Life in a hostel

From the initial scramble to get home before the lockdown was announced to an acceptance of the situation, the few students who remain in Delhi’s hostels find ways to cope and connect

Updated - May 18, 2020 12:47 pm IST

Published - May 18, 2020 12:10 am IST

New Delhi, 03/05/2020: SNU Cycle Images (For Sunalini Mathew article). Photo: Special Arrangement

New Delhi, 03/05/2020: SNU Cycle Images (For Sunalini Mathew article). Photo: Special Arrangement

Where college campuses should have seen hectic end-of-year activity – farewells, exams, parties – these once bustling spaces are now mostly empty. The lockdown has meant that academics have gone online, friends don’t meet, and there’s a general sense of uncertainty. The few students who remain in hostels across Delhi-NCR, speak of how they cope with long silences and short bursts of online engagement.

New Delhi, 03/05/2020: Salma Wasi . (For Sunalini Mathew article). Photo: Special Arrangement

Salma Wasi


Hostellers have a double burden of being away from family and not having friends around either. “Currently, there are 35 out of 600 people in our particular hostel and we are not really familiar with each other. So for our free time, I either depend on walks with a friend from a different hostel or end up speaking to my parents back home,” says Salma Wasi, a second-year Ph.D scholar of modern history at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her parents in Samastipur, Bihar, were initially very worried about how she would manage, but are now reassured because there’s regular food, despite a limited menu, she says.

Quiet spaces

At Saureesh Namagiri’s hostel in Shiv Nadar University, Greater Noida, there are a little over 100 students, mostly boys and some girls. “The college never really reopened after the mid-semester break in mid-March,” he says of the period that was too short for him to go back home to Madurai, where his parents and sister live. “Some people chose not to come back, and some took the opportunity to leave, sensing that there may be a problem.”

Mr. Namagiri, who will soon enter his third year in management studies, says the initial weeks were tough, because Gautam Buddha Nagar, where the university is, was declared a hotspot. A week or so ago though, students were offered the option of leaving in State transport buses, but most preferred to stay on campus. Families aren’t comfortable with students taking trains back home either, fearing the quarantine process or the possibility of contracting the virus on the journey. “The university has made it clear that we can stay back and stay comfortable here,” says Mr. Namagiri.

Traditional teaching methods have evolved into Microsoft Teams sessions, projects, and presentations, which he finds are all learning experiences. He is comfortable in the non-air-conditioned room he chose, and says the 286-acre campus, with its greenery, a lake, even a biodiversity park, gives students the space to move around. With bicycles provided to ride around, strong Wi-Fi, and clubs active on social media, he says, “It’s better to be on campus than home… All this time away from people is helping me get a better perspective on life.”

It hasn’t been this easy for everyone though. For Ms. Wasi, there are no online classes as her coursework is over, which means she must be completely self-reliant for her work. “It is proving to be very difficult to focus on academics and I am ending up watching some movies or series on the various online platforms. Even though we are in touch with our supervisors and keep them updated with our progress, it is a challenge to concentrate under the current circumstances,” she says.

Staying up at night is a recurring theme. Circadian rhythms have gone for a toss with a lack of physical activity, binge-watching, and OD-ing on screen time, considering many classes are held online and social interactions are also via Facetime or WhatsApp calls.

Kiki Sakhile from Swaziland, a second-year psychology student at Delhi University’s Zakir Husain College, says she has developed an inconsistent sleep pattern, sometimes staying up through the night, at other times sleeping through the day. “There’s not much that we can do, except roam around the garden [of the International Students’ Hostel]. Most of us sit around with each other or watch Netflix.”

Helplines that connect

Sensing there would be a need for more robust mental health services than before, Arvinder J Singh, director, Ashoka Centre for Well-Being, Sonipat, says that as soon as the lockdown was declared, she set up a peer support system. This group of students she trained could reach out to others via personal emails or just by drawing them out of their rooms for a meal at the canteen, for instance. All counselling services moved online and a helpline was launched.

“There’s a sense of loss – of choice, of decision-making, of control. But the biggest is the loss of social connection – it’s just not the same when you’re waving at people from a distance,” she says, adding that it is especially hard for those who already have anxiety, and for foreign students because they are worried about loved ones at home and vice versa.

Ms. Sakhile, who is the youngest of three siblings, says it is true that in the initial days there was a great deal of worry.

“We were a bit concerned because we didn’t know if we would be told to vacate hostel. There was also uncertainty because of the exams. I didn’t want to go back home and then have to return almost immediately,” she says. For many, with the long hot summer ahead, there’s still no clear plan.

Some students had to make harder choices though in the suddenness of the lockdown announcement. Cindy, at one of Delhi University’s North Campus hostels, has a father with diabetes and a brother under palliative care, in Imphal, Manipur. “I had a long conversation with my family, especially my mother. We thought it best that I stay put here as their immunity is low,” says the second-year, post-graduate student of philosophy.

The doers

In order to keep themselves occupied, students are finding ways to engage with each other and the spaces they’re in. In Ashoka University, those in hostel have offered to work in the kitchen garden.

“We are currently harvesting and planting,” says Geo Ciril Podipara from Kottayam, Kerala, who works in the student life office. “They’re also using the vegetables to cook. We had a sale, and the pay-as-you-like proceeds will go to maintaining the garden,” he says, of some of the approximately 140 students on campus.

Food has become a point of coming together. At night, Mr. Namagiri (who heads the cuisine club) and those in the hostel will often assemble in the pantry that has an induction stove and a microwave. “We cook something – last night it was pakoras at about 3.30.”

They are also making a short film about the life on campus.

It’s a time to look at the lives of the support staff as well, some of whom may not have a choice about living on campus. Mr. Podipara talks of a woman guard who is using the opportunity to learn cycling, while another colleague takes long walks as she speaks on the phone to a loved one.

“I spend my free time cleaning my room, as it is therapeutic for me,” says Ms. Cindy. “We even play badminton at times to keep ourselves engaged. It is a difficult situation that everyone is in right now,” she says.

She is on the verge of finishing college, but is hopeful for the future. “I want to join the government services once my course is over,” she says. She will be studying for the civil services examination. “I want to work on women empowerment and education for children, and I feel the civil services will be the best option for me.”

She is aware that with private sector job market shrinking, there will probably be more takers for government jobs, but, “I can only hope for the best. I have not really thought about Plan B yet, but if UPSC doesn’t work out I will probably look for some other government job,” says Ms. Cindy. Hope seems to be what the future is hinged on.

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