Shyamal was clearly not happy with my nonchalance. And to be fair to him, I haven’t done much on his request over the last two weeks, and he probably had a reason to believe that I was neglecting him. It was the year 1996 and we were at the end of our third year in this old and heritage Engineering College, that is the second oldest of its kind in India. Both Shyamal and I were heavily involved in the Student Affairs of the University, which had been awarded the status of a ‘Deemed University‘ at this point, after breaking away from the legacy of the Calcutta University, which it had been a part of, for many decades.
Shyamal was now an elected member of the Students’ Union, and all the twenty one seats in the Union were held by members from our political party, giving us an overwhelming decision making power in most cases. Shyamal had recently taken over as the Cultural Secretary of the Students’ Union, and one particular plan of his was the reason for his seeking my help, since he considered me to have a significant influence both on the student community, as well as with the authorities. He wanted to transform our ragged Union Library into a newer, better and more relevant recreational facility for the students. Presently, the Union library was a shoddy, small room with a small range of books that were mostly donated by students and alumni. Of course, it had nothing to do with the College library, and purely focused on fiction and leisure reading, with hardly any books of academic interest related to engineering. But Shyamal wanted to change all that, and had taken the initiative of creating a revamped membership structure, as well as tying up with some local libraries to sizeably improve the range of hardcover books. The biggest problem that he faced, and one that he failed to find a solution to, was an alternative venue that would have a larger space where he could restructure the library based on his ambitious plans. And that was where, he believed I could be of help, since I held some sway with the College authorities, something that he didn’t, at a personal level.
Our University was almost 150 years old, and there were several old, some even dilapidated buildings within the premises, all from the British colonial era, and Shyamal was convinced that there would be some building somewhere in this vast campus, that was not being used and could be spared for the noble purpose of a Students’ Union Library.
Just as I was about to make another round of unconvincing promises, that I would seriously look into the possibilities and check with the Director’s office, Biswarup, a second year student entered the room, panting and out of his breath.
THE TWO SIDES OF THE CAMPUS
The massive campus had two clustered student settlements, with over a kilo meter separating the two. They were named as two ‘paras’, a Bengali word implying localities. Each of these paras comprised some multi occupancy ‘Hostels’ with three or four students occupying each room, and some single occupancy ‘Halls’ for the third and fourth year students, with a single room for every student. The beautiful Academic building was designed to be somewhere in the central area between the two settlements, along with most common facilities including two large playgrounds, a community hall, a students’ canteen, an auditorium, a gymnasium, an old graveyard and even the only ladies hostel. The staff and faculty quarters, along with the Director’s residence, were spread across different parts of the lush green campus.
The ‘para’ that housed both Shyamal and me, was given the more respectable name ‘Saheb-para’, Saheb being a respectful way of addressing the ‘British’ masters once. The other cluster had the less respectable name of ‘Muchi-para’, Muchi literally meaning a cobbler. Our Hall was called the ‘Richardson Hall‘, named after one of the former Principals of this heritage institution. Biswarup had just informed us that there was some trouble brewing up, between students of first year and those of the second year, after an altercation happened between some students early in the afternoon. The incident had now escalated to an inter batch brawl, affecting hostels 7 and 9 and students belonging to both batches were gathering up in Muchi-para.
It had been close to two years since the College administration had switched to an unpopular system of separate hostels for the first year batch, unlike the previous system of having hostels with mixed batches. So the first year students were isolated, and supposedly ‘saved’ from the atrocities of their seniors, an idea that didn’t go down well with the senior students who complained about low interaction and thereby zero bonding between seniors and juniors, a vital cog for the student community. While this step had somewhat reduced the evil practice of ‘ragging’ (a tradition of bullying of junior students, often physically, by the senior students) it had also led to far more incidents of conflict. What made it worse, was that every individual conflict had the potential to be blown into an inter hostel and evidently inter batch altercation.
I was usually seen to be a trouble shooter for such student brawls and no wonder, Biswarup had rushed to me asking me to step in. Since Shyamal was a former boarder of Hostel 7, one that boasted of strong hostel sentiment, I felt it might be useful to bring him along, at least to pacify that faction of the students and Biswarup was himself from the same hostel. It was late afternoon when the three of us rushed towards Muchi-para to try and stop the situation from escalating.
A POTENTIAL SOLUTION
It took over an hour to sort out the brawl between these two student factions, but Shyamal and I, supported by some other seniors from my batch who joined in later, managed to pacify both the groups and peace prevailed eventually. Heaving a sigh of relief, and yet grumbling at the repetition of such conflicts which would have been handled internally by hostel seniors, till only a couple of years back, Shyamal and I made our arduous way back to Richardson Hall. On our way back, with the green cricket ground just appearing to our right in the distance, I spotted something that stopped me on my tracks. There, to the left of the tar road connecting the two paras, some twenty meters away from the road, stood an old building, which I had seen numerous times, but had no idea on what it housed. I called out to Shyamal and pointing at the single storied building, a colonial era construction, asked aloud;
“What is this building about? Any idea?”
