“Here Chotu, xerox everything up to the folded page. I’ll be back in ten minutes. Keep it ready.”
The student slapped the notebook down on the counter without as much as looking at Sunil and rushed out to catch up with his friends.
Sunil frowned at the pages full of sloppy, spidery handwriting. The student had obviously skipped class, but couldn’t he have at least got some better notes to copy? He opened the lid of the photocopier, pressed the notebook flat on the glass and pressed the copy button. With a click and a whirr, the machine came to life. With practiced ease, he offered A4 sheets into the machine’s maw, which it regurgitated, covered with mathematical formulae and equations.
In the background, a popular Hindi track was playing:
“Dil hai ke maanta nahin…Mushkil badi hai rasm-e-mohabbat yeh jaantaa hi nahi…”
It was a slow melodious number, but one would never have guessed, playing as it was at comic speed on the shop’s dual-deck tape recorder. The shop was L-shaped and the back was an alcove whose walls were lined with audio cassettes—Bollywood songs, ghazals, bhajans, some international pop and rock. There was always music playing in the shop, except you couldn’t actually listen to it, since it was always running in high-speed dubbing mode, being copied to the blank tape in the other deck.
Up front, along the side wall was a row of benches leading up to a small glass-paneled phone booth, where every evening, students lined up to make STD calls back home. The STD booth, the photocopy machine, the cassette alcove, and the milkshake counter near the entrance manned by his mother– these formed the four branches of their family business, all run from within the confines of the 800-sq-ft shop. His father had planned the enterprise well, meaning for each element to complement the others. The students coming to photocopy notes or call home would inevitably order a milkshake or be tempted into buying the latest audio cassette. At twelve years, Sunil was already as adept at handling all four businesses as his parents. He enjoyed working in the shop after his school hours. Through the long summer months, the university campus had lain silent and deserted but for the occasional elderly resident professor riding along on his bicycle at a glacial pace that seemed to suit the mood of the slumbering campus. But now at last, a new semester had begun, the students were back, and the campus was abuzz with voices and laughter and heckling and fun and games and all manners of activity again.
“Excuse me, can you please copy the first chapter of this book?”
Sunil glanced up at the slightly accented Hindi. A South Indian. And the polite tone only meant one thing. “First year?” he asked. It never lasted, that tone. Soon, the first-years too would be calling him “Chotu” and ordering him about with proprietorial tones.
The bespectacled boy who stood at the counter nodded absently, looking around nervously. New students often had hunted look, always on the lookout for predators – the seniors, whose main recreation during the first months of the new academic year was ragging juniors.
Sunil took the book. “Microprocessors. This is fourth year, no? Why do you want to copy it?”
The boy looked at him in surprise, and Sunil felt a twinge of smug satisfaction. His memory trick always caught them by surprise the first time. Now he had the fellow’s full attention.
“It’s not for me,” the boy said. “You know this book?”
“I know them all,” Sunil said grandly. “First-year or fourth-year, every book on campus comes here once at least in its lifetime to be Xeroxed.”
The boy smiled and held out his hand. “I’m Vikas. I’m studying Computer Engineering here.”
Sunil shook his hand, feeling important. “Sunil,” he said. He wondered how long the boy would bother to remember the name. Most didn’t. ‘Chotu,’ the all-purpose name for any kid his age, sufficed for them. He hated the name.
He finished with the notebook and began photo-copying the first chapter in the Microprocessors book.
Vikas strolled over to the back of the shop and gazed at the stacks of audiotapes in the wall racks in the alcove.
“Quite a collection you’ve got here,” he said.
“They’re all for sale,” Sunil called from the photocopy machine. “Or you can choose songs, and we can record a mixtape also for you.”
“Nice…” Vikas said, busy browsing through the cassettes and plucking out a few to check the songs listed on the back cover.
“Hey, there he is! Fresher, come here!”
