In Grade 10, it was mandatory for everyone in Kumari English Boarding school, to join its hostel in order to fully devote themselves for the biggest school level exams. The infamous residential buildings resembled a pair of haunted houses standing right at the back of the school playground. A part of it had to do with its location. The buildings faced the enigmatic Pashupati temple and stood on the banks of Bagmati river which flowed directly from the ghats, where dead bodies were burnt. Few hostellers even boasted about knowing the stench of burnt human flesh. But the students who returned to their respective homes every evening were more terrified of little girls who stood on the verandas of the hostel with deathly stares as others cheerfully waved goodbyes.
So, in the beginning of 2018, girls with obedient hair plaits and boys with stubborn army haircuts arrived with big overflowing bags, their one strap held by a guardian and another by themselves. Our only destination that year was to surpass the infamous “Iron gate” exams, the exam which would warrant us to leave the school and join high school. Finally, grow into adults we always saw ourselves being.
The first lesson we learnt after joining the hostel was how to tuck our own bed sheets, neatly in all corners. There could be no creases, no overlaps. No halfhearted folding would be tolerated by two stubborn female middle-aged wardens. They also lived in the staff quarters away from their families which made them perennially bitter. They often took out that bitterness on the girls who were left after school hours in their custody.
All the girls brought their own ways of spreading bed sheets from home but in the long hostel corridors, soon all their ways intermixed. Girls traded secrets. Along with folding bed sheets, everything we’d ever known was unpacked and rolled out with whom we shared beds, washroom, mirror, clothes, combs, every bit of small luxury.
By 7 pm, dinner was served. After two hours of study post dinner, everyone was rushed off to sleep. At precisely 10 pm, one of the wardens switched off all the lights and warned “If I see anyone getting up and switching on the light, I will break your legs.” We knew violence was more tolerated here than any form of indiscipline. So, we all nodded our little heads in the queue until we quietly slipped under our blankets.
That was until one of the first nights Nasreen woke up and moved around the hostel with a torch dimmed by covering its reflector with one end of the black shawl she always wrapped around her head.
Nasreen was one of our classmates. But few of us spoke to her. Her bulky body pronounced her presence. But she always remained aloof. There was a running joke among us that if her hijab was taken off, nobody would know if she was a girl or boy from behind. We didn’t know if that rumor ever reached Nasreen. But she mostly kept to herself and her only friend with whom she shared a bench and sauntered regularly to the washroom.
The only time Nasreen’s name was taken in the class was when a few girls were teasing a few boys. They had connected over the new online world and were sharing the banter in the offline realm as well. They waited for hours for one of them to be online with the beeping green color and then fought in chats and comments. In classrooms, they whispered funny names and continued inside jokes with each other. At that age, hatred meant love. One of the courageous girls chimed once the teacher left the class “Ravi, who do you like?”“I don’t like any of you mean girls.” Back came the reply from the boys’ column. Giggles. “So, do you like Nasreen?”“Nooo.” The boy visibly gasped. Rounds of laughter shot across the classroom.
When we glanced over Nasreen, her head hung low over her notebook with no response. Nasreen was away from the internet. She had stayed in hostel from grade 1. Her Facebook profile picture was an icon. She had last posted on it many years back. Nobody chatted with her. Nobody ever saw her green signal on.
But Nasreen had spent more time along the undivided hostel corridors. So much so that she could skilfully navigate through them using her torch. Soon, other girls followed suit. Sometimes tip- toeing on dormitory floors and sometimes jumping cautiously from one bunk bed to another. Slowly, girls brought small torch lights from their homes and hid it deep in their bags along with little fairness cream bottles stolen from their mothers and elder sisters.
Girls who in broad daylight oiled and plaited their hair from above their ears, who covered their knees with skirts. Girls who were made to call their peers “brothers” and were referred to as “sisters” in the assembly line. Girls who were “good children” during the day. But at night, the same girls extended their free hours with these hidden lights, making sure to point the torch on their faces when they spoke for dramatic effect. At night, they let their hair free and roamed around in the dormitory in inner vests, bloomers and socks. Some rich girls even showed off their expensive bras to the ones who still hadn’t upgraded from baby bras. The dormitory corridors were fashion runaways. Girls cheered for each other in whispers. There was something intoxicating in the air. Dormitory suddenly wasn’t a prison but a space to breathe freely.
