Revisiting past ghosts

I completed my engineering in Gwalior but attended the first year at Indore’s SGSITS. This was 2001, the first time that I had stepped outside home. I used to stay in an apartment with two other first-year students. All of us, as unwritten rules demanded, wore to college white shirts whose third button was blue. This was so the seniors could spot us and do with us what they liked.

I stayed not far from the college, so used a bicycle to and fro. One day, when I was returning home, a group of seniors stopped me 200 m short of the apartment and ordered me to reach some place in half an hour. The way it was said left no possibility of discussion. I went home, quickly changed and started on what would become a deeply scarring experience.

The apartment where I was called was located on the seventh floor of a building in a residential area. When I rang the bell, a gaggle of boys –clearly tipsy–opened the door. There, in front of me, was a first-year student, in complete undress. My heart began pounding rapidly, and for a split second, I wanted to dash for the door and escape. But that would have only exacerbated matters.

The first thing I was asked was the full form of SGSITS. When I answered, I was slapped really hard–twice–on the face. “Be louder,” said one of the boys. I did as told. Two more slaps. “Not so loud!”

Then, weirdly, I was asked the names of national newsmagazines. One of the seniors said, “Who is the editor of ‘India Today’?” “Aroon Purie,” I said. Another slap. “It’s Prabhu Chawla, you dumbass.”

I was now asked to take off my shirt. I must have looked like I had seen a ghost, because one of them said, “Don’t worry, we won’t do anything.” It was so vague it was scary. I looked at the other first-year student. He was beyond the stage of reacting. He just looked at me–at us–with dead eyes and an expressionless face.

I took off my shirt. My hands were trembling and I felt sick to the stomach. One of the guys offered me a bottle that very clearly contained some form of liquor. Stupidly, I refused. “Don’t be so uptight,” this guy said, and placed the bottle at my lips, making me take a couple of swigs. I could not believe this was happening to me. I, this person who was happy in his room cocooned with a few books, was at the centre of a ragging party that was going from bad to worse.

“Come on, relax. Tell us how many times a day you do it.” I could sense this was turning towards some murky sexual territory, so I kept quiet. One tight slap. “Didn’t you hear him?” another said. I mouthed something–indecipherable even to me. Another slap. All of them started laughing. What followed was a barrage of expletives in Hindi, which I was made to repeat. There were some other questions along the way which I will refrain from mentioning.

I couldn’t keep track of the time. My mind was simultaneously racing and in a deep slumber, like all this was happening to some other notion of me–an idea, not a person. In the middle of enacting lewd gestures, getting slapped, and repeating Hindi terms for all manner of sexual positions, I could sense watching myself from a distance–a character in a play that was going horribly off-script.

After what must have been an hour-and-a-half, one of them took me to a roadside stall and bought me a samosa. Seeing I was badly shaken up, he said, “Hey, it’s just to break the ice. How else would you guys open up?” His remark was so meaningless, I had half a mind to smash his face. But I was beyond the point of caring. I just nodded, and he then dropped me home on his bike.

This incident defined the remainder of my stay in Indore. I turned completely quiet, walking in college with my head bowed. Once or twice, I saw the other first-year student who was present at the seniors’ that day. We nodded to each other, but the shame and pointlessness of that evening precluded the possibility of anything else. We were brothers-in-arms, in a way, having shared an intense, private experience. If only it had been pleasant! Needless to say, I avoided like a plague the seniors from that evening. Some ice breaking!

Still unable to get back to normal six months into that incident, I sought a transfer to the engineering college at Gwalior. It was a time-consuming, bureaucratic process, and my father made several trips to Bhopal to get it done.

To this day, the weird repercussions of that day keep me company. I do not like getting into confrontations, even I am in the right. I would give up on a stressful situation even if it means also giving up on an opportunity of a lifetime. And I will not read news reports of ragging for fear they will be too close to the bone for comfort.

Even though I am gratefully alive, unlike one Mr. Aman Kuchroo.