Cities have tongues. This one got my ear so bad I moved 2000 kilometers in one single-minded, unwitting, brusque purchase of a plane ticket to find home in its hearth. I didn’t know at the time where I would make my coffee the next day or what shelf I would stack my books on. And I didn’t want to know the size of my balcony or the number of cabinets in my kitchen. I just emptied my flat in Bangalore like one does a fishbowl upon a tickling curiosity for an aquarium.
Three years that garden city had had me loyal to its land, cultivating memories and harvesting them mad with sickles of curiosity, love, heartbreak, anguish, friendship, fever, fire.
Until one day its ‘nice’ people and coconut canopies and the crimson carpeted flame of the forest roads and bakeries of egg puffs and filter coffee and Krishna Sagars with dosas and idlis and the undimming background score of unintelligible Kannada babble (like mum on the phone) to every walk around Cubbon Park and to Bookworm and Blossom and Bob’s Bar were doing me ample good but not more and what I rather desired were undoings of all kinds and of all natures and frankly of all the good too. I wanted a twisted theatre. But Bangalore, like a sweet, old friend, only laid out dinners and discussed work and workouts in the evenings. It never became my lover. And yet I sat there far too long and cozy like the cat perennially bundled up at my neighbour’s window across the street, never in never out, always right at the gates of whatever-could-be.
Until I visited Delhi—.that extra shot of a city you down anyway and only after you’ve drunk to fill. And I visited it proper. And then the cat jumped the ledge. Compulsion tore through me—.urgent like a 3 am itch on the back of the leg, and all the attachment to Bangalore came unwound like a whole window wall turning to pieces in one evening storm. Cities do have tongues. Deep. Rich. Unpretending. And when those no-nonsense things get their hold on you, you end up doing things you didn’t imagine a half-hour ago of your life. I packed my bags and came back home with the wind.
Delhi lay straightened before my eyes like fresh hotel linen across a king-size Cassata horizon. I had made my choice and checked in and now that the bed was made I was anxious to soil it—.its taunt and tender expanse between the Asr from the Jama Masjid in the front and the temple bells chiming to the evening aarti in the back. I wanted to pull at its erratically tucked-in corners, hush an odd wrinkle here about identity, a difficult one there about love, and more tricky ones all over concerning direction, audacity, knowledge, purpose.
At first, I had stubbed out the idea of stubbing out of the city but when the landscape of my mind like the stubborn bottom of a grossly mishandled pressure cooker refused to be picked clean of its mysterious inclinations, I conceded the mounting inevitability of the circumstance. And so there I was on that roof—.with the fat frank fact of royal blue bogies conjoined at their heads and bums under a proud print of INDIAN RAILWAYS as a backdrop to my living truth—.because I had followed a whim, a nerve, a shell of a promise of a Bumble date, Khushwant Singh’s Delhi, and Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness among other recklessnesses to arrive there: four storeys up an Arakashan Road which—.as I stood upon and thought about—.was still shuddering under the echoing rumble that had just wheeled by over its ancient body.
It was a building growing old since 1989 in the heart of a city growing older since 1052. The whole neighbourhood breathed in Shah Jahan’s shadow, looking up to his domes of white marble and minarets of red sandstone every moment it bowed down in prayer under a flight of birds shapeshifting from a Nike logo to a V for Vendetta back to the Nike sign to the phantom of an upper lip (or was it a bow?) in their white constellation burning up a sterling silver in the noon. Pigeons on their peachy legs clung to electricity wires like clothespins to ropes that had the sun hung out to dry. In a bright orange type, the building firmly wore ‘ZOSTEL’ as its latest identity even as the city of old Delhi and the capital of New Delhi kept busy reinventing theirs every day.
