Hostel Mate

It feels like yesterday. I joined the hostel a few days after the end of the midsummer vacation. Most inmates of the hostel had come by then. It was a Sunday. It was noon when I arrived. All the hostellers were gathered in the hall in the front, chattering loudly. Within moments I joined them after my lunch, a hurried affair of a few minutes. Old acquaintances hailed and surrounded me. They enquired after my wellbeing and some cracked jokes.

It was after the press of acquaintance thinned that I glanced around. The noise and laughter was still at its height. Everyone was trying to make noise to the best of their ability.

A figure that seemed detached from the general cacophony attracted me— at all girl, well above average height. She would stand out in a crowd. She was fair and slender. Yet that was not what was most remarkable. Anyone who saw that face would not but check it out again. A broad forehead. An aquiline nose. A pair of wide eyes. Yet she was not exactly beautiful. In the blue depths of her eyes lurked an indefinable shadow. It would seem that the owner of the eyes was forever in a dream world.

I tapped Padma, who was standing near me, on the shoulder. ‘Padma, who is that girl? Seems a stranger.’

‘Oh. That one,’ Padma laughed. ‘She’s in your room, Vimala. You have been given the small room near the staircase. Just you and her. God! Poor Vimala. To be with the silent cat day and night. What luck!’

Padma’s laugh had attracted others. I was able to gather all information that I could get from them. Her name was Sharada. She had joined for the intermediate course. She was first in the state for the school matriculation. A girl with brains. A blue stocking. Yet she had no words to spare for her hostel mates. I was very interested.

Days flew by. My initial curiosity in my new and strange friend began to fade. The talks, the meetings, the clubs and the committees of academic life took up a lot of my time. I had just forgotten about Sharada. Our friendship did not progress beyond communicating the barest essentials.

Sharada was a problem to all the students of her class.

‘She reads all the time. Yet, is there a single novel among the books that she borrows? No. We looked at her page in the borrowers’ register kept in the library. She revels in reading difficult Vedanta. Vivekananda and so on…..’ The spicy Shanta reported. When I saw the amazement on her small face, I felt like laughing.

When my friends came to our room on the pretext of studying, Sharada would be sitting still, staring into a book she invariably had with her.

‘Will she be able to take in a single word she reads amidst all the confusion, Vimala? She is just pretending to read,’ Padma opined one day.

I replied, ‘She may not be reading, yet she doesn’t take in a single word that we are saying.’

One evening I was busy writing an article to be included in the college magazine. Reflecting on a particular idea, I lifted my head, quite suddenly from my task. Elbows on the table, chin resting on her palm, Sharada was gazing at me. Our eyes met. Sharada flushed as if she had been caught doing something she should not have. ‘I . . . I . . .’ she stammered.

I smiled, ‘What happened, Sharada?’ ‘I . . . I . . .’

I didn’t understand the reason for her disturbed state of mind. ‘I don’t have an elder brother or sister. May I call chechi?’ She fell silent.

‘Whom do you want to call chechi? Me?’ I was surprised.

I never dreamt that anyone in the hostel would feel like calling me ‘chechi.’ That too, Sharada who was into reading the Gita and Vedanta! My God! If she ever saw the kind of books I read, she may not come anywhere near me. And she wanted to call me chechi.

Sharada misinterpreted my silence.

‘If you don’t like it, I shall not,’ she said with something like a sob. ‘I am an only child.’ Her voice broke.

I stood up and placed my hand gently on Sharada’s shoulder. ‘Why would I object, Shari? I do not have a younger sister. You have filled that gap…..’

Our strange friendship thus budded. Shari would not talk when other girls of the hostel were present. When the lights went out and the building sank into darkness, my strange friend would begin to talk. I often felt disturbed when I listened to the melancholy tones of her voice that arose in the serene stillness of the night.

I knew all about her. She was the only daughter of a rich landlord of the village. Her mother had died at childbirth. Apart from an old aged housekeeper, there were no women in the house.

‘I have never seen my father smile. Since my mother died, my father had never left our home, according to Lakshmi Amma. He spends his time in a small room, filled with books. I go to the room everyday in the morning and in the evening we talk for some time.’

