It was 1976. I was 16, a year into college after matriculation from a village school. There were only two career options that time for meritorious students: doctor or engineer. I had taken the former and was attending pre-medical classes in a suburban college.
I was fond of reading great works of literature and keen to go on stage to recite poetry or participate in declamation. My principal, PS Bajaj, had heard me speak in public. When the Panjab University youth festival for that year was announced, he invited me to be on the debate team.
Hesitant, I told him public speaking was one thing but debate was not my forte. I had not even watched enough debates to know what good argument was. The principal persisted, and said the best teacher of the college would prepare the team and the best debater on it for the past two years, Mala, would partner me. "Just bring your stage confidence and the presence of mind along. Rest everything will follow," he said.
My parents were not ready for it. They pleaded with the principal that it was a very important year of my life, in which I must get into medical college, and the competition would disturb my focus. Principal Bajaj told them he would arrange extra hours of coaching for me after the contest. My parents had to agree.
The team coach, Amrit Singh, told me I was preparing in the company of the best debater, and she would speak in favour of the motion. The topic was "Women can govern better than men". The time was the Emergency, when Indira Gandhi ruled the country with an iron hand.
"We'll prepare your rebuttal points keeping in mind Mala's presentation. You always will have an upper hand," said the teacher. I was comfortable speaking in Punjabi, so I prepared in my language and included proverbs and connotations from the great works I had read.
I was told to avoid direct references to Mrs Gandhi and be extra careful while rebutting. The stage was set in AS College of Khanna, before hundreds of young enthusiasts, both boys and girls, packed in the open-air auditorium.
Luckily, we would be the last to speak. Six teams had presented their views to the judges, and the balance was in favour of the motion, thanks to enthusiastic support from girls. Mala, my team partner, mesmerised the judges and the audience with her oratory and reasoning. When I stood up, I felt my legs shaking. Boys clapped vigorously.
I started by saying that no doubt Mrs Gandhi was an able leader and administrator but it was not true of every woman. Since I spoke in the audience's language and had chosen my anecdotes and couplets to make the atmosphere light, I wrested the game back from Mala. I got a thunderous applause from boys. At long last, they had something to cheer.
When the judges declared me best debater of the university, the boys broke into a dance. When I took the trophy, they carried me around the campus on their shoulders, in a procession. It seemed as though we had won a war.
Even 36 years later, whenever I pass by AS College, Khanna, the scenes come alive in my memory.