The story starts with our protagonist Kriti Dubey – an eighteen year old engineering aspirant looking to get an admit into one of the most competitive universities in the country. Kriti has spent her entire middle and high school studying in the middle east. Her family had moved there for work and as a young and pissed off kid attached to her environment, Kriti had vowed to her self to make it back to her country for her undergraduate degree.
Sitting in the college counseling centre of REC Warangal, Telengana with her parents, Kriti felt an onset of a mild panic spiral.
“How is she going to survive in this place?!” her father looked around exasperated.
Kriti could feel the tension swell up in her chest. She wanted to bolt out of the auditorium.
“Please pleaseee get me into DCE” she whispered a silent prayer. She’d applied to the Delhi College of Engineering campus but was on the waiting list for her admit. She hadn’t gotten the branch she wanted, but maybe she could compromise. She had family in Delhi. An aunt and uncle that she actually liked. Who did she know in warangal? Nobody.
What the fuck is in Warangal? She thought – frustrated.
She looks around at the students collected in the admissions hall and has a strong urge to throw up.
“Mom please… everybody here looks like they’ve got up and come from a farm!” she pleaded. “Maybe I can take a year back and apply to DCE. Maybe I can go to the US!”
“It’s too late for that now beta” her mom says. “If we back off now, then you lose a year. You won’t graduate at the same time as your friends in school. We don’t want you feeling depressed because you might be left behind”.
I am being left behind – thought Kriti.
Tons of her school mates were going to study in Canada and the US. She was so stressed about when she’d ever be able to see them again. But there was no changing her parent’s minds.
One of the Telugu families went forward to talk to the admissions counsellor. Kriti noticed their daughter- the student. The girl had worn a rani coloured Kurti and a chudidaar. Her hair neatly tied into two plates and she’d worn a bindi. Kriti’s eyes darted to the chain glinting on the girl’s neck and she noticed that the girl was wearing a mangalsutra.
What the actual fuck?! screamed Kriti inside her head. This is not the kind of crowd she was looking for.
After registering her for the Computer Science and Engineering section, they moved towards the girl’s hostel to get her a room.
“No Madam! The website promised that all NRI kids would get a private room in the new hostel!!”
She heard her father argue with the chief warden.
As she waits with her mother in the hallway, she looks around to take in the place.
The girls’ hostel that all first-years would get allotted to was a nightmare. Run down and unhygenic it was the mot ill managed building Kriti had ever seen. The paint on the corridors chipped the building looked so dilapidated, it was on the verge of collapse. And worst of all, they had sit down toilets with broken doors that stunk the hallways up.
I’m going to die here – she thinks.
“I’ve gotten you a small room in the new hostel” her father walks up to her and says. “It’s a storage room that they have agreed to let you use as a private room”.
She exhales feeling grateful.
Maybe the toilets won’t be as bad there – she thinks.
The hostel warden waves her hand in signal for them to follow.
“Aap nahi Sir. Aap idhar hi wait karo” she says to Kriti’s dad, as men weren’t allowed to enter the female hostels. Her mom helps her take her suitcases up to the fourth floor where her room would be. The warden stops in front of a room right next to the stairs. “Ye hai aapka room – 401B. Humne bedding andar dal diya hai.” she says as she hands over the key.
Kriti opens the door and drags her suitcases in. Turning around in her spot she tries to take her surroundings in.
I feel like Harry Potter in the cupboard under the stairs – she thinks. It’ll have to do for now.
“Beta, it’s okay! Chaar saal ki baat hai. You’ll be out of here before you know it”, her mom whispers to her consolingly.
Kriti nodds and gives her a defeated hug. A couple of minutes later as her parent’s car pulls out of the hostel parking lot, Kriti tries to find words of encouragement to whisper to herself.
It’s okay. They’re all kids like you. They’re just people. You’re gonna make friends. Look forward to meeting folks tomorrow.
Next morning, staggering into the computer science department- late from the long lines for breakfast in the mess- Kriti found herself frantically searching for her classroom.
She hissed through classroom windows at disinterested students who grunted instead of saying no.
“In here” signalled a girl through one of the glass windows. Kriti walked into the class only to feel a bit stumped by the seating arrangement. All the girls were sitting in one row, next to the classroom entrance to her left. The guys were distributed across three rows to her right. The distinction could not have been more clear. The gender segregation had already begun.
She grimmaced as she walked to the back of the girls row and sat on the last bench. She looked around the classroom to take the people in. Nobody cute she thought to herself, clearly displeased.
As the lecture on Engineering Physics droned on, she couldn’t help but feel unsettled in her own seat. She glanced along the girl’s row to see. All the girls in her class were wearing Kurtis. This stressed her out a little bit. Should she have worn a Kurti? She didn’t even own many Kurtis! The only pair she had was over used every year in their family’s Diwali celebrations. He wanted to bang her head on the wooden desk and cry. I don’t fit in here!! – she’d say.
It wasn’t as much about not liking the place. It was more about her feeling so out of place. She could see two girls sitting a few rows ahead of her, throwing furtive glances at her and whispering to themselves. She could feel some of the boys glancing at her and grinning sarcastically. She gripped on to the side of her jeans tightly, feeling a bit violated inside.
