My boyfriend’s—let’s call him R—flat is right next to the office of his apartment building’s society committee. On Sundays, when the Uncles, and one Aunty, meet, I can hear everything that they discuss. I know how much it costs to paint all eight buildings in the society, I know which guard was sleeping on duty, and I know that “we are the only society in this area that gives flats to bachelors”.
The reason I eavesdrop so closely is because I love gossip, but also, and more importantly, because I’m perpetually scared that they know I’m staying over at R’s place and will march to his flat at any moment, demanding that we both vacate the premises.
Fear and guilt. Photograph by Gaurav Vaidya.
When we started dating, R told me that he wasn’t allowed to bring non-vegetarian food and girls to his flat. About three months later, I sneaked in one night when he wasn’t well. “Don’t make eye contact with anyone,” R wheezed over the phone. “Just ignore them and pretend like you belong here. Confidence is key.” The guard looked disapproving; he took down my name and details, but he let me in. And since then, he hasn’t asked me to sign in again. It’s been a year.
R stays in a two-room flat that he shares with one other boy. He has a room to himself, but they share a kitchen and a bathroom. A maid comes in once a week to clean the place. When she sees me, she won’t enter R’s room—I like to believe that it’s because she wants to give us our privacy. She never makes eye contact with me (maybe she’s shy!), nor I with her, because I’m scared she’ll complain to the landlord.
Fear and guilt. That’s the overwhelming feeling I get whenever I stay over (which is almost every day). We leave the auto-rickshaw at a safe distance from the gate and then walk in, not together, but at a safe distance from each other. The secretary of the building society has seen me multiple times, at all sorts of odd hours, and so far, he hasn’t commented on my presence. He’s even renewed R’s rent agreement since then, without protest, but I’m still petrified. Whenever I bump into a Society Uncle, I text R later—
“Secretary uncle saw me :(”
“Oh no! He’s surely going to create a fuss seeing you for the 50th time now. Like ab toh kuch zyaada hi ho gaya,” R jokes.
“He saw me leaving at 7 a.m. He knew I was staying over!” I whine.
And it continues to nag at me. I still don’t make eye contact with Secretary Uncle.
* * *
When we order food, I never get the door because a part of me is still scared that the landlord will turn up from somewhere and see me there. I don’t want R to get thrown out of this place, I rationalise, but I know that it’s mainly that I don’t want to deal with the judgement.
Somehow, even in a city like Bombay, it is something you can’t avoid. The judgement. When you say you’re staying over at your boyfriend’s place, most people give you a look. It’s either judgemental, or worse, it’s a look of awe. Sometimes it’s a half-knowing smile. The I-know-what-you-did-last-night look. Yes, I did do that last night. So? Some people just do a quick scan of you to check for love bites.
We try not to disappoint the last group.
* * *
Once, I was talking to my dad, who’s in Calcutta, and I told him that I was staying over at a friend’s place. At first, he didn’t say anything, but 10 minutes later, he called again. “Listen, you’re old now… you shouldn’t be staying over at friends’ houses. What will people say?”
“Dad,” I wanted to say, but I didn’t. “You told me the same thing when I was a child, when I was apparently too young to have night outs.”
He didn’t say it, and I refused to acknowledge it, but (of course) he meant sex. Don’t stay over with a guy. Don’t have sex. Be careful. That’s so ingrained in me, that now, even when there are no rules at this society, and no one to stop me, I’m trained to feel guilty. My parents knew they wouldn’t always be around to take my decisions for me, and so, instead of teaching me to make independent decisions, what they gave me was a constant sense of guilt. It speaks to me in my parent’s voices. All the sentences start with “Do you want people to think…?”
* * *
I live in constant fear when I’m at R’s place. I tell my parents I’m at home. No, there’s no network, that’s why I didn’t answer; let’s not do a video call today, I’d rather sleep. I don’t deal with the guilt, I don’t hold his hand when we walk in together, and I sleep with one ear open so I’m always ready to hide, have an answer, be on guard.
This outshadows all the other inconveniences of being in this place. When I first came to his house, R didn’t have pillows or bedsheets. Who cares, he told me, I have two blankets, look. These multi-purpose blankets served as bedsheets, pillows, blankets, table cloths, and probably as handkerchiefs as well. I wasn’t sure if they’d ever been washed. Half the time I feel like I’m just reminding R to send his clothes to the laundry.
There were no extra utensils at his place, either, so I took to ordering in rice bowls. I got used to carrying a bunch of his clothes for laundry inside my backpack, so I could drop them off on my way back home. I also bought two sets of shampoo, conditioner, body wash, sanitary pads, water bottles, for both houses, which led me to end up in one house without any clothes on one night, while I ended up in the other without any cash.
I try to be extra quiet—I never put on any music or anything because what if it disturbs K, his flatmate? We have to be extra quiet during fights and during sex. I’m pretty awkward and uncomfortable with the flatmate and don’t get out of R’s room much. If I hear K in the kitchen, I wait until he gets done and goes back to his room. I refuse to use the washroom because I just feel uncomfortable. I hold in my pee until my bladder is fit to burst. I try to remain constipated, because what if someone hears me shitting in the washroom? (I don’t know how people use public toilets; society doesn’t let me shit in peace.)
* * *
The worst, though, are the period days. If I’m not already feeling guilty about breaking one taboo, I now have to deal with another. I sneakily save up lots and lots of plastic packets so I can throw away the pads easily. Then I realise that there’s no dustbin in the bathroom. What if someone finds out I use the kitchen dustbin to throw away my pads, I wonder. What if my mom finds out I use the kitchen dustbin to throw away pads? It gnaws at me more than my period cramps.
Late at night, I’m the one who ensures that I keep the dustbin outside for the garbage to be collected early next morning. I hope no one realises that I’ve been throwing away pads in the trash. R knows. He’s been saving up plastic packets for me. We now have a drawer full of them. If I’m at a restaurant for dinner, I use the washroom and change the pad before coming home so I don’t have to use it at home.
“You’re either getting a U.T.I. or some vaginal infection, you know that, right?” a friend warns me one evening. “Just pee if you have to.”
I try not to.