An outsider finds home in a strange land.
|I press my forefinger and thumb to my temples and squeeze. I pause in the shadow of the large University building, reluctant to the join the flood of students stepping out into the summer blaze. I can feel my toes heat up from staying put. With a deep breath, and thoughts of a cold shower, I join the mob.
It’s a fifteen minute walk to the apartment complex. I approach the autorickshaw stand almost mechanically. Rickshaw drivers are opportunists who make a living ripping off fainéant, “educated” brats like me – the work-shy progeny of a much more industrious generation. I step beneath the hood of the little rickshaw. A folk song blares from his radio. The fare meter is as dead as the day he bought it.
“Where to?” he says.
“Green Valley Apartments... How much?” You always ask the price first around these parts.
“Fifty saar,” he says with a thick accent.
I dig deep into my pockets for a single hundred rupee note and some loose change. The final few days of the month are times of austerity. A forced abstinence until the start of the new month and the resultant overcrowding of ATM machines. Today, unfortunately, no amount of permutations can justify spending almost half of what I have left for the month to avoid a walk in the summer heat.
“Look, I can give you thir –”
A familiar voice breaks my thoughts. “Sunny! Wait up.”
My heart beats fast as she approaches, breaking free from the throng of students heading home. She passes the ivory sculptures of Gandhi, Vivekananda and other nameless philosophers. She’s still wearing her lab coat and black glasses.
I reach into my pocket and thrust the crumpled 100 rupee note into the rickshaw driver’s hand. She joins me inside, removes her coat and replaces her glasses in its case. The driver, hardly older than myself, pulls at the gear on the floor and the engine revs to life. We swerve dangerously through the narrow streets. The occasional choicely cuss is thrown our way. Paul Walker would have been proud. Cows sashay down the street. I duck to avoid the sudden swish of a tail. She hands me her umbrella, giggling. I love the way her canine crooks around her lip – a reminder to my hormone-addled brain that she’s human. I’m suddenly aware of the deep patches of sweat on my shirt.
The rickshaw comes to a halt. I wait for my change. 30 bucks. The driver winks with a slight cock of his head towards the girl, who is reaching for her purse.
“I got this. No problem!” I say. I curse myself inside.
Her phone vibrates and she pauses to glance at it.
“Sunny, do you want to stop by the samosa shop?”
Her eyes are bright and innocent. She grabs my arm and I follow. I’d follow her into a volcano if I had to. I need to eat anyway. The samosa shop is the cheapest, most popular option for a broke college student. 7 rupees per samosa. The shortest way is across the grounds of a local school. I stand straight, delighted to be seen with her. The village children play football barefoot, with fake jerseys, too involved in their game to care. I play hop-scotch to avoid the cakes of dung that decorate the dusty floor.
The samosa shop is packed with students, cooks, guards and villagers. Rich and poor. A cultural potpourri. The cooks migrate south in hopes of better lives for the families they've left behind. I'm surrounded by a mosaic of language, color and religion. The loud blare of namaaz is hindered only by the trumpet of the local temple.
My heart sinks. A Kawasaki Ninja is parked outside. A large group ushers us in. I watch her wavy hair as she moves toward them. She’s a social goddess. I feel alone in a crowded room. Her boyfriend is older. Popular. I feign a phone call and say a rather abrupt good-bye. I feel a familiar pang in my heart. Love. Tragic. Yet beautiful.
While I head home, alone, I can see the University building in the distance like a giant Lego Transformer, all blues and reds and yellows. It's turned the village into a pseudo-town, with a populace split between rich soon-to-be-adults and the extreme poor. Two parallel universes. Little children run naked on the streets. A woman is shouting at a man, pointing at the shattered remains of her clay pot, having waited hours for water from the solitary communal tap. Abuse and violence are a common theme, understood and ignored.
Students own the streets, their swagger only undone by the fear of a flash or grope from the occasional ostracized hijdah. Centuries of discrimination has led to their isolation and belief in the masses that call them filth. Beggars often roam the streets. I laugh as I show my empty pockets to a familiar face. A baby is wrapped beneath her shawl. She smiles back good-naturedly before proceeding on her way.
Back outside the apartment gates, the heavy scent of ganja couples with the melody of Bob Marley. Stoners walk like bleary eyed soldiers towards the Dominos' delivery boy. Food isn’t delivered to your doorstep for “security” reasons but pot is just a phone call away in this topsy-turvy world.
I come home to an air-conditioner that's leaking buckets of water. I want to scream. My friends hand me a cigarette. We smoke on our balcony, wordlessly watching the world below. The winds pick up. They're from here and there. Mostly north. I don't care much. They don't either. It's not easy to find people in a world that loves to draw borders. I thank them inside for acceptance that is priceless to an outsider.
The skies open up. Cheers ring through the air as hordes of people dive into the pool. An impromptu game of volleyball ensues. We head to join them, leaving any restraint at my doorstep. I roar, purging the emotions that threaten to break me apart from the inside. In that moment, there are no religions, no languages, no divides and no heartbreak. Just the joy of being alive. For eyes that had never seen a reality outside a carefully manufactured safety net, this intoxicating concoction of culture, where I’ve spent four years, will always be my home.