Updated: Aug 31, 2021
Written by Sumant S. Dangi
10 months. 23 days. And 17 hours. That’s how long I had waited to see these magnificent blue and white gates (give or take a few days; I’m bad at math). You may be wondering which gate this man is blabbering about. Fret not, you could recognize these gates even in your sleep. But before we get into the really good stuff, let me tell you how I ended up here.
Once upon a time, I, along with many other naive souls of SVNIT, wished for long vacations from college, where we could chill at home in monk-like tranquility — no worries, no assignments, and most importantly, no stress. The dream of every college student. Just 100% unadulterated fun. The mere thought of such a break from our busy lives made us giddy with excitement.
You see, wishing for things is perfectly acceptable, but you must specify the conditions. Otherwise, 2020 happens.
On 24 March, 2020, when the news of a nation-wide lockdown spread across India faster than a spicy WhatsApp forward, I half expected it. What I didn’t expect was being away from college for almost an entire year. This place had become synonymous with fun, friends, late-night chill sessions, and endless antics. The hangouts over chai in the evenings, dinners with friends, club meetings, the events, and most importantly, the people, had turned into pleasant memories. Missing college was an understatement. So, when I saw the reopening notice on WhatsApp, I wasted no time in packing my bags and hopping onto the train, armed with 4 bottles of hand sanitizer, 3 sets of gloves, and 7 extra masks.
There. You’re all caught up. We’re back at the SVNIT main gate. We’re back home.
As I swiveled around and stared blankly at the lion statue beside me (which I swear had grown larger), the shrill sound of a security guard’s whistle brought me back to my senses. The name tag read “Ramesh”. As I stood there fidgeting with my earphones, Ramesh screamed at me to stand still while he pointed a thermal scanner at my face. Underneath my mask, I was grinning like a fool. Even the boring old guards were exciting after 10 months away.
I glanced at the shiny, new sign that said, “Masks must be compulsorily worn inside the SVNIT campus - No exceptions” and wondered why two men just walked past me with bare, uncovered faces.
“ID?” Ramesh’s voice pierced my ears again.
I handed him my college ID, to which he responded with a disapproving frown.
“What’s this? This ID won’t work here. Where is your smart ID?”
“I never got it, sir,” I replied, racking my brain trying to figure out whether I ever received a smart ID from college.
Ramesh let out a disappointed sigh and shooed me away.
A few meters from the entrance, a foot-operated sanitizer dispenser awaited me, paired with a blob-shaped storage tank. It looked like the tank had melted. Surat must have gotten really hot in the past year. As the familiar scent of alcohol flooded my nostrils, I looked around and noticed the overgrown vegetation covering our campus. At least the plants had a good time while we were away.
Taking a deep breath of fresh Surti air, I started walking along a familiar foliage-covered road. The empty Old CRC lawns beckoned me to sit for hours and sink into its soft, tall grass. It was almost as if the lawns were calling my name. I fought the temptation; I had more important business to attend to.
Vines had crept up everywhere around campus, venturing onto the roads, the walls of the buildings, and even onto the lamp posts. Nature was reclaiming this land. I closed my eyes and felt myself melt into the surroundings. The squawking of peacocks piercing the deafening silence, the sweet smell of trees and shrubs all around, and the happy barks of well-fed dogs all made this campus irreplaceable. Wait. “Well-fed” dogs? How? The ones I remembered either looked like zombies or were malnourished puppies. However, the dogs I just saw had clean, combed fur, sparkling eyes, and bright blue collars around their necks. They looked too good to be true. It seemed as if someone had been feeding and taking care of the stray campus animals while we were away.
As I stepped through the familiar hostel entrance, my nostrils were flooded with the stench of hospital disinfectant. The WhatsApp notice I read earlier did say that the college was going to disinfect the hostels, but this was too much. Someone must have spilled an entire month’s supply of disinfectant here! My eyes fluttered to the giant bottle of hand sanitizer kept just inside the entrance, then to the medical posters plastered all over the walls. There was no one in sight, and yet, the sounds of a lively hostel rang through my ears. Surely, my mind was playing tricks on me.
