Before telling the college story, let me try remembering what happened in the 5 or so months after we finished our +2 exams (It was Oct 4, 1993 when finally Annamalai University threw open its doors for us). The TNPCEE entrance exams came pretty late (remember it was 1993, before the Single Window System and all that). Before that, many of us tried writing CECRI. Once CECRI Entrance was over, we had joined the entrance coaching at our very own ERHSS. Nothing much happened then, it was a month long affair & it got concluded with us writing the TNPCEE.
The marks for +2 & the entance came. It was a precarious position for me then. Getting 278.95, I found myself listed in the Waiting List. My overall total of 1070 wasn't good enough for BITS Pilani too. One chance was the Other States RECs with my having an average of 95.83 in MPC. Got a seat in Civil Engineering at REC, Surat. With Dad, travelled all the way to Surat. The first ragging experience happened in the train itself. Seniors who were returning to Surat found us & it was real fun addressing a guy one year elder to me as 'Sir' and getting slapped by some guy who was a complete unknown till a few hours back but who happenned to be a senior. SVRCET as the REC was called was also known as IIT, Surat (Ichanath Institute of Technology - Ichanath was the place in Surat where it was located). Once we reached Surat, we got a call from home saying my number was there in the list published by Annamalai! Dad didn't want me to study in Gujarat while a seat in Tamil Nadu was in the offing and so we took the Navjivan back to Chennai.
Annamalai offered me quite a proposition in many ways. The prestigious University was more than 70 years old and to add to it I was lucky in other aspects also. A brother of my uncle's wife was the HOD of the Mechanical Engineering Department and Visu, a neighbour's son was there as a Mech sophomore. Coupled with this, Chidambaram was just 150 odd km from Trichy and that meant I can come over to Trichy on weekends. Also, Baskaran, a school buddy of mine was to join there in Chemical Engineering. (Its fate that BT, the third guy in the Thiruvanaikaval group joined us in Annamalai a year later)
Somewhere in August-September of 1993, I went to Chidambaram for the first time. It was just a small temple town and the whole town's life revolved either around the temple (there were some 300 families of people who took care of the temple, the Dhikshidars) or around the University. Divided by the railway line, one side of the town was Chidambaram and the other was the sprawling 1000 acre University area of Annamalai Nagar. More of Chidamabaram to come.
One very important thing to note of AU is its fee structure. Though most of the students pay an initial capitation of anywhere from 1 to 3 lakhs, the course fee itself is one of the lowest across India. I was lucky enough to get into the BE stream on 'merit'. We paid an annual fee of Rs. 2 500 and an exam fee of Rs. 50 per paper. Put together, we paid Rs. 13 000 for the whole 4 years of Engineering. But we got in return very good lab facilities, good staff (many of them were) and the joy of spending 4 of the prime years of youth at an University (as against just an Engineering College). The hostel fees was Rs 500 to 600 and it rose to around Rs 800 when we were in our final year. Taking an average of Rs 700 per month, think my total cost for finishing Engineering was well within Rs. 50 000.
Annamalai welcomed us with its reputation intact. As we were about to join, there was an indefinite closure of the University due to some strike. Just imagine how much anxiety it should have caused to the about-to-join students and their parents. After the faux paus, the college was to reopen on Oct 4. We went on Oct 3 to Mullai Illam, the Hostel for the First Years. As soon as we landed up there, seniors were there to rag us. I was lucky enough for not getting caught on the first day though. I was allocated room number 73 which had 3 other guys - Suresh Babu from Kunnathur (native of KPS!), Senthil Kumar from Muthupet & Sridhar from Trichy. Sridhar's elder bro was doing his final year Chemical and so he was with him most of the time in the Final Years' hostel. Later, he was to bring the fifth guy Sivaraja, his friend from Trichy to our already cramped up room. It was a great night to remember, talking the night away with Babu & Pettai (Senthil's eventual nick name). Didn't know then that we 3 guys will be staying all the 4 years together. (Govind was to join us 3 from the Second Year onwards)
The first few days of going to the college was like a ritual. Everyone after having breeakfast will line up at the entrance and the crowd will grow. As the time approached 8, we all walked slowly towards our classes with our eyes looking down & acting as if we didn't hear the jeers when we crossed the Seniors' Hostels. It should have been a sight to watch, right? lol.
Dozens of stories can be told of Mullai Illam & the life there. It was some half a kilometre away from the classes and we soon found it difficult to walk to and fro. I got the old cycle of Ramu Mama's (the one who is now down with the heart attack) from Trichy. My driver happened to be Anand, the Mech guy from Trichy who was my best Mecho buddy. It was fun riding with him as he knew many first year girls from Trichy. It was a time when an odd passing smile from a girl was the ultimate thing thinkable and was discussed in Hostel rooms til the next smile happened.
There were 2 messes, one each for Veg & Non-Veg, me opting for the Veg till the final year. The food went from bad to worse as the days progresed. Coupled with this, we faced severe water shortages (both drinking & bathing) from around March 94. The water cooler in the mess had sometimes worms in it. One interesting incident concerning the messes needs a mention here. Sivaraja, a funny guy that he was started along with some others what they called 'The Terminator' club. The Arnold film was such a hit then that the fellas belonging to this club gave that nude posture (the introduction posture when Arnold comes back into the past from the future). Sivaraja agreed to the bet of having dinner at the mess with just his shirt and nothing underneach. He just did that! Its surprisng that such a naughty guy is now a Pastor in some church.
