I met G on New Year’s Eve 2016 at Mandi House.
It was winter. The best part of winter. When it’s cold but not too much.
You can smoke fumes out of your mouth in the thick morning air while walking to class. Peas still sprout when soaked overnight and Parachute oil hasn’t frozen in its entirety in the bottle. You wear just enough layers to not need a bra (at least the less endowed ones), yet do not have to hide your cute sweater under another quilted jacket. The chilly wind against their scantily clothed chests hasn’t eaten into the rickshaw bhayyas’ pace in the mornings, yet.
Shaving of course is out of the question.
At this point, I need to confess a couple of things. My roommate had been away for almost two months, and I was thoroughly enjoying it.
I lived in my natural habitat of a cluttered room, the little floorspace was filled with copies of The Hindu and printed fliers of IAS coaching material, collected and shoved into my bag after class. I’d started wearing bhasmam regularly because it reminded me of people I love. My warrior of a chair carried a backbreaking pile of dirty clothes to topple over any moment and I went to class in the clothes I went to bed in. The bed itself was filled with Haldiram’s Aloo Bujia, a thin plastic cover of 5 tomatoes bought for 10, and leftover packs from previous tiffin any time of the day.
I fit my body in there somehow.
Evenings were dry and beautiful with an occasional warm drizzle, and by all means I avoided being in my room for long. It’s when (home)sickness slowly creeps in and lodges itself on your neck to stay until dinner.
I was doing India’s Struggle for Independence by Bipan Chandra. Love you Zindagi played in my room every night after I returned from the reading room. I routinely smiled at other building-mates and refrained from (/clearly avoided) talking. By this time the chetan at the sambar vada/pizza sandwich shop that had open counters and high tables knew I wanted chai to the brim, just like the chetan at office does now. Old Rajendra Nagar was filled with puppies that followed you on the roads and needed to be fed from your tiffin bits at night.
The terrace was still the only place I could see the sky wasn’t as little as it seemed from amidst all the buildings on the ground.
Probably most important bit is I didn’t have to zone into my thoughts like I do now and did before. I was living in them.
In college, I’d go to canteen alone for a lot of different reasons, and I was lucky to always have people that asked “Are you here all by yourself?”
It was only after almost a year I realized I was disappointing people with answers such as “It’s alright” cos they thought I was upset at not having company. So I later rephrased it to “Oh a friend is coming. It’s alright” and things were sorted out. Unless they decided to give me company until the friend (never) came :D.
I hadn’t talked to a soul at ORN in the course of these two months. Except the sabjiwala and Komal at my reading room reception. And New Year’s Eve was to be spent watching a play at ShriRam’s Arts Center, Mandi House. Alone.
(Yeah don’t worry, a friend was coming).
“Can I have one at the extreme back please?”
First time at a theatre alone and I had mistaken a play for a movie, and extreme back for balcony view.
G in the second queue overhears and looks over, smiles a friendly stranger smile. I return the smile and wait for the doors to open.
On the way to the Arts Center were walls painted Inquilab Zindabad, posters of Che Guevera, lots of young and older men and women all of whom seemed like students. Reading newspaper and eating Maggi, outside shacks and shops nearby and on circles around tall trees. And all I could think was how I’d have turned out had I joined DU and studied English, or even joined for MA after B.Tech.
I wasn’t sure then, but when was I ever?
I’d quite probably have turned leftist, sat under those trees reading The Hindu, turned up in loose neutral kurtas instead of my favourite Lifestyle sweater, worn chappal instead of Converse and carried a cloth bag instead of Wildcraft. I’d probably still have turned up for this play. Probably.
At least I knew I wasn’t a literature person by then.
As soon as I get seated I realize my folly. I can hardly see the actors’ faces, having especially asked for the backseat. The play is about the revolt of 1857 and I have a leaflet about the troupe and the actors. They’re probably college students, always rushing to catch the Metro for their practice sessions in scorching summers and chilly winters. I would’ve impressed with my Doordarshan-imparted Hindi, though started from the top every time I missed a line.
I would’ve sucked with the lines.
Memorizing dialogues and scenes, indulging chai sessions between, and Maggi from that shop outside on lazy afternoons after naps. Streetplays on weekends, processions at India Gate, LeftWord Books for every book launch. Never miss a LitFest and never miss a lecture. Debate over Yechury’s points on the phone with Achan and borrow Amma’s sari for characters when I went home for vacation.
I don’t really know how differently I’d have turned out.
What if’s and I have had a romantic relationship since forever anyway.
There’s a cosy canteen attached to Centre’s right with low tables and chairs. It’s evening now and the sky is losing light, it’s getting chilly outside. I sit down with hot chowmein at an empty table. There are a couple of benches and desks outside, and through the door I can see young students in their sweaters and mufflers clicking selfies before their foods arrive.
We could all be at a tea shop in a beautiful hill station at Manali or Nainital, sipping tea and eating chowmein. Barfi could jump in any second singing Iss dil ka kya karooon with Ileana De Cruz in her long dress, shoes and pink hairband. And I wouldn’t need to get up and dance because I’d already be.
Next to me, a lady who I’m positive appeared in Taare Zameen Par to judge the painting contest comments “Isn’t Three Arts Club doing quite brilliant these days?”
She has grey cropped hair, wears a starched saree and is seated with other older men who look like they could be college professors or The Hindu editors, with a general wise air. All neutral shades. They drink tea. I wonder if I should’ve ordered tea with my chowmein.
G appears opposite to me at my table, placing a bag on the last vacant one, and has ordered Maggi. I shift my water bottle away from G’s plate, polite. I’m hardly ever impolite to strangers. At this point I’d like to say I’m one of those I’m sure everyone’s good at heart people. I love being disappointed.
“Is it your first time to a play?” G is smiling more broadly than the summer sun.
“I’ve been to a couple back home, first time alone though.” G sits down.
“So where are you from?” “I’m from Kerala. Where are you from?” I can’t help the full sentences amidst all the smiling.
I smile broadly as well.
Like when you find the flavor of tic-tac you were rummaging for in a large bucket at a supermarket. Except there’s no way we knew each other’s flavors. Yet.
G is an arts graduate. PG in English Literature. Civil Services preparation.
“Yes. You go to Vajiram?”
“I go to Sriram.”
“Morning, actually. You must go in the evening batch?”
Later as we walk out from the canteen into the tall trees, under the orange lamps I can spot G’s backpack that says WildCraft. I smile stupidly, like Swetha says I often do when seated by the window in our office bus.
Everyone should have the privilege to meet themselves, sometime.
I had earlier decided I’d remain stoic for as long as I could hold out. But that New Year night I talked to more humans over Never Have I Ever. And realized I’d always, always loved people.
When Umadri packed up and left for college in late May, I asked her to list out the things and people she’d miss (yea I do that). On top of the list, was who she was when we were at ORN.
Some days I think I’d give anything to go back to being the unfuck-withable dragon-hunter. Impenetrable to my mother’s calls to life as we know it.
Why is life not the way I know it?
Old Rajendra Nagar, Winter 2016