First published in LitBreak on 31 January 2017.
I go home to Pune, filled with wistful anticipation tinged with dread. As we hold hands and walk down the streets we once loved, the changes are all around us.
The ancient banyan trees along the avenue leading to college have been chopped down to make way for glass-fronted stores that provide what shade they can. Students walk down the road holding A4-sized spiral-bound books over their heads. The noticeboard of the philosophy department has colorful posters with pretty flowers. Where did the darkness go? Perhaps to the college library, which at least is as musty and dust-worn as ever. You can no longer browse through bookshelves to find what you want. Oblong reading tables are set up in an anteroom. You must know which book you want, put in a request slip, and a librarian fetches it for you.
The Irani cafe opposite our old college is now a health food joint that dishes out lettuce and tomato in whole wheat bread, and memories of three-hour one-by-two chai and cheap half-smoked cigarettes. We would order a single cup of tea served in two cups instead of one; it was all we could afford. Our tiny allowances didn’t bother us overmuch. Anything could be one-by-two between friends: tea, juice, soup, Chinese food, room rent and even bus fare.
Behind the college is the tekri, a rocky hillock we would all climb once a year to look at the world around us. I saw a young woman standing there once on a dare, balanced one-legged on the topmost rock soulfully reciting a naughty limerick. As we climb uphill, we are startled by an advertisement for English coaching classes graffitied in shocking pink onto the wide expanse of the rock face.
The vada-pav vendor at the corner behind our college is gone, perhaps to join the swanky restaurant across the street as a waiter. What happened to the stall from which he made a living, I wonder. I was mesmerized the first time I saw them all working together. Making vada-pav appeared to involve the man’s entire family, each of them an expert at something: peeling, mashing, rolling, dipping, frying, tossing. We would all watch patiently as fried potato vadas were ladled out onto sheets of newspaper. Before the newsprint ink could leave an imprint, the man at the counter would deftly slip each steaming vada into a slit pav, smearing on some garlic chutney and tamarind sauce. He would then flick the vada-pav onto a large steel plate on the counter, with a bowl of fried green chillies turned in salt on the side. We would each grab some of each, trying not to drool in front of our dates.
As we turn the corner, I am suddenly reminded of the middle-aged woman who used to roast corn on the cob on a rickety handcart in front of the bus stop. We would go for evening walks in the monsoon drizzle, breathing in deeply of petrichor, sweetly rotting foliage, and the smell of roasting corn. The bhuttewali would roast cobs of corn on a small coal fire that sat on her cart, fanning the flames vigorously so the sparks flew high over our heads. She would then use a lemon sliced in half to rub masala all over the corn. We would sit on a bench at the bus stop, biting spicy corn kernels in patterns off the cob and struggling not to talk with our mouths full. The bus stop is still there, glass fronted and air conditioned now. You need a valid bus ticket to claim its shelter. Across the street is an international fast food chain that sells corn on the cob alongside burgers, identical to the one we eat at sometimes in Hyderabad.
At the edge of the city was a crossroads at the top of a hill where civilization ended and eternity began. Generations of young lovers sat under the trees, the city spread out beneath them, dreaming their secret dreams. Civilization has come and claimed this vantage point. Clusters of fancy restaurants have mushroomed all over the place, with short, well-behaved plants laid out in neat little rows. Some of the trees are still there, but with grates around them—no initials will be carved into bark again. A security guard tells us not to worry about the rest of the trees, they have been replanted. I wonder where they replanted the starry-eyed kids, all laid out in a row, staring forever at the past.
The empty culs-de-sac we once knew now lead everywhere. I imagine a younger version of us sitting on an old dark green Bajaj scooter, arguing the existence of God, the problem of evil, and metaphysical poetry. He would travel the world on a motorcycle, and I would be a famous character actress (taking time out to run an animal shelter, cover war stories, and change the world).
The roads are wider, the shops shinier, the buildings bigger. The people look busier and better-dressed. The kids drive cars (no cranky old scooters for them) and watch movies in multiplexes. I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Eliot’s words ring in my ears as I come scuttling back to Hyderabad, leaving the past behind where it now belongs, in the past.