The first anonymous letter arrived by mail and was addressed to me. The return address was fake. It said, From: LN, Room 718, Leela Nag Women’s Residential Hall. But there was no Room 718 at Leela Nag.
Do you know what goes on under your very nose? The letter asked. Do you know how good name of Leela Nag Women’s Residential Hall is being destroyed? While administration dillydallies over unimportant issues like gate-closing time and Hindu diets, immorality of some girls knows no bounds. The immoral activities happen late at night, with full knowledge of administration. These are injurious to innocent, decent girls. We request the administration to stop unsocial activities and secure us from bad influence.
There was nothing notable about the paper or the typeface. The postmark showed the local post office and the date was from two days ago. The addresses were handwritten.
I had no idea what these alleged immoralities were. Alcohol? Drugs? Some girls smoked cigarettes in secret, I knew. I’d come across them here and there in the hall after dark. But they were always sensible enough to hide as soon as they spotted me. I didn’t think that would count as such an immoral activity to merit accusations like this, not these days.
But the writer had to be one of our hall residents. Everyone on campus knew about the Evening Statute Protests—female students had rallied together to push back gate-closing time for women’s halls from six pm to nine pm. But the other issue, the problem with the Hindu women, that wasn’t big enough to have traveled outside these walls. Maybe some of the girls had talked to their non-resident friends about it?
I puzzled over the poison pen letter, and thought of throwing it into the wastepaper basket. But then I changed my mind. Maybe I should hang onto it for a while, just in case. I slid it into a desk drawer. The wire-mesh basket beside my desk looked pristine and empty. On an impulse, I cleaned out my bottom drawer of the accumulated trash masquerading as memories and dumped it all. I’ve carted these things around for years: store receipts from a study tour in India, newspaper cuttings, group photos of some picnic I barely recalled, programs from cultural functions. All my memorabilia dated from my university days; as if I hadn’t existed before.
I scanned one of the cultural function programs: an orientation evening from back when I had been a student living in a women’s hall. The schedule and the names of the performers were listed in glossy purple. I traced the embossed gold pattern on the border with my finger, touching each name listed. Some I remembered, some I didn’t. My name was there too, in a way: invisible in the ‘…and chorus.’ I flipped the program into the trash. Many of the names printed had changed; new surnames adopted with marriage. Mine hadn’t. Mine wouldn’t.
It was useless to worry about something you cannot alter. I put the letter out of my head. Maybe some of the girls were smoking more than cigarettes.
The letters weren’t where it all began, though. It was the two Hindu students coming in to complain about their food. Or rather their roommates’ food habits. They weren’t both Hindu actually—one girl was Hindu, the other Buddhist. But they’re the ones who started off this whole mess.
I was sitting in my office checking the entry-exit ledger from the evening before. The guards had been lax in maintaining the log, and that morning Provost Madam had called all of us in for a scolding. Even the typist had to be there. Apparently the resident girls were going in and out after hours as they pleased, and Provost Madam didn’t care what protests about gate-closing time they had held four months ago, this was still her women’s hall, and it would run by her rules. In accordance with whatever rules the University Syndicate handed down, of course. But mainly her rules and her rules didn’t include the young women of Leela Nag wandering in and out of the compound at will after dark. Her finger jabbed the air. Nice, decent girls did not need to be outside after dark.
Lima apa, who had worked as a House Tutor much longer than the rest of us and exuded the confidence of one who had witnessed the coming and going of many Provosts, said in a calm but firm voice, “Madam, the protests made clear that many female students have part-time work outside of campus, and they cannot get back by gate-closing time, especially with city traffic the way it is. The evening buses rarely return to campus according to schedule. It’s not like they’re demanding a later gate-closing time because they want to hang out with their boyfriends.”
Lima apa had been a student activist. As House Tutor, she always looked out for the students; I had seen this as an undergraduate. All this made her popular among the lefty student girls, but didn’t win her any points with the Provost.
Madam waved her hand in the air dismissively. “I don’t want to hear excuses, Lima. You always take their side. We’re not here to take sides; we’re here to make sure everything is handled appropriately.” She cut through whatever it was that Lima apa was trying to say. “No, no, they’ve had their say to the University Syndicate and pushed back gate-closing time from six pm to nine pm, fine. But the Syndicate hasn’t officially instituted any new regulations yet. I have a right to know who’s coming in and going out. How else am I supposed to maintain discipline among three hundred and nine young women? All these uppity girls behaving as if they’ve spotted the fifth leg of a serpent; no sense of proportion.” We all sat listening to her in awkward silence. What was the point in rehashing all of this?
