I have never cared for exchanging niceties at weddings or birthdays, nor I am particularly fond of the reactions from extended family members whose names I pretend to recall when they learn about my smoking habit or that I study English – apparently, they can’t choose which is more gasp worthy – but all of this is secondary and tertiary to the most important factor of why I never want to live in New Delhi: the heat.
The heat, which makes leering men turn their heads at pit stains and boob sweat. The heat, which denies me the freedom to wear coats and boots and scarves to cover as much of myself as I want to. The heat! Which reminds me, every day, that moisture will shatter my poise.
It is the month of May, and I’m trotting between two continents in the midst of a global pandemic. I have booked myself on a direct evacuation flight from Heathrow to Indira Gandhi International Airport. My flight departs on the 15th, and before that I have to edit and submit a third of my degree, after which I must pack up everything that may be even mildly useful – mint gargle solution, my weighted blanket for the weight of my hometown, leggings, makeup, face wash, a short read for the plane. I’m leaving behind five years in my studio flat on Warwick campus – like the warble of my glass kettle, which has made me probably thousands of cups tea since my first year, and the blue of my bladeless fan that glimmers in the night.
In my suitcases, there are Dettol wipes, disinfectant sprays, beef bones for my dogs, and small containers of hand sanitiser. This is the only time I’m returning to Delhi for an indefinite period of time without a return ticket to the UK. This epiphany fogs up my face shield. I realise I’m taking hurried breaths and fish out my travel inhaler for two brief pumps of cool, metal tasting air.
There are so many novels written as homages to the city of Delhi, both fearing its open skies as well as revering its micro universes. New Delhi is a large city, so densely sardined that it inhabits more people than some countries in Europe. It was the capital of the British Empire, and the Mughals too, were partial to its geography. We read in our textbooks, maybe in the eighth grade, that Delhi was one of the few cities in India with a dry, forceful wind; called ‘loo’, which can literally make you swoon – it is not a pleasant warmth, but an asphyxiating torridity akin to the feeling of someone shoving hot puffs of air down your windpipe.
The planes are massive, and when you land on Delhi runways, the steel tube seems to compress on itself. People start fanning themselves with newspapers, and running cold towels all over their faces. You’ll hear the clack of stiff joints coming from limbs having been thoroughly stretched after a ten-hour flight. There are always some idiots who will get up in the middle of the pilot’s announcement informing us to stay seated, and they will not return to their rheumatic chairs until they have pried every piece of tattered luggage they own, that is of course, if they can skirt the stewardess’ chastising nod.
I have never seen an Indian airport in such an immaculate display of organisation. There are police officers wearing masks and enforcing queues while airport personnel take everyone’s temperature twice and stamp our sheets with the word QUARANTINE. It’s dizzying to try to haul my luggage across the vast floors of the airport all the while keeping my passport in hand and breathing through the mask. I should kick my cancerous habit. I pull my mask down from my nose to rest on my chin for a short minute, when I have cleared the first check to text my mother, ‘going towards immigration’ – when an officer barks at me –
‘Kya kar rahe ho? Mask pehn kar chalo!’
(What do you think you’re doing? Wear your mask and walk!)
Of course, I am embarrassed at being called out in front of all the people with whom I had shared my flight, some faces more familiar than others – well, at least the top half of their faces – but mostly I am burning up and taking longer and longer strides to surpass everyone.
The whole process of being vetted; waiting for our bags in groups of twelve; marching towards the triage centre, and then choosing our own quarantine facility takes roughly five hours. I am not annoyed. For the first time, I like coming home, though I don’t necessarily think of New Delhi as my home anymore, only the city printed on my passport as my place of birth. I lived the first seventeen years of my life in its heaviness, and the first chance that I got to bolt – I did, like a rat aboard a sinking ship. My father didn’t let me cry when we were leaving for Singapore, so I sat in the car stoic looking out the window letting moisture well up in my eyes and sniffling, to signal that it may be an oncoming cold. For a year and a half, I convinced myself that Singapore was home. I met my first great love in the dorms of its university, and wherever he was, was home.
I’m on the bus and around me are people that I feel I should remember the voices and faces of – we’ve all flown from different continents back to the same place, and how.
As a child, I sat on the rickety buses that took us on school trips out of state and to museums. There would always be a conductor – and I never really understood why, although I suppose there was the one time that he did catch two screaming girls by the arm, thus saving them from falling face first into dog shit. The windows always rattled in their frames each time the wheels of the bus kissed gravel. I never once saw the panes clear, transparent. The stains I assumed were residues of dampness; of sweat; of the boy who fell asleep with his head resting against the sill, his breath fogging our view; of the seniors in the back spitting food and missing their mark. Three long, black rods ran from the driver’s seat all the way back to the last window. The heat in the summers made them wonky, bent – like a magic show orchestrated only two months in a year. The color chipped away, the fabric ripped, seats too close together to cross legs.
