By Abhilasha Sharma
In a remote corner of the ‘After-Hours’ pub, Dr. Ram Shastry was sipping his scotch when Keith, professor of metallurgy, approached him. He congratulated Ram on his recent appointment as the president of the prestigious IIT Kanpur college and requested him to continue with ‘The Practice.’
Ram looked puzzled and Keith teased, “How do you think previous president constructed his three-storey house in a thriving locality of Lucknow? Or the lavish wedding given by physics dean for her daughter?”
Ram sensed a blow was coming.
“Kickbacks,” said Keith. “From Gandhi-UGC Grant given to five poor students every year. I facilitate the selection and take something in return.” Ram raised his eyebrows and Keith murmured, “I like boys.”
Blow was harsher than he anticipated. He’d heard gossips about Keith amongst other bites floating in the staff room such as: marijuana farm inside boys-hostel, the blue pills supply which kept one awake or happy, and the many dalliances of Electronics Lab assistant nicknamed ‘Lady Chatterly.’ But he’d never believed them until now.
Ram struggled to retain his stoic expression and set to resolve the problem at hand. Problem solving was his core strength, so for the next half hour his brain wires tingled in silence while his scotch warmed. Then he gave his decision with the clinical precision of a dissertation— ‘The Practice’ must stop. Keith should look for companionship elsewhere. No charges will be made against him as that would involve all the previous conspirators and create a big scandal. Ram shuddered at the thought of faculty and students dishing out moral and emotional arguments if the matter were made public and decided not to start his administration on a tarnished pedestal.
The grief in Keith’s eyes on hearing brusque rejection of ‘The Practice’ troubled Ram. So he decided to put a watch on Keith in campus and limit his out-of-class interactions with the students. He wished to right the injustice done to the boys of previous batches but there was little he could do.
That evening, with head bent and glasses on the tip of his nose, he returned home to his wife, Madhu. She had been present for a few weeks, with alert eyes and chirpy voice. On the day Ram was appointed president she was in her wheel chair, snoozing under the impact of her Alzheimer’s medications. But she caught up with him later and since then his days have been good.
He settled her in the wheelchair and took her on their daily walk around the rambling college campus. They crossed the main hall and stopped by his photograph. He was the first student to receive the Gandhi-UGC Grant. It gave him, the son of two migrant laborers, a chance to fulfil his dreams. He finished his graduation, joined the same college as assistant professor, completed his PhD, and became a lecturer. He married his favorite student from the first batch he taught, and after thirty-two years he was playing with his grandchild in the same campus where he had cleaned tables and served tea as a kid.
He repeated the story to Madhu, but she had slept off. Next morning she was gone leaving behind a catatonic stranger. He continued with his routine, coming back home in evenings and reciting his day’s events to her. Then he would give her a bath—Madhu would never forgive him if he left that to a nurse—coax her to have food and tuck her in bed. Once a week he talked to their daughter who’d settled in America. On days when his hopes wavered, he took out the green scarf which Madhu had gifted him on their first wedding anniversary and tied it around her wrist. It made her eyes flutter and toes twitch and he knew she was in there telling him that she sees him. That brief contact was the salve for all his broken dreams, for all those trips they had planned together which they would never go to, for all the missed anniversaries and birthdays, for all the silent Diwalis and dark New Years, for a house devoid of sounds of laughter and music. He was the captain of an old ship caught in a deadly storm and those twitching toes and fluttering eyes were his north star giving him courage.
Seven months later the star vanished. One morning he tied the scarf around her neck and there was nothing. He remained in the bedroom for two days solving his latest problem till the college sent Keith to check on him. One look at Ram and Keith inquired, “What do you need?”
“A bottle of blue pills every month. My name should never come out. Restart ‘The Practice,’” said Ram. “Here are the keys to the storage unit where I had kept some of my mother’s things. Make some room there and use it for your— your meetings. I’ve put a tail on you inside the college,” he said.
If the ship were to sink, the captain was determined to go down with it.