Memory, History

(Written a few months ago, posting now. Fervently hoping this has lost its relevance.)

*

New Delhi,

June 2013.

 To you,

I’m not sure when it happened but Running in the Family has become one of my favourite books. I’d read it years ago and I stumbled across a battered copy at a Sunday book bazaar last year and pocketed it (50 Rs!) with little hesitation. Over the months, I would head for it almost instinctively whenever I needed a pick-me-up or a reminder of home and my already worn copy now bears the brunt of public transport, marginalia and dog-eared pages.

‘You know, I honestly haven’t been homesick in months’, I muse to my mother the other day. 1506 miles away I can almost hear her bristling over the phone and I hurriedly repair my tactlessness. Tonight though, I’m overcome with a wave of melancholy and I push away my mini mountain of readings and reach out for the book. An exercise in nostalgia, I think one of the many reasons I love it is because Ondaatje manages to combine just the right eccentricities of Sri Lanka with his perfectly imperfect family, reminding me so much of my own.

While reading, I suddenly remember an incident—I think it was during the late nineties when the terror was slowly reaching its zenith and Colombo’s comfortable little bubble was in danger of being punctured. It was around this time that security was drastically increased and warning posters about unknown parcels containing bombs dotted bus interiors. Emergency training was conducted in schools. All I remember was that we were told to put a pencil between our teeth and scramble under a desk in case of an explosion which, between you and me, seemed quite pointless.

My cousin sister was a member of the national netball team and had been out of the country for a tournament. The entire team had arrived back to Sri Lanka earlier than planned and there had been little or no time to make arrangements for accommodation. Most of the girls hailed from far flung parts of the island and so the entire team and coach apologetically arrived on our doorstep with nowhere else to go. The army had suddenly started doing spot checks around this time, and just after we had settled into bed that night, the doorbell rang.

Awakened by the voices, I crept halfway downstairs and sleepily observed the motley crew assembled in my living room—My mother in her pastel housecoat; four perplexed army personnel unsure of what to do; a dozen girls rudely interrupted from their sleep, scrambling from their makeshift beds, and my father unsuccessfully trying to explain in fragmented Sinhala why there were a dozen unknown girls asleep in our living room. I think my parents managed to convince the army personnel that their house wasn’t a front for nefarious night time activities and the army personnel saw the humour of the situation. They finished their security check, patted my head awkwardly, as adults usually do with children, and with a few parting quips, headed out.

Lately, in light of the recent events unfolding in Sri Lanka, I’ve been trying to reconcile three ideas of home. One is the sanitized, selective history propounded by the state. The other is a far more sinister side siphoned off information sources on the internet and international news. The final one is the version of home in my mind and the limited geographical space I grew up in. All three meet rather jarringly. There’s a quote by Julian Barnes which seems apt as I attempt to untangle my own notions of personal identity and geographical space; ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation’.

It’s been years and I don’t know how it is now, but when I was in school our text books conveniently trailed off after 1948. We would spend months memorizing kings, cataloguing their bloodthirstiness and making lists of their achievements. We dutifully memorized the advent of the Portuguese (1505), the Dutch (17th century. My social studies teacher should be proud of me) and the British. More names were memorized—colonial governors, freedom fighters, dates of quelled rebellions. Certain changes in the constitution after Independence and elements of parliament were included in the syllabus like an afterthought and then it conveniently trailed off into ellipses. Like a person hurriedly using a napkin to blot stray specks of sauce before it congeals on his shirt, insurgencies, political parties, uprisings, tensions were blurred away.

While living away from home brings an enviable sense of detachment, it also brings about an augmented anxiety in times of crisis. The recent wave of violence in Sri Lanka has left me in a state of agitation. I’m writing to you because I’m scared and sad and I’m struggling to make sense of this madness.

News alerts, snippets from blog posts, articles from dubious sites with even more dubious grammar, racist rhetoric in the guise of opinion columns, information compressed into 140 characters, grainy videos of mobs led by monks storming commercial establishments and places of religious worship, pictures of torn Qurans on Facebook—I devour all of it in an attempt to wrap my mind around what is taking place at home.

