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      What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word “Chandigarh”? For most it is the city’s tag line-“City Beautiful”. For others it is Sector 17, Rock Garden or Sukhna Lake. For me however Chandigarh is synonymous with Panjab University- my alma mater…one that I remember with fond memories and nostalgia.

            If I say that Panjab University was love at first sight for me, I’ll be lying. My first reaction on entering the University was one of admiration for the beautiful, green layout but also of some kind of cultural shock. Not that I was moving from some high end Ivy League University but cultural shocks come from even covering a distance of few hundred kilometres. Different set ups and sensibilities is something I have seen ever since I packed my bags and stepped out from my secluded life in Shimla. From the hallowed portals of Loreto Convent Tara Hall, where life pretty much resembled “Sound of Music”, I went to DPS where life was like a shot out of “Delhi Belly”. While in the former anything above a whisper was a sacrilege, the loud ruckus full of expletives in the latter forced one to turn into a screaming banshee! But I survived…just about so but I did. 

           Panjab University, once again, was not an easy transition. I fell in love with the manicured lawns, lush green open spaces and fountains but a University Campus is more than that. My first brush with university was also my introduction to the “gehri” culture. What I didn’t know at that time is that the University is the culmination of the “gehri” route that starts somewhere in sector 9/10 and after cutting through these sectors, ends in the University campus. For the uninitiated, “gehri” is the utterly inane, senseless and fairly futile practice prevalent among the youth of Chandigarh. In a nut shell, it entails going up and down a particular route for no particular reason, except perhaps to pollute the environment. And during the course of this aimless sauntering if you come across a member of the opposite sex that catches your fancy, well you abandon your original path and start following them instead. Mostly girls are the ones chased though reverse too happens at times. The intention is mostly pretty harmless. In fact I wonder if there is any intention at all..till date I can’t see the point of this entire “gehri” culture. But as a friend recently pointed out, this is the accepted “dating protocol” of the city. By following the girls thus, the boys are “introducing” themselves to the girls. If they get a positive response, by way of a smile perhaps, they may venture asking her out or else just continue in their silly ways.  

            Silly as it seemed, and still does, in a lopsided kind of way it does work I guess. For all my initial scare and irritation, I gradually realised that seeing the same faces day in and day out took the “strangeness” away from the stranger. They were no longer “unfamiliar” in true sense of the word. These very faces you saw the rest of the day as well and gradually they seemed not threatening but more like distant acquaintances in the face of new “strangers”! Of course this is no excuse for the “gehri” culture which is nothing but a form of street harassment but I could see why the boys think it’s an acceptable way to approach a girl. As it is we are a very conservative , sexually repressed society, Chandigarh even more so, and it is not okay to approach a woman openly. How and when this will end, I don’t know. But as with most other things of our past, I reminisce even these “gehris” and all the times we chased the boys instead, with nothing but fond memories. Yes ..guilty as charged..we eventually fell in the same pattern and often ended up chasing the boys though the intention was not to forge familiarity. Intention as in most “gehris” was absent.

               As with most Universities, more students were found outside the class than inside. To begin with, we were the sincere, studious ones. But soon enough we too succumbed to the charm of the outdoor. Sitting near the “hut” and sipping tea, no matter how awful, was way more attractive than putting up with Aristotle inside. There were a few who never did make it to the classes but went from one “hut” to the other or when they had enough of “hut” hopping, they headed to the mecca of all students- the Student’s Centre. Stud C as it is called was and still remains the focal converging point for all. The studious ones emerged from the library behind for a well deserved coffee break while the others were, well, always on a break. With its picturesque surroundings, Gandhi Bhawan, sprawling lawns and gushing fountains, it still makes a pretty sight. As the evening descended, the hub of all activity shifted towards the Sector 14 market and the girls hostels. From the usual “gehris” to hostellers picking up daily supplies, research students running to get their thesis typed and ruckus in front of samosa shops..yeah it was alive alright!

                 The interesting thing about life is that despite its ever changing nature, some things never change. I continued visiting the university long after I had finished my Masters and I still often do for a quick cup of coffee or even a bite. Lot has changed – the pressure of numbers is apparent. While there were hardly any cars visible in our time, except for few owned by the faculty, today car of every make is to be seen and that too owned by the students. The cleanliness, greenery levels leave much to be desired and the fountains are mostly non functional. Instead of a single food outlet at Stud C, there are a plethora of them offering a variety of cuisine. Yet in some fundamental ways, it’s the same old, same old. The “gehris”, bunking classes, the couples trying to escape public eye…all remain the same. As do what we called the “permanent fixtures”. No I’m not referring to the heritage furniture that has become the subject of much debate but some “students” who never left. While the majority stuck to “hut hopping”, they took it a new level altogether with “department hopping” starting or ending with the penultimate resting place for all- Law. Since when they had been there, no one remembered or even cared. For how long they would continue being there, no one knew that either (neither did they I suspect). They just existed as a part of the landscape…whenever one set exhausted its self imposed tenure, another set quietly slipped in to take their place. While the permanent fixtures of my days are not to be seen (thank god for that!), new ones have replaced them.This is the beautiful continuity of life- we all, no matter how permanent, move on and are duly replaced by others as transients, as permanent. And so life goes on as it must leaving us with nothing more than fond memories.