To grow up in that house that clung to nostalgic memories with a father whose zest for life was frozen and with only an old maid as companion! To grow into a keenly intelligent person with the help of religious and philosophical texts! To have known no enjoyment! To have known no love except the fondness of her father!

She was brought up with a firm objective. ‘My mother died because a doctor could not reach her in time. Many women of our country may be dying like that. I feel that my mother’s soul would be at peace if at least one woman could escape my mother’s fate by my attending to her. Doctors can give the greatest service to mankind. Chechi, I think it

is a blessing to be a doctor, to be able to alleviate sufferings of families, to wipe the tears of the suffering . . . ’

To wipe away tears and to save from bereavement! Are these the reasons that motivate young women resolved to be doctors? They see wealth, pomp and power – not tears and pain. Being a doctor is a blessing, it seems, I always feel like raining on her parade. But yet my cynicism did not want to intrude on the sincerity that brimmed on the fore of her voice.

After two years of friendship, we parted ways. I, to step into the wide world, and Shari to medical school, where she would fulfill her ideals. We exchanged a letter or two. But then they stopped. Maybe because I was not much of a letter writer.

Days passed without surprises. Years sped by. I came back to the college where I had studied as lecturer. I made new friends.

We lived as in a hostel. Six of us. There was an advocate, a clerk, two schoolmistresses, and a typist. The elderly mother of the typist stayed with us to lend respectability to our dwelling. Most professions open to women in those times were represented in our hostel.

The clerk, Vijayamma, who was working in the supply department, got married to her superior officer and resigned her job. After the excitement of the sendoff and the party was over, we discussed the need to find a replacement for Vijayamma. Financial problems were likely to crop up if there weren’t enough people in the hostel. The advocate, Parvathy, agreed to shoulder the responsibility of finding a replacement for Vijayamma.

After four or five days, when I was knocking the pieces across the carom board, Parvathy came in with the announcement,

‘We’ve got a new inmate.’ ‘Who?’ asked the typist’s mother.

‘Ah. Guess. I will give you three chances. Which is the profession that we most need?’

‘Doctor.’ Rugmini, the asthma patient said firmly.

‘Right, it’s a lady doctor. Miss Sharada – She works in the government hospital. She just got the job. She has to take charge on Monday. She’ll come tomorrow.’

‘What does she look like?’

‘Need you ask? She’s a slim beauty. Tall and fair. Our beauty doctor till seem a beast when compared to Sharada.’

Thankamma who rejoiced in the nickname ‘the beauty doctor’, was back from the office and was sipping her coffee. She called out, ‘Let me get there, you, you . . . ’

‘God! That’s great. I’ll save on the two rupees that I have to dole out every week at the dispensary to buy the water that the dispensary tries to pass off as iodine mixture.’

Parvathy turned to me.

‘What do you say, munshy? She’s coming to your room? Do you think you will like to share your room with her?’

Doctor—tall, slim and fair. Beautiful. Is it Shari? If so, what fun it could be. ‘To wipe the tears of the people who are suffering!’ To pinch hospital medicine! The two images dovetailed. I tried hard to suppress my laughter.

Parvathy repeated her question.

‘Let me see her. I’ll tell you then.’ I said

Early morning, the next day, the new inmate arrived. It was Shari. She hadn’t changed much. There were more shadows of pain in her eyes.

We got together after five or six years. We sat up most of the night talking. Shari had much to tell me. Her father had died before he could see his daughter as a doctor.

‘Father died more than a year back. For a long time, I did not want to do anything. After a time, I found a measure of peace. I then remembered the responsibilities that awaited me. Then I got this job and came here.’

Shari joined duty. Each day, the seriousness in her face grew.

Nothing was going the way she wanted.

‘Chechi, they are trying to pass water off as medicine. A man keeps coming back, for the medicine he has taken has not helped him. I examined the bottle of the medicine I had prescribed and which he got from the dispensary. It was water – boiled water. A coloring agent had been added.’

