Like traces of mayo
on a light spread
I find your love
on hidden corners
of my tongue
Like rays of sunlight
in a lost mosque
in Old Delhi
I find your love
in the sudden warmth
on my face
Like the hard pinch of salt
after a morning near the sea
I find your love
on my dried skin
Like the faint scent of coffee
in Mylapore side streets
I find your love
the filter of my lips
Like the whispers
of sleepy children
in grey classrooms
I find your love
in the tremor
of my faltering voice
Like set stones
in a night sky
pierced with stars
I find your love
in slow glistening
on my forehead
Like the memories
of a cold winter
I find your love
in the long-withered flowers
on my grave.
There were mongooses in Palam Air Force base in the late 80s. Besides, there were huge trees, cricket grounds, open air cinemas – all of them filled with that astounding calmness only a service kid knows. It is a calmness of order, of rules, of discipline, and of duty. It is a calmness I recognized in all the Armed Forces installations I grew up on – the Shillong radar station that monitors China, the humungous Jamnagar Indian Air Force base that guards our country’s western borders against Pakistan, the dignified air of the single airstrip in Thanjavur, which was built by the British for the South Asian theatre of World War II and is still maintained by the Indian Air Force for hypothetical future ops against an increasingly hostile Sri Lanka.
I grew up more Punjabi than Tamil in Palam, which was to be expected. My ponytails and fluent Hindi helped too, and though we still spoke Tamil at home, my first language through those early years remained Hindi.
I don’t remember much of Palam; I was too young, though images of quaint service quarters, large playgrounds, long walks, guard rooms, Gold Spot & of course mongooses, remain in my head. This was the Delhi of the late 80s, and my memories are embellished by my parents’ fond recollections of the first city they started living together in, passed on to me by way of the stories that are an intimate part of a service kid’s life.
My father had a big BSA in 1985, one of those bigger, masculine models they don’t make anymore. And with my mother sitting on the carrier, he would pedal to the Russian Embassy, where they would both watch the Indo-Russian film festival all day. This was before the collapse of the Soviet Union, when our country was trying to emulate the Russian economic model, the ‘central planning’ of the Nehruvian era, and relationships between the two countries were at an all time high. Clothes were bought at Chandni Chowk, Lassi was had at Sadar Bazaar, and the Lal Qila was always visited, as was the Qutub Minar. The Republic Day parade was always seen in person, and cries of ‘Jai Hind’ on the base were common.
There is a black & white photograph of my parents at Qutub, a personal favorite, in which my father, stands with an arm around my Kanchivaram saree clad mother with the gardens of the Qutub complex in the background, and a baby with a hat cavorts on the ground before them – me. My sister wasn’t born yet.
Their memories weren’t all beautiful though. My father, then posted in the Air Force Police, was on duty at the Delhi Airport once, when a live bomb was found under the seat of the very bench my father had been asleep on for 4 hours.
I was one year old.
My parents always loved Delhi; they still do. I know it in the way they talk about the city, its gardens, its people, the things they did, the places they saw. I’ve always envied them for it, for the fact that they lived in Delhi when history was being written in its corridors of power, when events were being put in motion from its old buildings, events that would change the face of my country.
When Minister of Finance Manmohan Singh liberalized the economy in 1990, my parents were here, watching proceedings on Doordarshan.
They’ve seen an India I’ll never see, a simpler, definitely poorer, somehow more romantic India. They’ve straddled two eras, two epochs – an age of simple contentedness and a sometimes vulgar age of opulence. I’ll envy them forever.
In William Dalrymple’s celebrated memoir of his time in Delhi, published in the early 90s, he writes about “..a city disjointed in time, a city whose different ages lay suspended side by side as in aspic, a city of djinns..”
When I returned to Delhi three months ago, I found that sentence I read still very much true. And I think that will always be true of this city.
When I chose to come back, I was leaving behind things that were important to me in Madras, the job at a startup I had loved and lived, friends and mentors who wanted me to stay, family who were wary of me going so far away.
But I knew I had to do this; I had to come back to where it all began.
The week I arrived, I took the metro to Chandni Chowk, walked in the old city and sat on the steps of the Jama Masjid, watching the sky fill with colorful kites and grey pigeons. With a friend I went to Nizamuddin the next week, sat on a bench on the road outside the Dargah and ate the most heavenly kababs I’ve ever had in my life. I went to the Red Fort and felt my eyes brim with tears of pride as I stood beneath the fluttering tricolor, the symbol of the Republic, where the Prime Minister, India’s commander in chief, raises it on days of national celebration. I saw the ivory throne of Shah Jahan, locked up in a corner of the Red Fort, and was moved by the sight of it, the seat of the once-mighty emperor of Hindustan. I saw abandoned and in-use British buildings, Mughal monuments, decades old coffee houses, and I saw a people who had endured the loss of possibly the most important idea of human life – the concept of who they are, where they come from; their identity.
