Chitra Gopalakrishnan uses her ardor for writing, wing to wing, to break firewalls between nonfiction and fiction, narratology and psychoanalysis, marginalia and manuscript and tree-ism and capitalism.
As a New Delhi-based journalist and a social development communicator for 30 years, she enjoys this career of trying to figure out issues of social development and its impact – or the lack of it – on people.
Her fiction has appeared in the Celestial Echo Press, Black Hare Press, Fantasia Divinity, Me First Magazine, Reedsy, Terror House Magazine, Unpublished Platform, Literary Yard, Truancy, eShe, Literati Magazine, Spillwords, Fleas on the Dog, Twist and Twain, Velvet Illusion, CafeLit, Breaking Rules Publishing, Sky Island Journal and Runcible Spoon.
And my world changed yet again
THE FIFTEEN MEMORY FLASHES
Memory one: all about good weather (581 words)
Memory two: neither here nor there, knowing nothing of anything (514 words)
Memory three: the mixed stink of rotting cauliflower and fart (506 words)
Memory four: residents, strangers, buffaloes and the spaces between (401 words)
Memory five: foibles, missteps and the small humiliations that hurt (557 words)
Memory six: the many faults in our reality (493 words)
Memory seven: colors that agreed only in the dark (719 words)
Memory eight: braving the rain to get to the rainbow (853 words)
Memory nine: all that is, is all that matters (931 words)
Memory ten: quid pro quo (385 words)
Memory eleven: on cartography and maps of the mind (414 words)
Memory twelve: squaring the circle (298 words)
Memory thirteen: I have the markings of joy (669 words)
· Memory fourteen: Beauty is the flavor of rain and winter (415 words) · Memory fifteen: I am this, I am that and I know how to make bows out of knots (620 words)
Memory one: all about good weather “Carry the good weather with you always.” is what my wily maternal grandmother would often tell me. With an unruly mass of coarse white hair and many, many curly tendrils with lives of their own, she had piercing eyes and an even more piercing tongue both of which she unreservedly used with knife-keen precision. As a thirteen-year-old girl, I lacked the flair or the chutzpah to do what she asked. Otherwise, I would have carried to New Delhi in the December of 1975 the summery joviality of Hyderabad, the fiery flavours of its mirapakayas, the tangy gongura sambhar trails along with the endless orange-gold stretches of sky all within the throbbing inner ducts of my still-forming being. “I have found myself a new job in Sahibabad in Uttar Pradesh on the outskirts of the national capital as my company in Hyderabad is shutting down,” my dispassionate father announced without preamble one agreeable Sunday in the month of October. With his breath falling heavy and solid between my mother and me, he left the room soon after saying this. The disquieting finality of his exit was intended to escape our reactions I am sure. I did see something flash fleetingly beneath the surface of his face in this second but it vanished sooner than it appeared. The moment of his announcement stretched endlessly like a sari on the clothesline for the two of us. My mother stood stunned, holding in her half-believing breath. She probably knew this was coming. I did not. For me, his words coursed like high-voltage electricity through barbed wire. The rest of the day was charred for me as were the following ones. Like all fathers of those times, my father had a forbidding reserve, call it old-fashioned refinement if you will, and it was understood that we never argue with him or express our dismay about upheavals in our lives. For him life was a simple case of what was, was, what is, is. An acceptance of the way things were and are. “If only money did not matter in our lives,” I sobbed inconsolably in my best friend’s outstretched arms that cradled me as we parted forever. Sheela Santanam and I had promised one another to “always to live our lives in the same city.” “It feels too terrible to leave behind the only place I know, my everyday realities, my home, our tight circle of friends, our petty mischiefs, our school and most of all you to move to another plane of reality. As a Tamilian in Hyderabad, I have never even wanted even to go to Madras and Delhi is just too far,” I rasped with regret in between sobs. I cried more hot tears when an afterthought struck me. “And, my widowed grandmother will have to manage alone.” As an insider to the cruel insularities of teenagers I knew too well that the remembrances of the young were fickle, seeping away as fast as ink into blotting paper. The truth was I was terrified of being blanked out by my friends. I trembled at the thought of being out of their minds with my generally undistinguished academic record and more so at the idea of being hollowed inside out in my need of them. The leaves of the tamarind tree rustled outside our bungalow and as tears glassed my eyes they dimmed into a curtain of green hues behind my eyelids. A deep sense of emptiness set in as my spirits leaked out. Memory two: neither here nor there, knowing nothing of anything So there I was standing on the platform in New Delhi, in the leaden, sullen winter twilight, scrawny and suffering, bereft of my earlier, small, outlined life lived deeply, carrying inside of me a dry mouth, a dull, aching head, a fogged mind, a thrumming, anxiety-ridden heart, disconsolate spirit that mourned what could have been and a future that frowned. The cold that merely feathered the air in the compartment turned into a calamitous raw frost, one that hit me at the first point of contact with the city. With no socks, shoes, sweater or scarf, my open, pink plastic sandals and my frock of synthetic fabric were no safeguards against the grate of the winter winds. They could not have warded off a light, spring breeze and I felt the rage of the winter spear through my long, pendulous arms and then as it crept upward through my soles and wicked away my body heat. I