One evening many summers ago, Balloon and I made our way up the tallest tower in IIT Madras. The day was bright and buzzing with activity, around us were hordes of students, chatting and laughing after a day of classes. Sweat dotted our foreheads in typical coastal city fashion, and we were feeling restless, the air conditioned Café Coffee Day on campus was full and we could not think of any place else to go.
“How about 1974?” said Balloon. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been up there”.
“Sure,” I replied. “Let’s go”.
I had met Balloon a few months back through common friends. That was not his real name, he had been nicknamed thus in the customary ragging sessions in our first years, the story behind which I shall leave out here for the sake of propriety. Over the years, his nickname loomed larger until his real name was relegated to the den of identity cards and department records; Balloon he was and Balloon he always will be.
He was a loud man, generous and unabashed in his opinion. Like all the popular kids, he knew practically everyone on campus. We would walk from Gurunath to his hostel every other evening, and this half a kilometer long journey would take us an hour at the very least. On the way, he would stop and thump someone on their back.
“Yo man, what’s up!”
“Nothing much man, preparing for CAT.”
“Heh! Saala tu MBA karegi? C****** toh MBA karte hain.”
After dispensing this nugget of wisdom, we would walk further till he would turn towards me.
“Yaar Vaishali, that is the problem with this country. Everyone running in this rat race doing bullshit MBA courses and spouting bullshit MBA jargon for life. Sab bakwaas hai.”
I would try to say something, but his attention would flicker to another passing student.
“Yo, started mugging for endsems?”
These breaks annoyed me to no end. I knew very few of his friends – few people on campus in fact and did not relish being frequently interrupted by inane small talk whenever I would try to engage him in conversation. Once I caught him waving at someone and huffily asked him who that person was.
“I don’t know,” he replied. “But it seemed like he knew me.”
The 1974 tower is a water tank constructed with funds donated by the class of 1974. Over eighty feet tall, the tower stands between the Alaknanda and Godavari hostels and is flanked by a doughnut-shaped terrace on the top. There is a small brown gate which admits one person at a time into the tower after which in reverse Alice-in-Wonderland-style, one has to trudge through 10 or 12 stories to reach the top. Rust sits comfortably on the iron staircase winding upwards and patches of white mold sprout on the wall unhindered by maintenance work of any kind. During the night the staircase is especially difficult to navigate as one slip could mean a broken leg, or worse, a broken phone screen. At the bottom of the tower lies shards of glass and discarded pipes as a sign of warning, all now clothed in dust.
The institute rule about climbing this tower is deliciously vague. For a long time the tower was locked because someone supposedly got a little too drunk up there and tried to jump off the railing. But nowhere were we advised against it — the students handbook doled out to every first year student says nothing about the grave perils of climbing old water tanks. For many days thus, we would walk to the tower and gaze wistfully at the locked door hoping for a miracle. And one day, the door was opened.
So Balloon, I and two other people he met on the way made our way upwards. It was my first time, and I was excited and scared in equal measure. Okay, more scared than excited.
“Shit man, what if we get caught?”
“What if we don’t?” he replied airily as we reached the top.
“Have I told you about the time,” Balloon began once we reached, “my entire wing came up here?”
He had, several times in fact. But I liked this story, so I said no, he had not.
“It was four in the morning. All six of us had put a night out and wanted to do something exhilarating before morning. So we made our way up to the tower, stood in a line near this very railing overlooking the forest and peed on the heads of the trees out there. It was like peeing into infinity. At that moment, I felt supreme, that the world was waiting for me and I could be whatever I wanted to be. It was the best feeling of my life.”
And then he added, “You should try it sometime”.
I remarked with some asperity that it was anatomically impossible for me to do so. He threw back his head and laughed.
“Madamji”, he spluttered between fits of laughter, “nothing is impossible if you aim correctly.”
After that day, climbing the 1974 tower became a ritual of sorts. A bunch of us would converge at Guru at evening, bored out of our wits and I’d suggest that we go to 1974.
