Sitting upright on the bed, Rakshita listened to the sound of the clock parked on the table in front of the small single-seater bed. Her arms hit the wall on either side as she stretched them wide. She should have gotten used to this by now but hadn’t.
Rakshita was the only inmate occupying a single-room accommodation in her twenty-five-bed college hostel. She had secured the single-seater by virtue of being the highest scorer in the twelfth grade among the first-year female freshers’ girls requesting hostel accommodation.
“She has the privilege to opt for the only single-occupant room we have at the hostel,” the warden had informed her father while the two were filling out the admission forms two years ago. “If she wants.”
“Yes, of course, she will take the room,” her father had replied before Rakshita could open her mouth.
“You will be able to focus on your studies with no distractions by having the entire room to yourself,” he had explained while handing over the bags to her.
When Rakshita climbed up to the second floor of the two-storey building and unlocked the door in the middle of the right side, the entire space turned out to be a narrow alley enclosed between two walls. There was just enough space in the room for the door to open a few inches from the study table. The bed was placed in the same line as the table and was meant to double up as a chair. The other end of the bed led to a small window, with a cupboard to its right. Rakshita had unpacked her belongings and arranged her clothes while placing her bags and seating herself on the bed.
As the bonds between girls staying away from their parents grew over going to each other’s rooms and bedtime gossip, Rakshita’s room had no legroom for any other person. Towards the end of the first semester, the topper had few acquaintances and no friends.
“You have gone there to study, not to make friends,” her father said over the phone when she complained to him the first time. That was the only time that she mentioned the subject to him.
“All the rooms are occupied now; you cannot change the room mid-term,” the warden told her. “You may change it next year based on what you and your future roommate decide. From the second year onwards, the combined marks of both girls in the pair determines the room selection.”
Rakshita scored more marks than the rest of her batch in the first year but could not find a girl willing to share a room with her. So, she stayed put in the room with all privacy and no leg space. As her scores increased, her confidence reduced.
‘Call for speakers to debate the college next door,’ blared the loudspeaker from the officeholders of the Debating Society during lecture breaks. Rakshita, who had participated in many debates during the initial months of her first year, ignored it.
‘Call for ladies to play Cleopatra,’ read the announcement on the college’s notice board. Rakshita, whose eyes would have shone while reading the notification, ignored it.
“How does a partnership firm differ from a Hindu Undivided Family?” asked the lecturer, and several hands went up in the class. Rakshita’s wasn’t one of them.
“Rakshita, let us do group studies, the same as last year,” said Suhani, who lived two rooms away. The two often talked in the corridors and hostel mess, until Suhani expressed her disinterest to share a room with Rakshita after the results came out. This time, Rakshita was not interested.
“Your scores have dipped. You are not studying,” her father had said when she had gone home during the term break. She had scored seventy percent vis-à-vis eighty percent the previous year. Rakshita didn’t say anything.
“You are very quiet, Rakshu,” her mother had said. “Hope everything is fine.” Rakshita shrugged and smiled.
And so, as a final-year student, Rakshita was occupying the same room that she had entered as a fresher. A couple of her peers had secured more marks than her, but no one was interested in taking up the room.
‘The room is stuck with me,’ chortled the voice inside her head as she took the batteries from the table clock. The tick-tock stopped.
She closed her books. The term-ending exams were months away. While her peers were busy preparing for CAT, CA, CS, or UPSC, she didn’t know what she wanted after to do graduation.
“The clock is ticking,” her father had said yesterday over the phone. “Decide what you want to pursue after graduation.”
“I don’t know what to do. Perhaps you can marry me off somewhere,” Rakshita had replied.
Neither of the two attempted to break the silence that followed until the line got disconnected.
Today, she had stopped the ticking clock. But for how long?
She rubbed the top of her forehead to ease the heavy feeling, took a sip of water from the transparent plastic bottle on the table, crawled to the other side of the bed, and pushed the window open. The benevolent sun shone on her face as she glanced at the vast stretch of the verdant campus ground.
Three cricket matches were in progress at different parts of the ground. Those who weren’t playing were sitting on the stairs leading to the playground and watching the ones playing. Most of the onlookers had books or some other notes in their hands. Rakshita wanted to join them but didn’t want to stand out in the sea of humanity by going alone.
Still sitting at the window, she plugged the earphone into her mobile and listened to her favourite playlist.
The world appeared to be an oyster from the window. Rakshita saw a tall, slim, athletic figure tearing across the ground, her laughter reverberating across the campus premises. Rakshita gave a start as the girl turned her head—it was her. She could hear her father, former teachers, current lecturers, and peers calling the girl, who ignored them and ran faster without looking back. The girl leaped across the college’s boundary wall and embraced the sun’s rays while running towards it. The horizon was draped in orange, and the girl’s heartbeat went up a notch when her hand was one grasp away from the sun. She stretched her hand and was about to touch the fall of fire when a loud noise reached her ear. The sun disappeared behind the clouds during the split second when she paused.
