I was all of nineteen in 1967 when I boarded the train to Jabalpur to report for my first job. The only border of Kerala I had seen till then being the Arabian Sea, my heart was beating rather fast at the thought of having to travel by three trains and cross several states to reach my destination which had an alien culture and a language foreign to me was spoken.
I could claim that I ‘knew’ Hindi, for I had passed the ‘Rashtrabhasha’ examination of the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha and, as the citation in my degree certificate went, ‘having been placed in the I Class in Part II – Second Language – Hindi of the Bachelor of Science Examination …’. But when face to face with someone who knew only Hindi, I was all at sea: at a total loss of words. How would I survive?
The question of survival of another kind haunted me even before I reached my destination. It was in mid-December, the peak of winter, that I was travelling. Coming from Kerala, I had used no woollen garment till then, had not known how severe winter could get and had not a shred of warm clothing to protect me. Vests were not very common those days and I did not have any. My only armour that would protect me from the elements was the shirt.
I had a reservation till Madras, and a telegram had been sent for a reservation from Madras to Itarsi Junction and from there to Jabalpur. On reaching Madras, I checked up at the Enquiries counter in the Railway Station, to be told, predictably, that the wire had not come. Which meant I had to travel in an unreserved compartment for about 36 hours to cover 1,400 kms.
I got down in the dead of night at Itarsi Junction. My experience in Madras had taught me that it would be foolish even to hope for reserved accommodation for the onward journey to Jabalpur. The train I had to catch was at 3 in the morning. Three hours in a chill night on the open platform with no more than a cotton shirt to shield the upper half of your body is not exactly a pleasing prospect. I wondered if I would survive that night, leave alone the ten months in Jabalpur, an unfamiliar town which had an alien culture and spoke a language different from mine.
I do not recall any details of my journey to Jabalpur. A day and two nights in the unreserved compartment had sapped me of all energy. Someone must have pushed the zombie that I was into the Howrah express.
It was thus that I reached Jabalpur on a Sunday morning around 8 O’clock. I hopped on to a rickshaw which dropped me at the main gate of the campus. It was a sprawling campus. I walked towards the main building which as about fifty meters inside. All my worldly possessions were in the navy blue plastic hanging on my left shoulder.
As I neared the building, a well-built man emerged. Suited and booted, as they say. He must be, I surmised, Mr P S Mathur, the Director of the Centre to whom I was supposed to report. Whether or why an officer of the rank of a Director should be there in the porch at 8 on a Sunday morning to receive a newly recruited trainee did not cross my mind then.
I approached him tentatively and introduced myself.
‘Andar aao,’ he ordered and I followed.
As we climbed the steps, he asked me, ‘Kaunsi batch?’
I told him.
‘Kahaan se aaye ho?’
‘Kerala se.’ (That was my debut in conversational Hindi.)
‘Keral bahut door hai na?’
He opened the register lying on the table and asked me, ‘Kya naam bataaya?’
I furnished the information.
As he scanned the list of names, I spotted my name in the log and pointed towards it.
‘Block 2. Kamra No 237. Teesri manzil par.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
I proceeded to Block 2. I trudged up to the third floor (No lift, you see) to find that all rooms had numbers beginning in 3. I found my room on the second floor.
Lesson Number 1: Teesri manzil in Hindi = Second floor in English.
After bath and breakfast, I slept. I woke up, had lunch and slept. Had a sleep deficit to correct. I had an early dinner and slept again.
Being an early bird, I woke up before dawn. As it was very chill, it would take a brave man to have a bath so early. I stayed in bed, but could hear someone singing, ‘Yeh na thi hamari qismat ki wisaal-e-yaar hota, agar aur jeete rehte yahee intezaar hota!’
I was intrigued. Who could that be? Getting up, I opened the door and peeped out . Nobody. The day was just breaking. I stepped out towards the source of the melody.
It was from the other wing of the block. I walked towards it. There he was! At the other end of the corridor, wielding the long stick at the end of which was the swab-cloth was the gentleman who had received me and directed me to my room.
Lesson Number 2: Everyone who wears a jacket is not a Director.