After my +2 exams I went to Karunya Engineering college enticed by the brochure that highlighted "Siruvani rivulets". Given the "incurable romantic" I was I imagined strolling by Siruvani with some lass. After joining the college I beat a hasty retreat, part home sick, part disgusted with suffocating religiosity, part scared of hostel food. I joined Shanmugha College (SCE) in 1990.
At Karunya, I and my dad were offered a seat for completing the formalities. So naturally I sat in the chair opposite to the Principal. Prof T.R.Rajagopalan (TRR), a frail looking, sternly gazing behind a glass, seated in front of a Gandhi portrait, erupted in anger, "how dare you sit in front of the principal". I meekly stood up. My dad was amused and impressed by TRR. Just before we had gone in we witnessed a spectacle. TRR was dressing down a dad, the son/student standing. The dad feebly defended "his friends are not good". TRR hit the roof "what about his brains, why do you give him pocket money, give him money just enough for bus ticket.."
One day I was in the chemistry lab when a lecturer asked who was willing to speak in the literary forum, named Athaneum, I instinctively lifted my hand. I am a child of the stage, having gone on stage since my 6th standard. The topic was about Man Vs Machine. A 3rd year student did a cheap trick when he opened his speech, he addressed the audience as "Friends, Romans and country men lend me your years", feigned apology for calling the audience as Romans, his thrust was to follow, "they say Rome was not built in a day, well with the power of modern technology and Robots we can". I followed him, a first year student, my opening lines were a stiletto repartee slicing into him "With all the power of artificial intelligence you cannot 'create' ONE single painting of Michaelangelo in the St. Peter's Basilica". The roof came down. A star was born. The language, the diction, the posture, the wit, the scholarship was refreshing to a sleepy temple town. The same guy and I sparred on Gandhi. P.V.Karthik, thats his name, completely demolished Gandhi, ridiculed Gandhi's Brahmacharya experiments etc. I came next. I had summoned Nehru, Shaw, C.E.M. Joad, S.Radhakrishnan, Shelley and more, fired back volley for volley. The symposiarch of the day exulted "Aravindan spoke like a young vivekananda".
Prof TRR started taking notice. After a symposium on Nehru when I scaled the heights of rhetoric he warmly commended me as "you speak like my erstwhile classmate Jaavar Seetharaman". Jaavar, many Tamilians know as the painted English General in Veerapandiya Kattabomman. Jaavar was supposed to be an eloquent speaker in the heydays of Trichy St.Josephs.
By now Prof.K.G.Seshadri (KGS) began treating me like a protege. We talked books endlessly. We both exalted in re-reading "Atlas Shrugged", enjoyed discovering Fritjof Capra, studied Will Durant, savored Bacon and some ribald limericks. Year after year for 3 years I won the annual oratorical contest he held. Awarding me the first prize for my essay "Book I love most:Story of Philosophy", he said "Aravindan wonderful essay, it needed a judge like me".
I had won every major competition there was to win in Tamil Nadu. University contests, College culturals, you name it I had won it. Most were first prizes. Over 3 years I had opined on the fall of communism, Gandhi, Nehru, Women, education, non-violence, 50th anniversary of Quit India and even Gardening.
I had not missed a single meeting of Athaneum. I was its face, a permanent fixture, its identity and its prestige. I was always the last speaker, I had the last word.
I was able to function freely with a wide latitude of intellectual freedom. The best episode was when I questioned the central tenet of the Bhagvad Gita, "do your duty without expecting rewards". I posed Spinoza's aphorism, "passion without reason is blind, reason without passion is dead". TRR a respected sanskrit scholar steeped in Gita attempted to answer me. He respected my questioning. TRR always made it a point to read every student achievement in his annual report on College Day, a good chunk would be my list of prizes. Once the secretary actually arranged a press release to celebrate my university prize.
TRR was the toast of the college. He was a true Gandhian. A very meticulous person, honest to a fault, fearless, punctual, spartan, in short he was a model Principal. He would break a strike by slapping a final year student. His slapping would not be like a rough henchman like but it was like a 70 year old avuncular man steeped in a medieval era concept of student-teacher relationship. The best part would be seeing the hefty taller student walk away meekly from a man whom he could have snapped in two easily. TRR always respected my forthright views and my integrity in voicing them. Often my friends would kid me that the guy on stage was mature beyond years, weighing opposing views and voicing support in a scholarly framework. Off stage I was a typical student. I felt I had a responsiblity when I spoke from the stage.
I brougt home laurels undreamt of by Shanmugha. The biggest upset victory was winning the debate in CIT Harmony 92. I won against 60 colleges including a very talented speaker from IIT. By the time we reached finals our entire team came into the hall to see a headline victory. Verbal volleys, satire, sarcasm, sharp wit were in full flow we won handily. It was quite a sight to see an audience of 1000 erupt in applause and celebrate the victory of a student from what was a non-descript college then.The hallmark of my career was consistent winning. I repeated the feat in 93 Harmony. In 1993 it was a jackpot event. I had bet that I would win in first place. If I had failed our college would lose points heavily. It is said that when Arjuna entered a battlefield and strung his bow Kandeepam, the echo would send shivers down the spine of his foes. One contestant once said "well Aravindan is here, lets just set aside the first prize". A girl once asked me to help her and my two friends objected "oh well he is helping us already", she said "well he can think for 10 people and still beat us all", not to be immodest but I did win the first prize then too. Coming back to CIT 93, I won the jackpot catapulting my college to second place win the culturals. We had made history in SCE.
By now it was 1994 my dominance raised hackles. Judges tried to cut me to size "oh we need to allow others to win". Also I and KGS began feeling that I had outgrown the ability of most judges to judge my speeches. Well not many knew Bronowski or Joad or Hawking or broadly read so I had withdrew. I continued to speak only at the Athaneum.
In the last meeting in my final year I finished my speech and overcome with emotion I said "I'd like to take one last look at the audience, this auditorium and my fellow speakers, thanks to all of you for my rich experiences over 4 years". I stepped down, heavy at heart. Suddenly TRR called me back on stage, he stood up and asked the audience, including many Professors, to stand up and give a standing ovation. I was barely 21.
I owe a lot to my beloved father who groomed me for many years and to Prof KGS who came to treat me as an alter-ego. Of course to Prof TRR who had the largeness of heart to honor a student he had refused to allow to sit barely 3 years back.
I had kept handwritten copies of all my speeches since 6th standard, many with my father's corrections until 10th standard. I had spoken such a veritable number of topics that they were a treasure trove of an adoloscent intellectual. One summer June in 1996 feeling frustrated at lack of progress in life I just bundled it up and threw it into a dustbin. Thats the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a wimper.