#12 Postcard – Choices and the Roads not taken

They say everywhere you go becomes a part of you somehow. But don’t you also leave a bit of your self behind, every place you leave?

They say everywhere you go becomes a part of you somehow. But don’t you also leave a bit of your self behind, every place you leave?

I cannot think of any city I have lived in without feeling that lump in my throat, except Trivandrum. And maybe that comes from the knowledge that Trivandrum is home, it’s where I’ll always go back, and there is no leaving, really.

I’ve lived in Delhi, Georgia, Texas. And there are different, younger versions of myself residing in all these places. I only have to go back to see them.

When I visit Rajiv Chowk, I see the 22 year old me on my way back from visiting Valyamma or Achu Annan, waiting for Dwarka line on the other side of the rail. My backpack is filled with the fish fry Valyamma packed for me, or all the Haldiram’s Achu Annan bought me. In December that kid is preparing to become an IAS officer, in March she’s decided she will do International Relations in JNU, and in 2 years I’d be there for my visa interview at the consulate before I leave for Atlanta.

Years later, when I moved from Atlanta, I was sad. I was leaving behind my grad school friends, a place I had grown to love and that I could see becoming my home, a college that gave me my graduate education, a campus I loved to walk around in, gardens and shops I grew to enjoy visiting. I haven’t gone back, but I know I’ll find that 25 year old kid walking the bridge to Target, smiling mindlessly at dogs and the sunset and the dressed-up women posing at the Memorial gate.

There is comfort in familiarity, and I embrace that fully.

To think that we’re where we are because of choice, chance, and the associated what-if’s I grapple with if I ponder long enough (and I’ve had the privilege of choice for a few years). What if the 22 year old me followed another trail of thought to discover something else, what if I’d stayed in Atlanta and not moved?
But we could spend the rest of our lives playing What If, and then some.

Today I was walking back from the Indian grocery store, and I realized I’m growing comfortable here as well, and I’ll miss stuff whenever it is that I leave. I’ll always miss Delhi because it has some of my happiest memories, and that happy innocent kid that I can never go back to. Atlanta, because it gave me so much. Texas, too.

So maybe what we leave behind is our present selves, because we know there’s no way to hold on that comfort even if we want to, except in the form of memories.

But whenever I visit, I know I’ll find those younger versions. They never ask, How are you? Because they aren’t curious, somehow, they’re happy right there.

That Delhi kid still lives somewhere around Karol Bagh. She looks forward to finding out what’s in her evening tiffin, shuffles her way through the loud crowds of CP and reads her yellow Vision IAS notes on the long metro rides home. In Atlanta, Crash Into Me still plays in my room on a dark, rainy evening while Uma hums a tune in the kitchen, putting the chai on.

And maybe we like to think there was something more there, something we missed out on by leaving, that we can’t get back to. That secret, the answer to the what if, only the version that stayed behind knows. Yet when you visit, they only offer you a naughty smile. It’s a secret that will stay there, stay there with that version of you that you left behind. 🙂


Winter – Romance

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.”
“Evening batch?”
“Morning, actually. You must go in the evening batch?”
“Morning, actually.”

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?

IMG_20161216_175545                                               Old Rajendra Nagar, Winter 2016

Bits of Happy (Love You Zindagi)

I shove hair out of my face to see where I’m going along the road. The black face-muffler that reaches up almost to my eyes, poking at the lower lashes, is fumbling my sight. The fickle hairs –they’ve never allowed me a thing as a good hair day-add to the horse vision. In my efforts to return the unruly waves back in place, the tiny transparent cover dangling from my fingers with the packed 10rs boiling-hot masala chai presses against my mufflered-face : an instant burn. Almost.

Across the road, next to Chinese Corner, the vadapav-poha-breadbajji counter and the indulgent after-class 10am crowd call to me. My breakfast would be waiting at the hostel. “It’s probably sticky oily Poori today”. Well the heart wants what it wants.

