“Hey, silver guy!” Sitting at my desk, pretending doing something, I was startled. The department chair stood before me. They call you silver guy? – he gloated, as if calling Bruce Wayne, Batman. Yes Sir, some graduate students do. I replied in a-matter-of-fact way. This deflated the playfulness in his voice. I work on silver recovery from laundry wash water. Great! that’s really great – he heaped praise, in a way, affected and precisely American. Saying a prosaic thank-you-sir, I watered down his enthusiasm. His lips then folded together, and pressed against his cheeks. He nodded his head a couple of times. And, then reached into his pockets. He was holding a piece of medallion to me. Perhaps, of silver. This I want you to clean. I looked at the medallion. It had a lady’s face etched onto it. You want me to remove these black marks. Hoon-hoon – he sounded. Can you do this for me? Sure, I can do this. I knew its chemistry. I began preparing the solution. He stood there, looking at me doing the task. What are you mixing, tell me? I did not answer him. I simply smiled. But at the same time, the question took me to an incident during my school days – OG days as we, Oakgrovians, fondly call them.
I am in class 8th. Our class is in chemistry lab. There is no teacher around. I see bottles of nitric acid, hydrochloric acid. I began mixing them, attempting to make aqua regia. I had read before, it is nitric acid and hydrochloric acid mixed in a certain ratio, and used for cleaning precious metals. Rana Pratap, in 12th then, stood next to me. Bata na, bata na kya kar raha hai. Nothing, nothing, you have your keys? I’ll clean it for you. Perhaps, wary of my claims, he did not give me his. I found some nails, rusted ones, and put them in the solution. Brown fumes and pungent smell began immediately filling the lab. I was delighted. More because it delighted my other friends. Their faces possessed awe and admiration for me, or may be, to the reaction unfolding before them. However, this curiously jacked me up. Perhaps, because the features on their faces were exactly what fame is made up of – at least the alluring side of it. Therefore, to deepen the feeling, I ambled for some more material to throw inside the fuming solution. I found a battery, and tossed it in. The reaction attained some vigor, a vigor which only feebly matched our collective curiosity. There were calls to add some more stuff to it. However, they all died when Dr. Naqvi came roaring inside the lab. Acid kisney use kiya, who used the acid? His words had some magical effects. Everyone just disappeared around me, leaving me in some sort of void, where only I stood with the bottle bearing acid in my hand. Dr. Naqvi stood in front of me, seething. You-criminal-get-out-of-this-lab-you-will-never-enter-here-get-out-you-criminal-you-are-criminal. His words came in such quick successions, as if sewn together, as if his tongue hid some threads and needles, as if someone sat there and stitched them together. I whimpered with a customary apology. It hardly worked. It never worked. I knew it. Everyone knew it. However, it was necessary, otherwise we would curse that we did not try enough. More importantly, it would ensure that when calm returns, and the concerned authority would go on with its regular chores, such apology would be the starting point to broach the subject and settle it within the limits of its physical effects. Yes, physical effects, if you consider character impressions beyond the purview of physicality. You-go-stand-outside-you-will-stand-here-for-all-times-to-come-you-are-criminal-tabish-nawaz. He physically pushed me outside. I did not take his actions or words to heart. For indeed, I was aware of my ill-doings, if not criminality, and more importantly, Dr. Naqvi had earlier helped me on several counts.
I stood outside, while the lab inside went ahead, perhaps now more seriously, for standing outside, I heard no classroom hum that typically lingers outside a casual class. Mr. Ali was coming from somewhere. He was the lab assistant then, and had taught us chemistry in class 7th. Seeing me outside, he thought I am just loafing around. Aur bhai, tu yahan kya kar raha hai, chal andar. He had this non-formal, rustic way of talking. This endeared him to us. I think, he knew it well, and enjoyed it. Therefore, whenever possible, he would interfere on our behalf or ignore whenever we would be found wanting in terms of certain rules and regulations of OG, like on several occasions he saw us out of bounds but never reported to the MoD.
I told him what had just happened. I urged him to help me in making peace with Dr. Naqvi. He assured me saying – chal dekhta hoon. I had earlier helped Mr. Ali with his KBC (Kaun Banega Crorepati) preparations. Therefore, he could not have refused me. Moments later, Mr. Ali came outside. Chal, sorry bol de, aur aaeenda se nahi kariyo, chal aja. I went to Dr. Naqvi and apologized. Dr. Naqvi, though still livid, did not call me criminal. Rather, he called me a good student. He was my housemaster too, therefore, he brought my parents also in the conversation. He reminded me of their hopes. I listened to him intently and promised that I would never do this again. He asked me to join the class. Mr. Ali followed me as I went in. I turned to him and said thank you. He was gloating – Main na hota to pata nahi tera kya hota. I thanked him again and joined the class.
Some of my classmates, whom I looked at, were smiling. I too smiled, betraying the remorse I exhibited only moments ago. At such an age, it was difficult to be remorseful. In fact, I never felt it back then. Even surfacing on our faces while making apology, remorse was never real. It was always a means to lessen punishments for our trespasses, if not avoiding them. And, in our calculus, punishment was never a logical outcome of any of our deeds. In fact, punishments were part of our deeds, something unavoidable, even necessary. We accepted them with smug resignation, if not stoically. Punishment meted out to us only meant delay, interruptions, may be even diversions, to our final goals. Once it got over, we would continue doing what we were doing in its absence. As a matter of saying, it was not that the sun has risen from some wrong direction, but has not risen at all. Therefore, when the lab period began coming to an end, and a rush for submitting lab files ensued. I got hold of two fresh bottles of acids, whose names I did not care to look at and hid them in the bushy mass outside the lab. After everyone was gone. I secretly went there and brought the bottles to B-shed. Sudhanshu, my classmate, helped me in bringing them to B-shed. He also hid them in an abandoned pipeline next to the generator room. The next day, early morning, I cleaned my keys and demonstrated it in the classroom. The sparkle in my classmates’ eyes testified and multiplied the sparkling my keys now possessed. Nikhil, next offered me his keys to clean. By the evening playtime, I had quite a handful of keys to clean.
As I sat there, in B-shed, cleaning the blackened keys, restoring their sheen, under the curious glare of my classmates, I felt like some druid, making some magic potion. I was smiling. Pure smile. But this time, cleaning the Professor’s medallion, my smile had something more. It had a tenderness that usually comes from recollecting a fond memory. The Professor again went on – tell me what have you mixed. I said, removing my gas mask, revealing a smile beneath – “Memories” – and, offered him his cleaned, shining medallion.
– Tabish Nawaz (2005 Batch)
Tabish Nawaz, 2005 batch, is pursuing his PhD at University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth in Environmental Sciences and lives in New Bedford, MA, USA. This piece was shared by Tabish on email on November 06, 2017.