by Chhanda Bewtra
(Omaha. NE. USA)
All of us, who have lived a certain amount of life, have at least a few things to regret. Some things we wish we had done or not done, some sentences we wish we had said or left unsaid, some persons we did not say ‘sorry’ or ‘I love you’ to, before it was too late. For some of us, these might have been momentous, life altering chances that were missed. For the rest, these memories occasionally gnaw at us at the wee hours of a sleepless night and make us wonder ‘what if…’. This is such a story.
It was over 30 years ago. I was barely sixteen, just out of high school, admitted to the college for the first time. It was Delhi College, Pre Med class.
I was quite excited to be in a ‘co-ed’ class. Till then, I was educated in an all girl school, and being raised in a strict, old-fashioned conservative Brahmin way, and not having any male siblings, I was very unprepared to deal with the members of the opposite sex.
Truthfully, I was not alone in my immaturity. There were about a dozen girls in our class who were equally unexposed (pun intended) to men. We, as expected, hung out in groups, giggled and whispered a lot whenever confronted with the ‘boys’. We were decidedly very silly, even by the standard of those days. There were a few girls with more mature attitude who did not hesitate to mix with the boys. But we condemned them to be too forward and whispered about the dire consequences they would suffer if hey did not mend their ways.
Delhi College, in the sixties, was the only college outside the University campus. Unfortunately, it was situated in the old, historic but dilapidated part of the town, right next to Delhi Gate, one of the five main entrances to the capital under the Mogul rule. Outside the college gate, the area was rundown with narrow lanes, car repair shops, truck stands and was an after hour hangout for drunks and hooligans. We all made sure not to linger in the neighborhood after dark.
Delhi College was a historic building with an adjacent beautiful little mosque. It was originally a Muslim madrasa and was quite famous in Emperor Bahadur Shah’s time. In fact, the famous Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib had once applied there for a teaching job. In the sixties, the mosque was still in use. There were also residential quarters for a few foreign students to stay. They came from Africa, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Malaysia, and Mauritius etc. Of course, compared to the local students, they were wealthier, and more westernized. In our eyes, they appeared smarter, richer and more worldly wise.
These guys were the main source of our speculations and gossips. Especially one tall guy from Kenya (I forget his name) who was in our class. The ringleader of their gang was a guy from Mauritius, who, as the rumors went, was a real ‘ladies man’ and any self-respecting girl would be wise to stay out of his way. He had light brown skin and hair and a pair of most disconcerting bright blue eyes. Decidedly he was the result of some quirky pairing of Asian and Caucasian genes. Ramlagan was his name. Apparently names like Ramlagan, Ramsharan etc. are quite common in the island. Of course we found all this out because while we were avoiding them, we were also intensely curious about them. I am sure they were just harmless young kids, alone in a foreign country and perhaps quite amused by our silly behavior.
That was the year I had gotten interested in photography. I had a small black and white box camera. There was a Camera Club in the college and access to a darkroom. I would spend there many happy hours playing with films and chemicals. Once in the dark room, I would lose all tracks of time, literally forgetting hunger and thirst, happily engrossed in my work.
That night too, I was working alone in the darkroom. It was a gloomy Saturday in December and there was hardly anybody in the college except the resident students. As usual, I had lost all sense of time and when I finally emerged from my darkroom, it was quite dark outside. The bus stop was just across the college main gate and I had to catch # 13 and get home straight. I was not too worried except wondering about the reception I would get from my parents for being late. As I was crossing the lawn to the gate, I saw Ramlagan emerge from one of the buildings and also approach the gate diagonally from me. I was a bit apprehensive of being caught alone with this guy at night, those horror stories about him told by my friends flashed through my mind. I looked around, but there was no one else around. I told myself that once I got out in the crowd I would be safe. I hurried to the gate.