Vikas spun around and Sunil saw him visibly blanching. He turned and sighed inwardly when he saw them—Siddharth Arora and his cronies, Rishi and Purab. Over the past three years, these three had built themselves quite a notoriety around campus. They liked nothing better than to pick on nerdy toppers, easily identifiable from their ID numbers which were based on their ranks in the entrance exam. Other seniors soon tired of ragging and often became good friends with the juniors they had ragged, guiding them and helping them find their way around campus life. But with these three it was different—they hooked onto some poor soul and hounded him all year just for laughs, until the next year when some other unfortunate newcomer would replace the victim.
The older boys went over to the back and surrounded Vikas. Rishi smacked Vikas on back of his head, knocking his spectacles awry.
“Hey Sid, didn’t you give the boy some work to do?”
“Sure, I did. And here he is, loitering around like a useless duffer.”
“So, what should we do with him?”
“I…,” Vikas stuttered, pointing vaguely at the photocopier. “I came for that only…”
“So, you’re saying we’re wrong?” Siddharth knocked him on the head again. “You’re not a useless duffer?”
Vikas kept his eyes on the ground.
“Okay, I suppose we should remind you once again about the three golden rules of this great institution?”
“Good! Recite them for us, fresher. Let’s hear them. Rule number one?”
“Seniors are always right,” Vikas mumbled.
“Louder, please. I can’t hear you.”
“Seniors are always right.” Vikas said.
“That’s better. Rule number 2?”
“Juniors are always wrong.”
“Correct. And Rule number three?”
“What’s going on here?” Sunil’s father had entered the shop. He headed towards the back, looking at the boys warily. “I’ve told you before. I want no trouble in here.”
“Yes, sir, Sharmaji!” Sid said, giving him a mock salute. “No trouble, Sharmaji! We’re just having a friendly chat here.”
“Then take your ‘friendly chat’ out of my shop,” Sunil’s father said.
Sid sighed dramatically, then stood aside and swept his arm towards the entrance of the shop with a flourish. “After you, fresher.”
They followed a terrified-looking Vikas to the entrance of the shop.
“I didn’t quite catch Rule number 3,” Sid said, prodding him from behind.
“When in doubt, refer to Rules 1 and 2,” Vikas muttered.
“Good!” Sid plucked a glass of milkshake from the counter and upended it on Vikas’s head. “Remember not to answer back next time.”
Sunil had always been told that the year he’d been born – 1982 – had been lucky for the town. That, in his opinion, should have made him the most important person in town. However, that position belonged to A.K. Agarwal, the late multi-millionaire industrialist whose traced his humble origins to the town. For a long time, however, all that had existed of that connection had been the Purani Haveli, the family mansion, on a sprawling estate, both going to ruin from neglect because the Agarwal family was now spread all over the globe and rarely visited their ancestral village. But the year Sunil was born, the family had decided to donate the estate to a deemed university they wished to start in their father’s name. The foundation had been laid when Sunil was a suckling infant, and by the time he was a toddler, several department blocks had come up and the first students were starting to arrive. Over the last decade, the university and its prestige had grown by leaps and bounds, the most popular being its affiliated engineering college that had always managed to stay at the cutting edge of technological advances. It was one of the first in the country to introduce a new degree course in the foundling field of Computer Engineering a couple of years ago, and students flocked to it from all over the country.
The university had changed the fortunes of the town, too. It had morphed from a modest agricultural village into a bustling town, growing around the university and catering to its myriad needs. Sunil’s family had benefited too. The university marketplace was just coming up – a dozen or so shops in a corner of the campus that catered to the food, tailoring, grocery, stationery, and other needs of the students in the university hostels. Sunil’s father, who had hitherto eked a living working a few rocky acres of land, had sold the unproductive land and with the money from the sale, he had taken up the lease on a shop in the market square. He had been running the shop successfully for more than eight years now, and Sunil had been helping for the last four.
