Students stand around pushcart tea stalls, discussing burning issues, all the while haggling with the brewer.

Some want Modi to scrap the contentious Land Bill while another set of intellectuals is busy deciphering the new Avatar of Rahul Gandhi. Cheap biscuits are passed around, even as stray dogs look on expectantly for patronage. Time, it seems, has come to a standstill. It’s 2.30 in the morning, or night for that matter, but nobody seems bothered, for there are far more important things than catching a wink.

These are the members of the new India. Their lives are not spent in chic pubs or discos. Their hangouts are cheap places where tit-bits could be shared and new techniques to crack the prestigious Civil Service Examination could be gleaned. This new India hopes to carve a niche for itself, as have several past generations, with the limited resources it has at its command. The bylane, on which, they are spending their night belongs to Katra, a part of the historical city of Allahabad, right in the heart of Uttar Pradesh.

Though it’s Mumbai that gets to keep the sobriquet City of Dreams, Allahabad might be the true contender in more ways than one. The holy city sees thousands of people thronging its bosom to bid goodbye to their earthly abode. This is the land where all their sins are washed away. Again, the city witnesses, every year, hordes of young impressionable minds swooping down on the over a century-old Allahabad University, with hopes of making it big in life. This is the city where people find both salvation and purpose. Teenage dreams and senile penance meet to form a confluence of hope, much like the famed Sangam, where Ganga is joined by its tributary Yamuna.

Hope is what brings these teenagers swarming to the city. Back home, most of them have seen abject poverty and felt want. They know what it takes to keep body and soul together at the paltry wages their patriarchs bring home. The meagre fee, which many would scoff at, is given after months of savings. The notes are often crumpled, hiding the tale of motherly love in its wrinkles, for these soiled and nearly mutilated papers do not come out of the lockers of banks, but find pride of place in the folds of a mother’s saree, where it keeps on accumulating, drop by drop.

The group comprises many young bloods from diverse background, united in the chase of an ideal. By any modern standards, these kids would be academic pariahs, pursuing their Bachelors in Arts or Commerce in a society enamoured by engineers, doctors and chartered accountants. This misfit set of individuals faces criticism and are scoffed at every turn, but for some, the journey is more important than the destination. Though not all make it, it’s the fighting chance that the pattern of the examination gives them what makes every scarifice worth it. Preparing for such an exam has it’s own merits. The arduous labour that goes behind the planning and execution, makes most of the lower-level exams a child’s play for these kids.

Saket during his night study session

Saket (my schoolmate) first came to Allahabad in 2006. Ever since then he has been consumed by the idea of becoming a civil servant. Though he appeared twice in the exams, he could not get through. Introducing me to a bunch of youngsters, Saket tells me their short history. The kids are nice, polite and loving. We share a meal together in the afternoon. Though it’s not a grand affair and the gruel is just edible, the lively tone these young bloods give to the proceedings is something that cannot be replicated in the poshest of hotels. The ambience is always friendly and even the basest of remarks evoke huge round of applause. These kids for a moment forget about arduous labour, gut wrenching fear of failure and tiredness. Such is the pleasure of companionship.

Allahabad University hostel students sharing food

Why is it that these kids, away from the selfless companionship of family members, choose to grind themselves for cracking an exam, where the chances of their failing is much greater than winning? Ask Anjani Upadhyay, and pat comes the reply, “It’s an ideal. This pursuit gives us a chance to test our own qualities, be it patience or discipline. Moreover, what makes it all the more interesting is the fact that if I manage to crack it, I will get a chance to actually work for the better of the society.”

A friendly banter with Anjani (R)

Though Anjani had always set his sight high, fortune had not been that gracious to him. After a couple of failed attempts, he focussed his attention to academics and managed to get through the NET (National Eligibility Test), which makes him qualified for applying for teaching posts in universities across  India. However, he wants to actually give academics a chance only after having had a last shot at his dreams that brought him to Allahabad from Buxar, a sleepy town in Bihar.

For Raj Singh, it is a matter of prestige. Having attended a coaching institute in Delhi, which he could ill-afford, he thinks his chances are bright. “I am well-versed in History and want to take it up as the subject in Mains. I am sure I will be able to get through,” he maintains, with a smile.

Raj Singh (on top) relaxing during a yoga session

Raj Singh was unclear where his life was headed when he did not manage to tread the beaten track, which is to say he failed his Engineering Entrance Exam. Of all the places he could have gone to, he had to settle down for Allahabad, for his hopes of pursuing a technical course were over for ever. With dented pride and battered ambition, he reached the university, listless, to say the least. However, new avenues of finding ‘meaning of life’ presented themselves within a few weeks of admission.

“The seniors showed the way. There were many examples of people studying hard and becoming IAS. There were seniors who made a ghost out of themselves while preparing and we juniors used to be in awe of those,” says Raj Singh. These examples were enough to firm up the self-belief and from then on there was no looking back.

Recounting the tale of a senior, who is now posted as the Senior Superintendent of Police in one of the cities in Uttar Pradesh, Saket Tiwary, a law graduate, says, “There are many stories about how Prabhakar sir cracked the exam. He is sort of legend for us. His eyes were always puffed up, as if he had spent the night crying. But the thing was he used to sleep in bursts, which came far in between.”

“With ample helpings of Amrutanjan to spread on the forehead, Prabhakar sir would seat himself on a chair and embark on a Marathon spell of reading. Systematic and unrelenting. Amrutanjan was used to dispel sleep, as he had grown addicted to tea or coffee,” says Saket. His sir managed to get through the IAS only in third or fourth attempt. But what gave extra charm to the proceedings was the fact that Mr. Prabhakar changed his subjects for Mains, meaning that he was no crammer.

Learning and growing up in such environment has its own perils. A few, overcome by peer pressure, try to follow in on the footsteps of their seniors, not realising the amount of sacrifice and dedication the endeavour takes. Success is never cheap and only a few can pay the price. Caught between their own inner demons and the seemingly impossible task, many kids flounder. The scars of defeat are difficult to erase. The lifelong pain of not having been up to the task is all the remains and many are pushed down the abyss of oblivion, leaving behind little trace of their ever having existed. What can one say more than that life’s not fair.

After a long round of discussion Saket that spanned an entire night, he decides to call it a day. I sit quietly in my corner ruminating how varied characters I had met on day one, despite the fact being I had only scraped the surface. There would be a thousand untold heroic deeds that might never see the light of day, for its only victory that gets celebrated.

A game of football in the morning showers

I look out the window and see night silently giving way to light. The inclement weather that was threatening to come down on the city finally starts battering. Of a sudden I hear cheerful noises and see kids come out to play in the rain. It has been a long night for the most of them. But they don’t want to miss out on the showers. It’s small joys that makes them the most happy. Thank god for small mercies.

Yours truly with Saket outside Allahabad University