On a wintry afternoon in Delhi, I was in college, savouring a rare bit of sunlight that had found its way onto the campus lawns. There were 10 people, both men and women in their early 20s, sprawled across the lawn that bore a sign saying “keep off the grass”. Some of us were awake while others were basking like reptiles, to let the sun thaw our frozen bodies. It was a scene of contentment and of a laziness that was infectious. A disturbance came in the form of a short, brown-haired woman, whom I recalled as being a member of the spiritual institution that had rented out its campus for our programme (The Young India Fellowship). Let’s call this woman Umbridge.
She took one look at the scene on the lawn and startled all of us with a monologue that ensued thus: “Get up, you! What do you think of yourself, lying on the grass beside a woman? What has the country come to? Young boys and girls lying on the grass together, in broad daylight, with no shame at all. Look at you, lying down beside a boy, on your back, with your legs crossed in the air and wearing tight pants — what kind of a woman lies in that position? Are you all government officers who go to sleep after lunch? This is a religious institution and we have some rules here. We cannot allow young men and women to lie beside each other in broad daylight. There is a school within this campus and we don’t want you people to pollute the children’s minds. Now get up, all of you!”
A thousand miles south in space and six years back in time, I revisit a building in Tirupati, a small town in Andhra Pradesh, which calls itself an educational hub. Old and crumbling, a former post office could hardly qualify for a school. It was on the widest and busiest road of the town and had no playground. The corridors were filthy, as were the toilets. A sewage pipe drained into the back of the classroom, bringing with it mosquitoes, cockroaches and a terrible smell. The textbook, however, was engrossing and the teacher was doing a decent job.
In a classroom that was half the size of the ones at the CBSE school I had studied at earlier, were seated 84 students; my school had had only 30 kids per class. The room was dimly lit, making it difficult to discern the face of the teacher as he passionately taught fluid dynamics. The sound of his voice in my head was punctuated by the sounds of drums, firecrackers and yelling; somebody important must have died and was being carried along the main road in a procession he wasn’t aware of. I looked around the classroom and at the students. Every girl’s hair was thick, oiled and plaited to look like a big fat tail. A classroom full of tails. Wait, where are the boys?
Sri Chaitanya Junior College Coeducation Campus had either girls or boys in a classroom because mixing up the two would lead to desire, apparently. Desire will not get us seats in IIT, AIEEE, EAMCET or JIPMER, will it? I walked out of the classroom after class and looked up. A row of adolescent boys in the second floor were looking down at the girls, smirking at them, vying for attention but not daring to say a single word.
“Why are there no boys in our class?” I asked a girl with a plaited tail.
“How does it matter?” she asked back. “Even in school, boys and girls don’t talk to each other or sit beside each other. If a boy looks or talks to a girl, he is punished.”
“What school is this?”
“Every state board school. This is a small town after all. Word spreads if you are a loose character.”
What was it that Umbridge had said?
“What kind of a woman wears pants that tight?” I glanced at Umbridge’s brown hair, hot-pink blazer and leggings. Unable to keep quiet any more, I decided to speak up.
“Ma’am, we know that we aren’t supposed to lie on the grass and we shall not repeat that. But why are you pointedly separating boys from girls?”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong. I have children your age, too. I am a modern woman like you,” she said, shoving her leggings and dyed hair in my face. “Our religious ideology does not allow this kind of exhibition in daylight. It is unhealthy.”
“What! We don’t acknowledge each other through the lens of gender! Why are you doing it?” I quipped. “What is unhealthy is the fascination for the ‘other’ that spawns when boys and girls are separated.”
Life at Sri Chaitanya was hard. There were no boys and the prospect of dealing with 80 girls did not appeal to me. I had grown up with a healthy mixture of the two and the total absence of boyish humour and bravado made the classroom an extremely boring place to spend 12 hours in. A wooden board that stood as a sentinel for many explicit rules divided the room into two. On the other side was a bunch of boys learning the same things that we were taught. Let alone talk, no girl dared to make eye-contact with the boys on the other side and the boys followed suit. Except for one.
