Have I ever told you about my career as a speaker at political rallies? No? I know you think I'm just another hapless grad student with literary pretensions who sits around all day in his Hindu deity underwear writing morbid stories about people contemplating suicide, but it wasn't always so. Once, long ago, I too made a tryst with destiny.
What happened was this. In the July of 1997, when yours truly was still a gawky undergrad, messing about in the dusty by-lanes of North Campus, word came to my ears of someone who was looking for "Delhi University's best young public speakers" to come address some sort of rally on the 14th of August. Now ordinarily, this would have been of no interest to me, since I'm terminally unpatriotic, but it seemed the man was actually willing to pay cash for someone to come make a speech, and being perpetually skint (as any self-respecting college student must be) I decided that further inquiry was called for.
It turned out that the man was the President of the National Coalition of Something-or-the-Other and was organizing a Peace Rally of some sort in the Central Park in CP on the eve of Independence Day, to commemorate 50 years of India's independence (yes, this was THAT year). I never really managed to figure out what the point of the rally was: I gathered it had something to do with progress and unity and secularism and social justice and a handful of other platitudes, but beyond that I still can't tell you what he hoped to achieve. The whole thing seemed fairly shady, to be honest, but I was 18 and naive and figured I could take care of myself. Besides, there were three of us and he was offering to pay us what, in those days and by our standards, was a small fortune.
Planning for the rally went smoothly enough. It consisted of the three of us speakers meeting with the Old Man and some factotum of his (this group was called, if memory serves, 'the Think-Tank') to 'strategize' about the meet. In practice, strategizing meant that the Old Man waffled on about the evils of corruption and the need for communal harmony and other such chestnuts while we stuffed our faces with free food and nodded along politely, adding the occasional word of agreement in between bites. The speakers at the rally, it turned out, were to include the Vice-President of India, along with a whole bunch of noted academics, social activists and the like - none of whom, needless to say, we'd ever heard of. Our role was to represent (and I swear he managed to pronounce the capital letters) the Voice of the Future and the Youth of India. What the Voice of the Future was supposed to say was left entirely up to us. We did ask once or twice if there was any particular message he wanted us to pass on to the listening masses. The Old Man brushed this suggestion aside, saying he didn't need to tell three bright young men like us what to say. My friend R., in an uncharacteristic and momentary attack of conscience actually suggested that we could write out our speeches and show them to the Old Man beforehand. No. The Old Man wanted us to be spontaneous, wanted us to speak straight from the heart. I had a momentary vision of standing up on stage telling the audience that these Romans were crazy. Then I thought - what's the big deal - it's just a ten minute speech. I practically do this for a living . I can handle it.
Eventually the great day dawned. Or rather, in this case, dusked. The three of us showed up, dressed in appropriately activist khaadi kurte (mine, if I remember correctly, was a gentle saffron), ready to exhort the nation (or the infinitesimal fraction of it that would show up in the center of CP that night) towards a brighter tomorrow. The mikes were tested, the lighting proven to work, and little by little a small but appropriately serious looking crowd strolled in. We were ready to go.
And then calamity struck. It transpired that, in all the weeks of preparing us for the event, in all those endless teatime meetings where he discussed strategy and ethics and ideals with us, our patron had forgotten to mention one small fact. That the speeches that night were to be made in Hindi. He probably saw it as a niggling little detail, not worth worrying over. And so it might well have been, provided any of us had had the slightest proficiency in the language. Except we didn't. We hadn't been lying to him when we told him we were the best public speakers in DU. We may have been exaggerating a little bit (though I'm not even sure of that) but we certainly weren't lying. But he'd never said anything about having to speak Hindi.
It was an utter, unmitigated debacle. A. went up first, and gave a three minute speech that mingled accented English with phrases of broken Hindi. It sounded like one of those speeches the evil Angrez major gives to the natives in Bollywood films about the Independence struggle. You could almost see the crowd rising up against him, led by a chest-thumping Sunny Deol, pulling him off his horse and beating him to pulp. R. went next and delivered a five minute address that was a seamless collage of every corny Independence Day speech he'd ever heard in school. The word aazaadi came up a lot, as did the words pragati and sangharsh. And that was about it. I went last, and deciding to be brave, started saying what I'd (vaguely) planned to say before the fiasco, only translating it into Hindi as I said it. This lasted for about 30 seconds, at which point I realized I had no idea what the Hindi word for pluralism was and decided to lapse into cliche, salvaging what little dignity I could by quoting every scrap of Ghalib or Faiz I could remember. If the people sitting there were judging the future of the country by what we said that night, then they must have gone home with a dismal picture indeed.
No, actually, they wouldn't. Because to complete our humiliation for the evening, the Old Man had also invited along a group of students from (I think it was) the Department of Social Work. These folks were the real thing. I mean, from what I could tell, organizing demonstrations and staging street plays was about 40% of their entire curriculum, and boy, were they good at it. When their turn came, they harangued the crowd with the kind of firebrand oratory that brought tears to your eyes and made you want to get up and start opening the odd vein or two. It was strong, heady stuff. Completely ridiculous and entirely impractical if you stopped to think about it for a minute, but they said it so eloquently that I doubt anyone did. It made us feel very small.
We got out of there pretty fast after that. We collected our money from the Old Man, trying not to meet the disappointment in his eyes, worked our way to the nearest Nirula's where we proceeded to drown our sorrows in very large helpings of Hot Chocolate Fudge, and then, seeing that the night was still young, A. had managed to cadge his parent's car, and it was a historic night after all - 50 years of Independence and all that - we drove down to India Gate (almost getting arrested in the process; the whole area was crawling with cops, of course, and A., our resident genius, could not only barely drive, he also didn't have a license). So when the 15th of August finally arrived and the sound of Bhimsen Joshi singing Vande Mataram came floating over the speakers, we were there, we really were, standing with a thousand others in that grand circle at the heart of the country's capital, watching the stars shine proud in a sky that, just for a minute, seemed to soar.
Now there's a story to tell one's grandchildren. Not that I ever plan to have any.
 This was literally true. Debating wasn't a hobby of mine in college, it was an occupation. Any time there was a book or a new CD I wanted to buy, or a movie I wanted to watch, I would find out which college was having a festival, show up for the debate and walk away with a little nest-egg of cash. Oh, there may have been a debate or two where I came away empty handed, (and there was one particularly depressing fest at Hindu College where the prizes turned out to be a bunch of books about India's freedom struggle) but on the whole it was public speaking that funded my book and music collection all through college. It was a really good gig. And it also came in pretty handy when it turned out, at the end of my third year, that my attendance in class was abysmally low. I merely pointed out to the Principal that I hadn't been attending classes because I was out bringing fame and glory to the college, and he not only signed a waiver but actually invited me to stay for tea.