Featured artwork by Darren Thompson
Right from the beginning of my entrance coaching debacle, I knew I would not end up as a doctor. In no time, I became a ‘poor performer’. Sixteen and jailed at the school hostel, I walked with my hands stuck like an adhesive over my eyes to avoid seeing the rank lists for nearly two years.
At our hostel, we could not banter, gather, or do anything outside of studying. A strict ‘silence time’ from 6 PM to 7 AM was unquestionably followed. There were almost three hundred girls, packed in dorms, strictly monitored for almost twenty-four hours through CCTV cameras. If you dozed off or read a newspaper during study hours or cried while phone-calling parents, your name would be announced through a mic from the warden’s office. Scolding, apologizing and the expiation of sin followed. Since I was a regular church-goer, I knew Jesus and our warden sister would forgive me, immediately.
At common study halls, I would sit perpetually distracted, amidst a sea of whining girls who were desperate to make their parents proud. It was nearly impossible to concentrate. My friend suggested I should compartmentalize my thoughts and think them only while showering or eating or walking to school. It was one of those seemingly wonderful but extremely impractical ideas. Thus, I started journaling. I abandoned myself and any sense of shame I felt to it; filling it with my private guilts, colossal stupidities, passive torments, self-doubts and wobbly plans to escape this place. Sometimes I would exaggerate things (“Oh I think M is a lesbian, would Jesus forgive her?”, “Oh I am sure J is never washing her clothes”) and weave stories, so that it would be more exciting to read, when glimpsed through, later. I even wrote half-baked film stories to be made by Director Anju when I got out. I walked around, sweaty and sticky as a lifeless zombie. I thought about the groundbreaking speeches I would give at film festivals.
We were prohibited from reading or possessing any books other than those which the school provided us with; often pertaining bulky entrance material. As someone who religiously read Vanitha and almost all other women’s magazines at beauty parlours during my pre-hostel days, I was doing fine for some time. One day, I lost my mind. Unresolved desire seeped in and I rushed to our common study room at night, crawled through the floor, opened cupboards that weren’t mine, and started reading their personal diaries. Relishing in them, guiltily embracing them, I felt so alive. A good feeling of transgression hovered inside my being. Pretty and spitefully competitive S has a crush on our school captain and fears a prettier M would come in between them, A is jealous of her younger sister and another A hates her class teacher whom she has been forced to suffer for 2 years in a row. A mix of disgust and joy. I felt absolved of my private anxieties for some time. I felt like I should read more.
I began collecting and preserving the never preserved English question papers of students from various classes and batches. At night when people slept, I sat down with a torch to read comprehension passages and poems from these papers. Most times I cut them out and placed them inside my pillowcase and between my schoolbooks. Aha, the sheer joy of finding them snug inside of books, during Physics and Mathematics class!
When boards approached and studies became incredibly tiresome, I ‘stole’ my roommates’ Revolution 2020 and Half Girlfriend. I read, re-read and re-re-read, at night, when they slept and placed it back intact by morning. I also got Like It Happened Yesterday and read its boring pages. Since I was afraid that I would attract condescending gazes from studious girls (“No wonder she’s this way…blah blah”), I snuck them inside textbooks and read it all very cautiously. It was sheer escapism. A process to douse any attempt to think about the future.
It has been six years since all of this happened and I still remember exact lines from those books. I lost my journal too. Anyway, to intensely live in the present without spilling over to before and after, continues to elude me.
By Anju Mathew
Anju just completed her M.A in English from Pondicherry University. Most of the time, she worries about PhD applications and when not, she thinks about penning down all the short stories running through her head (unfortunately, only thinking happens). You can find her on Twitter: @anjumathewp16.