Yellow mustard fields stretched out on both sides, as Sunil walked down a narrow lane from school on his way to the shop, whistling a tune from the latest Bollywood hit Baazigar. The cassette had arrived at the shop a few weeks back with the latest stock his father had ordered. And Sunil had listened to it incessantly till the movie itself had finally arrived in town to be screened at the small makeshift theatre rather grandly called Sri Hanuman Talkies. The theatre essentially consisted of a projection screen and a few rows of plastic chairs, and was run in a pretty ad-hoc manner by Surajchand chacha. Tickets were priced at Rs.15 each (The usual price was ten rupees, but this movie commanded a premium because it was a box-office hit). Sunil had been delighted to have gotten front-row seats for the movie, but minutes before the movie started, people started streaming in, bringing their own chairs. Surajchand chacha was happy to let them in as long as they bought a ticket, and by the time the movie had started, there were three new rows of seats in front of Sunil, blocking his view of his favourite star, Shah Rukh Khan.
Sunil was shaking his head at the grave injustice, when he spotted a familiar figure wheeling a cycle up on the road ahead.
He hurried to catch up. “Vikas bhaiyya, what are you doing here?”
“Sunil!” Vikas said. “You gave me a start!”
Sunil was happy to note Vikas still remembered his name.
“I had just come up here to do some reading,” Vikas said. “But then, it looks like my cycle tyre had a puncture. All the air’s gone.”
Sunil wondered why he had to come all the way out here to the fields to read when he had the entire campus to do it. But he kept silent.
“Are you going to the shop?” Vikas asked. “Then, you’re just the person I wanted to meet.” With his free hand, he pulled out a sheet of paper. “I’d been planning to come to the shop for a mixtape, but now that you’re here, can I just give you the list?”
Sunil took the list and looked at it. “Forty rupees for an empty cassette, and fifteen rupees for recording,” he said. “The forty rupees for the cassette has to be paid in advance.”
Vikas nodded, fumbling in his pocket for his wallet. “Do you have all these songs?”
Sunil looked at the sheet. “I know only Hindi songs,” he said.
Vikas looked at him. “Those are Hindi songs.”
“Oh,” Sunil said, reddening a little. “But they’re written in English.”
“You can’t read?” Vikas asked, surprised.
“Of course I can,” Sunil retorted, with a flash of anger. “I can read Hindi perfectly. That’s what they teach at school.”
“Of course, of course,” Vikas said quickly. “I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just that…in the shop, you knew the books…”
Sunil looked away, still red-faced. “I know them by the covers.”
“You know the names of all the books, and which course they’re for, and in which year the course is taught?” Vikas asked, amazed.
Sunil shrugged. “I’ve grown up around those books. I see them all the time.”
Vikas gave him a long look. Sunil walked on in silence. Vikas knew he had hurt the boy’s feelings but didn’t know what he could do to make things right. They had reached the campus gates by then. On an impulse, he said, “Have you seen all the university buildings?”
“I’ve known them since the time they were being built.”
“But now? From the inside?”
Sunil shook his head. “My father says to stay away from them and not cause trouble.”
Vikas grinned. “But would you like to see? I can take you.”
Sunil’s eyes brightened. He nodded eagerly.
“Come on, then.”
It was the first time Sunil had entered the main university blocks. They seemed like a portal into a different world.
Everywhere there were vast, dignified spaces, walls covered with the words and pictures of the wise, and it seemed like every nook sported some model or sculpture. And the library! Three levels of wood-paneled rooms, their walls all lined with books. Sunil gazed at them, in wonder. To think he had lived in the vicinity of all this all his life, and never been aware of its existence!
The classrooms were nothing like the ones in his school either. They passed one which had seats rising on all sides around a semi-circular dais where a professor was explaining something Sunil couldn’t comprehend.
“That’s one of the popular courses,” Vikas whispered, as they walked past. Sunil’s eyes lingered on the rapt students. The seating reminded him of the movie theatre he had once been to in Delhi with his parents. And he had always assumed that it was only at movies that people paid attention like that. It had never occurred to him that studies could be so interesting too.
Vikas smiled, seeing him pivot this way and that and take everything in. “You can come in here anytime, you know. If anyone asks you questions, just say you have some delivery for Professor Alok Pandey. No one will stop you then.”
