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 homesickness washed over me.

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I do like the brief connection you make when you connect with a 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.  I’ve had lacklustre experience with flying companions so far but I still board every flight in hope of finding that elusive stranger.

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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 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 the people specific scents reminded me of. The attar was stronger, more pungent and there was one which exuded the scent of the earth after rain – how lovely does that sound?

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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.

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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 textbooks.

Notes from Delhi: Etc, Etc

It’s 4.30 am. I’ve just finished four loads of laundry and downed a particularly potent cup of lemon tea (3 tea bags in one cup).

My writing has become worryingly dumbed down. Sentences have become alarmingly staccato-like and the content here on this blog vacillates between touristy Delhi posts or ‘OMG. I miss home’ posts. So instead of griping about lost mojo,  I’ve forced myself to sit down, write whatever pops up into my head and try and get into the groove once again (I can’t believe I just used that phrase). I can’t promise that everything is going to make sense but at least I can get some of the thoughts festering in my head out there.

My work is cut out for me though. The left side of my keyboard stopped working a few weeks back and I’m left to the mercies of the onscreen keyboard because I’ve been too chicken to battle the Hindi speaking computer guys at Nehru Place and too afraid of being ripped off. Let’s do this.

 

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I like meeting new people and I’m always in search of kindred spirits. Kindred spirits are sadly far and few between so most times I settle for conversation chemistry – because there are conversations and then there are conversations.

While kindred spirits are in short supply, conversation chemistry can occur in the most unexpected places. Throw in interesting people and good atmosphere or even an email thread with the right conditions, and the results are positively electric. Good chemistry is completely independent of the content and context of the conversation. The secret is in the people who partake in it and sometimes the most unexpected of people have the most to offer. I may not always be the most vocal in discussions but I love basking in the atmosphere of great conversation. It’s heady, intoxicating  sometimes.

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Delhi is a complex city. It’s easy to lose faith in a city like this. There are times it welcomes you and times when it repels. This city leaves its mark on you – whether good or bad, is entirely dependent on your survival mechanism. But it’s also a city which surprises you. And I love that.

One of my favourite memories of Delhi so far is at a little cafe in Paharganj. M  hadn’t been to Paharganj, so I took her there. It was Ramazan and it was time to break fast. The owner of the cafe ushered us to a table. He asked if either of us were fasting (rohza, it’s called in Hindi) and upon hearing that I was fasting, insisted that we sit with him and break fast. He waved aside my protests firmly and I was pushed into an Ifthar banquet of sorts. Picture three tables pushed together and white bowls piled high with apples, grapes, pineapple, dates and oranges. Plates of pakoras and samosas, bottles of juice and middle Eastern dishes I’d never seen before dotted the table.

The thing is, during Ramazan, I used to break fast with a cheese sandwich, dates and water. I don’t make a fuss about what I eat – I’m far too tired by the time the sun sets and I just grab some dinner later on. So when this stranger sat me down at his table and fed me this veritable fest I was so grateful I could weep.

Thank you to a kind stranger — you may not have known it but you made a very tired, homesick girl’s day that evening.