The hostel in my undergrad had cells that passed for rooms. You had thin double doors painted blue, and a walkway as narrow as economy airplane aisles. The room was roughly 15 feet long, and roughly 10 feet wide. You had slabs on each side of the walkway that passed for cots, and on these you spread your mattresses. There was another set of slabs at the other end of the room, set into the wall, to act as shelves. There was a metal desk (green) and a metal chair (green) placed between the bed-slab and the storage-slab.
For most of the year, it was stifling hot due to a lack of ventilation. A window opened out into the corridor. Unless you wanted to overhear the conversation of everyone passing by, unless you wanted everyone passing by to see you changing clothes, you kept that window shut tight. A window opened out onto the railway tracks. It being India, unless you wanted to smell human waste all day along, you kept the window shut tight.
In the little cell, I lived with my room-mate. We had curtains (consisting of bed-spreads swung over clothes-lines tacked onto the window bars on either side of the room). The curtains granted us a modicum of privacy and divided the cell into three narrow strips (our respective little cells and the walkway). Both of us treasured our privacy, and respected the other person’s wishes enough to let her be most of the time. We had protocols for communicating. We had never decided upon them. They sort of sprung up organically and we adhered to them automatically. We never barged into each other’s little corner of the world, and rarely interrupted each other while we worked or gamed or watched Youtube videos or whatever activity we indulged in.
She was from the North East. I went home every weekend. We had five days and four nights together each week. We had only one language in common. We were of the same religion, both of us, but she believed and I didn’t. She was worldly and extroverted, but still willing to give people chances. I was hopelessly shy, naive, but still unwilling to believe most people. I spoke crudely. She was classy. I slept early. She was an insomniac. I ate no meat. She loved dog-meat. She was lovely. I believed a few more minutes of sleep was more important than combing my hair. She was patient. I have been never accused of such a thing.
She liked peculiar kinds of men, and I disapproved of all of them. We had a pattern, of highs and lows, as she was courted by men always, and sometimes she took an interest, and then I disapproved, and then it crashed on the rocks, and then I went on with my ‘I-told-you-so’s.
She was patient and polite with most everyone. In fact, the more she disapproved, the more polite she became. I would backtrack very quickly once she started waxing politeness. I quite loathed being at odds with her.
She was heterosexual. I had nothing against men, or women, but I loved maturity, specifically the kind of maturity that is usually only born of suffering. At that point, I had only known a handful of women to have that, and no men. It took me quite a while longer before I could learn to appreciate a man’s looks. We were young, but my room-mate was wiser than most, and she was very accepting of what I liked. There was the occasional teasing reminder to keep my eyes off her.
She was a bit mothering. God, I had needed that, though I vehemently railed against it then. I vehemently railed against most things then.
She was an amnesiac. She locked me out one day. I was furious, because I was stuck outside after a journey long. She hurried back, but I had worked quite a head of steam by then, and she maneoeuvred around that as gracefully as she did everything else.
She knew the futility of railing against the inevitable. I didn’t. I am slightly better now, and I attribute that to what I learned from her during those years. She was patient, in explaining to me why certain things are. I like to think she learned from my idealism too, and became less jaded.
We had our own language. Elizabeth yelling that she was her father’s daughter, “my dear” said in a hundred, different tones, NC-17 rated conversations most of them, and the gentle teasing nudges to remind me of the bright summer day when she had patiently explained to me the resource allocation problem. It was the only day when she had understood something with numbers faster than I had, and I did not grudge her the glory at all.
There was her PhotoShop mania. There was Skillet. There was passion (hers) about Christianity. There was her railing against the grading system after a jaunt to the re-evaluation cells. There was her irritation when my dupatta stayed on my shoulders while hers didn’t. There was the scent of her Garnier shampoo, and the scent of my ayurvedic oils. There was laundry hung on the clotheslines, stifling the ventilation even more. There was her dressing up and me offering mostly silly judgements. There were often frank and hopeful conversations during nights, of the past and of the future, of sex and of family, and of each other. There was encouragement. I think I write better today because she encouraged me to write while I was with her. She was quiet when I wrote, and often seemed to know intuitively when to let me be. I was never afraid of having my thoughts broken and my writing flow broken.
She knew intuitively (I don’t know how) when to let me be, and when to push me for answers. In that, she remains unparalleled.
There was DSP and Wittgenstein. There were endless nights of patience while I worked on my DSP problem sets. The hyacinth, I remember, saw a photograph my room-mate had once taken of me while I had been doing my Spinoza. The hyacinth had said it was the most focused she had seen me, and that I must really trust my room-mate to be so engrossed and lost to the world. I did trust. Sometimes, coming back to her in the evening was the best event of the day.
That small cell was the smallest living space I have lived in, but it was the safest too, I think, because I could just be.
We were in a cell, too cramped and poorly ventilated, but we were gloriously happy anyway. We lived in a cell (divided) but we lived together.