How the cities i have lived in shaped me by Bharti Bansal

 



How the cities I have lived in shaped me

I was in class 4 when I was introduced to the mountain life. By this, I mean traveling for 12 hours just to reach Shimla which was 100 km away from where I lived, a small village called Hatkoti. The curves of the nonexistent roads would frighten me because there weren’t any milestones to look at and console my na├»ve heart that we were close to our destination. My father would only say,” keep counting the cars, girls”. My sister and I would keep counting the trucks that passed by. It became our little ritual or perhaps a distraction. 

When we reached Hatkoti for the first time, my father told me about my new school. It was frightening, to say the least. I had left all my friends and the cozy life of Panarasa (Mandi), everything I remembered would soon be a memory that I would find difficult recalling But the charm of this place was its simplicity. Just a little valley surrounded by mountains and a temple that stood proud at the center of it. There was nothing to count. Just a silence that loomed over like sullen clouds, but everyone had seemed to accept it. Every evening at six, we could hear the chanting and ringing of bells in the temple and the entire valley seemed to echo it. This was a quaint little place which was far from the world. My school was just a single building with construction underway and we would have holidays in the rainy season because of landslides. And sometimes we had surprise holidays because the school had run out of water. This was a constant problem back then but we enjoyed it nonetheless. I had made a lot of friends by then who would remain my friends till the end of my school life. I was what they call “a small-town girl" and I was proud of it. People here closed their shops at 7 in the evening and by 9, the entire world stood quiet like a child who didn’t know how to form words yet. 

Life was easy back then. The biggest worries I had were not scoring well in Maths tests or a fight with my best friend. Nothing I couldn’t solve. Everything here was so small compared to the big cities, but we all shared acceptance of the same. After all, what did we want from big malls when we had knitted Sadri (a coat), Siddu ( a local delicacy), and apples to calm our hearts. 

Every December, the snow fell and all the children gathered to play. It was where most of my childhood resided. I have eaten more snow than I can remember. There was a little kerosene heater which was our kind of bonfire and we would sit there, in complete darkness because of electricity outage which spanned weeks, sharing stories, and laughing as mother taught us how to make roti on it. Perhaps most of our memories would become tangible if only we knew they wouldn’t last long. I didn’t know then how shared laughter while having dinner would become a wish I would keep asking from God in later days. Maybe it was in those moments of silence and nights that we learned our first lesson on how to resist cold. This understanding came later though because we had always been living like this. Our world began with sunrise and ended with buzzing beetles. We didn’t need a vacation or a getaway because we weren’t running from ourselves then. We were just there, in the moment, growing, laughing, becoming memories to our future selves. Who would have known this small village would grow on me like vines. Who would have ever noticed me if not this little valley.

I had my share of popularity here. I was the school topper. This lanky girl of seventeen (it sounds ethereal now) learned what dreams meant, here in this little village. And now when I connect the dots, as Steve Jobs did, I realize my entire sense of identity had taken birth in this place. I had prayed here, dreamt of being kissed for the first time, found out I was a star gazer, hugged my best friends for more than what the love rule defined (30 seconds which was), thought of becoming a doctor, screamed when I got into IISER Pune, heard the subtle noise of friendship breaking when my best friend didn’t react so happily to it. I had talked to stars here till 3 in the morning, looking for something which was greater than my own self. I had felt closer to God here, not because I believed in them but because I witnessed it through the subtle whisper of the roaring Pabbar river nearby, or the clear blue skies which I had always thought was natural to Himachal. I had written my first poem after coming here, and talked about silence and its beauty when I wasn’t old enough to actually comprehend what it meant. It was my idea of a fairytale. Nothing could go wrong as long as I was here, with my friends and family and kind strangers. 

But this chameleon fate never surrenders to the happily ever afters. I went to study in IISER in Pune. It was my first experience with what “big city" meant.  So many people like swarms of bees, never ever stopping once, constantly buzzing, stuck in traffic jams as if this was the only side effect of living. I hadn’t seen such big buildings ever standing tall like giants, ready to devour anyone who didn’t know how to step inside them. Some had huge boarding with bold capital letters written on them that said,” IVF”. A term I had only learnt about in my science textbooks. Huge city malls whose glass windows shimmered in day, reflecting everything swanky: people, their big dreams, and a promise of future that such cities guaranteed. My mind ringing with all kinds of alarms, fear looming inside my heart about fitting in, I wondered if this was a reflex action to a real world. I was a village girl while girls around me, completely confident in their bodies, talked in fluent English, laughed louder, spoke their minds out. This was how freedom felt like, people lived without watching each other, neighbors didn’t know each other, or shared apples like we did. I was thrilled about this newfound freedom. I could be anyone, wear dresses how I liked, feel beautiful without thinking about how I looked. For the first time, I was witnessing my own wings spreading unlike earlier times when all I knew was being a “good girl". Nobody teaches us how to be invisible without losing our identities. How to be an individual without this nagging pressure to be likeable by “city people”. 

