For the two days that I was in Pune, I was five minutes away from the Film Institute. Every day as all of us (about which more later) stuffed ourselves into a cab, I'd pick out landmarks and marvel at how little had changed at least on Prabhat Road. There was the National Film Archives building at the corner of the road, the old building grey and indistinguishable from the dust-covered trees; there was Vaastu Parichay, a firm of architects who'd just set up shop while I was at the Institute. Every so often, I'd get the feeling that I could just walk into someone's house and knock to say hello, just because their houses felt so familiar. It seemed impossible that they would not recognise, in return, someone who knew their place so well.
Of course, the Baristas and Cafe Coffee Days were clamouring to stand up and be counted - all places are now McCity, and Pune was just another dot on that map.
If we happened to be on Law College Road, we never made our way as far as the Institute. We usually turned off into a narrow gali a hundred yards away. I'd crane my neck to look past the banyan tree on the road, to see how things might have changed beyond where I couldn't see. Rajesh, the chaiwala, wasn't there. That much I could see. Neither was the son of one of the people in the camera dept., who would come every evening around six to sell hot, hot vada-pao with fried green chilis. Instead, there was one stall selling neera jal, but no one seemed to want any.
Yesterday, I finally had time to visit the Institute. I paid of the rick (see how I slip into Pune-ese?) and walked past the gates. No one stopped me, though I half expected they would. There were forbidding signs that asked you to report to the guard, and there was a kind of map of the campus. All new additions.
The first thing I looked out for was the tree that we had been told had died. It was one of two banyan trees that flanked the road and cupped it from above, as if it was one gigantic door we had to walk through. The top of one tree was certainly lopped of; obviously news of its death was premature. That was the good news.
What can I say? Perhaps it is never wise to look forward to something too much. In the ten years that I had not been to the Institute, it had not just become smaller (though god knws, I wasn't a child when I was there. Surely this truism ought not to apply to places you lived in when you were an adult?) it had simply mouldered.
The whole palce was unreal. Rana Saab's house, which was just to the left of the road that leads to the Girl's Hostel, had been converted into a post office. While was still fifty yards away, I was assailed by that long-unfelt feeling of unreality: had the post office near the gate shifted? No, obviously not; I remembered seeing a couple of people at the post office as I came in. Then this must have been a set. But so well done! And where was Rana Saab?
The Girls' Hostel still had the coin phone, which must be the most redundant piece of technology on campus. Someone was sitting on the bench outside, sending the inevitable sms. The irony was not only heavy-handed, it was wearying. The old entrance was locked. Gloria, the warden and life blood of the girl's hostel, was behind a desk that never used to be there. Tai was in the kitchen, making rotis like she always had.
That should have been reassuring. It was merely sad. I left my bag on Gloria's desk and walked up to the Editing Department, to see if there was anybody I still knew. Walking past the wisdom tree, a strange feeling came over me. I wanted to turn tail and run. I had nothing to do with this place anymore, or what it did. Who would I meet, and what would I say to them? Above all, I hate explaining what I do for a living and where I am and what has happened in my life in the last decade. Why would I put myself in a position where such explanations were inevitable?
Before I could make any decisions, I saw Lawrence - Assistant Prof then, and HOD now. I'm sure there are people who like to be told they were mistaken for a first year student, especially when they have left that stage of their lives behind a long time ago, but I am not one of them. It only made me feel that I'd narrowly escaped being ragged by those people I saw hanging out under the wisdom tree.
Reading over what Ive written so far, I've realised one of the things that threw me off centre about being at the institute: do you get the feeling that I'm not communicating very well, except perhaps to other film institute people? What's this with widome trees and referring to a film school that has a name, as just 'the institute' as if everyone else ought to recognise its worth just by the casual gravitas with which one throws out the phrase?
The whole place was like that: like a dinosaur assured of it's continued existence, certain about itself and unable to see itself for the dying moster it has become. Perhaps I'm being harsh. But the sense of decay and stagnation I got from being there was enormous and claustrophobic.
After lunch with Gloria (whom it is always a joy to see), I left, trying to cover up my unseemly hurry with well-worn excuses. Packing, travel jitters. Hosts keeping an office open just for me.
Outside the gates, walking past all the places I used to know, I allowed for a familiar nostalgia that I'd been feeling the last two days. It felt great. The nostalgia came clear and sweet in the places that had changed. And as for what hadn't...it's tragic, but it only made me shudder.