Sunil grinned. Everyone knew Professor Pandey. He was among the senior-most professors on campus, involved in every major management committee. He was also Chief Warden of the university hostels. Known for his no-nonsense strictness and mercurial temper, he was feared by students and staff alike. Not many would believe Sunil if he told them the Red Panda, as he was nicknamed by the students, was a music lover. Certainly, it was hard to imagine him listening to Rafi or yodeling with the Kishore Kumar cassettes he purchased at the music shop.
They now came to a set of blocks with labs—Electromechanical lab, Digital electronics lab, and on and on— large rooms filled with machines and gadgets and electronics and all sorts of equipment.
“Mine is the newest block,” Vikas told him.
Everything about the Computer Science block looked new and shiny, air-conditioned unlike the other blocks. But when they reached the lab, the security guard outside gave Sunil one look and said stoutly, “Only students allowed inside.”
Sunil glared at him. The man lived in the village, an acquaintance of his father.
“He’s with me,” Vikas protested. “He only wants to see what it’s like. We won’t take more than a minute.”
The guard would not budge. “Only students,” he repeated. “That’s the rule.”
Vikas sighed and led Sunil back outside. “You know, the days when technology could be fettered and kept within four walls are fast coming to an end,” he said. “Things are going to be very different very soon. The world is going to be different. Computers will break all barriers and emerge from these closed-off labs and into the hands of ordinary people. Just you wait and see.”
Sunil looked at Vikas, noting how his face changed as he spoke of technology, the passion palpable in his tone.
Could it really be true, what he was saying?
They walked down a tree-lined avenue towards the hostel blocks, Vikas still wheeling his cycle. Sunil was familiar with the hostels since he often came to deliver mixtapes and photocopied notes to the students’ rooms. The hostel blocks were all named after thinkers and philosophers. But if the university blocks were spic and span, the hostels were anything but. The corridors were littered with buckets, basketballs, cricket bats, shoes and what-not, and the rooms were usually the same, if not worse.
They passed a graffiti-covered compound wall of one of the boys’ hostels.
“What does it say?” Sunil asked.
Vikas glanced at the wall.
Born Free—my dad’s an obstetrician.
I can change the world, just give me the source code.
Schrodinger’s Cat—Wanted Dead or Alive.
Hey girls! You don’t have to be nuts to ask us for a screw—
“Um, nothing important,” he said. “Come, my hostel’s that way.”
But by the time they reached Vivekananda Hostel, Sunil noticed that Vikas’ mood had darkened perceptibly. His infectious sense of wonder and excitement during the campus tour was gone, and the hunted look was back in his eyes.
Sunil sat at the small desk near the STD booth, doing his homework.
“Dad, really, I need the money urgently for a project!”
The glass of the STD booth was broken and the conversations from within were audible for all to hear. Sunil found them very entertaining as he worked.
“No, it’s not like last time, I swear. This one is 100% real. It is part of my elective course.”
Sunil grinned. The student meanwhile was frantically glancing at the billing meter whose red LED digits scrolled at an alarming rate, much like a runaway taxi meter.
“No, I swear my grades will be good this sem. Just send the money, dad. At this rate, I won’t even have enough to cover this phone bill.”
Sunil shook his head in amusement and turned his attention to the English workbook. A couple of days after they had met, Vikas had come to the shop and handed him a small bundle of books. They were basic English language guides for Hindi speakers and a few children’s story books.
Sunil had never told anyone, not even his parents, about his longing to learn the language, to decipher the conversations of the students in the shop, the words on the notices and posters all over the campus, the pages he photocopied all evening. He knew what his parents would say – that he should not get too big for his boots. What was good enough for everybody in town was good enough for him. But Vikas had not only guessed at his interest, but also tried to help. What surprised Sunil even more, though, was that the books were not difficult at all. Once he had got started and deciphered the symbols and sounds of the alphabet, he found he had an instinctive feel for the language and was making rapid progress with the books. Already he had built up a small vocabulary of words.