throbbed all over with a sense of cold and a sore betrayal, my gregariousness solidly shook out of me. As the other passengers shuffled around us and the minutes progressed, the many and varied displeasures of hell that the wretched New Delhi winter brought set in. We as a family seemed to have arrived in New Delhi knowing nothing of anything here. We knew nothing of the cold so we came unprepared with woolens to our new city. Never having experienced the stinging iciness of cold or the gelid numbness that was creeping into my bones, we seemed to have no vocabulary for it. And as a shocking variety of unfamiliar sensory impressions besieged us, olfactory, visual, tactile and auditory, we demonstrated our tentativeness, our diffidence, towards our new environment with each passing moment. We were in a double prison of body and mind. Yet at this point, rigid though I was with inexperience, I knew one thing for sure. Fitting into this city was not going to happen easily. Especially after a life cushioned with comfort. As if on cue, I heard my mother clad in a silk sari say in a voice that was audible only to me, “I feel a tingling and loss of feeling in my fingers, toes, nose, lips and ears”. Not surprising, I thought, as her silk sari that was more than adequate covering for Hyderabad seemed an absurdly ineffectual barrier here. My father? He maintained a resolute silence through our whimpering, not willing to admit his lapse of not thinking beyond Hyderabad’s four seasons, the hot season, hotter season, the hotter, hotter season and then the hottest and humid season. If he was cold in his terylene shirt and pant he did not tell us at the station. Or as we clumsily staggered behind our licensed coolie, with his red shirt and shiny arm badge, as he precariously balanced our several pieces of our luggage and shot through the over bridges with the speed of summer lightning making our breaths rise in visible puffs. Or even when we sped past the city in a cavernous black and yellow Ambassador taxi. Memory three: the mixed stink of rotting cauliflower and fart Behind the wheel of our taxi was another dangerous and distracted individual who chortled wickedly at our cowering over his dizzy speed. His face was covered with fuzzy hair and we could not say where his mustache ended and beard began. As he swerved the wide roads with wild abandon and scant respect for traffic rules or lane driving, our muffled drowsiness came to an end in a final kind of way. Our chests lurched and our stomachs churned as we tried to cope with his speed on the one hand and the smells of his cheap liquor and the mixed stink of rotting cauliflower and fart within the enclosed interiors of the taxi. It was hard to say whether he was drunk at six in the evening or still drunk from the night before. Our eustachian tubes that were plugged with the cold came jinglingly alive to the full, orchestral mode Hindi film songs he played and we pretended not to hear a man make animal sounds in one of the numbers. As we neared Ramesh Nagar by nightfall, in the western part of the city, twelve kilometers from the station, where my father had rented a flat, the barrel-chested taxi driver brought his taxi to an abrupt halt and began dramatically unloading our assorted luggage much to our consternation, his ripe belly and meaty buttocks bobbing up and down, ugly folds of flesh and fat. We were unsure of what to expect. Once our luggage was unloaded, he stomped his feet up and down, waved his arms in angry spirals and shook his head furiously. We figured that he would not take us into the narrow, haphazard, brick-paved lane with a smoky air, one that smelt of cinders and led to our first floor house. Pointing towards his tires, he seemed to argue, “I will not get my tires punctured on these untarred roads and you will have to pay me extra for loading and fastening your luggage with ropes atop my taxi.” Despite our non-fluency in Hindi we understood that this was what he was saying just as we understood the malice and avarice that glinted in his beady eyes. Used to having many courtesies extended to us by respectful and careful drivers back in Hyderabad, we stared in horror at his rough, acerbic hostility. “Bloody thieving man,” I heard my usually taciturn father say under his breath, huffed with outrage. My father used the word ‘bloody’ only when he pushed to the extreme. As his muffled rage frothed into full-blown anger, he began arguing with the driver in broken Hindi. I think his heavily accented intonations made no sense to the driver but his indignation did. The driver retaliated with some vile words, his tone histrionic and I suspect he talked of the unmentionable parts of mothers and sisters! My father finally deferred to him and paid up, scared maybe that he would brandish his furry fists and head-butt him with swift violence. The driver left with alacrity and without much ceremony. Memory four: residents, strangers, buffaloes and the spaces between The sight of boxy homes stuck one to the other in Ramesh Nagar and facing onto blackness, of un-cemented bricks on walls was brutal to us as was our glimpse of uneven brick pavements and open drains. Also coming into view, degree by unexpected degree, by the light of a half-moon, were some other lane truths. We came upon shadows that bloomed in the darkness which at first glance appeared to be large, black, moving apparitions that snorted. Points of light that gathered behind my lids began to flicker. As we dodged these shadows, new chilled fears gripped us and our unmoored minds scurried with frightful conjectures. These monstrosities turned out to be buffaloes that swatted flies with their tails and shat copiously from under them. On hindsight, our situation that I recall with embarrassing clarity was without doubt comical, if not inelegant and one possibly full of improbable misfortunes, but to us imagining our obituaries at that point and later visioning being stampeded to death after we discovered