We would say a prayer in unison each time our bus departed from the safety of the compound wardened by nuns: Mother of Carmel, protect us from all harm and danger…
I always took comfort in the fact that if the bus were to crash, there would be at least three teachers who would not be spared either. I didn’t hate any of the teachers and they certainly didn’t dislike me, but in this tottering chariot, the power dynamics that were held sacred in the halls of our school did not matter.
My quarantine facility is Taj Palace. The hotel does its name justice; it is palatial. Jackets of green trees sheathe its entrance, and the ceilings of the building seem to touch the foliage that surrounds it. I chose this hotel because it’s the closest to my mother’s house in the south of the city. The hotel is also in the same embassy area where my school was. I know the wide roads, I know the billboards, I know the roundabouts where the bus tilts just enough to make you fear whether or not your cheek will brush the roadway. We turn the exact corner from the red light that I remember from when my mother would pick us up from school – the board secured on the side of the highway reads, ‘Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences’. The sign is made of metal, I can tell, its body covered in crimson circles of rust. The text is in white, written in both Hindi and English, large enough for myopic eyes to read. I slump back into my bony seat when I see the board. When I was in my school uniform, it meant that I was ten minutes away from a hot lunch. Now, it means I am fourteen days and twelve kilometres away from seeing my mother and my dogs after six months.
The littlest of things signal that I am in one of my homes: children on the pavement doing somersaults and expecting a meagre tenner from passing cars; the claps of kinnar dressed in neon pink saris that grow louder once the traffic light turns red; security guards gagged in full sleeved canvas uniforms outside the entrances of the homes on the main road soaked in their own humidity; but most of all, Delhi is my city because I can read the Hindi on its blue billboards as clear as the top line of an optician’s chart.
The familiarity of New Delhi is now more nauseating than it is nostalgic; and the feeling of nausea itself reminds me of my childhood years, so I do suppose that some part of me, for better or for worse, has been birthed and kneaded in the muggy cocoon of the capital city.
I realize that have lived twenty-three years of a privileged, traumatic existence, with a Louis Vuitton strap on my shoulder. When I reach the hotel, I assume someone will take my bags for me, so that I can gather my passport and reading glasses while I step out of the vehicle. The virus is transmittable, and we are back to evolution’s design – survival of the fittest – each one for themselves. I would’ve packed a little lighter if I had known I would be carting three suitcases bursting at the zippers. I look at the conductor when one of my bags falls sideways on the floor of the bus, and ask him to help me put one of them down in front of the hotel’s entrance. He sighs, and then grunts something to the effect of, ‘great, this also is our responsibility then,’ and when the bag thuds to the floor, he proffers me a mock salute and slaps the rear window of the bus telling the driver that the last passenger has been dropped off.
The hotel is spotless, with suited men in masks at every turn. I collect my keys to my room – room 817 – and the elevator opens into a deserted corridor with two men in hazmat suits patrolling its carpeted length. My phone is hanging onto its charge, and as with every trip, I first find all the sockets in the room and plug three different devices into the two pin adapters I carry with me. I then call my mother, telling her that I am safe, and that the room is opulent with a sizeable bath.
The first two days that I am in quarantine, I spend most of the hours in the bathroom, either washing the airplane odour out of my hair, or laying down a wet towel by the bathroom door to have a cigarette by the basin. By day three, I’ve secured a smoking spot, laid out all my exfoliators and creams by the taps, and called housekeeping for a bathrobe since I won’t be stepping out of the room for a few hundred, or thousand hours. The food comes thrice daily, slid onto a wooden drawer by the door of the room. The sound of the slamming of the drawer and then a hard knock on the door, conditions me to expect food like a Pavlov’s dog. I sleep for most of the hours in a day, only getting up to eat. On the eighth day, I make myself a cup of chai and sit by the window with a book. The view from my room is panoramic; I see the blue of the hotel pool, languishing in stagnancy; the greenery that rings and sequesters the hotel from the rest of Delhi; the wandering staff on hotel grounds, their eyes squinting from the sun’s gaze. This is Lutyen’s Delhi – gridded, mapped, and suspended in its own cavity of space.
The tenth day, I am released early from quarantine as per new government guidelines and on account of my COVID test resulting negative. I pack again, and I’m done in twenty minutes. The chauffeur is waiting downstairs for me in a black sedan.
I see the same trees, the same billboards, the same crowds of people panting for breath on my way home to my mother’s.
I miss England’s shy sun, cupping a hot mug of coffee to warm my palms in the mornings, the smell of pastry being baked and delivered on my way to class, living in a country that doesn’t scream its doors shut at the mention of sex or blood.
I know who my family is, and where they are.
And I know this city’s language: its cracked roads, its singed summer sun, its blistered marquees – and somehow, none of it is still enough for me to call it home.
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