Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Crossing into Delhi

 

For the first time in my life, I experienced my spectacles becoming goggles. I had to credit Delhi’s smog for this gift. The feeling of being promoted from a small town to a metropolis evaporated as soon as the Sabzi Mandi station helped the odours of the national capital to assault my nose. All the icky vegetables and family quarrels, which threatened to mar my idyllic images of Chandigarh, trumped (shouldn’t use that word nowadays, who knows US intelligence may zero in on me as a wannabe immigrant) the alien reproductions of Rajmah-Rice.

My history books referred to the jewels of the Khilji, Lodi, Mughal and Gandhi dynasties (they refuse to let go of their stake in 7 RCR), that had converted the innocuous and dusty city into a marvel. They mentioned stories carved in stone, songs thrumming in inlay work, art peeping from every corner (not literally, obviously), and culture seeped into the earth of the city of djinns. As compared to the newness of Chandigarh’s well-planned, grid-like, organised structure with little history to boast about, Delhi was a treasure trove.

I must be truthful here- my first impression of Delhi wasn’t so stunning. I distinctly remember turning my nose away from the piles of rotting garbage, staring in horrid fascination at a shopping centre painted entirely in white and paan stains, and furiously hoping that I’d see an actual tree, or even an (impossible) sparrow somewhere. Many visitors and travellers who have documented the city and struck gold in writing about its glorious past say that the city grew on them. Its markets awed them. Its people won their hearts. Its divinely ordained rulers benignly appointed them as advisors or scribes.

My experience was a little different.

The only growth I witnessed was that of eve-teasing and traffic in the evenings. The people were unusually helpful in terms of pushing me out of the metro when my station arrived. And the rulers worried tremendously about what the Delhi Police Chief was saying, which new crime an AAP MLA had committed, which house they wanted after the next election in Lutyens’ Delhi, and how many barricades would have to be placed in front of the US consulate. They should consider surrounding it with a wall now, paid for by our cashless economy. The amazing markets, as is evident from a sudden spurt in my book collection (only 40 Rupees for Half Girlfriend Madamji-no I didn’t buy it) though, didn’t disappoint.

But for every shrill whistle I heard, I received a pleasant smile. For every rude autowallah, I met one who wanted to use the meter. For every pile of garbage, I got the National Museum and the Bharat Rang Mahotsav. For every rue-ler, I got an activist. For every expression of disdain, I found hope.

And horror of horrors, I seemed to like it.

Despite all these factors, I want to sincerely thank God for giving me the opportunity to venture towards new horizons.

Shit.

I think I stepped into a muddy pothole.

I take my gratitude back.

 

by Tript Kaur
Image by Hitashi Arora

Thresh Too Old?

‘You’re enthusiastic, but you kinda don’t know too much. Let’s see what happens now,’ the fifteen year-old video game enthusiast I was trying to be sociable with said, ‘done with [my] lameness.’ He had been forced to my house as his own house was locked, his parents being gone on an impromptu outing. Indeed, I kinda knew nothing about the game he was trying to play, which is probably evident by my usage of the phrase ‘video game enthusiast.’ What I did know about was Christmas – I’m a ‘Christmas enthusiast.’ I had an entire planner dedicated to having the best Christmas possible, complete with an 8 am to 10 pm schedule of Christmas Eve, which included inane things like 8 am – drink tea, what-is-wrong-with-you things like 9:30 am – put tinsel on tree, and extra enthusiastic things like 9 pm – force parents to listen to Christmas carols (this ended up not happening).

I can’t quite pinpoint when my fascination with Christmas began. It wasn’t religious. Maybe it was the fact that the society I lived in celebrated Christmas with an enthusiasm that made me look like Darth Vader, involving a reluctant Uncle forced into a stuffy Santa Claus outfit who would proceed through the building distributing toffees, followed by a gaggle of children who would attack the toffee-distributor in scenes reminiscent of The Lord of the Flies. Said children would then be forced into uncomfortable costumes and dance to either Ganpati hymns or Sheila ki Jawaani. There was no in-between. These little monsters also made sleep impossible for the building by practising ‘A Parthridge in a Peal Tlee’ and other Christmas carols at the top of their lisping voices in the afternoon.

