Click here for the synopsis of The Final Year Project.
The chilly ocean breeze at 2 AM brushing across my warm cheeks has me downing my glass of whiskey. We’ve been at our usual round table under the blue tents of Water Solutions for the past hour. It’s a decent makeshift bar situated a short distance away from the shoreline of Mando Beach. The audio system plays seventies and eighties music. The slow love songs paired with the sound of ocean waves crashing into the shore would be nothing short of perfect if not for the loud whining of the drunkards. Middle-aged male veteran drinkers occupy the other nine tables. Some of them blabber about their miserable jobs, others about their wives, and an enlightened few, about themselves. They tend to graduate from one stage to the next, sort of like the bald guy with the beer belly in a dark green shirt beside me. He sits at the table for those in the third stage. In the year that the guys and I have patronised this bar, this bald guy’s been here every time. Naren, the sixteen-year-old who works here in his singlet and shorts, serves the bald guy a plate of golden brown crispy fish fry.
“Is everything alright, Mr. Thiru?” I ask. He always eats scrambled eggs with his first glass.
“Gas trouble,” Mr. Thiru says with a polite smile while rubbing his stomach. I glance to the glass of beer in his other hand and the fried fish on the table.
I’m not surprised. I nod acknowledging his misery.
Sid, beside me, leans back to address Mr. Thiru. He pulls up the sleeves of his black leather jacket and goes to stand behind Mr. Thiru. The three of us around the table try hard not to laugh as we watch Sid start on an emotional lecture on the pros of drinking vodka instead of beer.
“No, Mr. Thiru, you don’t understand!” Sid cuts Mr. Thiru off. One hand on his hip and the other to pushing his wavy hair back, Sid stares at Mr. Thiru with deep concern. Mr. Thiru’s scepticism doesn’t deter Sid. He perseveres on by introducing crap science and bullshit percentages on why Mr. Thiru should drink vodka instead. But Mr. Thiru, who’s slouched in his seat, looks at his glass of beer longingly.
“Boy I know but-”
“I can’t watch you make this mistake.”
Sid grabs the glass of beer on the table and pours it down his throat.
“Ada paavi,” I mutter under my breath. Mr. Thiru gapes at Sid. Vikram bursts out laughing and falls off his chair. Dev covers his face as he sniggers. I walk around Sid’s chair to help Vikram up. But being a giant at 6’0” and weighing in at ninety kilos, I can’t lift Vikram up and especially not when he’s slapping my back amused by Sid’s antics.
“Naren! Vodka, one bottle!” Sid calls out as he slams the empty glass on the table.
Mr. Thiru looks at the empty glass longingly.
Sid gives Mr. Thiru’s shoulder a squeeze and takes over my seat. Vikram heaves one big sigh and wipes his tears as he gets up to his own. I struggle to sit up while rubbing my stinging back. And just as I reach out to the bottle of whiskey on the table, Vikram grabs it.
“Aren’t you one bit ashamed by the shit you do for free beer?” Vikram asks pouring the last bit of whiskey into his own glass. That’s his fourth. He notices my pathetic gaze and gives me a wide beam that’s mostly hidden by his thick beard before shouting an order for another bottle to Naren at the counter.
“When you’re not ashamed to walk around with a face like yours, what’s there for me to be ashamed about?”
“Fucking” -Vikram charges at Sid over the table and grabs hold of Sid’s jacket. Dev and I remove the empty bottle and plates of half-eaten masala chicken and fried fish. Vikram drags Sid across the table. He locks Sid’s neck and dares Sid to say that again.
We laugh. They struggle more and Sid pulls on Vikram’s white shirt so forcefully it tears revealing his black singlet.
There’s a momentary pause.
Sid sits up on the table. We stare at Vikram who’s focused on the big hole around his abdomen.
Vikram grabs Sid by the collars of his jacket and pulls him to the ground. They roll around swearing at each other. I take out my phone to snap a few pictures instead of breaking them apart. Dev takes the opportunity to steal Vikram’s glass of whiskey.
The two on the ground end up blocking Naren.