Authorities who were not responsible! Ignorant and irresponsible patients! Poor Sharada was disturbed. Within two weeks she quarreled with the store-keeper of the hospital. The quarrel extended to the chief doctor in the hospital. When Shari went to see him, he spoke kindly to her. He agreed with her and was sympathetic to her ideals. He said that independent India needed people like her. He agreed to look into all the complaints that she had.

It looked as if the deliberations that he promised to have wouldn’t be over soon. Whenever Shari met him, he spoke kindly to her. Things continued as before, without any change, however. Poor patients still suffered because of the unavailability of medicine. Pregnant women still returned home for childbirth because they couldn’t be given beds at the hospital.

Shari began to lose faith in her superior officer. One day she went to the hospital determined to have it out with him that day. I said that the answer was clear enough.

She must have said too much in her passion. The doctor showed his power. It was very difficult to put such experiments into practice. Miss Sharada’s job was just to examine patients and prescribe medicine. It was not right to intrude on areas that did not concern her . . . .

The next day Shari was transferred to a godforsaken village, miles away from anywhere. She might be young and beautiful, but if she did not stay in her place… .

Shari was relieved when she was transferred. ‘I grew up in a village. People in the village are good. I will be able to do all that I dream of doing there.’ That was what she thought.

I got long, long letters, from her. A dispensary where there was just a nurse and a compounder. Shari wouldn’t get medicines. Nor would she get new equipments. Patients could not be admitted for there were no inpatient facilities. As for the people, they were more interested in finding out why she was a single woman and staying alone and were busy trying to find fault with her. They set great store by superstitions and a host of social evils. It was difficult to introduce reforms or indeed get them to understand new concepts.

I could see the dark shadows of looming despair in each of her letters. My heart ached for her. Poor child!

Then I got a letter that was full of hope and excitement. It seemed she had found out a way. She would spend her money on medicine and equipment. The authorities would not be able to find fault with her for that.

A Mr. Menon, who was living nearby had promised help. The building in which the dispensary functioned belonged to him.

The tone of the letter changed. It was full of news of the changes she meant to bring about. A new idea was also there. Why not run a dispensary by herself? She would thus find good use for her money. If she was not under the government, she could be more independent. Mr. Menon had agreed to give her land. To help her as well. He was a great philanthropist and social worker.

I didn’t take to the new arrangements at all. I wrote to her urging caution.

The reply I got, amazed me.

‘I’ve resigned my job. I have decided my future plans. I am going to start a charitable hospital. I have got the land for it and have ordered equipment.

There’s just one thing more. I don’t know if you’ll approve, chechi. I am going to marry Mr. Menon. We’ll have to work closely together in the new venture. It’s difficult to do so if there is a wall, erected by society between us. I will not be able to work here, without male help. Isn’t it better to have a co-worker as a partner?’

To marry a man after having known him for a month or two! She would not have known what kind of a man he was. I felt that she was crazy. I wrote a letter to her on the seriousness of marriage. I advised her not to marry in haste and promised that I would visit her shortly.

For two or three weeks I did not get a reply. I was anxious and angry and decided to take leave and go to her. As I was about to leave, a postman arrived.

The letter was Shari’s. She had scrawled a few lines without subscribing either place or date.

‘I found out the true nature of the man I had trusted. I am not blaming anyone. I suffered the fate of those who cannot act alone.

Some people are born to live only with the help of others. I cannot live alone. I’ve found a sanctuary. A week ago I joined a convent.

Chechi, you’ve told me that it’s only cowards who run away from life. I was always a coward.

Don’t look for me—Shari.’

A convent! My head swam. That great heart to be locked away in the four darkened walls of a convent! To voluntarily put herself in such a cage after flying on the wings of idealism!

A sweet face that rested on hands propped up by the table swam before my eyes.

‘May I call you chechi? . . . ’ Was I, in truth, her elder sister? Note: This story appeared in the December 11, 1949 issue of

Mathrubhumi and was written by Rajalakshmi under the pseudonym “Rajasri”.

“Hostel Mate” (Mounathinte Naanarthangal. Ed. N.K. Raveendran.

Thrissur: Haritham Books, 1993: 28-38), translated by Hema Nair R.

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