And to think of it all, I had arrived with not a plan. I had only darted to Delhi like a devotee on a seek-out, on the way to her dargah, lost more than ever. Little did I know that trawling Airbnb for a fitting stay would prove more nerve-racking than combing through dating apps for whatever. I landed with a journal full of blank pages and a suitcase full of books and underwear and an old string of fairy lights to keep them all together. Seeing no point in taking an Uber since I had nowhere particular to go, I asked someone for the metro and they pointed me to it and so I was off. Or on. Given my journey had really just started right then.
And the first thing I see—.this car carrying a phone number on its plate with a ‘Drivers Wanted’ SOS. Then, inside the metro: Where was I headed? Why was I headed where I was headed? Where is home? Home you mean? Home?? Before I could put down my concerns, pencil, and foot in that order, we had wheeled to and back from Dwarka Sector 21 so I was once again at IGI from where I had started off that cruel commute circle. I flapped close my notebook and deboarded. This man before me possessed this urgency in his walk, I thought he had exactly the certainty I needed at the moment, so I stopped him to ask which platform I should take to get to Aerocity. He did pause and then he took a pause to look at me and post he was done doing that with the sincerity of a lab scientist, he uttered, ye apko metro se jana hai kya. I assumed he had assumed I was just another sadist who enjoyed rambling walks destined to unexisting autos or Ubers on metro platforms or that I had been living under a rock but not exactly underneath the one over which the metro tunnelled so I wasn’t really aware of all the transport options available at hand (or at your feet) underground? Certain of the impossibility of either, I gave him a reassuring ‘yes’. Perplexion rose in his eyes as if I had riddled him a tough one on Dark Matter or something. He squinted. I squinted. He squinted harder. By now we both knew neither knew the right direction and this conversation was as hopeless as this government, so he pointed me anyway to somewhere ahead and I decided to take his finger for it and figure out the way—well—along the way.
When I finally did reach Aerocity, my phone rang: mam mai Oyo se bol rha hu. Now I was already headed to check this one hotel out plain 5 kilometres from the station so I asked him: konsa Oyo, to which he said: mam ye Oyo Life hai mam. Not sure why he was indulging my off-duty sense of humour at the point, I reemphasized in earnest and with serious precision this time, I meant location. Where is the Oyo? I had inquired at multiple places...which was when he sent me the address and I bookmarked it to go check later in the day since I was a bit frivolous to be headed nowhere at all but not enough to be crashing to the first thing that popped up my way. The metro ride soon disappeared in a crowd of autorickshaws. I climbed inside one and started for the hotel but we turned around unsuspectingly (or rather suspectingly) a short few metres on after the bhaiya alarmed me to its USPs in unconcealing detail.
I suggested we reroute to Paharganj then but he turned out to be some champion of Teresa offering to drop me back to the metro from where a ride would instead cost me a mere 20 bucks and not 200 bucks he could rather make had he not been taken over meekly by a brainwave but mostly by pity on me at that point.
So there I was: two hours had passed since I had landed and I was circling one metro station with greater rigour than you stalk an ex. I consented and we hurried back.
‘Welcome to Delhi metro. Dilli metro me apka swagat hai.’ Hello again, you. Outside the window, it was hot and green before a tunnel took over right ahead of the Shivaji Stadium. The man sat in front of me took out his phone and started taking selfies in the dark, maybe only to assure himself of having scored a good night mode on his phone camera, is what I could conclude and so I did since there was barely much else to do. Most coaches were vacant and rocking like the drum of my front loading washer only we were all going to be churned out of this not in a very appealing state. Across the aisle, a middle-aged man was watching school girls in uniform dance on his Youtube. A choicest thing to do inside a metro. ‘Please sit in the middle seat only’, went another announcement. I looked around. Nobody looked around. I looked around again. There were only two seats in each row on either side. Perhaps it must be…something. Right then: ‘Next station is New Delhi. Change here for the yellow line and the New Delhi railway station of the Indian Railways.’ If only I knew I would be hijacked by hollering autowallahs with claims of promising hotels for a ‘bachelor like me from a good family background’, I wouldn’t have been too relieved abandoning that steely monster of a thing. A tall guy and his shorter companion plucked me clean out of the crowd as they saw me materialize out of the metro gates—fresh bait—and lifting my luggage, placed it and me inside their rickshaw which they then rode nonstop through the wide maze of narrow streets to one hotel after another after another until they had advertised them all to me in all possible ways in their ultimate attempt at the Clios. After 45 countless minutes of sightseeing around Paharganj, I gave up before the nexus of hotel owners and auto-drivers and got this room at one Hotel TVS that believed in serving its guests quite distinctively and round-the-clock. For one, the ambient sound from the construction in the neighbourhood persisted relentless as the sun travelled east to west and its constancy only came second to that of the stench from the pillows. In the evening, I phoned a friend and when he came over, we left the stink cave and went about chasing the city’s perimeters with imploring eyes on exploring wheels to find something as appealing to the pocket as to the heart. By midnight, things refused to work themselves out as they often do and we refused to work ourselves up as we often don’t and so we rode back to ultimately shift base to Zostel as I had done earlier many once-upon-a-times ago.
