There’s that feeling that returns every time I’m on my way to or away from the airport in Delhi and the wheels of the cab swallow miles of the same tar road. I see the same houses with the same latticed windows and tall bamboo fences neatly painted green, boasting of frangipani trees; a “good” neighbourhood. I wish I had a word that could encompass this feeling, of leaving and arriving constantly, a feeling of something really familiar yet with the foresight that I would be a drastically different person the next time I travelled this road. It’s why I wave good bye to air planes in the sky because I know someone is either leaving from or reaching their sense of home or they’re suspended mid-air, searching for their sense of it.
Lying on my back on cold concrete, with my tote bag as a makeshift pillow, I watch dragonflies flit across each other’s paths like a pattern on the wallpaper of sky. None of us sitting here in the Aung Sang Su Kyi peace centre (what a weird name for a place) in the middle of the day really know what we mean when we say home or if it can ever exist outside fiction and American sitcoms. Did Aung Sang Su Kyi feel at home here, in the sixties? Does her sense of permanent displacement dictate her genocidal tendencies?
“There’s only One Tree Hill, Nathan and it’s your home.” A show that had a cult-like viewership among the niche audience of teenage girls when I was in school used this dialogue to conclude on a note of suburban bliss but can it ever exist, in reality? Can we even attempt to create it for ourselves?
I tried to befriend a cat by feeding her biscuits; sometimes she would eat half and walk away to stare out into the enormity and darkness of the world, at night. Sorry for anthropomorphizing you to embody my feelings, cat, you’re probably just looking for pigeons to eat. I waved hello to her one night in the corridor when I saw her sleeping alone in front of the water cooler, she purred back at me, followed me into my room and walked around in circles, cozying up to my ankles (approval from cat, I must be special! I’m a little scared of cats but I’m trying to overcome that). I told her she could stay but she preferred to venture back into the cold yellowness of the familiar corridor. With time, I discovered it was not food or comradeship she’s been looking for, but for a space to give birth in, she looks in the same spots under the bed and inside the cup-board each time. It reminds me of the cultural belief my mother harbours about the auspiciousness of cats and how one isn’t supposed to turn away a cat and her litter from the house. There are a couple of first year students who smiled at me when I was dragging my suitcase into the hostel for the first time this year, they always smile at me now when we pass each other in college corridors or run into each other. Sometimes I can see the inexhaustible supply of bad days that have settled into the circles under their eyes, I wonder if they can see the same under mine. One night at dinner, I shift one of the rotis from my plate on to one of theirs because we’ve all been waiting in line for just as long and it makes more sense that we both have food to eat. I remember being in the first year, looking down at my plate with hardly any food on it and tearing up. My friend split half her roti with me one such time and I’ve wanted to share that feeling with someone else since then. I remember the third years not letting us sit on some of “their” tables, “people grow that territorial with time” was the justification someone I knew came up with. Were these really the smartest students of history, political science, sociology and so-on and so-forth in this is so-called ultra-liberal space? Even naive, first year me couldn’t believe or buy that education had really made a difference to their lives. What use is it to know theories of communal ownership and the idea of property as theft inside-out when they can’t make you humanize individuals in your immediate surroundings and treat them with some sense of dignity? Are structures and hierarchies really this deeply ingrained in each of us?
The youngest are always fed first at home, I think, but women always eat last and the left-overs in my father’s family, retorts a sub-conscious voice inside my head. My thoughts soon shift to my mother’s Sunday breakfast French toast and my insatiable demand for idlis as a child. I think of the desecrated sweetened coconut stuffed inside monda pitha; a sweet my maternal grandmother often made for me in her house, in Odisha. I also think of my parents’ sense of constant disappointment at my early rejection of rice and fish as the idea of the ultimate delicacy. Only Susheela, who looked after me, could get me to eat any fish, at all, with her stories of how they married dolls in the village where she grew up and about Christmas narrated in Telugu, supplemented by the rose cookies she got me from home after Christmas every year. At night, my mother and I would sit on our first-floor flat’s balcony and count airplanes while she fed me dinner. Even today, my parents have two ground rules set for us; nobody goes to bed having skipped dinner and not having changed out of their jeans. When I fall asleep with the light left on some nights, I think of them the most.
