July 2013, Delhi
It’s finally happened. I’ve put down roots. They’re hesitant, frail tendrils with a propensity to wither at the slightest provocation but they’ve been planted. After nodding my way through conversations with potential landlords/ladies and looking at one dubious room after another, I’d wearily head back home, climb up to the fourth floor and gratefully seek refuge in my room. The thought of adjusting to a new place seemed awfully cumbersome and I was surprised to find that despite its many limitations, the place I reluctantly lived in for three years had actually grown on me.
I lived in what is called a Paying Guest, a PG. I can distinguish between 19 different footfalls; I can tell you where the domestic hides the excess supply of tea leaves and tomato sauce; which step you need to watch out for while climbing up; the perfect hot/cold water combination during the monsoons; the best spot on the terrace for a moonrise; how to jiggle the wire of the blender to get it to work; I can show you how to gauge the Help’s mood purely on the basis of the sink symphony of dishes and point out the warmest place during winter.
I’ve gotten so comfortable with my neighbourhood. I know its geographical placement well enough to snort with derision and pretend to walk away when the rickshaw driver tries to overcharge. There’s a market a stone’s throw away, complete with a dairy, pharmacy, multiple salons, momo, egg-sandwich, filter coffee and kathi roll-man, Chinese take-out, samosa-man, Namkeen lady and stationary shop. I will remain forever indebted to the seamstress at the market who chided me for wearing clothes three sizes too large for me and refused to make my clothes to the measurements I asked for. “Your clothes,” she seized the sides of my kurtha to emphasize her point, “They are too big for you. A young girl like you. You look old”. My waxing lady is from Chennai and is well used to my appallingly low threshold of pain. I think I’m even going to miss the two sylph-like wretches who bring chips and coke, occupy a bench in the park nearby and watch with amusement as those of us who aren’t endowed with high metabolism attempt to get rid of our love handles.
If you walk on further, you’ll come to a better stocked market abundant with food shops. From a curiously located bistro serving the standard ‘fusion’ fare, a South Indian restaurant, a few bakeries to a fantastic array of street food (think shawarmas, kebabs, burghers, paani-puri, vada pav, grilled corn, ice cream, parathas). Sandwiched in-between are a smattering of clothes stores and a dance studio. The courier man in this market greets me enthusiastically and reaches for the Sri Lanka price list as soon as I walk in. My digs are extremely close to one of Delhi’s nicest clothing markets and while my friends with finer tuned sensibilities turn their nose at shopping there, my inner tourist and bargain hunter loves it. Exploring it over the years has been an endless source of enjoyment.
There isn’t much room for originality in housing complexes in Delhi. With little room for horizontal expansion, the box-like buildings grow vertically with very little to distinguish one from the other. A redeeming feature of my place is the terrace. A large expansive rooftop, it’s not the most picturesque and it contains all kinds of flotsam and jetsam –the remnants of a swing which served us well for a year and then promptly collapsed in the next, a bathtub, old piles of wood. But from my fourth floor vantage I overlook a lovely park, dotted with vast heart shaped trees (On rainy days it metamorphoses into a pool. Two views for the price of one), lights of buildings dot the horizon and best of all, I can see the metro. If you know me in real life you will know that I adore the metro and there’s something comfortingly solid about hearing it in the distance. The terrace has seen many moon-gazings, rain dances and confessions. I’ve paced it in frustration and sought refuge from all-nighters with large flasks of tea and pale sunrises.
If you come up to the terrace early morning, you’ll see an old gentleman on the rooftop directly opposite, welcoming the day with a cigarette at sunrise. Always just the one cigarette, after his last drag, he’ll stretch and plod inside for his morning cuppa. The apartment on our right has had a steady stream of expats. During the first year, there were the gaggle of white boys who seemed to have perpetually misplaced their shirts both during summer and winter. The only interaction we had with them was during Holi when their eggs and water balloons would unerringly find their marks while ours would falter halfway, to our intense embarrassment. The Lost (Shirt) Boys gave way to the Staid Couple who always threw interesting parties with bad music. They had a black and white canine horror which was the bane of all the girls on the street and would try to hump everything that moved. Three years of living next door to pigeon breeders has not alleviated my phobia of pigeons. I think it’s the perturbing 360 degree turning heads and beady eyes. It’s beautiful, however to watch the handlers climb up to the cages, form silhouettes against the sunset and call the pigeons with low, musical cries of ‘Aaao, aaao’.