I was the most enthusiastic of these Jacks and Ralphs, and I loved all of this. I also loved the sense of anticipation of gifts, both giving and receiving, the decorations, the lights (aesthetic before it was cool), and the cakes. Christmas seemed like an amalgamation of my favourite sins – gluttony, sloth, and covetousness, wrapped up in socially acceptable fairy lights. I revelled in these sins, and callously gave little thought to the birth of Christ. Now, looking at the teenager slouching on my sofa, it is hard to reconcile his current hunched posture and social disdain that seems borrowed from a ‘Cliché Teenager Traits’ listicle to the little fellow who threw a sparkly purple shirt with panache at the audience, gyrating to Hud Hud Dabangg (evocative of the true Christmas spirit). Anticipating his disgust at my no-chill activities, I settled down with my box of decorations in front of the Christmas tree. Sure enough, the bemused question came, ‘What are you doing bro?’ I said, with a degree of shame that I was decorating. ‘You’re doing it all wrong, he said. And then, in a moment of true glorious magic-of-Christmas, this model of neighbourly apathy sat down next to me and proceeded to decorate the tree, and then the room with me, the beauty of the moment marred only by an occasional ‘snowmen have snowballs’ type of joke.

Planning, for me, is an act born of anxiety. Anxiety about not being able to accomplish what I want to, but also anxiety about not being able to control what lies ahead. By putting down words in a square designated box I manage to tell myself that everything that seems to be spiralling out of control can be hammered neatly back into shape (it has been established earlier that I have no chill). I plan not only for possible crises, but also for good things, for fun. But you can plan your little heart out, but more often than not, life will not go according to plan. My life thus far seems like a series of fully-planned, half-finished projects. Maybe on the threshold of the Time of Resolutions, I can resolve to accept that this is the beginning, and all I can do is go ahead one step at a time. The best moments, like a headphone-toting neighbour arguing with you about candy cane ornaments, can’t be planned anyway. So I start writing, ‘I’m enthusiastic and I kinda don’t know too much. Let’s see what happens now.’

Happy New Year (a month late, because who believes in dates and all that), to everyone!

Written by Anushmita Mohanty

Image by Kanishka Zico

Flight/Fight

We had been waiting for over twenty minutes on that flyover in Munirka. I wasn’t worried, there was still an hour before the counter closed, and we had already checked in. I’d tell that to myself a lot that night – we have already checked in. I would cling to those words like a life raft that would take me back home. As soon as we were within a certain radius of the Airport, the traffic intensified. The car moved at an aching pace. I felt claustrophobic, surrounded by a sea of cars that stood as a barrier to going back home.

The city was on high alert after a surgical strike. Was this surgical strike going to eliminate my mid-semester break, too? The helplessness got truly maddening when I came within eyesight of the airport. That was when we started wondering if we could walk to the airport, if we should walk to the airport. Ten minutes before the counters would close, were we really hedging our bets by lugging our fat bags to the airport? It seemed nearby but I didn’t see any trolleys around and walking is a whole other ball game. The traffic would soon relent, I hoped. I had been hoping that for the last 40 minutes and it had only relented enough to keep me out of full despair, but still in agony. The sickening thought of not going back home for Pujo crossed my mind, but I was ready for my Home Alone 2 moment. I was not going to lose the money we spent on these tickets. I was preparing to run across the airport to the plane, all the while chanting, “We have already checked in! We have already checked in!”

The driver  picked up his smartphone to end our ride. The application asked him if he was sure he wanted to do that before reaching our destination, another moment to consider just how much time it would take to get to the airport on foot. I was also beginning to wonder if there wasn’t some way to call IndiGo and tell them to wait for us, to let them know about the hellish traffic situation outside. Then finally, the cars began to move. In a minute or two, we had reached the airport, Disha got us a trolley. We paid, and the cab driver wished us luck. Our Home Alone 2 moment was here.

***

Diya hauled the bags on to the trolley and I steeled myself for a run. Then, just like Harry and Ron at King’s Cross in the second novel, we hit a wall. People were being let in through only two of the many sliding doors that led into the airport and my heart sank as we joined at the end of a long line. The woman at the beginning of the line was having some trouble with her ID, and as I was bouncing on my heels, I saw the second gate. We started running again. Within another minute we were finally inside the Indira Gandhi International Airport.

And within another few minutes, we found ourselves at the end of another much longer line. Should we say something to these kind people who were standing in front of us in the line? Isn’t there something like a final call when they ask if there’s anyone in the line who has to board xyz flight? Diya, to whom I was directing every question and anxiety, only kept chanting, “We have already checked in!” and “oh, look, the line is moving…” The knots in my stomach were becoming agonizing now.