Then, one night a girl said “Come to bed no. 4 if you want to hear a horror story.” We all knew it was Nasreen’s bed. We often heard late night’s whispers from there. So, all were intrigued to know what it was all about.
The first night girls gathered around Nasreen’s bed with no expectations. She gulped a glass of water in one go. Then, sitting on the edge of the bed started her story. It didn’t start with traditional “once upon a time” or as per any conventions we had learnt from our textbooks.
It is the last day before winter holidays start. All students are waiting for their parents to come and take them home. A girl in a corner is sitting silently. She goes to use the washroom. It is late and in haste, the janitor quickly locks the bathrooms and everyone leaves school premises. The girl is locked. She has no way of getting out. She repeatedly knocks on the doors but there is no one in the school. Soon, night falls. In eerie silence, she suddenly hears someone murmuring ABCDs outside.
“What nonsense is this? How come her parents didn’t come to find her sooner?” The topper of our batch found loopholes in everything said to her, including the story by Nasreen. Everyone was already engrossed in the story at that point. There was logic in the question but we were more invested in what happened next.
Nasreen took a long breath. Then looked straight at the girl “Her parents were dead.”The topper girl took it as a cue to keep quiet.
In her stories, Nasreen explained every place within school with such rich details that we soon realized there was no nook or corner that Nasreen had not stepped in. She visited restricted sections we had never seen and observed people we didn’t notice. From ECA hall where one particular florescent light kept on blinking to the horizontal pole that hovered above us in our communal shower. From the interiors of the wardens’ room to the principal’s cabin, she had a mental map of the whole school. Soon, we all grew fascinated with her. Nasreen was the only one who was never forced to drink full glass of milk every night like everyone else. Rumors had it that, years back, Nasreen had retaliated with the warden who had tried to force her to drink milk. When the warden dragged her to the principal’s room, it was said Nasreen made the most innocent face and blinked saying “But I am lactose intolerant, miss.” We came to know such a term existed only after hearing about the incident.
It seemed like Nasreen never really cared what we or the teachers thought of her. She was at the brunt of endless beatings and scolding but nothing seemed to get through her. It wasn’t that Nasreen didn’t study. But she always found peculiar things to do in the school. Like staying in washroom for too long. Or roaming around the big school playground because she said her legs cramped from sitting in the class too much. Everyone was assured that Nasreen always looked for trouble even though she never caused any.
Once in the morning assembly, a female teacher asked her to step aside and then instructed her to wear two vests underneath her flimsy light blue shirt. Every morning, girls were routinely pulled out for skirts that didn’t cover their knees or hair which wasn’t oiled enough. But it was Nasreen’s “mature” body that made female teachers more cautious.
At night, Nasreen cursed the wardens. It was the first time we had heard a girl of our age use the word “bitch”. Then in her stories, sometimes female wardens’ bodies conflated into one. We spent all night stifling our giggles. There was no other storyteller as skilled as Nasreen. Granted there were many loopholes and gaps in her stories. But nobody could narrate stories with such an intricate mix of horror, disgust and sometimes sexual fantasy as aptly as Nasreen. However, her stories did have a certain boundary. Intimacy extended until a hijab from a woman’s head would be unraveled with passionate love. Then, the story abruptly ended.
“What happened after that Nasreen?” There would always be that one excited girl teasing Nasreen at the end of such a story. “You will know when you get married.” At times when she was in the mood to joke, Nasreen would continue the camaraderie. “Nasreen is it true you get married in Islam if you say qabool hai three times?” another girl inquired. Nasreen laughed off. And then, girls were encouraged to ask other questions. “What about if you say talak three times?”“Nasreen can we also go inside the masjid?”But sometimes also,“Nasreen is it true you meet boys outside of school? How do you get away from wardens?”
