In the City, An Encounter

Akshada Shrotryia
- Akshada Shrotryia


When Nikunj climbed the stairs from platform number 4 towards the exit of Varanasi Junction, he stopped in his tracks on the walk-over bridge and looked down at the crowded platforms and empty tracks. He thought of how much the city had meant to him. The city of Banaras. That ancient site of holy pilgrimage, which was in a lot of ways withering away under the constant pressure of the present - the Government wanted to make it a ‘Smart City’ - and at the same time, emerging as something modern and not entirely deserving of his contempt.  

He looked up at the sky and heaved a deep sigh, a mix of satisfaction and confusion. 

Aliya had heard people describe their cities before. It had always fascinated her, watching people talk about the tourist attractions, famous food, industry, and historicity of the places where they were from. The glint in their eyes when they’d talk of how old Ayodhya was and how it was the birthplace of Rama himself! How Ladakh was a literal heaven on earth and that Tenzin never wanted to leave it, even if he could go to “amerika”. How Ooty was a paradise and everyone in the entire world deserved to see it at least once. The pride in her manager’s eyes when he had told her - making it flow naturally in their conversation - that he had seen Lucknow grow tremendously since his childhood. Her past lover, who had breathed his first and last in the lap of the hills of Doon, giving his life to the city.

How cities had adopted people, how they had adopted them. The list is quite endless. Cities may have limits, but memory perhaps doesn’t. 

Yet, as cliche as it might sound, there was something different about how Nikunj had talked about Banaras. The glint wasn’t missing, no, but there was something deeper that she thought was like sadness but not quite. The English language fails to describe it. Perhaps, in truth, no language contained the word that could express what Aliya had seen on Nikunj’s face, heard in Nikunj’s voice, when he spoke about the city he was born in. It was a sort of contemplative melancholy, out of the blue of which, the pink of his smile arose.

“If you had stayed for one more day, we could have gone to Sarnath”, Nikunj said on his way to drop Aliya off at the station. 

“Do you know about Sarnath?” He turned his head from the passenger seat to look at Aliya in the back.

“Yes, yes. The place where Buddha delivered his first sermon”, Aliya replied enthusiastically. She would have liked to visit the site too, but work had drained her of all energy and motivation. 

“Ji”, Nikunj turned back to look at the road ahead. Pointing towards a mall-like building, he said, “Look, that’s the Sigra area you were asking about yesterday.”

“Ah, I see”, Aliya said absentmindedly as she typed away on her phone, responding to a few friends’ texts. “My food came from here a day before”, she said two seconds later.

“Huh?” Nikunj asked in confusion.

“Yeah. I ordered McDonalds.”

“Oh, I see. Was the food at the hotel not good?”

“No, it’s not that. It would sound funny to you honestly, but it just feels like home. I’m probably too spoiled, haina?”

Nikunj looked at her and smiled. He didn’t understand how a McDonalds meal could feel like home, but he didn’t judge her. It was intriguing to him, albeit in a decadent way. 

“It was bad, though. I’m assuming the teeming population and U.P. 's traffic spoiled the food on the way, even though it was barely 6 kilometers from my hotel”, Aliya lamented.

Nikunj almost chuckled at Aliya’s disappointment. “Now that is something I won’t be able to defend my city in. Yes, it is an absolute nightmare, the traffic and the population.” But in his heart of hearts, he knew it didn’t bother him as much. Growing up in closed quarters, on roads like these - this is what made up home for him.

My city. 

The words echoed in Aliya’s ears. 

Home.

What she felt at that moment was something akin to yearning, but there was no object to this yearning. It wasn’t unfounded. It was, in fact, directed at so many things that it had become somewhat directionless over the years. There was no method to her madness.

Nikunj’s words evoked the smell of pine from the hills, walks during monsoon in the capital of the nation, and the excited, bold voice of the hawker on the street in the city she was born. Home, for Aliya, was not a place. It was the simple and deep feeling of nostalgia for places marked in her memory of childhood. 

The word is a derivation of the Greek nóstos, meaning ‘homecoming’ and álgos meaning ‘sorrow’. Aliya had recently read somewhere that it could also have been influenced by the Sanskrit word nasate, which meant ‘approaching’. In a way then, it suggests a state of limbo, for the individual suffers in a state of ambiguity, like Trishanku. Her memory was etched with moments, suspended in time; she knew the places, but there were none that she could call her home.

