I sat across from her, on the cold wooden floors with my back against the wall and my toes on the edge of the rug, ripping apart pieces of blue tac and rolling them up into tiny pellets, soon to be stuck on a wall.
“How are you getting on there?” she asked, looking across the room from me, seated on her chair, sorting through the photographs on the table.
“Why can’t we just hook them up on the walls with frames?”, I asked. The perfectionist in me forever wondered why she would choose to stick them on the wall and not in their respective frames.
“Because neither of us has a bougie enough job that pays more than minimum wage.”
“But the frames would look so good!” I replied. “We could cancel the Netflix subscription?”
“I could go Vegan. Give up dairy and meat, that ought to extend the budget a bit”
“You’d do that for frames? Really?”
“We could sell Duchess?” I replied with a sheepish grin across my face.
For the uninitiated, Duchess was Nat’s car. A bright yellow Volkswagen that she’d bought after she got her learners and had seen her through the years. As old as Duchess was, she had been a trusty companion on many a road trip this past year.
“I’d sooner get rid of you then Duchess, mister!”
“Ouch” I replied with a dramatic flair. “So that’s a no to selling her then?” I asked, still twiddling with the blue tac between my fingers.
“Nope, she’s my bit of home here.”
Her bit of home, a reminder of the journey that Nat herself had been on.
This story was never meant to be just a love story, although so far it has been one of finding love and very little about citizenship, a home, and yet a story about love is as much a story about home. More often than not, the two go hand in hand. Imagine a home without love, romantic or otherwise. It presents itself as a cold space, the warmth in it brought about by the very people that make it what it is.
I’ve pondered the idea of what a home is for some time now. Is it a place? Some would most definitely make the argument that it is the very brick and mortar structures that make a home. The extensive collection of souvenirs from trips once taken, the magnets on the fridge, that one couch that has now gone through numerous alterations without ever producing a satisfactory result. For some of us, it's the tangibility of it.
On the other side of that weighty/heavy coin lies the opinion that home is a feeling. That so long as the people that make it home, or the mindset that goes with it finds new turfs, home is much like a piece of luggage. A rather hefty one if we’re going to go with that analogy but luggage nonetheless, a sentiment captured perfectly in the statement - ‘Home is where the heart is.’ For me, the answer has always been somewhat complicated.
I was thirteen when I left home.
In the years of old, at the height of the British Raj, our town was famous for giving voice to some of the greatest creatives our nation had ever seen. However, some seventy-five years after independence from the Crown, any semblance of that creativity and culture had faded into the pages of history. All it now had to offer was stagnation and a city still clinging onto its past with nothing new to offer.
I wasn’t exiled by the family, nor sent away against my wishes, it was in fact the other way around.
I walked up to my family on a Sunday afternoon as they sat around the lunch table. My grandparents, parents and even the dogs were present in that space to hear my urgent declaration.
“I have decided that it’s time for me to leave home. I am old enough, all my friends have left, and it’s about time that I too was sent away to a boarding school.” I announced in my pre-pubescent voice.
It wasn’t met with shock or surprise, I suspect my parents had come to the realization that the schools in our town would not be suitable for further education. but to hear the words and the intent behind them out of their twelve-year-old was the confirmation they needed. In their eyes, it was time for me to move away, not because they didn’t want me - if anything the idea of sending their child away at such a young age to live away from the family was perhaps the toughest thing for them. However, they realized that I had to leave in my own best interest.
So at that rather young and tender age, after an extensive search for a suitable institution, I went away.
The school, an esteemed institution built in the 19th Century had the honour of being the only school in the world built/to stand on a fort. I remember driving up the fort, a steep incline through the Urvai Ghati to get to the very top, some three hundred feet above the city. The statues carved on the cliff face of the valley, the Siddhachal Caves to the left, it was nothing short of awe-inspiring, a little pocket tucked away from the bustle of the city below. I was so taken by the fort and its many interesting features that I momentarily forgot the reason why we were there in the first place.