Shyamal had no idea of course, and although he had also seen the building, neither of us knew anything about it. I told him to wait, as I walked towards it trampling over some weeds and bushes on the way. It was pretty clear that the building was not in regular use, since the access to it was completely hidden by an overgrowth of shrubs. The main entrance had a large colonial door, with an old and rusty iron lock that seemed like it had not been opened in years. I walked around the structure to one of the glass windows to its left, and tried to peak in. The sun had long disappeared and it was almost dark with almost no visible daylight, but it was not yet complete darkness and while I could see very little through the dirty glass, I thought I could make out the obscure form of some stuff lying there in a heap. Straining my eyes, I concluded they were stacks of furniture and piled up wooden frames, but it was impossible to be sure. Shyamal had followed me, and since his short height did not allow him to reach the window properly, I had to give him an upward boost so he could take a look inside. The effort was more than the return, and all he could see was some heaped up waste, difficult to determine of exactly what items or materials. We inferred that it was an out of use building with its internal stuff heaped up since the time it had been out of use. It instantly lifted Shyamal’s spirits and he blurted out;
“This will be an ideal place for the Union Library. And it is also not being used. The location is good for both paras, and also close to the Ladies hostel, and the space seems good enough for our plan. We can even host some literary events here.”
I had to agree with him. Only thing is that we had no idea what the building was supposed to be used for, but since it was not in use, it seemed that it was worth giving a try. I promised Shyamal that I will find out more and even take it up with the Director personally, within the week itself. We shook our heads and continued on our way back to Richardson Hall, as the street lights lit up with the sky descending into complete darkness.
THE TEXTILE MAN
It was not until the next week that I finally had the privilege of meeting with the Director of the university. In fact, he was the one to summon me to his office, to seek an explanation for the student unrest that happened six days back. The Director was still relatively new in his position, and it was the first time the Head of the Institute had the designation of ‘Director’. Prior to being a University, the title ‘Principal’ was what the students and everyone else had been used to. The man himself came with stellar academic credentials, but since his base degree was in Textile Engineering, there was a certain lack of acceptance from a significant fraction of the students. It was also true that his disposition was somewhat funny, compared to the personality of his predecessor, who was both highly respected and deeply feared.
Dr. Mukherjee, as I used to address him, was facing an uphill task in getting himself to be accepted by the students on one hand, and the faculty and staff on the other. He was a man of average height, with a bald head with hairy ears and high powered glasses, all typical of the stereotypical Bengali Professor, except his choice of dressing was pretty unique, as he always wore bright colours, including red and green, something not very typical of the image of an elderly academic gentleman back in the days.
But while most of the students laughed and mocked at him, I had a very decent rapport with the ‘Textile man‘. It started when there was a student unrest a few months back, which quickly escalated into a scuffle between local Bengali students and the North Eastern students, an integral community within the institute. The situation started in my own Richardson Hall, where most of the senior North Eastern students also resided, and as it scaled up into a mass conflict, Dr. Mukherjee had helplessly turned to me and asked for my advice on what should be done. I had given him an advice which seemed unthinkable and dangerous at that point, but running out of options, he had gone ahead with it and despite initial eruption of angst, the situation was swiftly brought back in control within the next few hours, thanks to many of us working behind the scenes. This incident had made Dr. Mukherjee feel indebted towards me, and since then he would often consult me for certain students related issues.
I took this opportunity to first state how we had jumped into action right away, and managed to bring the situation under control within an hour. That it did not reach further alarming levels was evident from the fact, that he had heard about it six days after the incident had happened, to which he nodded his approval with a smile. That was when I pushed along the idea how the Students’ Union was trying hard to engage the students in other activities, including setting up a refurbished library and sensing his appreciation of the endeavour, I disclosed how we were struggling with finding a new venue and how he could be of help. I explained that we had found an ideal venue and it was not being used presently, and a little push from him could set the ball rolling and provide us with a new Union Library. All we need was for him to validate things with the Public Works Department and grant us a permission to use that building as our library.
Dr. Mukherjee was very supportive, encouraging, and he promised me that he will check with the PWD and revert. We shook hands after he asked me to fill up a request form with details of the venue, its location and the purpose for which we needed it.
A JOB WELL DONE
The following week, some of us were gathered in the Wolfenden Hall, a single seater accommodation for third and fourth year students, and the only such Hall in Muchi-para. All other single seater halls were located in the Saheb-para, thereby making Wolfenden Hall a.k.a. Wolf, an alternate source of power among the student community. By default, Wolf assumed the leadership role in Muchi-para and hosted many of our friends, particularly from the Civil and Mining Engineering Departments. For any politically inclined character at the university, it was critical to maintain a decent rapport with residents of this strategically important establishment, without engaging too deep, as that could often lead to unexpected trouble.
