Saturday, January 03, 2004

Night life on campus

These days I’m doing a small project in the campus of the IISC. This institute is fast becoming one of the few remaining green areas (‘lung spaces’) in the fabled Garden City of Bangalore. Once a city of parks and tree lined avenues, the city is now shedding its green cloak and turning into your regular average everyday city. The institute was built on forest land and I remember somebody telling me that in the early 20th century when Bangalore was but a small townlet, people were actually scared of travelling in this area, because it was a dense forest then. It is thought that the Western Ghats once extended upto Bangalore, and some inkling of how it must have been is still retained by the campus. They built the campus around the trees, to cause as little damage as possible. The results are there for everybody to see. The moment you enter the campus, you feel the temperature drop. In some areas, the sky is almost blocked by the canopy. Many times I’ve headed out when the day grew dark, only to find it brightening once I leave the campus.

My field site is a part of the campus that looks like a scrub savannah. Of course much of the vegetation here is planted, but still, you get the feeling that it’s almost natural. The site is very close to one of the main internal roads, and some of the spider colonies are quite close to the road. My work starts at sunset: the spiders are nocturnal. I spent close to four hours last night huddling next to these colonies, watching the spiders’ every move. Because I was half hidden by the shrubbery and because nobody expects to see a person hanging about in the dark, I was almost invisible. Even when I shone a torch at the spiders, I went unnoticed. In between samples, I saw the movement of people up and down the road. Anita Nair, in a recent interview, said that she started writing only because she stopped carrying a book around and started watching people instead, and if she thinks that the way to go about it, who am I to argue.

I saw a group of ~10 schoolboys heading back from school (I assume this because they were wearing school uniforms). They stopped at the crossroads and the group was divided as to where to go -I didn’t catch what the two choices meant. Some of them wanted to go one way and the rest the other. One short kid who I took to be the leader kept insisting on going to the left, on the road that led outside and half the group was with him. The other half was hesitating to decide. The kid kept making forceful statements, almost bullying the rest into making a decision. I thought that he would not succeed, till another kid spoke up. This guy had taken no part in the discussion till now, but when he said that they should do as the short kid suggested, he broke the deadlock. Everybody started heading down the road, except for one guy who stood there for a long time, looking back wistfully at them, before heading off in the opposite direction at a furious pace. It was very curious how the debate was decided based on the crucial intervention of the quiet guy.

Another group of kids came along later. This time they decide to take a dirt road that leads into the savannah area. I was sitting quite close to the road, but I had switched off my torch. I was hoping that they would pass by without incident, because I was had a stop clock running and didn’t want to be asked questions in the middle of an observation. This was not to be. One of the kids suddenly saw me and cried out: look there is someone sitting there. The group which had been gaily chattering a moment before was silenced in an instant. They looked at me, and agreed that someone was sitting there. They started calling out the name of a comrade (I guess) but I didn’t make any move. Finally, they got really scared and started asking me who I was, loudly, and when I answered, they were almost relieved that I was human. After ensuring that I was just a student, they continued on their way to whatever destination. One kid asked me before he left if I was not scared to sit like this in the dark. I didn’t know what to say then, in truth I was more bored than scared, but I just mumbled a negative and left it at that. I am sure I will see more of these kids in the coming days, but the next time they will not have such a hysterical reaction.

But I don’t mind these occasional interruptions; they are infinitely better than being hassled by security guards or territorial stray dogs.