Edited by Rohini Dikshit
Design by Reshma
“It’s not denial. I’m just very selective about the reality I accept”, explains Calvin to Hobbes. By the same token, I selectively did not accept that I would be leaving home, even during the train journey to Chennai. On the other hand, I was very excited to reach the campus. Yes, that I was going to the campus was a reality I selectively accepted. There could be signs of delusion in these beliefs, but then again, I am selectively not accepting that.
Finally arriving at the hostel and trying to sneak my mom in, I took on the tremendous challenge of moving my luggage. I didn’t make a fuss about it though, not when it was sinking in that my parents were going to leave soon. Every moment spent complaining was precious time wasted. A few minutes of struggling later, I was at the entrance hugging them, a lump in my throat.
That night, I slept wondering why I had ever watched The Conjuring and if I could sneak into another room, citing possible haunting as the reason if I did get caught. My irrational fears and a few accidents of spilling milk aside, the first few days went smoother than expected. Packed with both excitement and sorrow, I organized my room with an enthu that had never made an appearance at home, showered daily, and chatted with my parents more regularly than when I was at home.
Food, albeit a bit boring at times, was of variety and in abundance. Unlike home, with its endless supply of snacks, personalized food, and any cravings satisfied by online orders, having no choice here meant that the food was subjected to a lot of unfair criticism. It didn’t help that a million trips to the wash basin were needed to have a ‘sanitized’ meal. Meets with friends, involving playing cards, assigning faces to Whatsapp chats, judging each others’ rooms, and marveling at the well-organized ones, were much more lively and fun. All online, of course. What did you think? I totally adhered to the prisoners’ code of conduct.
Around the third day of my quarantine, the bittersweet feeling that had overwhelmed me since day one mellowed out, as did my urge to follow a healthy daily routine. Perhaps, the valiant struggles with the rubber bands of the food packets wore me out. After a few rounds of vigorous finger gymnastics with convoluted tangles and losing my temper, stabbing with scissors became my go-to method to open them. Mahanadhi being a boys’ hostel also meant that every trip to the washroom was jarring and made me feel like I had to quickly apologize and leave. Whatever it was, when falling asleep at 2 am becomes a habit, especially when you are rudely awakened by the loud shouts of breakfast arriving, learning the art of living through the day half asleep becomes your lifeline.
The following few days of quarantine were filled with short naps throughout the day, skipping baths and leaving my room in a disarray. The settings on the washing machine I found after searching two to three floors made as much sense as cracking the security code of a bank locker. After going with what seemed the safest options, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing that I could survive with these clothes for a week or two. Troubles with hot water and idleness combined made showers seem quite redundant. Why go through the trouble when you don’t even go out? It did not help that the eerie monotonicity of the days made them magically blend into each other, making me live my very own Groundhog Day. Long dead WhatsApp groups became vivaciously active, serving as grounds for ranting, complaining and letting out the pent-up frustration.
Our fellow residents, the monkeys, made their presence known in the hostel, entering rooms, thoroughly messing them up and generally driving us crazy with their impishness. My first encounter with them wasn’t any different than with my encounter with other hostel mates, we politely moved aside to give the other space to walk along the corridor. The experiences of fellow hostel mates, however, warned me off from leaving my room with my door unlocked especially after we realized that the monkeys can unbolt the doors to get to the food. Not that I left my room if not absolutely obligatory. As I said before, I was a model quarantine resident. Hanging out clothes to dry was a risky choice when the hanging ropes became the spots for the monkeys to gather and chill out. In my opinion, the primates made for better prison wardens than the hostel authorities.
That being said, sadly they weren’t effective enough to upturn the disregard for rules that students seemed to have. Locks on doors late at night and students sneaking around were common sights. Boisterous voices late at night disturbed my much-needed sleep and the occasional screams woke me up with a start, panicking about non-existent fires. Once the RT-PCR tests were done, however, an air of tense anticipation filled the hostel, the apprehension further intensified by the news of a positive case in another hostel. Prayers, in the form of WhatsApp stickers, were shared around. Thankfully, our spam did not seem to be ignored by the higher forces and the entire hostel successfully cleared this hurdle.
This changed the mood around, and giddy impatience crept in at the lack of information. Students probably developed finger blisters from checking their mail every so often. No particulars about when the quarantine would end were apprised even after a week of quarantine. On the 9th day, however, instead of the expected series of mails each filling in small details regarding the end of quarantine, what we got was a single mail informing the hostel and the room we were supposed to move to the next day. After the dozens of mails last year sent to pacify us about reopening, this one was a bolt out of the blue. One that spread exhilaration sure, but still out of the blue. The rapid onslaught of details made my selectivity regarding the reality I accept return with a vengeance.
In retrospect, the whole quarantine period filled me with a sense of unpreparedness and destroyed my dreams of going through college without messing up constantly. The COVID 19 protocol meant responsibly taking my own precautions, a task usually left to my mom at home while I would mutter under my breath and robotically follow everything she said. Living without parents, even without a global pandemic, is a major challenge in itself, and the 7-day period plunged us into the deep end of this, while also dishing out rapids.
The next morning I did not wake up to the screeching wheel and loud knocks, but the blaring alarm ringtone of my phone, which ironically left me as dazed as the former. A hasty freshening up later I found myself standing outside the hostel doors, the chilly winter breeze knocking the sleep out of my mind. Having paid scant attention to the exterior when I first arrived, when I looked up at the spire of Mahanadi hostel, I found it hard to believe that this was the place I didn’t get out of for more than a week. Huh, is this how Rapunzel felt? Turning my back toward it I walked into the misty air, the 15-month craving for campus life finally starting to find relief.