We’ve talked about women’s educational institutions. And now let’s hear about that exciting word: co-ed. What was life like as a teenage girl in a co-ed school in 1980s Delhi? Paromita Vohra tells us about being the know-it-all new girl, the bespectacled daughter, the impostor insider, Miss Mehta’s shawls, befriending older girls, and being slotted as either brainy or pretty.
Coming from a family of beautiful girls, it was fairly clear what I was expected to be and what I wasn’t. I was the clever one. Always funny, sharp, scoring high at It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power. Facts and knowledge were to be accumulated and sarcasm nurtured like a rare plant. When, at the age of 9, I became the first child in the family to “get specs”, my mother cried. But in the external family there was a sense that the physical blemish was irrelevant in my case, a fitting end to bookishness, and I was proud to have this badge of the brainy. Meanwhile, my pretty cousins and pretty sister, while very pretty, must also be dumb because well, they were pretty, right? They earned soft smiles for their curly lashes and pearly teeth, while their rather consistent academic accomplishments never seemed to get noticed – a neglect they appeared to accept with equanimity. Love came with familial guarantee, but it was safer to stay on the familiar side to ensure that the guarantee did not lapse. Both sides understood their assigned strengths and weaknesses well. They could kill me by making fun of my glasses and my pimples and my plumpness and my plainness and I could kill them with words, feeling supercilious that they did not know the meaning of the word supercilious.
School was less clear. There were rules of course, in the first few pages of the school diary: skirt with knife pleats, sweater with raglan sleeves. To have meaning in this protoplasmic mass of blue uniforms, everyone understood you needed to stand out. At the same time, you sensed that while doing so, you should also adhere to the edges of a pack, an indistinct contour that did not propel the pack in any direction. You sensed that to stand out was to be separated and thus be questionable, suspicious, a communist in McCarthy’s America. And so, you just tried to feel your way through this continent of unspoken meanings.
When I was 13 my father was transferred to Delhi, and I moved schools for the 6th time. One of my pretty cousins was in the same class as me, and, with much excitement, we immediately became desk partners. My new girl status generated great interest. The boys liked to tease me about my old fashioned name. About my know-it-all manner. They liked to change the bookmark in my ostentatiously placed fat book to the wrong place so I got confused when I came back. If I told them off they seemed vastly entertained. They seemed very curious about the places I’d lived in – like Iraq, which had recently gone to war with Iran, about the ak-ak I could see over the river Tigris; about the episodes of Star Trek and Dallas which played after blackout time, so much racier than what was on pre-globalisation Indian TV. I had not confronted this sort of attention before. Although it was clear it wasn’t the normal overture to friendship, it also did not hold the transparent gestures of “the crush” they displayed with some other girls.
I gathered some courage and asked an older friend. She rolled her eyes. “Oho! Little girls are growing up, eh?” “No, no” I protested. “It’s not like that. Everyone knows, boys like pretty girls.” “Beauty”, she said, suddenly prim, “lies in the eyes of the beholder.” Which made the whole business of being the beheld rife with anxiety naturally.
For a girl who had changed schools and cities many times, as I had, who did not fit properly anywhere, as I felt I did not, the need to find a place was as strong as the instinct of rejecting categories. The scrutiny and self-consciousness that came of always being the new girl, constantly having to start from scratch, go from inside to outside in an unending game of Ludo, asked for particular survival strategies.
Like someone at a sit down dinner for the first time, who surreptitiously watches what others do, and casually follows as if they always knew, and if they make a mistake acts like they were only indulging in parody, you learned to seem easy. To be an insider was enticing, but scary, because eventually you would slip up and be revealed for the impostor you were. To subtly play on your outsider status made you interesting, and to be interesting was a certain kind of power at least. Even if it was a fragile, nerve-wracking, perpetually second-guessing yourself kind of power.
Therefore, with determined myopia, I arrived at a firm belief: the boys were befriending me a) so they could later make fun of me and b) so they could get to my cousin, or my younger sister, whose good looks were widely acknowledged in the school. Once this complicated logic had cleared its way into my brain I was relieved. I now knew the exact nature of the relationship I could have with these boys: friendship. Friendship might be the one relationship in which I might not only be equal, but superior – and so, safe from this confusion.