He had just begun reading one of the children’s storybooks when his father came in. He collected the money from the student who had finally finished his STD call and put it in the cash register. Then, he went to the back of the shop to look over the orders for mixtapes. Soon, music was playing at the back of the shop at the usual double speed.
“Sunil, did you go to the university buildings last week?” he asked, coming over to where Sunil was working his way through the English-language children’s book.
Sunil did not answer.
“Ramcharan was saying you were trying to get into the computer lab.”
Sunil gritted his teeth.
“I don’t want you going and poking your nose where it doesn’t belong, do you understand? If you break something there, who will bear the cost? God know how expensive all those machines are. All those things not for people like us.”
Sunil looked up, eyes flashing. “Why not?”
“Arrey, it’ll only cause trouble. What do we know about those things?”
“If we don’t know, we should. The world is going to be a very different place soon, Baba.”
“Oh, so my son is going to start lecturing me, now?” He bent and looked straight into Sunil’s eyes. “I am thrice your age and I am telling you nothing’s going to change. Not here anyway. Real change takes lifetimes to happen. Look here, Sunil, I don’t want you going there anymore. I don’t want any trouble.”
Sunil looked stubbornly down at his books and didn’t respond.
“Vikas bhaiyya, I’ve brought the mixtape you ordered,” Sunil said.
Vikas’ room in Vivekananda Hostel was tidily kept, the books lined up against edge of his study table, the clothes folded and stacked in the cupboard, the bed made, the razaai rolled up.
“Oh, hi Sunil,” Vikas looked up, with a smile. He was at his desk, working. A small sheaf of A-4 sheets filled with his neat handwriting was at his elbow.
He took the tape, looked it over and popped it into his Walkman. “It’s come out well. You want to listen?” He held out one of the earphones.
Sunil shook his head. “I hear them all the time.”
“Yes, you do,” Vikas laughed.
Sunil took a stack of books from his schoolbag and proudly put them on the table. “I’ve finished with these.”
Vikas stared at him. “You managed to read all of them so soon? I only gave them to you a couple of weeks ago!”
Sunil shrugged, hiding his pleasure.
“I always knew you’re one sharp kid. I couldn’t find much here, but I’ve written home and asked my mother to send more books for you. They should be coming soon.”
Sunil grinned, delighted. “Thanks, Vikas bhaiyya.” He looked at sheets on Vikas’ table curiously. They were in English but did not look like normal notes – the writing was indented and punctuated with parentheses and square brackets and semicolons which seemed all out of place.
“What’s this, bhaiyya?” he asked, never one to hold back a question.
Vikas smiled at him. “It’s a computer program. We use programs like this to speak to computers and make them do what we want them to do.”
“You speak to computers? And they do what you want them to do?’ Sunil was intrigued.
“Yes. Just like us, computers have languages they understand, too. This one I’m using here, for example, is called C.”
‘And you learned this language like any other?”
“Absolutely,” Vikas said. “So can you, for that matter. In fact, given your flair for learning, it should be pretty simple for you.”
Sunil looked away, hiding his blush. Vikas always managed to make him feel intelligent and special.
Suddenly, the door banged open, startling them both.
Sid and Rishi entered the room. Vikas rose to his feet slowly, warily.
“Hey, what’s up, fresher?” Sid looked at Sunil. “Making friends with the locals now? Rather desperate, no?”
“Hey, it’s Chotu from the photocopy shop,” Rishi said. “I think we sent the fresher there once too often, eh, Sid?” The two laughed. “Too bad Sharmaji doesn’t have a daughter, then things could have gotten interesting.”
“Speaking of photocopies, fresher, did you get those notes I wanted from Prakash and xerox them?”
“I’m sorry,” Vikas said. “I was planning to go, but I have this assignment I have to hand in tomorrow, so…”
Sid stepped right up to him, his face inches away from Vikas’. “So…? Are you saying you didn’t do it?”
“I…I didn’t have the time.”