Back in the House Tutor Office, Lima apa assigned me the duty of checking over the ledger kept at the gate. I wasn’t exactly sure what to check. Supposedly the guards weren’t recording entry and exit properly. But unless I sat at the entrance with the guards, I had no way of knowing who was crossing the gateway when, in which direction, and whether the guards were logging it in. What could I tell from looking at the ledger entries?
“Just ensure entries are being made, I suppose.” She bent over with her hand on the back of my chair to get a closer look at the ledger. I could smell her light perfume. “Looks okay. As if the girls who do ‘bad’ things can’t do them before six o’clock. As if everyone’s as pure as flowers while it’s daylight.” Lima apa snorted. “Just another idea to let herself believe this is her Queendom.”
I laughed at Lima apa’s comment but quickly focused on the papers in front of me. Lima apa had no fear. One of the ayahs was in the room cleaning our tables of teacups and saucers sprinkled with brown biscuit crumbs. I could never trust these peons and ayahs, they were always gossiping and whispering. What if she reported such comments to someone? Trust and survival couldn’t possibly be placed on the table together.
The two girls came in as soon as Lima apa left for lunch. They were first years, and had only been at the hall a couple of months. I’d never seen them before. They lived in separate rooms but they looked the same in their waist-length braids and neatly folded ornas covering their breasts. Their complaints were the same too: they were vegetarians and their roommates cooked meat or fish in the rooms. Which in itself they wouldn’t object to, but the situation was getting complicated.
I sighed and closed the ledger. It took me a while to understand what they were saying. The one with the deeper voice did most of the talking; the other one was mostly the backup harmony. Apparently their roommates split costs for groceries and cooking stuff but they couldn’t participate because they were vegetarians and the others didn’t want to accommodate that. Also the senior roommates kept using their utensils without asking and once something had been used to cook or slice meat or fish, it became tainted for them and had to be thrown away. Hall life was getting to be more irksome and expensive than they had thought. When they raised the issue with the room seniors they were told to shut up. Then someone, as a joke, had slipped a piece of beef in deep voice’s vegetable curry. Fortunately, another roommate warned her in time and she was saved from transgressing, inadvertent as it might have been.
Why was I being involved in their dietary issues? Couldn’t she just have picked out the meat and thrown it away? I usually have the dining hall send meals. It wasn’t terrible, there was hilsa fish with parvals for dinner last night. And chicken and potato curry before that. Maybe they could eat there. There’s usually a non-beef option. I put the suggestion to them.
They seemed affronted. “We’re vegetarians,” said deep voice. “My caste eats neither fish nor chicken.” The quieter one piped up, “The dining food isn’t fit to put in your mouth. We’d die if we ate there.”
Well, really. “None of the other Hindus ever complained,” I said, just to put things into perspective. If their roommates didn’t want vegetarians to eat with them, what could I do? However, we are supposed to mediate conflicts. “Why don’t you just wash your things with very hot water?” I said encouragingly. They seemed even more offended by this suggestion. I don’t know what they expected from me. I guess I could tell their roommates not to use their stuff?
But they had a better solution. What if the two of them were allotted a corner room?
Most of the rooms in the hall were equipped to house four girls. That meant four wood and metal beds, four desks, four wall cabinets. The cooking space was merely a corner where they hooked up a single electric burner to an outlet. When I visited the rooms on inspections, I always marveled at how the girls managed to dress it up. There were bright hued spice pots lined on the floor beside the burner, perhaps a coverless red and white Dano milk tin holding spatulas and ladles upright like soldiers in tight formation, red earthen bowls with white clumps of garlic. The rest of the supplies would be out of sight under someone’s bed.
The hall was, however, bursting at the seams. Every year there were many more girls than we had space for. The promised construction of two more halls, much larger than ours, was taking forever. In the meantime, we stuffed six, sometimes eight girls to a room. The new girls were ‘attached’ to a room and were recorded as ‘doubling’ with a senior. If the doublings were lucky and got a nice senior, they would get to share the tiny bed and the desk. Sometimes doublings were made to sleep on the floor and do chores. No one complained.
Then there were the corner rooms, oddly triangular and small, like mine. The corner rooms were carved out from the leftover spaces, and all three residential wings had a few. They seemed more architectural mistakes than planning, but I didn’t care. I liked my window with its single panel looking out onto an expanse of deep red earth easing into a small pond. Sometimes the veil of the floating water-lettuce would even let through a glimpse of shining water.
