My first morning in the town where my parents now live looked like this.
This is an army town, once known for its quiet, rustic charm and healing hill station air. Sanatoriums still dot the town and weary Mumbai folk still come down on weekends for a quick getaway. These days it’s a lot busier, at times chaotic, the bazaar crowded with people and cars and dogs and goats and cows. Trucks rumble through its dusty streets at dawn and dogs howl all night. It’s still a small town though; with friendly locals who all know each other, but it’s not my small town. It’s not my homeland. I did not spend my childhood here and my parent’s home is not the one I grew up in.
I set up my laptop and settled down to write. The Australian scenes in my book became clearer as I watched a group of mynah birds pick their way through a dry stretch of grass. I couldn’t help myself. I counted – there were seven – one for sorrow, two for joy – and seven for a secret never to be told. A woman combed her hair slowly under the shade of an old gulmohar. Calls to prayer and a motorcycle starting up somewhere with a screech punctuated the first morning. At night a crescent moon appeared beside the gulmohar and sparrows fluttered when someone started drumming on a tabla. These sounds ought to have been familiar but thirty years away had rendered them strange.
I remember bringing my daughter here when she was five. A man appeared by the front door one morning, leading a pony and encouraging her to hop on while he led horse and child slowly past the houses. Later that day another man turned up with bolts of sparkling fabric on the back of his bicycle. He travelled down from Kashmir every year and wandered the small towns in Central and Western India with his wares – pashmina shawls, embroidered saris, jewelled shoes, brocaded bed sheets. He sat patiently while we made up our minds and promised to return the following year, asking me if I would be there.
There is continuity here, a feeling that things occur in cycles, that appears to have always been here. I slip into this life easily. The crowd parts to let me in and closes around me again. Shopkeepers remember me from a previous visit more than three years ago and ask how long I intend to stay. It appears not to matter that I’m a stranger here. They know I am someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s aunty. It’s enough.