We would climb the rickety staircase, past the stalactite, past the loose rafter that threatened to collapse on our heads. We would reach the terrace overlooking the city of Chennai and watch the forest jostle for space with buildings, tiny white cubes on one side of the campus which burst out into rows and rows of coloured blocks on the other side. In the distance, the ocean blazed in the evening sun, coiled around the city like a serpent waiting to strike.
“Please don’t lean against the railings,” I’d say absentmindedly, “They are rusted and could crumble anytime.”
“Hahahahahaha! Okay, Mummyji.”
We would watch as dusk enveloped the sky and the city came into life. We watched the IT buildings dotting the campus switch on their lights and their employees unmoving, glued to their desktops. We observed the landscape change colour, the ugly blue, green and purple painted apartments suddenly transform into something more beautiful by night. On the other side, we could hear the screeches from a game of football on Sangam. Somebody scored a goal and the stadium exploded into cheers.
Then the clamor stilled and the night twisted around us. One old monk would limp back and forth, till he staggered, weightlessly and noiselessly to the corner of the rooftop.
“Yaar, I want to become a millionaire before thirty. Then I will quit my job and travel the world.”
“Dude come on, money isn’t everything. What is so great about becoming a millionaire, this is typical herd mentality. I don’t want to become a suited rat man, logon ki zindagi ko badalna hai muje.”
“Technology man, technology. We are engineers at heart, why are we chasing non-core jobs? Let’s make a product that revolutionizes people’s lives. My life changed after reading Steve Jobs’ biography. That’s who we need to become, not BCG’s bitch.”
“I love academia and I’m never getting out of here. I need that freedom of thought as much as I need air to breathe. The corporate world will crush me before I realize it.”
At four in the morning, we would amble towards bare ground, all the time praying that the door isn’t locked. And then we crawl out of the tower and check our surroundings warily, and then walk towards our hostels, the tower glowering at us till we were nothing more but goose bumps in the arms of the jungle.
After that night, I did not meet Balloon again. He had graduated and gone on to work in Mumbai. I heard from friends that he was working in a major telecommunications company as a software development engineer. Three years later, I was in the city for work and decided to look him up. We met for lunch at a food court near his office. He had definitely changed since his days in college. For one, he was wearing a buttoned down shirt and pants with a tie, in all four years of college, I had never once seen him in anything but shorts. But it was the same old Balloon, because once we sat down, he very kindly informed me I had put on weight, “not that it was a bad thing of course because who doesn’t like curvaceous women?”
“I hate my job man,” he told me over lunch. “All day long I’m just sitting in front of a computer punching numbers, formatting PowerPoint presentations and making excel sheets. I have become a cog in the wheel and I can’t get out of this.”
“Why don’t you join a startup or something,” I suggested, “Isn’t that what you always wanted, autonomy of work, freedom to make whatever you want and build something lasting?”
“I don’t know”, he said, “My parents don’t think working in a startup is good enough. And vaise toh, the job market is so uncertain. How can I quit this job with nothing in my hand. And say I quit and do something offbeat tomorrow. How long can I continue that? For a year? 2 years? After that, what will people say? He slogged his ass off to get a JEE rank, made it through IIT and got placed in a plum job, only to give it all up for a crazy impulse? I can’t take these decisions on a whim, can I, I need to think before plunging in.”
“Don’t I?” he asked again after sometime. I had no answer and in silence, we finished the rest of our meal.
Four months after that lunch, I visited campus, and climbed up 1974 again. After all these years, the tower looked just the same, despite being washed over by many monsoons and beaten down by many suns. From the top, I watched some students lolling about in the hostel corridors. The sky turned dark heralding rain.
That evening, I called Balloon and mentioned that I had visited the tower after all these years. It looked just the same, I said, and the security guard did not even look at us as we strolled right in. It was like being in college all over again.
He was silent for a long time. “I want to go back man,” he finally said with some force, “I want to become Balloon again.”
For a long time neither of us spoke. Then he laughed.
“After all, nothing is impossible if you aim correctly.”
Article written by Vaishali V (MA Economics, 2015 batch alumna).