As the scooty entered the meandering road of Mussoorie, the familiar scent of vegetation awakened in me, many memories of Oak Grove. I was replete with these memories, from the very beginning of the trip in Delhi, but the scent, now, somehow was making them vivid in my head. Though a botanist can tell better, but I feel that the fragrance uniquely belongs to the hills of Mussoorie. I closed my eyes to savor the pleasantness. Few raindrops and a smile adorned my face. I let them sit there, for the wind to carry them away, leaving my smile behind, as a testament, of the joy of homecoming, which was some 15 years apart from the time I physically left Oak Grove.
The scooter swirling along the way, finally stopped at the Oak Grove gate. This gate was unfamiliar to me. There were many other things unfamiliar in the vicinity that reminded me of the long time I took to get here again. The post office was shut and abandoned, and so was a Maggi shop near it. The general store owned by one Mr. Gupta still stood in the space, but to me it appeared standing more in Time. As if, in a sea of unknown people, someone familiar stands, extending his hand, saying Hi. I felt a little embarrassed, seeing my memories not standing up to the reality before me, as if a delusion or a romantic idealism had shaped much of them. Perhaps that is why, I overcame my desire to go and see the shop and straight away went to the gate.
It has been a while since I last read Kafka, but I always become a little diffident whenever I approach a gate and its gatekeeper. That feeling, which I had after reading the short story Before the Law, has remained with me. It surfaced again on that Oak Grove trip. The feeling had surfaced even when I had come to know that a gate has come up at Oak Grove. I had then asked my batchmate, Nikhil, who is unparalleled in his love for Oak Grove and frequently visits it, about the preparations I should do to enter the Oak Grove gate. He had brushed away my concern with a laughter and told me to just tell the guard that you are an ex-Oakgrovian. This moniker of ‘ex-oakgrovian’ has always riled me. But to enter the gate, I used it like a magic word, uttering almost like khul ja sim sim. And for me, indeed, beyond the gate was my treasure of memories, magical and equally charming, if not less.
After duly doing the formalities at the gate, I entered Oak Grove. Not much had changed, it appeared to me. The sculptures of Mr. Shee, which I had already seen on Facebook, were erected at the girls’ school gate. I stopped for a while to touch the atlas monument and continued towards the boys’ school. On my way, I stopped at the valley. The wet earth and overgrown grass prevented me from going beyond few steps inside. Though I felt that it was better maintained during our times, I quickly shrugged such thoughts, finding them useless now. By bringing such thoughts to fore, we basically reject our present, which, I have come to believe, should be appreciated or criticised for its own sake, for its own achievements, for its own shortcomings. Escaping to past is an exercise in putting more oneself as the fulcrum of reality than one already is. Neither the past is objective nor the reality. I have seen many of our schoolmates ruing hamarey zamaney mein yeh woh, in our times, this that. When I was at Oak Grove, I had myself suffered whenever an old Oakgrovian used to come visit us and start with in our times, as if, what we were in, was a lesser Oak Grove and we lesser Oakgrovians. Now I am not blaming that old Oakgrovian either, memory makes us think that way, it is an artifice that makes our past bearable, often leaving out the unpleasant details. No matter how rich memories we have, they never match up to our reality, because we have imagined them that way. Memories are also some form of imaginations, possessing a tenuous link with reality.
After reading the few lines from our school song, etched near the valley, I stopped near the front pitch. Thereon I walked to the HMBS office. The front pitch looked smaller, though it was of the same size as before. The field was unkempt, grass grew irregularly. I wondered if nobody plays here anymore. The tennis courts were tennis courts because I knew they were. Otherwise they were just pieces of concrete. I took the stairs to audi and recollected playing cricket there. The sculpture there, though beautiful, looked more like an intrusion to me. It is said that as humans, we shape our space, and in return our space also shapes us. Therefore, the shaping of our spaces is a result of mutual interaction between humans and their spaces. If say, this sculpture is there, it not only reflects the desires of the inhabitants of Oak Grove, but also in some ways, the space too needed something to fill itself up. Me finding the sculpture intrusive, was not a feeling only I had, but in some ways the space too was telling me that I do not belong here. I understood why many old Oakgrovians become dismayed while visiting the school. Perhaps, they fail to reconcile the difference between wanting to belong there and the fact of not belonging there anymore. For in our memories we preserve a pristine form of Oak Grove, but, like us, Oak Grove is also a living entity, liable to change, and move ahead according to its times. I should accept Oak Grove in all its present form, I kept these thoughts as I approached the HMBS office door and knocked it, asking Dr. Dubey if I can come in.
At first, Dr. Dubey did not recognise me, asking sternly my business there. I gave my introduction and then he immediately rose from his chair to hug me. I, in return, touched his feet. Mr. Vinay Kumar was present there too, and we exchanged pleasantries. Dr. Dubey showed me around the school, where I met Mr. Shee, Mr. Nagpal and Sagir ji among other staff whom I failed to recognise. Mr. Shee then stayed with me throughout the trip, introducing me to the students and finally taking me to OGGS for a brief interaction with Class X students.
Much has changed from earlier times. Many of these changes, many old Oakgrovians do not appreciate. But it should be best left to the students and people living there to decide for themselves, as to what works and what not. I did not make any comments regarding these developments. If I were to begin criticising the present Oak Grove, I would then deprive the current Oakgrovians, the Oak Grove they presently have, without offering them the Oak Grove we had in our times, which is impossible. We should know that the change is only for us, and not for present Oakgrovians, for they don’t know any other Oak grove and therefore they lack the reference point to compare. It is best not to criticise what they have, for it is theirs only home. Only way we can reconcile ourselves with the present is by creating art-forms, songs, poems that celebrate our past without being too heavy a subject on our present. If we don’t learn to make art of our memories, we would be only condemned to search for them in our present. It would be an endless pursuit.
One student asked me, what is your best memory of Oak Grove. I replied – I don’t have words for it. We both only smiled and acknowledged the difficult task of reliving memories in present.
The evening before I had met Mr. Bhatt and Ma’am Bhatt at their residence in Dehradun. We recollected our days together at Oak Grove. Mr. Bhatt enquired about the whereabouts and well–being of my batchmates. I found Sir to be well – aware of his students and how they are getting along with their lives. Seemingly a simple thing, but it betrayed the deep concern Mr. Bhatt has for his students. When my train finally chugged ahead, leaving Dehradun station, I called Mr. Bhatt to thank him and let him know that I would see him later. He reminded me of an incident, when I had literally exchanged blows with Mr. OP, the hostel warden. He advised me to be more mature in future. I appreciated Sir’s concern, but what struck me was his devotion for my well – being, that how when he sees me, he still finds me as vulnerable to wild impulses as I was during Class IX days, as if I have not grown at all, I am still that Class IX kid, having an air of someone who has just started living across the HMBS. Or, may be Sir was so deeply reliving those memories while talking to me, that he actually saw me as I was in Class IX?
– Tabish Nawaz (2005 Batch)
Dr. Tabish Nawaz is an alumnus of OG, IIT Kharagpur and University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, where he earned his PhD. This article was shared on email by Tabish on Diwali day, October 27, 2019. This is his fourth submission on Oakgrovians Young & Old.