“What?” Vikram yells at Naren. Naren holds out a small bottle of whiskey and a bottle of coke. It suffices to get the both of them back on their feet. Dev retrieves our bottles from Naren and pours us all a drink while Vikram takes off his white shirt and throws it at Sid.
“Here,” Dev says as he passes us our glasses. “It’s not like we don’t know Sid’s shameless-”
“Or that Vik looks-looks…” Dev breaks into laughs, so do the rest of us. Vikram curses Dev and then looks at me.
“The fuck” -he kicks my chair- “are you laughing at? Dev’s fair and his face is okay and Sid” -he throws a handful of fish bones at Sid- “Sid’s mouth takes care of whatever his face lacks. And at least I have a good body. What do you have?
I can’t lie. If Sid’s glib tongue can get him out of anything, Dev doesn’t even need to speak. Dev’s face does everything for him. With short hair styled up, a light goatee and a face that’s always looking like he’s brooding over something serious, no one messes with him. And despite looking like the last person anyone should mess with, Vikram gets into trouble often. But under all that facial hair and shoulder length curly hair that Vikram has tied up, Vikram actually looks decent. He looks too decent in fact that it doesn’t suit his rowdy nature and muscular stature. And don’t get me started on Sid. He looks like someone right out of a magazine. He’s as tall as Vikram, as lean and toned as Dev, with an interest in the latest fashion trends. I, on the other hand, am a skinny guy. I have short straight hair that I don’t bother to do anything with. For an Indian, I can’t grow much facial hair. It makes me look like a sixteen-year-old despite being twenty-one. But there’s one good thing about it.
“At least I don’t scare away girls,” I say.
Although the drawback is that they only think of me as a younger brother which I keep to myself and watch the rest pick at Vikram again. We have a good laugh. Dev calls for a toast. He glances to each of us and tips his head forward with a smile. “To our third year,” he says.
“To our final year,” corrects Vikram.
Our glasses clink against each other’s and just as I place my lips on the tip of the glass, shouting pierces through the air. I turn back. A few guys with cricket bats surround the entrance of the tent. They scan through the crowd and I notice a familiar face. One with a bald head, sunken cheeks, a chiselled jawline and a ‘Hitler’ type of moustache.
Ram notices me too. He raises the bat in his hand towards my direction. Everyone charges towards me. My eyes widen.
“Fuck!” Sid pushes off from his chair so forcefully it hits the patrons behind him. They curse and swear but Sid couldn’t care less. He pulls me up by the collars of my white shirt. Vikram and Dev get up hurriedly too.
“What the fuck did you do this time, Sid?!” Vikram exclaims.
“GO! GO! GO! GO!” Sid screams as he pushes me forward.
I take one last gulp of my whiskey and run. Sid flips over our table and I slide across the table in front of us after Vikram. Plates of fish, chicken and eggs, and bottles of alcohol go flying. My shirt gets soiled. We push over the other tables and all the empty chairs as we bolt towards the ocean. The curses don’t end – but what’s a couple of curses compared to getting whacked by twelve bats!
We make a mad dash past the other makeshift restaurants and bars. The lovers chatting by the shoreline hurl vulgarities at us for kicking sand in their eyes but cower upon seeing the twelve guys hot on our heels.
“Who the fuck are they?!” Vikram yells.
“Ram and his guys!” answers Sid.
“Who the fuck’s Ram?!”
Vikram slows down and falls behind. I turn back to see him. His face scrunches up in hysteria.
“WHO THE FUCK’S NEINA?!”
Our assailants behind him swear to kill us when they get their hands on us.
I grab him by his shirt and we run.
Sid and Dev enter an enclosed makeshift tent bar at the end of the beach. Vikram and I follow behind, and I bang into Sid.
“Ow, what the f-”
The girls clad in colourful sarees on the stage set up on the left stop dancing to the song and stare at us. The item number on the sound system pauses right after. There’s at least thirty bear-sized men with thick moustaches and just as thick gold chains around their necks. All in white shirts and folded white dhotis, they stare at us as if we had barged in on an important government meeting. I notice the handles of the knives these guys have stashed in their dhotis. Chills run down my spine and it’s not because of the breeze this time. The momentary silence is stifling. I gulp down my spit. These guys are big-time gangsters.