Of course my Indian heart’s been trained well with the co-ordinates of the lakshmanarekha of wants, lying at 2 inches from safe Vadapav.

The first time I went to the counter, I had to muster up all my mental strength to walk to the outside-counter chettan and say, “Bhaiyya ek vadapav”, playing out in my head all the horrors that awaited my HealthyForAWeekAfterBeingTaxedAlmostToDeathByInfectionsInflictedByYoursTruly stomach. In hindsight, a series of poor choices had by then taught me not every infection ends in hospitalization/death, unlike I/my super-anxious Amma had led me to believe.

After the brazenly overpriced (and blatantly bland) dosa at Sagar Ratna (Rs.167 including taxes but you can probably still sue if something happens to you), the 20rupay Vadapav was savior of the stomach and soul and precious notes.

I stop on my tracks to cross. Something brushes against my jeans at the back of my knees, I turn right and I turn left to find a black dog with his white-patched tail, watching the traffic to our right with quiet poise, unmindful of the Homo sapien next to him. I smile. My eyes (the only visible part of my face) smile along. An old uncle appooppan on his scooter next to Chinese Corner smiles.

The traffic clears in 5 seconds, I turn to see if my fellow-crosser approves – he takes a step forward – and we walk to the other side together. Another human exchange of smiles and twinkling eyes later, my road companion- the object of our joint fascination – still oblivious of it all walks away.

It’s a good morning.

After doling out yellow rice-like poha to 5 customers at once, the busy outside-Counter chettan with his back to the crowd attends to me, “Aur aapko?”

“Ek Vadapao bhaiyya,” I say, letting the pav become a pao. That’s how Himanshi says it, her full lips housing beautiful teeth within curling up to converge to a close. Almost. Making you (=me) anticipate a boiled egg. Or a boiled egg with fillings. Pao.

He grabs hold of a pao (a squarish mini bread/bun with baked brown sides – I’m loling at my definition) from its cover on the counter, looking freshly baked and warm (it’s not, from experience). He carves a side and halves it, leaving one end still attached, revealing the white bread inside.

He stains the white with a tiny circle of red, the fiery seeds and flakes awaiting you on their chilli bed. It’ll probably be a little hot, but liquid fire extinguisher in my purple Milton bottle awaits too.

Another chettan behind the counter is chaya adikkaling – because I don’t think beating tea (in long unbroken brown streams) is quite the right expression. And no air of pleasantly overpowering spicy richness hits my nose  – of thick fibrous ginger strands and crushed cardamom and hocuspocus and of course a bucket of water added to a vessel of boiling milk – the story of a tiny adorable cover dangling from my fingers.

He picks up a vada filled with potato goodness, places it between the bun halves, hands it over to me on the tiny round silver plate after pouring on its side some green chutney with white paneer shavings, the chutney I hated when I first had it, asking instead for the sweet red. Silly old me.

Making my way out of the immediate crowd, I squish the two buns together so it flattens, so my mouth can accommodate it. Dip and bite. Dip and bite. It’s over in 5. The chain interrupted by calls for more green chutney. How times changed, silly old me.

The heat hits. I pay the 20, as inside chettan hands over to outside chettan a tray of newly deep-fried vadas filled with potato goodness.

Like golden-brown muffins from overworked Anina’s oven. Like Tessa’s Nikita chechi’s love&butter cinnabuns.

Or not. But Oh what I wouldn’t give to live a life full of those. But it’s time to chill the burn from the heart’s wants.

I grin as I hear Amma in my head, “Avidunnum ividunnum oronnu kazhichitt infection!”. Past the push-carts dotting the sides. Guavas. Apples. Oranges. Greenish purplish thingies.

“Kithna bhaiyya?” How much?

“Satthar rupay kilo”.

Hiding my inadequate Hindi that’s ignorant of what satthar means – never reveal that you don’t know Hindi, or they’ll cheat – (We like to think they cheat us anyway).

“Bees ke dedo,” another dude says. For 20rs.

“Arre, bees ke do hi milega”.

