This is a note about my recent visit to India. I have been away from home for about 6 years now. I have visited India 5 times in a span of 4 years and yet every time I visit, I see the country in a completely different way. I truly believe that traveling frees your mind from perceptions and stereotypes. This blog will attempt to be a different experiment in what passes off as creative writing.
Home: I visited the colony where I used to live. Those charcoal stained balconies are now home to half a dozen nylon strings. They are pregnant with wet clothes. Heaps of disheveled footwear are neatly stacked in the balcony and most of them exhibit various stages of mutilation. My mom stores my Adidas sneakers safely tugged under the bed to protect it from moisture.But her sandals lie on top of the shoe stand in the balcony. It demands a cosmetic surgery every monsoon. They may have enough funds to send you to US for your masters, but they are still humble in the way their feet addresses the earth.
I walk up to the terrace, the view isn’t that impressive. It isn’t a sky scraper. Beneath you could see the general musings of everyday life, the occasional vegetable vendor, the stray cows mulching about and kids running around. The terraces where I played cricket were once battered and sharp ends of the red clay tiles have slashed knees and feet, more times than I would like to remember. Those tiles are now hastily creamed with cement. They now fill the space with aroma of drying pickles, rice vathhals and garments of couples whose balconies were too small to accommodate the newest member of the family.
I feel luxurious when I am at home, the furniture’s haven’t changed much. And I am excited to be home. For example, being reunited with the pillow which was once mine gave me so much joy. I have fond memories with a pillow which must weigh like thor’s hammer. But I have always slept on it without a wink. Maybe it is the feeling of being in your own home.
The local grocery shop: I struck up a conversation with the owner of the local grocery shop. The same shop where my friends and I hurried to purchase cricket balls, pencils which later graduated to fountain pens, notebook covers among other things.
300 ml of pepsi cost 9 rupees . We used to split it. The guy who contributed Rs. 5 always gets the biggest gulp.Now I disclose this as we weren’t affluent growing up. And I am not uncomfortable acknowledging it. You know what i hate? That people only acknowledge their humble beginnings when they make it big. Read any business weekly magazine and the CEO in vogue would indulge in a spiel about how his hard days in youth made him into a man he is now.
Back to the topic of the grocery shop; The owner has gotten old, his once wide forehead which used to be a landing strip for white ash (vibudhi), now bears many wrinkles. The people around him have changed, the chotu who worked with him as an apprentice has now opened up his own shop down the street. I walked by his shop, he doesn’t recognize me of course. He owns a Samsung note plus now, stuffed in his pocket. Leaving behind the older grocery store to wilt. He now owns an outlet which sells phones and pre-paid cards. It is a little overwhelming to see one shop die down and another one crop up. It’s funny when I realize that this was the landmark shop where my friends indulged in their earliest vices. The first English magazine featuring a center spread, the cigarette, the first condom etc… I mustered up a smile as I walked along the street, the kids surely looked confused. But I do remember being in their place a while ago.
Chai-walah’s: I feel chai wallah’s are the book keepers of local street history. We don’t have a lot of landmark streets like MLK drive or Peachtree road. When it comes to naming roads, it is basically a pissing contest between the political parties, the one in power chooses the name. Chaiwallah’s are also our answer to google maps. You can basically stop by at any shop and ask them for directions, they have the shortest path algorithm in their head.
The steel benches outside the tea stall bears dimpled craters on them, withering from the weight of heavy arses of men who descend upon it. Men, who assemble outside the shop at 7 am like clockwork. If you overhear them, it would seem that they have solution to everything, from fixing Indian democracy to the current status of Indian cricket team. I feel they really do know everything, and maybe that’s why their wives are more than happy to allow their husbands engage in this morning ritual.
The chai wallah masterfully juggles tea with precision abandon. Milk, coffee and tea are strewn around the table. Which are later cleaned by a towel which looks like it was used to clean the ear wax of an elephant. I don’t know if there is an inverse relationship between hygiene and quality of the food. In India, there are many street vendors whose food are tastier than the ones you can find at restaurants.
Local trains: Traveling on a local train from CST to Thane in Mumbai, or from Beach to Tambaram in Chennai will teach you everything you ever need to know about urban life in India. The rush is truly maddening and everyone’s stride is so purposeful and committed. We board the trains as if we are going home for the first time. Everyone just scrambles into the coach as soon as the train arrives. Sometimes we even run along , and jump into the coach before it halts. And here we have seat belts in buses. Pussies.
Each handrail supports the fate of countless strangers who are tugged into tight spaces. You almost never get to sit on the seats inside the coaches as it is always occupied. For a long time my urban dream was to sit beside the windows as the train weaves through the heart of the city. The windows have that impact about them. As soon as you lean your head over them, you are pensive, happy, sad all at the same time. Inside the coach, couples are furtive in their embrace. Far from the wanton eyes of neighbors, parents or friends. They stand close but not close enough to earn the wrath of adult men and women in their fifties. They are aware that these adults scoff at their embrace. I always wondered what scorns these adults when they see lovers, maybe it opposes their religious belief or reflects poorly on their dead bedrooms, I can never seem to tell the difference.
The people: You’d get to meet the most animated people in the world. On this trip down the memory lane, I made sure I visit my teachers from school. You know as a software professional, I’d often fall into the trap of existential crisis when I have to do the same job for over a week. And these people have been teaching the same subject, with almost the same syllabus year after year to students. They are fully aware that their students will achieve far more than they ever will, but they are never shy of sharing the knowledge they possess. Truly, gods among the temples of thought.
My parents still ask me in front of our relative, as what I do for a living. And when i try to answer them about cyber threat management and information security processes, they all smile with intelligent incomprehension. I think, that was pretty much the validation I sought throughout my career. No amount of congratulatory emails or bonuses could trump my feeling when my parents feel proud to learn what I do for a living.
In India everyone will give you an opinion but no one will fight to prove that they alone carry the burden of truth. We are quite non confrontational by nature, which is often misunderstood for meekness.
My parents have aged, we speak to each other once a week but I couldn’t believe how a few years affects the people who you love the dearest. They take multiple medicines throughout the course of the day. I remember I couldn’t stand the idea of my mom getting an headache. When i would ride to the bicycle well into the night to go to that pharmacy and get medications to make sure that she gets a good night sleep. It makes me terribly sad that I can’t be beside them when they need me the most.
Overall yes, I am skeptical about my country. I choose the right to ridicule it and I don’t need to prove my love by aligning myself with a political party. The American apartments and buildings are surely formidable, more comfortable and secure but our humble colony was built on memories than marble. India is a place where I lived, USA is a place where I choose to exist.
This was a difficult blog for me to write as I always had an irrational fear with nostalgia. And I think, I now know why. We are afraid that we will never live those moments of unadulterated joy when we were younger. We recount our nostalgic moments only with our closest friends because we are afraid, that we’d be judged. But in my limited experience let me tell you. Nothing could be farther from truth. I made my best friend when I was 6 because he carried the same water bottle. And we have been best of friends, since. His daughter is 1 year old and I couldn’t shake of that avuncular feeling when I held her. That’s nostalgia, a voice that ushers the question “How far have we traveled” and then chuckles.
Go out, travel, be uninhibited, make mistakes and make memories. Hindsight will tell you that it was a journey worth traveling.