Small as they were, the corner rooms were coveted. There were twelve altogether, and I got one as the live-in House Tutor. The rooms barely had space for two beds and the wall cabinets were smaller. Of course mine had just one bed, so I had enough space to squeeze in a tiny bookshelf and dresser.
The corner room occupants were never asked to take on doublings. The official rule was only Masters students could be allotted to the corner rooms, and if there were more applicants than slots—which was generally the case—the Provost would consider their academics and behavior to decide. In reality, the senior girls who were in the Provost’s good books got allotments. Which meant leaders in the student wing of whichever political party had exerted influence in the appointment of the Provost. There were also rumors of these slots being bought and sold. Many of the politicals were professional activists, students in name only. Some were even older than me and enrolled in some department or diploma course so they could live on campus. Some just refused to move out even after they had graduated. There wasn’t much we could do about it, they usually had the backing of influential faculty or administrators. Student politics had become a career for them and the residential halls on campus were how they marked out territory. Whoever had the halls, had the clout. Everyone knew how it worked.
Except for these two, it seemed. If they were allotted a corner room, they suggested, they could practice their vegetarian ways to their heart’s content without bothering or being bothered by anyone.
I thought a more important issue was the dining hall food, and how bad it was. The daal was just yellow salty water, flavorless. I wondered if they put any lentils in it at all, or just boiled turmeric and garlic in water. During load-shedding one evening, one of the girls mistook a bowlful of daal for the bowl for rinsing your eating hand and washed up in it. In the daal, I mean. I don’t know why more girls don’t complain about that sort of thing. All this other nonsense.
I told them I’d talk to the Senior House Tutor about it and sent them away. But, I thought to myself, before I spoke to Lima apa, I would call in Aaroti. She was Hindu, I knew, her surname was Das. Although I’d seen her eating kabab with other girls and it didn’t always seem to be chicken either. She’d been very vocal during the gate-closing time protests. We’d grown to know each other while the protests and negotiations were going on. I knew she attended the study circles organized by the Socialist Students Union and she seemed to know the ins and outs of student politics. I could sound her out. She usually came by my room for a little chat once a week. This time I’d invite her.
Personally, I thought it was a non-issue. The other Hindu girls weren’t complaining, and these two seemed the quiet type, not troublemakers. But these days, with students protesting issues right and left, who knows what was important when and why. Best to be safe.
Lima apa’s entrance in the mornings was something to behold. She lived five minutes away from Leela Nag Hall, in a gray building smeared with the ever-growing vine of money-plant. It sat right beside the huge two-storied house that was the Provost residence. I guess they gave Lima apa a separate apartment although she didn’t have a family because she’d been here for so long. Rumor had it that she had loved blindly and lost when she was a student stealing hearts right and left. But that had been long ago. She had never married after that. Sometimes I wished I had known her then. Or she had known me.
She’d never invited me to her place although I’d heard there were students who congregated there for a study circle and sometimes music rehearsals. Lima apa was in charge of the hall’s cultural programs so it made sense, I guess. Although they did take up a lot of her free time. It also seemed that the girls who spent time with her were mostly the troublemakers.
Her trademark attire was a freshly laundered cotton handloom sari every day, a woven jhola-bag and a big teep centered on her forehead. The teep changed color daily, matching her sari. Her blouses were always of the same make—high necked at the back, plunging to a v-shape at the front, but modestly covered with the perfectly folded anchal of her sari pinned on her left shoulder, sleeves tight down to the crook of her elbow. In the three years I’ve lived and worked at Leela Nag, she has always arrived thus.
At exactly eight thirty every morning, she would walk into the office, hang her bag on the side of the chair, and place a handful of flowers on the gleaming white saucer on her desk. Sometimes they were wildflowers from her early morning walks, some days flowers plucked from the plants lining her balcony. Her plants grew outwards and when I walked by the building I could see the leaves and flowers pushing through the metal grill to reach the sun and air.
The flowers she brought changed with the seasons: blood red hibiscus, yellow marigolds, purple-hearted glorybower, and orange ixora. She would drain the glass of water awaiting her before greeting me, “How is your day looking, Tamanna?”
When I first started work at Leela Nag, I would enter the office at eight-thirty as well. But soon I realized Lima apa expected me to have the morning paperwork organized by the time she arrived. I began coming in fifteen minutes early.