In school, rumors floated with no roots, only bouncing off ears. Some rumors spread by girls and some even by teachers. But throughout our questioning, Nasreen stayed calm and answered as best as she could. She offered suggestions and guidance like an elder sister. She looked so sincere to all of us that it soon seemed bizarre how teachers were annoyed and sick of her.
We didn’t know what the boys in our class thought of Nasreen as half way through the year, they had been moved to another separate class. As the exams approached, girls and boys were taught in separate classrooms to ensure there would be no distractions. But the distance irked the young blood. Girls fought with each other to sit on the last bench from where they could get a glimpse of people heading to boy’s washrooms. In that age, a simple glance of the other gender meant everything. Our desire couldn’t be quenched from Health textbooks which had limited knowledge about “reproduction”. So, we satisfied ourselves with peaks, smiles and brief brushes of touch. But Nasreen was happy in her own corner with no window. “They are all little boys.” Nasreen always dismissed any gossip around any one of them.
After a month-long holiday for Dashain, students returned from their homes, with parental blessings to score high in the exams which were a few weeks away. There was nothing significant to share other than how much cash each had pocketed during the festival. But there was a promise from Nasreen. She had sent a message from her usually ideal Facebook profile. She had gone to stay with one of her relatives from where we thought she must have gotten access to the internet. The text itself was pretty straightforward: Girls, I have a secret. The first day after holidays, all the girls gathered around her bed. As she removed one sock after another, with her utmost serious face Nasreen confessed “I kissed a boy on the mouth.”At first everyone looked at her in utter disbelief. When her smile didn’t flinch after all our stares, we realized she was not pranking us. Soon, the questions followed: Really? Literally on mouth? How did it feel? How did it taste like? “Yes. Just outside the hostel.” She withdrew details of who he was or how it happened but only left us with “It was salty.” After a while she added “Like tasting your own mouth for the first time.”The same night after her usual story, Nasreen whispered, “I need to go out for a while.” Everyone held their breaths. It was past 10 pm. Lights were already out. “If the warden visits, you need to manage.”
Nasreen asked her bench mate and her neighbor. We gasped when we saw Nasreen sneak and silently make her way out. Eventually, we fell asleep and never knew when Nasreen returned.
That one night stretched to other nights. Once every week, Nasreen stepped out of the dormitory. Where did she go those nights? How did she go? Everyone believed she went to meet her mystery boyfriend. Once someone asked her this to which Nasreen replied with her nose high up in the air “I don’t have a boyfriend. I have a man.”
Other girls offered to accompany her in her night outings. Girls who obviously were not as brave as her but wanted to taste a little bit of freedom, while having Nasreen to save them by their side. “You girls cannot.” Nasreen dismissed everyone.
All girls harbored patience and excitement. But not for long. One afternoon, one of our male classmates slipped a piece of information to his girlfriend when they timed their visit to stationery at the same time. “I saw Nasreen in our warden’s room the other night.”
Soon, all the girls heard the rumor but no one had the courage to ask Nasreen directly. Now, when Nasreen left at night, no one was amazed. Everyone gave her way then in silence closed the door. The warden was a young man who was often spotted gawking at female students. Nasreen was apparently living her secret best life and we didn’t want to endanger our own lives by hiding it. We were also not sure if it needed any hiding, and from whom.
We kept quiet until one morning- when Nasreen went missing from the dormitory. We turned towards the girl who slept next to her bed but she had fallen asleep as soon as Nasreen left. Everyone wondered what to say to the wardens when they came to the dorm to wake us all up. We were all ruminating in fear. But the wardens appeared and disappeared just as soon. It was as if they completely missed Nasreen’s absence.
Later, when we all went for our daily communal bathing, we saw that the bathrooms had been stripped clean. The girlish markings on the walls were gone. There was an extraordinary silence as girls washed their hair, scrubbed their bodies and in whatever little privacy they could manage changed their clothes. Our two wardens stood close to the door as if watching us all perform a ritual.
