When I registered for Mood Indigo, the cultural and technical festival of the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay (IIT-B), a month in advance, one of the student organisers sent me a 300-MB attachment that detailed - in videos that would make a marketing grad envious - the highlights of the upcoming event. One video, titled "Welcome to the future", comprised mind-bending snapshots of the work IITians had done in robotics.
When I finally met with the student during the fest, he looked haggard. As the head of the sponsorship committee, he had been singularly responsible for arranging the natty displays thronging the event as well as the generous food stalls. He had lost about 10 kg, he told me excitedly, over the past three months since preparation for the fest began in earnest. Yet, his energy levels were peaking. His state reminded me of the fest at my campus where organisers would be so buoyed by the event that the post-event lack of work would make them ill.
That would be the unfortunately named MANFEST (short for management festival). In my first year, as the only journalist of some standing - ha! ha! as the only journalist, period - on campus, I was asked to "cover" the crucial off-campus round of an event called "The Next CEO". We were hoarded into a bus that made its rickety way into a nearby village where top-ranking B-schoolers were asked to set up stalls and sell things. After the silky power point presentations and verbose manifestos, this round was what separated the sheep from the goats.
The participants did not do too badly, and my approving write-up found pride of place in the college magazine. I had other responsibilities, such as picking up from airport a little-known Swedish band who were going to perform on closing night. It was November, when North India is in the throes of winter. This being the Lucknow airport, the Swedes managed to lose their way and were rescued from the fog - thanks to the last-minute intervention of a security guard. What fun!
"Oh I so miss the campus," my batchmate wrote when I boasted to him of my presence at Mood Indigo. "I can't believe we used to criticise it back then. We used to foolishly complain about the mess food. I would give anything to have that food again. What a life it was. Late nights, Gossip and Bite, walks around Chanakya, the biting cold of December, the basketball court. I dream about it. It comes to me in intense clarity, and I wake up with a start. It's all there, man, it's still there."
Campus, my word. Complete, yet insular. While we lived there, it was possible to forget that time there - nurtured in solitude beyond city limits - would come to an end one day. A day when our purpose - to earn our degrees and step into the glittering world of corporate life - would be realised. It was like a drug, and we were collectively on it. Now that the period is over, some of us have reconciled ourselves to our new reality - only occasionally looking back with wistfulness. Others, like yours truly, miss the past with a vengeance.
Why does one miss college life so much? There is the freedom, especially attractive in a society where parental supervision continues into adulthood. There is the camaraderie, the back-slapping joy of communal life, devoid of cynicism and unique in that it combines delicious secrecy ("I am mad about her, dude!") with indulgent loyalty ("I will arrange everything, you just go tell her").
By the sixth and final trimester at B-schools, most students have been placed and there is little left to do - just a small exam for form's sake, which nobody pays much attention to. Outstation trips are organised, drunken soirees held, quick romances buried and deeper ones brought to fruition. It's a magical time sealed with the intense friendships of campus and the bitter-sweet anxiety of a world inexorably drawing to an end.
Once it is over, the convocation held, big volumes packed and despatched home, photographs taken, and familiar things sat on, touched and viewed one last time, we march into the brightness and craziness of the world beyond. Halting steps advance, seriously and with purpose, on the passage to adulthood - a journey that is both desirable and damningly prosaic. We find a good job, we marry (if lucky, our sweethearts), we start families. In short, we begin life. We then realise that college really was the last frontier where we could imagine a future that was not ribbon-wrapped; where, in spite of knowing how life would turn out, we were allowed a touch of joyous denial.