Surely, inside all this Byzantine certitude, there must have lurked little disguised tentacles of pleasure and desire, each of them wearing their own pair of spectacles to signal their myopia. No masterful hero alas, was going to come and pull off these multiple glasses and undo cascading hair to reveal the woman within. Nope, the tentacles could just keep polishing their glasses to see the world exactly like they wanted to, and not dare raise the hem of their skirts.
I think one can go so far as to say it was a lot about the skirt.
My slowly strengthening belief system had resulted in my secretly resenting and overtly patronizing my cousin. There was no rift, just a continental drift to different sides of the classroom. When my parents asked what was up I shrugged and implied that she preferred to hang out with future nursery school teachers and potential trousseau gatherers. I made two new best friends – Jhadu and Younger. They were appropriate for me, bookworms as they called us. But in my wandering way, I had made another best friend, Rita, who was older, but like me, a hostel girl, not day scholar. The fact that she was a “senior” accorded me a certain status, singled me out from the sea of juniors, otherwise the fortune of the adorable and cute. But more than that, despite her being acknowledged as a girl with brain promise, one whose mother wanted her to sit for the UPSC or maybe even that new, upstart degree called MBA, I could feel that Rita clearly also wished to be where the pretty girls were. Being friends with Rita looked like it might ferry me over without my concretely exposing my desire. It’s not that I had any illusion about being pretty, yet unnoticed. I understood that prettiness was itself an illusion, but it was a hypnotic one that allowed you to reach out and seize that shiny, surprisingly alive bauble called romance.
One night, whispering after lights out, Rita revealed that she had fallen in love with a highly unremarkable, maybe you could even say un-prepossesing chap, called Rajat. We had endless analytical discussions about it. She thought he might like her, but so what? There was no chance he’d actually do anything about it.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Oh he’s like that, he doesn’t communicate with words. He doesn’t say anything, but he kind of says it in small hints.”
“But aren’t small hints too small for big chances? What about you saying something? “
“Eek! How can I do that! It looks too bold!”
“Can’t you just ask someone to tell him you like him, if you don’t want to say it yourself?”
For such gormless suggestions I earned the most withering, pitying look. After all even in the year 1983 BC (Before Cosmopolitan), everyone knew that just being the way you were wouldn’t get things anywhere. The reason I did not know was obvious. Whatever it was I coveted, my way of overcoming the no good looks handicap and establishing superiority over the other mosquitoes in the school swamp was to look down on Mills and Boons and read ‘literature’ instead, Jane Austen, like. This had twin benefits. It gave my brainy status a twist, making me scornful due to something I had rather than something I didn’t. So it made me feel better than the pretty girls, but at the same time set me apart from the dowdy girls, so resigned to their fates that they would nakedly gossip about the bad girls; avidly discuss the frivolous girls, who did not do so well in exams, who jumped the wall to bunk school, who always had the guys hanging around them. The girls who had the guts to wear the short skirts.
The Short Skirts seemed somehow to the manner born. Anyone who was not, and tried to emulate their swishing ease was taking the big risk of exposing themselves as laughably overreaching and ludicrous. The Short Skirts did not, in those years have the handy word we now do, “wannabe”, so their term for these triers who clearly did not belong with them, was a little longer, more cruel, more classist and very Delhi – BTM (Behenji Turned Mod) BIV (But In Vain).
Meanwhile Rita sat brooding on the balcony each evening, and I learned to sit next to her quietly, respecting whatever it was she was thinking that radiated such desire and despair.
It cannot be ascertained at what moment she identified the thin rope that would help her walk from one mountain to another.
One morning she came down to breakfast in the hostel, under Matron’s randomly watchful eye, in her always neat, precisely regulation school uniform. As soon as we’d crossed the hostel backyard, she ducked behind a tree to avoid assembly and spent the time tucking up the hem with a stapler. At first her skirt was stylishly short, making me feel like I was wading through seaweed in my knee length box pleats. Looking at her made my heart beat faster with wonder at her daring, and alarm at the possibility that she might fail.
