The conflicting relations that we share with what we call home… what constricts us, what we escape and what we yearn for and then the changing contours of urban topography. From the town to the city.
…Times lose no time; nor do they roll idly by; through our senses they work strange operations on the mind. Behold, they went and came day by day, and by coming and going, introduced into my mind other imaginations and other remembrances; and little by little patched me up again with my old kind of delights, unto which that my sorrow gave way.
– Confessions of St. Augustine
Somewhere else in his confessions, St. Augustine of Hippo talks about past, present and future of the things present. But somehow, memory, remembrance, the past never interrupted my continuing romance with the present of things present. Now is what I live in; time never having bestowed magnificence to the awkward, struggling years of my youth nor nostalgia brightening the blurring memories of my childhood. What I am is what I live with; perfectly content to forget the perennially confused, gauche version of myself back in time.
Perhaps it has to do with my father. His endearingly eccentric engagements with his children, me and my two older brothers, would frequently entail midnight or very early morning walks through the woods that enclosed our little town in the foothills. We stomped through eerie silences in the mist-covered graveyard at night or the canopy of tall pines early in the morning, catching glimpses of the Doon Valley washed by the overnight downpour; talking about life, death, time and space. Past is dead and the future is uncertain, we live in the now, he would say.
I mostly glossed over these philosophical pronouncements that my bohemian father casually and constantly made. But the one about the now, “make the present pleasant” is among the few I retained almost unwittingly; not romancing the past, not condemning it either like St. Augustine but never allowing memory to bestow a grander vision to my universe. “Chinta karta hoon mein jitni, us ateet ki, us sukh ki. Utni hee anant mein banati, rekhain dukh ki (When I reflect on the past and the immense happiness of the past, I etch lines of sorrow on my future),” said poet Jayashankar Prasad in his immortal epic Kamayani. In here, reminiscences of misty midnight walks have scratched the lesions I carry about not knowing my father enough. And now he is gone and I can never know him except as a father. And he was so much more. Nostalgia is almost always synonymous with pain, regrets and I don’t indulge it.
So when the first real rain pelted arid Delhi late this July, it was not nostalgia that clouded my reflection of what monsoon really meant, in not so a distant past. Not the clogged drains, waterlogged streets and endless traffic jams in the urban nightmare that I inhabit. It was the season for mist, the physical sensation of being soaked in moist mornings and infrequent clear afternoons when boys would fly kites.
The no-nonsense voice of my mother over the cracked line from her hill top home reminded me of the rain back home, of things that have changed and those that haven’t. The mists still invade my cleanliness-obsessed mother’s bedroom through her window, moist air breeding invisible germs that she fights – Baygon Spray in hand and dry scrubbing of the floor with sprinkling of white-coloured phenyl. The streets are getting filthier and more crowded, unplanned concrete buildings edging out the traditional, rambling homes with big courtyards and wooden-roofed rooms.
But among the mushrooming concrete jungle, the old, unmanageable house where I grew up remains obstinately unwieldy; the roof leaking in places, the courtyard a playground for monkeys, assorted cats, dogs and occasional goats destroying Amma’s carefully planted tulsi, mint and little beds of occasional flowers. The hills are still green, shaded by little tufts of clouds in this season and it is getting cold enough for Amma to take out her sweaters as rain drums incessantly on the tin roof. The soaked sensation is not just hidden in some memory compartment, it is out there. If I go back now, I can catch it still. Perhaps I can feel it in here in the grand Lutyen’s Delhi where the streets are wide and the accumulated dust has been temporarily washed off the giant trees by the infrequent spells of monsoon rain. But walking through the rain in those lonely streets, especially at night, is not what anyone would hail as a safe activity in Delhi. Walking through empty streets is not safe for a woman in Delhi, night or day, rain or no rain.
So what is it that I do in this alien city besides bristling in the excruciating long summer, thirsting for rain and sometimes delighting in the short winter spells? The ADB, the World Bank and the UN Population Division tell me that I am a statistic in a sort of an “urban avalanche” which will witness the shifting of the epicentre of urbanization from Latin America to India. The massive population shift from the rural countryside and towns entails, as identified by the 2011 Census, creation of as many as 2800 new urban centres with slum-like infrastructure. They surround large and exclusionary cities like Delhi that hide their poverty and are biased towards the educated migrant force in their transformation as global business hubs.The character of the economy has transformed in the last two decades which saw a rapid decline in the agricultural sector without the emergence of manufacturing like China or any other an economic structure geared towards alternative job creation for the masses. This is the reality of the process of globalization that has smashed the self-sustaining and sustainable character of villages and small towns such as the one I grew up in.
I am a tiny particle of this process; leaving home willfully, eager to shun the familiarity and suffocating bondages of the small town where girls acquire degrees to fulfill the eligibility criteria in the marriage market. I preferred the job market. The immense luxury of anonymity in the city, friends, a scraggly potted plant and the absolute joy of being all alone in the obsessively neat space that repels messy domesticity are my prized possessions.
But sometimes when it rains, it is almost unbearable to reconcile with its ugly aftereffects and not crave for the mist that still comes rolling in Amma’s bedroom. And then I wonder why leaving home was synonymous with growth, finding my feet and fighting structures that were, still are, at once inhibiting and endearing. Perhaps I will re-adopt the long-forgotten bondages of love, memory and beauty. When I am a little older.