Frister? Yes, that’s Friend who is practically a Sister!! A frister coined that term. One of the best things that happened to me in my late teens next to getting into an excellent medical school is my frister group, also called at various times as TFMW gang (top floor middle wing, although not all of us lived on top floor of Curie House, our medical school dorm, and the middle section of a building can’t be a wing, because it is in the middle and not to the side 😊), Curians or Epicurians. Thoughts of my frister gang or Curie House recall memories of side-splitting laughter, intense debates, cozy and warm hugs and support, lots of love and friendship and much more.
We were strong and proud! We competed like crazy when we wanted to; we didn’t compete when we didn’t want to. When one of us won an award, another one would bring out a poster that proclaimed, ‘There is nothing all of us could not achieve together’. When one of us had a date, all of us would crash her room and help her dress up. We studied together, learned how to be doctors together, had loads and loads of fun, and supported each other through ups and downs that are a natural part of life in late teens and early twenties. That was over twenty-five years ago.
More recently, when some of my fristers visited us over the weekend, my husband walked into our bedroom one day to the sight of four of us grown women sprawled on our bed with heads towards each other and tears streaming down our cheeks, which understandably freaked him out! The reason for our tears was that one of us was sharing her experiences dealing with her daughter’s identity crisis at that time. And when my husband died unexpectedly, that very room became a scene of tons more tears and hugs and healing.
Our medical school, JIPMER, or Jawaharlal Institute as we print in our CVs because the original expansion is too long to type, is on an almost thirty-acre campus in Gorimedu, a small village five kilometers from the beautiful beach city Puducherry (called Pondicherry in our days) in South India by the Bay of Bengal. The sunrises on the beach are spectacular. The city was previously a French colony, which gives the city’s culture a unique texture with French, Tamil and Sri Lankan influences. The women’s dorm is called Curie House, where each of us lived for 5-1/2 years. That’s how long our medical school was and most of us were from out of state. We were a family to each other, away from our own families. We wrote each other letters when we went home for holidays.
Here is some more about Curie House. It’s a four-story concrete building with three wings, an east wing, a west wing and a middle wing. Each wing had 10-11 rooms and the shower stalls and bathrooms were shared and located in east and west wings. On the first floor (ground floor in the US) in the middle was a mess (cafeteria) where we got three hot meals a day and an evening snack with coffee and tea, a library which was also the hostel phone room, and the mail station. On the side of the mess were a set of windows where the mail was left for us, as were our pressed clothes. We had to pay extra if we wanted the pressed laundry to be delivered to our rooms. Along the library wall and the bottom of the stairs was where we left our buckets with laundry in them before going to school. They would be taken by the hostel dhobi (washer man), washed, line dried, pressed and left in a neat bundle for us to pick up the next day. In front of the entrance to the hostel was the quad with a square patch of green grass and a white bust figure of Madame Curie in the center. The path from the Curie house gate to the entrance is lined by trees, with several benches on the left facing the building. These trees and benches had a lot of significance in our lives, whether we had a boyfriend or not. These benches are the places are where many a romance blossomed.
People often ask me how come my closest friends from med school are mostly not from my own class. The reason is that the youngest and the oldest members in the medical school are generally separated by about five years. The senior ones literally took the younger ones ‘under their wing’, and that’s how our friendships formed. If we lived in the same wing, we saw each other when we woke up and we saw each other before going to bed. We studied together, experienced life and discussed it with all its joys and difficulties, had some real serious debates on hard life and death questions, how medicine should really be, falling in love and parenting and everything in between, and crazy things like whether Gandhiji won independence for India because he wanted India to have independence more than anyone else or whether he was being truly altruistic and sacrificed his life fighting for independence. We had this gorgeous gang-friendship, that gave each of us a crazy coziness and sense of belonging that never really left us even after almost three decades! Friends we made later in life, and our husbands often felt jealous of our fristers!! We were so intimately involved in each other’s lives, and that included pre-screening potential spouses and scrutinizing their married behaviors while being nice to them as “fristers-in-law!” We used our collective creativity to great advantage, whether it was dressing up for a party, or giving ourselves names for intercollege basketball games (Shigella, Citronella, Morganella, etc.,), or organizing intramural and intercollege cultural, literary and debating events (e.g., Getaclew for our What’s the Good Word competition).
We have some crazy fun memories! One of the fristers was the hostel library secretary and the librarian after going through the entire list of new books to buy with that year’s budget gave a polite and somewhat scared smile to her and suggested, “Madam, could you please include some romance novels? Mills and Boon are very popular in this hostel.” To which my friend initially said, “Of course not! Those are nonsensical!” and when the librarian was persistent, gave in. When one girl posted a sign on her door, “please leave footwear outside,” because she was tired of people walking into her room with shoes on, one frister collected shoes and sandals and flipflops from every one living on that floor and made a heap in front of the girl’s door! It was one of those things we laugh about even today!! These memories and many more have made each of us who we are today. We mostly lived life on our terms. Whenever we reconnect after a period of separation, there is absolutely no warm up time and we relive our Curie memories as they warm our hearts. We absolutely could not have done without each other.
[The picture for this blogpost is a wall in Kyoto, advertising for the International Photo Exhibition that was happening in May 2018.]