There are some fragments of home diffused in my sensory memory like dreamy afternoon light through a window. The smell of dog fur and wet paws, chlorine, nimbu paani and Dettol. Salt water too, I’ve never been scared of swimming in seas and rivers and swimming pools. I came up to the surface when my coach pushed me into the deeper end of the pool when I was four but that’s also because I’ve always taken to water naturally and not that pushing someone in is always the best or only way to learn or teach. Warm bath water and warmer, freshly pressed clothes. The reassurance of hearing Azan in the distance every evening replaced by the reassurance of swift whir of the metro late at night. The sound of my mother’s red and gold bangles announcing her presence in the next room, intermingled with the glass bangles jingling as Shantamma, who works at our house, washes utensils ; always more pleasant than the mechanical heaviness of my father’s car rolling into the driveway like an exasperated sigh. Power cuts and petromax laltins, rainy months and magura fish the children in the household decided to save from being cooked and put into the bottom of a court-yard well. The unpleasantly chewy texture of curried wild-mushrooms, succulent potatoes cooked with meat and the refreshing stringiness of pickled bamboo shoot. Handkerchiefs and saris with the quintessential Sambalpuri Saptapar checks printed on them. Spare string cots stashed under beds. My widowed, paternal grandmother who smells of tobacco (gudaku), stories and oppression. My parents’ attempt to make me address my sister as akka, a respectable suffix that didn’t stick just like all the others. The omnipresent shadow of the big maroon bindi on my mother’s forehead, even when she takes it off at night. Her starched cotton dupattas that became a shelter for me to shy away from people when I was little, they smelled like sunlight, sweat and talcum powder mixed together. Home also smells of cigarettes smoked on that first floor balcony at night and my father’s aftershave from the time my mother wasn’t home and we couldn’t find the dettol for a wound. Sitting cross legged on a green couch and choking on my own voice while a young, sensitive therapist sits crossed legged in her blue chair in a lamp-lit room, drinking tea. “You’re very self-aware”, she says, “but where do we go from there?” I’m glad to come back here week after week in the search for hope even if it doesn’t really exist, I want to say to her. Instead, she tells me she’s feeling the same existential lack of connection and meaning that I’m trying to describe to her. Freud would have called this counter-transference of the client’s emotions on to the psychotherapist, but come on, some aspects of psychoanalysis have been a long-outdated mode of trying to completely understand the human psyche even if they still make sense in most cases.
(Does being unaware of one’s own post-modern thoughts and words make them any less post-modern? Conversations with my parents at the dinner table often echo the same existential tone and concerns professors often take on in class, just guised in simpler language and vocabulary. A sociology professor said in class that we must work with the belief that anybody is capable of making a profound philosophical statement, it’s mostly their power in society that enables them to be canonized; turned into theories to ascribe to, which is why it’s important to contextualize where these statements come from.)
I’ve always been a little out of place in every place I’ve lived in and revisited frequently, no matter how cosmopolitan or exactly because of the cosmopolitan quality of having lived in these in-between places. My accent always slightly misplaced for the particular language I’m speaking; Telugu, Odia, Hindi, even when I know I’m not exactly inarticulate; the expressions, vocabulary and syntax are decent and in place. I spend hours looking outside my criss-cross window in a room of my own, wondering if I really have somewhere left to go back to or if I would ever want to, again. This room of my own is a halfway home that can contain my dreams and words and fears better than the homes I’ve tried to inhabit before. Trying to belong isn’t lost amongst staircases where I used to hide away from raised voices and doors banged shut.
I spent most of my childhood in a room with grainy, pista green walls and a window framed by a neem tree outside, that sometimes cast monstrous shadows at night, a different world than this hostel room, cool, ‘promise pink’ walls and a window framed by a mosabmi tree that’s almost never scary. I still feel very flustered when I fall asleep having left the door slightly ajar or unlocked. Does the coming of age necessarily make allowance for overcoming all your fears?
On one particular cab ride to the airport from college, it’s almost reassuring to hear lyrics about the strangeness of coming of age; we kind of want the journey to never end. The closed, air-conditioned car just makes us car-sick after a while and our shared silence becomes a sign of being consumed by a collective nausea and a sea of traffic. The man driving it asks us if we have five minutes to spare for him to refill fuel and we agree. He asks us to vacate the car to get fuel filled, and we are greeted by the pleasant sight of a man ogling at us and our nausea just gets worse. We hurry back into the car and let the exhaustion of it all wash over us.
I really wish there was a word that could encompass that feeling of driving to the airport every time or falling asleep with your bags all packed or in an empty room packed into cartons, a sinking feeling that characterizes the sense of an ending. To describe how the laburnums return every summer in Delhi just like the gulmohars return in full bloom before every monsoon in Hyderabad. All I can do is cling on to shadows of the fact that I had lived there, lighter portions where posters were sello-taped on to walls and ribbons with fraying edges tied on a cane book-shelf. I don’t have enough words to make this sense of belonging last, as I always outgrow it eventually, it never outlasts my attempts and yet, I keep trying to hold on to it.
Written by Priya Tripathy
Image by Megha Chakrabarti