Is a women’s hostel a utopia or dystopia, or is it even better – a place to ignore the boring universe of men? Our writer reluctantly joined a hostel, only to fall in love with the wheels within wheels, the worlds within worlds she found – a sakhi sammelan, Renaissance Florence, a sandcastle and a place to play academic Thelma & Louise.
Note: This essay was originally published as the part of a series titled “Selfie” on Yahoo! Originals in December 2014
I started living in a girls’ hostel after working as a journalist for two years. When I worked I’d had a house, a PAN card, a non-SBI bank account, a gas connection, a fridge, a life(ish) and most importantly, a thoroughly co-ed social life. Suddenly, by some monstrous twist of fate, I arrived at JNU to study history. Studying was the best alibi I could think of to avoid working life. I also thought it might give me time to deal with a personal crisis. My reasons for joining the hostel were utilitarian. I wanted to live cheaply and avoid painful landlords in Delhi. I was not, by even the most generous account, a very adventurous or adaptive person.
In my head, the hostel was a bi-weekly dormitory, not home. I didn’t know much about girls’ hostels. There was the story of Sundari the female dog that bit all men who came near the girls’ hostel in CIEFL, Hyderabad. I thought of girls’ hostels as some sort of patriarchy-imposed zenana, an antiquated institution that had no business existing in this Era Of Progress. I also, I’m ashamed to admit now, thought they were a place one went to without volition, only if all else failed. I thought my social life was too fluid, too “queer”, to really imagine living somewhere where men, especially gay and trans ones, were not allowed. A girls’ hostel felt like an unnecessary return to the gratingly firm ground of gender and sex. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong about what was in store for me.
Cut to two years later. I finished my MA and had to write an odious entrance exam to get into the MPhil program and continue my hostel life. Over two years I was so deadened by overwork, straight brahmin men, male teachers who sexted female students, power games and academia, that I never, ever wanted to write another exam. Like ever. I made it to the halfway mark and had the overwhelming urge to leave the exam hall and make a break for it (think a Paragon School Shoes ad). I had one question left to answer. Only one person stood between me and many more years in my beloved hostel. Most of this nation likes to call him Mahatma Gandhi.
Reader, I wrote about him. With my mind numb, I answered a question on “the last three decades of rich Gandhi scholarship”. I swear a mirage of my hostel room floated in my line of vision as I wrote feverishly. Palm trees and a room in Ganga Women’s Hostel, JNU. After surviving this harrowing experience, I came out fondly recalling what I liked about my two years. And what I’d miss if Gandhi took away my shot at more time in what my friend called my two-foot by two-foot dump.
My second roommate said she actively looked forward to the mornings, when all the other residents came out to bathe or eat breakfast. Generally, girls don’t wear bras in the hostel. The standards for presentability are quite low here. It’s a 365-day-a-year pajama or nightie party. Who needs to burn bras when you can go days straight without wearing them.
I’ve never felt the need to sneak boys inside the hostel. But I’ve thought about how it wouldn’t be hard at all. With the right permission, electricians and internet-repair men populate the hallways, but only during working hours. So, it always puzzled me that in a world full of naam-ke-vaaste laws and rulebooks, nobody broke the no-boys one. Some unspoken social contracts stick. The closest I ever came to finding a JNU boy in the hostel was this.
One day, I bought a deodorant at the shop next door, and I got Nivea men’s deodorant free. I’d have simply left it behind, but I decided to give it to a male friend in the thrall of a noxious substance late capitalism likes to call Old Spice. I hoped this new smell would finally deaddict him. The deo just sat around my room for months until one day, in a hurry to get to class, I sprayed it on myself. Later that night, when no man could have possibly been allowed inside, I went to the toilet, smelled men’s deodorant and excitedly declared to my roommate that there was “a man in the hostel”. It took me about four hours to figure out that I was that contraband man.
The first moment I felt something like belonging in the hostel – when the guest house feeling really did evaporate – came during a “hostel night”, a once-in-a-year large paneer-filled dinner followed by a dance party. It’s a bit like a prom and girls can invite boys. Needless to say, they come in droves.
For the first two hours of the dance party, boys were allowed inside the compound. They took up every spare inch, dancing and stamping joylessly. At a Cinderella 12, six bulky guards came and expelled them. Then, the night exploded. Like magic, a ton of girls descended from their rooms on to the dance floor/badminton court. One said to another, “Thank god the boys are gone, now I can do thumka”. She did. And then we all – 150-odd girls – danced into the night as “Baby Doll” played.
A friend said it well: in hostels you are pushed to make friends with people you wouldn’t befriend in the real world. Sometimes, though, the opposite also happens. In my second year I found a roommate I’d have hungrily befriended anywhere, anytime. She calls this world – our hostel and our room – a sakhi sammelan. It is.
Mansplaining is in the DNA of most universities, but more so in JNU. What ex-students so affectionately recall as “those never-ending addas” are often the outpourings of men with a captive and necessarily silent female audience. A girls’ hostel is a powerful totem against the verbose armchair Marxist. They are simply not allowed inside.