But fail she did not. Slowly she too became a girl who hung out in couple corners – under the tree on the basketball court steps, on the second floor balcony, near the chemistry lab at the end of the corridor. As her romance seemed to blossom in possibility her skirt rose higher and higher, until it exposed the unusually large beauty spot that was perhaps six inches below her panty line. The shorter her skirt became, the more reckless the places where she and Rajat would stand in that curved way of school sweethearts, like brackets around a potential kiss.
Suddenly she was also hanging out with a whole other bunch of girls in the hostel, who made knowing jokes we didn’t get, who praised the long brown expanse of thigh she had revealed to the world. Membership to this crowd came with many secret privileges – for instance she got access to a book doing the rounds of their underground circuit – Pauline Reage’s The Story of O – which they all read agog. Despite my begging her, Rita wouldn’t lend it to me. “You’re too young. I can’t corrupt you,” she said with a drunken giggle. I was stung and enraged, because obviously this was not to do with my age but the fact that I wasn’t in the club; just an extension of the fact that now, during lunch time, Rita had moved to another table where she did not share jokes with me, but rather, meaningful glances and suppressed smiles with those other girls. And that, after lunch time, she came not to my dorm to tell me what had happened in school that day, but to exchange those horrible whispering confidences with other girls who had, or could have, boys. And soon, her hem went from being temporarily stapled to being permanently sewn in. It would have been one thing – however unforgivable – if Rita had dumped my friendship for a boy. But to dump me for a bunch of Short Skirts? Thus rejected, my easy prejudice about girls like that, felt justified. My friendship with her was now a liability among my other best friends because how could I explain to Jhadu and Younger, my associating with or feeling bad about one so shallow?.
Then, one day, while walking back to class I glimpsed her and Rajat on the lower landing, she looking away with an expression of tragic doom, he gangling haplessly around, as Miss Mehta, the English teacher and assistant matron in the hostel, said something to her that I couldn’t hear. That night, sitting in the balcony after lights out, Rita wouldn’t quite tell me what it was. “The bitch” she whispered, not with anger or dismissal but with seemingly a bucketful of pain. “That bitch. She doesn’t understand anything.” “But how does it matter yaar, “ I asked. “Anyway Rajat is your boyfriend now.” “Well he’s not exactly my boyfriend yet. I mean he likes me but he hasn’t said anything exactly. And then that bitch made it so obvious…it’ll ruin everything.” In those days we also hadn’t heard the phrase ‘commitment issues’ so I didn’t have any response to this really.
The next morning Rita walked to school with her skirt hitting that designated indentation behind her knee. She shuffled in dark silence, replying to my chatter in blank eyed monosyllables. I couldn’t understand this air of doom, as if everything had ended, the way she seemed to have entirely submitted to some forces of darkness. If only she’d lent me The Story of O, perhaps I could have had a key to translate this script of love and loss and ecstatic female submission gone wrong. One part of me absorbed it all avidly, as if finally I knew what the mysterious business of being a woman was all about. Another part of me understood and felt bad about her fall from the grace of the short skirts. But one part of me felt spitefully vindicated, as the good angels must have when Lucifer fell. And also, glad and relieved to have my friend back. I was rescued at last from the shameful desert of abandonment. But Rita, unlike Lucifer, was in no mood to fight back. She wanly passed the time till final exams, the last year of school a Dark Age with no heaven at the end.
Many months later, when Rita had graduated and was a more smudgy figure on the far horizon of college, I had grown to be friends with Miss Mehta. I asked her why she’d come down so hard on Rita’s skirt when in fact there were scores of other girls who gaily waltzed around in shorties? “They’re different. Rita was an intelligent girl, she could have done a lot. She didn’t need to be like other girls, wasting her time with boys and cheapening herself with that short skirt. Just ridiculous.” she said, in a tone fixed with a fatal knowledge about the real world.
It’s true, Miss Mehta’s dress sense was quite different. She wafted through the corridors in always beautiful, always starched saris, her mass of hair the only hint of a possibly explosive passion. When she first came to work in the hostel, we gasped to see her in something as informal and normal as jeans, as if she had come down to dinner in a red lace bra. Reeling at the intimacy of “home clothes”, we couldn’t help stealing fascinated glances at her over our custard.
