“Hostels are dangerous,” Mrs Chatterjee, our neighbour back in Calcutta, had warned my mother, “All those raging hormones in one place. Anything can happen.” The threat was implicit – young girls on the cusp of adulthood, cohabiting in an exclusively female environment, that too in a city like Delhi, where multiple cultures and social backgrounds collided all at once. It was bound to be a radical concept for anyone, much less a conservative middle-aged Bengali. My mother exchanged a brief look of trepidation with my father, quietly mulling over the words and rethinking whether or not they should send me to the liberal arts college I so desperately wanted to attend. The idea of me going to college in Delhi was terrifying to all parties involved. It meant that I not only had to leave home, but I also had to adapt to an unfamiliar environment and a new and more progressive urban space.
I eventually convinced them to ignore Mrs Chatterjee’s advice.
A few months later, I was shuffling into my crummy double-occupancy hostel room, armed with two overstuffed suitcases and a slightly worn mattress. As a newly minted adult, I was thrumming with excitement at the endless possibilities that lay ahead. Free from the confines of my largely conservative household and left to my own devices, I felt a new sense of sexual and bodily agency burgeoning within me. On my first day in the hostel, my naïve 18-year old self (with “raging hormones”) almost hoped that Mrs Chatterjee had been right. I hoped it would be a licentious, “dangerous” place.
Much like a lot of my peers, I felt sexually repressed in my conventional Indian middle-class household. I had discovered my attraction for other women relatively early – back when I was still a 13-year-old crushing desperately on her straight best friend – but the threat of acting on my feelings (or desires) had been too palpable. My immediate surroundings back in my hometown were entrenched in internalized homophobia and misogyny, and there were no healthy means for me to express my identity. But stepping out of a sexually restrictive home into a new one –a landscape rich with the promise of freedom and exploration – meant I could finally breathe easy. I could finally have the courage to hope for acceptance and greater self-discovery.
Back in that crummy double-occupancy room, my roommate eyed me curiously. We’d gotten the small talk out of the way first (nothing but the customary information about our respective backgrounds), and we were now at that awkward stage of “getting to know each other”.
“Are you a virgin?” she blurted out suddenly, after a lull in the conversation. I was taken aback by the frankness of the question. I gasped and spluttered at first, not knowing what to say. But after a few minutes of hand-wringing, I muttered a “yes”. She smiled back at me. “Don’t worry, me too.”
It was our way of breaking the ice.
Back home, no one talked about sex. Dating was taboo, and there was a blanket ban on expressing desire or sexual agency. Not only was I thoroughly closeted with regards to my queerness, I had very little bodily autonomy and physical mobility. But here, in a space populated with similarly young, repressed women with our so-called “raging hormones”, we could all connect over our sexual histories, fantasies, and aspirations.
My roommate and I were quick to forge a bond, but soon enough, the bond extended to the rest of the girls living on the same floor – and then, to the rest of the building. We met each other in corridors, in the mess during mealtimes, in the common bathroom between showers. We’d converge in someone’s room late at night, and talk about things we had never imagined we would. We discovered porn together, we learnt how to masturbate, and we learnt to unpack the myths we’d been fed about our bodies. This was the first and only space in which I was brave enough to admit to my non-heterosexual desires and sensibilities, and this was the first space in which I was unconditionally accepted for it. For the first time, sexual openness did not have any negative or homophobic connotations to it; it came naturally.
Halfway into my second year, I had my first kiss. We occupied neighbouring rooms and were both in the process of discovering what it means to be queer, what it means to finally let yourself free from the bounds placed on your sexuality. That night, we kissed because we were the only two queer girls in each other’s vicinity, because we were lonely and we didn’t know how to express our sexuality through any other healthy, safe means. It didn’t translate into a romantic or sexual relationship, but that kiss changed both our lives. It was the beginning of a process, a journey of learning what we could do with our bodies, of what it could feel like if we learnt to shed our fears. For so long, I had been told that being intimate with another woman on this level was fundamentally wrong, that this kind of desire was perverse and unnatural. But that day, I realized how wrong those notions were. This – being with another woman on such a visceral level – had made me appreciate my own body in a new light. It validated all those confused feelings that I had tried to will away into oblivion as a 13-year-old.
Living in close quarters with other women also made me a lot more aware of my body, and a lot more comfortable with it. Living in my parent’s house meant I had to subconsciously stick to a strict mode of conduct. There were only certain things I could wear, only certain ways I had to sit. Menstruation was a taboo topic, and every time I was menstruating, I had to make sure that no signs of it were visible. But in my hostel, there were no such bounds. There was agency not only in verbal discussions or physical explorations of sexuality, but in the way we perceived ourselves. When you could expose your deepest flaws, insecurities and identity crises to a group of people who would view it all with no judgment, you could finally love yourself.
In a way, Mrs Chatterjee’s worst fears had been confirmed. The hostel was indeed dangerous – not because of “raging hormones”, but because we were constantly initiating discussions and circumstances which challenged the patriarchal status quo.
Of course, this was no feminist utopia. A girl’s hostel came with curfews, sexist rules, and a vast array of administrative hassles that were far from liberating. But in its inner spaces, where a diverse group of women could support, listen to, and accept each other without pre-existing conditions, it became a radical sphere. When I stepped out of my home and tried to forge a new one in this unknown city, I never imagined that the space I would find would become so significant. All I’d wanted was to explore my sexuality and my queerness, but in addition to this freedom, I found a home where I finally felt like myself.
It’s been three years since I left my girls’ hostel, and I feel like the lessons I carry with me continue to inform my sexual well-being. Home, to me, was never a static entity, but my time in a girl’s hostel feels like the embodiment of everything my ideal “home” is – empowering, liberating, and full of women who love each other unabashedly.