Last week, we were as usual engaged in animated conversation over lunch when someone pointed out….
“Think of it. A few years down the line, we will have good jobs with better salaries to enjoy the best in life, but we will just not have the time or the company to enjoy them.”
The person who said this was one of my closest friends from college. The conversation was taking place over tandoori roti and chicken bharta with dollops of ghee in a cramped one and a half storied Sardarji’s hotel on Camac Street. The fan was all noise and no breeze, it was terribly sultry sans air conditioning, and the ceiling was so low that I had to stoop while walking lest I bump my head.
One of the best things about student life is the way you learn to glean the best of everything despite your thrifty existence. I have been earning right from college. My meager salary earned by giving science and math tuition might not have paid the telephone and electricity bills at home, but was enough to cover my personal expenses- cell phone, bus and metro fares, college fees, etc., and still save up a little bit at the end of the month. It is a lot of fun, being charge of one's pocket and not be answerable to questions like, "And where have you been squandering money and why are you broke and insolvent at the end of every month?”. For even a thrifty existence could not let us lose out on the best in life.
Now “best” is a very relative and awfully deceptive word. If “best” for you means candle light dinners at Hyatt Regency, an evening rendezvous in Someplace Else, Sarkarr in Inox, and shopping at Pantaloons, then no. We never made it. Not with our money at least.
But we bunked classes and made it to the nearest cinema hall at least once a fortnight, even if the movie was horrible. We banked on rear stall seats more out of habit than unaffordability. And when people around us munched on pop corns and chips, we were more than happy sharing our tiffin boxes, the lunch mom made us, usually leather-stiff home made rotis, and potato curry.
Then we constantly haggled over prices, even while buying a pair of ear rings. The only reason we frequented Pantaloons and Westside was to window shop and enjoy the air conditioning, gawking at those filthy rich guys whose dads worked in the World Bank and those super slim female models with colored hair, manicured hands, and pole-thin legs. There was something so artificial, so made up, yet so eye catching.
We never bothered to eat with spoons or forks. The sambar and the coconut chutney was more in demand than the masala dosa, just because it came free of cost. We would join 3-4 tables during those departmental treats. And before we would order anything, the bursar of the day would actually put his hand under the table and calculate the expense using his phone. Food needs to be treated with respect, and the misri, saunf, and tooth picks at the end of the treat as well. We would always have ice creams and cold drinks in some nearby pan wallah's shop so that we did not have to pay extra tax.
Unless it was a combined treat of 4-5 people, birth day treats would always be pizzas and pastries from Monginis. In fact, we discovered bliss when we discovered Khwaja's, a road side food joint near our college that served excellent biryani at the lowest price in that area. Even then, biryani was biryani, a dish fit for the moguls, and we would always go half plate with one piece of mutton and half a potato, all good enough to satisfy the need, if not the greed. And we loved the smell of it that would linger on our hands for hours ( that is why we never washed our hands with soap). All at a reasonable price of 20 rupees. And that extra pani puri was strangely tastier than the rest. Yet, we rarely suffered from stomach ailments. The only visible effects we ended up with were orange tongues hanging out after we had those orange sticks from Kwality, priced for the last 7 years at 5 rupees.
We never hesitated travelling in crowded buses and local trains. We used the cab only when the total cab fare would atleast be 50p less than the individual bus fare. And this meant 5-6 friends huddled in a single cab.
We soon discovered a photocopy shop that gave us an additional 20% discount on the usual 50p/page rate for every 100 pages or more photocopied. Even then, we would not photocopy everything, but would wait all year for the exams and for the professors to divulge last minute suggestions. So the photocopying part always started a week prior to the exams.
Birthday gifts was always communal (the whole department chipping in for one gift) that was more practical and could be put to use.
Everyone soon bought a cell phone for the simple reason that you could always greet friends anytime of the day with a missed call, something that came free of cost. A single missed call meant a "hi", a double meant "Call me up, I have important news to deliver".
And being the book lover that I am, it did not take me long to figure out places which rented books at the cheapest rates, and I did not mind travelling that extra bit to frequent those places. Somehow the torn, yellow pages and the derelict condition of the book had more appeal than the pristine books in Oxford Book Store in Park Street with 0% discount.
And then there was this thing about borrowing stuff from each other when one had an important function to attend. Somebody would have a precious set of Hyderabadi pearls while someone's brother had gifted her an expensive silk sari or a camera for Rakhi. No one hesitated to borrow or share ones valuables.... jewelery, sarees, watches, camera, anything.
That is the kind of life we once had. We wouldn't hesitate attending seminars (and sleeping through them) just because the food was free. We tried not to develop enmity with each other, but even if we did, we made sure to gulp our ego during the exams. Prior to the exams, the entire syllabus would be distributed among friends. That meant whatever topic was assigned to me, I would not only make the best use of my resources to prepare notes, but would also make sure that the others had a photocopy of it as well.
We treated each other when we had a new born in the family or when our siblings passed the board exams or when someone acquired a boyfriend/girlfriend. And we stood with each other when there was a death in the family, a mishap, an illness, or even a break up.
Someday, we would be able to afford a movie at Inox with cheese pop corn. Someday, we would earn enough to afford diamonds and Gucci watches (original ones, not the fake that I bought from Delhi for 120 rupees), and branded clothes and shoes. Someday, we would not be able to decide on which brand of car to buy. But we will just not have the time to sit back with friends and relish endless hours of adda over cups of coffee. We might send each other expensive wedding gifts, but we will never have enough time to personally attend the weddings, even if we lived in the same city. Someday, we will have all the money, but not an ounce of time to sit and enjoy the goodies money could buy. Someday we will be able to afford expensive restaurants and party all night and drink the bar dry (without calculating the bill using a phone). But that will be to get rid of the loneliness and to face the travails of life sans the selfless shoulder of friends. The birthday treats, the first year excursion, the taste of Khwaja's biryani and homemade chocolate cake and the local train ride to Naihati, and everything else would be a blur, a series of nostalgic moments frozen in time. And the only remnants of these fond memories would be some 200-300 pictures I have amassed in an album over the last few years. Just a few pieces of colored paper, printed glossy and 3" X 5" 'coz that came the cheapest.