In retrospect I realize that Miss Mehta was in fact beautiful, like a sphinx from the Arctic. But at the time no one really thought so. At that time, all we noticed were the books. Our brown covered homework books in the crook of her arm, unfamiliar books on her shelves – All About H. Hatterr and Cry, The Beloved Country and Bonjour Tristesse. Her quiet, quelling gaze sent shivers down our spine. Her silent, padding steps always caught us unawares and red handed.
Whispers abounded, that Miss Mehta’s past held a dark tragedy. A Broken Engagement. What other explanation could there be for this coldness, this withdrawn lack of smiles?.
Then one day, Miss Mehta began to wear a shawl folded on one shoulder, a jaunty but peculiar fashion that only Matron seemed to know how to translate. “Aha, dressing like Bengali style, haan, what’s it Taru?”. Miss Mehta disapprovingly dismissed this with, “Come on, I’ve spent half my life in Calcutta.” But she blushed and we all saw it. In the nights, we lay on our stomachs like the shameless gawkers and stalkers we were and peered through a slit in the balcony when the watchman (appropriately named Prem Singh) called out that Ma’am Mehta had a visitor. Ma’am Mehta stood outside with him under the car shed. All we could see were his jeans and her jeans and the gathering mist of the winter night. All we could see was Miss Mehta tracing endless circles with her toe in the mud as she talked. We held our breaths, but in vain. Because after the Christmas holidays Miss Mehta went back to wrapping her shawl around her in that old, held-in way. The chowkidar never called out a visitor for her in the evenings. And even when we became friends, I never dared to ask her why she changed her style of wearing her shawl. Desire had hovered in the air and as it died, its painful lesson passed into us like a sly ghost.
Meanwhile the boys in my class, tired of waiting for my rigidly imposed script to turn a corner, had moved on. We chose our different subjects and went to different sections and there were other new girls, not quite as mixed up, for them to befriend and also, to woo. I used the end of these friendships and attention to confirm that I had been wrong to believe in them and who needs boys anyway?
Twenty years went by before I met Rita again, at a street corner in a foreign country. We sat in a Subway and chatted for hours. She was married and had two children and was full of sharp regret, describing a very bad marriage.
“Why don’t you leave him?” I ask, “It sounds exhausting and sad.”
“Oh it’s too late now for my life. I have a good capacity for suffering,” she says, as if we were comparing drinking stories. I feel anything I say now, will be just as gormless as 20 years ago.
“Too late for me now. I wasted my life,” she continues. “Look at you. Free and happy.”
“Well,” I say, “I can’t say I’m not happy, but you know…lots of times when I wonder about how I made my choices. But you’re happy sometimes, no?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Hmmm, maybe since I was 5.”
“Huh…What happened with Rajat, then?”
“Nothing, I just wasted myself and then it sort of never quite happened, he just changed towards me after a while. Then it took me very long to get over it, so I did badly in all the exams and so…But you know, other people can never know what it is to feel nothing but pain – I’ve known it, and there’s something amazing about it, it’s a very intense experience. There’s pleasure even in that pain, if you live it fully, it’s very special.”
A few days later, in another city I see my cousin, family beauty and former desk partner, now mother of two, in a fancy bar. It has taken almost twenty years of casually proclaimed but carefully maintained difference before we have been able to reclaim some warm, shareable space.
“What boys?” she asks. “I never thought any boys liked me. Who said I was pretty?” she snorted. “I never thought I was!”
“Are you mad?! Everyone thought you were – everyone in school and the bhabis and all…”
“Oh? Well, I never knew that. Everyone always thought you were so special – no one even said anything when I got 75% in History, remember? And all the boys were always around you.” And as if by default she gets that schoolgirl’s teasing smile and I dismissively mumble, “Come on, they were just my friends, they weren’t like, interested in me.”
“Ya, ya,” she says, and we both laugh loudly.
A nice looking man looks at us admiringly from afar. One part of my brain automatically says, of course, he must be looking at my pretty cousin and I adjust my spectacles. My cousin and I order two margharitas each – one for brains and one for beauty, one for innocence and one for experience.
Paromita Vohra is a documentary filmmaker and writer whose work focuses on gender, desire, urban life and popular culture. She is currently working on a book about love in contemporary India. More at www.parodevi.com and less @parodevi.
This essay was published in Recess: The Penguin Book of Schooldays, edited by Palash K Mehrotra.