One of my forever fantasies has been to spend time living in various cities in India and move on whenever I feel like my time there is done. By living I mean renting a home and participating in the daily life of the place in a way that will allow me to maintain an insider,outsider status. Like having one foot out of the door to be able to exit when I please because I would not be able to live in a small town forever.
I am thankful to be living in Bangalore because I wanted to live here with every fibre of my being. That apart, the metros barring Calcutta and very recently Delhi because of rediscovering Mughal history and crushing on the Delhiwallah’s posts, have not really been top of the list in this fantasy. It has always been the smaller towns and tier 2,3 cities that have called out to me from maps, books, or news stories. Some because of how they sound, some because of some kind of history that I find attractive, and some simply because it is in some part of the country that I want to experience. This is not an exhaustive list, but at the top of my mind the places where I have wanted to live in for a wee bit have been Coimbatore, Lucknow, Baroda, Rajkot, Guwahati, Shillong, Nasik, Chandigarh, Allahabad, Jhansi, Meerut, Patna, Belgaum, Dharwad, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, the Doon valley, Dharamshala, Kathgodam (how exceptionally pretty this place sounds), Kochi, and the place I am typing this from – Vizag.
This summer, my forever fantasy was semi-fulfilled. I did not really get to visit any of the places in the list, barring one. But it allowed me to travel a lot off the tourist circuit and visit some really unheard of places. I met people and learnt about their lives and have returned better for the experience. In a matter of three months, I went from the hilly northeast to the mountainous Himalayas, the great Indian desert, and then now to the ocean on the eastern coast of India. I am not counting Madras because I have been there on and off over the years. I feel lucky and blessed to have been able to do all of this and experience the length and breadth of this fabulously awesome country I belong to. I have frequently felt dizzy with wonder at how we are even one entity when the diversity is so unimaginably vast in every which way.
The north east, especially made me wonder how on earth did this place even become a part of the Indian Union. The population there is emotionally very far from the idea of India and while there is plenty of discourse around the racism that they face (and rightfully so) when they come to ‘mainstream’ India , there is very little known about the racism they practice in turn against ‘mainlanders’ simply because it is too far away for anyone to venture into for any practical purpose. I experienced a very tiny part of it in Tripura – in the non-Bengali parts of the state where I was grilled with a fair degree of hostility about my religious beliefs. Nothing that terribly upset me because Pratim da had cautioned me about it already and I lingered in that part of Tripura only for a day. Plus, am used to all kinds of questions given what I do and I did see that they really had very little to do culturally with how I experience the idea of India so I could contextualize their interrogation also knowing how strong the Christian missionaries are there. Later, when I came back, I heard time and again from other researchers who did fieldwork there that things do get really bad and hostile in the other NE states for mainland Indians and this, even if you are a Christian. And, saying you are atheist is not really going to cut it for them or make it any better because they have you culturally pegged as a Hindu in any case. But, I am hardly going to hold this against them given how difficult Rajasthan, which is mainland India in every imaginable way, was for me.
Just goes to show that it takes all kinds to make this world. And India.
Kerala was supposed to be next, but I think I am going to end my travels here because I am feel I am done for now. Vizag seems like a good place to call it a day.
I feel like I could really live in Vizag. The city is quite deserving of its tags as one of the cleanest cities in India. It’s beach is amazing with almost no litter and its lovely boulevard is a pleasure to walk on with the Bay of Bengal for company. How nice it is to have such a decent beach in India that is not overcrowded the way I know Bombay and Madras beaches to be. The beach in Vizag had a good mix of people engaged in various leisure and commercial activities and there was still plenty of space left around to wrap around yourself if you wanted to be alone.
Last evening when I was there, I saw a hijra dressed in her Sunday best. I don’t know if she was on ‘work’ by which I mean collecting hafta because I saw no money exchange hands for the 10 minutes that I was watching her, but she was quite the busy bee. She seemed to be friends with everyone and her presence on the beach seemed to be more of an exercise in Sunday socializing than anything else. She moved from couple to couple, lingering for a few minutes to chat and laugh and some hailed her when they found her to be headed the other way.
That interaction, which is so unlike how things really go when hijras approach people, really summed up the city’s vibe for me She actually seemed to have plenty of friends within the mainstream. As I mentioned in an earlier post, communication is an issue here for me. Not so much in Vizag city, but in the villages where I was collecting data. The signages and nameplates here are quite sternly monolingual and I had no idea about anything to aid in sense making. The people I was interacting with, also speak nothing but Telugu. But, that didn’t stop a grandma in one village from frequently patting me on my head and pulling my cheeks and asking me over and over again if I was hungry. Or a computer operator to take me around the place and introduce me to people. Or the bhutta lady to furiously gesticulate and yell that I was forgetting my very expensive smartphone behind. All in all, the people of Vizag have been stellar and I really really like them.
This is not even to say that I am leaving here with my work done. The government official I was depending on to take me around more villages went incommunicado over the weekend and completely let me down after promising me that I could accompany him on his survey. I actually spent a wasted day today here and sat moping around in my hotel room. I was very upset because he wouldn’t answer my calls or reply to my messages and I gave his colleague an earful when she called to explain on his behalf. WTF? Who does that? I ignored three calls from him later because I couldn’t trust myself to be civil to him after a day gone waste and the strain it was putting on my budget, but when he called a fourth time, I had cooled off and spoke to him. He had the lamest of excuses, but since the damage was done and he was apologizing, I told him exactly what I thought of his behavior and let it go. What else could be done, anyway?
It has been a long journey and I am quite full with everything that I have seen and heard. All the good and the bad. All the smiles and tears. All the data, collected and uncollected. I don’t know how my report is going to turn out. As always, I have a niggling feeling, that I don’t have it all. That I am perhaps getting too old for this. That I am simply not making the best use of this fellowship. That I have not written anything of worth yet. That I may not write anything of worth yet.
Strangely, the Banga’bore’ feeling has abated a bit. This may be because the semester is starting next Monday and I am teaching two classes this term. I may have an 8 am class on Mondays. How truly horrifying! But, then I decided that I can come home very early too, so I will just do it. Plus, I think I am really lucky to not have to deal with corporate shit. T and S regularly moan everyday on WhatsApp about how their work lives suck and their lives really seem to lurch from one escalation to another. Having been there done that, they have my full sympathies, but I also am thankful that I have the academic kind of stress and drama to deal with and not the corporate kind in my life. Still, how I will manage August I don’t know because I am supposed to be in Madras until the end of the month and still may have a trip to Delhi for more interviews. But the constant emails from students and planning a few tentative lectures is telling me that Bangalore is not going to be as empty as I was scared it would be after all the travel excitement.
I had also clean forgotten about my library. I may not be able to get any reading for leisure done at all until December, but at least I will try and do one book a month. It will be so good to walk in there again. It’s been a full three months since I last went the there to return all the books before moving to Madras and while I didn’t even remember about it all this while, this week, I have thought about it often enough.
Which reminds me of Farahad Zama. Have you read his books? If you are looking for stories set in small town India, then they might appeal to you. I had first heard of him in 2011 during the Landmark book sale and had picked up three of his books then. They were set in Vizag and I enjoyed reading them thoroughly and am even more happy that I actually got to visit this place because I really wanted to when I was reading the books. When I next visit Pune, I will reread them because I don’t remember anything about them other than the fact that they were a good read. It will be really nice to revisit Vizag. Some day in person and until then through literature.
Also, I seem to have difficulty in writing anything here that is not in excess of 1500 words. If you are reading, thanks for your patience as I ramble.