A passing remark by a fellow student at Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute (VJTI) - if only you had better marks, you could get a better package - sent 22-year-old Manasi Puranik skittering from her relaxed, settled life at Dadar all the way to Ernakulam, Kerala, a city she had no moorings in, even as her final eighth semester exams were starting.

The textile engineering student left home on the 16th of April, a seemingly uneventful morning that she spent studying and talking with friends, and was brought home on Wednesday night, after Shivaji Park police traced her via an ATM withdrawal.

Manasi's homecoming is a happy one - she walked out with only some clothes and a small sum in cash. "I reached CST, I asked the man at the counter which train was stationed at the platform. He told me it was the Kanyakumari Express. I asked him to give me a ticket to the biggest city in Kerala," said Manasi, which is how she arrived in Kochi.

Instead of crashing into the harsher realities of life, met only with strangers who offered her support and succour, including a local Kochi shop-worker who paid for her local hostel stay - her grateful family calls him Manasi's 'godfather'.

And even though it may seem that her existence is charmed, what drove Manasi to walk out is a tough lesson in the pressure cooker of student life. She'd left behind a letter saying she had disappointed her parents and was disappointed in herself - which had befuddled friends and family of the cheerful, outgoing young woman. After all she had a 6.9 CGPA at a prestigious city institute, and an offer of employment from one of the countries' blue-chip firms.

First placement

After tracing the young woman her uncle, Sanjay Bapat accompanied sub inspector Nilesh More to Kochi. Reunited, they had a long conversation. "She told me that after already scoring a CGPA of 6.9 out of 10, she did not know how much more to study to score better. As a family also we are planning to introspect on the kind of pressure we may have put on her unknowingly," Bapat said.

While academic pressure at the city's top institutes is well-documented, the final frenzy that surrounds campus placements is little understood. Parents who heed headlines announcing 7-figure packages sometimes expect their child will secure that sort of financial largesse.

Manasi's parents, as her closest friends vouch, are very easy-going, but she couldn't escape the cooker of placement pressure. Most of her friends speaking to Mirror on conditions of anonymity, said that even at VJTI, which has placed 90 per cent of its 700 students at companies, the stress is surreal.

"The problem is that of the internal competitiveness. Around the 100 plus students who had applied for Infosys, 20 had made it through. Manasi was one of the 20, which is an exceptional achievement," said a friend.

But Manasi's package was fixed at Rs 3.28 lakh - her stream, textile engineering, isn't one of the more lucrative ones, and there is a sense that you have to take what you can get. An engineering graduate now placed in Bangalore, said that the vast differential in packages companies offer creates a huge disjunction. "Those offering between Rs 6-8 lakh are called 'dream placements' while those below Rs 6 lakh are called 'regular companies'. Coining these terms automatically brings about competition. Everyone wants to get a dream job," he says.

The placement process begins with the commencement of the final semester. While some counselling by seniors and professors is available, companies start shortlisting and conducting interviews almost right away.

All the internal chatter between students at this time is how to grab a dream job. Two aptitude training books are the bible, but students are not coached on how to consider and reject an offer for its suitability.

"Those who do not have a suitable CGPA for 'dream companies', take up anything - if a student from textile engineering is offered a job in the IT field, he or she will take it in the fear of not having an offer at all," said one student.

There is also hedging involved - offers are rejected with the hope that a better company with a bigger offer will come along.

"So it is an entire gamble to ace the top placement at a company," said a student. Even after securing her placement, Manasi felt she had not put her best foot forward, and so made a run for it.

Kochi reunion

The frantic family had wanted to deposit further funds into Manasi's account, but on the advice of the police, who said she'd keep moving if she was flush with cash, had held back. The tip worked, and Manasi's location was tracked via an ATM transaction, said Asst Police Inspector Anil Jadhav.

She was seen on CCTV taking a left from the bank and so sub inspector More and her uncle Bapat retraced her steps, trying to simultaneously hurdle past the language barrier. At a local store's footage, the police spotted Manasi talking to a man pointing out a direction, giving her instructions.

"When we found the man he identified Manasi with her picture. She had come to his shop asking him if he had a phone worth Rs 1,000," Bapat said. The man said that Manasi then asked if she could get a job somewhere to fund her expenses. "He directed her to a Dominos Pizza outlet after which they parted ways."

But Manasi returned to the kind stranger again later asking for his help in finding a place to stay, and so he put down a Rs 2,500 deposit fee for Manasi at a lady's hostel, Bapat added, earning him the family's eternal gratitude, who are also full of praise for the police's commendable work.

Miles to go

Gangadhar Sonawane, senior police inspector recorded her statement and said she has been counselled to appear for her remaining exams. "We will also be contacting the college management to request them to let her reappear for the two papers she has missed," Sonawane said.

Director of VJTI OG Kakade however, is uncertain of what lies ahead for Manasi. "We will take a decision as per what fits in the institute's norms," said O G Kakade, director of VJTI Institute.

As for Manasi, she says she should have shared her problems about placement with a relative or her parents instead of running away from them. "I will never set out of Mumbai alone again," she said.

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