2 for 20 -__- Sheri va povam. I leave with my packed-and-adored tea and my satiated tummy.

The overly priced EVERYTHING (except heart’s wants) don’t bother today though (cos it’s a good morning), nor persistent queues at random places directing to hitherto-neglected banks that nobody noticed until Modi demonetised currency, as Love you Zindagi plays in my head.

And I’m walking the thronging roads and glancing past photocopy and bookshops arranged back-to-back and stepping from pavement to road to pavement, but really, I could be hugging the hard-to-spot and probably chori-laden trees, playing kabbadi on the non-existent beach, or flying a kite thoughIknowNotHow along the shore, because incongruous bits make up your (= mine, though probably yours too) whole.

But incongruous bits of happy is still happy.

There’s a girl eating chaat on Aggarwal sweets’ high table outside, and I set a mental reminder to return for their pani puri in the evening.

Kya khoob ye Jodi hai teri meri” – what a lovely pair we make, you and me, Pani puri. The gastric juice in my stomach blushes at the prospects. I can almost hear Pazham pori accusing, “I rhymed with the lyrics too, you know”.

What a nice morning. Random people smile back at smiling eyes on foot. There’s a driverless swift deZire parked next to an empty rickshaw opposite the dry latrine. Look at the fairness of the world on this fair morning (the muffler lets no smells in) – swift deZires and rickshaws relieving their ways to ease, together.

The cute Punjabi guy outside the reading room smiles at you (no not you, me), at smiling eyes.

The neat gridded roads, the electric post that’s a brilliantly entangled mess of thick wired loops in all sides at the top, the well-swept concrete, the clothes hanging in balconies swaying in the cool early-winter breeze, the still-on Diwali lights, the orange streetlamps lit since last night, family gardens on scanty ground behind walls of homes shooting flowering trees into the sky. And the nonchalant dog on a parked car sitting up with half of his pink tongue out from a shut mouth, eyes closed and fully savoring in the sun, cocooning in the warmth of it, raising his head to the chorus “love you zindagiiiiiii”.

The last turn to my narrow hostel street with cars parked on either sides. An Indica from the opposite direction, and a scooter following it- I move to the side, behind the siderow of parked cars. I can see smiling eyes reflecting on its rear glass – I puff my cheeks and raise my brows, in the reflection the eyes swell but the muffler hiding the puffed-cheeks don’t.

I receive a sudden jerky bump against my lower half – the car right infront wasn’t parked after all – Bollywood music stops playing. A reflex of “AYYO” escapes through the muffler, the car on the left swipes past, the scooter uncle chuckles out loud. I get out of the way to the middle of the road.

A leash goes off.

Oh WOW –  no indicators, no lights, no horns. Or perhaps I hadn’t noticed. Perhaps, yet that’s no way to reverse your car. When an elated soul is making faces at your rear? No wonder they say people are stupid. They who? They whoever, since when do you backanswer?

Chuckling at a poor soul hit mercilessly by a car. BUMPED INTO? SAME THING. Cynicism takes over like an obedient hawk, repositioning on its briefly empty spot.

What if it ran me over? Of course he’d still chuckle at it. And then they’ll watch as I bleed to death. I wasn’t silly, I was right, the old red-chutney-loving cynical me.

With a defiant look (that shows only in non-smiling eyes still) I walk. Amidst the Cruel cruel world of reverse-takers and chuckling scooters and smile-destroyers, its muffler-wielding blood-boiling victim of terminal bumps, and vanquisher of premature death.

The vanquisher of premature death soon enters my hostel, makes the entry, and sees my breakfast-loyal to me and to me alone in this cruel cruel world -waiting. Sticky oily poori, I’m sure.

A cylindrical package wrapped in aluminium foil, and a dark-brown curry to accompany. Oh.
OHHH. Something vacates a recently occupied seat.

I should really watch where I’m walking – the world isn’t all that bad you know, the car had hardly touched me. Mountains out of molehills. With a smile, I take off the muffler, grab hold of my breakfast and proceed to my room.