The persistent knocks jolted Rakshita awake. She looked at the door in surprise and tried to remember the last time when someone had knocked at her door. She swiftly crawled to the other side of the bed and pulled open the door.
“Hi, Ma’am. I hope I didn’t disturb you,” the bespectacled diminutive figure in a blue blouse and skirt said hesitantly. Rakshita recalled seeing the girl in the hostel’s mess in the first-year students’ corner.
“Not at all. Please come in,” the senior girl replied. “Watch your step lest you bang your leg on the table.”
The visitor came inside and gingerly closed the door.
“Ma’am, I don’t know if you recognize me. I am Rupali, and I live five houses from your residence on the same street. Our parents are friends, and we played together as youngsters some years ago.”
Rakshita got a familiar feeling as she apprised Rupali from top to toe. “I am afraid I didn’t, Rupali, but I now recall you and your parents. Don’t keep standing, please, sit on the bed. And call me Rakshita, no need for Ma’am.”
Rakshita appeared more friendly and approachable to Rupali with her smile. “But Ma’am, what will the other senior students say if I address you by your first name? On our first day, seniors instructed us not to address them by name,” Rupali said as she made herself comfortable on the bed opposite Rakshita.
“I know, I know. Been there, done that. But inside this room, no third person can know that Rupali calls Rakshita by name, right?”
Rupali’s dimples deepened as she said, “Yes, Ma’am. I mean, Rakshita.”
“So, what brings you here?”
“My dad had advised me to meet you and seek your guidance when I secured admission to this college and then the hostel. I suppose your father would also have mentioned to you about me.”
Rakshita’s father had not, and so the older girl kept mum. Rupali continued, “I wanted to come on the first day itself, but after the friendly ragging and getting to know about the senior-junior interaction protocols, I was not sure if it would be apt. You also didn’t come and speak to me, so I kept to myself. But now, after six months here, I am confused and thought of coming to you for some advice.”
‘Why on earth would someone come to me for advice,’ Rakshita wondered as she said, “Happy to help you in any way I can, Rupali. What is bothering you?”
“I am all over the place. All the freshers around me seem to be pursuing CA, CS, UPSC, or something else. I don’t want to pursue any of these, at least not yet. But then, I don’t know what I want to do. I am more interested in the college’s various societies and actively participate in literature and dramatics. But dad says it is a waste of time. Even otherwise, I feel inadequate when my friends rush to their CA coaching after classes while I go to perform in yet another play. Am I taking it too easy? Should I also prepare for some competitive exam?” Rupali asked Rakshita.
The earnest looks in Rupali’s eyes touched Rakshita’s heart.
“Are you happy doing what you are doing, Rupali?”
“I am. But I also feel guilty about being happy, if you know what I mean.”
Rakshita knew precisely what her younger counterpart meant. She felt what Rupali felt.
“Feeling happy is the best possible space you can be in. And also, the most difficult to reach. You have all the reasons to celebrate. The world propagates making simple things difficult because you don’t clamour for the simple things in life. Don’t feel guilty about not going with the horde, Rupali. Go for that course or prepare for that exam because you want to, not because everyone else wants you to. The ‘have to’ compulsion will wipe away the charming smile from your face otherwise.”
The whirring noise of the fan was the only sound to be heard in the cloistered room for some time before Rupali’s eyes twinkled, and her lips parted to show the pearly whites.
“Thank you so much, Rakshita. I am breathing much easier now.”
Rakshita’s face mirrored the delight of her younger counterpart.
“Your profound words,” Rupali continued, “could help other students like me in the same dilemma. Can you give a brief pep talk to first- and second-year students of the literary society on the significance of happiness and doing what you want to? I know you are busy, but it would be great if you could spare some time.”
“What makes you think I am busy, Rupali?”
“Oh..umm… the door of your room is always closed. I had come to speak to you two to three times before but went back, not wanting to disturb you after seeing the closed door. Then, you immediately leave the mess after taking your meals, not having the time to mingle around the tables. Above all, you must be staying in this single room for a reason.”
Rakshita blinked and turned her face towards the window. The orange rays interspersed with the white made the sky picturesque. The frantic activities on earth had ceased, with the stairs now empty. The world was at peace.
“Did I say something wrong?” Rupali asked Rakshita, anxious. The latter turned to face her.
“No,” she assured. “I will give the pep talk to juniors if you think it will help. Next week did you say?”
“Yes. I will get back to you with the details once I set it up. I would get going now. But can I come to your room to talk sometime?”
“Feel free to drop in any time, Rupali,” Rakshita said.
“Thanks, that means a lot.” Rupali got up from the bed and opened the door.
“Leave the door open after you,” Rakshita called out. Rupali nodded as their eyes met.
Rakshita glanced around her room after Rupali left. Her face broke into a smile as her eyes saccade from the corridor outside the door to the ground outside the window. The room didn’t appear as confined with its door and window open.
“Hey,” she called out to the girl crossing her room through the corridor. The girl stopped in her tracks and looked at Rakshita in surprise before smiling and walking toward Rakshita.
Issue 104 (Jul-Aug 2022)