At 7:10, 10 minutes after the counter was scheduled to close, we finally reached the counter. For the life of us, we could not ask the dozen or so people in front of us if we could cut the line. The man behind the counter looked at our tickets. I hopefully began hefting our fat bag and suitcase on to the conveyor belt. And then, he pronounced in a solemn tone that the counter had closed.

However, he directed us to counter D10. Stupid with anxiety, I said – “but we have already checked in. Can’t you just take our bags?” The man looked apologetic, but only repeated himself. I turned around to look and our trolley was gone. “They even took our trolley away!” I shouted at the man, as if that was a compelling enough reason to relieve us of our baggage. “Ma’am  ko ek trolley lake do!” the man behind the counter shouted to someone nearby. “You go to D10, I’m coming with the luggage.” Diya told me.

So, this time, I ran. I well and truly ran, like the McCallisters in Home Alone 2. D10 was crowded, there was no distinct line, everyone was jostling to get to the front. There were two women behind the desk. I managed to hand one of  them my ticket, amidst the madness of other troubled passengers. She looked at it for a moment. “Sorry, ma’am,” she said, not sounding sorry at all, “you cannot board the flight.”

***

I was ready to break into tears. This could not be happening. There were others around us who had also been sent to D10 to be given the bad news. Everyone pleaded with the personnel there. Another girl was also headed to Kolkata and asked if we too were on the 7:45 flight. Everyone there talked about the unprecedented traffic outside. “Please” was getting us nowhere. Of course, they would just love it if we missed this flight and paid an obscene amount for another ticket. I began to feel angry. There were still 35 minutes left for departure. They were simply holding us back, I realized. The long wait outside had given me enough time to stare at the print of the boarding pass. “Boarding closes 25 minutes before departure” the boarding pass told me. I had also recently gotten a text message telling me that boarding would happen from gate 7B; it had also reminded me that “Boarding closes 25 minutes before departure”. It was time to be the indignant customer.

Right about now, I had my fight-or-flight response, rather, fight-for-flight response. I reminded the IndiGo personnel at D10, again and again, of the information their messages had drilled into me. We already had our seat numbers; they were the only ones holding us back. The stone cold logic of a well-informed customer won and we were allowed to pass. Our entire luggage would have to be carry-on. One of their personnel accompanied Disha and I to Security Check-in. We had finally overcome our inability to cut to the front of the linlso our bags probably told everyone we were running to make a flight.

Adrenaline had kicked in and we were running with the same fat bags that we had worried would make walking to the airport impossible. Even if we were not running, we were at least moving as fast as was possible while simultaneously dragging our bags, sans trolley. We thought, at every point, that someone would stop us. In the departure lounge, as we rambled to gate 7B, my phone rings. I know it’s our father. You’d think he’d know better than to call now. If anyone knows when our flight is supposed to leave, when the counter is supposed to close, he does. Yet, knowing that we are probably running for our lives right now, he still calls.

I tell him that we are running and hang up. We descend the escalators and can see that the area around gate 7B is empty, but the screen above still shows the words “Final Call”. (To think that the stupid people at D10 weren’t going to let us go while it was still final call.) There was still someone there to scan our tickets, he makes a few calls, and we are allowed to go! We run to the doors leading to the bus and the guard over there doesn’t even check our tickets. People finally wanted us to make it! Even though the woman near the bus questioned if our very large bags would be allowed on, I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

***

I heard the doors of the bus open, but the door that I was standing in front of, remained firmly shut. The only other passenger on the bus, a man with a far smaller suitcase than ours, dismounted from the door near the driver’s seat. Yet again, I dragged the heavy black bag across the bus. I saw the number on the plane and then stared at my boarding pass. Flight number 6E 176, it said. But on the plane, it was… what was that? Could we have possibly been led to the wrong plane? I had been unable to rid my mind of the various Home Alone scenarios, and here it was again. What if we get on the wrong plane? And so, I asked the bus driver, “Yeh kya flight 6E 176 hain?” like he was driving the plane and not the bus. He nodded.

And so, we were finally about to board the plane. But my mind was conjuring up yet more hurdles for us. We hurtled towards the ramp that leads up to the plane’s door. I sent a prayer heavenward that they were not stairs. We were at the end of our tether and any more hefting felt impossible. The men standing by the ramp checked our tickets, tore a piece off and didn’t say anything like, “you can’t board the plane with that much baggage” like they did in the absurd nightmare scenarios in my mind.