It wasn’t a problem as I lived in the hall. I had been allotted the corner room on the ground floor. If you crossed the outer gate, negotiated the twenty-four hour guard-station, walked through the main gate, and took the two steps onto the narrow passage you’d be standing facing the open square of green in the middle of the structure. The hall rose on three sides, like matchboxes stood on end and glued together. Mine was the first door you would have to cross to get to the rooms the girls lived in; I usually had a good view of who was coming and going.
Lima apa had been at Leela Nag from the beginning. She had no reason to remember me, I was one among many, but I was a doubling for a year at the hall where she was the live-in House Tutor. Back then I would see her at the hall all the time. Usually she had a group of students around her.
I was enrolled in History, had three subsidiary courses, and I was tutoring two elementary students. The tutoring was how I paid my way through university eventually. My parents were already threatening to cut me off—the money they were paying for my education, the shelter they provided—all of it made them believe they had more of a right over me than any human being should have over another. Love, by then, was no longer in the equation. What an oddity love is: not having it slays, but having it can very well slay you too.
Around the same time things became tense with the senior whose doubling I was; she was juggling several messy relationships that were spilling over everywhere. She had a boyfriend in play, and another man writing letters from abroad, and yet it was my shoulder she leaned on. She preferred, she confessed, a woman’s softness to the men her traitorous heart inevitably led her to. It felt as if she didn’t know what she wanted and she began accusing me of various misdoings. I felt myself on the verge, teetering over the sharp edge of an abyss. We had grown close, and yet it was as if she, the older and more experienced one, needed more clarity. As if we were both swimming but only one of us knew how to breathe underwater.
After a year I opted out. I left the hall and moved to my cousin’s house in the city. For the rest of my years there, I would make the daily hour-long commute by bus five days a week. It had seemed worth it back then.
I remember one afternoon when I was still a resident student. I was sitting in the shadows at the back of the hall TV room while outside the rain beat down, the lightning an occasional ambient flicker within the walls. Lima apa joined the girls waiting for her up front. She was rain-soaked, and her hair was plastered to her face and neck. I could hear them talk and laugh as she dried herself with a towel one of them brought. They formed lines soon and she stood facing them, ramrod straight, her hands clapping out the harsh staccato of the choral poems they recited as she made them practice again and again.
I knew every word of those poems and those songs. I knew the order they went in, where the pauses were, where the breaks fell because I had watched them rehearse for days. I don’t know how Lima apa spotted me mouthing along at the back of that large room; she smiled and called me to join them. I went at her beckoning, but still I hung back at the edges, as if despite being called upon, I could stay as I was in that moment: neither in nor out.
“Which girls? I guess I haven’t met them yet, so many first years this year.” Aaroti sat on my bed crunching the biscuits I had placed in a saucer in front of her. The cool evening air wafted through the window behind us, the scent of water carrying through the iron bars.
I couldn’t remember their names. “It’s not like any of the corner rooms are empty.”
The breeze ruffled the stack of pamphlets she had placed between us, the grey bordered white papers a call to arms for all students to uphold equal rights. I wondered what rights these were. Aaroti always had a hundred things going on. She shrugged. “They’re fully paid students; the administration needs to take their concerns seriously. All students have full rights to every amenity on offer at their academic residential institutions.”
“We’d have to empty out a room and you know who usually gets those rooms.”
“So the administration is more concerned with keeping the politicals happy than the rights of the general students?” she asked sharply.
This is why I sometimes don’t like Aaroti. We’d be having a nice conversation and then she’d sound like that. I said, “Well, we have to…”
“No, apa,” she cut in. “I’m sorry, I have to disagree. You are here for the general students, for the students only.”
That is all very well in theory, but how does that work out in real life? I didn’t want to argue. I had seen her prowess when she led the debate against the Evening Statute, first with the Provost and then later the Investigation Committee. At least the gong beating at 5.45 pm to signal that the girls had fifteen minutes to get inside the hall gates or be locked out was no longer heard. “Like my grandmother forcing her chickens into the coop at dusk,” she had described it in her impassioned plea. The last time the gong had been heard was when the protest rallies from the different women’s halls converged here and one of the girls grabbed it from the guardroom. They had stood outside beating it, a call to all to stand together.
These lefty activist types were very good at arguing although they never seemed to make a good show at the student council elections. But then the student wing of the ruling party always swept the polls, regardless of how many students actually voted.