It is a broken city, as my father always reminded me. Delhi’s culture was torn apart by partition; a city of poets, artists, craftsmen and intellectuals was turned into something else. And it shows. There’s something sad in Delhi’s air, a tinge of gloom in its winds. And there’s something beautiful in that sadness, like lost love.
It’s easy to become a poet in this city. You just have to listen to the wind.
On the Mehrauli-Gurgaon road, a chaotic, dusty melee of whizzing cars and vrooming bikes, there is a point when, on taking a sudden turn, you’ll raise your head to see the Qutub Minar looming a few miles ahead of you. It is a humbling little moment, one of many this city will give you if you travel on its roads. The Qutub Minar, built by Qutbuddin Aibak of the slave dynasty, is situated in a place the locals call ‘Lal Kot’, and not many understand its significance.
Lal Kot was the first Delhi, built in the 13th century by Raja Anang Pal of the Tomar dynasty, one of the last of the Hindu rulers of Delhi. Even before this, historians believe that this was the site of the mythical Pandava capital of Indraprastha. The word ‘Indraprastha’ is Sanskrit, and means ‘the place where Indra ruled from’.
This was the capital of the kingdom of the Gods.
And this is what you can see when you raise your head on a dusty road in Delhi. History walks through the city with the nonchalant, omnipresent faith of one of the faqirs you can see on Thursdays at Nizamuddin.
If you don’t pay attention to where you are in Delhi, you’ll miss an entire century. Just like that.
My friends still ask me why I chose to travel so far from home & come here. They reason I could have done whatever I wanted to back in Tamil land.
I don’t know how to answer that question.
I can only say that I knew. I knew I had to come back to the imperial city, and try to understand why – why the city and its stories beckoned to me in the way that they did, and why I feel what I feel when I walk through a city alien to me, and yet my own. How do I put into words the tiny streets of Chandni Chowk, the smell of Mughal cooking, traditions passed on across generations, the taste of Lassi in earthen pots, the sickly sweet Masala Chai? How do I make you feel what my heart feels when I climb the steps into Jama Masjid and am struck dumb at the immense beauty of its domes, what I feel when night falls on Hauz Khas lake with a unnerving suddenness, an instant of twilight dissolving into nothing?
I don’t know how to explain that.
I hope they understand that this was my parents’ Delhi. This city is part of who I’m. Its stories are mine too.
And I was worried about losing them.
There’s a boy who makes tea for me in a shop near my place in Chennai, a Bengali named Manish. The shop is owned by a Malayali, as most tea shops down south are, but is almost exclusively staffed by North-easterners, all of them Bengalis. I was under the ignorant assumption that he was from West Bengal, when one morning, in between the writings of Saadat Hasan Manto, I peeked out from my book, and found him looking at me, in between expertly pouring tea into two glasses.
It was one of those beautiful moments India’s diversity provides us with. A boy from the French colonial town of Pondicherry, in the capital of Tamilnadu, in a Malayali tea shop, drinking tea made by a Bengali, reading a book on the Bombay of the 1940s, by an Urdu writer who was born an Indian but died a Pakistani, translated into English. Dwell on that a bit.
I asked him where exactly he was from.
The answer was prompt – Agartala, Tripura. I knew Tripura from memories of my Social Studies textbooks, but for the life of me could not remember where exactly it is on our country’s map. I came to office that day, and the first thing I did was Google ‘Political map + India’.
This is the problem we have on the ‘mainland’, as the North-easterners call all of us – we don’t know enough about our own countrymen from the hills and mountains of the East.
Or more possibly, and sadly, we just don’t care.
When Mary Kom fought valiantly for the Olympic medal and made us all pump our fists and swell our chests in joy, few knew where she was from. Manipur is so far away from our mainland imagination that it conjures up no images at all. Do the young people of our supposedly ‘vibrant, emerging nation’ know or care what makes up the lives of these people, our own people, who when they write down their addresses on letters, end with I-N-D-I-A, exactly as they do?
In August, there was a exodus of Northeastern migrants from the southern hubs of our country, most notably Bangalore, and it was one of the few times that we mainlanders have actually looked up from our self absorbed, Chetan Bhagat-reading, real estate-coveting, Shahrukh-gawking middle class lives to actually sit up and notice that there was something going on.
Most of us saw what was happening, we are a pretty intelligent lot – that there were elements trying to break up the fabric of our country, trying to seed fear in the minds of our less affluent countrymen – dedicated, hard working young people, who have to travel so far to find work so that they can feed their families back home. The Assam riots were just a trigger.
As I said, most of us noticed, but the overwhelming majority went back to what they did best – doing nothing. Only a few of us acted.