Our humble sedan finally made it to the very top and into the junior students' residence after its struggle to haul the weight of its occupants and the contents of the trunk. A narrow path led to a large open space with four barracks-like structures, built in the late 18th or early 19th century by the British army that ran the length of the compound.
Four barracks for each of the four junior houses.
The school was buzzing with activity. It was moving day and the place bustled with students coming back to school for their last term as junior boarders, and new students with their parents, excited by the opportunities this could spell out for their kids. . Much of that day was a blur, taken up by unpacking, administrative work at the school offices, the excitement of seeing new faces and meeting people that I hoped would become my friends. Amidst it all, each one of us was yet to realize that those hugs, those gentle moments filled with warmth and tenderness, would be the last that we would experience for months. As the afternoon made way for the evening it was time to say goodbye to my parents. I remember sitting on my bed, holding onto a picture of them, sitting all by myself as the gentle sound of rain tapped on the roof. The silence was broken by the sound of a bell, an audible marker of our transition from boys to boarders. All of us collectively ran into the back corridor, and held onto the wire mesh, looking down as our parents drove away.
There were many around me that were in tears, in shock. There were also those of us that suppressed the hurt. It’s not like we didn’t want to cry, just that we didn’t know how to.
My emotions were clawing at me, I could feel the hurt welling up in my chest, and yet my eyes were dry.
I had my first cry a few weeks later.
It was an overcast evening and while most of the boys were playing in the yard, I was inside, reading in the corner. My house director, a kind woman in her mid-forties, called me out of the prep room and asked me to take a walk with her around the complex. We passed by the other houses as she gave me a brief history of each of them, the history of the royal family that founded the school and the rulers behind the names of the boarding houses.
Somewhere between Jankoji and Nimaji, my thoughts drifted back to the chaos of the day I arrived, the new faces, the excitement. Then also the sight of my parents waving at me one final time before driving away, the look on their faces as they struggled to hide their tears. My mother saying she’d be back in a second, only to wrap me up in a tight embrace and then leave the dormitory as the shutters separated us from the world outside.
The world we’d left behind.
The world I made the conscious intention of leaving behind.
The first few days seemed like the best sleepover I could have ever asked for. Spending every living minute with boys that were my own age, making new friends, playing cricket the entire weekend, staying up late and talking till the sun came up. The early days of the classes were challenging but I settled into a rhythm.
However with every passing week my notions of what this place could be started matching the reality of what it was. There was a culture to this space, a culture that I had never been exposed to before. An unspoken, yet ever-present set of laws and rules that governed this place.
It sounds quite dramatic, but you either fit into your predesignated position in the social ladder or you were chewed up by the system for resisting. That said, there was a third option, where you hid from it all and spent your moments reading in isolation.
“Are you doing okay, beta?” she asked me, bringing me back to the world, back to our walk.
I responded with a simple yes.
“Sorry Ma’am, I was just thinking about something.”
“That’s fine,” she responded. “Here, come have a seat with me.”
We found ourselves under a tree, sitting on a bench that had seen better days.
“How are you settling in?” she asked.
I was silent for some time. To be quite honest I wasn’t sure if I had a simple enough answer. A single sentence or word that could capture the experience so far.
“I’ve noticed you’ve been a bit distanced from the other boys lately? Haven’t seen you out for sports or even in the common room?”
“I don’t think I belong here, Ma’am.”
“What makes you say that?” she asked.
“It’s almost like I don’t know how to fit in here, to feel at home. To know what the right thing to do is.” I took a pause. “I figured that when you’re nice to everyone, it makes it easier for everyone to like you, but then I feel like I can’t be who I am. There are these rules, and systems and expectations of who we’re meant to be and what we’re meant to do...”
As the words left my mouth, a tear also escaped, followed by another, and another after it, till I had tears welling up and streaming down the sides of my cheeks. “I feel…”, I muttered between sniffles, “feel… so out of place… that somedays I wonder if this was all… a good idea.”