His name was Naveen, I think. A short, scrawny kid, he peeped at me through a gap in the partition and smiled. He stalked me for more than a month, sometimes even following me on his bike when I cycled back home. I wanted to get to know boys but I hadn’t bargained for meeting creeps such as this one. I was only 16 and panicked every time I saw him outside class, waiting for me to come out. One night, he resolutely followed me all the way home and I knew I shouldn’t keep it under wraps anymore. He stopped coming to college after that. The authorities must have ticked him off, I thought. He was thrashed mercilessly by the principal, I heard.
I felt sorry for the kid. He did not know how to talk to me and that wasn’t entirely his fault. Movies, commercial Telugu movies in particular, fed him the notion that the more he stalks a girl the faster she shall ‘fall for him’. Media failed him as did his school and upbringing. However, his parents will expect him to marry a girl one day and have sex with her, and the cycle shall repeat.
“Who was this woman?” asked a friend, after Umbridge left in a huff.
“I don’t know who she is but I know that people like her are a cause for worry. She had a problem with men and women lying on the lawn together,” I said.
“Does she think I get aroused looking at my friend in tight pants? If she went ballistic at the sight of us lying on the grass, imagine her reaction when we break it to her that all hundred of us live in the same hostel, together!”
Further south from Tirupati and four years back in time, I made my way into Tamil Nadu. During college, I had lived in a hostel in Chennai. Women were not permitted into men’s hostels and the rules were curiously gendered in favour of men: they could stay out all night and come back as they pleased while women had to toe the line at 9 pm. However, we were better off than other hostels in Tamil Nadu. A certain engineering college, for instance, does not allow girls to go out after six, and as an added measure, lets loose guard dogs to police the girls.
I assumed things would be different in a metropolitan city but I couldn’t be more wrong. In the classroom too, the situation wasn’t conducive for the development of empathy between the two sexes. Although there were men and women in a class, we couldn’t sit together. It seemed as if everybody was scared of being caught talking to the other sex in private. The wooden board was invisible but very much there.
In the unisex hostel at Delhi that I currently live in, I see men everywhere, yelling in the corridors, laughing at each other, making fun of the women, fighting, partying and arguing into the night. Fascinated by how different each man’s room is, I take note of the little things, the cute things about men. The smell in a guy’s room is slightly but distinctly different from a girl’s; it has a certain musty odour that isn’t too unpleasant. Some rooms are frighteningly organised while the others are a threat to mankind.
No guy, as far as I know, leers at a girl if she wears ‘suggestive clothing’; the clothing suggests nothing to him, except maybe that the girl wishes to wear it — end of story.
However, everything is not as hunky-dory: there have been unpleasant incidents, charges made and allegations levelled just as in any other setting. All I can claim with a reasonable degree of surety is that the unhealthy fascination for the “other” doesn’t exist within this particular hostel, because everything that the moral police outside projects as dangerous or wrong, is normalised in this setting.
This interaction between the two sexes is what I always wanted and got only at school, in my formative years. I am a straight woman (I think) and I hope to live with a man someday. How am I supposed to understand, appreciate and enjoy his innate manliness if I am policed to stay away from him? Suppose I disregard this ulterior motive, how will I deal with men in the workplace, on the streets and in any other situation that involves them if I am denied the opportunity of studying them now?
As I type this sitting in a man’s room in the hostel, listening to one guy play the violin and watching another finish off an entire box of homemade besan laddoos, I know that I am reasonably well-armed to face all the Umbridges of the world that use religion or their own twisted ideologies to build invisible walls between me and men.
Disclaimer: Dolores Umbridge is a fictitious character starring in the fifth Harry Potter book. She is a toad-like woman who, with the help of the Inquisitorial Squad, acts as the moral police at Hogwarts. She might be fictitious but she is not, really. She and I share a love for cats.
Ramya Maddali is a Young India Fellow at Ashoka University