The airhostess smiled as we came panting into the plane at long last. In my imagination, the aisle of the plane was so narrow that we would be unable to carry our bags to our seats. So, either we would have to carry them coolie-like to our seats and then place them in the overhead space or just leave them there, next to the door of the plane. But we managed to drag our unwieldy bags to 6E and 6D, our seats. 6F, the window seat, was empty. I wondered as I struggled to stash the bags in the overhead space, if that seat belonged to the girl at D10, who couldn’t board the flight because she had not checked in. It probably did.

I was still breathing loud and fast as I sat down at last, homebound. The last hour had been unusually long. A family of three entered the plane. I didn’t remember seeing them at D10, so maybe, they were even more late than us. But they, too, must have checked-in online. 6F remained empty. Diya and I felt bad for that girl who missed her flight, she was as old as us. Her hair was coloured, she was wearing a bright green shirt, makeup… Even though, under normal circumstances, we wouldn’t have cared much for one another, we shared a kind of kinship of distress in those frustrating five minutes at D10, shouting at IndiGo personnel.

Finally, there was a soft ding and the airhostess announced that boarding was complete. We were texting our parents, looking forward to the episodes of Crisis in Six Scenes that we had saved as our in-flight entertainment. Our hand baggage was occupying 6F, and before the plane took off, Diya moved to sit next to the window.

After the plane landed in Calcutta, it was announced that the baggage in the cargo would be arriving at belt number 5. At least we wouldn’t have to wait for the bags to arrive; the evening’s woes had at least enabled this final, little relief.

Written by Aishwarya and Priyanka Kali
Featured Image by Sanna Jain

The Crosshatched Meeting of Overlapping Circles

Despite all their sharp edges, labels can be affirmations and assertions too. They appeal to man’s yearning for certitudes, an eagerness to simply settle and be at peace. We gravitate towards easy definitions, and for many, part of the answer comes easy. Others live off of bits and pieces of borrowed legacy, are mute in a room of relatives, and go shifty-eyed when asked where they come from. There is a constant, nagging pressure in us, born out of that same longing, to be sure about at least this one part of ourselves in an ever-more-confusing world, to say with conviction – here, this is where I belong. For a certain section of an older generation, hometowns become more than where they come from; these are also the places they will return to. My parents, for example, will attest to this. People like me will not.

As children of metropolises, what we pride ourselves on is the multiplicity of the identities we possess, that we can slip into or out of, as the moment demands of us. Arrayed against us are our parents, who belonged to a culture that was distinctly, uniquely, their own, well-loved and precious. Even as they transplanted themselves into the strange landscape of the city, they knew exactly who they were and what they would, at the end of it all, come back to. Their children, on the other hand are set down against, and grow up with, a diversity that is incredible and awfully confusing, all at once.

Our parents’ sense of identity is drawn from their attachment to their homeland, along with all its palpable history, language, customs and society. Ours is a bit all over the place. Till I was 7 years old, we lived in an old colony in Sarojini Nagar. We shifted, and that was the last I ever thought of it. Those had been the first seven of my formative years, but I have never felt any nostalgia for my childhood home. In hindsight, there was not an awful lot I was leaving behind. I can remember no ties I was intimately bound in. As I theorize now, we were rather like an island, isolated and self-sufficient, and I doubt there was the sense of community that, say, my parents felt back in their hometowns in Kerala. Diversity is variety, and that, they say, is the spice of life, but sometimes, it’s just a fancy word for difference.

As a kid, I first learnt the English alphabet, and went to an English-medium school. My grandmother taught me to read and write Malayalam, her native tongue. Hindi came in last, despite it being the currency of everyday interaction with Delhi-ite classmates. I knew how to count in English first, a little later and more limitedly in Malayalam, but rather shamefully, almost never in Hindi. (Even now, God alone knows what the Hindi word for thirty-one is.) Today, Malayalam feels stunted in my mouth, and Hindi grammar in my hands is a strange slippery thing still. And there are days when no language sits quite right on my tongue, and in the recesses of my mind, my thoughts are in a curious jumble of the three.

Every summer break, we travel to Kerala, from a more familiar habitat to a less familiar one. To our parents, no doubt, it is a sweet homecoming, a reunion with the smells and tastes and sounds of something that is incontestably home. The first parting from it would have been a difficult, emotionally harrowing experience. I doubt I would be heart-broken if my search for greener pastures led me beyond Delhi. It is currently home because it is familiar, but time makes the mysterious, known. My instincts are attuned to Delhi, but my emotions stay well out of the equation. It is after all, not someplace that I identify a whole gamut of cultural markers with.