the truth of these beings was singularly unnerving. “Imagine having to live with buffaloes,” was my mother’s panicked reaction. “I have never heard of such a thing.” This discovery I know almost sank her. And their grunts that floated out on the rush of cold winds were like taunts to her. As we exerted ourselves in frazzled desperation through the narrow, dimly-lit, street hauling our lives in five bulky travelling aluminum trunks, crammed with memories of my lifetime and strung with brass locks, along with three unwieldly olive-green canvass bedrolls, two tiffin boxes made of stainless steel as we called it and a tall jug for water that I kept dropping, I sensed eyes survey us with uneasiness. Their restless, peering curiosity spoke to us from behind their windows, their whispers echoing through the black drafts of the night. The unevenness of the brick pavements at first made me aware of every rotation of my hip, every turn of my foot and then suddenly I distinctly remember feeling a sharp sense of disengagement from my surroundings as the space began to stretch endlessly ahead of me and I wondered whether I was actually in my body. My face flushed with heat, the world seemed to drop away along with the cold and I suffered from an unfamiliar combination of physical sensations, thoughts and emotions that made me believe that I was sleepwalking. Memory five: foibles, missteps and the small humiliations that hurt The next morning brought a measure of normalcy and our ruddy, square-faced, thick-necked landlord Jaswant Rai Kapoor. He flapped into our home in his wide white pajamas and short kurta, with proprietorial authority, his rugged footwear making sounds like harsh sibilants. Our family was seated on the white marble floor having idlis for breakfast and we were discomfited by his presence as much as by the cold marble which was a new physical material to us. He comprehended none of our reserve or our rigid body language. In South India, or at least in my home, we ate sitting on the floor and with our fingers and it was understood that non-family members were not to intrude into our dining spaces. Sandals were a strict no-no within our homes and bare-footedness the norm. But it looked like that this custom was unknown in these parts and our landlord’s two elder brothers clattered in, tiny particles of gravel flip-flopping beneath their sandals. Gulbagh Rai Kapoor and Gulshan Rai Kapoor, his two other brothers, exceedingly fair skinned in our eyes, with cheeks the colour of ripe watermelon and polished jawbones, looked at us on the floor, this way and that, and surveyed our food with unabashed interest. From the rocky heights of their shoulders and without restraint, they asked in Hindi, “Why are you all eating rice balls early morning. Rice weakens the system and we will send you rotis with ghee and sabzi to infuse strength into your infirm Madrasi bodies.” Between mouthful of idlis and coconut chutney, I wondered what they would have said if they knew idlis were made of fermented rice. Would we be branded as horrible subverts, as carriers of peculiar diseases? Even as our food and eating styles stood scorned in a few sentences and before we could reset our faces after our looks of quick hurt (they did not register that either), plates of rotis, subzi and tea made their way into our home. They were brought in by my landlord’s stout, gap-toothed wife Sharda, heavy in hip and thigh and with a hint of a beard and his daughter Sweety who looked roughly my age and had squeezed features like somebody had pinched them. The face had no hint of sweetness to it. Something, disappointment, maybe, flicked through the muscles of her face. Meanwhile our landlord galloped with talk, not even pausing for breath-space. In an emphatic tempo, making small, hard sounds, he told us of his reasons for choosing us as his first tenants. He was unsettlingly honest. “Madrasis, I am told, are passive as people, pay their rent on time and can be easily scared into submission as they are outsiders and would not have the gumption to stand up against the might of an angry Punjabi.” And without a pause, but with an added mix of self-possessed practicality and sly wit, he continued in his metallic voice, “Most important for me is that you people read English newspapers and I can earn more money as a newspaper vendor.” He rushed off after soon after this candid admission, his brothers following, asking us to view the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) shaka (meeting) from our balcony. “I am diehard RSS adherent. Our group provides awareness of India's glorious past and binds us in a religious communion,” he offered as explanation. Memory six: the many faults in our reality Staking out a position just beyond view of others but close enough to see, I peeked out to see what he was talking about. I realised that it was nothing like anything I had seen before. A sea of men in black forage caps, white shirts and khaki shorts vaulted from tame yoga postures to coercive paramilitary techniques using bamboo staves, swords, javelins and daggers and then ended their gambadoes with a robust nationalistic song followed by raucous laughter. It was what the shaka left unsaid that saturated my insides with a sense of menace. For the first time in my life, I felt the vibes of living precariously close to a hostile country, something that never figured in my consciousness earlier as boundaries and nationalism were not very relevant to my life. I felt a nearness to living history, to evil intent and I began to associate the colour of revolution with khaki. My landlord’s image of an overbearing, angry Punjabi came fully alive in my mind and more so in the evening as my landlord clashed audibly with a full-mouth and rough gestures with his eldest brother Gulbagh Rai Kapoor, a Congress supporter. The Punjabi expletives used freely, none of which were fully comprehensible to us, sounded virulent and my landlord we made out was