I remember the day I had stepped into the campus of Madurai Medical college. I was on cloud nine for two major reasons. One for escaping the patriarchal clutches albeit for a few years and two, following my career dream. As expected, I was all alone. I had arrived the earlier day to settle my guarded self into the girl’s hostel which was very close to the campus. We were barely few meters away from the government hospital which was attached to the medical college. I looked forward to my clinical placement and ward rounds and with starts in my eyes I had walked into the campus. My roommate was yet to arrive and I hadn’t made any friends as of now. Now…that was a problem with me always wanting to play it safe. I rarely made friends. I couldn’t get myself to trust anyone. Thatha had always ingrained into us that we were the superior clan of blue blooded Iyengar and while we could respect and be courteous to the other lesser mortals, we were no way allowed to fraternize with the lot. What the patriarch didn’t know was the times had changed and caste discrimination often ticked off people especially those who were at the receiving end. How could I just ask anyone what caste they belonged to?
So here I was clutching the Lakshmi pendant as if it would help me sail through the life’s grind and cautiously looking around the huge campus. I was berating myself over and over again that I was away from home and I could be friends with whoever I chose to. Just then a group of guys walked over. It was a Monday morning and the campus was bustling with activity with students and staff running around to be on time and some in white coats rushing towards the hospital for their placement duties. I must have looked mortified to see the group, given the intimidation on their faces increasing as they neared. They were five of them and definitely seniors. I have always been awkward around boys… we had the unwritten rule at home which forbade us from even looking at them. Though I attended a co-education school, guys and many girls as well kept their distance. No one wanted to get embroiled in any unwanted controversy with Vishnu Narayan Iyengar’s granddaughter. My entire schooling till the 12th grade made me long for friendship and also made me hate the set of commandments back home. I was the eternal loner…
The boys came closer now and stood forming an arc around me cutting off the visuals to the campus. I was a plain jane as far as looks were concerned and the literal black sheep in the family where I was slightly tanned compared to everyone else at home. I had an unruly curly mane which refused to abide by the boundaries set by my poor hair clip and escaped its confines. Thatha hated it at home especially on the days I had washed my long tresses and my mom had to struggle to keep me away from his line of vision. It was a sin to cut the hair short but I did it just before I left home.
But it appeared my dare devil stunt at the salon was of no use as my mop refused to adhere to my commands. Even now as the boys chuckled my untamed locks flew all over. I knew I was going to get ragged. The guys began to ask me funny questions, all about why I wanted to be a doctor and why I had come to Madurai in spite of securing admission in the local college closer home and then why was I early to college and finally why was my hair so curly…? I mean… really…? One even pointed to my death grip around my locket, and asked if I was about to strangle myself. Anyone else with an ounce of normalcy would have probably had appropriate answers to their plethora of interrogations, but I couldn’t utter a word. I was severely pragmatically challenged at that moment. I didn’t know what got over me, I just turned around and took flight. I heard the sneering and laughter behind me which soon faded and I ran till I reached the hostel and locked myself in. Fortunately, our classes didn’t actually commence till a couple of days later and I was safe… for now.
Later that afternoon my roommate arrived. Ananya ‘Annie’ Ravindran was my boisterously flamboyant oxymoron. Oh man… she was a looker with a dazzling smile that could brighten up the entire room. I could actually see the cobalt aura radiating from her exuberance as she waltzed in and out of the room getting her stuff which filled her storage area and spilled over to mine. But that wasn’t a problem since I had miniscule luggage in comparison. She was from Chennai and I thought she would be a snob but by the end of the day she turned out to be an awesome girl. I smiled for the first time in days!