This is a generation without roots, it is said. We respond royally that we, in fact, are global citizens. We can, and do, feel comfortable and just fine anywhere in the world, thanks. It is difficult to say whether this is more or less fulfilling than the more easily sketched identities of our parents. It is simply a matter of difference. We know just enough to have an insider’s perspective and an outsider’s objectivity on one-and-a-half cultures. Growing up with plurality makes us a little more tolerant, a little less suspicious, but also a little doubtful about our own place in the world. We do not have a primary identity perhaps, some singular sense of self that can be asserted with unflinching certainty. Instead, there is a malleability there that is, I suspect, as frightening to us as it is to our family.

Let us not choose then. And let us embrace this not-choosing.

Let us not surrender to the pressure of becoming comfortable in one skin, but see, instead, with this double vision all the time. Let us tiptoe along the border of often ill-melding cultures, falling sometimes one way, often the other. Let us always launch into complicated explanations of familial genealogies when someone asks where we come from.  Let us nestle right into that liminal space where we are neither wholly of one nor absolutely of another.

The longed-for constancy can perhaps be chanced upon differently. Maybe we can decide to swear by something else altogether – follow that age-old adage that home is where the heart is. And the heart doesn’t know places; it knows people. My family’s base camp might be Kerala, but my loved ones are mine.

Written by Swathi Gangadharan
Featured image by Sanna Jain

The Sun Had Broken Down

It was as if the sun had broken down on the field, and I wondered whether this was the field Rumi had mentioned. Could it be, trailing along the highway that snaked itself around the waist of a rather murky city, could it be the field where there is no sense of right and wrong? The mustard plants looked like a blurry blanket of leftover fireflies. It looked beautiful. The city was fast approaching on the wheels of the bus. And my mind went back to the yellow. I had seen quite a few variants of yellow. I had seen it in monuments, in the drapes of little puppets, in the sand that made Jaipur. The literature fest was a learning experience. Rhetoric was the main thing that I learnt, along with the art of capturing an audience whose native language might be different from yours, but who owned now a language that had somehow nudged in and become a household tongue, uniting so many.

I learnt a rather hard lesson as well. Literature, or any form of art, wasn’t accessible to all. If you don’t have the means to buy a book, you cannot get it signed by its author. Now, signatures aren’t important, but the validation of realizing that the man to whom you owe your childhood, and your crumbs of imagination, is real, is after all a human being, is important. Imagine seeing J.K. Rowling in front of you and realizing that Harry Potter, although fictional, exists. It exists in her mind and in your heart, and it has shaped you both. But, you cannot reach out to her, owing to commercialisation.

The literature fest had a rather, well, capitalist mentality, in stopping readers from approaching authors.

Oh, so you want to thank your favourite human being on the planet for writing books that re-affirmed your faith in the good of humanity? Buy his book, then we can sell his signature to you, we can sell his time.

Far away from the green crowd, I had to rush into the pink hue that the city promises. And, I was lost. I was lost in archways, in the pillars, in the windows, and the architecture of a city that had been silent throughout its people’s sufferings. It has seen changes, it has seen an Amber built on its hills, and then a Town Hall built alongside the Hawa Mahal. But, it has stood firm, not losing its character, not losing its quirks, not losing its pink post the sunset. It is a colourful city, a montage of the past and the future with high-rises and crumbling forts. It is a historic city, which chronicles how people do not change; their experiences might, but their crux remains the same. It is a city, after all. It does what all cities do – it endures.

The fort of Amber is majestic, and the sun looks like a defiant ball of rage as it tries to melt the granite inlaid in the city steps. It is surreal to think that people ruled there, that the monarchy existed and of the splendour which was at its command. Has anything changed now? Is it democracy what India is nurturing at the moment? And, what of India’s splendor? Is it marked by the number of skyscrapers built in the ruins of an ancient heritage? India’s splendour cannot be like the form of art that is made inaccessible to those who lack the economic agency to own some precious part of it. There is no throne any more, and there should be no single man wielding exclusive power over India’s splendour.

Splendour is in the mustard fields that remind me of a certain movie and a certain man who held the star-soaked sky in his outstretched arms. It is in the yellow of the soil, of the staple that makes every place in this country a household. The splendour is in us too, as we sit in a bus and wait for a city to crash upon us, maybe disliking it for its guts, but still admiring it for the same. There is splendour in this – in being able to recognize and claim what is ours and what we must make accessible, in never stopping the search for that field where the sun breaks on our perceptions of what truly is right or wrong.