Watching the city pass her by from the window, Aliya thought once again I will never be able to call a city ‘my’ city. 

The glint that she had seen in the eyes of others would never find a home in hers. There was not much to lament though. She had her own life, and perhaps it better suited her to experience cities as an outsider, as someone on the periphery, never knowing a place from within, never getting to hear its beating heart. Perhaps. 

My city. 

As soon as the words rolled off Nikunj’s tongue, he smiled inwardly. Banaras lived in him. 

Nikunj was 5 years old when he first came to Banaras. And hadn’t left since then. Yes, he had received better opportunities on the job front, but what was the purpose? Wasn’t life about finding contentment? And if he felt content here, in this age-old city filled with saintly wisdom about life and death, what was the need to venture out? 

He thought about the artist, Manu Parekh, who had depicted Banaras in various ways and spent a large part of his career painting just the city - its ghats, temples, markets. He thought of all these structures collected on a page, united by a shade of blue that looked a little like death but also like a kind of celebration. He thought of how distorted his city really was. Ancient edifices buried in the ground, ruins rising and peeping from old, narrow streets. 

He had resonated so much with Parekh’s works that he sometimes tried to imagine the city based on his paintings. Much like when the sky is in a particularly good mood and presents all kinds of shades and hues (or even not actually), sometimes mellow, sometimes vibrant, we think of how similar it looks to Monet’s works. When does reality end and an image begin? Or rather, is there any end at all? When does Nikunj’s belonging begin and Aliya’s nostalgia end?

Aliya thought about her cousins driving her - on a blue Activa that her Mamu owned - through all the nooks and galis of Aligarh. They must have been less than 10 years old. Sitting on the back, holding on tight to her elder sister or brother, she remembered thinking I will never know a city like the back of my hand. She looked at her cousins then, in utter wonder and awe, How could they remember all these roads? How did the map of a city engrave itself in their mind? 

She would travel again to a new city, Nikunj would show the same city to yet another traveller. 

*******


“Um, are you a writer?” Nikunj looked at her, shyly and in anticipation. Was he crossing a boundary?

“Oh, no. I’m working for a company right now. As boring as it sounds.” Aliya had looked deep into his eyes, to search for a reason for this query. What made him think so? Does he know that I intend to record this trip?

“Ah, I see.” Hands pushed in his pockets, chest out, body straight, Nikunj turned from her and looked straight ahead, a rajdhani express. From somewhere to somewhere. Nowhere to nowhere. 

A few minutes of silence passed. Aliya looked at her watch. The train should arrive in 5 minutes. 

“What made you think I was?” She asked, realizing that they might never meet again. 

“The kind of questions you asked throughout. People don’t usually seem too interested in old buildings and ruins, and, well, you just have that conviction about you.” This was one of the few times when Nikunj hadn’t struggled with his words during the entire time Aliya was there. Not that he was otherwise silent or awkward about things, but there was a belief in what he said. 

The train was slowing down as it neared the platform, and when it reached a complete halt, Nikunj picked up Aliya’s suitcase and went to stand outside her coach, first in the line that was gradually forming. 

The doors would open in another 3 minutes.

“Honestly Nikunj, I can take it from here. Don’t waste your time now. Please, go.” Aliya begged him. 

“It’s my job. Moreover, I would also personally like to make sure you’re not sitting next to any creepy old uncle.” 

That sounded fair. 

“I do write. Haven’t been able to in a long time. But I used to”, Aliya confessed after Nikunj placed her suitcase in the cabinet provided above the seats. She looked down at her shoes. The whistle on the train blew. 

“Whenever I write something about Banaras, I will share with you”, she uttered her final words. 

“Yes, absolutely. I would love that. Have a safe journey”, Nikunj raised a casual salute and stepped down from the coach onto the platform. 

He left only when the train was no longer visible from the spot where they had stood. 

***

Bio: The writer of the story has recently completed her Masters in English Literature from Miranda House, University of Delhi. She is currently working in an MNC.

Her passion for writing is what drove her to pen down this story and approach Setu for its publication. She has previously been selected as one of the 12 writers for the Creative Writing Workshop organized by Ashoka University. Her story was published with a few others in a chapbook published by the Centre for Writing and Communication.

She has also had her poems published in the Live Wire and Gulmohur Quarterly.

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