I think of Delhi as home. The smell of cardamom and cloves in the warm summer evenings, the sweet chai, and clinking tuk-tuks. It was love, young love, tough love. It made me humble, think, reflect. India is magical after all.
Then a sudden downpour would drench the soil. It would happen multiple times a day when July starts. An earthy, musky scent will permeate the air, signaling the arrival of a storm unhinged. We would stand on our balcony, a stretch of cement that was smeared with turmeric to deter the ant colony nearby, and gape at the thick stream that cloaked the flamboyant city in an ominous grey.
The city was in disarray. The street vendors frantically packed up their blankets of merchandise and people hurried to the narrow-brimmed rooftops of nearby buildings and the rickshaw drivers pedaled feverishly against the torrent, only slowing down when wiping their faces with the stained towels that hung around the back of their slim, sun-kissed necks. I tried to predict the unpredictability of monsoon showers after it slaughtered my phone during my second week in India, when the rain could still catch me by surprise. Now, a subtle change in humidity, the darkened sky, and the seasoned movements of those nearby, would send me running home mid the veiled chaos.
Our cramped flat stood on a narrow street in Amar Colony, the location, as most crisscrossing roads and hidden neighborhoods in Delhi, was so obscure that my bank gave up after three futile attempts at mailing out a replacement credit card. Across from our three-story edifice was a primary school that sat beside a small garden, which was surrounded by wall-to-wall shops and residential structures. The mornings filled our apartment with giddy chatter and half-hearted recitations while the evenings were accompanied by the clinking of bike bells and the whirring of thick rubber wheels against the uneven pavement. Occasionally, a Suzuki Dzire would navigate carefully along the road and blast its horn mercilessly at the idling fruit carts and nonchalant pedestrians.
They will always bypass the loitering cows with the utmost care.
The chaos of the city could be best avoided in our apartment, where the world outside was separated by a thick layer of off-white cement wall. The main entrance led directly into the first bedroom, where a small AC buzzed wearily when we couldn’t take any more of the sweat-inducing heat. Another doorway led into my room, a window-less cement box that was kept insufficiently airy with a rattling ceiling fan. On extremely humid days, I’d strip down under the exhausted sprinkler and let the streams of water drizzle unenthusiastically over the dirt and sweat that had accumulated under my kurta. For food, we cooked lentil stews and mashed vegetables on a knee-high electricity stove in the tight-spaced kitchen. On days when we felt extravagant, we would round the back of the block and walk the narrow street between the residential buildings with the clinking rickshaws and the merciless Suzuki Dzires and the idle fruit carts to Café Central, a hidden escape that offered plush seats, juicy chicken burgers, crispy fries, and a good AC-the silent, low-cooling-capacity type.
We were not poor, but budgeted frantically to offset our student loans back home. I hid rolls of rupees in paper tampon casings, tucked away in the secret compartment of my luggage, locked up in a large wooden closet. I reasoned that the fear of losing my cash was far more bearable than paying an account-opening fee at the bank, and dealt with the slight anxiety each time I unlocked our wobbly wooden front door.
All of the frustrations with Delhi came crashing down with the unbearable heat; there was barely any room to breathe in-between registering with the government, installing WIFI, finishing the piling paperwork, getting clean drinking water, finding a new phone and sim card, figuring out work, understanding the transit and money and street vendors and customs. One evening, I went to the small green space near the school and took out my notepad and a black point pen and tried journaling but the words wouldn’t come. I wanted to talk to my family but didn’t want them to be more worried than they already were.
Maybe I was not ready to live in India, not ready to accustom myself to the curious stares and infuriating traffic jams and the layers of noise and chatter that infiltrated every inch of the city. Maybe I shouldn’t stay for so long. I saw the subtle change in humidity and the darkened sky and rushed home in a frenzy.
“Have you eaten?” JC had a way of reading my gloom.
In 30 minutes, we sat on her twin-sized bed and spread the steamy delivery between us; a creamy, juicy plate of chicken tikka, a dozen deep-fried paneer momos drizzled with spicy sauce, fresh cucumbers and onions, layers of flavorful aloo paratha, and a small plastic bag of green cilantro chutney.
It was so easy to fall in love with Delhi after all.