1989 to 1993. Many of my batch mates call it the golden years of their life. Makes me wonder if my experience was as golden. As I rewind and recollect my REC days, many of my memories were certainly not very glittery.
I grew up spending most of my time with my brother and his friends and was a Tomboy at heart. I refused to have long hair, quit music lessons within a week, competed with boys to climb trees faster, and stayed outside for hours playing marbles. These were some of my ways of letting the world know that I was no less than any boy! I was strong and fiercely independent behind the demure nature and the so-called pretty face. But REC did not see this side of me.
As a child, I loved outdoors and tried my luck at all sports I could. In school, I had a good stint as a track and field athlete and always dreamed of pursuing sports. Back then, sports could only be an extracurricular activity, not a career choice. Coming from a middle-class family with four siblings, the priority was always for safe choices and landing a sure shot job.
Medicine and Engineering were binary choices in all career discussions. Under the directive of my dad and his close advisors, I shifted focus to compete in the Joint Engineering Entrance (JEE) exam. An athlete’s competitive spirit in me kicked in. I managed to secure a decent rank of 52 amongst a large pool of qualified candidates. I knew the rank would secure me a seat in one of the premier engineering institutes.
The day before counselling, I boarded an overnight train with my dad and arrived at the famous AV Hall of REC, Rourkela. Sitting next to my dad, I glanced around. I saw a bunch of nervous teens close to their dads and guardians, waiting for their turn to be called up to the dais to make their branch selections. The atmosphere was very tense, with the candidates sitting nervously in their seats waiting to be called up.
I also noticed something unusual. There was a sizable crowd that was gathering outside the AV hall. Guys clad in t-shirt, jeans, and chappals, were standing outside, glancing around, and acting cool. Some of them were staring directly at me and the other gals and pointing at us to their friends, as if we were shiny objects. Suddenly, I felt naked in front of their piercing gazes. There was this unsettling feeling in my stomach. My instinct told me to run away. My strong, independent self said everything will be alright.
As my turn came to make my “instant” branch choice, I choose Electrical Engineering in Rourkela over some more relevant branches at other REC’s outside Odisha. Staying within Odisha meant closer to home as well as living amongst supposedly, friendly and my kinda people.
Boy, was I wrong! What an emotional roller coaster ride the next four years were!
In a college where girls were completely outnumbered by boys (twenty girls to three hundred boys), I knew going in, it would be an interesting dynamic. Across all four batches, the numbers were similar. Girls got the treatment that typical rare species get:
- Boys could gaze at girls for hours without blinking. Some took it to the next level and stared with their mouths wide open.
- Some took the help of physical objects such as
chalks to grab the girls’ attention while improving their marksmanship.
- Some used their freedom of expression to catcall on the girls and use foul language. Passing loose comments on girls was their birth right. They did it so commonly and so often that the girls became numb to it.
- Senior boys could show up at the Ladies Hostel (LH) gate as a “visitor” and first year gals had to oblige them. The interactions were like a matrimonial screening process.
It was this hostile environment that perhaps led me to never let my guard down. The more I tried to keep to myself, the more attention I got. A slew of visitors came to meet me at LH. I was regularly stopped in campus by senior boys and asked about my hobbies, my family, my interests, and what I liked in guys. As a teenager (and a Tomboy at that), I didn’t know how to handle all this attention. For right or wrong, I formed this impression that all the boys were out to get me, rather than be my friend. And that’s it. I created this wall between me and the boys. I became this person that I truly was not. I went into a shell. I came across as quiet and aloof.
Only a few of my girl friends knew the real me: as a fun-loving, friendly girl who loved to have fun.
Many boys, on the other hand, tried hard to strike up a conversation, or become a friend without much success. Some others, did some pretty awful things. My bike was stolen and was broken into small pieces and thrown into the woods. Books and lab notes borrowed from me were returned with profane language written all over it, about me and my girl friends, linking me with college professors, and so on. College notice boards were “hacked” to put fake notices that I was spending late nights with Palestinian boys. I don’t know why they did it. I probably don’t want to know.
The four years at college marked many such incidents and made me this person who, unfortunately, doubted all including some genuine friendships. I never attempted to connect with most guys. Though I should mention, there were a handful who helped me get through this emotional roller coaster.
I wish I had known how to ride the attention wave and had enjoyed my golden days in college, more than I managed to. But, those experiences made me a stronger person that understood how to deal with the real world, at a very young age.
When the more mature and experienced me – a mother of two teenage boys – looks back, I see a completely different picture. I see a bunch of teenage boys that were put in a closed, alien environment, while still coping with physical and psychological changes in an interesting phase of their lives. Perhaps, many did not know how to channel their energies. Anyway, social norms, back then, did not allow for boys and girls to have a healthy, friendly relationship. Any boy trying to connect with a girl was perceived as having ulterior motives!
In the process, I – I am sure this happened to other girls – missed out the beauty and focused on the beastly characteristics of guys.
Fast-forward twenty five years, to the Reunion in December 2018. I see an opportunity to know my fellow batch mates a little better, connect with them a little further, take the friendships a little farther. I am looking forward to spending time and rekindling the famed REC spirit and writing the next chapter of my REC experiences. I am confident this story will have a happier ending.