Let me start by saying that when Marvin, IC tagged me some time ago, I wasn’t very keen on penning down a flashback on my home of many years - New Delhi. For the simple reason that it’s close to impossible trying to write about something you have been so closely related to, and for such a long time. At least not without letting your emotions get the better of you. But as I’ve been suffering from the Dearth of Ideas syndrome again of late, I thought I might as well give this a try. If nothing else, it would make the old man happy.
When I first set foot in the capital, I was about 4-5 years old. I was then staying in a little town called Sindri in Bihar and had come on a visit to my grandparents’ place in Saket. Within a few hours, I urged my maid to take me to the park opposite the house. Slides are meant for sliding, one might slip and things might happen. The recollection of what happened in the park then is only a blur in my memory. All I do remember is that there was quite a lot of blood, a few stitches and a little boy crying, shouting, cursing the city, saying repeatedly – ‘Ab dilli kabhi nahi aayenge!’. Later, when my grandmother had moved back to Patna and I to Delhi, and I wouldn’t get to see her often, she would tease me and say – ‘Look. You said you’ll never go there. And now you have become a permanent Dilliwala!’
Around two years after the incident, my father left the job he had in Sindri and as was the trend then for all ambitious, moved to Delhi. After a one-year stint in a particular flat in Vasant Kunj, a place of which I have no real fond memories, we then moved to another a little distance away. This was to be the place where I would spend the next five years of my life.
One of the first things I remember noticing about the place was that the flat was on the 3rd floor, the steps were steep, and so everyday, coming back from school, with the big heavy bag on my shoulders, I had a taste of how Edmund Hillary would have felt trying to climb the Everest. That was perhaps the only disagreeable thing about the place, as the rest was perfect – a balcony with a view of the entire colony from it and a huge park just opposite our flat with swings, skating rinks and a whole lot of empty space to play cricket on.
My first introduction to how Delhi was different came through the neighbourhood. In Patna and in Sindri, every flat had the same sort of people, all like you, middle-class, friendly, always full with unnecessary smiles when they saw each other. Delhi was different. It was the proverbial big city – hustling-bustling, busy, always in a hurry, smiles - yes but twisted, the sort which never encouraged you to start on a conversation. Unlike Sindri, not many uncles or aunties came to your house, not many asked you which school you were studying in, whether you could recite a poem or sing a song for them.
The difference was also in the variety of people. Before, I had only encountered people from Bihar in my life. Delhi, on the other hand, was a zoo of different-looking people. In the flats below us lived two Bengali families (loud and unclean), and in the ones opposite lived a family from Punjab (financially better placed than us, I remember thinking), one old South Indian lady, who looked rather lonely, and therefore friendly, and a Nepalese couple on the ground floor (they scared me every time I saw them. Even to my little mind at that time, they looked the sort of people who would be making explosives and stuff, a belief strengthened when they later covered their windows with black chart paper). Our apartment was a mini-India in itself, I still remember thinking.
The routine all throughout my stay there was rather fixed. School till two, lunch on the floor consisting of rice, dal and mashed potatoes, a brief study period, getting milk from Mother Dairy using coupons (which fascinated me no limit at first), off to the park for a two-hour cricket session, returning home like a weathered soldier, another brief dash at homework, dinner and sleep. All this may sound mundane to the reader but there are thousands of memories intertwined in this daily drudgery – like playing cricket from six in the morning to one in the afternoon on Sundays till our bodies ached and heads reeled from the heat, fighting ferociously with one of my best friends over a controversial run-out till I tore off his T-shirt resulting in he giving up and running back home crying, being mistaken by the man at Mother Dairy for a servant, shitting in my pants at school and being slapped by my mother when she discovered so at the bus-stop, being hit by a gunda called Shakal (what a suitable name, I thought!), kicking him back impulsively in return and running away, waiting for Shri Krishna on Doordarshan desperately on Sunday mornings, thereby watching the whole of Krishi Darshan also in the process, and the best of them all - mixing water colours in the terrace tanker on Holi with my partner-in-crime.
Then, when I went to Class 6th, we moved to Chandigarh. But Delhi was what we would eventually return to, and so we did in a couple of years, again taking shelter in Vasant Kunj. That was the start of another six years in the capital. But I wasn’t a kid anymore, rather a boy trying to act like a man. Reading and writing overtook cricket, surfing the net overtook the mythological serials, listening to George Michael and Queen, to an extent, overtook idling away with friends.
Love also entered thoughts somewhere. Falling in love with someone and then falling out in a month was the usual trend. It is amazing to think now how I got myself deeply infatuated with every second girl in sight, and ruminated over her for hours continuously, and then due to mental exhaustion, in the end, forgot her entirely. It was almost as if January to December, there was someone new every time, like the Flavour of the Month at an ice-cream shop.
With time also came an increased emphasis on studies. And the final three years of my school life were absorbed in wanting 80 when I got 70, 90 when I got 80 and so forth. First there were the 10th board exams, then coaching to get into ‘THE IIT’, and then the 12th board exams again. Being the reluctant science student that I always have been, the coaching proved to be futile with me failing miserably in all competitive exams. Result – while my friends got busy with their first year at college, I had to stay at home and drop a year.
I would be deceiving myself if I say that the last year of my stay in Delhi wasn’t the worst of my life thus far. Coaching continued, and also my awareness of the futility of it all. In January, helpless, I moved to a flat in a place called Jia Sarai, which I fondly refer to as The Shithole. The move was supposed to help me concentrate better, away from home and between fellow students. But it hardly helped; the four months stay there was slightly better in terms of studies, but was accompanied by long late-night walks to Hauz Khas or Munirka to keep my sanity intact. The desire to leave Delhi, the city where I had grown and the city which I had loved, was overwhelming and it was no little relief when I did so finally in August 2005, putting an end to the eleven years that I had lived in the capital.
Three years have passed since then. The family has moved to Gurgaon now, a place so self-sufficient that Delhi seems like a part of the past. Trips to my old home are made only to meet up with friends at CP or to the railway station to catch the train to Gandhinagar. Delhi is always so near but always so distant, not just in terms of distance but also in terms of years, and in terms of memories - some good, some bad - but as a whole package, strangely warm.
I am not an expert on Delhi and Delhi life, nor do I claim to be. My association with the city has almost entirely been with only its southern and central parts, and there is a lot, as some have pointed out, that remains to be seen. But this was how I knew the city, and the city knew me. Maybe someday I’ll return and see the capital in its entirety. Maybe. Someday.
P.S. - And now that Zinque is with us, I invite her as well to tell her story. After all, small, insignificant places deserve a mention too ;)