Written by Adrija Ghosh

Featured image by Hitashi Arora

Night, A Few Shades Darker

City-dwellers have never known that shade of the night that is an absolute, pitch black. Slivers of light leak out from the various orifices of the metropolis, and even when they hardly illuminate, they interrupt the dark, shear it of its blackness. In a particular little slice of Kerala-forest that nestles a familiar, well-loved house in its middle, the night is not so assailable. Here, the next-door neighbour’s house is easily a city-block away. It could, perhaps, be a pinprick on the horizon if not for the enthusiastic crowd of trees in my line of sight. So when the night descends, the house’s lonely front-door lamp has the unenviable task of warding off the dark, unaided by a streetlight or even moonshine, which is sucked up by the looming foliage, sponge-like.

It is on this annual Kerala getaway of mine that I know that shade of the night. This night is so tangible a presence that walking through it sometimes makes my steps falter, and before the rational part of my brain comes back online, I am sure for a moment of crashing into it like you would into a brick wall. This is the kind of night that seems so impenetrable that the idea of torchlight dispersing it is laughable right up to the moment that I flick it on. And if unarmed with one, this is that shade of night that steals away vision so effectively that I might as well walk with my eyes shut, for I am equally blind either way. It is also exactly that shade of night that I can look out into, and remain unafraid of.

In Delhi, home ends the moment I step over the threshold of my house. From that point onwards, I am at DEFCON 1, till I get to wherever I am supposed to and the door shuts reassuringly behind me. Ten paces away from the front door is as not-home as the flight of stairs just below my floor or the park right at the heart of my colony or the parking lot right outside it or the flyover fifteen minutes away or the metro station twenty minutes away. The familiar is not the safe in the city. Bathed in daylight, sometimes it feels like it might be, if I wanted to be lulled into a nice complacency, but the night strips it bare of its pretensions. At night, I look into the diffused dark and I am afraid of the things I can no longer see coming.

The only place where the night belongs to me is on this yearly holiday. No human activity stirs the silence of the night. Unlike in the city, everyone here has a similar routine. They are all, without exception, ensconced in their respective faraway homes by dusk. The silence lies as heavily upon the world as the night, broken only by the chirping of an occasional cricket or the quiet rustling of the trees. In the midst of it all, I feel no need to arm myself with courage and a pepper spray to walk to my neighbour’s house. I meet no one at all as I make my way along the narrow dirt-path that winds through the forest, which is equally inhospitable and unknowable to everyone in the dark. Nature stamps her claim on the night, and this dirt-path is the compromise. So be it.

Stargazing on these country nights is a wonder, sure, but the calm security of their darkness is a revelation. Once a year, it is liberating to know that the familiar can be the safe. Once a year, the night can be equally unsettling to everyone, and in that shade of the night, home extends its boundaries as far as me.

Written by Swathi Gangadharan

Featured image by Stuti Pachisia

Of Holidays and Sadness

‘One day I will come to the hills and not bring any sadness with me.’

Being sad is not limited by metros and trains, like my pet cactus Benny is (plants are not allowed in metros).

Sadness travels everywhere.

You will do many happy things in the hills.

You will sing and dance in buses.

You will breathe in the mountain air that tastes so different from the city air.

You will pose ridiculously in touristy places.

You will laugh over books with your friends, sitting in a cramped train compartment.

You will go for walks that sometimes give you the illusion of being alone with the hills.

You will pretend you are gazing at the sunlight against red leaves when you are trying to hold in the motion sickness.

You will have encounters with monkeys, and stay up all night (or not).

You will hike to distant places, and play cards in odd spaces.

You will do many other things that I would never do, but I think at some point we would feel a similar relief over our happiness.

While you are doing some of these things or all of these things, your city-sadness will come to you, as if you’d stuffed it in your packet of socks, or mixed it into your sanitizer.

You will feel sadness that I’d never feel, but I think at some point we would feel a similar frustration with our sadness.

Holidays cannot erase sadness. Sometimes they lessen it, and sometimes they increase it.

Star-gazing is wonderful. Tiny points of light swell up inside you, pushing out all the tiny problems – but I have realised that no amount of star-gazing can replace tiny problems, because holidays end, and so does the night.

So then, what was the point?

The hills, too, aren’t limited by metros and trains like my pet cactus Benny is (plants are not allowed in metros, but pots and soil are).

‘One day when I am sad, I will bring the hills with me.’