Siddharth’s eyes hardened. “Ok. If you haven’t got them photocopied yet, maybe you should write them by hand, instead. If you get started right away, you’ll have just enough time to do three copies for Rishi, Purab and me. What say you?”
Vikas said nothing.
“I didn’t hear you, fresher.”
“I have this assignment—”
Sid looked at Rishi in mock astonishment. “Hey, what’s this we’re seeing? The fresher has grown a pair overnight.” He turned back to Vikas. “I completely understand, of course, fresher. You’re busy. You don’t have the time to help your seniors.” He picked up the sheaf of papers from the desk. “But we’re not like you. Here, let me help you. This is the assignment that’s keeping you busy?” He tore the sheets in halves, then quarters, and flung them into the air. “See, assignment done. Easy!”
Vikas stared at the sheets in dismay. His mouth worked, but he didn’t say anything.
“Fresher, you know, I’m getting really tired of explaining how things work around here.” Sid reached out and took off Vikas’ spectacles and folded them neatly on the table. “When are you ever going to learn?”
“Leave him alone,” Sunil rushed forward, mustering a courage he didn’t know he had.
Sid looked at him annoyed, as though only then remembering his presence.
“Chotu, you stay out of this if you know what’s good for you.” He gestured at Rishi. “Get him out of here before he gets hurt. We don’t want any trouble with the locals.”
Rishi stepped forward and grabbed Sunil by the collar and pulled him out of the room. Sunil struggled hard, but Rishi kept a tight grip on him and hustled him down the stairs.
Sunil raised his hand in greeting from the back of the shop, but Vikas avoided his eye and went straight into the STD booth.
He spoke softly into the receiver, conscious of being overheard. But gradually, his voice increased in volume.
“No, Amma, I’m telling you, I can’t stay any more. I want to come home…No, nothing’s the matter…no, no, I told you nobody said anything, I told you a million times, it’s the coursework, I can’t cope with it…yes, I know that, but that was school and this is college, things are much harder here.” There was a long pause. Then, his voice raised further in alarm. “No, NO, Amma, I don’t want either of you to talk to anyone here. Just convince Appa, okay. Please make him understand. I want to come home.”
He put the phone down with a bang, and rushed out of the shop, leaving the money for the call on the counter.
Sunil ran after him.
Vikas didn’t stop. “What is it, Sunil?” he said, not looking back and walking at a brisk pace.
“Wait, you can’t just leave!” Sunil ran forward and caught up with him. “You can’t… can’t you complain or something?”
Vikas let out a laugh. “Complain to whom?”
“I don’t know. The warden, maybe?”
“Hah! The warden!” Vikas gave a bitter laugh. “And who’ll back me up? How many people are willing to cross Sid? Nobody. It’ll be his word against mine, and he’ll have enough people to back him up, you can be sure of that.”
“So, what’s your plan then?” Sunil demanded, tears of frustration filling his eyes. “To leave everything and run?”
Vikas turned on him, his face flushed with angry humiliation. “What’s it to you, anyway?” he snapped. “You’re just a kid. This is none of your business. Go back to your shop.”
Sunil turned and ran back towards the market square, knuckling the tears from his eyes furiously.
He found his father in the shop. “Where were you? Why did you leave the shop unattended?”
Sunil did not reply. He went inside and pretended to root in his schoolbag for his books.
His father followed him. “I have told you time and again, don’t get involved with any nonsense that does not concern you. The world of those city boys is very different from ours. Remember, they are only here for a short time. Four years later, they will be gone. But you and I have to live here forever.”
Sunil said nothing.
“Sunil, do you understand?” his father demanded, in a tone that Sunil knew meant business.
“Yes, Baba,” he muttered, sullenly.
It was a week before he saw Vikas again. He was at the back of the shop, recording a mixtape of Kishore Kumar songs when Vikas came in, a bundle of books in his hand.
“Hi Sunil,” he said. “Here are the books I was telling you I’d asked my mother to send. They arrived in a parcel from home yesterday.”
Sunil took the bundle of books and looked at the titles. The joy he would normally have felt, however, was muted.