All the information I siphon is second-hand and I don’t know enough to differentiate if this recent eruption of violence is a result of professional agitators and higher political powers staging a decoy or if this will snowball into a repetition of the conflict we have only just emerged from. I’m sad that selective amnesia was and still is the norm. That memory and an acknowledgement of the past are dismissed as irrelevant and that our country seems to be approaching the future with all the arrogance and brash indifference of an adolescent teenager.

I feel helpless because I’ve seen enough of the world today to know that violence is now the first impulse and not a last resort. Everything I’ve read about the riots in the eighties suddenly come to mind—the betrayal of neighbours, mobs drunk on power, men stripped naked and burned on the streets, houses looted and families forced to flee. I’m scared because my Muslim family lives in a staunchly Buddhist neighbourhood and while this never seemed important all these years, I’m suddenly acutely aware of it.

Yours in anxiety,

Me.

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Notes from Delhi: Places and Spaces

July 2013, Delhi

To you,

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 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, comfortably accommodates 7 people but houses 20, inclusive of the Help/caretaker and her son. Also, I think it may be an illegal 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 apartment. 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. Perhaps, minus the sniffing though.

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,

Me.

 

Notes from Delhi: Winter Notebook

 

To you,

1) This is going to be a list letter. Brevity and organization are the key words for the day.

2) It seems as though I’ve spent a chunk of my life, waiting. Huddled in a threewheeler, watching rain form rivulets and drip slowly down the taurpalin; waiting on hold, a pop song filling in the space where conversation should be; in line at banks; waiting for visits to end.

3) Its only appropriate therefore that I should be typing this, hunched over my phone screen in a waiting room at 1 in the morning. After shifting uncomfortably for about 15 minutes, a comrade in waiting gave up trying to sleep, rubbed his eyes and asked me for something to read and so I handed over the only reading material I possessed. I’m not sure if Beckett is the ideal waiting companion for him though–Existentialism, insomnia and a bleak hospital waiting room sounds like a recipe for disaster. Or a script for a movie.

4) Cursory weather update from Delhi – winter is here like an unwelcome relative who shows no sign of leaving. She’s firmly deposited her bags and is clearly going to be staying for a while. It’s too cold to bust out my ear muffs but it’s cold enough to huddle under my blanket burrito at night, consume vast amounts of hot chocolate and dream of beaches.

5) On the plus side, lovely weather for wandering around during the day. All the exploring I had postponed during summer is begging to be done now (exams? What exams?) and I may or may not have unloaded a vat of pictures on twitter in a moment of unrestrained enthusiasm.  Been chaperoning a few people around as well. I do love showing my version of this convoluted city. It gives me an excellent opportunity to unleash the dormant tourist within and take multiple pictures of my momos without people around me face-palming.

6) The drop in temperature is co-related to a spike in my food consumption levels. Months of healthy eating and junk food abstinence have been undone in minutes.

7)  Goodbye (for now)

Me.

 

 

Notes from Delhi: Summer Stupor

To you,

Most people I’ve met in India are products of many places. There’s an enviable fluidity between cities over here. You’re born in one city, sometimes school in another, go to college somewhere else and maybe settle wherever your work takes you. Back in Sri Lanka, all roads almost always seem to end up in Colombo.

P wrote this nice piece of prose about home both as an abstract concept and a physical space. Where is home for you? Is it a place, a state of mind? Is it where your roots are or is home, where a special person is? Is it perhaps the people you surround yourself with? Or are you one of those people who belong wherever they go?

Summer has come and how. This heat saps any semblance of energy out of you. My day begins only at dusk. The morning and afternoon are passed in a wilted summer trance. The only good thing about this horrible season is that the Ehala (they’re also called the Golden Shower Tree – isn’t that a lovely name?) and Araliya trees have bloomed and brighten up the city.

I had draped myself on the swing this evening futilely trying to decipher my notes and break out of the indolent stupor which had enveloped me the entire day when I happened to notice a cobweb on the swing. I’m averse to spiders, but partial to cobwebs. Framed against the light, every intricate detail was visible in the setting sun. The stage was set for one of those profound moments (a sunset, a moonrise in the distance, a cobweb- you know the kind.) I thought I felt an epiphany coming on but it turned out to be a sneeze.

