You’re new to Bangalore, to the hostel. You want to fit in. You are an introvert and you’re home-sick. Your roommate has long black hair that you touch to see if it’s real. She’s amused by your interest and says, ‘Blessed are those who can’t see and yet believe.’ You feel guilty. The biblical quote makes you like her immediately. She says you are free to change in front of her. You smile. You have always wanted to live in a girls’ hostel. You’ve always wanted a sister. When you still turn away and take off your top, you feel her eyes burning a hole in your back. She comments about girls having attitude, especially NRIs. You feel the sting and turn towards her, quickly pulling your nightdress over your head. She says your bra colour suits you. She asks if you have a boyfriend. You nod, No. She says usually girls with boyfriends have pretty undergarments. She has always lived in hostels. You wonder why her parents would let her grow up in hostels but you don’t ask anything. You admit this is your first and you are terrified. She says she’s there for you.
You’re unable to sleep, alert to the sound of crickets and mosquitoes. In the dark, she asks if she can join you on your big mattress (slightly bigger than hers). When she tucks herself inside your quilt, you feel sleep finally creep up on you. She says NRI blankets are surprisingly warmer than local ones. You ask her if you can hug her and sleep. You have always wanted a sister. She’s reluctant but allows you. When you wake up, her hand is inside your panty. You slowly take it out trying not to wake her. You are embarrassed. At breakfast, you want to tell her how it might not be a good idea to sleep together again, but you chide yourself for being silly. It happens, maybe. You wouldn’t know as you’ve never lived in a hostel.
The next night, without an invitation, she sleeps beside you. You are silently pleased. She tells you it isn’t good to sleep with your bra hooked. You tell her it’s a habit. She unhooks hers and sighs heavily. See? You can breathe better. Also, don’t you want bigger breasts? For your guy? Breasts grow at night. She winks. And turns to the other side by saying, ‘You can hug me. Don’t ask.’ You think about what she’s said. You unhook your bra and hug her. When your parents call, you rave about her. They say you are blessed to find a true friend so soon.
You ask her about her parents. Her expression hardens. After a while she says they died before she got to see them. This makes you cry. She lets you rest your face on her shoulder. You both watch movies late into the night. After watching Pretty Woman, she says Julia is fuckable. This makes you laugh. Then you warn her not to swear. You stare at Julia’s face and say that you wish you had her lips. Your roommate says you have better lips than Julia’s. ‘Really?’ you ask. You tell her that sometimes you feel left out when you see girls with boyfriends, and that you don’t want to be with one for the sake of it. You want to be friends first. ‘Same here,’ she says.
You both are always together, in the mess hall, when she reaches across to wipe the bread crumbs from your lips with her thumb, you feel special. Girls stare. They’re jealous of your bond. When she waits outside your classroom for you to finish, your classmate asks you if you both knew each other before as your bond feels unique.
You learn that your mom isn’t well and then you find a screw in your rice. When you report it to Chechi, the head cook, you’re told ‘It’s okay ma. Take more rice.’ You wait to return to your room to throw a tantrum. You want to leave immediately. Your roommate is terrified. She hugs you tight. She says, ‘Calm down, calm down,’ and rocks you as if you’re a baby. It works. Your mom hugged you like that. You hold her tight and whisper, ‘Don’t let go.’ She whispers back, you are special and that special people deserve kisses. She kisses your cheek, you feel like you are home. You thank her. She says, you can kiss her back. You say you’re shy. She kisses you again, this time closer to your mouth. Before you know it, your body is stamped with her kisses and you are moaning.
When you wake up, you wonder if it was a dream or if it really happened. Either way, you feel ashamed of yourself and run to the chapel close to your hostel. But when you take off your slippers outside the chapel, your courage wanes. You decide to sit in the garden a little away from the chapel. After a while, you notice two day scholars pull their dupatta over their head before stepping inside the chapel, a gesture of reverence. More girls wearing kurtis and leggings- the dress code of the college, go to the chapel.
You have to get ready for your class or you’ll be late and sent out. You have to maintain a minimum of 75 % attendance but you linger in the garden and stare at the birds on the huge tree beside you. You wish you knew the name of the tree or of the birds. Your knowledge of trees and birds is limited from growing up in Bahrain. Palm trees, pigeons, sparrows and crows (from vacations to Bombay) are all you are familiar with. You should step out of the hostel more, you think. At least on weekends when you can make most of the day before the 6pm curfew.
You feel someone behind you and you jump. It’s your roommate. You calm down but then blush. She asks you if you had breakfast yet. You tell her you haven’t brushed yet and that you will join her soon. Before you leave for college, the warden calls you to her room and asks you about your roommate, she wants to know if you both get along. She promises whatever you say will remain confidential. You say you’re very happy and that she has cured your homesickness. The sister is pleased hearing this and tells you to thank the Lord.
