Sharon Alice Christy, P.
It was past ten. I slowed down as I drew near the gates of the college. How was I going to explain this? I fumbled around in the car-seat to see if I still had my ID card with me. Thankfully, it was there. If the fellow asked, I could show him my card but I wasn’t sure if even that was sufficient. It was unprecedented for a faculty to enter the college after hours, especially this late at night. I wouldn’t have come if not for those miserable papers.
It was the 23rd of December. College had just closed and would only reopen on the 3rd of January. That day, I had been very busy. I had had a lot of administrative work in addition to the usual teaching work. By the time work got over, it was around 6:45 and I was the last to leave. I had tried to finish everything on the very day as I had plans for the holidays. All that remained was the correction of two bundles of exam papers. Hurriedly collecting my materials and papers that had to be corrected, I had left the college or so I had thought.
Once back home, I had been awash with relief. I remembered drinking Amma’s steaming hot mug of Cardamom Chai and looking at the gentle drizzle through the open window of my room. I must have fallen asleep and when I finally awoke at 9, I remembered to check if I had brought everything home. Opening the car door, I realized that I had left my papers in the college. After carefully enveloping them in brown paper and piling them one on top of the other in a jute bag, I had dutifully left it in the department, on my desk. In a flurry of panic, I began muttering and cursing under my breath, alarming my folks. The next day, the entire family had booked a flight to Chennai to visit some friends and go shopping so there was no chance that I could retrieve it from the college. I was not keen on missing the flight either. With a mad glint in my eyes, I had announced to Amma that I had to go to college.
Without staying for explanations, I had immediately thrown on a Kurti and Pajama in lieu of the shorts and tees I had been wearing and grabbing my handbag and car key, had immediately rushed outside and started the car. I had to get those papers now. If I didn’t, I could only come back on the 31st, and even if I was allowed into the college two days before college was supposed to begin, that did not give me enough time to correct 80 odd papers. Thankfully I had finished the majority of my paper correction before college closed. But still, two days would leave me no time for the task. With my brain in overdrive, I started the car and wound my way through the still busy but glistening, rain-drenched streets of Madurai to retrieve my papers.
The subdued flecks of gold, red and white of the nightly traffic and gentle breeze that wafted in through the open windows had paced my thoughts and calmed me down. My only concern was what I would say to the watchman, the wizened old man perched in front of the college pretending to be some savage bird of prey. I had been a student in the same college where I worked so I instinctively hated the poor chap. It did not get better when I started working there either. He continuously mistook me for a student and had his fun halting me when I left late or asking to see my ID card, whether deliberately or not, I could not tell. It was not that he could deny me entrance. He would just make a big fuss about it and probably ring up the Principal to ask for permission. It did not help that she lived on campus. She would probably admit me but it would be embarrassing. My colleagues might get to know this too if this was to come up at one of the ridiculously pointless staff-meetings we had, as it might well. So, I needed to get past the chap without his knowledge. Luckily, I knew the way
Now, that I was there, a little way off from the college, a spark of mischief got into me. There was a streak of the student left and I still had my old bag of tricks from my former days.
During our student days, whenever we wanted to skip classes or go outside during class-hours, we managed it with sleuth-like subtlety and skill. Oh, alright. I’ll admit that it wasn’t that great. In fact, our way wasn’t even particularly clever. We just used the bank entrance instead of the college entrance. You see, there is a bank situated on the college for ease of paying fees and other monetary transactions. The bank led outside the college. All we had to do when we wanted to go out was go over to the bank, pretend to use the ATM and then when no one was looking, we could sneak out through the passage that connected the bank to the college. Nobody used it but I have on occasion, seen the watchman patrolling the bank hoping to catch these heroic truants.
I could use that entrance now. Only, now I wasn’t in trying to get out. I was out trying to get in. I felt a familiar thrill course through my fingertips. I slowed the car down and parked it right outside the college, a few yards away, in the parking lot of a local pharmacy that was now empty. It wasn’t that I was doing something wrong. It was the feeling that I was doing something adventurous. If found, I would tell him I had never left, that I had fallen asleep. At least, part of that was true.
Locking the car behind me, I ventured out into the cold, slightly windy night. With the December chill nipping my neck which was exposed as I had put up my hair in my typical messy bun, I started walking towards the bank. Even Madurai transformed during December. The rain had left everything looking surreal, glistening with new life.
As I was about to enter, I was almost about to change my mind and brave the main entrance instead. But whether it was the balmy night, my uncharacteristically high-spirits or the promise of the Christmas holidays, I decided on the road not taken. There it was, that battered excuse of a gate that no one used. It was waist high and even had I been shorter, I could easily have scaled it, for the old metal chain and lock was still hanging uselessly off its bolts. I didn’t very well leap but placing my hand on the wooden post, I hoisted one leg over the gate by standing on tiptoe. And immediately dragging the other after me, I landed with a thump on the other side. My heart was racing now. But still, I didn’t worry. I felt that I was not doing anything wrong. Soothed as if by a draught of red-wine, I felt my pulse returning to normal but the warmth in my cheek told me that this sense of nervous anticipation would remain.
