Thursday, April 17, 2014

Migrant Musings: Thirteen Years In Delhi

"Tomorrow, you begin a new life, a life totally different from what you have led until now." She had said, trying to look for a place to sit on my bed. Some of my things were still strewn on it, waiting to be put into the bag.  I had a train to catch in a couple of hours, and that journey, according her, was going to be life changing for me. My Aunt, whom I had not known to be a very emotional person until then, seemed to be getting emotional. In the last one year that I had spent with her, she had played my mother: she had cooked for me, looked after me, worried about me, been the perfect host to my friends, had even spied on me to check if I was at my desk studying for the exam or on the phone talking. I, on the other hand, was excited -- the time had come to live the life I had only dreamt of until then.

Delhi was not new. I had been a regular visitor, and in the last one year, since my parents' moving to the city, the annual visits had become monthly and the city much more familiar. Not only that, for the first time I actually had a plan in life: I would get there and settle in, in a few weeks after that I would sit for the IIMC entrance exam; once selected, I would study to become a top class journalist and join some famous newspaper. What I had not known then was that it was one thing to write a few articles for the local supplement of a newspaper, and quite another to get into the most coveted institute of communication, I  had learnt that lesson soon. 

Anyway, bags packed I had left Lucknow happily, it was still home and I could go back anytime I wanted to, plus having moved so many times before, I did not think it will be difficult to do so now. The first few days were spent well. My brother had come to pick me from the station -- something he did every time, not because he was worried about my safety, but because he got to skip school that day. I had reached home to find mother waiting with my favorite breakfast and father getting ready for work -- all was normal, but not for very long. Until then, I had always been a visitor, a guest even in my parents' house, but now, I was a resident, and that had changed everything. Once everyone went back to their routine -- school, work, home -- I found myself  all alone, having nothing to do, nowhere to go and no one to talk to. The excitement had turned into despair; I would cry all night and sleep walk through the day. I missed my life in Lucknow and longed to go back.

My father, sensing my situation, got me to join some classes, his logic being: I needed to learn some computer skills before I got into further studier or even work, having nothing better to do, I went ahead, "I will do something, at least." I had thought. For the next few weeks, I spent all my days travelling to and from the classes in the scorching afternoons of  May, in rickety DTC buses. The reward of the discomfort that I had to go through to reach the centre -- it was in Connaught Place, was the young, good-looking, intelligent Tamilian instructor, who I met there. We soon became friends and he took it upon himself to get me to love his city.

Holding his hand I explored Delhi -- walking through the lanes and by lanes of Janpath on quiet Sunday afternoons, driving past the iconic buildings of Lutyens Delhi on breezy evenings, snacking at the hip fast food joints of Noida, and dining in the classic restaurants of the inner circle. He showed me places I had never seen before and also those I already had. He became my friend and guide -- the only one in this city. Something else happened too: his kindness and good looks, coupled with my loneliness, ensured that I developed a soft corner for him, as did he -- for me. Destiny soon intervened and we went our own ways, but not before he ensured I was comfortable. 

After having realised that being a Journalist would entail interviewing Saurav Ganguly (as per a question at the entrance exam), and failing to secure a seat in IIMC (I am certain that question spoilt it for me), I decided to let go of the ambition, as I had done with many others before. Since I had a good job at hand, one that I had secured a few months before during one of my visits, I decided to work instead. "In case I don't like it, I could always quit and get back to studies", I had told myself. It turned out to be, perhaps the most sensible decision I had ever taken. Destiny, I am sure, had its part to play in this too.

Work exposed me to a new world. A world of posh offices and stylish people, where women smoked and discussed sex, where casual relationships were normal and pubbing routine. The first instinct was to label the people and judge their character, but after having spent eight hours with them everyday, I realised that  one's habits don't essentially define his/her character. In no time, I became a part of the crowd too -- although, with riders. 

The fondness that I had developed for the city, transformed into a full fledged love affair when I met my husband. The charming Bengali took over from where the endearing Tamilan had left. With him, on his bike, I explored the city some more: the posh South Delhi districts, the congested streets of Old Delhi, the famous paratha walas at the airport, the elite hotels; he showed me every nook and corner -- from the good to the bad, even the ugly. The fiery summer, by now, had turned into a crisp winter and I had fallen in love not only with the city but also with the man.

The discovery of the city ran parallel to the discovery of a woman: from a hesitant, self-conscious small-town girl, I gradually evolved into a confident young woman. My work, and the exposure it gave me, filled the void that my complexes had created. I was no longer lonely and jobless. I made some great friends, I did well at work -- something I never thought I could manage, most importantly, I found love.

Growing up in the not so big cities, I had heard many stories about Dilliwalas -- a term used rather negatively for the residents of the city: they were rude, selfish, ostentatious, loud; they had no social values, and cared only for themselves, the list was long. Experiencing the city first hand and thriving on the kindness and love of its people however, got me to realise that the prejudices were only that -- prejudices. There surely were sections of the society that fit the description but then doesn't every city have a few such people? As if only to prove the point further, the two women who went on to become my closest friends -- and continue to be so -- were pure Dilliwalas.

I became one soon after. In a matter of two years, I was married to the man and also the city. There were parts of it I loved, there were parts that I did not and there were some, I just ignored. In the next few years, the relationship got stronger and the comfort grew deeper. The city had by now given me everything I had ever dreamt of and more.