Written by Anushmita Mohanty

Featured image by Stuti Pachisia

What Venturing into the Unknown Taught Me About Faith: Rendezvous With Rats

Life had, for a while, meant monotony. Even this – my parents’ decision to visit Rajasthan, the dry lands of India – could not possibly jostle me into excitement. After an excruciating journey, we decided to spend the night at Bikaner and head towards Jaisalmer on the morrow. My father, a man of restless disposition, was keen to extricate something memorable out of this seemingly far-from-stimulating place.

One of the locals threw the words “The Rat Temple” into my father’s ears and he jumped at it with all the readiness of an optimist. Intrigued, we decided to find out the truth about the temple before visiting it. A local priest came to our rescue. It may sound like a nightmare from the New York City subway to some, but in India’s small northwestern city of Deshnoke, this is a place of worship: Rajasthan’s famous Karni Mata Temple.

Goddess Karni Mata, the divinity with mysterious healing powers, belonged to the Charan clan and was born on October 2nd, 1387 in Suwap, Rajasthan. Her real name was Ridhu Bai. One day, as her aunt combed her hair with one hand, Ridhu Bai asked her why she wouldn’t use her other hand, upon which her aunt told her how she had lost it to disability. Ridhu Bai took the hand in her own and said “Where is the defect, it is all right,” and, legend has it, her hand was cured in a moment. Awe-struck, her aunt renamed Ridhu Bai as “Karni” (the wreaker of miracles on earth).

Karni Mata, a mystic matriarch of the fourteenth century, is believed to be an incarnation of Goddess Durga – the deity of power and victory. The story goes, that when the child of one of her clansmen died, she had attempted to bring him back to life, only to be told by Yama, the god of death, that he had already been reincarnated as a rat. Karni Mata cut a deal with Yama: that day onwards, all of her tribes-people would be reborn as rats until they could be born back into the clan. In Hinduism, death marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one on the path to a soul’s eventual oneness with the universe. This cycle of transmigration is known as samsara and is precisely why Karni Mata’s rats are treated like royalty.

The Karni Mata Temple, located in the small town of Deshnoke (about 30 kilometers from Bikaner), is also known as “Chuha Mandir” (the temple of Rats) and was erected following her mysterious disappearance from her home. This temple is one of the strangest attractions in India, as rats – associated with plague and other diseases, and considered vermin in many cultures – are treated as sacred and given protection in the temple, locally known as “Kabbas.”

Among the inexplicably true facts about the temple, we were told, is that despite there being around twenty thousand rats here, no one to this date has seen any baby rats. Their reproduction continues to be a mystery. Devotees feed the rats enthusiastically, and yet, all of them remain the same size. Moreover, their numbers have remained constant – something diametrically opposed to the usual trend of rat populations, which is to increase rapidly. Another miracle is that rats do not run away from humans here. Rather, they climb on your shoulders and drink the milk you offer them. If one kills a rat here, one needs to replace it with a gold or silver rat of the same size, shape, height and weight. The temple gates are always open, but the rats never leave, and always stay within the temple boundaries. It is believed that when a temple rat dies, there is a consequent birth in the tribe. To this date there have been no epidemics in Bikaner, in spite of having so many rats!

The ‘facts’ were made-up stories to our outright logical and only-what-you-can-explain-is-true city brains. And yet, despite all my atheistic impulses, I will now tell you that there was an unintelligible feeling about the place. I could feel my body becoming lighter and lighter as I walked into the temple. I have been told that I’m extremely psychic and intuitive so I thought this feeling was unique to me. Then, as we came closer, our legs hung as loose weights at the sight of around twenty thousand rats running freely on the temple floor.

We stood there fixated, while my dad, the hero of the family, went and completed an entire chakra (circle) of the temple. Next, it was naturally my turn, as I had waged an unhealthy internal rebellion against myself since an early age. I was the, “Oh if you can do it then why can’t I?” kind of girl. I shuddered at the sight of a mosquito at home but I had to appear composed at the thought of innumerable rats moving all over me. I began talking to myself in my head, as I am wont to do. “Hmm. Alright, I’m going to do this!” “Ready?” “Yes, I am!” “Sure?” “Yes idiot, of course!” I began to lose my nerve and had almost rejected the plan when the incomprehensible energy surrounded me yet again and I felt an innate impulse to walk on. Before I knew it, I had completed an entire chakra of the rat temple. Six rats scampered over my feet and one jumped on my hip. I even saw two white rats that are meant to bring great luck.

