She had always shared a room with someone since her childhood. Mostly her younger brother, who she went to school with. The pattern amazingly continued, when she went to college in Pune, since her father had a transferable job, and her mother who had all along maintained a home in Pune through the schooldays, now thought she was old enough to manage by herself.
And so she had a wonderful roommate in college. Both of them were 15-16 years old, from fairly middle class families, fathers-working-in-the-government , conservative homes, with similar attitudes towards studies, sports, expenditure, money, and the opposite sex. Except that she herself, had some very well defined activities in sports, and music, and so college was really a busy time rushing around and organizing various schedules, while remembering that studies really were the main thing. The last year at college, was about keeping certain confidences of her roommate and a friend, and being inordinately delighted that they both, unknowingly confided their feelings for each other, to her !
By and by she had the opportunity of attending graduate school in the US. The University had apartments for graduate students. You got on to a list, by indicating your need, and paying the required fees, and you got allocated a roommate according to your position in the queue, who else required one, and of course, your sex. There was no concept of co-ed sharing, there being basically only two people to an apartment.
There was certainly as much to learn, living with a person from another culture, as there was, in the academic departments. It was an education and growing up, of the best kind.
Fate decreed that her first roommate/introduction to the life in the US, would be a slightly older (by 7 years), girl, from a close-knit Catholic family, who was about to graduate in a year. There was no one around when she went to the apartment with her luggage, and organized the remaining room for herself. Late in the evening, the key turned in the door, and a slim girl in boots (it was early January), came in. That was Kitty. Kitty had absolutely no idea, that her roommate from India would be rustling up some comfort food, as it were, in the kitchen, using her(Kitty's) utensils, amidst crackling noises of mustard seeds bursting with excitement in the oil.
Things were supposed to be a bit formal . She had been warned that things are not as informal as here in India. The only thing you share is the kitchen, fridge, bathroom and living room space. Not the contents. Without asking, that is.
But she was a lucky girl, always had been so , where roommates were concerned. The smell of cumin and cayenne pepper kind of drew Kitty to the kitchen. The girls bonded big time, with the younger one looking up to the older one for experience in tackling dicey situations, and sensible shopping. The older one was delighted to note that the family closeness, regardless of countries of origin , was similar, and they soon became very very good friends. Which has remained so to this day. The younger one saw the older one through various stages of attachment to eligible males, as it were, and they would both sit and discuss things over cookies and stuff, the younger one giving the older one some amusing perspectives as it were. A year later the younger one appeared in a grand saree at the church where she attended the older one's marriage to a wonderful man , and celebrated with her very close knit family.
In the meanwhile , the university allocated new roommates to replace Kitty. She wasn't really surprised that she doesn't remember some names. There were some roommates, who were nerdish, some who lived in a cloud of cigarette fumes, some who would crib about their parents, while accepting things from them with great alacrity; and so she moved.
To another life in another apartment.
It was the summer of 71, and one afternoon, her roommate-less apartment was host to a couple from New York. The girl, J., was attending summer school, and she and her husband had come down to spend a few days travelling around till her session started. Seeing an Indian roommate kind of threw assumptions out of the window.
By then , she was getting very good at handling situations. She welcomed them, they had Indian food with her, and she indicated that there would be no hassles if the extra person wanted to use the couch . These folks were a bit older, slightly more formal, but were delighted. The husband went back after a day, and the girls spent a wonderful summer, studying, summer schooling, and the younger one promised to see them in New York, en route to India. Which she eventually did....
Summer over, and she was roommate-less for a while. Then she came home from the department one day, to find all kinds of luggage, a music system, etc in the living room. That was Carol. She had no idea who to expect, since she only knew her roommate's name from the housing office, and it didn't sound anything American. Carol was thirsty when she came, and she found a Coke in the fridge. As soon she came in, Carol introduced herself, and mentioned borrowing the Coke.
She had never understood this concept of living in the same house, sharing kitchens, and "borrowing" food. She told Carol, she was welcome to have whatever was there, and there was no "borrowing". That cut the ice. Carol was an African American from a very close knit family , and she and Carol got along like a house on fire. Thanksgiving meals were attended at her house up North, meeting up with her brothers and sisters. When her family came down for graduation , a special potato salad was made by Carol's Mom for the Indian roommate. Carol's boyfriend who appeared to be two timing her, got a piece of the Indian mind, and was so shocked , he got back on to the straight road. She told him she wouldn't tolerate such things happening to her roommates in India, and neither would she tolerate them in the US. :-).....
(It helped that he often appeared evenings at the apartment when she was cooking an Indian dinner, which he often enjoyed along with Carol, and it gave her a bit of authority, she felt, in telling him off, as it were).
She returned to her home country in 1972.
It has been 38 years, and she is still in touch with two of her old roommates . Her summer school roommate from New York, J., visited India in 1973, with her husband, and stayed with her and her parents. Having known her, they knew what to expect, and so many years later, when J. and her husband decided to separate, J, who had lost her parents by then, actually wrote a letter to her Indian roommate's mother, who she had gotten close too in India. J went on to become a leading academician and public figure, (she remains one today), and her Indian mother was always proud of her.
It has been wonderful, keeping in touch with these women and their families. She has celebrated wonderful events in their lives in spirit, and condoled with them in their days of loss. So have they. When she lost her mother, and sounded distraught, Kitty and her children quietly organized a Mass at their church in honor of their friend's mother. At the end of the day, Some One Up There was the same, regardless of language, religion and method of approach.
Email and chat have reduced distances. Occasional visits by her to her own family, to the US have enabled meetings, and the roommates take great pleasure in taking their Indian niece for lunches, and taking her side when there is a shopping disagreement between the niece and her still conservative mother. The Indian niece in turn, does Mehndi patterns on the palms of the American aunts (and their sisters), and things are oohed and aahed over. American nieces have received mangalsutras at their marriages....
There is too much strife today in the world. And a feeling that the art of holding out a hand in friendship has been forgotten. Differences that should actually be making life interesting are being used to stoke violent emotions and religious fires.
The world is certainly a different place today.
But she looks back, resting at a milestone in her life, she feels that she has been very lucky.
Rolling in riches, as they say.
"People-rich", not money-rich. In friendship.