Putt-kadala gets too much credit in my stories, I know.

Nammade Ooru Keralam – a rant

Some people we meet know exactly what they want and where to find it. Like my roommate Umadri, who’s lucky enough to know she loves good music and yummy Afghani chicken. Her only roommate on the other hand hops from place to place, tasting samosas deep fried in God-knows-how-many-weeks-old oil at the first joint and quickly conjured chowmein at the next, consequently contracting infections one after the other.

While I am thoroughly exhausted of this exercise, in my two months in this city I have found that while writing is liberating, blogging (which is essentially publishing within constraints) brings me happiness.

I remember the day Miriam asked me to start blogging, and I did.

I remember the day Miriam suggested I come to Delhi. Two weeks later, I’d landed in this place.

While that woman (so to speak) is to blame for all that I’m suffering today, it also suggests she’s responsible for my ongoing slow process of correcting the 22 years of wrong info my system has unapologetically gathered, including my coming to terms with the realization that after all, Veerappan wasn’t the LTTE leader I’d mistakenly believed to be from the days of my childhood until umm two weeks ago.

She’s also responsible for the little dance I do and my shrieks of delight when I find that the entire back page of The Hindu has been administered to accommodate Modi ji’s thala and Modi ji’s full figure. (Chalo ek page kum padhni hai 😜)

So venturing out in the morning these days involves thanking the Gods for the (relatively) clean air in the early hours  and taking a deep breath, only to chokingly realize the unwelcome stench from the dry latrine on the other side of the road just made its way in too. And I’ve almost christened a blessing on that Good Samaritan feeding the famished stray, not before he rakes up his entire energy to passionately discharge spittle onto the pavement sending half of it on a trajectory to land on my shoe.

If you can watch Delhi’s starless skies on brilliant nights that tell a story of steady cacophony below and nonchalant splendor above, and somewhere far away that speaks of corporate neon lights from a concert hidden from your view, that you don’t have tickets to and that you aren’t sure you want to. If you can look past the cramped dirty streets  and the dirtier profanity that IPhone wielders to your surprise indulge in, if you can catch hold of the multitude of roofs around occupied by bhayyas and didis lost in thought and fathom it’s all in good faith in the future and never desperation. If you can look past the pasted and painted faces on the Metro standing on their five-inch heels and insecure glances of self-reassurance, past the daily number of little kids buying icecream/golgappe from other kids who’d have been called classmates had the RTE really trickled down, maybe you could love Delhi.

Because surely this city is, like many others claim to be, an emotion. Whether the emotion of flying kites on rooftops/eating dahi chaat on a rainy day, or of an entire city that let a man bleed to his death on its roads in its wake, I know not.

Sadly though, I love my iddali (with an ‘a’ in between, yes), I instinctly look for thenga (coconut) before remembering it isn’t thoran but sabzi. I am baffled by the sweet sambar before I’m reminded it isn’t our sambar. And I miss listening to Velikku Veluppan Kaalam and Aareyum Bhava Gayakanakkum on Akashavani. Jk, that was around 18 years ago. But I do.

And if streets with all sorts of rubbish and a dust-spangled surrounding don’t repulse you, if the daily menu of paratha and thin long grained basmati rice doesn’t exasperate you, if being charged 30 rupees for a plate of measly vada doesn’t leave you feeling violated. If hearing a “Thankyeww soo muchhh” delivered in authentic Kerala English doesn’t evoke your grinning response of “Malayali ayrnnalle :D”(So you were a Malayali). And mostly, if a couple of weeks’ residence in (most) other parts of the country doesn’t elicit a special sense of pride about your own (and of course a rant like this one here), you probably weren’t fortunate enough to be born in my favourite part of the world.

PS: Do not ask me why this feature pic. Between banana leaf sadyas and coconut tree silhouettes, coastlines and backwaters, cities and towns and villages and sunsets and greenery and the arts, finally I settled on this I guess.

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