In the Bangalore railway station, students took it upon themselves to paint and display large hoardings in several north eastern languages, asking our countrymen to stay back, that this was their land as much as ours, that they will be protected, that they can live with dignity here. ‘This is our country. You are welcome here’, one said. Several rallies exalted the North-easterners’ contribution, and urged them to stay back.
I saw all this and did my bit. I went to the early morning parade of private security personnel at my IT park, almost all of them from the Northeast, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and asked to be given a chance to speak. I told them exactly what the students in Bangalore had said, that this was their country as much as mine, and a few miscreants should not make them doubt their own people.
They are welcome in Madras, in Bangalore, in Hyderabad, they are welcome anywhere in our great nation, and those who think otherwise can go fuck themselves.
India’s northeastern frontier is rife with problems, and the people have always been disillusioned with the Indian government, right from the 1962 Sino-Indian war. The old timers of Arunachal Pradesh still speak of the time when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (allegedly) left them all to die, when he ordered the then weak and almost amateur Indian Army, battered by the superior Chinese, to retreat from the hills, leaving the people defenseless. The truth was that our first Prime Minister had no other choice. Our ill equipped and untrained soldiers were being killed in the hundreds and thousands.
Times have changed now, but consequent Delhi governments, even after so many years, have done very less to improve this image. The Northeast has fewer colleges, fewer work opportunities (everything is concentrated on the mainland), hardly any significant foreign investment. The tourism industry, which should be booming, is hampered by the Maoist threat, which in itself has been so ineptly handled by Delhi. There’s so much more. Delhi, it seems, could hardly care less. The response to the present problem itself was a joke.
Why would they trust us? Why should they? Have we given them any reason to?
If there is no coherent and collaborative effort from the Centre to root out the problems that our Northeast faces, we may soon have no ‘Seven Sisters’ to celebrate. I’m under no illusion that this will be anywhere near easy. The situations are complicated, the ground reality very different from what you and I can read and decipher.
But small steps that we take can make a big difference in our countrymen’s lives. We must take them. The time is now.
What can we do, as regular citizens? Be aware, mostly. Read the journalism that talks about them, write to people who matter, talk about this to your friends.
Our biggest crime would be not caring.
And when one of your friends uses the word ‘Chinki’, don’t rebuke them, don’t tell them off, don’t give them a lecture.
Call him/her a traitor.
There are several reasons why, but I’ll give you just one reason, and I hope its reason enough.
Manish, the boy from Tripura who works in a tea shop in Chennai to support his family of five back home in Agartala on a salary of Rs 2000, who wakes up at 4 and sleeps at 12 every single day, who sleeps on the bare floor of the shop itself, who knows only that you work in ‘computer’, this boy was wearing an Indian flag on his torn tee-shirt on August 15th. I noticed.
He is an Indian. You, who call him ‘Chinki’, are most definitely not.
It was named by Burma. Thane, they called it, the Eagle. It was 2011’s strongest tropical cyclone in the north Indian Ocean and on December 28, it was categorized a Very Severe Cyclonic Storm. For context, the cyclone that hit my town was the equivalent of a Category One Hurricane.
That. Is Big.
Pondicherry was under siege that early morning.
On New Years Eve, 4:30 am, Parthi, me and Rajesh stood just outside the Central Bus Stand, waiting for our other friends to come and drop us home. We had just got down from our bus, we had no idea what had happened. We had missed the storm. It was pitch dark, not a light. Not even the moon. Not a soul in sight.
We were still laughing and joking around. We did not realize the state our town was in. How could we? We could not see anything, the blackness of the night all around us. We knew there was no power anywhere, but we didn’t really think about it.
It was only later in the day, after golden rays split the night apart, did I really understand.
There have always been storms in Pondicherry. I remember one particularly bad one when I was in school, during which I sat at home reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, listening to the wind performing weird dances outside.
We are a sunburned, hardy people. The sea is not something we worship as much as something we identify ourselves with. Storms don’t bother us much. The next day it was business as usual for us. That’s just how we are.
But this time it was different. I didn’t want to to believe what my eyes were showing me that day. But I had to.
Scenes of utter destruction greeted me with all their gory details. Both sides of the street, I watched as people tried to clear the debris, to reclaim anything that was left of their houses, their shops, their belongings.
It was the eyes that hurt me most. The dazed, disbelieving look that asked of anyone and everyone ‘Did this really happen?’
Everything was broken. Power lines across town had been ripped off, there was not a tree in sight. Mud houses across town had been demolished, the huge, newly installed floodlights had fallen into three tiered office buildings. Glass lay on the roads. Plastic tanks had been blown halfway across town. There was no water. In some places, houses were underwater.
It was carnage.
People stood in very long queues, waiting for petrol or to take cash out of ATMs, their eyes betraying their emotions, as they took in the devastation that nature had wreaked around them. My people usually talk a lot, there’s laughter in every corner, every turn, in my beautiful little town, but that day, I heard nothing. Not one thing.
