My first night in a hostel room in Minto Circle, a boarding school run by Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), which I had to share with nine other boys – two seniors in the back room and seven of my age in the dorm – was one of the longest nights of my life as far as I could remember.
All night I crouched in my bed, watching a brown and green lizard move stealthily towards a group of mosquitoes, who circled a yellow electricity lamp, hanging just above my head. After every five minutes or so, she would take her long tongue out and catch a few unlucky mosquitoes, and return to munch them in seclusion above my head.
It was not like that I was afraid of a lizard. Or I had not slept in a room where an ugly lizard roamed on the walls freely, like the one above my head that night. I had my share of such frightful nights since childhood during my year-end visits to my grandmother’s house in Punjab.
So what was keeping me awake on my first night in the hostel, I asked myself. And the answer was simple. In reality, I was missing my home, my bed, my family and above all my school friends, whom I left behind after I got admission in AMU in Class 8th.
Also, being a Kashmiri, I was used to walking amidst tulips and almond flowers in spring, clear water streams of Pahalgam in summers, saffron fields of Pampore in autumn and snow-covered lanes in winters.
But now, here I was, tossing in my hard-wood hostel bed, trying hard not to think of home, or my school friends.
However, the more I forced my thoughts back, the more they bounced and took me to my homeland.
Instantly, I began remembering how my close friend Nadeem, a skinny boy like myself, would sit next to me and make me learn new English words. I clearly remembered expression on my friend’s little face when we first learnt to pronounce ‘stranger’. It was like scaling kharrie ba’al (barren hill) – a small hillock visible from my house which looked impossible to climb in childhood. I also recalled how Nadeem would ask me to teach him Hindi, a subject that ceased to be taught in Kashmiri schools after militancy broke out in 1989.
I also missed my other friend Javed, a boy with curly hair and pointed nose, who taught me how not to be afraid of examinations, especially when it’s mathematics.
Instantly, I became nervous realising how I will be able to sit in an examination without my friends around. I was sure I can never have better friends in life.
However, while trying to fall sleep in that hostel bed, I realised everything was going to change as I was now far away from my home, from my friends and from everything I loved. But after the first sleepless night came a beautiful morning. As I got out of the bed, my room partner, a Bengali boy with mop-like hair and round face, came to me and said, “You don’t worry, first nights are usually like these. You were really brave. I cried the entire night when I came here a year ago”.
Then he patiently waited for me till I got ready, and accompanied me to our dining hall, located at the corner of our hostel building. We sat and ate together, first in silence, then after a few minutes, asking each other about family, life, friends, home etc. between bites. Once back from the dining hall, he told me to wait for the morning roll call, which was done by our warden. After we were done, he took me around and introduced me to other students.
Within a few days, as I made more and more friends, everything seemed friendly in Minto Circle, including the brown and green lizard, which still chased mosquitoes above my head. Slowly the frequency of letters that I used to write to Nadeem and Javed slowed.
I was now busy with my new life and my new friends. But still, in the corner of my heart, I was always craving for my homeland, my Kashmir.
After around eight months stay in Aligarh, the time came when I could visit home. However, between me and my first home visit was my first annual exam in Aligarh. And to tell you frankly, I was nervous like everyone else. There were no Nadeem and Javeed to study with me or help me with my maths – a subject I always hated. It was kind of my Achilles Heel, you can say. Instead, I always liked English. As a kid, I used to wonder why people spend so much time adding or subtracting things when they can spend the same time in reading or writing stories.
Anyways, a night before my first paper in Aligarh, which was incidentally maths paper, I was so nervous that I fell ill. After looking at my condition, my Bengali friend and room partner advised me to skip it and take rest instead. But I knew, between me and my first summer vacation trip was mathematics’, which I had to clear to reach home. So, as everyone slept to get up early in the morning, I stayed up looking at the brown and green lizard, which was waiting for her prey.
Then out of innocence or nervousness of next day’s maths paper, I began counting the number of mosquitoes the lazy lizard would eat in an hour. She gulped over a dozen as far as I recall now. It was the best maths I could ever do in life.
The next morning, with a bit of fever, nervousness and fear, I sat in my exam. Interestingly, once I got the question paper in my hand, all the nervousness and fear vanished. After all, mathematics was not as tough as I had thought. As Nadeem used to say, it was all about numbers.
The rest of the examination was easy, given the fact that I had learned to tame the numbers. I had realised that examination was all about patience. The same patience that ugly brown and green lizard showed every single night.
The author is a senior journalist currently working as Associate Editor of Srinagar based Kashmir Life Weekly magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org