It was a birthday of a good friend who stayed at Wolf, and many of us, including Shyamal and yours truly, were invited on a Thursday evening to get high. We had some great fun, with most of us getting stoned from the two most common forms of intoxication in the campus back then. The party ended with us having a special dinner, commonly called ID (Improved Dinner) at the mess of Wolfenden Hall, something that came as an invitational privilege. After dinner, some of the guests wanted to go to the second floor for another round of ‘enjoyment’ but it was getting late and Shyamal and I decided to head back to Richardson Hall. We bid goodbye, wishing the birthday boy one more time and quietly walked towards the connecting road that would lead us to Saheb-Para.
Shyamal was a smoker who rarely had cigarettes with him, a pretty common character of half of the smokers in those college days. But Shyamal was not a stingy fellow and he often bought packs of cigarettes, which were exhausted within minutes, since he owed to too many of his smoking comrades. I handed him a stick and lit up one myself, and the two of us stood on the open road, facing the Oval cricket ground, taking drags from our cigarettes. Suddenly he spoke out with excitement;
“Do you see that?”
I didn’t initially, but as I followed his gaze, I saw in the distance to our right, there was some light, apart from those meant for lighting up the streets. It took me a while to figure out that the light was coming from a building, which happened to be the same one as Shyamal and I had planned for the Union Library. The two of us looked at each other, then back at the building, and then he let out a deep satisfied grunt. Without even asking each other, we started walking towards the house to check it out right away.
As we approached the house, we made our way over the shrubs and bushes, straight to the window towards the left, the one I had already peeked through once. I looked through the glass, which was now all cleaned up and glossy, and stared at the well lit room inside. The place was well cleaned, all the debris and wooden piles were removed, and there was even a large desk along with some chairs, complete with some cabinets organised along the opposite wall. I lifted Shyamal up, to help him peek inside, and I could catch the glint of excitement in his eyes. The two of us did a high five, followed by him doing a fist pump, as he thanked me whole heartedly for making this happen. His library dream was now about to be realised.
On our way back, I told him that this was among the most pleasant surprises I had received in recent times, and how we needed to be thankful to the Textile Man for making this happen. Sure, I had a good rapport with him, and sure he sounded cooperative and promised to help. But to activate the PWD and make it happen within a week, was simply unprecedented and worth a sincere applause. I promised to pay him a visit the very next day and convey my heartiest gratitude that was clearly due.
The very next afternoon, I signed up a visit request form, to see the Director and waited at the waiting area as the clerical staff went inside with my request.
About twenty minutes later, I was ushered in and I greeted Dr. Mukherjee with a warm smile, but he was the one to speak first;
“I am told that next week your rival party has planned a student strike in the campus. Are you doing something to stop it? I will not tolerate disruptions to our academic calendar.”
I was not a big fan of calling strikes, even though I was not really a student who could boast of regular attendance. But whenever our rival party called for a strike, I would be among the first students to march to the classroom to attend the 8 am. class, with the sole intention of defying their diktat for a strike. In fact, truth be told, those were among the few, if not only morning classes I attended. I assured the Director that no such strike would materialise and I would personally make sure that students attended their classes as usual on that designated day. He grinned in appreciation and thanked me for my support in managing this complicated campus. I thanked him in return and was about to shower him with ornamental words of praises, when he raised his hand and stopped my flow;
“By the way, I wish I could really help you, but your other request, it seems, is impossible to realise.”
“Oh, you have already done so much for me, including the unthinkable. Whatever this one is, must be a lower priority. Which one do you mean?” I questioned back.
“That Library request, remember? You asked me last week for a new venue?” He answered.
I gave him a puzzled look. Then I realised that he was messing with me, and let out a smart smile.
“You almost got me there for a while. I know you have sorted it out with the PWD already. That was an incredible job. I really came down today to thank you for that!” I smiled and tried to look as sincere as possible.
It was his turn to look surprised, or act so. He stooped to his right to a shelf in the drawer next to his desk, and fished out a paper folder and held it out to me.
“I don’t know what you have heard, or from whom, but I did reach out to the PWD the same day, and this morning they have submitted a report. According to them, that building is now a junkyard and there is no connection for water or electricity. A revamp is almost impossible, as it would take minimum six months to lay down the base wiring, which has to be underground and they have submitted a budget of Rs. 7.8 lacs. I am assuming the Students’ Union won’t have that kind of budgets.”