“Aaroti, you misunderstand my goodwill. I could just ignore the complaint, no?”
She leaned forward and began tidying the stack of pamphlets. The breeze had been strong enough to topple a few onto my bed. The white paint of the iron headboard had rusted and looked rougher than it actually was. I tried a different tack. “Why don’t they just eat at the dining hall? Plenty of girls do. You eat there too sometimes. Or maybe they could have a separate cooking corner in their rooms.” I didn’t actually think that was practical; there was no space.
“But isn’t having a burner in the room against the rules?” She looked at me with raised eyebrows. “You wouldn’t suggest something against hall regulations, would you?”
I couldn’t believe she was pulling this on me. Almost every room in the women’s hall had a burner. Her room had a burner. Regulation #29 does stipulate that burners aren’t allowed, but no one really likes the dining hall food and anyway girls like being able to cook.
At any rate, no one followed all the rules. Although we made sure the girls knew what they were by having them copy all sixty of them by hand when they came to live here. I mean who in this day and age would take seriously the rule to have a chaperone present if you had a male visitor? Or the requirement of a signed permission slip from a parent and/or the local guardian if a female student wanted to watch a movie? The rules had been there for ages; we just applied common sense regarding what could be followed and what couldn’t.
I decided to ignore Aaroti’s question and replenished the saucer of biscuits. As soon as I returned, she grabbed another biscuit and said, “Tell me, Tamanna apa, when they accepted our demand to modernize the hall code, were they just stalling, or is anything actually going to change?”
“It takes time, Aaroti, you know that.”
She laughed and stood up. “Six decades wasn’t enough, I guess.” She dusted the crumbs off her hands and grabbed her pamphlets. “I have to be at the rehearsal at Lima apa’s.” Aaroti had a solo at the Orientation Week Welcome Night. It was still a month away, but they were all very serious about it. She stretched, bending from her waist, first right then left. “As a representative of the Association for Minority Students, I’d suggest you take their complaint seriously.” She looked at my face and relented. “Look, Tamanna apa, you’re not looking the problem in the face. You can’t compare what I do—or don’t do—with anyone else. I’m not much of a practicing Hindu. With those girls it’s a religious issue. Sounds like they’re believers so they’re going to be strict about observances. You don’t want them going to the papers or something shouting communalism or discrimination.”
I don’t know why she and her friends keep saying six decades. Leela Nag was only built about six years ago. Construction had just started when I was a student. I remember walking past the site, shortcutting from the tea stalls to the Arts building. We would save time by braving the ogling laborers and their raucous renditions of Bollywood hits. At first the ground was cleaved open, the maw ready to swallow all. Then it surged out: first the iron skeleton, then the gray concrete pillars pointing upwards and spreading out.
I know they say six decades because the hall regulations were adapted from the Rokeya Hall regulations, but Rokeya Hall is such a hallowed institution. I think it might have been the first women’s hall in our country. Anyway, what was wrong with following tradition?
As I dusted the crumbs off my bed, I decided I would talk to Lima apa. As Provost Madam kept reminding us, we were blessed with opportunity and freedom and it was up to us to not abuse that.
It was a month after we officially allotted a corner room to Mithila and Jayanti, the two first year doublings, that the first poison pen letter came. The room changes had been pushed through by Lima apa, almost singlehandedly. I had never seen Lima apa so outraged as when I related the anecdote about the beef-in-vegetable prank. “How would you feel, Tamanna, if someone tricked you into eating pork?”
I’d never thought of it that way before. I guess because I’d seen Hindus like Aaroti eat meat, even beef—I didn’t realize. I was just used to the idea.
“You should be ashamed of yourselves. All of you.” Every word she had said to the eight young women standing in front of us was heavy and crisp. They had shut up after a couple of attempts to mumble shamefaced explanations for their actions. “How disrespectful do you have to be of another human being to behave like that? You didn’t mean any harm doesn’t improve the situation. What has all this education taught you? Nothing at all, nothing. I am ashamed to have women like you here. You’ll go out in the world and behave thus and represent this university, this hall. Chhi!” Lima apa almost spat out the last word, the force of its exhalation making the girls hang their heads even lower.
She had rounded on me with no less fury. I had no explanation to give her other than I hadn’t thought it was that important. She wouldn’t even acknowledge that my exploration of the situation with Aaroti meant anything. It was only when I raised the question of whether the chewing out of the seniors wouldn’t make them go back and take it out on Jayanti and Mithila that the Lima apa I was more used to returned. She pondered it for a while and then shook her head. “I don’t know, there are moments when you just need to take a strong stand. Sometimes people need it to be pointed out what they are and what they think.”
