“You know you could get a heatstroke,” said the man sitting in the front passenger’s seat. “That wouldn’t be a nice way to begin your first visit to India after so long, now would it?”
We were driving back from the airport and the A/C in the car wasn’t working. My shirt had become a second skin. I was afraid if I moved around too much or tried to change my posture in the back seat, the shirt might take a sheath of skin along with it. I rolled down the window to get some reprieve from this makeshift oven. A hot blast of the afternoon Loo kissed the beads of sweat rolling down my face. I poked my head out of the window to cherish the moment when the wind came in contact with the sweat, leaving behind a cool sensation. The reprieve was short-lived. A few more seconds and the Loo was more playful than I could manage, colouring my cheeks and ears bright red with its forceful heat. I got my head back inside.
“India has changed a lot from what you might remember,” the man from the front spoke again. That man was Uncle Rudy, or at least that’s what we called him fondly. A relative from my mother’s side, he was often mentioned during dinner table conversations back home in Sydney. Word on the grapevine was that I was close to him when I was young. I wouldn’t read too much into that if I were you. The man I was with right now was all but a stranger to me. A well-intentioned stranger, but a stranger nonetheless.
“We’ve got malls getting built dime-a-dozen. Delhi’s got its own local metro up and running. Not that far behind Australia in terms of progress… mate.” He paused before uttering ‘mate’, making sure I noticed his linguistic reference. I nodded approvingly.
Such was my first experience of India. No – ah, that’s not quite right. I was very young when my family moved to Australia. But I was born in India. At least that’s what my birth certificate says. I have memories, of course, very vivid ones. Playing gully cricket with other kids in my block as we fought over who got to bat first; the taste of Motichoor Laddus as they melted in my mouth; even the oddly shaped blister on my foot when the kulhar tea that was supposed to reach my parents got spilled on me. These memories are as fresh as yesterday. But memories are mischievous, like young children – they don’t tell the whole story.
As I got older, I’d know that these are all memories associated with India. However, I was still clueless about the place. I can tell you what I did know: I knew a lot of facts, thanks to the Internet. Just a few clicks can tell you almost anything about any place in this world. I was now an expert in the different varieties of laddus available, the taste specificities of kulhar tea, masala tea and ginger tea, and had a fair knowledge of cricket fanaticism in India. You could argue that in fact, I knew a lot about India. And perhaps, you’d be right.
Nostalgia is funny that way. It allows you to be specific about the tiniest details and at the same time, keeps you blissfully unaware of the larger cultural context. Imagine a magical cupboard – almost Narnia-like – that’s full of your nostalgic memories. During your moments of nostalgia, you’re searching for a memory from this imaginary, expansive cupboard. You don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, but you’d know it when you find it. While you’re rummaging through frantically looking for that particularly memory, something else falls out from the cupboard.
Intrigued, you pick up this fallen memory, open and explore it. It’s exciting, but it’s not what you’re looking for. That much you know. So, you pick up this recently explored memory and keep it back. Because that’s not it. You don’t know where you’ve kept it in this cupboard or even how much of it is still preserved. But you know it’s in there somewhere. And that’s enough to keep searching…
Now that I was old enough to have a Nostalgia Cupboard of my own to cherish, it was time to try and get to know these memories properly.
We stopped at a red light. Suddenly, we were ambushed from all sides. A small kid started cleaning the car’s windshield. Another came to my window with a collection of Hindi magazines and pulp literature with a plea to buy a copy. The one at Uncle Rudy’s side started knocking on the window. Uncle Rudy rolled the window down.
“What do you want?” he asked dismissively.
“Sahib, please I haven’t got anything to eat today,” said the kid. “If you could spare something in the name of God –”
Uncle Rudy cut him off.
“Why are you asking me? You’ve got two arms, two legs. Go and work for it.”
“Sahib, please be merciful.”
“Don’t make me get out of the car and thrash you!”
Uncle Rudy motioned to unbuckle his seatbelt. The three kids, unsure of his intentions made a run for it. Uncle Rudy got out of the car and quickly scanned the perimeter to see if they were still around. Satisfied, he got back in the car. He patiently put on his seatbelt.
“Fuckin’ brats, they just ruin your whole day,” muttered Uncle Rudy. He took a moment to compose himself and turned around to give me a warm smile.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” he said. “It’s good that you are far away in Australia. You don’t have to see this nonsense every day.”