With trembling hands, I took the file from him. I still could not believe what he had just told me, as I flipped through the couple of pages and my eyes caught certain key statements like ‘There is no foundation for electrical wiring’ and ‘an expected cost of Rs. 7.8 lacs’. The rest of the content seemed blurred to me, as I heard Dr. Mukherjee ask me to keep the file as he had prepared this copy for the Students’ Union. Still unable to find my words, I made an awkward bow and briskly left the room, leaving the Textile Man somewhat bemused.
THE MYSTERIES OF A COLONIAL CAMPUS
I was about to rush back to my room, baffled and speechless, but instead I sought shelter in the students canteen, ordered a tea from our friendly canteen owner Mukhtar da, withdrew myself into a corner and lit up a cigarette. I stealthily browsed through the six page report in the file, and to my utter disbelief, what the Director had stated was indeed detailed in the report. The building has been out of use since the 1940s and was supposed to be demolished long back, but records stated that it still existed. There was apparently no working electrical connection to that structure, as well as no supply of water. I hid the file under my shirt and rushed to the Mechanical department, where Shyamal was attending a class. I literally dragged him out of the classroom and without explaining much, asked him to walk with me. As we kept walking, I could hear his questions from behind, but I was too engrossed in my own thoughts to even acknowledge, let alone answer his questions.
We reached the building a few minutes later, and I pointed towards Shyamal and asked him what he saw. He stared for a while and then quizzically looked back at me with stuttering lips. I nodded my head at him and asked him;
“Were we so stoned yesterday, or is this what I think it is?”
Shyamal stayed silent, and as I took a step towards the building, he suddenly blurted out;
“Please, don’t go there.. we must have been too high yesterday. Don’t go there!”
I felt a chill run down my spine. If he thought we were too stoned the previous night, why would be request me not to go. From his trembling voice I could sense the unmistakable fear. Shyamal, just like me, was completely vexed and the only explanation he had was devoid of any scientific logic, and it made my palms moist, just from the contemplation of it. I crossed the shrubs nevertheless, approached the same window that I had tried twice before, and peeked in. The glass was dirty and almost untouched for decades from inside, the interior area was as dark as I saw it a week back, a pile of wood and old furniture blocking the sight.
I retreated, as I heard Shyamal pleading in a high pitch and the two of us started walking towards Richardson Hall, without even looking at each other. I was mumbling to myself;
“This cannot be real. Two of us couldn’t have been equally stoned a night back. There is something inexplicable here.”
Back in my room, Shyamal suggested that we should never mention this incident to anyone, or at least as long as we were studying in this institution. I agreed half heartedly, as I could feel the terror in Shyamal’s eyes.
We never mentioned what we saw to anyone, for at least twenty years from that day. I casually narrated the story to a group of college mates on a reunion over twenty years later, but most of the listeners brushed it away as a ridiculous story, and I didn’t feel the need to push it. The campus had numerous fables of supernatural inclination, including an infamous one of a former lady student found to be swimming in the pond within the campus, on a particular new moon night of the year, the night she was found to be murdered, some decades back. Most modern day students did not believe in all these fables, and understandably so.
But I did do my part in trying to find something about this building. Almost two months later, I had a chat with the septuagenarian Manna da, who was the owner of a stationery shop right next to the Students’ Canteen. Manna da had handed over the responsibilities of the shop to his son, but every once in a while, he would come and sit at the counter and run the shop that he had started over three decades back. I inquisitively asked him about the building one day, and he answered with some skepticism;
“I can’t say I know much about the building, as it has never been in use since the time I have been active in the campus. I was told that the last time it was in use, India was still under the British rule. It was an office building, but back then, the Brits did a lot of clandestine activities using the garb of this academic campus, including stocking up arms and ammunitions, building bunkers for political prisoners, and bomb shelters for emergency hideouts. The rumour back then was that sometime in the early 1940s, a British officer had an affair with a lady student of the college, and to hide her from public view, had locked her in that building temporarily. While being away, the officer was accidentally killed in a shootout, and since he was the only one with the knowledge and the keys to the office, there was no one to let the lady student out. Days became weeks and the lady eventually died from starvation, her corpse only to be recovered months later. There were some reports of supernatural incidents, when some people would see the building light up at midnight on a specific night. But you know, everyone loves a ghost story like that. There are many about this heritage campus!”
He smiled at me, as he paused to catch his breath. I smiled back, in a pretentious manner. But he was quick to follow up;
“But no one has mentioned that building in many years now, probably decades. Most people don’t even know that building exists. How is it that you are inquiring about it today? Don’t tell me you saw something.”
I dismissed his assumption vehemently and after some more pleasantries, took my leave for the day. I did not mention this to Shyamal, since I knew it would freak him out further.
He was already very stressed, and from that day, he would never again walk by that road after dark, however important or urgent the need was. During day time, of course, he never hesitated to transit between the two paras as usual. We have never discussed this incident with each other again, since leaving the campus in 1997.
The names of all the characters in this story have been changed, to ensure no one is made to feel uncomfortable.