A Whole World Inside A Tiny Bubble

How living with no personal space as a teenager shaped my adult life.

A Whole World Inside A Tiny Bubble
Photo by Etienne Boulanger on Unsplash

How living with no personal space as a teenager shaped my adult life.

“If Harry Potter can do it, so can you.”

That’s what I told myself when I first stepped into Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya (JNV), Golaghat — the boarding school that was to be my home for four years.

I was fourteen years old, about to live away from my family for the first time.

Harry Potter and his magical world of Hogwarts was my only vicarious experience of life in a boarding school, and I took solace in my favorite fictional character’s experiences.

But unlike Harry’s Hogwarts, which had a huge castle with magical staircases and friendly ghosts, my JNV had a single-storied academic building with interiors so sparkly clean, it reminded me of a hospital.

While Harry had already befriended Ron Weasley on his first day to school, I was entering an ecosystem where the students had co-existed and bonded over three years. I was the new girl, ill-equipped to survive in this world and unaware of its rules.

As my mother led me down the alley to my hostel, I felt a strange heaviness in my heart. This was the verge of a new life, but was I ready for it?

Whatever came next, I knew I had to stay strong. I wanted a bright future for myself, and JNV was the best school in my district. Studying there was the only way to afford a high-quality education. I had to do this to help myself and my family out.

I didn’t cry. If I had, I wouldn’t have been able to stop.

The first time I looked at the hostel, I wanted to pick my bags and run away.

It was a huge dormitory crammed with twenty-four beds. There was a tiny table attached to each bed and an accompanying plastic chair. There was some space underneath the bed to store bags.

That was it.

That was all the space I’d have for four years.

All my life, I’d been the pampered child. I had my own room, study table, computer, and bookshelf. Shifting from a world of my own to such a tiny space felt like a punishment. It was almost as if my and Harry Potter’s roles were reversed: Harry shifted from the tiny cupboard under the stairs into the magical world of Hogwarts, and I was leaving my world of privilege and entering a place I didn’t like anything about.

Things got more difficult after my mother left.

It was easy holding her hand and navigating my way around the school. But once she left, the weight of the situation dawned on me. Surrounded by strangers in a place that left me zero privacy, I was well and truly alone.

The words from the song in the famous Hindi movie Taare Zameen Par came unbidden to my mind —

Bhej na itna door mujhko tum, ki yaad bhi me aa na paau, Maa.
Kya itna bura hu me, Maa?
(Don’t send me so far away, Maa, that you forget to remember me.
Am I really that bad, Maa?)

The girl on the bed opposite to me was called Jahnabi, and she too had just joined the school. Her eyes were red and her cheeks tear-stained. In our shared pain of being separated from our families, I felt a connection. We weren’t friends, not yet, but this was a start.

The gloomy dormitory made me feel claustrophobic. At least my tiny bed was a space I could call my own. I wanted to curl up and sleep, but there was an assembly lined up at 5.30 PM, followed by evening tea. Attendance was mandatory at both, and so, Jahnabi and I walked together.

The other children walked in groups, laughing and teasing each other. I felt like an alien.

A few other girls came to talk to Jahnabi and me after the assembly. Their body language dripped with the confidence of having lived without parental guidance since they were eleven. I felt intimidated as if each girl was marking her territory and showing me who made the rules.

I plastered a smile on my face, but the sense of abandonment in my heart made me feel like I could break any moment.

Study time and dinner followed next. I met my new classmates and was fascinated by their discussions, constant leg-pulling, and loud groans about how packed the next day’s schedule was. They were friendly, but there were plenty of inside jokes I felt left out of.

I sat in silence through the evening, observing the camaraderie that ran strong among them. It felt effortless, and I wondered if I might have that for my own someday.

When I finally returned to my bed, it was already 11.30 PM — way past my usual bedtime. I was exhausted, and before I could reflect on my day, I fell asleep.

We were woken the next morning at 6 by the Physical Education teacher’s loud, harsh whistle. I sat up, heart hammering against my chest. Until now, I’d only woken to my mother’s sweet voice. The whistle caused a raucous awakening, making me miss home more than ever.

Still groggy, I slipped into my stretchable clothes and followed the other girls to the school grounds where we had to exercise for forty-five minutes in the morning sunlight.

After the exercise session, I hoped to take a quick shower before the day’s first class started at 8 AM. But when I returned to the dorm, all the bathrooms were booked. There were only three bathrooms to be shared among the twenty-four girls, and the booking process had begun the previous night.

No one told me we were supposed to do that, not even Jahnabi, who had already showered and dressed when I got back. I felt a sense of betrayal surge inside me, but I gulped it down, knowing I couldn’t blame her.

When resources are limited, even your friends become competition.

We were on our own in this strange new world. I had to do better tomorrow.

The rest of the day was a bundle of conflicting emotions. The classes were highly interesting. I impressed the new teachers and looked forward to each lecture. I even fantasized about the day I’d use what I learned to design the life of my dreams.

But the classroom was the only space where I didn’t feel out of place.

The assemblies, meal times, and study hours drilled into me how different I was from the other students. I quickly learned that I’d have to let go of a lot of my previous beliefs if I wanted to survive here.