We sat in silence.
“It all seems... a bit too overwhelming”
A few boys were still playing on the field while a few had already donned their kurtas and had started making their way to their respective common rooms.
“Do you know the reason it's been so difficult Vishruth?”
She turned around to face me.
I shook my head.
“You’re trying to conform to the expectations placed on you and in the process, not being true to yourself.”, she spoke with an empathetic tone.
“This school has a culture that you have to navigate, but In doing what we might do to make everyone else happy, we ignore ourselves. And when we ignore ourselves, we end up isolating ourselves from those around us. You end up drifting through experiences and deprive yourself of authenticity in the process. ”
I let the words sink in, soaking up the meaning behind them.
“To be me in this place… it doesn’t come easy.” I spoke, looking at the ground below me, “What if they don’t like who I am?”
She put a hand on my shoulder.
“To be yourself in a world that expects, and at times even demands that you be something that you’re not, comes at a price. It isn’t easy.”
We both sat on the bench for a few silent moments, looking at the sun setting on the horizon, the light scattering across the cloud cover, the orange glow on the horizon emphasized by the arches of the fort wall.
“You know, I’ve been a house director for the better part of a decade now.” she said, “In that time, I have seen all manner of students join this school. I have seen boys coming into our house as young as eleven, making it through their school lives having achieved all manner of great things. I have seen boys who have gone on to achieve nothing of significance with their lives. I have known boys that left after a year and those that stayed till the very end. Yet amongst all of them, scattered between the successful and those that weren’t, the ones who left early and the ones that stayed, there were always those that I think fondly of and remember to this day.”
She paused for a second.
“I remember the ones that understood the meaning of living by their principles, their own rules, when every voice around them was asking them to be something they were not, and they lived a life that was their truest expression of self.”
There was weight behind those words, the true meaning of which I could not understand that evening on the bench, but something clicked within me, setting things in motion. For me to feel at home, I had to be honest with myself, be an honest expression of who I was. No matter the cost. If i couldn’t go to bed every night with the knowledge that I had been true to myself, how could I ever start getting comfortable in my own skin? And if I couldn’t be comfortable with myself, I could never be comfortable anywhere.
Sure, there was the deeper truth of not knowing exactly who I was at that moment, but I’m sorry, how many of you ever knew yourselves at thirteen? I sure as heck didn’t, but I had been gifted with the perspective of what it would take, and the invitation to build a life that was the truest expression of self.
“You should go get changed for dinner,” she said.
I nodded and stood up from the bench.
As I started to leave I turned around to her.
“Ma’am, you know those boys you mentioned?”, I asked. “Do you think I can be like them?”
She looked at me, a smile parting across her face.
“That beta, is for you to decide.”
When I think back to that conversation today it strikes me as the first step towards the foundation that I built myself on. The idea of who I wanted to be now had a direction that it wanted to head to and I spent the rest of my years sticking by that mantra - “To be my truest self, no matter the price.” - and I really lived that lifestyle.
With every passing year, I tried staying true to who I was or thought I was in any case, and eventually, with time, I was at the top of the social ladder, the fortunes had finally changed and the price of living by my principles had started reaping its rewards.
I was celebrated and revered by the entire body of students!
I was the popular kid, the teachers loved me, the students loved me. Heck, I was what they wanted to be, the White Knight prancing about on his metaphorical steed, parading around as the example of what they could all one day be if they honoured their individuality and owned themselves.
Pause there for a second.
You’re probably wondering, “Damn Vishruth! That is one heck of a turnaround!?”
Almost seems unbelievable.
Too good to be true.
Well, I suppose it was too good to be true. A fantasy of my own creation. A daydream of what I wanted my school life to be like, yet the reality was a stark contradiction to it all.
In reality, I was an outcast.