How did I feel?
Have you ever seen the town you were born in, grew up in, destroyed? The buildings you are so used to, the roads you drove your bicycle to school on, the shops that you bought chewing gum for free cricket cards when you were a kid, the trees whose branches were cradles for you and your friends, all of them, in tatters? Your town, where you first fell in love, where you made your first friends, where you played, fell, rose, fought, loved and lived?
If you have not, you will not know how I felt.
Pondicherry was a French colony. The architecture around the boulevard is still, mostly French. The arches, the facades, the wooden doorways, the very atmosphere itself is reminiscent of something of an era that is long gone. The breeze from the ocean sometimes brings with it old sailors tales, of long voyages on ships whose names are now forgotten. The beachfront smells of salt, of ships lost at sea, of a way of life lost to time.
I say this because that is how we are, as a people. Pondicherry is a small town. Everybody knows everybody. When at school, if I was hanging around near the now defunct Anandha theatre, Dad would know even before I had turned my bicycle around. I’m not exaggerating even a small bit here. Ask any kid brought up in Pondicherry. Its like the whole town is family.
And the family is old. We cling to traditions here, as if things that have survived for hundreds of generations could be torn from us in second. That day, it almost seemed as if it had.
My bike turned by itself to the place that means most to me in my town. Behind the main Cathedral and the Archbishop’s house, the building that taught me all I know today.
The entrance to Petit Seminaire Higher Secondary School revealed nothing. It was as calm and welcoming as it always has been, for 160 years. But inside, was a different story. Our beloved Escande Hall, the humungous exam room in which 6000 students sat and wrote their examinations, a building steeped in history as much as in emotion, had had its roof blown off.
The Assembly ground at the end, under the watchful eyes of St. Joseph, our patron saint, had trees. And I don’t mean your everyday trees that a harsh wind can bring down. These were decades old trees, on which generations of boys had played, wrestled with, and had their lunch under. Even they were reeling. One was completely ripped out and our ground was littered with branches and leaves, sand and green leaves forming an unnerving combination.
As I walked through, confused, downcast, a voice called out to me.
It was the school peon. His name is Anthony, I think. Very old he is, a thin, short man. His smile is something that all Petit Seminarians must have seen, at some time during our years there, but must have forgotten. He is as much part of the school as the statue of Virgin Mary at the entrance of Escande Hall is. He is a constant.
I asked him, “Anna, school eppa thirakum?” When is school opening?
“Naalaneiku pa” Day after tomorrow.
“Eppdi anna, ground ippdi irruku, thanni vera illayaam” How, the ground is like this, there’s no water too?
“Naanga ethukku irrukom?” What are we there for? He said, and smiled, that million dollar smile of his.
That old man has seen generations of boys become young men in that campus. He has picked up boys injured during fights and ran to the hospital. He has washed us when we were all nursery kids and didn’t know that crying wouldn’t get us back home. He applied medicine on our hands when we were caned by Father Rosario or Jayakumar Sir for being brats.
Petit Seminaire will open as usual after the half yearly holidays. 6000+ grey ties and white shirts would come out in full force and take over Mahatma Gandhi road. They will see no trees in their ground, talk about it for a bit and then go back to chasing each other, fighting and of course, studying.
Pondicherry is not the same today, but it will be. It might take a few months to get back all that we lost in that storm, but we will.
We will have that sparkling sunrise, that heart breaking sunset, the sound of the crashing waves, that cool breeze through the boulevard, the Christmas lights at the cathedral, the New Year celebrations that bring tourists from across the world, everything, every bit of it, again.
But more importantly, we’ll have laughter in the streets again, smiles on our faces again, the world envying us, all of it. Again.
Why, you ask?
Because Anthony represents all that Pondicherry stands for.
We are citizens of a town called Pondicherry and we are as proud as it is beautiful. And we will endure. A storm will not be allowed to scar us. We are a small town sure, but we have a big heart.
We will reclaim our town. As Anthony reclaims our school for us.
Pondicherry will rise again. And you will never see what went into getting our pint sized paradise up and running again. You will never see the hundreds of volunteers, PWD workers, policemen, working day and night to clear the streets and restore the glory that Thane stole from us for some time.
In the same way that we never saw Anthony cleaning our classrooms at Petit Seminaire.
Pondicherry prefers it that way.
Plan a trip a few weeks later, from Bangalore, from Chennai, from Hyderabad, from Delhi, from wherever you are, and you will find a vista of peace, of silence, of prayer. You will see sands that glimmer in the afternoon Sun, the beachfront shimmering in the cold evening wind.
You will enjoy your trip, every bit of it. We promise.
To the ‘The French Riviera of the East’.
To the town where Time stands still.