Too much comfort and exposure however, not only brings boredom, but you also start to take the relationship for granted. It is as true for a relationship with a place as it is for a relationship with a person. After having spent seven most beautiful -- and most productive -- years of my life in Delhi, I longed for a change. The city -- and my life, had become predictable and repetitive. It was, perhaps, the beginning of the seven-year-itch. That is when Bangalore happened.

If Delhi was a happy marriage, Bangalore was a passionate affair. Like any new relationship, it brought excitement and adventure; every day was a new discovery. In a complete contrast to the stressful life of Delhi, Bangalore's laid back attitude rejuvenated my exhausted soul and soothed my frayed nerves. It had also showed me a new world -- the beautiful south of India -- a world where traditions were sacred, where relationships were treasured, where what you wore did not make a difference, most importantly, it taught me never to address a Kannadiga as a Madrasi. It was a beautiful liaison -- Bangalore and I. It gave me the confidence to quit a job that was sucking everything out of me, it also gave me the strength to work on my own, and, it gave me a beautiful daughter. But how long can a relationship last on passion and excitement? Sooner or later, when the passion fades, one longs for the comfort of home. And home was far away, in Delhi.

I remember being sceptical while moving back: would we be able to settle in? Will my daughters be safe? Will they find the place -- and people -- too loud? The anxiety that my friends and neighbours had developed added to the apprehension, "Isn't Delhi unsafe?" "Aren't people there very rude?" "They are big show-offs, no?" "How will you adjust to the heat and the cold?" Their concern had added to my concern and I had forgotten that one does not need time or effort to settle at home, good or bad, home is home, Delhi welcomed me back with open arms.

Two years after my return and thirteen years after I made this city home, my husband, while driving through a congested migrant colony, asks me to write a story on them -- the migrants of the city. I did not have to look far for the subject.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

All Too Soon

Time, it flows in strange ways. Sometimes years pass at the blink of an eyelid and at other times, even a week lingers for months. The amazing part is that for the years that pass by too soon, we wish they hadn't and for those that don't we hope they do.

That sunny June morning of Bangalore is etched clearly in my mind. Not because it was a sunny morning -- Bangalore after all, is known for anything but a sunny morning -- but because it was the day the devil was to be tamed. My husband and I had been up early -- a habit that I am glad that we share -- but unlike other days when we enjoyed the peace and quiet of the morning with our respective cups of tea and coffee, we were a little worried. Mishti after all, had to go to school. And knowing the monster of a child that she was -- and still is -- it was only natural for us to be a little nervous.

The good thing of having a disciplined man for a husband is that you can leave all the dirty work on him, in any case Mishti and I never saw eye to eye, and all crucial conversations with her were made by her father, he had taken the crucial task of getting her up and ready upon himself too (Thank God for Bengali men!), something he continues till date. Since she was being handled by her father, she was quite in control and only when we had reached the school and he had left did her discomfort appear.

What followed was a session of bawling and screaming, so hard that the poor children and teachers of the school were left scandalised. Not only that, the anti social girl of mine, had refused to talk to, or sit with the other children. In the end, I was asked by the principal to shift her to the afternoon slot. "There are fewer children at that time, and we will be able to pay more attention to Lavanya" she had said. I got the point.

The next few weeks were perhaps the toughest. I had quit work only a few weeks before and was expecting to live a leisurely life of a housewife; what I had forgotten was that the leisure entailed living with a monster of a child. She would howl and shout until she turned red and her throat parched; the soft spoken, shy and reticent women of Bangalore were not able to handle her tantrums and would almost be in tears by the time I went back to pick her; I could only empathise and apologise. But their submissiveness and patience paid rich dividends -- Mishti eventually fell in line. And today, she went to class two. The reason why I am reminded of that day however, is not because she has grown up -- I am glad that she has, it has made her a little civilised -- but because today Pakhi went to school for the first time.

"Do you expect her to be as difficult as her sister?", their father had asked me as we got into the car this morning. "Not half as much!" I had replied. The two sisters are poles apart, and today I was confident that things will be smoother -- and they were. As soon as we reached the school, the girl happily went in with the teacher, not even bothering to look back and I was told to come back in an hour, but I decided to stay -- just in case. I had company -- another lady from my apartment block was there with her daughter.

There were more parents waiting: some eager to see their children on the screen, urging the staff every now and then to get the CCTV turned on, the others discussing weather their child ate 'onion' or not, or if he 'vomited' while crying. Then there were those who would, at every given opportunity check on the welfare of their child, "Is my child all right?", as if the child was not in a classroom but in a hospital ward. Yet others seemed more worried about the bag and water bottle than their child, they reminded the attendant to take care of the 'belongings', every two mins. Thankfully, the lady with me was as amused at the entire thing as I was. Perhaps because ours were the only children who seemed to be enjoying themselves. The kids soon started to come out: some crying, some howling and some too dazed to react. In time, our girls came out too -- the last ones to do so -- smiling, not only that, they did not want to leave school at all. It took us all our might to pull them out of the gate.

As I walked back, I was reminded of the afternoon four years ago, when I had walked back with Mishti, after her first day at school. I suddenly felt old. Four years had passed too soon.

 Meanwhile, as I fuss over the four years passing by too quickly, my parents are presently in Amritsar -- the city where they began their journey from -- and I am sure they are also thinking the same: these forty years have passed all too soon.