I wrote this piece in long hand on the first day of my visit to India — Om
The high pitched call sounded familiar. It was sound of my childhood. I just couldn’t place it. I didn’t know what it was, but it was logged somewhere in the crevices of my memory. And then almost suddenly, it came back to me. It was the cry of an eagle, rather common one, that had build a nest across from our home in Delhi. It was the same nest, though I am quite certain not the same eagle that occupied it more than four decades ago. I was a mere tot, running and holding my shorts with one hand.
It was on top of a dilapidated water tank, that sat on the roof of a mansion fallen into disrepair. The mansion was home to a rich family that made its fortune selling gold and jewelry. At that time, the idea of a high rise meant two floors and even those were a rare sight. The sky in Delhi then was mostly blue – vibrant blue actually. The days were always warm and nights were often chilly. There were so few distractions that the arrival of the eagle who made a nest was greeted with amazement and shrieks of joy.
Even then I was a nosy kid — and almost always would run up to the roof to look at the nest and the eagle. When you are young, even a common eagle looks majestic and something to obsess about. I still hear my grandmother admonishing me, asking me to not take food outside. She was worried that the eagle would swoop and grab food from my hand. I never listened to her. The eagle never swooped. And its high-pitched cry slowly because part of daily life.
A whole life has flown by. But like the eagle I return to the nest. Never the same eagle, but always the same creature. I am different and yet I am not. It all seems so familiar and yet it is not. I am sleeping the same bed I slept as a kid and as a teenager. The house has similar smells — incense mixed with kitchen smells and phenol-based cleaning liquid that disinfected the floors. My mother who doesn’t throw away anything is using the same utensils I had used as a kid. The scars of time and millions of washes are visible in the dishes. I have a tough time making sense of it all. I don’t know whether it is past or present. Or maybe it is just jet lag which doesn’t seem to go away.
Gone is the wide road in front of my house, replaced by a row of cars, double parked on both sides, leaving room for only a single vehicle to pass through at anytime. The idea of taking a walk after dinner — something I always did with my grandfather – is like running an obstacle course. In many ways it is a metaphor for India itself. Cars, modernity and progress jostling for space with people, tradition and past. The dust in the air is a sign of a city constantly trying to remake itself. It is Delhi’s destiny. They say Delhi has many lives and we might be witnessing the birth of its latest reincarnation.
The backstreet where I played cricket, made friends and wreaked havoc on the windows of our neighbors is a dark, dank alley, barely fit to walk, forget about playing a game of cricket. There are no kids who are getting to know each other. Most of the people I grew up with are gone. a generation has died and their descendants have moved to the suburbs, looking for more open spaces. My parents refuse to let go of the past – they don’t know any other way.
Memories are nothing but mile markers to the past. You use points of references as a way to navigate back and forward through life. I keep looking for these references. Old buildings are gone, razed over to be replaced by newer ones. The malls have replaced open spaces. Local vendors are gone. I am moving from one place to another in an air-conditioned cocoon, desperately searching for anything to connect me to the past. I can’t find them and that makes me angry. I hate feeling like an alien — I know it is all there.
Delhi has moved on. So when I hear that eagle cry in the morning, I wake up with a that familiar warm feeling — home!