Travelling back to Delhi, which has been home to me for more than 15 years, I was haunted by the same feelings of attraction and repulsion the same time. The city seems ready to explode – with people and vehicles – each year. But the same I would say of my small town Shillong, no longer a quaint, sleepy town, only a concrete jungle now.
Stepping out of the IGI airport, the noise, pollution and people all seemed to spew out a certain warmth. I was excited to be back, excited about changing my dollars to rupees, about tasting my first paan after a year, seeing my old neighbours and many more things
As our taxi drove in to my old Netaji Nagar flat, Usha Didi sprang from behind and gave me a hug. There was a hive of hyperactivity as some others in their nighties that afternoon yelled from the balconies “aagayi tu?” Then there was Shell (I still don’t know why we call her Shell and what her ‘good name is to date) visibly upset that I did not get with me a ‘nanna munna’ despite being married for more than a year. The next time, she insists, I must come with the third addition to my family. The welcome to this foreign-returned neighbour was heartfelt and an indication of the generous hearts of my neighbours who handed dinner and lunch invitations on the spot. The husband was graciously gawping down the first few hours of his arrival to another universe. He says it takes a week for him to get acclimatised in India.
From the window of my old, dilapidated government flat, I could see the same old kabari-wallahs (trash collectors with whom I have fought many a times) pass by and we exchange smiles. Soon word was out that I had come and I had two unique visitors – my old maid and the maalish walli – give me company for the rest of my stay.
Delhi’s new get up is one forward-looking image with the flyovers all ready, the predestrian bridges all lit up and shiny, public toilets at every corner, malls, gardens, etc. My weary old neighbourhood has also been given its glamorous touch with the new seven-star Leela hotel nearing completion. I asked my sister how they managed the traffic during the Commonwealth Games and she pointed to the lane marked CWG, where those who crossed the lane were fined as much as Rs 6000. She said driving those days was like a breeze as none dared break the rules! Games over, it is back to chaos.
Weaving my way through the overly crowded but favourite Sarojini Nagar was difficult this time as the lanes were dug up and some pipe restoration work was on. But everywhere in Delhi is overcrowded, it is funny how that does not enter your consciousness when you live there but when you come back after living elsewhere – the heat, noise and people – begin to stress you.
Not taking a chance with driving the first few days, we decided to auto it around. I realised if there is one pet peeve in Delhi, it is the auto drivers whose sense of greed does not seem to wane. They treble their fare the moment they see a phirang, who on the contrary was asking me to play the tourist and not fume about the price. But in my nearly chaste Hindi, and in the pattern of a maha guru, I chose to tell them not to dream about becoming lakhpatis overnight. Elsewhere in Ahmedabad, riding an auto, deemed as one of the world’s thrill rides, was a pleasant experience. You came close to giving the driver a hug when he quoted a modest 50 rupees for nearly an hour’s ride around the city.
But not all cities resemble each other. Sitting in the quietness of my house in Melbourne, I suppose I ought to be happy I am away from the din and people and heat but such is the human heart – that absence does make it grow fonder.