“Jeevithathil oru thavana engilum, you have to experience hostel life.” These are words that I’ve heard and repeated to my younger cousins countless times.
Hostel life is like a person’s very own coming-of-age ritual. It changes you, mostly for the better and sometimes for the worse too. Though the last time I lived in a hostel was a few bazillion years ago, I still believe those were some of the best days of my life.
When I completed 12th grade, there were no questions about me returning to India to study further while living in a hostel. This was the basic tradition in my family. My first choice was Bangalore (Because like Aju says “What a rocking city, man!”) But my Bangalore dreams were immediately squashed by my protective parents and sisters. To be honest, I don’t think I would have been able to handle the pace of Bangalore city at that point in life. I was this mottayinnu viriyathe spoilt-rotten NRI kid, who knew nothing about living independently and that too in India. I couldn’t read or write Malayalam, I had trouble crossing roads (and Indian roads gave me nightmares), I had no experience travelling in a bus or a train, having been chauffeured everywhere by my dad all my life. What’s worse, I was a full-blown introvert. Making new friends was not one of my strong points either.
So imagine my plight when I was stuck in a hostel room with 7 other girls, all of whom were behaving like they’d known each other all their lives while I cowered in the corner, afraid I’d break into tears any minute. They chattered loudly in Tamil (I’d eventually joined a college in Coimbatore – Bangalore’s tamer cousin) and occasionally tried to include me in the conversation but I just looked bewildered and wished I could turn invisible. When my mom and sister said goodbye after helping me set up my stuff, I thought what I’d felt at that point was the highest level of heartbreak I would ever experience in my life (haha, idiot).
But I was wrong, it was when I saw the toilet that my heart really broke. It was this dingy little space with nothing but a tiny bucket and mug in the corner. And pat in the middle was an Indian-style closet (commode). Which was more than my NRI heart could take. I think I immediately called up my mom and demanded to be taken away from there. But thankfully my parents were more level-headed than me.
That night I spent the night crying with my head under the sheets (because that’s all the privacy you get in a room with 7 girls) while the others chattered away all night long, exuberant at finally having escaped from the clutches of their parents.
The next morning, an 8th member came to our room and pretty much ended up saving my life. When she looked at me and uttered the words “Malayali aano?”, my insides literally burst with happiness. I think God had gotten so tired of my cribbing and melodrama and was like “Urggg, inna pidicho” and sent me this sweet Malayali Munnar-kari to teach me the ropes. She took me under her wing and helped me break the ice with the other girls in the room. And from there began my actual hostel jeevitham. I could write a theera kadha about this but I won’t.
Instead let me tell you what some of the best parts of living in a hostel are, as per my experience.
Learning New Things
You’re on your own. Your amma or acha isn’t going to come to do all the boring chores for you. You learn a multitude of new things like starting a bank account, keeping track of your expenses, shopping for supplies, travelling alone. I remember the first time I travelled to my grandmother’s house all by myself on a KSRTC bus and managed to get down at the right stop. I stepped out of the bus beaming like an idiot at having accomplished this task after many failed attempts and cheethavilis from the various bus conductors. Apart from life skills, you also gain some basic bodham living with a bunch of strangers. You learn to keep your space clean (to my hostel mates reading this, I tried, okay!), to be respectful of others’ feelings and to let go of some of your firm (and in all probability, incorrect) beliefs while making compromises for everyone’s collective benefit.
You will also learn things you probably did not mean to learn, like what happens when you try to iron your hair with an iron box, or if you leave your dirty clothes soaked in water for 2 weeks, or how to take a bath using just one and a half mugs of water on water shortage days.
Friends for Life
Unlike the friends you make at school, you don’t get to pick your roomies. These are just random strangers who get thrown together while going through a whole bunch of new experiences with only each other for support.
These are the people who get to see you at your worst. They are aware of the actual sloppy mess you are, they’ve seen you drool all over your pillow while in your sleep, they’ve smelt your morning breath, they know after how many shots you will start puking all over the place or how many time you will reuse the same bra before you decide to wash it.
But they will also be the ones who’ll be there for you time and again, every time you get into trouble. They’ll call out the dumb shit that you do but they will also let you cry on their laps after your nth heartbreak. They’ll stay up all night helping you mug for your exams but they will also take off with you on impromptu trips. They will lecture you if you skip bathing for a day or two (baths are overrated and water is scarce, don’t judge.) but they will also sneak in food for you from the mess when you’ve got stomach cramps.
Somewhere in the midst of all the carefully planned midnight birthday surprises, and the countless late-night heart-to-heart sessions where deep dark secrets are shared, you’ll form a sort of connection that cannot be found in any other sort of relationship.