Your roommate isn’t waiting outside your class at the end of the day. You are worried. She has fever, you learn on returning to your room. You touch her forehead, under her chin and inquire whether she’s eaten anything. When she says she hasn’t, you take out the luncheon meat tin from your cupboard and feed her. She takes out a Crocin tablet from her bag, you stop her. You tell her it’s harmful, you’ve read somewhere. You give her a Panadol and instruct her to sleep while you go for your evening tea served in the mess hall.
When you’re spotted alone, a girl from the next room asks about your roommate, she lowers her voice and says she’s heard that your roommate was abandoned by her parents, is it true? You say it isn’t true. Her parents died when she was small. You have tea and walk along with the girl in your campus, discussing books. You both take a full circle of the campus, chatting. When you reach back, your roommate’s eyes look crazy, restless. ‘Where were you?’ she snarls, looking venomously at the girl beside you. The girl asks your roommate if she needs any help. Your roommate ignores her and pulls you inside your room. She slams the door on the girl’s face.
‘Hey, that’s rude…’ you say.
‘I’m not well, you know right? I was calling out to you. I felt dizzy and slipped down the stairs.’
In the next few days, you try your best to make it up to your roommate by playing with her long hair, just the way she likes it. You add tuna from the tins you brought from Bahrain to mayo on salt crackers and feed her. You comply with all her demands, you just need to look at her bruises to do so. You let her wear your bra when she wants to try it out. When the underwire cuts into her ribs, she asks, ‘Don’t these hurt? Don’t you get a mark under your breasts?’ You show her the line. She asks you take off your bra.
You feel uncomfortable but you see her bruises. While she applies Vaseline on the red line under your breasts she tells you about how bras are the only of the byproducts of patriarchy and that you didn’t need push up bras. You are attractive the way you are. Her concern moves you and you kiss her cheek but retreat immediately remembering the events of the past, still unsure if it was a dream or not. Your kiss triggers something in her and she pushes you back slowly on your bed. She says, ‘Please don’t stop me.’ And you don’t. You let her do whatever she wants to you and it makes you very happy. You wonder if being with a man would make you this happy. After she’s done, she tells you that she hates the girl from the next room. ‘You’re mine,’ she says.
You tell her that the girl loves books like you. Your roommate tells you she will gift you a book very soon and that she doesn’t like books but she will make it a habit. The next day, you find Shobhaa De’s Strange Obsession under your pillow. She asks you to read the story aloud to her. You tell her the warden will kick you out if she finds out what you’re reading.
The next day, your roommate wakes you up and tells you that she can’t wash her long hair because of the bruises on her arms, can you help her? You both tiptoe to the bathroom, the hostel is asleep. She closes the main door of the bathroom so that the sound of water wouldn’t carry out. You enter the bathroom, she strips. You say she glistens like a dolphin. She asks you to gently wash her hair. You follow her instructions. The water and shampoo foam has splashed on you. She tells you to bathe with her. ‘How can you sleep like this? You need a change of clothes, no? Might as well take bath again?’
‘What if the warden hears us?’ you ask.
She assures you she has locked the door. You quickly run soap on her body and she does the same for you, saying it’s the least she could do for you. She caresses you and you are aroused.
She tells you, she wants to go to parks with you, to hold your hand in public. You don’t refuse, as usual. When you go to Cubbon Park, you notice there are many couples. She takes you further away from them, into the bushes and whispers, ‘You know what is best about us. People will never doubt us. These couples get caught all the time. We never will.’ She makes an effort to strip you and you stop her, you tell her it’s okay in private and that you aren’t comfortable in public. This infuriates her. She says, ‘This isn’t you. It’s your guilt talking. God won’t love us less for who we are. Don’t worry. No one will find out about us.’
‘I’m not who you think I am. I’m sorry. I have a problem. I just can’t say no,’ you say and cry. She says, ‘But you enjoy every moment with me, don’t you? Has anybody made you feel this special, this happy?’ She’s holding you tight as if afraid you will fly away. You push her and run away. On your way, you hear something from a nearby bush. A girl’s voice. When you go closer. You see a boy forcing himself on a girl and she is trying to push him away. You shout, ‘Ayye’. The boy looks up and says something in Kannada. You say in Hindi, ‘Leave her alone.’ And you lift a stone. He replies in Hindi, ‘Mind your own business, we are a couple. She’s mine.’ You look at the girl, she bobs her head sideways. You are in doubt, should you fling the stone at him? What if he gets hurt? What if he calls the police? What if they discover you and your roommate? What if your roommate spills the beans? You throw the stone down and run away, hoping the girl can forgive you and hoping she stays safe.
Michelle D’costa is an Indian from Bahrain. Her prose and poetry has appeared in various online journals such as The Madras Courier, Coldnoon, The Bombay Literary Magazine among others. She loves interviewing writers. She runs the literary journal Kaani and more work can be found at https://michellewendydcosta.wordpress.com/