We had a very lengthy college session normally. Classes started at 8:10 and went on till 4:50, altogether 8 periods of 50 minutes each. The lunch hour didn't offer much rest as we had to commute to the Hostel and back to the classes. The evenings then were a precious time to relax. Mullai Illam was closer to the Ladies Hostel, Thamarai Illam. There was a small shopping bazar nearer to the LH which for some reason had been christened by the students community as the PC (Parry's Corner). This is where we went for the evening walk and the very occassional dinner. There was an old temple too there which we visited on most Friday evenings (ie on Fridays when we weren't going home)
Speaking of temples, we did frequent the famed Nataraja temple. The best I like about the temple is a small corridor where there is a painting of an elephant with his mahoot on the arched ceiling. From wherever you look, the elephant looks back at you. Don't know how to put it in words, but the painting is really mesmerizing. Being 4 years n Chidambaram, I missed seeing the Natyanjali even once. 'Kaadhalan' shooting happened too when we were in the First Year. One regular scenario - asking 2 First Years to count the pillars in the 'Aayiram Kaal Mandapam' and, rag them over their 2 different counts.
Cinema may die anywhere else in Tamil Nadu but not in Chidambaram. The cinemas in Chidambaram have a special place in the hearts of all the students. There is Marriappa, the only A/C theatre which belongs to the wealth & power weilding family of the Vandaiyars. The theatre is well maintained and we got to see some nice films out there during our college days. There were the twin cinemas of Lena & Vaduganathan just near the Chidambaram bus stand. Srinivasa was just inside the campus itself. Blue Diamond - doesn't the name sound odd? This one showed the typical Mallu films with 'bits' inbetween. Lena and later Srinivasa joined the 'Blue' club during the later years.
Hotels - well, there was Saradha Ram with its Natya Bar and its A/Ced Anupallavi NV Restaurant. These were 'Hi-class' but the ones more famous with the guys were the AA (pronounced Double A) mess, the Nadar mess and the Idli Kadai. AA belonged to the typical brotta-chalna-chicken variety, Nadar mess was famous for its wholesome NV lunches and Idli kadai was a kai-yendhi bhavan where each idli cost 50p (not sure now of the exact cost). Am yet to eat a paratha as soft & tasty as a AA one.
Coming back to the Hostel Life at Mullai Illam, we had PG students (doing their MAs) and BSc (Agri) students in separate blocks. The PGs were supposed to protect us minions from our seniors. But then trouble erupted now and then between us & the PGs too. These were when the PGs needed us to parade during the strikes that they conducted, when some Engineering student misbehaved in the mess or some silly reason like that. Our room must have been around 15' x 10'. This had in it 5 bodies, their luggages, pillows & blankets, buckets, chappals & shoes, clothes and 4 sets of table-chairs. It was a sight whenever all 5 of us (accompanied sometimes by a friend or two) opted to sleep in that cubby hole called Room Number 73.
Studies - actually I was allotted Civil but then due to the Mech HOD being a relative, got my branch changed to Mechanical. Ours was a unique batch in that we had 2 girls for the first time in 45 years of Mechanical history. Classes were always fun at Annamalai. Whether it be the enormous Drawing Rooms D1, D2 or the high raised class rooms of the old Engineering Block, all had multiple entry doors. That meant anyone can just sneak in and out whenever needed. Sometimes seniors came and sat with us and the Masters didn't know. All this was possible as the strength of each class was well above 100. Also, typically we changed rooms every 3 or 4 hours. Guys realised the benefits of this arrangement from Second Year onwards. Details later.
Of the teachers who took classes for the First Year, the one who stands away from the rest is KR (K Ratnam). An ex-IITian from Kharagpur he was a Reader (don't know whether other colleges/universities have such a post) and took Engineering Drawing for us. He was known for his "Gentleman over there, What are you doing? Can you please take your instruments and leave the Hall?" (or "get out?", depending in his anger level)
Need to mention here the Workshop classes. We had Smithy, Carpentry & Fitting as most other Engineering Colleges have. It was always fun to stand near the furnace with the sweaty workshop khakis, lifting the red hot metal with tongs and hammering the job on the anvil with the huge sledge hammer. Was so poor in Smithy that I didn't even complete the first job (some square headed bolt) till the very year's end. Luckily, it was the other two that were given for exams. Since being a Mecho, my tryst with the Workshops continued till the sixth semester.
The weekend journey home was always pleasant. During the initial days we had to take the bus in order to avoid the seniors coming by train. But as the days passed, we got bolder and started boarding the trains. Cholan Express at 1515 hours was the clear favorite. If we happenned to have classes till 1700, we took the Rameshwaram Express at 1930. There was this Villupuram-Trichy passenger too at 2200 which was called the 'Pullukattu' for some reason. The 4 hour journey was spent talking, pulling of each other's legs and raucous laughter. If girls accompanied us, it was an added advantage.