Constrained spaces

There is a protest movement happening around certain cities in India, that focuses on what is essentially, the restrictive curfew times for young single women mandated by their landlords; women who live away from their families. For higher education or work.

Unmarried women staying away from families was not the norm. But with increasing education and working ability of women, cities and town started to add infrastructure to house them. The least controversial of this are the hostels provided by the college and universities within the campus. I remember my mother deciding on one college for me over another one, solely on the basis of the former having hostels for the girls.

In places where there are multiple colleges, private hostels and shared apartments are the norm. But in India, for the women who live in these spaces, a key issue is the curfew time. Adult women have a much earlier curfew time than the men. A more nuanced and fraught issue is the moral policing that goes on for women. Our college hostel had wardens who would scrupulously scrutinise our attire, hygiene habits, the company we kept, and the hours we frequented. The boys were held to a different standard, and the presence of one guy in our graduating batch who maintained an impeccable room was the talk of the town.

Finishing college and becoming a working woman was an exhilarating time. But housing was an annoyance for a single woman.

We lived in an area that was famed for a concentration of private hostels. Rooms were shared amongst 2, 3, 4 women. Child labour was used by the owners to clean the buildings and bring our food to the common mess.

I gained friends by the way of us having to share close quarters with them, we would have nothing in common. It was forced intimacy, but we soon learned to look out for others. Keep food for those who reached back late from work, notify others of water conditions in the washing areas, rush each other for the Sunday chicken and dessert. Yes, food often became unappetising and most of the day was spent dreaming of food.

The owners were Muslim in one place, so I did get my Sehri (pre dawn) breakfast delivered to me during the fasting month.

I worked night shifts for a while, and I am not sure what today’s protest movement is about, for curfew times. But I used to arrive at 2 or 3 am in the night, and the dozing watchman would slowly open the gates for me. It was nerve racking standinh out in the dark of the night, hoping the watchman would open the gates. But the hostel never refused women who worked late. Perhaps it was a peculiarity of that place known for its many call centres.

I would return very late at night, often with no dinner eaten. Hunger and crazy hours make a person’s sleep rhythms out of whack. Sometimes I would sit up reading a book at 4 am. Until a roommate gently reminded me to switch off the lights.

Cockroaches and dirty shared bathrooms. Living space defined by a single bed and single cupboard. We were not poor then, but those unending days and nights of monotony made one claustrophobic. One feels imbalanced walking in the sunlight after a night shift.

There are women who take up independent apartments, but that choice is a factor of economics and safety. But still, I suppose this is a specific problem of the middle class Indian woman. One who is suspended between highly risky living conditions of the poor, and the highly affluent ones of the rich.

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