Edited by L Calvin
Design by G. Rohit Reddy
Report Day -30: Spring, 2025. It was like the gods had decided to punish the world again. He found it hard to breathe for a while, as a sharp pain hit his chest.
“Amir Astid, Congratulations on being one of the lucky 1000 students selected to spend the July to November semester offline on campus!”
Unbelievable. It was supposed to be 1000 out of 8500. Counting out the final year students who had to mandatorily go, the odds for Amir to be picked were slim to none.
Did somebody say “I volunteer”? because now would be a great time.
Alas, no one replied to the fateful email with any offers to enlist themselves.
It was the darned traditionalists who pestered the administration into opening up partially. The traditionalists consisted of educationists, teachers, academics, alumni and some parents- all miserable adults who felt the responsibility that was mostly guided by misplaced nostalgia to meddle incessantly in student affairs. According to them, an entire generation was supposedly going to be deprived of a “crucial life experience”. The Administration finally gave in and instated a lottery system of selecting a 1000 students who would be drafted to stay on campus for a semester to enjoy what could be salvaged of the traditional student life.
Amir was not happy with the intrusion. He and his batchmates were happy with the current system. In fact, they believed it was better since it upgraded to suit the new world norm. They only took two years to acclimatise to the new reality, contrary to the traditionalists, who chose to whine and sigh about the past and the “good ol’ days” when it was alright to share a birthday cake that someone had blown a lungful of air into. Five years and six waves later, Amir’s generation learned to thrive in the perfect balance between physical introversion and virtual extroversion.
Report Day -15: “I heard that the monkeys that stayed there got feral with the lack of food and eat human flesh now.”
“I saw in the news that a leopard that escaped from Guindy National Park occasionally stays in the abandoned Saraswathi hostel.”
“My friend from final year told me that the resident ghost plays Transformer movies at OAT every Wednesday morning.”
As the days rolled by to when he would leave for the
arena campus, Amir trained extensively and kept an ear out for news about the situation on ground. His training involved running laps, revising old karate moves (to fight off the leopard), and sports training for his mandatory contingent duty. When the SOC sent him a passionate email entailing how his service was essential to protect the great reputation of his institute in sports, Amir was unconvinced. However, he did feel like running would be a good skill to have in case the monkeys decided to stage an ambush during his daily commute.
Report Day 0: There was a thunderstorm on the day he arrived at Ground Zero. Amir watched silently as he drove into campus, assessing the possible threats and exits. He knew that the field would look innocent when the unsuspecting parents dropped their progeny to face an uncertain fate. When the last car drives off, the sinister games begin. Considering the loud clap of thunder as the starting gun, Amir bravely faced his base camp for the next few months: the Godavari hostel building.
Report Day 3: Amir jerked awake to find that his mask had somehow moved up to cover his eyes. As he lowered it, the sun glared straight at him through the gaps in the canopy. His limbs were sore, and his back ached from having slept on the bench. Where am I?
As he struggled to gather his thoughts, a tiny hand clutched at his sleeve. Startled, he yelped, letting the half-opened Snickers bar he was gripping, fall to the ground. The fiendish creature grabbed its target and scuttled away, hissing threateningly at him. There goes my breakfast. He half expected there to be a camera in the bushes, watching and enjoying his plight. Throwing the bushes a cursory glance, he began to furiously stuff his papers and books into his backpack.
Was it worth it? Was there really no way I could have escaped this?
He looked at his watch to discover that he had only three minutes to make it through the doors of his next class, and pushed his aching legs to run.
Report Day 19: Amir began to dearly miss online classes when he discovered that his version of offline classes consisted of being in an almost empty class with a professor alternating his attention between a camera and him. He realised that he had taken one for the team as he could not sneak any shut-eye while sitting in the first bench. There were only so many classes he could bunk to sleep in until the attendance requirement automatically dragged him back.
Report Day 27: On his way back from dinner, Amir heard whistling amongst the trees. He raised his hand up with three fingers out and whistled the Mockingjay call. The sound turned out to be the watchman who was on his patrol.
Report Day 45: Amir began to make allies with the other draftees. They were a diverse bunch spread across departments and seemed to know their way around campus. In fact, a lot of them felt privileged that Lady Luck had given them a shot at having even just a ghost of the traditionalist’s version of student life. Stockholm syndrome is a real thing. Determined to not give in to the deceiving system, he continued to focus on keeping safe from increased human interaction. So far his interpersonal skills were only needed when he nodded every time the professor met his eyes, or when he talked to the mess hall caterers.
He was lucky enough to not have to deal with much more than a few monkeys. The leopard had not materialised yet, but Amir was ready for him if he did.
Report Day 78: Amir could proudly say that he knew the arena decently. Having spent his days running around for his sports practice, he had come to learn the land quite well. He had also got bolder, now able to screech back loudly at approaching beasts and show his friends around through video call. He even visited the OAT on Wednesday morning to catch the ghost screening. He was growing close to the draftee allies and had spent the last few weekends with them, exploring off-campus. He begrudgingly admitted to himself that they were beginning to grow on him.
Report Day 130: Amir could not believe it was time to leave for home. He realised to his amazement and slight horror, that he too had fallen for the Stockholm syndrome as he felt a sense of loss on leaving. Amir would be going home a little braver, worldlier and more mature than when he came. While the threat of ghosts and leopards did help, it was the feeling of freedom, autonomy and accountability that added to it. He wished his friends were there to see it and live it with him. The virtual world could not hold a candle to the real deal.
This was not the Hunger Games as he expected initially, but he still felt like a victor emerging triumphantly having had the time of his life.