hugely critical of our then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. As the city was seething with political tension with the declaration of the Emergency in June that year, where everyone’s fundamental rights stood suspended, my landlord’s wild and stormy fury I concluded was about brute political power and the terror unleashed by the state on those who defied its will. Our school in Hyderabad taught us to respect political leaders and never question the decisions of the government. So like my parents, who had an unstinting, unquestioning admiration for Indira Gandhi, I silently watched the violent exchange of words from above and threw in my support for the Congress in the battle between brothers. Yet I realised that ours was an unstated conspiracy of silence. I say this, as even at this young age where my political understanding was tenuous, I was vaguely aware that my family and I were making unspoken accommodations and settling for peculiar political and moral equilibriums because many people around us were learning the differing meanings of repression. This I derived from my reading about arrests of political leaders and crackdowns on newspapers though I must admit that most of my teenage attention was drawn to reviews of popular Hindi films, blockbusters like Sholay and Deewar whose heroes were angry young men, like the men around me. So on my first morning in the city, I figured that whatever one’s political persuasion or whatever one’s profession here violence and anger were part of that package. It also became blindingly obvious to me that my family needed a new brand of hardiness to survive not only the cold but the rough-necked life here. Memory seven: colors that agreed only in the dark In the cold light of the days that followed in my first month at this colony, it became clear to me that Ramesh Nagar’s people were from roughly comparable income groups and that their social aspirations and attitudes were not too dissimilar. In my outpourings to Sheela in a letter, I said, “Ours is a colony as earmarked for refugees from Pakistan, the majority who came here after the partition of the Indian subcontinent post 15 August 1947 from Lyallpur. In Delhi parlance, it is called a re-settlement colony, not a prestigious tag to begin life in this city. As I see it, our family are as much immigrants to this city as the residents of Ramesh Nagar are yet somehow we are looked upon with disfavor, as strangers in this land. In a socialist country like ours, we are still unequal. So much for our learning in civics and beliefs at school.” I had no one else to tell but her. Looking back, it is clear why we as a family were found wanting. We were markedly the ‘other’, our foreignness too much to overcome. We spoke Tamil which must have sounded guttural to them as their language sounded nasal to us. We wore different clothes, my father’s pristine white veshti was especially intriguing to them. We ate unknown food, raw bananas and tamarind to begin with and we conducted ourselves mildly and perhaps in an overwhelmingly orderly manner because of our middle class Brahmanical background. “There is no ronak or shor sharaba in your home,” our neighbours observed pityingly, our quiet, bland ways of communication a marvel to them. Newly opened to many scalding emotions, I made a note in my diary that “as a middle class South Indian family our toothpaste is Colgate, our radio is Murphy, our music western and Indian classical, our oil groundnut and our detergent Det. They on the other hand use toothpowder and neem twigs, have transistors to hear Hindi and Urdu news and film music, cook in an unbearably nauseating mustard oil and use a locally made dull, dirty brown laundry soap that they buy by the kilo.” If my own biases against ‘them’ were made clear so was my teenage pique. In another diary noting, I spluttered with spite. “I am looked down as I am dark, thin, have jet black hair that I part in oily waves and plait tightly and yet considered vain, westernized and upper class as I wear frocks, skirts and pants (called jean pant by them) and read and speak only in English that they consider elitist. I feel different from everyone else and am afraid of being seen as a proxy for my ethnic group. I don’t think I like them that much.” I continued in a similar, red-hot rancor rant two days after. “The girls who wear only salwar kameez and speak only Punjabi (they call it theth meaning stout Punjabi) stifle their giggles and ridicule me for exposing my legs, thighs and breasts or really my lack of them. They probably see me as an unattractive slow developer with protruding shoulder bones. They are affectionately called Pinky, Sweetie (pronounced Seeti), Rozzy (short for Rosie, I presume) and Honey at home and wonder at the lack of a term of endearment for me. Is it because you are ungainly and unattractive, they ask puzzled. Inside I feel like little hooks pull at my flesh. And when they suggest a mix of chickpeas powder and milk for my dark skin and as an urgent, instant remedy they urge the use of grated potatoes. I smile tightly and quickly and laugh a mysterious laugh to drown feelings of being maligned and as a way to sneer their belief that my physical clumsiness could be settled in this way.” Did I struggle with my skin colour? Did I think my family would love me better and young men would smile more often at me as the girls implied but did not say? I don’t think so. I was armed with enough science at this stage to laugh indulgently at the ways of these girls. Also, because perhaps even then I was not given to unreasonable hope. Not that I needed it because I rather liked my dark coloring and always considered it an unparalleled advantage. Memory eight: braving the rain to get to the rainbow But I often fell into deep despondency for other reasons. I yearned for the warm camphor-soothing melodies of my grandmother, the comfort of my friends, the scaffolding of my former school, the familiar foods, smells