Within the week the paperwork was complete and the two girls moved into the corner room directly above mine. Lima apa went through the academic records of all the corner room occupants and ranked them. But I did notice that none of the rooms where the Provost made direct allotments were touched. Lima apa just moved one person, a quiet, conscientious, Pharmacy major who was unlikely to protest. Instead of being attached to a senior, the two girls were assigned the slot jointly, each the other’s doubling.
I brought the discontent over first years getting a corner room to Lima apa’s attention, but she said not to worry about it. There would always be people unhappy over something.
The second poisoned missive followed two weeks on the tail of the first, on a Thursday afternoon. We have informed you of immorality that takes place in Room 326 at night. There has been no action. We shall see what steps administration takes and then we will take law in our own hands. We will not let good name of our hall fall into dirt through machinations of those without values. This lesbianism is against social morality of our beautiful nation. This must be stopped.
I knew immediately they meant Aaroti. The other girls in Room 326 were of the kind who went to class, came back, cooked, ate, made mud masks, bathed, and repeated. Aaroti’s doubling had been assigned by me at her own request, as they were from the same rural town. A quiet, petite girl with a delicate laugh.
What was I supposed to do? Why were they sending these missives to me? I couldn’t crumple this one up: what if it was true? I was assigned to live in the hall to chaperone these girls, and now this. The shame of it made me shiver. I had known such nastiness before in the women’s halls; there was that time when we heard about the cleaners revolting because they kept finding ‘used’ thin eggplants in the shower stalls. But that had been hushed up. If it had ever happened. I’d always thought that sort of thing was no more than a rumor. But there was no telling what the girls could get up to. There were so many ways a young woman could go wrong without proper guidance. That is why I had left my hall all those years ago.
Lima apa didn’t come in on weekends so I would have to wait. But the very next day the third letter arrived; this one was slipped underneath the door. I stepped on the yellow envelope as I walked in, postmarking it with the dirt-smudged wavy lines of my shoe sole.
If this lesbianism situation is not resolved in next one week, we shall have postering campaign across campus, and we shall inform all national media of this crisis and how administration’s inaction is endangering welfare of general female students. We have the goodwill of all general students with us against this illegal activity and we shall prevail.
Lima apa’s face was expressionless as she read. I couldn’t tell if she was annoyed at being summoned peremptorily on a weekend. Someone senior needed to deal with this, and I couldn’t possibly talk to Provost Madam directly about such a shameful accusation.
I willed myself to breathe slowly as she put the letters on the table. What if I was held responsible? I thought of Aaroti as a friend and didn’t want her to be shamed in such a manner, but this required investigation.
“Any idea who they are?”
“Well, it’s Aaroti’s room…”
“No, the letter writers.” She looked at me for a few seconds and said, “You’re new still. This happens every couple of years, you know. And generally they’re false allegations. That sort of thing just isn’t part of our culture.”
I felt a bit slow. “When you say it isn’t part of our culture… you mean the letter writing?”
“Oh, no, of course not! I mean—that other thing.” She picked up the letters again. “Usually it’s some girls who work themselves up and then lodge a complaint.” She looked at my uncomprehending face and explained, “It’s partly a mob-mentality thing, but almost always, there’s some other conflict. Like those fatwas the mullahs give out on women in the villages; look under the surface and there’s some property dispute involved, or some powerful man wants something and the woman or her family is in the way.”
I still didn’t understand. Also I didn’t think she was taking this seriously. “Shouldn’t we inform the Provost?”
“File the letters somewhere,” she said. “It’s not a good idea to give importance to anonymous messages; attention is what they want in the first place.” She paused. “I’d bet this has to do with that room I assigned. Some of these girls—I can never believe how low they can stoop.”
I disagreed. But I held my tongue.
Aaroti was crying. She was trembling in humiliation and indignation. I had never seen her cry before. The Provost Madam watched her unmoved, the rigor of her face proclaiming her dislike of the young woman in front of her. Lima apa’s disapproval of the whole scene was clear in how her brows drew together, in the taut line of her neck.
It was the Provost who had insisted Aaroti be faced with the accusation, that she be allowed one chance to defend her reputation. Lima apa’s objections that Aaroti was surely a good girl, that she wouldn’t be involved in such activities, died off when she realized the more she objected, the firmer Provost Madam’s resolve to have Aaroti interrogated.