– Me

Notes from Delhi: Shadow Days


Every now and then I see traces of familiar faces on strangers.

Yesterday I saw my grandmother’s nose. The other day I saw a lady who could have passed off as a friend’s mother – the same thin eyebrows, the hands and even her gait were all remarkably similar. Once, on the metro I came across a man who reminded me of my dad. Physically, there was nothing similar but his unusually upright posture and the way he would peer over his glasses every now and then resignedly, while his grandchildren played and climbed over him, struck a chord. Suddenly for the first time in months, waves of home sickness washed over me.

*

I love the ephemeral connection of reaching out to a complete stranger. Even if it’s simply a casual recommendation to a stranger at a cafe or striking up a mundane conversation about how late the metro is. It’s not always groundbreaking conversation or extraordinary epiphanies but for those few minutes, it’s a link of sorts with a person you don’t know. I think it’s also one of the reasons I like this site so much: http://missedconnectionsny.blogspot.in/

I shared a three-wheeler with a lady a few weeks ago. I had gone to Gurgaon and needed to head back to the metro station. Three-wheelers were scarce and terribly expensive. The driver said he had a usual hire, but he’d drop me on the way. My companion gave me a cursory glance and then remained formidably silent until I hesitantly broke the silence with a commonplace remark about the traffic. Within minutes she was showing me pictures of a beautiful, almond eyed baby and telling me about her shift to a new neighbourhood.

There’ve been multiple times when I’ve fervently wished I knew better Hindi, the people in this city are brimming over with stories if you’re willing to take the time to stop and listen.

I like flying alone for this reason. I have this fantasy where I find myself seated next to a stranger and we end up conversing for hours throughout the flight and then wind up the best of friends. Sadly, I’ve had some horrible experiences with flying companions but I still board every flight in hope of finding that elusive stranger.

*

I’ve started asking questions and I’m not sure how to stop

*

There’s an old perfume shop in Old Delhi that I usually go to buy soaps for my grandmother. It’s one of those places where (pardon the cliché) time has stopped still. Perfumes are stored in large glass containers with circular stoppers, the packaging of the soap is simple and unadorned and a heady cocktail of varied scents assail your olfactory senses as soon as you enter. On a whim I decided to pick up some perfume and attar along with some soap.

Firstly, the perfumes have such lovely names. Strangely, they were easy to choose because the scents sort of reminded of certain people and I ended up buying them as gifts for said people. The attar was stronger, more pungent and there was one which exuded the scent of the earth after rain –how lovely does that sound?

*

We were travelling in a cab when suddenly our driver halted to a stop and pulled over to the side. When asked what happened, he informed us that a black cat had just crossed the road and he was waiting for another car to pass by before continuing. I was a little amused by this but my companions nodded as if it was the most normal thing in the world to do.

Outside a Tailor’s shop in Wellawatte

I was reading up on some superstitions and customs followed in India and was reminded of the ones followed in Sri Lanka. The devil’s mask to ward off evil, the boiling of milk for prosperity, the lime and chillies hung on vehicles and doorways – it’s all really very fascinating, regardless of whether you believe in them or not.

Even at home, there were certain rituals which were ingrained unconsciously from an early age. I remember my mum telling me not to cut my nails during Maghrib, my grandmother carefully packing a lime into my food to ward off evil spirits and being told not to sweep the house after sunset.

*

I decided to go to a park and study the day before yesterday. I’d been cooped up for days and I was starting to feel restless. I don’t thrive very well in cramped spaces, I could feel the beginnings of the flu taking over my body and I figured some fresh air would do me good. Plus, Delhi’s evening weather of late has been fantastic and so I went.

I sat on the grass and unpacked my bag. I had my camera, a pack of juice, an apple, two pens, a pencil, a highlighter, a notebook, a file, rough paper, a sketch pad, hand sanitizer and a bottle of water… But I had forgotten to pack my text books.