The next morning Annie and I got back to the campus and though the morning was uneventful as we explored, in the afternoon we were caught by a group of seniors. But this time Annie handled them like a pro and I couldn’t help but smile as my anxiety levels finally plummeted. By the end of the day Annie and I had become close friends. I rarely spoke about my home but that night as we lay in our room watching the creaky ceiling fan cast dancing shadows around it, I told Annie about my childhood and growing up years. She told me about her’s as well. Her father was originally from Madurai and was currently working in a Multi-National organization in Chennai. She didn’t have a mother and was brought up by a nanny who had stayed with them ever since her mom had passed at childbirth. An only daughter she was the apple of her father’s eye and he had only agreed to her studying away from home was because this was Madurai.
Our classes commenced and soon in the upcoming month I got engrossed in college studies and ward rounds as observers and all remaining time was spent in either the library or with my classmates. I was a part of a little gang of girls and Annie was our leader and the official BBC as we called her. She knew everything around the campus. I loved it here and felt like a free bird. The only drawback was Annie began to drift away after a couple of weeks… no, don’t get me wrong. She was still my close friend but she now had a boyfriend, Rishabh. He was a senior and she spent a lot more time with him…
It was time for the fresher’s party and I was apprehensive once again. It was with great difficulty that I had broken out of my shell and now Annie insisted I wear her gown. I could only visualize my thatha getting a heart attack followed by my appa (father) and chittapas (uncles). But then they weren’t here, were they? So, I strutted to the party in Annie’s gown which was way too long in spite of me wearing her heels. She had gone ahead with her guy and the rest of our gang stayed in a different wing and so they had gone ahead and as always, I was alone. Was it my ceaseless fate…I didn’t know…
As I reached the Vishveshwariya hall in the campus where the party was being held, I almost got a panic attack at the prospect of running into seniors without Annie or the gang by my side. I turned around to run away and just then my clumsy self, tripped and I found myself falling. But right then a pair of strong hands held me and I was horrified. I would have preferred to fall… but this was way too embarrassing. My eyelids were tightly sealed…I was the proverbial cat who thought no one watched her as she drank milk shutting her eyes.
The hands steadied me. “…Hey… pretty girl… you can open those lids…” A deep baritone full of humor spoke softly.
I don’t know how or why but something stirred within me and I slowly opened my apprehensive eyes to look into the face of the most handsome guy I had ever laid my eyes on. Before I could get my bearings together, he grinned and widened his eyes, raising his eyebrows. What the…? He had attached something on his perfect teeth and my mortified self soon broke into a laugh. My anxiety was all gone as he straightened to his six feet stature as against my 5’3” and held up his hand. I only stared at his handsome poise and placed mine in his steadying myself …as we walked towards the auditorium. I actually felt I was participating in a Halloween party and was the proverbial witch…
As we walked, he asked me. “…What’s your name pretty girl…?”
I had plain looks and I was always sans make-up… one could mistake me for the village ghost too given my loose clothes and reckless hair. I had been christened umpteen times back in the village given my looks but no one had ever called me pretty before. I didn’t know what were those bubbles of excitement suddenly simmering in my naïve heart. “…hi… I am…Sou…Sou…Soumya…” I stuttered turning beet red.
He stopped and pretended to think, tapping a slender index finger on his cheek his dimple further getting enhanced as he smiled. “…Sou -Sou-Soumya is a bit too taxing… so now on its Soumzie…” I looked on as he chuckled. “…And here is ‘happiness’ at your service…” He said wiggling his eyebrows. I couldn’t help and burst out laughing and looked at him with a questioning expression. He shook his head and said, “…Its Anand…” He held my hand again and I enjoyed his warmth as we walked towards the auditorium. I said a silent prayer to lord Vishnu… “Shantakaram Bhujagashayanam….. ,,……. Sarva lokaika natham…” I prayed to get rid of my fear.
Something told me this guy was to play a significant role in my life here in the upcoming years… I was brimming with anticipation of this new feeling within me but at the same time I was scared… thatha’s annoyed face all draped up in his traditional attire, flashed before my eyes. Would he approve of my friendship with this enigma here? …No… definitely not… the old me wouldn’t either.
Nonetheless I was away from home and these four years were mine… just mine…
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