, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The first moment I stepped onto my Indian campus I was optimistic; if you had shown me a barren lot I would have been optimistic. After twenty-four hours of travel and a taxi ride spent looking out at Delhi and listening to my future roommate, the campus was one thing that reassured my fears: it was green. Though small enough to circumvent in five minutes, the campus was a true green haven in Delhi.

The back lawn was my favorite place on campus. In the evening it was cool and noise from the roads was blocked by the school building in front, so it was truly quiet, more so than my room, and there were few people about. One night I went out to get some exercise by sprinting the length of the field and there were hundreds of thousands of dragonflies; you could see them rise and fall with gusts of wind, all in the air over the field. But they were beautiful, and I ran through them and they never touched me.

In the fall, the water swelled up into the grass and was fresh. It made walkways ponds for a day and crumbled a stretch of the encircling wall. Painted burnt orange like the buildings, the thick brick was topped all around with barbed wire. For months after the section crumbled, a blue tarp was strung along and a security man slept on a chair, guarding it from the street outside. Whether that wall and those gates were meant to keep men out or women in, I was never certain.

In the spring, in its most beautiful, the fields were roped off so that no heavy foot could ruin competitive flowers.

Nothing had been updated since the college opened around sixty years prior, not the buildings, not the walls, not the electrical system, not the tables and chairs. The small campus contained the academic building, cafeteria, book and copy store, coffee stand, faculty housing, staff housing, and hostel (dorm). Don’t get any romantic notions of ivy-covered brick. These were all concrete painted burnt orange and, like I said, built sixty years ago to the standards of Indian building code (i.e. none). That is, all except the book and copy store, which was a metal shack with a ribbed tin roof in which you needed to hunch in parts. No building had a floor other than raw cement, and everything was covered in Delhi’s perennial dust.

Though a fresh coat of paint and landscaping gave the school a manicured look, it was not so maintained inside. Classrooms were stacked with wooden chairs and desks leaving little room to find a seat. I was sure it was against fire code but there were no smoke detectors either so maybe it wasn’t.

I could eat all my meals in the hostel, but I started to take more of them in the cafeteria where I could get a tastier meal for a dollar or less. The inside resembled someone’s attempt at modern sculpture, rather than either utility or comfort. A few mosaic tables stood among weaving benches whose backs resembled cairns. Broken windows allowed feral cats to scamper through to the kitchen and carry out chicken or naan from where the food was delivered.

When I arrived in July, I went out in the mornings to the bamboo grove behind the college buildings. I did not like to go into Delhi alone, past the protective barbed wire, at this point. So I fashioned my refuge within the college itself. I would, before breakfast, do yoga and meditate in the already hot shade of the grove. Later in the year it would be the place of a holiday festival, the Diwali Mela, when I had friends with which to enjoy it.

Students and teachers used the campus for evening exercise, and by this I mean either walking back and forth or in circles. My independent study advisor was religious in her evening walks, and I would hide from her because I did not like her. She would catch me sometimes and I would walk with her a short ways, and one night she told me that I should not leave the hostel after dark because who knows what could be out here. What could be? Her? The staff that lives here? Students? I savored the evenings when it was cool and quiet and I watched the moon rise with grass under my feet. I resented her idea that there lurked a rapist in the bushes of what more closely resembled a prison than a school.

I sought this outdoor sanctuary because to live in the hostel took more endurance than optimism. The walls were tarnished by peeling paint, mold scars and cat prints. Every window had thick bars, even when the window looked into a storage area. In my shared eight-by-eight room, the shutters did not close, and a bed had to be moved each time we needed to walk to the bathroom. Luckily the metal frame, plywood, and three-inch mattress were not heavy. Laundry hung wrinkled and drying from every hallway and window—it had been washed by hand in a bucket in communal bathrooms. It wet the dust that resettled on every surface each new day. It would be swept with branches tied into a horse’s tail and mopped with a wet rag, but that didn’t clean a bed’s blankets. If any place on campus was most like a jail, this was it even before the bed checks, 7:30 curfew, and locked gate at night.

Somehow this place in its entirety was both refuge and not enough, in turn oasis and prison.