“Enna?” someone in the crowd growls in Tamil.
“Uh…,” Dev exchanges glances with the rest of us.
“Police, mufti-le,” I reply in Tamil slang as I point over my shoulder.
It riles up everyone in the tent. The girls are escorted into the kitchen at the back. Two big guys brush past us to see Ram and his guys. Luck on our side, they mistake the bats for batons. A skinny drunk guy, who had been hidden by the big-sized men, stands atop a table and pulls out his knife. He waves it in the air and addresses everyone.
“The police have lost their minds!”
The crowd roars in agreement.
“It’s time to remind the police what we’re capable of!”
That’s all it takes. Brandishing their machetes, all the bear-sized men charge out of the tent. The skinny guy is the last to leave, and he thanks us for the tip-off. He even shakes my limp hand.
“Did we just become accessory to murder?” Sid asks.
My mind goes blank.
“Would you rather stay and become a victim?” Dev responds.
The four of us hurry out of the tent. I glance back. Ram and his guys retreat at the sight of the knife-wielding gangsters. The blaring threats of these gangsters make even me go weak in the knees but I don’t stop running. Ram and his group are heading to the same place we are – the carpark behind Water Solutions.
We reach first.
“We can never come back here again!”
Sid looks at the lighted-up blue signage of Water Solutions with immense grief, completely clueless about the impending doom coming straight for him from under the signage. Ever since I met Sid in college, not a day has gone by without me being amused by his thought processes.
“Now’s not the time to be sentimental, Sid!” Dev warns getting on his black bike. Sid begins to retrieve his bike keys from his pocket. I’m glad to have met Dev in college too. He’s only one that entertains Sid.
I start my own metallic brown bike and get going as fast as I can to catch up to Dev. I check my rear-view mirror once a safe distance away to see Ram’s jeep go in the other direction. A sigh of relief escapes my mouth. There goes the accessory to murder charge. I exchange glances with the rest and we break out laughing.
The four of us make a plan to meet at Amra Street tomorrow before we part. Sid and Dev go East. Vikram and I go West. On our way home, I tell Vikram the story of how Sid tried to flirt with a pretty North Indian girl named Neina a week ago at a club.
“Where was I?” he asks.
“Busy getting drunk to notice.”
After three hours, we finally reach the gates of Ayushman Colony – the colony of longevity. People live longer than they should over here, like the prying old lady in the first house of our street. We get off our bikes at our street and start pushing them. The old cow’s a hundred and two. She goes walking every day, into everyone’s houses under the ruse of “greeting” them in a bid to collect gossip fodder. Thankfully, the lights in her house are turned off tonight. She once complained our bikes were too noisy and too scary for her weak heart.
If only it was as weak as she claimed it to be.
I park at Vikram’s porch opposite my own and decide to call it a night at his place. His mum’s overseas on a medical expedition. That only means there’s no one to question us. Back at my place, my dad will start a lecture that could last through the night. And I’m too exhausted for that.
Vikram and I wait for the other two at the entrance of Amra Street. Our college is in the middle of a jungle – or at least that’s what it looks like. The humongous overgrown trees on the sidewalks block out the sun during the day and at night, the path is simply eerie. Students rarely come back on weekends unless it’s for sports or to study for exams. But this Saturday morning, it’s congested with students and parents. It’s easy to differentiate the first-years – or ‘freshers’, we call them – from the rest of us. They use the sidewalks. Everyone else uses the road which only means the speed limits of our Harleys are capped at 10km/hr.
Vikram keeps a lookout for the guys while I glance around the crowd. All the girls are in salwar kameez and the guys are in pants and shirts as prescribed by the campus rules. The other way to differentiate the freshers from the rest is by their attire on Fridays. They have uniforms. Boys wear a white shirt with beige pants and girls get to wear a white saree with red borders paired with a red blouse with gold borders. It’s also easy to distinguish the females that study at the Tech campus from those that study at the Humanities and Sciences campuses. Only the Tech campus restricts their girls to traditional wear. I’m told the predominantly male population of the technology faculty calls for such strictness and tradition. But it’s redundant since clothes don’t matter when checking someone out. All the male ushers stationed along the sidewalks ogle at anything that moves. Something tells me, they’re not from the Tech campus at all. I haven’t seen their faces around. Then again, it’s harder to distinguish guys with respect to their faculties. Everyone is to wear pants and collared shirts no matter the faculty they belong to. I turn to Vikram beside me in his flashy red jersey, waving to Sid and Dev. At least I’m wearing a navy polo shirt with jeans. Sid and Dev ride up to us. Sid’s in a black shirt paired with jeans. Only Dev sticks to the dress code in his white dress shirt and black pants, along with the mandatory red college lanyard around his neck which has his student ID. I check my pocket for my lanyard.