Vikas sighed. He put a hand on Sunil’s shoulder. “Look, I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have shouted at you. I know you were only trying to help.”
Sunil looked up at him. “So, you are leaving, then?”
Vikas shook his head, ruefully. “My father won’t allow it,” he said. “In fact, that call home did more damage than good. It appears my father called up Professor Pandey and spoke to him. Thank God I told them no names. But yesterday, Pandey called all the seniors in the hostel and read them the riot act—” He stopped abruptly, his face going pale.
Sunil turned to see Siddharth, Rishi and Purab enter the shop. Siddharth’s face was a mask of barely concealed fury.
“There you are,” he said, striding into the back of the shop. The other two followed, blocking off the exit.
Sid pushed Sunil out of the way, barely noticing him.
“It was you who squealed, wasn’t it?” He caught hold of Vikas’ collar and hauled him up to his toes.
“No…I haven’t done anything…” Vikas stammered. “I didn’t—”
“Just when I was thinking you’re finally beginning to grow a pair, you go squealing to daddy dear. Did you really think you would get away with it?”
He backhanded Vikas across the face, sending his spectacles flying.
“Hey, hey, Sid,” Rishi said, looking over his shoulder nervously. “Take it easy. And no marks, remember?”
Yes,” Sid said, menacingly, “I’ll remember to leave no marks at all.”
He balled his fist and punched Vikas hard in the stomach. Vikas doubled over with a grunt and crumpled to the ground.
“Sid, come on, man,” Purab said, his tone too betraying nervousness. “Not now. Not here. There are too many people around. Somebody will see—”
“I’m not letting this little snitch get away so easily.” Siddharth kicked Vikas’ curled up body, once, twice.
“Shit!” hissed Rishi, suddenly. “It’s the Panda! He’s just stepped out of the grocery store…shit, how did we not see him.”
Purab grabbed Siddharth by the shoulder. “Come on, Sid, we have to go. He’s headed this way.”
“This is not over, you understand?” Sid gave Vikas a final contemptuous kick and followed his friends out of the shop.
Sunil hurried to Vikas’ side. “Vikas bhaiyya! Are you alright?”
Vikas groaned, still curled up in a fetal position.
“Hello? Anybody there?” A voice came from the front of the shop.
Sunil rose to his feet and peered around the wall of the alcove.
“Hello, young man. Is your father around?”
Sunil shook his head.
“Oh, should I come later then? I had ordered a mixtape…”
“Yes, the Kishore Kumar tape,” Sunil said. “It’s ready, Pandey-ji.” He took the tape out of the recorder and headed to the front of the shop.
By the time he returned with a glass of water, Vikas had managed to sit up on the floor, leaning weakly against the wall, his brow furrowed with pain. He sipped the water gratefully.
“Are you okay, Vikas bhaiyya?” Sunil asked again.
Vikas nodded. He managed a weak smile at Sunil, then looked away. Sunil could see he was struggling to hold back tears.
Sunil sat beside him in silence till he had pulled himself together somewhat. Finally, he said, “Vikas bhaiyya, you said it would be your word against his if you complained. But what if there was proof?”
“Proof…?” Vikas said absently, gingerly probing his side.
“Like it was all recorded on a cassette or something?”
Vikas let out a short laugh and winced in pain “You think Sid would just stand by and let me record what he was doing? What do you—” He stopped abruptly, staring at the open deck of the tape recorder on the wall behind Sunil. Eyes widening, he said slowly, “Did you just…?”
“Thank you for talking to the campus news channel, Mr. Sharma,” the young Mass Communications student said.
“My pleasure,” Sunil said, with a smile.
“I heard you spent the day with students at the local school?”
“Yes. I enjoy mentoring the students there. Someone did it for me once, and it’s only right that I pay it forward.”
“It isn’t every day we have a CEO on campus. But this is the fourth consecutive year you’ve come in person here for your company’s campus placement interviews.”
“Oh, I never miss a chance to come here,” Sunil said. “You forget, this happens to be my hometown.”
