Dr. Naakwaa of Gyan Shakti College couldn't help smiling to himself as he looked at the sea of eager, animated young faces. They all seemed to speak at once, or so it seemed to an old man like himself, their ceaseless chatter outdone only by sudden bursts of loud laughter. Even as they talked and laughed in their own groups, he saw their eyes covertly watching the others. An air of breathless expectancy hung about them, as if something momentous would sweep them up on a wing and fly them away to an unknown destination. Without exception, they all clamoured to go, even the ones standing at the periphery, hesitant and slightly lost though they appeared to be.
Without any warning a wild screech hit his eardrums. He turned, mildly reproachful, to look at the youngster responsible. Even as he tried coming to terms with the sheer pitch and volume of that awful, grating sound, a sudden whoop of joy caught his attention. Sheer relief written all over her face, a young lady dashed across the room, grinning and waving to someone she recognised in the roomful of strangers. The sudden flurry of action startled those nearby. Whatever they were doing suspended mid stream, they turned to watch the five meter dash and a very joyous reunion. Sweeping somebody completely off her feet, the young woman refused to put her down. Uncaring of curious onlookers, the two laughed, one a little helplessly, suspended as she was in mid air, and the other, in blissful abandonment. Suddenly noticing Dr. Naakwa in the doorway, they stilled. And following the direction of their eyes, so did everyone else.
This was the new batch of ‘99. They were the brightest in Mumbai, the crème de la crème. Dr. Naakwaa had every reason to feel satisfied. Like every other college affiliated to the University of Mumbai - good or bad, near or far – the college had to turn away more students than they enrolled each year. There just weren't enough seats. Gyan Shakti’s reputation ensured they had the pick of the herd. Their seats were blocked for the toppers, those who earned maximum marks in school …unless they were blocked for the progeny of families with connexions like the erstwhile politicians of Mumbai, their minions, doctors, judges, actors, producers and of course, the underworld.
The college was on the outskirts of Mumbai. Started in the early sixties by a philanthropist who named it Gyan Shakti – Gyan for knowledge and Shakti for strength - it boasted wide open spaces, plenty of resources and the very best faculty Mumbai could provide. The fees were hefty but parents, many of them middle-income, paid up happily. It was their sincere belief that an education was the only inheritance they could give their children. An education at Gyan Shakti was even better. The ones who gained admission through the clout of their parents' influence or money eventually passed too, knowing it gave them an advantage simply to say they'd studied at GS.
That reputation could have suffered a minor setback today. When Dr. Naakwa had reached the college early that morning Jayaram was in a flap. The list of new students and their respective classrooms had gone missing. It had simply disappeared. As they hunted around for the precious printout, he wondered what good it was to anyone except themselves. This had to be someone’s utterly juvenile sense of humour, unless whoever did this was trying to get at the clerk. It was too much of a co-incidence that even the backup from the front office had disappeared. Admittedly, Jayaram was insufferable with the students and deserved everything they gave back. But he wished they wouldn’t play their pranks at the expense of the college. Well, there was only one thing to do. Dr. Naakwaa marched through the corridors that were as yet quite deserted, to the computer room. Then, to add to his woes, the electricity chose that very moment to black them out as it did from time to time. He cursed his luck. How was he to get a copy of the list? It could take the Electricity Board minutes, or even hours, to locate and repair the fault.
A hundred and fifty gleaming new machines, 128 MB of RAM, 1 GB of hard disk, Windows ‘98 – the latest oper-ating system, 17” monitors, internet connection for the faculty.... All this technology brought to its knees in one fell stroke by the MSEB, (the Maharashtra State Electricity Board), he fumed, aware with a feeling of total helplessness that there was nothing he could do. Well, I had better do something pretty damn quick, he thought with a mounting sense of panic. I know, he decided in desperation, we’ll use the originals. No, he shook his head, dismissing the idea almost immediately. Jayaram wouldn’t thank me for having to sift through six hundred handwritten forms. At least they are in alpha order, he argued as nothing else came to mind. I must convince Bhathena, Reddy and other members of the Board of Trustees to get us a generator of our own, he thought crossly, getting set to hurry back to his office for the originals when with a flicker the lights came on.
Jai-Sri-Ram, the heartfelt words of thanks burst from him. Jai-ya-ram, you are in luck, he thought, feeling quite chipper on the one hand and aware with slight self-disgust on the other, that he allowed his mood to be dictated to by the vagaries of the MSEB, Rushing to get his precious printout, he prayed there wouldn’t be yet another blackout. He knew from experience a second, slightly longer one might soon follow. Within no time, feeling decidedly upbeat, he hurried with as much dignity as possible to hand over the new list to Jayaram waiting impatiently at the entrance.
On his way back, he saw that the corridors weren’t quite so deserted anymore. An ever increasing trickle of students had begun to fill them. Much relieved to have averted that slight calamity, he was more receptive to the ‘good mornings’ and ‘hello sirs’ that came his way. He headed for the stairs, anticipating the pleasure of meeting up with some of the other faculty who ritually gathered in old Billimoria’s room at the beginning of each term.