Serendipity in a drawer.

As it’s my last week in India, I’ve been trying to take time to notice the little things. Like the fact that my room at the hostel has quite a stiff door, which has to be slammed shut, and so some of the paintwork has chipped off on the doorframe. It resembles the shape of a heart. A few nights ago, I was walking around the front of the hostel so that I could look more closely at some of the palm trees that grow there. You don’t really think about palm trees in the winter, or at least, I associate them with cartoons of Hawaii and Miami and clip art pictures for the search term “summer”. The palm trees had initials carved into their bases, and their smooth green trunks were partly covered by a thick brown layer which grew like a second skin from their base. I’m presuming that this is to keep them warm in the winter, but I couldn’t help but look at the places where this strange brown covering had been stretched, and had even come apart in places, worn away like fabric. I wondered whether it hurt, when it split like that, and whether a palm tree even registers pain according to our definition of it.

Something else came to my mind too, the contents of a set of drawers beneath my desk in the hostel. When I moved in, this room had clearly had a fairly long-term previous occupant. The door and walls were (and still are) decorated with multi-coloured streamers, and the walls were covered with home-made HAPPY BIRTHDAY MA’AM posters. I edited these, crossing out the words ‘birth’ and ‘Ma’am’ to produce motivational “Happy –DAY” prints. Most intriguing of all though was the contents of the desk drawers. To think that they could have contained anything, and yet they just happened to contain the very things which became for me symbols of my time at the hostel.

The drawers contained;

  • A plastic silver tiara (broken)
  • A bag of plastic white spoons
  • Rolls of coloured streamers
  • A glue-stick (half-used)
  • A roll of sellotape (barely-used)
  • A set of speakers labelled “030 Samiya Khan Lloyd”.

Admittedly the plastic tiara was almost immediately discarded. I considered donning it for a friend’s party here, but abandoned the idea when I realised that it was broken. It has spent the remainder of my time here perched on my mug-box, in the corner of my room, for some reason I clearly felt the subconscious need to display it. The bag of white spoons was slowly depleted, owing to the fact that technically we’re not supposed to take crockery or cutlery out of the Mess (canteen).

The roll of streamers have had many incarnations; I used them to cover words that I didn’t  like on the HAPPY BIRTHDAY MA’AM posters, I wrapped up cards and presents for various occasions in them, and I even used them in desperation to tie together the strings of a bag that was breaking. The glue stick served to assemble my scrapbook of my time here, and to seal the envelopes of cards brought for birthdays, an engagement and a 30th Wedding anniversary (turns out that you don’t lick them shut here…). As for the sellotape, it survives to this day and has largely superseded the duties of the glue stick now, as well as holding up the postcards of Oxford which I have stuck to my cupboards (visible from my bed). At one point, I even sellotaped shut my window in an effort to keep out the mosquitoes, until of course a pair of wasps got trapped inside my room and it all had to be hurried ripped off (with some amount of paintwork…) to release them.

Lastly, the speakers. I can only presume that they were perhaps confiscated from Samiya Khan of room 030 – as this is room 029, directly opposite that room. The reason I think that they were forcefully taken, rather than just left here accidentally, is the way in which the label on them is scrawled, hurriedly, and formally – room no. first, then the name of the girl, and lastly, the name of a popular local college – Lloyd. These are the basic details used to identify the residents of the hostel. If I’m correct about the previous occupant of this room being a warden, then this theory also fits. Needless to say, Samiya’s speakers have not yet been returned to her, but have instead enjoyed a new life with yours truly, internet connection permitting!

It was several days after moving in that I finally got round to properly exploring the drawers. Had I opened them earlier, would I have felt more immediately at ease here? Would I have in any way, been able to predict some of the experiences that I went on to have? Probably, in the first case, and probably not, in the second. Either way, in retrospect, the content of those drawers seems more than coincidental.

