Tara came into our lives – which were unfolding like the unhurried alaap of some all-night classical performance – like Shammi Kapoor playing the drums. An American research scholar visiting to experience India, she sucked enthusiastically at the straw of us. With her smile, questions, earrings and accent equally bright, she sponged up local political debates, academic gossip, university course structures, activists’ passions, friends’ lives, professors’ opinions, group dynamics, dhaba coffees, and late-night rums.
On some somnolent morning, with the koel providing background music to several unshaven youth sipping at the news of the day, Shuvi and I would be figuring whether to brush our teeth first, or put on music first, when the door would burst open. Tara would enter like a happy typhoon. Our room was her base during this visit, and she kept her sleeping bag and clothes there, while traversing the city and beyond with a comb, toothbrush and kaajal in her pocket. Her ‘hiii’ entered every lazy, class-bunking crevice of the morning. Our pace of becoming upright on our beds would quicken and we’d switch on all senses to receive her full flavor. “TK is leaving for Chaibasa today”, she’d beam breathlessly at us. “She says I can come along too” (pulling out her sleeping bag). “There’s a train in a couple of hours” (taking off her clothes). “I’ll be gone for a few days” (pulling off her undergarments).
At this point Shuvi would sit up yet straighter, wearing a persona so solemn that only an 18-year-old could have conjured it, her face eloquent with respect for the serious business of travelling to the Indian hinterland to search for Indian Reality, and her demeanor designed to say: I find nothing unusual at all in my roommate’s friend taking off all her clothes in front of me, happens every day. Like the rest of us, Shuvi too had figured in some inchoate way that in this new life, some things made you seem establishmentarian, and would not do. Before we had quite fathomed the landscapes of ticketless train travel, political hotbeds, and going off alone to be with utter strangers that Tara had drawn up for us, she’d be gone with an energetic “bye darlings!”. We loved her.
I watched with interest as a parade of young male activists from Delhi’s radical circles came calling to my hostel for visiting, picking up, dropping, or otherwise engaging Tara. They tended a lot to blank verse in Hindi. Off she would go, leaving behind a trail of feminist positions, applied political theory, vigorous debate, self-reflexive questioning… and in her place would blossom notebooks filled with poems titled “Upon your leaving”, or “Yesterday, she said…” and, of course, “Silently I celebrate my defeat at your hands”.
On the average drinking evening, Tara could be counted on for some stunning singing and essential insights into international academia, such as what Jacques Derrida’s accent sounded like. On one such evening, Raghav graced us with his presence (remember: He who felt that anyone who didn’t lend him a pen was a property-loving bourgeoise?). After three typically silent pegs, consumed as he slunk in a corner of Naga’s room, he decided to bring some much-needed sharp and penetrating insight into what clearly seemed to him like a vapid, futile discussion.
He put down his glass with a dramatic bang. Drew himself up to his full 5-feet height. Marched across the room to Tara. And astonishingly managed to assume a posture that was both a pugilist’s crouch and the chest-puffing stance of one about to declaim meaningfully. Then, he narrowed his eyes critically and sneered, “American academic, eh? American academic?” And, having left us with this path breaking insight, walked off, muttering “American academic!” Par for the Raghavian course for us, this was Tara’s first sighting of Raghav. We turned to her for comment. She beamed with delight: “It is a very remarkable young thing”, she declared.
On an early such occasion, the niceties of using the male hostel loo were introduced to Tara. She was uncomprehending but enthusiastic. That day, both she and I needed to – as we had taught her in our most elegant, classical Hindi – do susu. It was Naga’s room and he guided us down the corridor and beyond the single palm languishing near the toilets. He was like the lead hunter stalking the savannah. He was full of advice, strategy, admonition, warning and threat. “Now, stand near this plant”, he said as Tara gazed giggly and wide-eyed. “Take it seriously or I’ll get into trouble”. She gathered herself soberly. “I’ll go in and if no one is inside, I’ll call you. Then, if someone comes while you are in the loo, I’ll cough. Just stay inside and only come out when I say so.” Tara nodded soberly.
We went in and bolted the two cubicles. Naga stood guard. At this point, an unfortunate young man did come in to use the open urinal. Naga duly coughed. And in its most delightful, mellifluous, American-accented avatar, Tara’s voice sang out, “Nagaaaa, does that mean you don’t want us to come ouuuut???”
And that explains why a young man from 1991 is still standing there, frozen in mid-arc, in the ground floor loo of Kaveri hostel…