The truth was revealed only when all students lined up for the assembly. The principal who led the assembly on rare occasions stood behind the podium with a solemn face. She said that, in the morning Nasreen had been found hanging in our bathroom in a long horizontal pole above our shower. The girls were more taken aback by the fact that we had just taken a long peaceful shower where Nasreen had committed suicide. And slowly it hit us. We had lost Nasreen. And with her, her stories, her secrets.
We were assured that a committee had been formed in the school to investigate her death. There was no mention if the police were going to be involved. But there was going to be a thorough search everywhere, starting immediately from the girls’ dormitory.
There was an exclamation among us girls. Everything- from our extra makeup products to books outside the syllabus could be revealed in the search. But suddenly, it hit me that our torches would be found which guaranteed maximum reprimand. Being the tallest girl in the class, I was standing right at the back. As the students clamored standing in the assembly line, I made an excuse to go to the washroom and then quickly ran to the dormitory. I took my torch out from where Nasreen had once cleverly advised us to hide it and slipped it in my long skirt pocket. I knew other few girls also had their torches. I found as many torches I could find and dumped them in the big flower pot we had outside the balcony. Relieved, as I headed outside, I stopped in front of Nasreen’s bed. I walked to it and instinctively reached out for the torch under her bed. It was still there. I slipped it in my second pocket.
To avoid the wardens making their way to the dormitory, I locked myself in the common bathroom and then took out Nasreen’s torch. I caressed it like a last memento from Nasreen. But as I played around with it, its lower cabinet opened up and dropped a picture, small but clear. It was a collage but of two separate pictures- of Nasreen and the male warden stuck together with date: (2018-infinity).
By the evening, Nasreen’s bed had been scrubbed clean with all her things taken. I showed the picture to other girls. At night, everyone sat together again with the resounding silence like in the morning. Giving the picture to the principal meant us having to disclose where it came from. Maybe also about our hiding place and our night life.
Girls were of mixed opinions. Some of them practically reasoned that all secrets could die down with Nasreen. Others said maybe we could give it up without disclosing the source. But we all knew, the separate pictures didn’t mean anything in itself. After not being able to reach a majority, the girls looked at me and asked me to take the final decision since I was the one who had found it and then hid all torches and saved them. I couldn’t sleep that night. In the brief sleep during the early morning, Nasreen appeared in my dreams. With her broad smile, she kept holding my hand and asking “How long will we keep this a secret?” Before the morning assembly bell, I went to the principal’s room and placed the picture in front of her. “And you are sure this came from Nasreen?” The principal spoke after playing with the pictures in her hand, their glue almost coming off. I breathed a huge sigh. I told her about the torch, how we hid it and where we hid it and where all the torches still lay. She shook her head. “I cannot believe…young girls nowadays.”I was amazed. I looked at her through the pool of tears rapidly forming around my eyes. “You think it’s our fault? You think it’s Nasreen’s fault?”The principal refused to look me in the eyes. “Do you even know, Nasreen wasn’t the first girl he approached?”
She finally looked at me. The anger that I had tried my best to rein until now, suddenly blew in the air. I struggled to get another word out of my mouth as I shivered.
She was about to ring her assistant when I moved closer to the table. “Please look into the matter. Nasreen may not have her close people outside. But I have my family. They will not spare the school if I tell them what happened with me.”
“You have exams starting next week. Do you think we should be dealing with this right now?” The principal spoke, trying to knock some sense in me.
“I don’t care. Find out what happened.” I repeated with my shaky voice.
I stepped out of the room, thinking about my parents whose hearts would break if I ever told them what went on behind these walls they considered too sacred and safe. I thought about myself, a coward. Months earlier and now. I thought about the girls who all looked at me coming out of the principal’s room now, unknown what action will be taken against them. I thought and thought until I reached the big bathroom. As I sobbed and looked around, I finally realized the school walls and the pole above didn’t haunt me like before.
Shuvangi Khadka is an independent writer and documentary filmmaker based in Kathmandu, Nepal. She is also one of the editors of an online magazine The Pomelo.