It was pitch dark. I had never used the gate this late at night and that made me very uneasy more than fears of being discovered and the ensuing mortification. With unsteady hands, I jerked my phone out of my pocket and switched on the flashlight but I need not have for at that moment, there was a terrific clap of lightning and in a few seconds, the sky was ablaze with light. Switching on my flashlight, I made my way through the dark, low-ceilinged passage that had the distinct scent of rain or petrichor as they call it; I was out in a couple of minutes. But now, I realized how poorly timed my entrance was for the lightning had been a harbinger of another bout of rain.
The skies roared ominously and were once again illuminated by shots of liquid silver diverging in crazy little streaks against the iridescent sable-blue canvas. Half-running, half-walking, I began to head to the Department after making it past the main gate- evading the notice of the watchman when the showers began again. The rain pelting back, I arrived at the gates of the Department and halted. Had I remembered to take the key? Slipping my hand inside my jeans again, I was relieved when my fingers clasped the cold metal key. I made my way up the stone staircase and walking to the end of the corridor, opened the staff-room door at the top. Stepping inside, I switched on the light and saw the Jute Bag still sitting on the same place I had left it. But at the same time, there was another tremendous flash followed by an ear-splitting rumble, and the room went dark again. Using my flashlight, I retrieved the bag and made my way out the room, locking the door behind me.
The next flash lit up the corridor momentarily but, in a minute, everything had changed. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There the corridor stood, basked in brilliant yellow light. Soft voices undulated through the narrow halls. I stood rooted to the spot, my heart beating wildly in my chest. Was someone else there? It couldn’t be just one person. A multitude of voices sounded, mingled in a sweet chorus. I walked gingerly along the extreme right, keeping away from the golden glow streaming through the classes.
“Oh, it’s you!” exclaimed a voice behind me.
I turned around and looked at the petite figure of a woman with her hair pulled away from her temples in a high bun.
“Who are you?”
“Does it matter?”. Wordlessly, I gazed at her.
“Would you like to take a stroll? Come, I will walk you to the gate” she said and walking towards me, touched my elbow and smiled into my face. As she drew nearer, I could see her more clearly. It was a very familiar face that greeted me. As if in a dream, I took the proffered arm and started walking through the halls.
As we walked, I peeped into the classes and to my great surprise, saw them filled. The students, yes, students looked at me with a measure of mild surprise and unconcern and turned back to their teachers. So did the teachers. At one particular class, a loud-voiced lady was enlightening her astounded-looking pupils with a detailed drawing of a leaf. When I stared at her, she returned my stare with a certain kind of hostility at the unwonted intrusion.
“It’s alright, Mildred” my mysterious hostess called out. “Just another nightly visitor”.
The strangest part of all this were the people themselves! It was almost as if I had stepped back in time. Here were the teachers lecturing in stiffly, starched gowns with small floral prints or others wearing saris draped in a curious fashion, always accommodated by a severe hair-bun. It was clear that some of them were not Indian just like the lady beside me. But it was a college, alright. For a minute, I wondered if I had come to the wrong place.
“I am sure you are feeling surprised”.
“Actually, I am not. I feel like I am reliving something. Or I feel… I feel”
“Yes” prompted Miss Mina. Yes, it was Miss Wilhelmina Thompson. I recognized her now. She was the founder of the first women’s college in our part of the world. The founder of my college. That auburn hair framing her forehead and those piercing, green eyes were unmistakable. And I was casually taking a stroll with her. Even now, it was still raining but Miss Mina excused herself to go into one of the rooms and incredibly, returned with an umbrella. As we stepped outside the building, our feet resounded on the hard, narrow brick pathway leading up to the main gate.
“What do you feel?” she repeated.
“I have stepped back in time, haven’t I?” I asked with a start. To my surprise, she laughed- a low, melodic and rich laugh.
“How are you going to get back? Shall we look for a time-machine?” she asked me jokingly and I paled. She must have seen that for she cast me a reassuring look before beginning the strangest explanation I have ever heard in my life.
“What you saw here was the dream college”.
“The dream college?” I echoed.
“When the college, your college was begun, there were 104 students in total”.
“I know. I have seen the pictures” I interrupted.
“Indeed. But you would not have seen any of those students here”. When I remained silent, she went on. “There were around 400 students who wished to study here, that year. They all sought me out but one by one, due to family constraints, illness and other issues, they could not enter the college. Which is why the dream college was begun. Within these walls, many women who never had to opportunity to study or teach have finally achieved the means to do so, not just the first batch though they were the inspiration but others that came after them. Those who had sacrificed their dreams or had them stolen from them came here and so it went on”.
“You mean they are here in their afterlife” I asked, feeling ridiculous for even contemplating such a thing.
“Not quite. A cessation of life is not a cessation of dreams. Here, women who have never had the means to know themselves, to know any purpose beyond the claims of domesticity thrust upon them are finally venturing out to see what they really are capable of. I see you don’t understand. You don’t have to. Well, here we are at the gates. I think it is time we said goodbye” she said and held out her hand. “Pop in to our class next time you call”, she added.
We shook hands. And then… I woke up. My Jute Bag with the papers inside was right beside me, by the study-desk. Amma later informed me that I had gone off to sleep the moment I had come home. It was as if I had never left home the previous night