Alas, outside the college gate I landed from frying pan to fire. It was dark and an entirely alien crowd had occupied the area around the gate and the bus stop. People were openly drinking, singing, cursing, laughing, preparing for the night, lighting fires and drinking a lot to keep warm. I did not see a single woman and no one was waiting at the stop. I knew I was in trouble. I fervently hoped the bus would come soon. But I knew Delhi buses were notoriously undependable (DTU for ‘Delhi Transport Undertaking’ was routinely corrupted to ‘Don’t Trust Us’). I had just enough money for a bus fare, so taking a cab was out. We didn’t have phone in our house, so calling home for a ride or just to inform being late was out too. There was not a single familiar face to seek help from. Except Ramlagan. He had casually sauntered across the street, paused to light a cigarette and whistling a tune he slowly meandered to the bus stop where I was waiting. There was no question of seeking his help. I was sure of his intention now. And I was seriously afraid, of him and the drunks around me. Many of them were openly ogling me, whistling, singing some suggestive Hindi filmi songs and raising laughters from their friends. All I could do was pray for the bus to arrive, before they got any bolder.
Ramlagan stood at the opposite end of the bus stop, smoking and humming to himself, leaning on the wall, casually eyeing me, as if very amused at my plight, or so I thought. I stood as far away from him as possible, averting my face, not giving him the slightest encouragement to approach or strike up a conversation. He too did not try to approach me. It was an interminable fifteen minutes or so, during which I was literally sweating bullets even in the December cold. The bus came at last, thank God, and it was my beloved # 13. I was relieved to see a few men and women in the bus. As I was going to get in, a fresh new worry assaulted me. What if Ramlagan followed me in the bus? Perhaps he was waiting for just such an opportunity to find out where I lived. I could do nothing to stop him. And I knew, if he followed me home, I would be the one to get in trouble with my parents. They would be sure I somehow encouraged him to follow me. I seriously thought of letting the bus go and take a different route, I didn’t have enough money, and didn’t know where else to go.
All these thoughts were rushing through my head as I got in the bus. With great trepidation, I turned to look back to see if he got in or not. To my intense surprise, he made no such attempt. As the bus started to move, I saw him casually grind the cigarette under his shoe, push himself off the wall he was leaning on and equally casually saunter back to the college gate!
That is when it hit me, like a three-ton semi. Suddenly I realized how wrong I was about him. I saw clearly that he had followed me to the bus stop only to keep an eye for my safety till I got the bus. He perhaps had known or saw me working late and was worried about my safety. I squirmed in remorse. Oh, how I wish I could stop the bus, go back, apologize and thank him.
Next day, in the college, I tried to find Ramlagan, but couldn’t. I was too embarrassed to tell my friends, as I knew they would tease me mercilessly. I tried practicing the apology speech in my mind. I braced myself for some sarcastic remarks I was sure I deserved. But I couldn’t find him anywhere. Every hour it was getting a bit harder to apologize. At last I couldn’t wait any longer and risking my friends derisions I went to the Kenyan guy and asked about Ramlagan. He looked at me in surprise, wondering why I was interested, but decided to tell me that he had to return home due to some family emergency.
It was some weeks later I saw him again. And there was no question of apologizing that late without appearing utterly stupid. So I hesitated again and lost that opportunity. He too never made any attempt to approach me. Soon our year was over. We got busy with finals and then scattered in all four winds/. I never got to return to Delhi College or see Ramlagan again. To this day I have no idea where he ended up.
A few years ago, I was on a volunteer mission in Madagascar and I thought of Ramlagan again. Mauritius is just a hundred miles from Madagascar as the crow flies. For one insane moment I actually thought of visiting the island and search him out. But then I realized that I did not even know his first name or the town he came from. The island probably had hundreds of Ramlagans in every city block, all over. I had no clue even to make a phone call.
But, if I could, I would apologize for my unfounded fears and prejudices. I would apologize for all the silliness of my friends, and I would thank him for saving me from some sure disaster. I would say all this without any fear of appearing silly or stupid. I would do it in a heartbeat.