The Curious Case of the Dweller Who Wouldn't Move Out

At the end of my first year at IIT Kharagpur, an engineering college in India, I packed up everything I owned into cardboard boxes, put them in the common room of my hostel and went back to my parent’s home for the summer vacation. 2 months later, in the second week of July 2014, I returned to my new hostel, Nehru Hall. I found that my room had not been vacated yet and was not ready for “check-in”. This was the beginning of hazing at IIT Kharagpur, affectionately referred to by the euphemism, “Orientation Program” or simply, O.P. I recount my experience of O.P in this 4-part series. This is the first part, The Curious Case of the Dweller Who Wouldn’t Move Out.

I studied Mechanical Engineering at IIT Kharagpur from 2013-2018. I lived in MMM hall during my first year, from June 2013 to April 2014. Then, I shifted to another hostel, Nehru Hall, in July 2014. I lived there until my graduation in May 2018.

At IIT Kharagpur, hazing happens at the beginning of the second year, from August to November. Most colleges haze first-year students right after they arrive on campus. Clearly, at some point in the venerated history of the 60 year old institution that I studied at, some wise soul realized that tormenting 17 year old freshmen, who were living away from their parents for the first time, was cruel and set out to rectify the arrangement. The wise soul’s motives were pure, and knowing that there were good people on both sides, he decreed that hazing should be postponed from 1st year to 2nd year. We owe a great debt to him, for his decree improved the lot of at least a few people. Namely, the exceedingly small percentage of people who drop-out of college after their freshman year.

In June 2014, I learned about the hostel that I would be living at for the forthcoming 4 years through an Excel sheet. Arriving back on campus a month later, I proceeded to my new accommodations on the third floor of Nehru Hall. I saw a set of government buildings, inexplicably dark and ominous. Walking through the ground floor corridor, I looked for labels that would lead me to my room, I found none. I would later learn that labeling was frowned upon; A true “Nehruite”, as the dwellers took to calling themselves, would know where his room was, he would not have to be guided in any way, shape or form.

I was going to share my room with 2 other second-year students, both of whom I had never met before. While walking up and down several flights of stairs in this unmarked building, I felt like the proverbial driver wandering around in a cavernous underground parking lot having forgotten where they had parked their car. Eventually, I arrived at my future room. The door was locked and no one could be found nearby.

This hostel had functionaries, government officials tasked with running the mundane day-to-day operations. Presuming that their responsibilities included assisting new occupants, I asked them what the appropriate path forward was, specifically, where I was supposed to spend the night. Instead of getting an answer, I witnessed something remarkable. The functionaries vanished into thin air, leaving behind a flurry of smoke in the shape of “We have to ask the warden. Come back tomorrow morning at 10 am”. I was left to my own devices.

The presence of these functionaries is a sight for sore eyes, like the oasis seen in the desert by a famished traveler on a hot summer’s day. Like the oasis, the closer one gets to them, the clearer one’s understanding of their (lack of) actual powers.

Facing the prospect of a night without a roof over my head, I frantically called my friends to find out what their plans were. Several of them had not yet returned. Those that had returned had found lodging with other friends. I even called up a nearby hotel, the only one in the surrounding few kilometers. Smartphones might be widespread in the urban world of 2021. But people were still amazed at the sound of a ringing telephone and scurried away from the sound back in 2014. Callers who had the good fortune of having their phone call answered by this hotel’s receptionist counted their blessings.

Venturing further out in my network of connections, I called up a Ph.D. student I knew. He had not had to change his lodgings during the summer and he was willing to take me in for the night. To him, I am eternally grateful.

The lonely and dejected “Nehruite”, after being left without a room by his new hostel, had found a place to sleep. He nevertheless felt proud of the amazing feats that his hostel had achieved in years past. He had learned about them from the noticeboards in his new hostel which prominently displayed them. Untroubled by the fact that he had absolutely nothing to do with these past feats, he claimed full credit for them. He saw the bright future he had in his new “hall”, which was incomparably superior to the mere “hostels” that were scattered all around campus. He scoffed at the voice in the back of his head that told him that all the hostels were identical and had no significance outside of being living quarters. This voice tried in vain to convince the Nehruite that he is connected to his hostel’s past as much as a traveler is connected to the past of a hotel where they have never spent a night. The Nehruite disregarded the nagging voice with ease and saw meaning that was revealed only to him.

A week went by. Every day during lunch time, I went to my room to see if the previous occupants had made an appearance. As I understood it, they were taking their sweet time to return to campus. I was mildly annoyed at their lack of foresight and at the indifference they had shown towards the plight of the future dwellers of their room. But I waited patiently for them to show up.

All the second-years who were supposed to move to this hostel were in the same situation and were living with their friends in uncomfortably small quarters. But they found consolation in their dreams. Every night, they dreamed about the heights their new hostel would take them to. Especially during Diwali, the Indian festival of lights and a time of general merry-making, when they would be standing on cots borrowed from their peers. These peers had happily given up this material pleasure and were sleeping on the ground during the cold winter month of November without any resentment towards the borrower clouding their heart.

The voice dwelling in the back of my head reared its head once more and posed a reasonable question this time. “Why had the functionaries not foreseen the eventuality of the stranded second-year student and the third-year student who refuses to move out?”, it inquired. It did not give in to my diligent attempt at driving it away. Indeed, the voice was energized by the fact that MMM Hall, my old hostel, had foreseen this possibility and asked me to move out of my room before leaving the campus. The voice proffered, “Perhaps your new hostel is run by people who don’t care about second-years”. I was astonished at this suggestion and quickly dismissed it as absurd and baseless.

I was further troubled by the voice because it had thought reasonably. This kind of rational thinking was a most undesirable quality when dealing with the things that happened inside Nehru Hall. I reminded myself that asking questions had repercussions. Questions have long been known to be a thorn in the side of bad planning and intentional indifference.

10 days had gone by. At 5 pm on the eleventh day, I made my daily pilgrimage to my future room and was elated to see that the room was unlocked and that one of the occupants had shown up. Seeing as he was a year older than me and world-wise beyond my imagination, I felt no need to explain my predicament to him. Alas, on this count, I had grossly miscalculated. Much as a horse standing in front of a river indignantly demands to be lead up to water, so did the previous occupant demand to know why I had shown the impunity to show up unannounced. This Curious Character advised me to be humble, to wait patiently, to allow the elders to do as they saw fit and not to question their wisdom.

Finding no purchase for arguments laden with reason or emotion with the Curious Character, I went back to my previous approach of waiting patiently for him to move out. I later found out that this occupant was one of the well-known delinquents in the hostel and it was not surprising that he had engaged in this strange power play by prolonging his residence in a room that wasn’t his. “Knock and the door will be opened to you”, says the good book. I was disheartened to find out that there is no verse about occupants not shifting out of their old accommodations when the period of their stay ends.

5 days after I met him, the Curious Character finally moved out. I moved in swiftly and spent the remaining few days in July and the whole of August getting used to my new situation: new living quarters, new roommates and new neighbors. Nothing untoward appeared to be on the horizon and life proceeded with much abandon. Things were about to take a turn, but I was unaware of the precise nature of the upcoming twist in the road.

Programming note: This is the first part of a 4-part series.

Post Date
The Curious Case of the Dweller Who Wouldn’t Move Out 10th May, 2021
The Sermon in the Common Room 11th May, 2021
Victorian-era Dining Hall Etiquette 12th May, 2021
The Midnight Assemblies 13th May, 2021