The hour was up and the kids were expected to move to the floor above for their next lesson. Kriti waited for most of the guys and girls to leave the room so that she could trail behind them. Settling in on her drawing tool, Kriti turned to the girl behind her to ask for a pencil.
“Where are you from Ma?”
“My dad’s from UP and my mom’s from Kashmir. We lived in Mumbai but my parents moved to the middle east” Kriti said.
“I’m Kriti, what’s your name?”
“I’m Sandhya”, the girl said as she passed an A5 sized paper and a 2H pencil. Kriti took them gratefully. Her eyes darted to the scars from what seemed like blade cuts on Sandhya’s hand.
“I got that in coaching,” Sandhya said. Kriti nodded and turned around to her desk. She spent the rest of the class quiety listening to the lecture and taking notes.
After a dull day of introductory classes, she head back to her hostel mess for some samosa and chai.
She picked a samosa from the counter where the mess aunty looked like she’d pull a girl’s choti for grabbiing more than one at a time. “One samosa per person madam! One samosa only!” the aunty yelled at another student. Kriti poured some chai from the steel drum into her glass and head over to an empty table. The mess had sterio systems in every corner of the floor that played telugu songs. She could hear the girls around her in adjacent tables talking in rapid Telugu. Feeling extremely home-sick she mutely sipped her adrak chai and gulped her oily samosa before heading up to the new hostel’s lonely room.
A couple of days passes in silent misery. Kriti would get up, eat breakfast, go to class and stare at the professors glass eyed. Come back for lunch, go back to the department, stare at the professors some more. Drink chai, come to her room and cry herself to sleep.
She’d found one bengali girl to sit with in class- who seemed friendly willing to share seats. One fine day Kriti walked into class like her absentminded self and took a left towards the ‘girl’s row’. Her uninterested gaze caught the attention of a guy who could only be described as a striking in her mind. Suddenly aware that she was staring, she tore her eyes away from him and scrambled to the closest seat available.
The next time she saw him they were in Chemistry lab. He was standing in the row in front of her.
‘Be careful to grip your beakers tightly while performing the titration!’ the instructor yelled for the third time. Clumsy as she was, Kriti was not paying attention to the instructions. The next time she picked it, the beaker slipped from her hand onto the platform and rolled over onto the sink with a crashing sound.
Mortified she looked up to find the professor throw her a disgusted look. Flustered, she replaced the beaker and started with the experiment.
‘Need some help?’
She looked up to find the cute guy smiling, standing next to her.
‘Yeah’ she grinned. ‘I have no idea what I’m doing’
‘That’s alright – move over, let me have a look at it.’ She stepped aside gratefully.
‘By the way, my name is Anuj’ he said – throwing her that cute smile as he extended his hand.
‘Oh. Hi Anuj! My name’s Kriti’, she smiled awkwardly and shook his hand.
Anuj quickly took over with the agility of a lab researcher and started working his magic with the experiment. Kriti scrambled to note down the steps and observations, thankful for the assistance.
‘So… Where are you from?’ she asked him. ‘Delhi’ he said. ‘You?’.
‘My family’s from UP but my parents lived in the middle east’.
‘Where in the middle east?’ he probed.
‘Kuwait’ she said.
‘I know Kuwait! From the war in 1992 and 2001’. ‘Cool’ she replied smiling.
‘My dad’s in the airforce you know. So I moved around quite a bit myself’ he said.
She nodded. Maybe they’d be friends?
After they finished up the experiment, they walked to the campus nescafe. They chatted about where they were from. How they liked the campus. The people they’d met and their plans for the future.
‘Thanks for helping me out’ she said as they parted ways at her hostel gate. She was so happy that she would’ve almost ignored the girl at the hostel steps who was yelling at someone who was presumably her boyfriend. ‘You think I’m a whore for talking to him?! You wait! I’ll go sleep with all the guys!’ she yelled, for the entire corridor to hear.
What is this place! Thought Kriti as she changed directions to take a different staircase.
From the next day Anuj started sitting right behind Kriti and her friend.
The three of them would go to classes and labs together and take long walks afterwards.
The girls’ hostel had a strict entry of 9 pm so they’d exchanged phone numbers and would talk for hours after they’d part. She was just glad to have him as a friend. He’d introduced her to his friends and other NRI kids who’d felt similarly stranded. He did what he could to help her out.
The environment was toxic, and she knew it. Ragging cases were on the rise. A couple of weeks into classes, a new student suicided because of being inhumanely treated by her seniors. The students grived for many days and they was an anti-ragging committee march.
But Kriti knew that this was a small cog in the machinery. The teachers were prejudist and sexist, the chief warden would drive around in his car – coming to a screeching halt every time he thought he saw a ‘couple behind the bushes’. I don’t think he realises that couples prefer department terraces over trees and bushes Kriti laughed.
Every year she would hear of a new female student who got kicked out of class for wearing shorts.
Her friendship with Anuj and her classmate was short lived but Kriti was grateful for the support and validation he provided.
As time went on, she chose to focus her creative energy into dance, dramatics and making friends.
In the end – chaar saal the, nikal gaye.
In the meantime, she did what she does best – which is to make the most of it.