I came to New Delhi for my Bachelor’s Degree, as a wide-eyed girl who had miraculously got admission in Lady Shri Ram College. The heart was beating like it had already got free entry into the hip and newly opened The Sugar Factory next door. Or received a proposal from the dark haired Darcy himself! The head was more cautious in its celebration. Delhi was the size of a Kingdom as compared to my home hamlet. One lady in The Doon Club had told me it’s full of cheats, cheap women and madmen. ‘Be careful, beta. You know what you need to guard.’ And she had looked at my belt. My own main worry was grades. LSR inspired and thus expected excellence. And being a hard-working, above-average girl may no longer be enough to hold my own.
But what pooped completely what was a half-party anyway, was the fact that I did not make it to the college Residence Hall. Utni bhi achhi rank nahi thee, I imagined Belt Lady (from above) telling her Bingo friends. I had to look for a PG accommodation. My father was silent as a mountain, and as supportive. Only the best had to be picked. Safe. Comfortable. No compromises! That another girl from Dehradun had booked one in National Park, right behind LSR, was enough to judge the book by its marble floor and bathroom tiles which no other PG offered for miles. Three months’ rent was paid and a two-seater booked. Diamond fingers pointed us to the various facilities which were being offered to the ‘girls who are like my own daughters’, as my parents and I followed our PG aunty much like Pip did Miss Havisham.
Alas! Soon enough it was evident this aunty had three daughters and no room for more. All promises made to parents-with-wallets started dying till they became invisible like the rajma in the gravy. That is, before the gravy ran out completely for those girls reaching the PG late. Just plain white rice in the common room, followed by jam with Parle G in the room. Room? A third bed had been shifted in with a girl on top. Now we three slept so close we could share one quilt. After all, where was the cupboard space to hold three separate ones anymore? Where will the books go? And reams of notes? Cold drinking water would often run out, specially during exams, but never for aunty downstairs. Always positive, she would instead show us the 6 pairs of shoes she got for nothing from the sale at CP. We girls would be torn between requesting for a cold water bottle, or asking for the shoes!
If life inside the PG wasn't exactly comfortable or conducive to studies, the walk to and from college was downright unsafe. With a shady Hotel V next door and a desolate nallah with pants-down men hissing and pissing inside, it wasn’t for nothing that the area was called The Rapists’ Paradise. So the “freshers” would wait in college for other PG mates to get done with classes, and then we would walk back together. It never stopped the mucky comments from being passed or random hits-n-touches by bikers, but it softened the blow a bit. Plus, running alone down the road felt worse. It was when a friend walking beside me got dragged by her umbrella down the lane one lonely afternoon, with me helplessly running after a screaming her, that all the leftover mirth and fun, of late-night gossips about who has a boyfriend or who wears a padded bra and whom PG Uncle winked at, went completely bland. Completely.
I decided that day I needed to get inside that Residence Hall. Thanks to the powdered-milk water and cornflakes I had for breakfast for a year to help put my soul into getting the grades, and my hosteller cousin who pushed me to it, I miraculously made it. I topped the internal assessments! Our Victorian Poetry class was interrupted when a hosteller (always late!) sashayed in with the news. My name was on the hostel list. The whole class cheered like I had battled a crocodile alone. I cried big tears. It had felt exactly like that!
By the time my graduation was done and I became a post-graduate student of Delhi University, Arts Faculty, with some library-cum-bank-cum-canteen allegiance to Hansraj College, I knew what to expect when I didn’t make it to the Post-Graduate Women’s Hostel in the first go and took up a room in Malka Ganj. Meanwhile, Belt Lady (from above) fainted over her Bloody Mary just hearing the name of the place, and Mill gaya kamra bahut badi baat hai, yaar, remarked a senior in college.
But was I really prepared, still?
No beds. Only string cots. Four girls in a room with a broken window which let in not just the bugs and bees but also the hoots of prospective suitors downstairs, night after night. One fridge, but use at your own risk. Eggs vanished as did Pepsi and rosewater. (There were whispers that it was aunty!) One phone charging point and two cupboards standing on bricks. And a rickety gate and staircase keeping us and our Maggi all safely in. Itney paisey mein itna hee, please, the seepage seemed to say. Where was one to go anyway? Any kissa that would happen in a neighbouring PG accommodation and uniformed men would come to make us fill up forms, ask random questions, and leave. That fine day we would see our aunty’s face, properly, without a face pack, even as we thirstily stole secret glances at the chilled Roohafza she served the cops, teasing us right under their noses!
Only a month of it and so I lived to tell the tale. PGW's latest list was up and I was in! That same afternoon, even before the glue behind the list which was put up was dry, I moved all my worldly belongings to its D-Block. One rickshaw, one superman ricky-bhai, one kilometre and 50 bucks later I breathed.
All this was more than a decade back. I am that much older today, and enough to acknowledge that whatever problems beset students in their life at the university also shape them. Chisel them. Give them extra layers of hide for survival, stomachs of steel and a confidence to ‘manage on our own’ where once we were like deer in the headlights. It is only when the shit starts flowing out of the pot to enter your room, and there’s no water in the taps for two days, that you scream the loudest scream. To ask for what is right, and your right. That's exactly what's making news today and reading which made me write this.
Girls protesting against regressive and discriminatory hostel rules, rallies against the lack of basic facilities in colleges and fee hikes are headlines. Even though I read about them on a chair far removed from the broken, shared ones I studied on, I cheer and support these students’ demands wherever I sit. I applaud groups like ‘A Room of my Own’, trying to get accountability in the PG business. And I respect that they found their voices, which are only getting braver by the day. You see, it's not just about 'managing on your own', somehow adjusting. College is about finding your wings for life. And nothing should come in the way of that!
I wish I were still a student of Delhi University. This would be my postcard to the VC. One among the 10,000 which reached him recently.