When I was almost 9, my parents sent me to a boarding school—the dreaded place where naughty kids get sent to, where windowless, rectangular spaces are piled high with bunk beds, and large gates clang shut, locking you in with stern-looking bespectacled matrons with imaginary sticks in their hands.
But Mayo was different. And I wasn’t naughty.
It was red and ochre and airy and bright and didn’t conjure up the gloomy impression, I’d always associated with the word “hostel”. The glossy prospectus showed smiling girls in navy blue shorts and red check skirts, ochre salwar kameezes and red dupattas, pleated grey skirts and knee-high grey socks, smart tailored trousers and button-down cardigans. Obviously, the clothes-lover in me was fascinated with the idea of having so many uniforms. The turning point, though, was when I asked my mum if the kids there had birthday parties. Back then, birthday parties were the highlight of my life. If a school could host a birthday party for every child, it was definitely not a punishment posting. So, when my mum said yes, I decided to go, no questions asked. Besides, who could say no to cake and wafers?
So, I packed my bags and landed up in the other corner of the country, a little too excited for an eight-year-old who was about to be separated from her parents. Little did I know that the next nine years were going to shape me and my relationships for the rest of my life.
A level playing field
The most noteworthy of the many aspects of hostel life that influenced my pre-pubescent, and subsequently, teenage years, was the school’s approach towards ensuring everyone had the same resources available to them while on campus. Cash, tuck and mobile phones were forbidden. Uniforms were mandatory even after school hours. And coupons amounting to the same value were disbursed to members of a common batch, every fortnight. This succeeded in removing any money-related obstacles that might have come in the way of two girls befriending each other, were they in an ordinary set-up, where the cars they were dropped in to school or their weekly allowance, might have played a larger role. This also meant that many of us didn’t realise each other’s financial background or familial lineage until much after we graduated school–when social media threw up pictures of a batchmate’s luxury vacation or a large-scale wedding attended by the who’s-who of Indian politics, business or royalty.
School brought together people from diverse parts of the country and even outside, who spoke different languages and ate different cuisines back home, and united us through a common culture. And we learnt that nothing apart from the person you were, mattered. We couldn’t care less about family background, financial standing, caste, colour, language or any other element that determines many high school and even adult relationships today. That being said, I am acutely aware that only people of a certain social and economic status had the opportunity to attend the boarding school I did, and therefore, I refer to my experiences within this microcosm of modern India.
A second and significantly more impactful aspect was the fact that most of us were sheltered from media’s obsession with a certain beauty standard. Because 9 out of 12 months were spent on campus, eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, and experiencing the same life as everyone else, plus the inability to go to the salon, watch tv, surf the internet or read magazines, we, or at least I, successfully avoided an eating disorder, a negative body image, or anything that made me feel that I wasn’t beautiful or attractive enough. Looks weren’t important in boarding school–we had far more important things to worry about–like inter house competitions, activity class, IPSC auditions, and strategising how to bunk games without getting caught. We didn’t feel the pressure of a “summer body”. We didn’t need to wear a bikini. We didn’t care about thigh gaps. We could go out with a lush, full grown moustache, arm and leg hair, and unplucked eyebrows for months, without fear of being judged. The only exception was when we were meeting the boys school–oh, the queues outside the dormitory of the one person who had learned how to thread that summer vacation! Back then, we really thought an arched brow and heavy kohl would make the boys swoon. How silly, we were!
A girl can eat
The camaraderie that Mayo girls shared is something I can try my best to articulate, but I fear my words won’t do it justice. We would come back from vacations with a heavy heart on leaving our families, but the minute we’d see each other, it felt like we were back home, albeit a different one. We would chat all day and all night, on returning to campus, about what we’d done, the experiences we’d had, and (most importantly), what we’d eaten. Oh! our obsession with food is something I could write another blog post on (and probably will), for honest to God, we were perpetually hungry. Our school fed us 3 wholesome meals plus a fruit break at 11 a.m. and tea break at 4 p.m., and yet when we smelled Maggi or biscuits, or something brought from a fellow hosteller’s home, we’d ignore our full tummies, and gorge our brains out. Eating disorder, what? If anything, we learnt how to fake-burp and fake-fart, compete on who had a larger appetite, and before you go all “that’s a very unhealthy lifestyle” on me, let me remind you that we had a minimum of one hour mandatory games for 6 days a week, 9 months a year, even during exams.
I still remember the one time, when someone raised a false alarm of a surprise tuck-check. We were in class 6, and between the 13 of us in Sam house, we had 24 packets of Maggi. Oh, what rebels we were! How much strength and spirit we had! We thought we could take on the world. And so, we took on the 24 packets of Maggi, in one sitting, with 3 people making it in the cramped changing room, crushing the Maggi cakes with their hands, moistening it with cold water–the recipe of kacha Maggi–while the rest of us stood guard, watching out for the house matron. We hungrily gobbled up all 24 packets, and at the end of it, there was no tuck check!