My thin dissent of not accusing her without knowing who the accusers were was shut down by Provost Madam’s question, “If this gets out, you think you’ll get off lightly? Why are you here? What were you doing all this time, sleeping with mustard oil up your nose?”
The room was stultifying; the Provost Madam had delicate skin, and she disliked the outside air so the windows were rarely if ever opened, the air-conditioners constantly humming in the recycled air.
“Of course, I’m not like that! I can prove it,” Aaroti sobbed as we watched. “I have a boyfriend.” She held a white handkerchief clenched in her fist, yet she wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “I’m halfway through my time here,” she said, her voice quivering. “I’ve done so much for others, and this is how I’m repaid?” She broke down again, weeping with the orna held up against her face. She was still talking but all her words were going into the orna and none into our ears.
The Provost Madam’s arched her right eyebrow, never a precursor of anything good. But before she could begin, Lima apa raised her hand. “Madam, I think we’ve heard enough. It’s ridiculous that a student needs to bare herself this way. And on such flimsy evidence.” Aaroti’s sobbing had quieted down to sniffles.
The Provost smiled. “Well, Lima, it’s all very well for you to make easy judgments. I, however, have to be more careful and balanced. You do realize that I answer to a higher power.” For a moment I thought she was invoking Allah, but then realized it was merely the University Syndicate. She looked at some point above Aaroti’s head as she spoke. “Aaroti Das, I have taken all facts into consideration. You may go now. But from now on, please try to behave better. It is reckless behavior that lands people in such situations.”
As I made to follow Aaroti out, the Provost motioned for me to sit. She pulled open her top drawer, and placed another yellow envelope beside the two that lay on her desk, crumpled by Aaroti’s sweaty hands. The third envelope sat there with the same ungainly scrawl as if a long-limbed spider steeped in ink had run amok, the same everything, except this one was addressed to the Provost Madam. She poked it toward Lima apa. “Go on, read it. I don’t know what I’m going to do with this situation. I’ve told you for ages now, to not let these students introduce all this foreign nonsense here. Do you have an explanation for this?”
I was sitting near enough that I could read the letter as Lima apa held it. We have very clear idea why administration is silent. What will administration say when there is evil spirit right in pot of mustard seed? Why is Begum Lima Apa still not married at this age? Why young girls at her house late at night? Why is she living alone with no family? What goes on there in her abode, we are aware. It is same as Room 326.
I couldn’t bear to look at Lima apa’s face. None of this was my fault. I was just making sure the hall’s reputation was not besmirched when I brought all this to the attention of the Provost, ignoring Lima apa’s instructions. But these girls, whoever they were, had gone too far now, this was too much.
The Provost turned to me. “Tamanna, you haven’t said much. Come, you’re the one who actually lives here. In all my years of university life, I’ve never seen a House Tutor accused like this.”
I couldn’t speak. When I finally looked at Lima apa, it hurt to see the usual glow of her skin overcast by an ashen pallor. A nerve near her right temple twitched so fast and so hard, I could see it. She reached up and pressed down on it and it was as if with that movement some spell of silence was finally lifted. We both began talking at the same time and then stopped.
She began again. “I can’t believe, Madam, that you would even consider questioning me on this.” She paused to gather breath. “In any other situation, after an insult like this, I would tender my resignation.”
The Provost was listening to Lima apa with her head cocked to one side. There was a satisfaction in her smile that frightened me. “I wouldn’t consider it, Lima,” she said. “You forget I’m a trained Sociologist. I’ve studied many things and the homosexuality doesn’t incapacitate administrative skills. Why would you need to resign?”
“Are you insinuating I’m one of those people? I shall get to the bottom of this, I…”
“The more you rake the muck, the more the stink rises. Do you really want these accusations bandied around in campus chitchat? Rumors once started live forever. Losing a job isn’t that hard; winning one’s name back, that’s a different game.”
I could feel the rage in Lima apa shake her. I felt it as if channeled to me through an invisible conduit—her disdain, her anger, her helplessness, her surrender.
“I would prefer if this stayed within these walls. I don’t want to take all this and have to speak in front of some committee. I see no reason to wash our dirty clothes by the roadside pond.” Provost Madam picked up all three letters and folded them together. The letters nestled against each other, a forced intimacy, and then slid inside a single envelope. The envelope disappeared inside her voluminous bag. “Lima, the Investigation Committee will be convening soon. They have a broad mandate since they will be drafting a new code for the hall. Just remember the hall’s good name rests in our hands.” Provost Madam smiled at us. “There are times when being conservative and traditional isn’t all that bad. Let’s forget all this. Everyone whose name could have been sullied is in the clear. I will make sure of that.”
