If you asked my college classmates to describe me, they might throw around phrases like – “above average” or “reasonably smart”. The honest ones might even draw your attention to my obsessive need to impress my lecturers. I was a studious first bencher, with my Reynolds pen and an open notebook, ready to transcribe every breath out of the professor’s mouth. Once, in the middle of a rather fascinating anatomy lecture, I remember I got a chit passed down from a friendly soul, ten benches behind. My idiotic heart thought it was a love note. Breathless, I opened it and read “Aur mundi hilaayegi, toh ek din gir jaayega (If you nod anymore, your head will fall off)”.
So in a nutshell, teachers’ pet and people- pleaser extraordinaire. That was Pavi, first year MBBS student.
When I got to my second year, we had new subjects. And one of them was Microbiology. You know the feeling you get when you’re enjoying a hot plate of biryani and you bite into a hard elaichi piece? That’s how I felt about Microbiology. I hated the subject. Passionately. And it hurt that we had a really awful professor teaching us. The man had a thick mustache and a thicker accent (possibly due to the mustache). His pronunciation of even simple words was pure comedy to our youthful ears. And the fact that he was mean spirited and enjoyed yelling at us, made it easier to mock him. Soon, during Microbiology period, I migrated to the back of the classroom – a lawless land where boys became men and NO One was safe from ridicule. Especially not professors with walrus mustaches.
So we sat in the back benches, stifling giggles when he said “kustchan” for question. Now, as a mature adult, I realize we were probably mean in our own way. But that didn’t stop our 19-year-old selves from thumping our knees and laughing silently, when the professor spent an entire lecture on “Teburciloses”. I reveled in the attention of my new friends, and soon I joined them in passing chits to those snooty first benchers.
A couple of months later, we had our first set of exams. A theory test, followed by the oral Viva exam. Like I mentioned, I hated that one subject. I studied hard; I burnt the requisite liters of midnight oil. I managed to do a half decent job at the Microbiology theory paper. But my real challenge would be the Viva exam.
My mood was rather gloomy, much like the day outside. Almost 4 pm when it was my turn. The student before me, came out looking like one of the cadavers we’d spent the previous year dissecting. She gave me a big thumbs down.
Oh, this was going to be bad!
I trudged in and took my seat. My limbs hung heavy and my head a few sizes too large. I looked up to see not one or two, but 5 separate examiners sitting before me!!
This was unprecedented. I wasn’t a star student who would dazzle them with my knowledge. Confused by the generous and captive audience (crap the Head of Dept. too) I peered around stupidly. Then I saw a familiar mustache in the middle of the crowd. If my life was a movie, this was where the camera would zoom dizzily around our heads, reversing our roles. Me, the fumbling target while a cohort of people watched me, waiting for me to slip up and fail.
And I did not disappoint. Every time I answered wrongly or stammered, the mustache fluffed up and down, barely hiding a gleeful grin. Soon the grins turned into guffaws and by the time I’d stumbled by way to the last set of questions, there was open laughter. The HOD slapped the assistant HOD on the back, the two female professors wiped tears of mirth from their eyes and the mustache grew bigger and bigger, feeding off my failure. My feverish brain started playing tricks on my mind. My vision was narrowed to a pinpoint beam, illuminating only the mustache which by now was filling the entire room.
Finally, we were at the last 2 questions. I don’t know how, but I answered those correctly. Perfectly even. Smiles were wiped off faces, and the mustache deflated with a sudden pop zooming down to its rightful spot on the professor’s face.
I didn‘t know if I was allowed to leave. Then a voice asked, in a thick accent “Vant to pass?”
I looked up and nodded mutely.
“Aur haso back bench mein.”
“Sorry Sir.”
“You passed. By 1 mark. On last kustchan. But revise chapter about StreptoCOCKus. You are wik,”.
A crazy giggle rose in my stomach. I swallowed and bit my tongue until the madness passed.
“Thank you, Sir,”.
I got up and fled.
In Microbiology class, I never sat on the last bench again. And I was too chicken to consider the first row. Instead, I sat somewhere in the vague middle zone, usually hidden behind some of my more amply proportioned classmates. And I didn’t make a peep.
A few years ago, I ran into the same Professor when I was visiting friends at a Pune hospital. My friends wanted to stop and say hello, much to my dismay. The mustache was grayer and bigger now (probably having fed off of multiple souls). It looked at me appraisingly. “You? You are my old studint?”
“Yes, sir,”.
“What’s your name?”
And before I realized it, my brain came up with a rather plausible lie.
“Vaishali Patil sir.”
“Patil. Patil? Hmm many Patils. Accha. 2000 betch?”
“Yes, sir.” My mouth lied.
“Good good. That was good betch. You were good studint.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Good good. Keep it up,”.
As we walked away, I thanked God that ‘Vaishali Patil’, didn’t have a mustache of her own. Because it would have given away that I was 2 seconds from hysterical laughter. What can I say? Some habits die hard.
Disclaimer : The below picture belongs to an actor. I attach it here to share with you the sheer grandeur of the walrus mustache we had to endure everyday.

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