and sounds of my old world. I played back all my old memories in mind every day in the hope the terrible emptiness in the spaces around my heart would be filled. And I dreamt every night of waking up to my old life. When I did not a mix of anger, loss, confusion and despair filled me and I curled into a ball on days and wept till I could weep no more. Having paced the rhythms of daily life by the second month, I built a bridge between my experience and intuition to figure that while my neighbours were not so accepting of us, their own common losses of home and fortunes and the injustices they suffered in their new surroundings bound them into an immeasurably strong kinship, an overwrought one even with extreme evocation to emotion. I saw how their spirited bonds, their outsized clamor, tided them over poor housing, where most of them were trying to build houses without really knowing how, over endemic power outages, over poor civic amenities where children felt free to defecate in the open nallas and over daily disorders that boiled into open confrontations. In particular, the sanja chullah, the warm, collective, evening meal over a longitudinal coal-and-wood-heated clay tandoor, bridged their estrangements into benign fraternities with incredible ease. As the leavened dough rose within the warm embers of the tandoor, men packed in together, donning blankets and scarves and sweaters. The Kapoor brothers fizzled like sparklers as did the Sethi and Roshan brothers, all of whom had fought hot-bloodedly just a few days ago and threatened to bludgeon each other while their wives and children watched helplessly. As women served the men and children in shiny copper plates first in a clearly established social hierarchy and then gathered in a circle to eat their meal amidst the clatter of their bronze plates, gossip and laughter, the sense of community came alive. It was this spectacle of their evening togetherness, their sturdy bonds warming up the chill of the night, one night after another, which dissolved my apprehensions about their coarseness, their otherness, their combatant-ness. I decided to take a leap across the social chasm that separated us to be part of their responsive world and also perhaps address my longing to belong, one that came with another conflicting combination of wanting to be absorbed again by my old world. It was a muddied combination of wanting to have and yet not have that was confusing. Yet they reacted with spontaneity to my desire to taste the scents and textures of their food and perhaps to the charm of my artlessness. My initiation into their warm sense of community and my first feeling of safety at their centre came with my first taste of tandoori roti. They convinced me that fat in the body indicates progress and wealth. So I tucked in one more roti to keep them happy. Swallowed by their warmth, in the following evenings I learnt how to relish the unaccustomed flavours of cottage cheese, radish, cauliflower, red beans, chickpeas and peas, all cooked in a gravy of onion, tomato, and ginger-garlic paste. These were vegetables dismissed by my community as English vegetables unsuitable for the Indian palate. They I know would have been appalled by this unholy gravy, purists as they were of food, believing that vegetables needed to be cooked in isolation to bring out their flavours. Of cottage cheese they often unkindly joked that paneer was a North Indian’s idea of a vegetable. I soon learnt to ignore the buffaloes as unprepossessing specimens, slurp their creamy milk and laugh with others over our white whiskers. I learnt to savour the saccharine sweetness and the aroma of the herbal roohafza drink and to tolerate the rather vulgar sight of chicken parts splayed on skewers with a glistening orange basting and even withstand the smell of mustard oil. Being socially awkward and tightly bound to their traditional ways of eating within private spaces, my parents maneuvered around these outdoor eating escapades keeping a civil distance from them and as vegetarians the sight of dismembered chicken and goat parts agitated them. “We won’t come as we are wary of the men and women here. They say one thing and often do the other as a matter of habit. We don’t want to break bread with people who don’t see their dissembling as lapses but as creative additions to their lives. It is as if plain dealing, our small disciplines are boring and hugely dissatisfying to their minds,” my father explained to me with rare candour. “While I like their warm-heartedness, I cannot get over our landlord infinite artfulness in understating the rent received from us in receipts and his con-artistry to make making us pay for his household’s use of water and the mechanical malfunctions of our common water pump,” my mother said with sighed impatience. Memory nine: all that is, is all that matters But, I, on the contrary, took on the challenge to connect before the delicate human moments passed. I elbowed my way into the community able as I was to get my head around their incongruities, the incompatibility of these facets in my neighbours. My being a teenager, I guess, helped me handle this kind of ambiguity, dissonance, inconsistency and things out of play. I saw it kindly and understood it to be their coping mechanism and hence their enduring core and began going down every afternoon. So I dared to trade beyond my experience to linger in the sunshine with women who lay on low cots threaded with jute called manjis, their limbs so intertwined that I could not tell which limb belonged to which woman. Through their lips of clotted-red and ultra-magenta, “uncommonly bright lipsticks”, in my mother’s words, they commanded me to consider them as family and address them as maasis. Their unnaturally loud voices and their adult female strength made me obey. I munched on an odd combination of peanuts and oranges with curvaceous Manju maasi in the weak winter sun. I learnt to knit from the sag-chinned, silver-haired Puja