She leaned over and placed a white file bound with red string in front of Lima apa. I stared at the university logo printed on top and my handwriting beneath that: Room Allotment Assessment. “You’re still holding on to that list I sent you, Lima. I need to get these allotments out of the way before I can focus on other things.”
The Provost had the final say on who got which room, but the Senior House Tutor needed to sign off by ascertaining there were no mismatches or errors. Lima apa picked up the file and held it quietly for a few moments. I could barely hear her when she said, “It’ll be on your desk by tomorrow.”
I steeled myself to look back at her. “You already did, apa.” I didn’t expect her eyes to brim over at my words.
She looked away. “Women like me, who choose to be alone, who choose to not be wives or mothers…the ground we stand on is as only as solid as the respect we are granted.” I felt my own eyes burn. From witnessing, again, how the simple act of being exacted such a desperate price.
I gathered my things from my desk and went to my room. When I opened my door, I stepped on a folded piece of paper. I stepped back quickly as if I had been about to step on a turd, but it was only a leaflet advertising a new laundry service. Complete cleanness!! In complete one day!! Perhaps I would try that out one of these days
I stand in front of the gate now and remember arriving for the first time three years ago to begin working here. Usually the girls arrived with one or both parents, or perhaps a father and uncle. They would have several bags’ worth of clothes and utensils, and following them would be a coolie carrying a mattress rolled tight around a couple of pillows. The girl would follow her family; the coolie brought up the rear. They would have the coolie wait while they came to the office under the misguided idea that we would let them all enter the girl’s allotted room to set her up. Why the fathers always think they can go inside a women’s hall, I don’t know.
Some grumbled when we explained, others seemed happier the hall was more secure than they had thought. The mothers, of course, could enter. And we had ayahs at hand to help with the setting up and settling in.
I didn’t have much luggage. I carried one bag and pulled a bigger one on wheels. Also: I was alone. There was no one who would have followed me through that night speared by the twin headlights of the long-distance bus. I had left home to come here, I had finally cut myself adrift on the vast moving water of self.
The tiny pathway connecting the hall grounds to the road was still under construction and the rickshaw puller had to deposit me half a mile away from the gate. I was trying to persuade him to follow me up to the hall office with my bags and my bedding.
The dawn fog of late autumn was melding into dew and light, as if accumulating and dissolving at the same time. Lima apa emerged from the mist. She was on her way home from her morning walk. Beads of moisture had accrued on her forehead sparking the sun now and then. She didn’t remember me, at all, but she knew who I was. She made the rickshaw puller balance my things against each other on the sidewalk, for, as I would soon learn, we had peons at hand to help with that sort of thing. Her right hand was held slightly away from her body, cupping a fistful of Sad Tree blossoms. As if she was undecided whether the orange centered star-shaped white flowers were too delicate or too heavy.
We walked toward the hall together and in between talking she sang a folk song I’d never heard before. Her voice was low, the words sometimes melting into a hum, but returning to words again. Wood and iron play at love/the boat topples /the two conspire /Let us live on dry land no more.
The gate loomed in the distance but the buildings themselves were still shrouded. With every step we took the morning light sharpened, the clear gold promising warmth. In between her singing we talked about the newest wing of the hall, the room she had allotted me, a recent suicide on campus, my student years. Every so often Lima apa would hold her cupped palm up to her nose and breathe in the delicate fragrance. The cold that morning had been heavier than usual for that time of year and I shivered under my thin cotton shawl as I walked beside her.
I look down the same path now and it is already showing signs of wear with bricks broken here and there leaving gaps in the neat pattern of fire-bricks laid out with such care, or bricks poking upwards. There was some dispute over where the repair funds should come from and neither the Leela Nag administration nor the Campus Estate Office wanted to bear the cost.
I stand to the side and wait. It might take a few minutes but a rickshaw will surely pull through here soon to carry me to the bus stop. I can only see a few of the ruptures on the road in this dark, most of them remain beyond my vision despite the light reflecting from the nearby streetlights. But I know whether I can see them or not, as soon as the rickshaw starts moving, I’ll be able to tell every gap and every bump. After all, seeing isn’t the only way to know the world.