Insight into Human Behaviour
I won’t imply that every single roommate of yours will turn into a BFF for life. It may not always be hunky-dory. You could end up making arch-enemies as well. I have come across a variety of characters in my hostel – kleptomaniacs, girls who catfished their friends, girls who eat soap, girls who fat shame, girls with psycho boyfriends, girls obsessed with losing weight, girls from broken families and so many more kind of people I may never have had the opportunity to get to know had I not stayed in a hostel. With the amount of time you spend together, you tend to figure out why they are the way they are and in turn, make you more empathetic. The stories that you hear about their lives, their upbringing and the challenges they’ve had to face helps you broaden your perspective about life in general.
The best part about hostel food is that it makes you appreciate the things in life that you had once taken for granted. Like your mom’s cooking. Or literally, anyone’s mom’s cooking. Or just food in general. While we grumbled our way through the days they served us gooey pongal and half-cooked chapathis, we’d also be the first in line on Sunday mornings for the nei roasts and Rasna. Ah, the battles that have been fought over Rasna. And don’t even get me started on the home-cooked food parcels that your friends bring back after the holidays. While the carefully packed chor and meen varthadh/chapathi and chicken curry gets wolfed down in minutes, the meen achar and chammadhi podi serves as the perfect midnight snack.
The Evil Warden
You know how in movies, hostel wardens are often portrayed as stern frigid old women who seem to be constantly frustrated and thereby make it their mission to make the lives of the hostel inmates miserable. Well, my experience with wardens has not been that different from these movie portrayals. They snoop around your room, comment on your choice of clothes, admonish you for the state of your room, go ballistic if you leave the lights on at night or use too much water in the bathroom. Wardens will make you look at your parents in a whole new light. Your parent’s nagging will feel like paal payasam compared to the kashayam this female equivalent of Shammi serves you every day. In your hatred towards her, you’ll form a special sort of camaraderie with your fellow inmates as you plot devious schemes against her.
Remember that scene in Bodyguard where every single girl in the hostel has a phone glued to her ear? That couldn’t have been more accurate. Back in the day, when phones could only be used for talking, SMSing or creating funky monophonic ringtones, it was also our only key to the outside world. And by the outside world, I mean boys. Life revolved around those special recharges that gave you 16 hours talk time at 5 paise per minute and 1000 free SMS per day. (Remember when SMSes were more than just OTP numbers and Amazon delivery tracking messages?)
We had a strict no-phone policy in our hostel but pretty much everyone had a one. When the warden comes for the daily checking, we’d hide our phones in some super innovative spots – in a hole cut into one of the pillows, in a plastic cover submerged in water along with the laundry, in a plastic cover tied to a rope and hung outside the window – heck, one of my friends just straight up threw her phone out of the window once when the warden barged into our room unexpectedly. (Remember, this was the pre-smartphone era, and we just constantly threw around our Nokia 3310s around like bricks.)
Nothing can quite compare to the feeling of coming back home after being away for months. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder. While my friends got to go home every weekend, I’d have to wait for the summer holidays to visit my family. There is this burst of happiness I’d feel when I spot my parents amongst the crowd of people waiting outside the airport. After months of letters, emails and super short ISD phone calls, there is nothing more priceless than seeing their faces light up with broad smiles and then the warm hugs along with “Aiyo, Ne melinj ellum thol aayallo!”. One time, my dad drove me right from the airport straight to Pizza Hut (because Dubai pizza trumps Coimbatore pizza, don’t fight me on this). The minute we get home, I’d go around the whole house like a dog sniffing out all its favourite spots. The fridge is usually stocked with all my favourite food. And then all of us would stay up the whole night catching up on all the visheshams. It’s one of the nice black and white memories that will forever stay in my head.
So there you have it, folks. Hostel life sure does have its ups and downs, but I like to think of it as the starter pack to adulthood. While living alone at some point in your life is important, living with a bunch of strangers, all with varied lifestyles, interests and preferences is just as important to help mould you into a decent adult. So the next time one of your younger cousins is like “Hostel life ain’t for me, bro”, take a printout of this super long article, ball it up and throw it on their face. Or you know… send them the link. Because undoubtedly, Hostel life maketh man/woman.
Side note: If after reading this, you’re thinking “Aieyeeee idh endhonne hostel life! How tame!”, hello, I’ve also had wild times and all that, okay! Pinne nyingaloke peydich povanda vijarichita.
Do let me know your wild or not-so-wild hostel stories down in the comments!
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