“Hello? Is anyone there?” I bellowed, a little too loudly.
I was answered by a series of uncanny beeps.
As I trudged towards the elevator, hoping to find some other humans in this establishment, the sight before me stopped me dead in my tracks. Several masked men rushed out of the elevator, pulling a hostel bed behind them. The shocking part was not how they managed to fit the bed inside the lift, but rather the third man, who now lay on the bed, limp as a boiled noodle. Sadness and fatigue were written all over his pale face. My first impulse was to stop them, as they were clearly in the middle of a kidnapping. But I controlled myself. I glanced at my watch: 8:35 am. It could also be that the man was being forcefully taken to attend an 8:30 am class. Of course, this was the more probable explanation. He must have not woken up on time after binge-watching Mirzapur for the 4th time. I convinced myself that the man would be fine and decided to take the stairs lest the elevators presented more bizarre scenes.
As I climbed onto the 3rd floor, I heard the thud of a leather ball striking willow. Someone was playing cricket. But inside the hostel? I peeked into the hallway and saw 7 men and 3 women in nurse costumes playing cricket with such enthusiasm that anyone would have mistaken it for a Dream 11 ad. Who was I to judge? Maybe they still hadn’t gotten over Halloween (or the IPL). I ignored this mini-Ashes series and rushed up to my old 5th-floor room. I peered inside the window and noticed endless lines of stretchers, with human-sized figures covered in white sheets. I felt my breakfast making its way back up my throat. Why were there bodies in my room? Clutching my shaking hand in the other, more stable one, I stumbled down the stairs into the hostel office I saw on my way upstairs. I needed answers. Something felt off, and for all I knew, anything could have happened in these past 10 months.
Peeking through the office window, I saw loose papers, worn-out files, and old cardboard boxes littered across the room. It looked like a tornado had swept through the room. Maybe it had. In the middle of this atrocious mess sat a shabby-looking individual draped in a baggy blue PPE kit, rocking on his chair and humming along to 90’s Bollywood tunes floating out of a shiny speaker.
I knocked on the door loudly to draw his attention away from the groovy music. He slowly opened one eye and peered at me with intense suspicion, as if I had asked for his kidney. “Yes? What do you want?” he demanded in a rather ill-mannered tone.
Maybe I shouldn’t have interrupted his alone time.
“I came here for my room. When I went upstairs, everything looked so strange. What’s happening?” The words shot out from my mouth. “Please, I just wanted to come back to college, to this hostel, and go back to my old, normal life.” I pleaded.
“What the hell are you on about? What’s normal son? What hostel? This is a hospital. Didn’t you see the ambulances parked outside? Are you blind or something?”
“Wait, a hospital? HOW? I lived here just 1 year ago.”
“Well son, this place has been a hospital for 1 year. Some folks from your college sold the buildings. We people just got transferred here. We were ordered to use whatever we could find in the building and transform it into a medical center. We couldn’t rely on Paracetamol from that tiny campus dispensary for all our problems now, could we?”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “And the bodies? WHY ARE THERE DEAD BODIES IN MY ROOM?” I bellowed.
“It’s not your room anymore. You must be talking about Room 510. That’s Morgue No. 1 now.”
The sickening feeling returned in my stomach and my head started spinning. “Hh-how could they do that? They turned our hostel into a hospital?” I whimpered.
“It had to be done. There was no other way. This college has been closed; I think it’s best if you go home son. Talk to the people in charge, they’ll tell you what to do.”
“But...but, I even got a reopening notice on my WhatsApp,” I sobbed.
“Pffft, these delinquent kids. People make fake notices all the time. You went here, didn’t you? You, of all people, should know this.”
It was over. I had waited almost a year, just to have my dreams of normalcy shattered within a few minutes. I had to go back. There was nothing left for me here.
“Sir, before I go, I just have one question.”
“Yes, go on. And hurry up, my shift is ending.”
“Will I at least get my mess refund?”
“Mess re-what?” he laughed. “No, of course not.”
Sumant S. Dangi