Living amongst women

After some drama in the Little Stars family, I decided to move into the school for a while: to spend more time with the hostel girls, and with the school’s founder Asha and her daughter Rishibha. To be more present before the girls left for their uncertain summer holidays with distant relatives or unrelated philanthropists, and I left for Jakarta and then Mumbai.

It was suggested that I stay in a second floor bedroom that used to be Rishi’s, until Asha took her back last year. I remember asking Asha why they both slept in the small bedroom right next to Asha’s office, their only home and personal space in the school building.

“Rishi is becoming very adolescent, I want to keep her close to me.”

So Rishi had moved into Asha’s bedroom and they had both slept there since.
The second floor bedroom is simple and lovely, with windows and a private bathroom and balcony. This would be nice for some alone time, I reasoned, afraid of losing the little time I had to myself by moving in…but would keep me close, as the girls sleep on the third floor and Asha and Rishi on the first.

It’s summertime though, and the second floor bedroom doesn’t have a cooler or a generator-powered fan, making sleeping there out of the question. So I moved into the first floor bedroom also. Like Asha and Rishi, I showered in the bathroom that leads off of the office, and the three of us slept crosswise on two twin beds pushed together.

In the summer, the schoolbuilding is full of women: any male teachers and students have left, leaving only the hostel girls, their cooks and wardens, and Asha and Rishi.

The hostel girls are the scraps of Varanasi’s children: daughters of prostitutes and unknown rickshaw men, of alcoholics or abusive parents. They’re girls from neighbouring villages, with the raw and unadulterated beauty that comes from their simple, flawed upbringing and lower caste roots. They’re girls left on trains or in bus stations, picked up by police. All of the girls carry their pasts with them: in their behaviours and obsessions, and in their physical bodies in movements and scars.

Most of the wardens, cooks and maids at Little Stars live there also, only because they don’t have anywhere else to go. These women are vagabonds, rejected by their families for having intercaste or love marriages, or divorces, or illegitimate children.

Sudha is the latest warden, and takes the most care in her saris, her makeup and hair. Her husband who promised her so much doesn’t want her anymore. Sudha has one daughter, who lives with an aunt. When Sudha visits, her daughter says “Come only sometimes, not so often.”

With no men around, these women build their own hierarchy and way of life. In the evening they wear outfits like long shorts, baggy tshirts and dupattas across their chests, or western-style pyjamas. Asha grumbles when there is a late visit from a male contractor or teacher, saying “Now I need to put the long pant.”

Otherwise, the school (when it is just a house for girls and women) runs beautifully. With fewer people to care for, maids Shanti and Kavita do all of the cooking, laundry and cleaning in no time, and and fill the rest of the day sitting with the other women, gossiping. They brush and rebraid one another’s hair and massage one another’s feet. Some of the eldest hostel girls do beautician training sessions in the mornings, and practice later in the day on the wardens. They wax lower legs using boiled sugar and lime, and thread eyebrows holding floss between their teeth and hands. All of these women and girls together care for one another with more grace and respect than they were ever given in their previous lives, and so shouldn’t know how to give to one another. But they do.

The concept of alone time doesn’t exist in small town India in the way it does in the west. Time alone feels so precious in Canada, and feels as though it should feel more precious here, with so much to consider and wonder about. It isn’t though, with so many girls and so many demands. The days were full, and even when there was a moment for rest, everyone rested together. Living at school allowed me no time to contemplate my needs or feelings, as there were more pressing issues at hand: activities, little girls politics and fairness and division of labour, tasks to be completed, and time necessarily spent eating and laughing together. In that way, I was relieved of my need for time to myself: what a relief it was.

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