the mess about which we complained regularly. I revisited the grounds where we cheered for our teams, the anatomy building that played the first role in disillusioning us about our career choice and the medicine department that played the final role in building those illusions back up. I saw so much that day. I couldn’t keep the smile off my face nor the tears in my eyes. I rushed back to my room to have a good cry and analyse why it is that my happiness feels especially heavy that day.
As I dried my face and drew a breath, the answer came to me in a flash. I might have straightened my back and lifted my head and put the swagger back in my walk, but, the shard of loneliness embedded in my heart in that first moment, it hadn’t shaken itself loose yet. My college is beautiful and yet, it was not just the trees and the lawns and the smooth-paved roads that made it so, it was the people that I shared them with. And like I said, in my first few lines, so many things were the same. Just the people were missing.
A knock came on the door and a bunch of juniors walked in with a smile and a laugh. We caught up on our lives and bitched about the new rules at college. A warm camaraderie born out of a few shared experiences and a sense of duty- I was thankful for it, all the same. Two days I spent reliving my college days, not by myself, but through the talks and teases and warm friendship evident among my junior friends. I saw myself and my friends in them and felt for a few minutes that things were right back to where they started. Two days later, I packed my bags and said my goodbyes; it was time to take that train back to reality.
As I walked out of the guest room and into the garden, trailing my suitcase behind me, I heard a dull thunk. It was a tiny mango from the tree in the garden, fallen in my path. For a moment, I stopped and considered picking it up. Then, I realized that the college which was once mine and my people’s- its time was up and had been up for some time. Once upon a time I would have picked up that fruit without any hesitation, but, now, I have to move on. So, I left the fruit for those who own that world now and like it had let go of me 1 year and 3 months ago, today, 1 year and 3 months later, I let go of the college.
Picture Credit: Akshay Kothari