Just when I was assured of the uniqueness of my psychic abilities, I saw my mom moving towards my dad and myself. Up until that moment, the theory of life on the Sun would have been more plausible to me than the idea of my mother, a lady given to hysterics and an almost paralysing animal-phobia, walking amidst rats of her own will. Before we knew it, she had completed an entire chakra as well. Everything was so strange that I struggled to keep standing without visibly shaking. When I asked my mom why and how she did it, she told me: “I just had to. I couldn’t stop myself from walking on. I still don’t know how or why, but it was meant to happen”. My father, without having heard my mother’s words, said something very similar himself.

Next we met a young fellow whom everyone was lining up to shake hands with. We were told that he had been struck by a fatal illness when he was 14. The doctors had given up on him. Thereafter, he was brought to the temple and was made to drink the same water that was offered by devotees to the temple rats. He awoke instantly after sipping the holy water – blessed, it would seem, by Karni Mata herself. He has been living at the temple ever since, and has devoted his life to Karni Mata’s service. Yes, call me absurd, but when I shook hands with him, I could feel his energy flowing through me and instantly changing something within me. All of a sudden, I felt powerful, like someone had just force-fed me bottles of Gatorade.

That night, none of us spoke to each other back at our hotel, which was rare for our talkative family. It was as if we had all found solace in our respective worlds. The trip to Rajasthan went by. Today, I can hardly remember any other sights or smells from the admittedly beautiful place. The peace I found within my own self was so overpowering that, for a while, the outside world didn’t matter.

My family is still as disinclined towards religion or visiting temples as before, but whenever we encounter a difficult situation, the words that come out of our mouths are, “Jai Karni Mata!” We believe that our faith in her blessings has created an energy field encircling my family that ensures that there is a considerable distance between the evils of the cosmos and us.

This trip led me to faith – spiritual, if not religious. This faith was sparked by a chance encounter, but will stay burning for eternity. If you feel this overwhelming, powerful sense of faith in someone or something, do not ignore it. Miracles, I believe, are nothing but a manifestation of the energies, hopes, and beliefs of the tireless human spirit. Let not having faith not keep you from unusual realizations. Go against what you’re expected to do. Choose to believe.

Written by Avnika Gupta

Featured image by Sanna Jain

No, I Do Not Have A Home

I see three girls sitting on the terrace next to my building. They are discussing, rather loudly, the regret that seeps in after a loved one is gone from our lives. “You will regret even the memory of their presence after you’re through with them.”

I smile as I remember talking myself hoarse in just the same way once, with Sreyasha and Prerana, sitting on a stranger’s terrace (chaat). “Chaat is the finest antidote for all that is irreparably bishonno (melancholic),” I had read somewhere. I miss our chaat.

Our midnight discussions conclude upon one note – no, we are never through with some people even after their absence, voluntary or otherwise.

Our conversation doesn’t limit itself; it strikes myriad notes. It travels through dark alleys, in strange taxis, through yellow lights, manifesting in our sudden decision to pull a night that we will forever remember. A sudden, unplanned never-ending night that breaks into dawn at a forlorn park where we can discuss our political ideologies and listen to a single song, over and over again. We could never recreate that night.

Perhaps, we can repeat our stunt, but for that we have to be in sohor (city). And sohor is where they are, where there are yellow taxis, and where there is a sense of belonging to the era where rock music and revolutionary leaders meet at a clandestine chaa’er bhaar (tea cup). But, in a strange city, I see those girls dealing with life, and I know everyone has their own sohor in their own little worlds. Mine is fractured into three different climates, two different people, only waiting for the night on which we can become who we hope we are.

No. I do not have a home. And, I do not regret it. I have something far more everlasting. I have sohor instead, that refuses poriborton (change), that still has three young confused minds trying to make sense of each other and realizing then that the essence of their beings only remain in their chaos.

Sohor is made up of our remnants, and we are made up of its. Our detritus is found in the cigarette butts that we discard, and in the passersby who discard us. The horizon doesn’t change, not a bit. Screw meeting halfway, we cross the bridge every damn time. Because, we know, to get to sohor we have to walk wearing our hearts upon our sleeves. And we don’t mind. I can speak for myself at least – I don’t mind. Because I know once I cross the bridge, I will see the field, and the trams, and the Eden, and Park Street, and Coffee House. I will find a yellow taxi, and it will take me to my sohor.

Written by Adrija Ghosh

Image by Stuti Pachisia