The apartment, for the lack of a better word, can comfortably accommodate 5 people but in its incarnation as a PG it houses 20, inclusive of the Help/caretaker and her son. I also think it may be an unregistered commercial establishment. I vaguely remember when our air conditioners were removed and large calendars of Hindu deities were pasted over the gaping holes, in preparation for a tax raid.
The Help possesses the unique ability to translate my Hindi monosyllables into evocative sentences. We communicate through a smattering of English and Hindi monosyllables and charades. With a penchant for the dramatic, when she talks, her hands mime gestures, her eyes widen and her tone modulates according to her anecdote. On a winter day over a plate of pakoras, she told me about her village in Nepal and her mum’s green thumb and gesturing enthusiastically to highlight the profusion of produce back in her hometown. The Help’s back-story is intriguing. All of us are privy to her doomed love affair (tired of waiting for her, he got married last year. They still talk furtively at night and she receives mysterious gifts periodically from her ‘friend’) but stories about her husband vary on the theme of tragedy. To one girl, she confessed that he was in a mental asylum. To another, she said that he died in an accident. On my last night, while she was teaching me how to make paranthas and chapattis -mine remain woefully flat and just refuse to puff-she wistfully told me that her husband was an excellent cook and made the best lemon chicken she had ever tasted. She knows that whenever I potter about in the kitchen at night, she’ll find a bowl of pasta or chicken waiting for her in the fridge and she reciprocates by keeping some sabzi aside whenever she cooks for herself. She steps in to the role of surrogate nurse when any of us fall sick, administering an inedible watery dhal-rice concoction called kitchidi which all of Delhi seems to swear by, in times of sickness.
Her son, who has mysteriously remained 14 over the past three years, centres his life on cricket. If you walk in to their quarters you’ll see a shrine of newspaper cricketers adorning the peeling walls. Every Sunday, he takes out his threadbare sports shoes and carefully scrubs the remnants of the week off it. His disinclination towards school remains a perennial source of heated arguments between him and his mother.
Her daughter is a younger photocopy of her mother, has all of her shrewdness but none of her mother’s warmth. For a child so young, she has surprisingly adult-like mannerisms and has perfected the hand on the hip stance, the hair flick and the disapproving lip-twist. Recently just returned after a year of Boarding School in Nepal she has now graduated from cartoons to soap operas and reality TV. Notoriously light-fingered, biscuits, clips, nail-polish, shiny things and stationary left out are assumed lost for ever.
There’s nothing particularly remarkable about this neighbourhood or my PG. Despite all my romanticizing, you’re going to find imitations nestled all over Delhi, superior terraces and far more interesting flatmates. But it was my little niche in the big city. Granted, there are lots of things I could have done differently but I’ve built a life in a new country from scratch. From not knowing anyone in this city, I’ve advanced to a stage where I walk into a random literary reading and will be likely to spot a familiar face. Whether it’s being warmly greeted by a shopkeeper or a chocolate and post-it note professing affection being left on my desk, its little things like these which ward off the overwhelming obscurity and loneliness of being a small fish in a vast pond.
Have you seen how dogs sniff warily at a spot, circle it a few times and only then flop down for a nap? I’m a bit like that these days with my new digs.
When I started this letter, I was apartment hunting. A few drafts later, I’ve said goodbye to the place I called home for three years in Delhi, and am cautiously getting acclimatized to my new surroundings, flatmates, unwelcome surprises and quirks of the place. The pinkness of my room is unsettling (The walls are pink. The cupboards are pink. The shelves are pink. It’s like living in an Aerosmith song) and I keep hitting my head on the multiple wind chimes my landlady seems unduly fond of. I’ve stacked up on biscuits and made friends with the two strays who have taken it upon themselves to guard the gate and got my game face on.
This letter is already too long and I can feel your exhaustion.
Yours in flux,