I was fourteen when my world tumbled around. My parents had decided to move us back to India, and for the first time I had the freedom to step out of the over-protective cover I lived under and explore the surrounding chaos. It’s not as dramatic as waking up in an alien land, amidst and alien culture and having a personal revelation. But it was a gradual reshaping of everything I knew, a process of unlearning and re-learning, and in that sense it was dramatic enough.
The first lessons were as tiny and uncertain as an infant’s first steps. I watched pint-sized first graders with bulging school bags jump into the red and yellow bus, one hand held a tattered bus pass, the other an ice-cream. Seasoned pros. And there I was, four years from adulthood, shaking uncontrollably as I crossed a busy, traffic infested road on my own for the first time. I laugh at the memory now, but in that moment the fear was real.
I still remember the first time I took the bus. I had signed up for dance lessons that week. I had been a Bharatnatyam student since the age of seven or eight, and my parents wasted no time in finding a prestigious dance centre in the city (our boxes and bags were still unpacked, but I had a dance class and my brother a piano teacher). The classes were held on the weekends, which worked perfectly for me. My Mum accompanied me for my first class. The next day, a Sunday, I was left to my own devices. My parents assured me that the 15 minute bus ride would be easy. It was. The bus started a few meters from my house and terminated at the local railway station, a few minutes from where my class was. There was no jostling, no squashed up nightmare usually associated with Indian buses. Yet at the end of the journey I was giddy with joy. It was unspectacular but in the little bubble that I live in this was revolutionary.
But it wasn’t just the travelling or the exploring street corners and by lanes, or even the sneaking a snack at the street vendor before meals, that had me overwhelmed. There were smaller things, much smaller things that wouldn’t even strike you on a regular day that turned my world. As a kid I remembered Saturday as Shopping Day. We ventured out with multiple baskets to stock up for the coming week – vegetables, milk, and everything in between. Now I woke up to the luxury of stepping out of the house on a Sunday morning, running to the corner store and buying fresh eggs and bread for breakfast.
At the shop (a small space filled to the brim and smelling of spices and shampoo) I could pick as many eggs as I needed and not necessarily the whole carton. The eggs were white and not the cappuccino coloured ones I was used to. I’d give the vendor a few coins – before moving back coins were obsolete articles for me – and he’d hand me change! Change for coins.
The temple a few steps away was busy with morning prayers; the brass bell would ring thrice each time someone stepped in. I’d catch the soft, sweet aroma of incense as I walked back home, past the day’s first vendors ( hawking fish and vegetables, shouting out their wares to the windows embedded in tall buildings. They were followed by used newspaper and scrap collectors – all of whom I’d encountered for the first time), and cutting between multiple cricket games; the kids shouted their instructions in Hindi, I knew the words and yet they were unfamiliar. This was a new world.