Andhra Pradesh. Ashoka. New Delhi.
This picture carries so many words that have come to mean home to me. Each of them is so close and yet so far from my idea of belonging, fitting in, identifying with and standing out. In the beginning of college (which was around one and a half years ago), we were to write essays on what ‘home’ meant to each one of us. I found it so hard to articulate my thoughts, not just because I was new to the concept of academic writing, but also because the topic was something I’d taken for granted for so long, that it seemed almost like a non-topic. Indeed, I struggled to devise a thesis statement, an argument, a counter argument and a conclusion for something as personal as the idea of ‘home’.
Cut to today.
I was at Andhra Bhavan in Delhi with two of my friends. The idea of paying for food that I ate for so many years of my life, every single day, seemed ridiculous to me. I remember telling my friends “I don’t want to pay for what I’ve gotten for free all my life”. But I could feel this place pulling me towards it. Soon, we were inside a room packed with people: eating, serving, running around, waiting for their turn, walking out talking about the food. And here and there, I could here a few words of my language. I felt like an intruder. Was I allowed to listen to them? Did they know that I understood?
A person in a red uniform (that said Sai Caterers) led us to a table, and brought us plates, all the while conversing with us in broken Hindi. A part in me felt like I needed to make my presence felt. I wanted to tell them all that I was from Vijayawada, and that I could very well understand and speak Telugu. Except for a few smiling persons who acknowledged my excitement, no one else cared. Of course there would be Telugu people coming to Andhra Bhavan. What’s the big deal?
But to me, it was. A huge deal, in fact. I cannot remember the last time I savored a meal that way. And adding to the food, was the ambiance. The crowd, the dim broken yellow lights, the men with big proud paunches, women with flowers in their oiled hair and the orders being shouted from one waiter to another in Telugu, everything reminded me of home. Not to forget that one person in complete white clothes, with a gold chain and bracelet– typical of an owner from where I come from, making note of who’s sitting where and dealing with customers like they were here for his daughter’s wedding. The clatter of those steel plates with little chambers for pulihora, papad, poori, annam, sambar, rasam, pachadi, pappu and perugu. And ah! the hot neyyi, gongura pachadi and gun powders (to kill for) put on each table. For that half an hour, I was back home.
The only difference was this: I was paying attention. Living in the moment, if you like. I focused on each word entering my ear. Each smell merging with another and yet staying distinct. Each morsel touching my tongue. For some reason, I was eating hurriedly, but also carefully. It was as if all my senses were in hyper active mode. As if to take in as much as I could, before reality hits. Before I go outside and look at signboards written in English, Hindi and then Urdu. Not Telugu. Not a bit of it.
What is it with familiarity and unfamiliarity? I’ve been conditioned to think in English. Hindi is left as that reminiscence from school. Urdu has become a new excitement as I can read the signboards. Telugu? I’m probably worse at reading Telugu than I am at Urdu. I’ve never studied the language in school, never learnt how to read or write. And yet, I feel like it’s mine.
It makes me question the slang all of us so often use: “I’m missing home”, “This place can never completely be home”, “I want to run away from here and go there”, “I feel like I belong someplace else.” What is this nostalgia really about? Is there a “home” anywhere? Even as a concept? Or are we just fooling and soothing and convincing ourselves, with whatever we get, and don’t get, and yearn for and cherish?
I was never a proud parader of being born in a certain place and into a certain culture. Most of my life has been a series of culture shocks, leaving me with the idea that I might as well not belong to any one. I’ve always had friends from all over, with different foods in their lunchboxes and different languages in their families. Despite all of this, I never paid attention to how different my own differences were, to myself, and to theirs.
These days, I’m too scared to even write down about things I feel. I’m worried people will read into it and try to figure out what my political arguments are. And hence, even now, I type very carefully. I’m writing all this down not as a debate about states or languages or cultures. I felt something today. I felt closer to the idea of home. The idea that is too intense to pin down as one thing. I wish I could’ve written my essay on how food can sometimes take you back home. If only academia was so accepting. And so, I remind myself that academia is only one way of looking at the world. Before I find my voice, I need to take everything with a pinch of salt. I find my rational self battling with my irrational one. Reasons upon reasons, when a feeling just creeps in without permission. Do I let it stay? Or do I reason its way out?
I like my life here. College is challenging and exhilarating. Delhi, being the capital of this country, stretches endlessly for me to explore. The shuttle rides from Haryana to Delhi and vice versa, are the confused parts: the no (wo)man’s land. They give me time to think about the journey I’m about to embark upon, or soothe me as I relax after a tiring day. Meanwhile, pappannam with neyyi, let the trapped tears out, even as I think about it.