Everyone in college referred to him as ‘the mad Bawa’. And truth be told, R did act a little crazy. A permanent fixture on the last bench – when he did attend, that is – he’d compose songs with banal lyrics, and suddenly start singing them in class, startling professors and classmates alike. His antics had everyone in splits and many a boring lecture was livened by a teacher’s attempts to rebuke him. But R’s heart was in the right place, even if his head wasn’t. And he and I became unlikely but thick pals.
One day, after drifting for several years, R announced that he was going to appear for the IAS exams. Understandably, this pronouncement was received with rapidly lowered jaws, hoots of disbelief and even hysterical laughter. The guy who barely scraped through college was going to take on the toughest exams in the country. He really had to be crazy!
We met a couple of weeks later outside the public library where he spent a good part of his day, arriving with the first rays of the sun and leaving only when the staff forcibly ejected him. The gold-rimmed glasses gave further testimony of his newfound zeal.
“God, I stink,” were his first words to me. “Here see…” he thrust his armpit into my face. I turned my face away and laughed. Same old R, I thought.
But as the evening unfolded, I was forced to rearrange my views about him. His insights on racism, politics and Indian history astounded me.
“Jews have been persecuted by the Romans, Nazis and even Shakespeare,” he thundered. “Ever noticed how he constantly refers to ‘Shylock, the Jew’?” He didn’t just read 5 newspapers every day, from cover to cover, he even annotated them, adding his own insights. He dashed off fiery letters to editors for factual inconsistencies, using words like circumlocution and obloquy. Could this be the same R who struggled to pronounce ‘industrialisation’ during a college seminar, I wondered? Important dates, famous speeches – he was quoting them verbatim!
“You know I’ve always liked learning”, he said and when I snorted in disbelief, he hurriedly continued, “It’s just that I hated cramming. Now that I understand what I’m studying and can write stuff in my own words, it’s actually fun to study.”
“Fun, yeah!” I nodded stupidly.
In fact, I did a lot of nodding that evening. Firstly, because it took me a while to adjust to this new avatar. And secondly, because on seeing my incredulity turn to admiration, he just didn’t want to stop.
“One of my dreams now,” he admitted, “is to lecture at college.”“Maybe I could even counsel the kids, giving them my own example.” We both burst out laughing.
It was a crestfallen R who called me a few days later to tell me that he hadn’t cleared the preliminary exams. As I sympathised with him, he brightened up and said, “Now I’m more confident than ever of passing the next attempt.” And I believed he would. After all, I had seen miracles happen…
P.S I'd written this some time ago. Since then R had a change of heart and got into business, a very successful one. However it was that one evening which changed my perception of him as a class jester forever.