massi, how to gather dough into a pliable and accepting consistency for rotis from Vimala maasi and from Roshan maasi I learnt to speak Hindi with the brusque efficiency of a Delhi-ite, earlier bent and reshaped to fit the needs of Hyderabad. I arced toward the voice of Roshan maasi and enunciated the words as she did while ignoring the undulating brown tartar waves on her teeth. I retain the tone of orality she taught me till date. The finesse of the Hindi from Uttar Pradesh was a superimposition on this. And, my landlady Sharada taught me how to layer myself cleverly to fight the cold, apply henna on my hair to soften it and to moisturise my body to a soothing creaminess with the top layer of milk but I drew the line when it came to using mustard oil no matter how she coaxed. I even learned to holler for neighbors who had relatives call them on the one landline phone that existed in the locality and belonged to Mr Khattar, laugh gregariously at children who called their mothers mammals as they fed their young and listen in to gossip about the buxom, fourteen-year-old Gudiya whose pregnancy ended her reckless escapades into intimacy with a photographer who had a studio in the colony. I was fully aware these things would have considered complete crudities in my old upper middle class circles. While I socialized with the ladies, girls of my age only took mildly to me. They never stepped beyond the line of acquaintanceship. I saw them struggle with their bodies that got away from them, against cultural restrictions, their inchoate anger with peer pressure at school and academic performance and forgave them for being un-bothered with my adjustment issues, my sense of un-tetheredness. I later made friends at school so I left these girls to their striving girlhoods, their modest educational ambitions, their awkward clichés of me in their mind as the strange Madrasi girl who was the furthest from fair and their brittle envy of my erudite asperity, of my speaking English so well. Memory ten: quid pro quo As quid pro quo to my camaraderie with the women, our modest drawing room became the epicenter for the colony’s avid television watchers. As the only family that owned a TV set, we had to accommodate watchers of different shows be it the half-an-hour of film songs called Chitrahaar, full length films on Sunday evening or the news. This much to consternation of my parents who were strict about my study hours. They had to put on a face of hospitality though they hated the crowding of their private spaces, the heat of collective breaths, the smell of bodies and the overhang of the smell of mustard oil. We even had viewers who seemed content to watch the government-sponsored Doordarshan montage where a disc rotated on screen endlessly to the accompaniment of the signature tune. Between my mother and me, we taught the colony women how to make spicy sambhar, braid their hair in a way to lock wayward strands, read English magazines and some nature cures for their children’s bad stomachs and worms. We were now no longer strange or in disfavor. Our neighbors began to invite us to their raucous weddings to show us how we were missing out on life’s luxuries, the extravaganzas of dancing, light displays, groom-on-horse fun and dowry displays. All we did was gawp as our weddings were sedate affairs where serious rituals overrode any kind of jollity. Yet it was not as if their comments stopped. They could not help but wonder at the sparseness of our décor, “our lack of the typical settings” as they called it. “How come you don’t match sofa sets, crockery, curtains and show pieces like us in your drawing room?, “Why don’t you arrange copper glasses in a pyramid like we do in our kitchen?”, “Why is your kitchen in a state of clutter always?” and “Why do you serve us tea in steel tumblers minus biscuits or savoury namkeens?” they asked us constantly and with extreme perplexity while giving each other smiles of solidarity. We could not seem to find the words to tell them that our lifestyles were dictated by practically rather than by exhibition or flamboyance or make them understand that it was only our newly developed feelings of immunity that saved us from complete mortification of their words. Memory eleven: on cartography and maps of the mind After my induction into our locality’s bonhomie, I began closely studying its topography. I discovered that our locality was designed in concentric circles and that even as we were settling in our colony, a new life getting invented around us. Each block of the colony had a park in the middle with paved outer perimeters surrounded by homes that were stuck to one another in an interdependent sort of way. The outer circle of the colony had dispensaries, libraries, stationery shops, restaurants, grocery shops, flour mills, a post-office, photo studios and telephone booths. My walk to our affluent, neighbouring colony Kirti Nagar, a hub for furniture makers and their warehouses, showed that it had a separate ambience and its physical closeness to us in no way meant familiarity or closeness to us. Their social and emotional universe with semi-detached homes was different from ours. Oh, my naiveté! Before that I really thought maps had unnatural lines separating one area from another! Yet I found that it was only in our locality that a man who sold handmade violins announced his presence by playing tunes of songs. The sarangi wala, as he was called, had a hoard of unruly children follow him whooping with delight. They listened with mesmerized wonder at the sonorous sounds the bulb fashioned out of a baked earthenware cup made. I saw their eyes brim with delight as the taut strings over the bamboo stick shivered at his touch. It was only in our locality that a weathered, bald man sold large white and crisp rice papads in a huge wicker basket sprinkled with mango powder. He called out to us with his tuneful song ‘karare papad lo, karare papad, lo papad, karare papad’, his adenoidal voice