When I was assigned to a regular House after about a week of my arrival, I was ‘appropriated’ by some seniors who were already in class X. As a result, I had to perform all kinds of errands for them, like fetching water for them, carrying books and messages to their friends. And sometimes they would make me run to the furthest House saying that someone wanted me there, only to laugh when I came back and reported that no one there had asked for me . Saturdays were the worst. Apart from washing and airing my own clothes and things, I had to take care of the needs of these seniors. Not satisfied with torturing me with these chores they would make fun of my appearance calling me Hiuen Tsang because of my Mongolian features and the fact that my hair was cut with a short fringe falling over my forehead.
To add to my humiliation, they began to make fun of my metal bowl and plate too, (kahi and bati, in Assamese) which I had carried from home as instructed by the hostel authorities. Every hosteller had to bring a plate and cup for her use.
The ragging continued for quite some time and I had to endure it because I was in the junior most class and had to do the bidding of the seniors. But things came to a head one Saturday and I seemed to have lost it. Being unable to take their harassment and taunting anymore, I hurled the ‘bati’ on the wall which broke into two pieces. The senior girls stopped in mid-laughter and fell silent. Encouraged by their shocked faces, I ripped the frock I was wearing down the middle shouting ‘You all are fit only to be step-mothers!’ and with the torn frock flapping on my naked front, I ran out.
The senior girls gave chase and after making them huff and puff after me round the big compound several times, I came back to the House quite exhausted. When the tired girls reached the House, they pleaded and coaxed me to take off y torn frock and one senior hurriedly took out her sewing kit, mended the frock frantically and made me wear it again before anyone could report the matter to the Matron.
From that day onwards I was left alone and the seniors treated me with some amount of grudging respect. That was perhaps the first incident in my life which taught me that the best way to cope with bullies is to stand up to them.
But I still bear the scar from another incident from that period of my ‘apprentice-ship.’ I was ordered by one particularly aggressive senior to draw water from the hand pump and carry two buckets to the bathroom so that she could have a leisurely bath. I proceeded to do her bidding. The iron buckets were heavy and when filled with water, it became difficult for me to carry it to the bath-house by myself. But somehow the first bucket was safely deposited in one of the cubicles of the bath-house. By the time I filled the second bucket and tried to lift it I was exhausted but I had to deposit it somehow in the cubicle. So, I tried to half-drag and half-carry it; in the process some of the water had spilled and I finally managed to reach my destination with only half a bucket of water. But when I entered the cubicle, I slipped on a patch of melted soap and my right shin was caught in the rusty, jagged end of the corrugated tin partition between the cubicles. There was a searing pain and I screamed and screamed. The senior girls heard my scream and came rushing to the bath-house to investigate. When they saw my state, one of them picked me up to take me to the hostel infirmary. But the girl whose errand I was performing managed to warn me not to say anything to the Matron about her role in the accident. When the nurse asked me what happened I sobbed and timidly replied, ‘I slipped in the bathroom.” Luckily for me it was only a flesh wound but it was an ugly gash and took almost two weeks to even begin healing. It did heal eventually but to this day I bear the scar on my right shin.
[Temsula Ao is a poet, short story writer and ethnographer from Jorhat, Assam. This excerpt is from her memoir–Once Upon A Time, Burnt Curry and Bloody Rags.]