“Yes, of course. And it’s such a wonderful coincidence that this coffee shop we’re sitting in happens to be run by your family.”
“Yes,” Sunil said, with a laugh. “Though this must be the nth avatar of this shop. It was a photocopy and STD shop once, then it sold CDs, then it became an internet café. But even that became passé. Finally, my father decided that the only thing technology can’t change is the appetite of young adults and converted the whole place into a coffee shop.” For someone who had once claimed things would never change, his father had been quick to adapt to change.
The student laughed. “Sharma aunty,” he called. “Is it true that milkshakes were once sold here for ten rupees each? Can’t we go back to those good old days?”
“Why not?” retorted Sunil’s mother from behind the counter. “Just as soon as you children return to the good old days without Internet, Wifi, mobile and all those things you’re always hooked to.”
“Touché,” grinned the student.
Sunil laughed. “It’s hard to get the better of my mother. I have tried all these years and failed.”
“Oh, he was always such a precocious child,” his mother said. “Always talking big, dreaming big, beyond his years. We were always worried about what would happen to him.” She looked at Sunil affectionately. “As for the university, we always knew he had some special connection with it, though we never dreamed he would one day graduate from it. It was started the year he was born, you know.”
The student smiled and turned back to Sunil. “Mr. Sharma, your music-sharing platform has grown exponentially in the few years since its inception. There are millions of users on the platform by now. MixTape is among the first tech unicorns to emerge out of the Indian startup ecosystem. Where did it all begin?”
“I guess you ould say it began right here.” Sunil got up and walked over to the wall at the rear of the shop where his father had preserved the racks of audio cassettes and the double-deck tape recorder to add to the retro feel of the coffee shop. “We used to make mixtapes here once, you know. The original mixtapes. On audio cassettes.”
The student followed him to the wall. “MixTape, unlike many startups, managed to scale up at a rapid pace that matched the growing interest in the platform. Would you say the turning point came when top angel investor Vikas Swaminathan backed you with such a big investment in MixTape?”
Sunil grinned. “Vikas has always been an astute technologist, always able to sense the direction of the future. He picked up the stocks of today’s tech giants when they were going dirt cheap, when no one believed anything would come of them. That’s how he’s made his fortune, you know, apart from being an entrepreneur himself. And I daresay he’s not regretting his investment in MixTape.”
“Mr. Swaminathan is an alumnus of this university, too. Did that connection help?”
“Yes, of course it did.”
“But you couldn’t have known him from his college days? He must have graduated years before your own batch, right?”
Sunil laughed. “You forget again that I used to live here. I’ve been here as long as the university itself, as my mother never tires of reminding people.”
“You knew him when he was a student here?”
“Still, at a time when the startup ecosystem in India was almost non-existent and every small company was starved for funds, it must not have been easy convincing Mr. Swaminathan…”
“Oh, it wasn’t I who convinced Vikas. It was he who approached me with the investment offer.”
“Mr. Swaminathan approached you…?” the student repeated, confused. “How come?”
“Well, I always answer that by saying Vikas saw the potential in MixTape right from the beginning,” Sunil paused and ran his fingers over the contours of the old double-deck tape recorder, “but if you ask Vikas he might say it was because he owed me one.” He turned back to the student with a twinkle in his eye. “Like I said, we go back a long way.”
Vrinda Baliga is the author of the short story collections ‘Name, Place, Animal, Thing’ and ‘Arrivals and Departures’. Her work has appeared in The Best Asian Short Stories 2018 (Kitaab International, Singapore), Asia Literary Review, Himal Southasian, The Indian Quarterly, New Asian Writing, Commonwealth Writers adda, Coldnoon, India Currents and several other literary journals and short fiction anthologies. She is the winner of the 2017 Katha Fiction Contest and has also won prizes and recognition in the FON South Asia Short Story Competition 2016 and New Asian Writing Short Story Competition 2016. She is a Fellow of the Sangam House International Writers’ Residency. Vrinda Baliga lives in Hyderabad, India, with her husband and two children.