August 17, 2017.
I woke up this morning thinking about Munirka and its dingy alleys and the time I got lost and an entire family (grandfather, both parents, and a school of children) gave me directions entirely in head-shakes and laughter. In my dream last night, I could not find a way out of the maze and ran instead in circles. I should have reminded myself in the dream that you cannot escape a maze until you slow down and give into it, until you trust the faces on your path, until you make a pact with the turning walls. After all, in real-life Munirka, I always did (who needs Hindi when there is laughter, when there are children who can lead you home in a game and women who can lead you home with their hair?). But in real-life, there were other places I was less successful making connections to.
In the two small streets I called temporary-home in Yusuf Sarai, N’s family overflowed out of the cemented rooms and merged with the neighbors’ in the spaces in the middle— the courtyards and the balconies and the alleyways and the streets. In Yusuf Sarai, that is what families did; they mushed into each other like overcooked vegetables. Urban architecture could not contain the life that spilled out of doors and windows and barely pushed-up walls to occupy living rooms on the streets. Cars could not enter this hallowed space, but adventurous two-wheelers made their way through the obstacle course. There was N’s father with his wicker chair (and alcohol bottles). There was his uncle with the mustache and his itchy back, leaning against the light post at all times of day. There were the old men in black blankets around a fire that lined the street in ashes. There were the children running everywhere they can place their feet and the women talking through and above buildings—sometimes to the children, sometimes to each other, often to god. Then there were the boy-men, some adolescent and others simply stuck in adolescence, standing in circles with their eyes on the bodies of passing women, with their sharp tongues sitting untranslated on the bends of my ears.
I should stop sharing stories in pieces. Chances are, I’ve told you N’s story already. Barely nineteen and an absolute child in my eyes, I’ve told you about the weeks of his harmless teasing and the semi-harmless fully-annoying banter about the American bride I should find him, about his mother’s chai and grandfather’s stories, about his NaMo fandom, about his cousin’s wedding, and the ease with which with the American (me) could move between the male and female spaces of the Haryanvi celebration. I must have paused then and sighed, and then told you about the aunt who—in jest, I thought—told me she wishes his wife was more like me. His wife? Oh yes, his wife. Weeks after I knew him, I did not know of her existence. Remember that woman I passed in his house and was not introduced to? Her. A petite veiled teenager who did not seem like she was part of the family.
She doesn’t leave the house, he casually tells me. Not even to the neighborhood’s common living room? He shakes his head, not even to the yard.
I’ve told you then about how he said he is a good man and will abandon her like a gentleman (“I will send money so she can buy saris but you know, I’ll leave her untouched”). He would not divorce her (“Both families would kill me”). I’ve told you about how I judged him, but didn’t do anything and felt like I couldn’t do anything because it wasn’t my place—but maybe I could have at least grabbed chai with her, maybe I could have tried harder to talk to him, maybe there was something I could have tried (or maybe I should have just judged less). Instead, I started to find his semi-friendly banter even less friendly, his stories less amusing, his freedom, unequal and unfair, more frustrating. So instead, I avoided him.
What I didn’t tell you was about trust as a currency and how much I trusted N. Between my rented room and the road with the vegetable vendors and the phone recharge store and the fruits and the momos (between the room with no friends and actual civilization) was a series of hurdles to jump through. It was like I was walking through a stranger’s living room without ringing the doorbell. Conversations paused and smiles were only sometimes returned; the air seemed to have stood still until the intruder passed. N was a chariot. With him and only him, the living room opened up to me. I had a place on someone’s sofa, in another’s tea, for a child’s game; even the boy-men left me alone. I was one of their own. I could be an American or a Keralite depending on the day (and how straight my back was), and still be welcomed as family.
I didn’t tell you that when my one friend / one ‘good person’ became a complicated ‘maybe-good-and-stuck-in-his-circumstances-but-maybe-seriously-he-needs-to-snap-out-of-it-and-accept-responsibility’ person, my trust shattered and so did my passport to belonging. I no longer had anyone to relate to, no connection to the streets. I tried to walk as swiftly as possible through a hostile living room. Even when the children from my PG adopted me as one of their own and spent their walks swinging on my arms, the ice did not thin. The boy-men went back to their sharp remarks and smiles were seldom returned. As soon as I lost N as my street companion and navigator, I struggled to belong and got lost in the maze often.
What I also didn’t tell you was that I got used to it; from the cool dark air of the terrace, I romanticized the tiny overflowing windows, found ocean waves in the loud street air, and stood still to let the maze pass around me.
Maybe this is what I meant to dream about—the connections we forge and the ones we break, the limits of our world view and moral compass, the rarest of times I could not make friends with children, streets that should have as much value as any old building, places that are and remain foreign. Maybe I didn’t mean to dream about being lost at all, maybe I just meant to dream about how it’s not always necessary to find home.