It’s not there, oh well.
We give each other a hand shake and ride down Amra street towards the white gates of the Tech campus on the left. The green gates to the Humanities campus opposite us is closed. They had their Fresher’s Day Ceremony two days ago while the Sciences Campus with blue gates, further down the road, had theirs a week ago.
Vikram waves to Gopal, the security guard in khaki uniform and combat boots. He’s a fifty-six-year-old, on the chubby side, with a thick white moustache that goes well with his thick white hair. He holds a commanding position, standing upright with his baton in hand. His walkie-talkie perched on his shoulder keeps going off and he fiddles with it pretending not to see us.
“Shall we start with him?” Sid instigates from behind. Vikram’s already on it, manoeuvring his bike towards Gopal.
“Hey Om,” he says, “didn’t you hear some weird noises coming from the watchman box last week?”
We’d come to college to watch a match of cricket and when we were leaving, we’d caught Gopal watching porn.
“We should ask Mottai to check it out,” I add.
Gopal’s eyes widen upon hearing the pet name us students had given the dean of our Tech campus. His real name’s Dr. Balram Prasad, and Dr. Balram Prasad’s imposing build and composed nature unnerve even the rowdiest of students; Vikram included.
“Yea bro, can’t have wild creatures roaming around the campus when there are girls studying here,” says Sid.
Usually by now, Gopal would have his hands together, begging us to leave. But today, he comes close to us with a stern look on his face and slaps his baton on his palm.
“I’ve been praying to god for all of you to pass without any arrears these past two years. By god’s grace, everything has been going well. If I have to do that for another three years, when will I ever get to pray for myself? Please. Please go,” he pleads.
We snigger and leave him alone – for now.
Vikram and I ride past the food stands set up on the walkway leading to the parking lot at the bottom of the three-storey grand stairs. We park our bikes. Our school mascot, a cheerful lion costume welcomes the new faces as they walk up the stairs. Dev parks beside us but Sid is caught up at the ice-cream stand.
“Should we go to the field?” Dev asks. I look to the field beside us. Student teams play football and cricket on the field on Fresher’s Day and most of our classmates are on the teams. Sid, who comes to park his bike beside us with a cone of ice-cream, suggests we go to the inauguration ceremony instead.
“What? No. It’s boring trash.” Vikram argues. He isn’t the type to sit and listen but he does have a talent in scraping through exams. Gopal’s prayers are miraculous.
“I just heard the first-year giving the speech is hot,” Sid says taking a bite of his chocolate flavoured ice-cream
I’m not surprised. Most of what he does always revolves around girls.
He asks me to look up ‘Sara Morgan’ on social media. I do. Everyone gathers around my phone. There are too many profiles under that name for us to sieve through. We decide to go and see for ourselves but Vikram’s hesitant.
“It’s the ceremony.” He glances at his attire. “Mottai will be there man.”
The rest of us laugh. Mottai knows everything there is to know about Vikram. Last year, Sid purposely dared Vikram to get a girl’s name and number, fully aware Mottai was her dad.
Vikram didn’t know that.
He was cleaning classrooms, restrooms and, worse still, the Admin Office for the entire semester.
He pats his thick beard and looks at his jersey which are both no-nos. Guys are maximum allowed a moustache and a light stubble.
