She was not a friend, nor a classmate, nor a social sibling –the veil under which some people fraternised in the college. We were graduating in the same year and we both had English Literature and she was in the other section further down the hallway.
Although the timings for the classes were the same and fixed, the teachers kept throwing us out of synch. Professors of literature were like rivers in flood, forever overflowing their topics and time. Once on the clouds, there was no knowing when they’d release their wards back to terra firma. It was often then that when we stepped out of our class the other chamber would be a vacuous hollow. Or its doors would be shut, its denizens still grappling with the agony of a Hamlet or a Prufrock.
We first met when Professor Raina merged his classes due to his upcoming trip to Europe. The first of those lectures began with a scramble for neighbours of choice which was soon followed by the rush to grab the last of seats. It was critical to collect every uttered syllable by the Delphi’s priest if one had to fare well in the finals -no one knew T. S. Eliot better than the tall, grizzled man.
I was sitting on the front bench to the right of the lectern with two more students whom I don’t remember. She came in late, stood briefly at the door, scanning the mass till her eyes stopped at us. Moving quickly towards our seat in even steps, she smiled at me, ‘Mind if I sit here, Nietzsche?’
There was a burst of guffaws. She was the ace marksman of the year.
I stood erect and bowed. ‘You’re welcome, Cleopatra!’
The cackling got louder. And the names stuck.
We ended up being a gang of a dozen irreverent students adept at holding quick kangaroo courts. She was the natural queen of the proceedings and I was the acknowledged cynic of the pack. A month long strike by the teaching staff loosened our shackles further. We chattered our heads out in the disused classrooms, loitered around the dry fountain and haunted the bustling, semi-dark canteen. Our daily gazette thundered ahead full steam as we dissected the high and the mighty of the college as mercilessly as we pillaged the hapless hoi polloi, day after day. Friends, foes and lovers; flirts, creeps and lechers; lecturers, professors and guest speakers: few could escape the noose of the hungry theatre. And all the time we were referred to as Cleo and Nietzsche. We had invented names for most others too, within and without the circle.
There were times though when we fell apart, like the one when we squabbled about Sonia. It was also the only time she had addressed me by my real name. We were scattered on the steps of the Faculty of Arts when Sonia walked past working her hips subtly. Her jeans clung to her from the waist down and she was wearing a black sleeveless top that said “Right Here”.
‘She needs to master her riches sooner than later.’ Cleo intoned even as Sonia was barely out of earshot.
‘Why tamper with nature?’ I countered. ‘The next day you’d want her to wear a hijab.’
Cleo’s face was a slideshow in purple. Nothing moved, no one spoke further for a few minutes.
Ruby, the real name of Cleo, came from a Muslim family and it was rumoured she was married at just sixteen and separated from her husband the next year. Some said her husband wanted her to move in veils even in the house and that is how the marriage had ended. Her mother ran a small boutique in Agra and her father lived somewhere in Delhi with a new, younger family, never bothered about his earlier life. Her mother dispatched her from the bitterness to a new city, to the freshness of studies. She was staying at the Girls’ Hostel.
‘Samir, I know how it feels to be incarcerated in hijab and I wouldn’t wish it on my enemies against their will.’ She said with a husk in her voice. ‘But don’t be shocked if you run into girls who find it liberating. Sonia would do better by not splattering her youth like a tree in storm.’
‘I am sorry, Ruby!’ I hastened to apologise. ‘I am sure you are right about all that.’
The teachers’ strike ended soon after that and Professor Raina had already left for Vienna. We didn’t meet for a long time till one afternoon when I chanced upon her coming down the stairs of British Council Library in company of Hemant Singh. I froze and my heart lurched for a moment. Hemant, the acknowledged wolf who didn’t even pretend to hide his smoking hormones, was my neighbour at the hostel. Hemant, who had his guts and gray cells all in his groin, was the stock supplier of ‘super stuff’ sleazy magazines to the whole community. He pretended to read ‘regular stuff’ too and had managed to borrow my copy of Gone with the Wind a year back. It was a hardbound MacMillan edition whose face I would never see again. Instead, he dumped on me a cheap paperback issue whose pages were yellowing already. ‘Sorry, mate! Lost the one you gave!’
She cheered up visibly at my sight and we stood together making small talk. Hemant was quick to pick the cue as we both ignored his questions and he slipped away quietly after sometime. When I told her about my plundered volume she clucked and muttered under her breath, ‘Filthy swine!’
We stayed together some more time but she seemed a bit listless with a forlorn look in her eyes. Suddenly, she made me jump with her question, ‘Tell me, Nietzsche, did Scarlett O’Hara love Rhett Butler?’
‘I am afraid not, Cleo!’ I said, racking up my thoughts on the mammoth work.
‘What about Ophelia?’ She asked next.
‘Yes, Ophelia! Did she love Hamlet?’
‘Some grasshopper, aren’t you!’ I thought of Hamlet with those gnawing glaciers upon his heart, it’s a wonder he was even breathing. And that poor girl Ophelia, ripped apart between her seething brother and the mad suitor.
‘What’s come over you, Ruby?’ I looked into her eyes.
‘Don’t worry! Girls come and go. Talking of Espresso!’ She flashed a huge smile at me, cocking her head to a side. I noticed she had her hair cropped shorter in crisscrossing layers that framed her heart-shaped face in a cute way. Before we could talk more, her roommate’s moped stopped by our side and they rode away.