A whole new world
School with its focus on sports, activities, arts and crafts ensured we experienced and engaged with different facets of life. From art, craft and pottery to hindustani and western music, from classical dance to folk dance, swimming and diving to water polo, horse riding to actual polo, hockey and basketball to athletics, there was plenty to keep us occupied all semester long. Somehow, themes like marriage, finding a boy, looking good or losing weight were not a part of our daily discourse and therefore we never internalised the need to follow a certain chalked path. By giving us exposure to these varied experiences, it taught us that we could do whatever we set our heart towards. It taught us (or rather it taught me) that I was strong, that I was enough, that I wasn’t lesser in any manner owing to my gender, background or appearance. That even if I wasn’t great at art or sports or dance, it didn’t define who I was. That I could choose what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. That I was accepted for the truest, most authentic version of myself. That I could dream as big as I dared and obtain the means to achieve those dreams.
It also taught me that the most gratifying and happiness-inducing experiences were found in routine occurrences. It was found while waking up to loud, peppy music at 5 a.m. to prepare for a drill competition. While singing songs on the way to a midterm trip. While being treated to a dinner for winning the best house trophy. While being “punished” by the seniors to create endless buckets of confetti because you dared to smile at lineup. While queuing up in twos to go to the fete in the boys school. While cheering made-up jingles during inter house competitions. While having deep conversations late into the night about our families, books we’d read or philosophies we believed in. While having multiple mugs of tea and Maggi during “house breakfast”. While finishing a bottle of Horlicks in one sitting because well, why not. While rushing to the auditorium during PG. Happiness was embedded in the experiences of daily life, and it taught me that there were only a handful of things that mattered: the person I was, the choices I made, the people I engaged with, the accountability I took for my actions and the experiences I had.
When I left school and entered the real world, I admit, it was surprising. Critics are right when they say we lived in a bubble, that this bubble could leave you ill-equipped to deal with life. However, for me, it was this “bubble” that gave me the conviction to reject all patriarchal or prejudicial ideologies because I had become “set in my ways” . It was this “bubble” that egged me to say no to any relationship that I felt I didn’t deserve. It was this “bubble” that gave me the strength to deal with rejection in romantic relationships. It was this “bubble” that kept me positive and inspired me to always prioritise my girlfriends and their important life events because this is what, ultimately, makes me happy. It was this “bubble” that taught me to be independent and self-reliant and deal with many of life’s stresses on my own. It was this “bubble” that helped me “fold my counterpane” in school, and, ultimately, make my bed everyday in Lockdown this year, even when the pandemic conspired to test my resolve.
Sisters before misters
Because of the many measures taken to democratise life, we never felt the need to compete with a fellow schoolmate for someone we fancied–we were all in it together. Women weren’t our enemies–they were our allies. Women were the ones on our team cheering the loudest in an inter-house competition. They were the ones running the last mile with us in a cross country race, encouraging us not to collapse in a heap. They were the ones who stayed up all night to make our birthdays meaningful with fudge cakes. They were the ones who gave up their tuck needs for weeks just so that the coupons could be saved and contributed towards buying chocolates for a fellow housemate’s birthday. They were the ones who risked everything to smuggle a letter to the boys’ school during brothers meet. They were the ones who comforted us when our parents couldn’t make it for Diwali or Holi. Women, to me, mean everything. And I could never side against my own gender.
In the months leading up to the big 30, and the days after it, I thought about what makes my life so special and brings me joy. And I realised that apart from my parents, my girlfriends make up a huge chunk of it. This got me thinking about how most people associate female friendships with competition, and women with “bitchiness”. On the contrary, for me, the very definition of a female friendship has always been something akin to family. Something sacrosanct. It represents a sisterhood so strong that other things pale in comparison. This so-called sisterhood was what was imparted to me through boarding school. And which held up, even when I entered the real world.
I accept my privilege
A lot of credit might also go to my parents for being progressive and incubating the ideas I had before I went to boarding school and during holidays. I also do not deny the incredible privilege I am bestowed with, to use my platform to talk about how I effortlessly evaded negative body image, patriarchal ideologies, caste and class based prejudices and toxic teenage sexual relationships throughout my formative years: not everyone has the same privilege or opportunity, and for this I am eternally grateful.
Even today, when I think back to the 14-year-old Mayoite, standing on the track, pompoms in hand, cheering for her house that just won the best house trophy, I can’t help but draw unimaginable strength from that image. That young girl who felt invincible, who wore her scars like a badge of honour, who only trusted the value of her relationships and the freedom to be herself while measuring her quality of life. Who didn’t care whether her arms were waxed or not, whether her laugh sounded ugly or not and whether she danced like a chicken in a party or not. Who never thought she was lesser than any boy. Who didn’t mind getting sweaty or dirty or acting her truest self. Who didn’t care whether she was popular or “hot” or whether she was liked by the opposite sex or not. Who believed she had the whole world at her feet and was determined to take it by the horns to fulfil her dreams. That girl, that very girl, is who I look up to, even now, when at the age of 31 I need someone to draw strength from.
This is not meant to be a text on feminism and shouldn’t be construed as such. It’s simply an account of my learnings and early -life experiences that shape my opinions and actions today.