If someone had told me on my first trip to Delhi in May 2007, for a conference on music, that I would spend more than a month there, I would have laughed. Then again, there’s a lot I’d’ve laughed at back then that I find myself forced to admit is true, now. The hideous auto rickshaws startled the daylights out of me. The greenery was a pleasant surprise. All said and done, though, two days later, I was glad I was at the smelly airport, ready to get back to Madras. A chance encounter in a lift, a successful job interview and another flight later, I was back in the smelly airport, with two suitcases in hand.
“You’re going to hate it!” an acquaintance of an acquaintance had told me, “the North Indians will drive you mad. They don’t speak English at all…like at all!!!!”
“Oh, come on!” I said.
Although I felt incredibly alone being driven through lamp-less lanes by a communicative taxi driver, who declared, “madam, this is famous Yamuna!” as he pointed to some ugly grass off a bridge, which seemed to have been built for no good reason, I could not bring myself to believe people didn’t speak English largely as a first language in any Indian metro. Come on, my cab guy did. I’d been in a lot of cities and known the aloneness-mingled-with-excitement that accompanies any new move. But the aloneness in Delhi was different. It wasn’t solitude, which has always been a natural inclination – it was loneliness. I had family in the city, and I had friends, but the air somehow seemed to cut me off from everything that was familiar.
I had an epiphany later that night. Nothing can alienate one more than language. For the same reasons London became a second home, Delhi was cut off from me. The room service guy didn’t understand what a toothbrush or a bathrobe was, and I spoke no Hindi. The latter has been a rather unfortunate win accomplished by my Tamilian rebelliousness against being forced to learn Hindi when I would rather have learnt Sanskrit, over my natural proclivity to pick up languages. Perhaps the chauvinism of belonging to a culture whose literature dates back three thousand years at the very least, towards a culture whose oldest literature is what, three hundred years old? Other factors were my distaste for Bollywood and a rather immature tit-for-tat attitude towards the other Indians I’d met in London, whose insistence on communicating in Hindi even when non-Indians (and I) were in the group, had simply got to me.
Being more practical than I let on, though, I asked a friend, “how do you say ‘give me this’, politely? As in, not dedo. As in ‘could you please give me this’?”
“People will laugh at you,” he said, “anyway, if you insist, de deejiye.”
Having deejiye-d and leejiye-d and keejiye-d my way around for more than a year, with ramifications including being mistaken for a Lucknow-ite by an automan, being declared the God-given daughter of another and having been told by yet another that every rupee from me was worth a lakh, and being given a house to live in by my landlords because my obsequiousness indicated I would be no trouble, I think back to my initial days in the city, when the alien sounds of an alien tongue lent a viscosity to the air around me.
I remember coming back home from London and promising myself I would never leave the city again. I remember the smell of the sea and how the waves seem to carry away the burdens on one’s shoulders. I remember the days of sunshine all year round, the dappled shade of trees in lazy coffeehouses, the vibrant theatre scene, evenings that came with the certainty of a music concert where one could lose oneself in a larger cosmos, the thrill of speaking in three different dialects of Tamil in a single day, the camaraderie at rock concerts where you know you’ll meet five people who swear Pink Floyd changed their lives as much as yours, the auto guys you’ve learnt all the lines to bargain with, the confidence that comes with being able to express everything one wants to say…and I wonder if I will ever have that again. I wonder if I will dance at The Music Academy, I wonder if I will sing at Narada Gana Sabha, I wonder if I will act at The Museum Theatre, I wonder if I will recite poetry at the Alliance Française and The British Council, I wonder if I’ll hold a baby turtle in my palm and release it into the sea.
After living through my first winter in Delhi, I counted down the months to my next job change…five more months, makes a total of ten months, and I will be back, I thought. I sent back my winter clothes, began to repack as I had done in London, in bits and pieces of my life I could carry back with me every time I went home. And yet, I found myself buying books, filling up the spaces in my shelves, stocking my kitchen, buying cushions, pouring potpourri into bowls, carving a home out of a house. I find myself exchanging pleasantries with the woman at the convenience store, explaining to the man at Mother Dairy why I haven’t been around for a couple of weeks, teaching the kid downstairs new words. I find myself able to stay away from Madras for as much as three months without feeling the pangs. I find myself hauling gas cylinders up the stairs, cleaning up the rooms and carrying out pigeons that choose to die in my kitchen, and find I have the strength and the stomach for it.
And every day, as I practise my music and my dance, I wonder where all this will end.
Do some of us have wanderlust even after living in the same city for over two decades? Can one move three times in three years after that without longing to go back home? If 21 grams is what we lose when we die, how much do we lose and how much do we gain every time we leave a life behind us and move on? Which of those lives will we come back and pick the threads to? Which threads will not already be tied up when we come back? What does one stay on for, and what does one leave to?
It’s been a year and a half, and I have the answers to some of those questions. Some, I don’t know if I ever will. When two suitcases spill over into five rooms, does enough space come with that to disperse the viscosity of linguistic alienation? When one falls in love with forts rearing their heads over roads, can one let go of the sound of the sea? Will the dry air be able to carry away one’s unshed tears like the waves do? Will listening to Ravi Shankar and Amjad Ali Khan play live in Nehru Park make up for the memories of M S Subbulakshmi’s voice? Can visiting Ghalib’s haveli in Chandni Chowk play a parallel to walking on the rocks where Subramaniya Bharathiyaar composed his most beautiful poetry? Will drinking filter coffee thrice a day bring Madras to me from two thousand kilometres everyday? How many homes can one have?