Right now, I am writing from my new apartment in this city, with rusty balcony railings galvanised with pigeon shit, carved out beneath a dreamy pool of a sky the colour of beaten coffee where every evening I sit with my refill (for a refill) while a tangerine sun checks in at my desk one last time before blowing itself out like a candle atop a birthday cake of this haven with a feeble forest for frosting sprinkled with rose-ringed parakeets, golden orioles, and peacocks for confetti while the jingle goes: pick up your pencil and write yourself a tasty, new beginning. The whistling from the trains in Paharganj has been replaced by the roar of the planes in this South Delhi neighbourhood. And in the interim between, I have fallen in and out of love faster than onions turning pink in a pan. Love—with a city, with a man, with a job, with the idea of itself, and then with the legacy of it all: the memories that follow. They always do.
Cities have tongues. And that doesn’t mean you get lucky because they don’t really need fangs. This one had me replying to it in her own language and manner (they do that to you): unchecked and devoid of reserve or reason or even rationale. A centuries-old affair was decimated somewhere, a brand new friendship was consecrated someplace else, and through it all, I sat amused and unthinking and aflutter, negotiating an EMI with the police and powering a plea by the force of original music and social media fame. Clearly, I had things to do with my time. For one: parading Bangla Sahib at 3 in the morning in a ripe little orange dress and a big cobalt blue scarf and ancient wine puma shoes ridden with holes only to be able to stand there staunch for a pure, ten minutes to convey all I could before the guardians of the god, the keeper of the keys, came rushing in, riding on holy fury and drove me away like I was everything that was wrong with the world, their world, that they had so meticulously orchestrated and selectively curated, working hard from their ranks of power.
Though I am now writing from the stable and peaceful desk of my flat, and the dizzying universe of Chandni Chowk with its banal bhasadh and aeons of kulladh lassi and the microcosm of Paharganj with its prachin shiv mandir ke paas ki adrak vali chai and the late night rooftop jams and movie nights and the 3 am quests for maggi and gurudware ka halwa seem like a blackhole away from my current reality, it still existed and very much so, and maybe penning it all down is my way of holding on to it all (and more graphically so than photographs)—to realizing friends in strangers and a stranger in a friend, to living Lost In Translation while being lost in transactions, to sharing a life under a moon, to sitting unsolicited at a bus stop outside a dargah in the night for debating the meaning and use of ‘unsolicited’ in a noon-old argument.
Cities do have tongues. And this one circled me round and squinched me tight only to open me up and lay me out like one of its own Dilli-6 bazaars—my preconceptions, assumptions, sensitivities, conventions, routines, and inclinations, all spread out under the sun on the burning tarp of my impulse and its indiscretions, and hot to be traded on, in exchange for small change of vague certainty and definite thrill.
Cities have tongues. And maybe sooner or later, I get around to wanting this one too to shut up and slink away. But until then, I am leaving the ringer on, full damn volume.