When I returned to my room at night, I wanted to journal before I slept — a habit I’d religiously followed since I was thirteen. But I didn’t know where I could store my secrets without another girl stumbling upon it “by mistake.” I kept my journal locked in the trunk, not daring to take it out. I missed my comfortable bedtime ritual, but I knew I had no other option in this tiny, cramped space I now called home.

The days turned to weeks, and the weeks to months.

My parents visited me every weekend. I cried every time they left, each goodbye filling me with a renewed sense of abandonment.

Some days, I was seconds away from telling them I wanted to go home.

But that wasn’t an option. Giving up in the middle of the academic year would mean my friends at the old school would be a year ahead of me if I rejoined. This was a shame I didn’t know I could deal with. I was also greatly enjoying my lessons with the new teachers. JNV was my best chance at the future I dreamed of. I didn’t want to leave it simply because the school didn’t give me the comfortable personal space I was used to all my life.

My ambition tethered me, and I held on. I decided to make the best of my situation.

I got myself a vibrant tablecloth with sunflowers that reminded me of the garden in my old school. I managed to find some space for a few novels among my books. Jahnabi and I got bright pink curtains for our windows. My dormitory room was slowly starting to feel like home.

I learned to journal in secret during the after-dinner hours when everyone was busy gossiping. I locked my journal with its secrets inside a suitcase immediately. Those stolen few minutes of peace amid a hectic ritual helped clear my head at the end of the day.

Slowly, my new friends started visiting my room. Since I only had one chair, if more than one friend came to visit, they had to sit on my bed. During the first few days, the thought of a stranger sitting on my bed made me uncomfortable. Back home, I never put my feet up on my bed without washing them first. Watching a stranger with no regard for that strict rule and not throwing a tantrum was a feat in self-control. One girl even cuddled my pillow to her chest, instantly making me want to snatch it away.

But the fear of losing these new friends was stronger than the alarm bells ringing in my head screaming mine mine mine.

I wasn’t used to sharing my things, but waking up and having to look at Jahnabi’s face every morning made it impossible to have any sense of ownership over whatever my parents brought for me. She was easy and open with her belongings, and though every fiber in my body screamed otherwise, I started going easy on my things too.

Soon, we began exchanging clothes, sharing food, and using each other’s beds as a sitting space when friends came to visit.

The bubble of personal space I had was expanding. I was beginning to let other people in, trusting them more. I still had some boundaries in place, but their edges were blurring.

As the year progressed, I continued to face new experiences.

Sleeping in a room with twenty-three other girls wasn’t easy. I remember one time when I had to wake up at five to revise before an important exam. Every other girl in the dormitory was done with her exams that day. I was finding it hard to sleep when they were singing songs, clapping, and dancing. I remember breathing in hard, then exhaling, focusing on my breath and nothing else. Eventually, my breath was all I could hear and feel, and soon, I fell asleep. With time, I taught myself to sleep even when somebody else was singing, talking, or snoring loudly.

I wasn’t overly religious, but I treated Pujas — religious occasions — with utmost sincerity. One night before Maha Shivratri — an important festival for Hindus — I’d purchased incense sticks, earthen lamps, and candles to burn at the temple of Lord Shiva. I even bought a new pair of scissors to carry on the tray of offerings to the Almighty. That morning, while I was in the shower, a classmate “borrowed” my scissors and used them to trim her underarm hair. I was mortified when I found out, but I couldn’t create a scene in front of everyone, especially because she was one of the most popular girls, while I barely had any friends. I swallowed and forced a smile, telling her everything was fine. The lack of personal space in JNV taught me not to mind if other people used my things without permission.

I loosened my grip on my definition of “mine,” and started seeing myself as an extension of a larger whole, as a part of this new place.

My sense of identity expanded to encompass my friends and classmates.

I was only fourteen. I needed my space, but in this strange new school surrounded by people who viewed me as competition, I snatched away moments and spaces to create my own world inside a tiny bubble.

This was what JNV demanded of me and of every other student.

This is how we survived.

A glimpse of the JNV days — that tiny bed and a tiny table was all the space we got. But the world we created amid that was huge and full of warmth and friendship. If you’re wondering where I am in the picture, I’m the girl in orange in the last row. (Photo from 2008 — supplied by the author).

All of this happened in a small Indian town in the late 2000s.

There were no phones or any other personal music player. I used to push my forefingers in my ears, sit in empty classrooms far away from everyone else, and study hard while everyone else gossiped their evenings away. I taught myself to concentrate in spite of a million other distractions. It wasn’t easy, but my ambition fueled me.

By the end of four years, I secured a seat in one of the country’s most reputed engineering colleges — a feat that would have been impossible if I’d stayed in my old school.

My boarding school experience wasn’t anything like Harry Potter’s. Looking back, I realize this is probably because his story started when he joined Hogwarts, but mine started after I left JNV.

Boarding school wasn’t supposed to be the center of my life like Hogwarts was Harry’s. It simply served as the preparation ground that set the stage for every good thing that came later.

My JNV experience taught me that personal space is important, but you shouldn’t let it keep you sheltered. The best things in life come when you’re pushed out of your comfort zone. Only by embracing difficult situations and holding your own, can you move forward and make your dreams come true.

Author’s note: This story is an entry into the Medium Writer’s Challenge. If you enjoyed reading it, don’t forget to hit the clap button. You can clap up to 50 times to show your support. Thanks!

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