Every morning I wake up to the rains. It is green outside my patio doors and beyond that are high rise apartment buildings in every direction but one. Builders are working hard and quick to rectify that lapse. Pune is green. Beneath, beside and under all the upcoming high rise buildings are patches and sometimes stretches of greenery. This is what differentiates this city from other Indian towns. As a hub for Information Technology, it has money, as is visible in the cars on the road, the numerous malls and the ubiquitous high rise apartments with names such as Galaxy and Paradise. People I have met are more laid back, and life is comfortable here due to the availability of jobs, the gentle weather and a landscape that is flecked by hills, lakes and open spaces- still.
As I have written previously in other pieces, author Amit Chaudhuri, my writing instructor at the UEA workshop has started a campaign to preserve the fading architecture of Kolkata. The architectural history of a city being replaced by the monotony of modern high rises. If you have not signed the petition, please consider doing so, for the sake of beauty, if not for the unique nature of a time in Kolkata as recorded and witnessed by the architecture under seige- www.avaaz.org/calcutta
In the month that we have been in India, I have been watching his movement gather momentum. At the very least what it is doing is waking us up to the onslaught of all that is cement and concrete, banal and uniform- a modernity that around the country is gradually edging out India’s beautiful. The heritage of architecture- a metaphor. As I look around me at Pune, at the possibilities of beauty, its natural landscape, alive but gradually getting buried under blocks of cement, I think of Amit Chaudhuri because I wonder whether the city of Pune will need a writer with the zeal of an environmentalist to save it.
Sometimes I feel we are living in a bubble. For the well to do in India, everything is taken care of. Doors are opened for you, rooms are cleaned, food appears on the table- almost magically. You are aware that outside this realm there are people who go hungry but you avert your eyes when they knock on the windows of your car, hoping fervently or feebly as may be your mood, that they will go away. The women who come to work in the house, tell me about their lives sometimes, about open sewers or husbands and sons who do not work, leaving the burden of running the house on them. I listen but do not want to listen too much. I have been instructed by neighbors and friends that “they” can sometimes make up these stories to gather sympathy. I think though that no matter whether these stories are fabricated or not, their lives must resemble their stories.
I ate Pani Puri from a road side vendor two days ago. I had stepped out of the car into the monsoon rains to buy decorations for the house. It was the littlest one’s birthday. Outside that store, a man stood next to his cart selling what I consider one of the most delicious North Indian snacks ever. Fried, puffed balls of wheat stuffed with beans and mashed potatoes which you dip in sweet and spicy tamarind water. You open your mouth as wide as you can and you pop one in, letting all the flavors wash together in a deliciousness that must be eaten to be understood. In Kolkata, during the UEA writing workshop, I desisted from eating with the others on such outings because I was aware that coming from abroad, such a venture could only lead to a regrettable gastronomical disaster.
What prompted me to eat this now? I think it was out of fatigue or boredom of living in the bubble. Fifteen years ago when I did a graduate program in Pondicherry, my classmates and I would head out after classes to forage for food and the food vendor outside the university was our favorite haunt. Maybe it was nostalgia? Maybe it was a test. If it was a reality check, I failed miserably. I spent most of that night and yesterday drinking massive amount of electrolytes and in misery. My stomach was in a turmoil and I could almost hear it asking me in a state of disbelief, ” WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?”
“What were you thinking?” the four year old’s birthday gathering asked me too. I had no fitting reply other than “I like pani puri?” muttered feebly. “No one, not even us who have lived here our whole lives would eat pani puri off a road side vendor especially in the monsoons.” they all said. “Sniff” is what I said in response. Pani means water. “Imagine the tamarind water made of rain water, tap water and…” here they would trail off and I sniffed some more.
What I did not tell anyone is that I was almost glad it happened. I needed to step out of my bubble, it will just have to be a little more informed here on. The way to experience a country, the way to perhaps even live cannot be in a bubble. By the way, that pani puri was the best I have eaten- ever.
Today is the last day of the writing workshop. I feel a sense of a loss I can’t define. Amit Chaudhuri and Ian Jack shared in degrees measured and unmeasured parts of themselves with us writers published and unpublished. We were workshopped like metal or pieces of wood using words of praise, words of censure, erudite criticisms in colorful ink. Two groups created through an alphabetical coincidence (Our parents were solely responsible for this). “Why were we here? Why did we come?” Words used to discuss and analyze, “The austere is beautiful, restrain admirable, writing is thinking…”
The roads are filling up with water inch by inch. With one hand I have held a paper and pen, with the other I have held on to this family of five. Some said, “I like what you say.” Some said, “I do not like it.” Some said, “You should have used this word.” Some said, “You should have packed and unpacked.” I wrote these down on a piece of paper and this morning I made a paper boat. I set it floating down a rain clogged road. I have spoken of anger, I have spoken of race, I have spoken of being a woman in my own ways. I have said what I have, I hope, with candor and grace. Off to the world now to do our work, I carry some words, I carry some people and some of both I must leave behind.