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The pros & cons of (non-human) roommates

PROS

  • Even if we’re talking about spiders here, they eat mosquitoes and flies! (This point obviously then, does not apply to mosquitoes and flies, who also like to share my room.
  • Company when things get too quiet, esp. at night.
  • Like being in a live National Geographic documentary.
  • Don’t have to worry about leaving my possessions unguarded.
I've named this one Mr. Smiles. Yes, I genuinely believe (or like to) that it's the same one each time...
I’ve named this one Mr. Smiles. Yes, I genuinely believe (or like to) that it’s the same one each time…

CONS

  • They don’t contribute towards rent or cleaning duties.
  • Not good at sharing food. Or respecting the labels on mine.
  • My mentor is starting to get tired of my ‘animal stories’ as an excuse for being late to leave in the morning, once more I’ve “got a frog (or is it a baby toad?) under my bed” or “a gecko has got into a gap in the wall”.

So, overall they are an asset then. Which is good thing, because with my room being next to the ‘garden’ here, and with the summer drawing to a close, the non-human roommates just keep coming, and, as an outnumbered human occupant of this room, I don’t seem to have much choice 😛

What a girls’ hostel is, and what it isn’t.

View from ground floor window.
View from ground floor window.

Driving along the road to the hostel, for the first time.

Me:

Oh, I like it, I like that there are little balconies for each room!

My mentor:

No, that’s the boys’ hostel. The girls’ hostel faces inwards. The architectural style is completely different. We don’t have balconies.

Writing this post because I thought I had to get up for work, but surprise! It’s Bakr Eid today (‘Eid of the Sacrifice’ – not the end of Ramadan, but the celebration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac before God’s intervention). Although I would have liked to have known this before getting up and dressed at 6:30am, and before unsuccessfully trying to communicate with the guards (concerning the whereabouts of my colleagues, and driver, to go to work), stomping around my room won’t solve anything, and being annoyed is not a productive way of getting back to sleep.


Adjusting to life in a girls’ hostel has perhaps been one of the most challenging things about my time in India. Whereas most other British Council teaching assistants have been placed with either host families, or in pairs, living in school accommodation (many of the participating schools are boarding schools), I was dropped off at a hostel which turned out to be nothing like the ‘backpacker’ hostels that I was used to.

The hostel resembles a university hall of residence, but it’s single-sex, and city-wide, so the girls living here are all studying at a college in Greater Noida (the city is a hub for educational institutions, there’s even a branch of the Oxford University Press here, which I spotted). A minority of the girls here are working, like me, in nearby schools, or companies such as KPMG. Unlike in a  university hall of residence however, there is a 12 hour curfew (7pm-7am) and armed guard.

The residents here tend to stay at least a year, for college courses or job contracts. I’ll be one of the few exceptions to that. Another exception is that I don’t have any (human) roommates – but most rooms here are triple occupancy. The canteen is called a ‘Mess’ (think army slang, and I’m thinking colonial origin…) and serves traditional, vegetarian Indian food three times a day. Perhaps the most surprising thing to UK, if not continental European, readers will be that dinner is served between 8:00pm and 9:30pm. In the six weeks that I’ve been here, dinner has been rice, some sort of vegetable (75% of the time it’s potato) and either yellow or brown daal, with few exceptions.

The hostel has a number of different spaces. Below ground is a former canteen (creepy…), a basement shop (selling confectionery, crisps, stationery etc, and some pretty good banana smoothies, or ‘shakes’,  but sadly not fruit or cereal) and a gym, which I’ve rarely seen open or used. There’s also a ‘dance studio’ – a dark space with mirrors along one side and the odd table or chair. Of the ‘study space’ I’ve seen little, other than an empty bookcase and some more desks. I remember my surprise at being taken to the ‘laundry room’, where several men were toiling with piles and piles of linen and clothes, which were each being permanently marked with the room number of the girl they belonged to. No tumble driers or washing machines here, just sheer manual labour, and a vast washing line on the back lawn.

Oh, and due to a fun mix-up, I thought my room number was the number on my keys as my door doesn’t have a number, but actually, after more residents moved in for the start of the academic year, it turns out that I was wrong, and my clothes/bedding have all been incorrectly branded. In the process of retrieving them now. Oops.