Meera sighed at the sight of the building. It was more dilapidated than she had imagined the ruined palaces of the Ottoman Empire to have been. She had to strain to hear the rickshaw driver. This surprised her, for she had never known a man to speak with such a soft voice. She paid him Rs. 100 and expected him to make any excuse possible to avoid giving her the change of Rs. 7.50, but he surprised her again. Ooty was warmer than she had expected in September. She walked in and asked the soporific guard to direct her to the matron’s office. A groggy thumb point later, she found herself face to face with one of the saddest people she had seen (not counting her little brother at the sight of her leaving).
“Welcome. You have been assigned room 22. It is on the second floor.”
“Thanks for letting me know, I would have been hunting for 22 on all other floors if it had not been for you.”
“No problem dear.”
Uh oh, she thought. When people don’t get sarcasm as simple as that, you can’t expect much sharpness from them.
Trying to outrun the rats was a lost cause. They just knew their way around the hostel better. Meera just had to see the bathroom. She knew what to expect, but her optimism always put her in embarrassing positions, like betting on India to win even when they needed ten runs per over with three wickets in hand. Her instinct did not disappoint. The bathroom was ugly, and the smell quickly reminded her of the time when she had passed by an opened men’s room at her old school.
Doing Bachelors in Engineering was her decision from the start, but she had not bargained for the archaic rule that all first year students were mandated to stay in the government hostel. It was basically a lockdown. You are actually paying money and being force-fed something. Is this what communism feels like, she thought. She dragged her dejected self to room 22, and sure enough it was on the second floor!
“Hi, I am Jyoti; this is Kusum, and you must be…”
“Meera…nice to meet you. So, you must be BE too right?”
“Oh! You are BE, no yaar, this hostel has freshers of many streams. I am doing my Bachelors in Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Kusum here is doing arts.”
How the hell are these girls so cheerful in this hell-hole? “By the way, how is the food here? Do they serve non-south Indian food anytime?”
“Yes, Thursdays and Sundays we get to have some Punjabi dishes, if the mess aunty is in a good mood? Why? Surely you are South-Indian…”
“Yeah, does not mean I need to live on sambar and rasam for the entire year right? Also, I was brought up in Mumbai.” Well, it was Runwal Nagar, Thane, but these people need not know that.
“Oh Mumbai, I have many relatives there…”
“Really lemme guess, Matunga right? I can practically smell the coffee beans and chicory!”
“FYI, it is Thane, but you need not be that rude. In any case, I am Malayali, not Tamil.”
“Oh! I did not mean to offend you” (Well, I did actually but, I am sure you will believe me if I say I did not.)
Nine weeks later.
“Meera, Dr. Bala is asking for you. You need to see him at the end of class today.”
“Sure, who is he?”
“You have been here two months and you don’t recognize the principal’s name?”
“I wasn’t aware of that being on the syllabus!”
“Yeah whatever, just go see him. That’s all I care about.”
“Cheer up Kusum, I’m sure it is about the hostel.”
Outside the class, up the stairs, thirty paces to the right and through a door bearing Dr. A. S. Bala in gold letters.
“Ah, Meera Iyer. Have a seat. I take it our conditions in the university hostel are below your expectations?”
“Don’t you know that all freshers have to spend their entire first year in the Uni hostel? I cannot allow you to change hostels at a whim.”
“I don’t get it Dr. Bala. I changed hostels two weeks ago. Your sphere of influence is shrinking fast.”
(Come on…don’t be a smartass. You don’t want the principal after you in the first year itself.)
“Yes, you need to move back in the hostel or face the consequences.”
“Please do whatever you wish sir, I have made my decision.”
“Very well, you may go.”
She spun on her right heel and left the room. The private hostel was a small bike-ride away. No more rats for roommates and food dabbas delivered by hand every afternoon and evening. Things were good so far…
Something always bothered her. It was like a grain of sand in her eye, or a stone in her shoe, annoyingly uruthufying her, reminding her of its presence. She knew that these four years were just a limbo. Her future happiness and contentment was elsewhere. Little did she know how close she would get to it before losing it.