“If she’s not hot…” Vikram holds Sid’s neck in an arm lock. We walk up the three-storey grand stairs of the Admin Building trailing after girl freshers instead of taking the shortcut out on the road between the Admin Building and the field. The college administration must’ve fixed this route. The Admin Building of the Tech campus underwent some renovations in our first year, and the college likes to boast about their facilities to new students. There’s a gym on the right and a library on the left. The Admin Office sits between them with a white ‘ADMINISTRATOR’S OFFICE (AO)’ sticker pasted onto its tinted glass doors. But I can still vividly see Mdm Devinaayaki Krishnamaal Sundaresan, the bespectacled administrative head, behind the counter sorting out files. She’s a big, old lady in her sixties and she repeats her sarees every two weeks. I know that because the guys and I get called in to meet Mottai often.
We glue ourselves to the glass exterior of the gym whilst covering Vikram’s flashy appearance as we walk past the AO. Half of the gym on this floor caters to the girls. It has its own entrance and their side of the gym is enclosed in frosted glass for privacy. The other half is enclosed in clear glass because apparently, guys have no need for that kind of thing. But at least guys get to use the entire first and second floors of the gym. The female freshers in front of us look to the gym as they walk past it. I look too and see the boys on the treadmills acting as if they don’t notice the girls checking them out. I chuckle under my breath.
I prefer the three-storey library. I’ve spent a significant amount of my college years there. It’s the coolest library in the entire college. It’s enclosed in glass on all three levels. It has all the books required by the ten courses offered by the Tech campus but, obviously, nothing to interest these jokers in the gym.
The student helpers in navy polo tees with ‘Amra’ written above their shirt pocket stand at the end of the walkway near the railings. They usher us to walk around the railings towards the staircase. The railings go a long elliptical round all the way to the other side of the AO. We walk along it as we make our way to the staircase. The blinds of Mottai’s office are down. He’s not in. His inward curved glass window stretches from one end of the AO to the other giving him a perfect view of all three levels. There are four auditoriums on each floor – two on each side. All lectures for the freshers in Tech campus occur in these twelve auditoriums. Mottai sees everything.
The staffroom occupies the two levels under the AO. The blinds of the staffroom are down. They’re always down. They rather not see the nonsense students get up to.
“Aren’t you supposed to be at the field? What’s a team without its captain?” Dev asks as we reach the opposite of the AO.
I look up to see Francis, a senior in Biotechnology, alongside other student helpers beside the staircase. He’s in his white and white Cricket uniform. A lean guy with short straight hair and a well-maintained goatee, he always has this smile on his face which I find discomforting. He stops the parents from navigating through the connecting bridge across to the main campus.
“You don’t want to head there so soon, it’s the Tech Purgatory,” he says without flinching to the students and parents.
“He means Tech Building,” Dev responds reassuringly to concerned faces.
Francis smiles and guides the newcomers to the stairs and asks them to head down to the first floor.
The Tech Building – or Tech Purgatory, TP for short– is an eight-storey brick wall building where the rest of the Tech students have their lectures and tutorials. It’s connected to the Admin building via the connecting bridges on the second and third levels, and the connecting walkway on the ground floor.
“The team can take care of themselves, Dev. Besides, I’m here to check out the girls,” he says coolly as if he was doing some kind of research for one of his biology projects and there was nothing lewd about it. But I have to hand it to him for frankness. Sid asks for a hi-five and Francis gives it.
We make our way down the stairs to the first floor to get to the Multi-Purpose Hall – the MPH. It’s another three-storey brick wall building located behind the field. There’s a hall on each floor that seats eight hundred people. We’ve been having all our exams in them. But we spend more time studying for the exams at the corridors outside of the halls, bordered by stone railings. The first year, we sat on the brick tiled floor as first-years do. Second year, first semester we stood. By the second semester, we were sitting atop the railings and if any seniors had a problem with it, we directed them to Vikram. But today, Vikram cowers trying to hide behind the crowd as he walks up the short flight of stairs into Hall A. Mottai is right ahead sitting on a chair on the makeshift stage. Vikram can’t risk Mottai seeing him through the open glass doors. We rush over to the corridor on the left. Sid knocks on the side door.
If you’d like to read more, do email me at firstname.lastname@example.org requesting for an eARC and I’ll be happy to send you an ePUB and/or MOBI version of the eARC in exchange for an honest opinion at The Final Year Project.