One day, my roommate came in after a meeting with her teacher. She said these deadly words: “Apparently, there are these things called facts and I have to write about them.” We both sighed. After sitting through classes or other prolonged performances of rationality, we come back to lie low, lick our wounds and prepare for another dawn. We were, in my embroidered version, Thelma and Louise repeatedly being pushed off a cliff by the deadly seriousness of academia.
I always hear this particular truism about studying history: that it is about encountering death up close. I would tweak this a bit. Life in general is primarily an encounter with death and studying history is a death-match. And footnotes and “truth” are the enemies out to get you. My roommate is a co-conspirator in this battle. Like all good students, we have a plan: fake it until we make it. As “literary types”, everyday is an assault on our admittedly fuzzy and fickle sensibilities.
Our hostel chugs along at a frequency far better suited to graphic novels than social-science academia. On most days, I come across tantalizing stories or half-stories. One warden apparently has a son who greets the flood of damsels in distress that come to seek the help of his mother. There is apparently a girl upstairs who says “Jai Jagannath!” whenever her roommate comes into or leaves the room.
Authority is a funny concept in my hostel, because my intuitive sense is that cats run the place. There is a smaller dustbin placed high above the real dustbin so sanitary napkins can be put out of the reach of the cats. One friend, who is a bit short, complained that every time she gets her period, “it’s like playing basketball”. During my few social media interactions with girls from my hostel, I discovered a Ganga hostel micro-trend: selfies with the cats. I’m not on social media and don’t particularly like pets, so I miss out on the feline highlife.
Once, a girl came to my room, saw the very nice pictures of Mary Kom that lined my walls, and mystifyingly asked if I was related to her. At that moment I developed an even blinder fondness for any world in which I could be related to Mary Kom.
My hostel life is dispersed across a rather iffy time-space continuum. I’ve often felt that my room doubles as a perpetual telephone booth facilitating contact with friends outside Delhi to make the city bearable. The hostel allows girls the time and space to be really geeky – and yes, roommates do sometimes communicate on Facebook.
If one selfie could capture my hostel life, it would require the contortions of Photoshop (and I’m certainly not skilled enough for this). There would be me and all the cultural figures I parasitically live off. First, the little-known late Hindustani singer Reba Muhuri, who carries me from day to day. Second, the famous but-sadly-not-yet-monarch-of-the-world drag star RuPaul, whose show RuPaul’s Drag Race lays down a pretty convincing template for life. It’s got the best elements of America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway, without the boredom or constipation of either. At the end of the show, the bottom two queens have to “lip sync for their life” and only one gets to stays on. I’ve yet to hear a better description of the adult universe than “lipsyncing for your life”.
And lastly, my selfie would smuggle in stills from a pantheon of films. The first ones that come to mind are Orlando starring Tilda Swinton, a jaw-dropping lesbian sub-text film from 60s Pakistan called Saheli, and the 1975 girl gang exploitation film Switchblade Sisters. My roommate would reject this canon for an exclusively Japanese, Chinese and Korean one. She hasn’t really followed Hollywood or Indian pop culture in a decade. She might technically live in JNU, but she lives far, far away.
Feminists of all stripes have invested a lot in women leaving the house, crossing thresholds, leaning in and generally making a significant dent in the proceedings of the world. My roommate, on the other hand, refers to leaving the hostel as stepping across a “threshold of pain”. She leans out, not in. The hostel makes her fruitful abstinence from the outside world possible.
As we spent more time in the hostel, my roommate and I realized that we obliviously saw breeziness and goodwill where there might have been very little. We sensed, even if we didn’t admit it to ourselves, that the gaggle of bouncy female renouncers we projected on to the place were actually closer to a dissatisfied, boy-crazy and internally feuding lot. But we were, as my roommate put it, “like surfer dudes in Renaissance Florence,” attached at the hip to denial.
At some level I know that a lot of the goodwill directed at me might crumble into bewilderment or queasiness if I were more easily legible as a lesbian or queer person. I also know that the girls’ hostels that enforce curfews (which far outnumber the ones that don’t) can be horrible places to live in. Because of a numbers crisis this July, I didn’t get a hostel room for three months. I sampled living in the wilds of Delhi again. My life, when I was off-campus, had more width. But as much as I liked roaming around the city without my world being shrunk to the size of a sandcastle by a hostel, I missed their general feeling: a critical mass of girls too menstrual for haste.
Time in the hostel flows by just a little bit slower than in the world outside – this is what makes it such a psychically livable space. Time has occasionally been a healer in my short personal biography, but it seems to have few reparations or gifts to offer on a society-wide scale. I have a surer sense now that things don’t always get better with time. If girls’ hostels as a concept dissolve in the distant America-addled future of exclusively private higher education, I’ll know it’s not progress.
Poorva Rajaram is studying history at JNU and is a co-organizer of the Bangalore Queer Film Festival (BQFF). She has written for various publications, including Yahoo Originals, The Caravan, Tehelka and Time Out Bengaluru.
First published on Yahoo! Originals.