timbre wobbling from low to high. And it was only in our locality that I heard the twang of the heavy stringed dhunna of the cotton beater. He used his instrument to beat, re-fluff and stuff back cotton into the quilts. Within the first month of my stay I understood the luxuries of the razai, which I had never used before in my life. To me this was an inordinately flexible over-the-body-mattress that was far more comforting and thick than the mattress that I slept on. And I discovered it was only within our locality that people built a small, secret, low-roofed mezzanine room called miani to store these quilts. So my mind was made up. I liked my locality better than Kirti Nagar. Memory twelve: squaring the circle Schools. No school in New Delhi would have me in class nine. They had all hastened to their last semester in the month of December and the students were to be tested in three months. Class nine exams were crucial, a build up to class ten, the do or die situation for all Indian students. So these exams were meant to be deliberately punishing so as the sit the fear deep into living fabric of students. What made my situation worse was the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education of which I was a student in the south were being phased out in New Delhi. After many tests and many denials, the only school who was willing to take me in was the Saint Thomas School. The kindly principal seemed to take pity on the plight of our family and my obvious distress. There was a rider, of course. I was to take the exam in three months with the other students whether I was prepared or not. If the results showed up my unpreparedness I was to remain in class nine. An ignominy I think I would have borne poorly. Left with little choice, I learned to wake up at five am and get to the bus stop by six am even as the mists, white shadows with teeth, swirled dangerously. I struggled with the newness of the surroundings, the students differing ways, the syllabus, the uniform and the wearing sweaters and blazers to school. The only thing I was pleased about was my cleverness as I sidestepped Hindi as a subject and chose Sanskrit instead. My new teachers, friends and my parents helped the funneling of new knowledge and I managed to get past the exam finish line without disgrace. I somehow managed to square the circle. Memory thirteen: I have the markings of joy As I began to attend school, I fell into the rhythms of the school season as much I did of the seasons and festivals of the city. The first to come in January was Lohri, the Punjabi festival of harvest where sweetmeats made of white sesame and jaggey called rewri, popcorn and groundnuts got thrown into the bonfire only to be plucked out and eaten hot with relish. Then came Basant Panchami, the preliminary arrival of spring, celebrated by women in our colony by wearing yellow saris. The women, normally in their traditional salwar kameez, covered their heads with a pallav of the sari but their belly buttons were on show. They served us halwa made of saffron against a backdrop of provocative Hindi film songs suggestive of a variety of physical intimacies. Right in front of our house was a large gulmohur tree that remained bald in winter but with the first signs of spring, it sprouted small, pale green leaves which grew in number till the whole tree acquired a happy green foliage. Then the buds showed up and burst into red flowers. I loved walking on the rich red carpet of petals. It was around this time that the winter frost began to thaw faster than I could imagine. By the festival of Holi, it got reasonably warm and as we were a beat away from summer we were allowed to throw coloured water and balloons on one another in mad pleasure to celebrate the victory of the moral over the immoral. At this time, another fiery red, bulbous, flower the silk cotton or semul came to litter the street. In April with the ripening of their winter crop came the New Year Baisaki, where days turned from dark to bright in a seemingly single sweep. The grey sky came to be shot with sharp sun streaks, the days came to be full of diamond-dust with the subtlety of the winter sun was gone completely. And the leaves of the gulmohur first grew dark and then yellow and fell in flakes as the wind whipped them If winter was torturous, the summer months bruised by being long and uninhabitable. It was like our world was razed and remade with new kind of horrors in the offing. If I did not know extreme cold before I also had never experienced the furnace-heat that was to befall. Trees wilted and yearned for shade, the earth dried and cracked open around us and winds whipped the loose sand which whirled manically in swirling brown blurs for hours only to settle in our homes, our bodies and mostly on our eyelashes. And then there was just heat and more stifling dry heat as the sun glared down upon us day after day. In this season, our landlady took to hand washing clothes with gusto, morning to night, in monstrously huge tubs using copious amount of a blue powder dissolved in water to whiten clothes and bedsheets. Our lane’s long standing tryst with open sewers meant we were subject to gut-wrenching smells as the result of her love for laundry. As the temperature touched 45 degrees centigrade, our table and ceiling fans threw more hot air on us. Only the affluent owned desert coolers that functioned on a strange science of water, straw and a mechanical motor and made a dramatic change to the heat. We turned the banyan and peepal trees into shrines as we sought their shade during power outages. To cool our bodies down, we bought the black berried phalsa fruit from vendors who sang ‘kale, kale, phalsey, tande, mithe phalsey’ with an odd sort of pathos, drank gallons of aam panna made from roasted raw mango, sugar and a variety of spices and waited for the water supply to be switched on in the evenings to have long, cold showers. At nights I learned what it was to sleep on our terrace