In The West Country

This Is The 12th Episode Of Season Two Of ‘Spots Of Time’

The bus left Cuttack’s Badambadi around 9 at night and got to Sambalpur in the small hours of the morning. Dawn was yet to break. The sky over Sambalpur was dark, with no hint of orange light streaking through the eastern horizon. Shastras call it the brahmamuhurta, the moment just before first light, a moment when one’s senses are most heightened, are, therefore, well turned for noble thoughts.

There was perhaps no arrival more auspicious for Subrat. He was headed to Sambalpur for his M.A. in English. Keeping him company was a lady from Baripada, a couple of years older than him. She was going for her Diploma in Library Science so she would acquire the academic credentials for her job as an Assistant Librarian at Indira Gandhi Women’s College (now Government Women’s College) in Baripada. He called her Rini Apa. The journey was not over yet. Sambalpur University, their final destination, was another twenty one kilometres away.

Their journeying together sitting next to each other in the bus was nothing if not fortuitous and served as an illustration of the famous Shakespearean line: adversity acquaints us with strange bedfellows. At least from Rina Apa’s point of view. They would not have made a team in the first place had it not been for the fact that they were going to Sambalpur. The place was not only remote and far off; it was supposedly a hostile place which harboured feelings of intense resentment against those from Cuttack. On the ground, of course, anyone who couldn’t speak Sambalpuri was supposedly an outsider. Rina Apa and Subrat were both from Mayurbhanj, in the north of Odisha, but that would likely not count for much in this language-fuelled regionalism in the heart of western Odisha.

Rina Apa’s father must have taken a calculated risk in allowing his daughter to travel with a stranger. He had come to the bus stand in Badambadi to see his daughter off. In the old man’s eyes was an unstated appeal for decent behaviour from Subrat. Rina Apa was coy and demure. She seemed to have submitted to the situation. Subrat promised to himself that he would be good. Thank God, it was a journey free of incident or accident no matter how many riots his imagination ran as the bus rolled relentlessly all through the night. And mercifully the night, that dangerous breeder of reptiles of the mind, was over. Now their first day in the foreign land was dawning.

But how would they travel the remaining distance? The local buses would start plying soon. At the moment these buses were lined up on one side of the main road that stretched between Laxmi Talkies and the block of shops right in front of the bus stand. He had not seen so many buses. There were mini buses and buses half the size of the minis, which made them look like an elephant about to run amok. Abetting the impression were the cleaners who rent the air with deafening shouts of “Burla – Burla – Burla – Jyoti Vihar – Burla.” Passengers were in a mad stampede to get in the perilous looking door. Subrat didn’t want Rina Apa to get the jolt of her life on her very first day in a new place.

While Subrat stood by the roadside, casting about for a way, a couple of co-passengers from the night before sauntered towards him. They were students of the Engineering College in Burla.

“Let’s take a taxi to avoid the rush. We will share out the expenses.”

The idea clicked. Soon an antediluvian white ambassador car was racing towards Burla. The day was breaking, only to reveal an overcast sky, as was typical of August.

The taxi was going over the Mahanadi Bridge. The mighty dam was visible to the right, the name HIRAKUD prominently engraved on the outward facing wall of the dam. There were spaces between the letters so that the name spanned the entire length of the dam, adding to the grandeur of the structure.

The taxi halted at a point where the road forked.  The engineering students got off there, leaving the two of them to continue the ride. As the taxi was passing over the Power Channel Bridge, Subrat pointed to the distant horizon on the right.

“Rina Apa, that’s your Jyoti Vihar over there, as the crow flies.”

She glanced in that direction. Some structures and scaffoldings struggled to peep out from the surrounding grey and watery wilderness, suggesting the barest possible outline of a human civilization. She quickly looked away. Probably she recoiled in horror at the first sight of her future exile, much as he had done a week or so before when he came here to get himself admitted.

The taxi pulled in at C-5, Subrat’s uncle’s quarters in Jyoti Vihar. Rina Apa was to stay there for a day or two before moving to the Ladies Hostel. The day was the 15th of August. The morning’s festivity being over, the University wore a deserted look in the afternoon. It looked desolate too. Subrat decided to check out the department of English where classes of MA first years will be held tomorrow. The department was at the back end of Humanities Block and occupied two floors of the back wing. On the notice board on the ground floor was pasted the list of twenty four first years who would be in class tomorrow. He noted a name with interest: Swarnima Mohapatra. It was the same surname.

16th of August 1977. 10 O’clock in the morning. They were in class, anxiously waiting for their initiation into the brave new world of postgraduate studies in English in the hands of the famous Prof. P.K. Pati. But in came M. S. Pati instead, Reader in English, and no less formidable, as it turned out, for being the first ever to have got a first class in English honours in the whole of Odisha. He began, “Literary studies are a vast ocean and can only be navigated by one with an unquenchable appetite for books. If don’t have one, you’ll be lost in a vast sea of ignorance.” He gave the word ‘vast’ a slightly, but markedly, nasalized twang.

Subrat was all ears. Suddenly Sambalpur seemed magical, its reputation as a place of danger and exile seeming not to matter in the face of the possessors of such verbal eloquence.

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