I remember the first time I was asked about what I did for fun, a boy sitting in front of me at dining hall replied casually,"sex". I didn’t know whether to laugh or feel offended. We had never talked about periods let alone sex, so I just laughed it off. Big cities have a way of reminding people like us where we come from.  As much as cities are accepting to new people, the residents have their own prejudices. I had my own too. I knew I could never survive in a city which never slept,  or drank too much. I wanted to be as tipsy as they were in life. They were almost floating while I was trying not to dig my own grave. I think the first time I went to a pub was the last time I went to a pub. The waiter hovered there, a genie really, and asked us what we wanted to drink. All my life, I had drunk coke or lemonade or the fanciest of all, cold coffee. I didn’t know if mojito was pronounced as mo-gi-to or mo-hi-to. I didn’t know the difference between pina colada and virgin mary. I still don’t. So I went for what my friends suggested. Now, beer is flattering as long as it is a disguised fruit juice which I believed for most of my life until then. You see, people from small towns and villages always remember the first time embarrassments. I had too as I mistook the stirrer for straw and tried sucking up the liquid which wouldn’t just reach my thirsty mouth until my friend laughed and I realized what was wrong. Cities like Pune are sometimes forgiving and sometimes ruthless. Almost like our parents. Perhaps that’s why people away from home try to build a family out of what they can afford. 

I have never seen myself from the eyes of a city which was so big, it could engulf me whole and not spit out any remnants of my being. I was just a stuck piece of bone in the teeth of a hungry city, I knew I was struggling to become a part of it. But when people from village carry their dreams on shoulders without asking for directions, they are bound to feel lost. There were too many planes boarding at once, an airport buzzing with goodbyes and hello’s, airport which was so uncommon to me, I had only watched the runway from the roads of Shimla, where only planes landed for a while. I was the same girl who would wave at the helicopter of chief minister, thinking he could actually see me and my sister. We were hopeful like that. But here, in this small airport of Pune, I ran from gate to gate, not knowing where I had to stand. I asked an elderly man,” Where is the gate for Delhi flights" and he scorned, then frowned some more, until finally looking at me and replying angrily. I thought perhaps that’s how people talked here, with a bit of salt on their tongues, ready to lick wounds of anyone who was too vulnerable about his heart. It stung like bees, to hear that harshness for a question that was as innocent as it was genuine. But Delhi Airport was bigger than Hatkoti. I had never seen something so glimmering, expensive. As much as I was thrilled, I felt insignificant too. The entire world had become a singular spot inside the airport. There were people laughing so freely, I stopped to think how could they move so easily around this place, no worry lines on their foreheads, friends, newlyweds, elderly, everyone was there in the moment, whereas I was thinking about turbulence. I didn’t want to die in air, I kept telling myself. But nobody was there to hear this soliloquy. I was my own person and even though it was how independence felt like, I wanted the shoulder of my mother to keep my head on. 

Hatkoti had grown inside me slowly until I became it completely. I was carrying that sadness of separation on my face all throughout my little stay in Pune. I worried if people could actually look at me and pinpoint exactly where I lived. I was a pahadi girl, navigating my way through college, trying to develop taste for Daal Khichdi and Vada Pav as I missed Rice and Bhalle fried in Desi Ghee. I knew growing up largely meant growing out of people and places. But how could I just forget my very existence. I struggled would be an understatement. I gasped actually, every single day, looking for people who were just as confused and scared as I was. Cities like Pune are not just mere adjustments that we need to make, we never forget who we are, especially when our very personalities stand conflicted with what is accepted. 

Hatkoti grew like a parasitic twin inside my veins. Largely a negative statement, but how else could I kill it without feeling guilty. I needed to name it something which people would accept and understand. I wanted to look at the world and scream,” I devoured my twin, I am now a complete person even with blood on my hands". I wanted to forget the lullaby of evening winds, the fragrance of kheer that my friend’s mother made and invited me for tasting it, the long sunsets that wouldn’t end just with the blink of eyes. Hatkoti, like a ghost, stood in the backdrop wherever I went.  I could see it looking at me, with teary eyes as I tried to ignore its very presence. We were lovers, or perhaps mothers to each other, or maybe just tenants. The small street of Hatkoti had embibed the giggles of children and prayers of their wishful mothers. The small temple that had witnessed me grow, was not just a mere structure that looked like faith, but it had given me something tangible to hold onto. I wasn’t religious but it didn’t hurt to think that the goddess was looking out for me. After all I wanted to be loved and seen, and Hatkoti became the eyes. I wanted to have a voice, Hatkoti became the mouth. I wasn’t just another person walking through the crowd, I was God’s own, and world seemed a little less angry. 

I have grown now, and at an age when people begin the journey of existential crisis, I can calmly look at the same mountains and know what will save me in the end. Hatkoti has grown too, become older than it was, Shimla has begun the work to become a smart city. But are cities ever forgetful of its own people? Can we really outsmart what cradled us once? I believe nothing could change the fact that I was given a name here. I fell in love here, with a boy I thought I would marry. It was a long-lasting one sided affair. It was all in my mind. I wasn’t beautiful enough for him, but here was where I listened the sound of my heart breaking. Here was when my healing began in these same old streets, and now when I look back, I can see how we weren’t feeding on each other, this place and me, but ours is a little weird story of symbiosis. I believe this is what love feels like, something akin to home and I have been returning to it again and again. I guess that’s enough for now. The faint realization that I was a girl once, now grown into a woman, I can actually find my name here, on the same old cactus plant by my school. I will be here even when I am gone and I know I will be remembered. I think my name will remain, in this village which can’t be located on Google maps, I think I will stay how a grandchild lives, close to his aging grandparents, listening to their stories, because this is all we have got, a little life and evidence that we lived it well.




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Bharti Bansal is a 24-year-old student from India. Her works have been published in Aaduna, oc87recoverydiaries.org, the sunflowers collective, two drops of ink, Livewire India, Feminism in India, and is forthcoming in the anthology, "the yearbook of Indian poetry”. She lives in a small village surrounded by mountains and finds solace in poetry and stars.


Image credit: Paulo Silva / Unsplash

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