on white sheets under twinkling stars and the moon that turned from crescent to full. Memory fourteen: Beauty is the flavor of rain and winter Nothing snuffed the building blocks of routine more surely for me than the arrival of monsoons that flooded our entire lane in a breathtaking swampiness and gave me unplanned school holidays. I discovered the liquid pleasure of unhurriedly soaking myself in the first rainfall as I did the challenges of getting to school past our roadside cascades and muddy ponds with my white shirt dry so that my teen modesty remained intact. Eating from roadside vendors in this season was a no-no but I could never resist the temptation to slyly eat chaat, dawdling on my way back from school at his stall, which often ended in disastrous results. The resurgence of the soil became evident in the following months as a variety of vegetables and fruits emerged in our market. At Dussehra in September, I was in thrall of huge effigies of Ravana, Meghnath, and Kumbhkaran, devils of the Indian epic Ramayana, all gaily decorated in colored paper and burnt in our park. It was the time for kheel (puffed paddy) and batashe (sugar drop candy), clay toys, and animal shapes moulded out of sugar. A local troupe performed shows of the epic Ramayana in the neighborhood and the homes hung out paper lanterns, called kandil, which had papers of different colours pasted on the sides and a lighted lamp which threw out a kaleidoscope of colours. I did not think of myself as too old to buy toys made of cardboard, colored paper and bamboo sticks as well as models of ancient weapons, such as bow and arrows, swords. I was enthralled by the bulbous stick meant to crack someone's skull and shamelessly played mock battles with small boys and girls. In September came Karva Chauth where women fasted the whole day in their finery for their husbands. It held little lure for me as no special food was served and because I did not have a husband. I remember my mother was scolded for not being part of this but she bore the criticism with her usual stoicism. Then came Diwali at the end of October, the festival of lights announcing the setting in of winter, which meant long, dark nights and getting up to go to school in the bitter cold mornings. We burst crackers through the night uncaring of the environment and for me it was a departure from celebrating the festival in the morning. With Christmas, my life came a full circle after a whole year in Ramesh Nagar.
Memory fifteen: I am this, I am that and I know how to make bows out of knots While I held on strongly to my memories of Hyderabad, my life in Ramesh Nagar plotted multi-dimensionally along the axes of geography, class, language, food and ethnicity had grown on me and spread its roots under my skin. There was a new ease to my life here. It became my passageway to understanding the greater city, the adventures it held, as much it allowed me to understand myself. In that year, I learned that we really never leave things behind. That home was not where I lived but what lived inside of me, in the place that really counts. And that the only way I could be at peace was to accept that I belong equally to both places. While I could not let go of my desire of Hyderabad and all its possibilities and impossibilities, I now belonged to Delhi. So in a private reconciliation as I held both cities in my heart. I realised that at fourteen I was able to do what my grandmother wanted. Carry the good weather within. The satin sunshine of the heart. I also realised she was not talking of the weather. So in the following four years in Ramesh Nagar, I learnt to balance my taste for English classics, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Shakespeare and my inclination towards western music and singers like Paul Anka, Elvis Presley, Harry Belafonte and the Beatles with the life that was grounded in my everyday brick-lined realities of Ramesh Nagar. It was not easy to find myself amidst this balance and most often than not my lifestyle and my tastes collided. I found my life thrown off the rails without warning quite like our television set whose telecast would be abruptly suspended with a message announcing, ‘Rukawat ke liye khed hai' (‘Sorry for the interruption'). At such times, life’s certainties did not seem that certain. So while I learned to give in to fate’s meaning and its constant change, I also learnt to wrest my own meaning by taking chances with fate. On hindsight at fifty five years of age, I see my five-year stay in Ramesh Nagar as a teenager as a sort of catalogue of my journey of conflicting emotions. Of the overlap of my unstable highs and terrible lows. Of my shedding old sensory impressions and faiths and acquiring new ones. Of my recognising of people’s similarities and differences. I also see it as a phase of my gaining abilities to make unlikely connections. Of my accepting of what life had to give me. And, of my taking risks and building on ideas that took advantage of the unexpected. Over and above all these learnings, I think my life here helped me absorb new ways to live. Neighbours, strangers, the papad wallah, the chaat waala pulled, pushed and hand-held me into a familiarity with the city. Their small, intimate actions helped me get inured to the dangers of a new comer to the city and the peculiarities of the life here. They helped claim my life, my joys and a chance to return to happiness. And my world changed yet again. Today as I sit back, forty years hence in my city, my home, of New Delhi, I see the focus on identity is part of global anxiety. I know now that it is especially dangerous in a country like India where this concept is tenuous as a construct. This at it is still (as it was in the year 1947 when it became independent) a land frothing with so many identities, crisscrossed along the lines of caste, gender, class, religion, language and ethnicity. The only way to make India work is to accept that everyone belongs equally to India.