By the time the year had ended, we’d moved to the senior houses, further up the fort in the main body of the school campus. I was in the big leagues now, no longer protected by the walls and the distance between the two sections and now very much exposed to every facet of what a boarder’s life had to offer. With that move, I was exposed to the culture of our school in its uninhibited and unfiltered form.
It would be an understatement to say my school had a culture of hypermasculinity about it. Being enough of a man was often the focal point for many of us and I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t play on my mind. I was in a part of the world where the definition of masculinity existed in a hyper-masculine bubble where machismo was valued more than integrity, values, and character. Where stoicism, individualism and often misogynistic behaviour were central to the definition of being a man.
If you didn’t play sports, you weren’t man enough. Heck, there were some sports that were deemed more worthy than others and as such more masculine than others.
If you were a tennis or squash player, you were somewhat borderline. If you were a soccer or hockey player, you were king of the arena, and if by some sheer luck you were into table tennis or some ‘sissy’ excuse of a sport, you were doomed.
Breaking rules, outdoing the other and being the bully were all the ways the boys around me exercised and channelled their masculinity.
Being beaten with sticks, being asked to fit into a certain parameter, obeying the words of the senior kids to the last letter were the norm.
Outrageous requests were made by the seniors, requests that had to be fulfilled at any cost, and failure to comply would result in punishment for the entirety of your housemates.
We once had a senior student who had a rather niche request that would come into effect every weekend at midnight. Once the lights were out and the shutters were closed, he would have a squad of us, his minions, arrange a few cushions and mattresses on the floor of the 11th Grade prep room, get a few of us to arrange snacks with his bottle of whiskey (smuggled inside the school illegally of course) and have the remainder of us perform Qawwali, a form of Sufi Islamic devotional singing, till his bed called him.
Most of you reading this would think, why would anyone demand that of someone and why would anyone in their right mind go along with it?
It was the culture, the aforementioned law of the land.
Across the board, spread over the eight senior houses.
As we grew up and became senior students, I saw my peers striving to embody those very characteristics, enabling the cycle of bullying and outrageous requests that we had come to know ourselves.
When most kids at the age of thirteen were just figuring out life, I found myself in a world where any act of defiance against the order meant social expulsion. As the years progressed, I was exposed to experiences no kid should ever have to and certain days often made me second guess the decision to choose this life in the first place, all those years ago. Every challenge, every adverse experience was met with an invitation to grow and realize my hero’s journey to its maturity or give in to the expectations around me. So very early on, I made the conscious decision to withdraw from the board, to live a life outside. . My own housemates had a clear idea of who I was. When you live with someone day in day out for years, you can’t help but let your guard down, so for the eleven of them, I was me, the honest version of who I thought I was at the time anyway, and for the other six hundred or so inhabitants of the fort, I was simply known for the things I did in college, or the ones I completely avoided. The outcast for my peers and the cautionary tale for the rest. With each year in that space, my tough act plot thickened. I was thriving off being the exile. Being an outsider, the practice of paying the price for living as my honest expression was one that started becoming part of my identity.
“Ground control to Major V”, Nat called out. “Are you still with me?”
I shook myself out of my daydream, “Yes sorry, just went off on a tangent there.”
“Wouldn’t really call it that. Just thinking back to school, the meaning of home, and on and on.”
“Meaning of home, that sounds heavy”, she asked.
“It’s nothing really, fairly simple actually.”
“Is it?” she asked sarcastically, “So tell me, what is the meaning of home for you?”
“It’s where I can be an honest expression of who I am.”
“And do you think that’s here, in our little, overpriced apartment?”
I looked at her, sitting with her legs crossed on the chair in her pyjama pants and a plain white shirt, a selection of pictures on her table and a good few of them stuck on our living room wall, the smell of fresh coffee in the air, a basil plant on the coffee table and an extensive range of cacti and succulents on the window sills.
“I think it is”
“Good! Because we’ve already signed the lease and these pictures still need to be put up.”
“With frames?” I asked, my eyes pleading for approval.
“Oh, God! Fine!”, she replied, rolling her eyes.