The Road Behind Me

After many years, I found myself at the street of my youth. The street that once gave me my ambition, now gave me a lesson: one might outgrow the charm of the things that once fascinated him but it is often difficult to be indifferent to them —  if nothing else, these remind you that you have grown up. I discovered that  in the thirteen years that I had been away, I had grown up too.

In these years, I had made many trips to Lucknow — the only city that comes close to being called my hometown, but all these trips had been rushed, and almost all made with my husband. Since he too has a connection with the city, there were things that he wanted to do  just as I wanted to do mine. So like a good couple, we came to an agreement: we did a little bit of both — his and mine. That our itinerary primarily revolved around food is a different story altogether. Thankfully, since my parents are back in town, we go there more often and eat much lesser.

Last week, I was in the city without husband. The children were more than glad to be with their grand parents and I to be on my own — in my city, having all the time in the world to do whatever I pleased and when you are in Lucknow having all the time in the world, you head to the one place — Hazratgunj.

So there I was, standing at the Hazratgunj crossing. On my right was Rovers — a fast food joint that has stood there for generations is almost invisible now, thanks to the imposing statue of   Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, erected by Ms Mayawati. It happens to be only one of the many precious gifts she bestowed the city with. To my left was the beautiful and magnificent GPO — the one post office from which we — my closest friend and I have sent the maximum number of letters, some of which went to her boyfriend, some to mine (rather who I imagined to be one). As I stood there, waiting to cross the road, I felt like I was back in college, standing at the crossing alone, with no specific agenda, crossing the road hurriedly through the moving traffic — things that I did back then but have not done since.

The thing about youth is that it finds pleasure in the mundane — part reason is the company you keep and part is that with so little exposure, hardly anything seems mundane: even browsing through a card shop and walking the sidewalks seem pleasurable. Today however, I neither had friends for company, nor the inclination to walk the already crowded sidewalk, I decided to take a rickshaw to the end of the road, where I had a store to go to — a store I always wanted to go to.

One of my greatest aspirations, while walking the streets of gunj, was to be able to buy something from the super swank stores. In the times that I grew up, it was unimaginable for a middle class family to shop from such an upmarket place. Our occasional visits were usually made up of some strolling, followed by some chaat or ice cream. Shopping was never on the agenda and walking into the posh stores and walking out with overflowing shopping bags always remained a distant dream.

One such store was the Benetton store. I can’t tell why was I so fascinated by the brand, it could be because it was probably the only branded showroom at the time when malls were yet to be discovered, or it could be because being able to buy something from a store like that would have meant I had arrived in life.

I vividly remember walking into the store one day and instantly falling in love with a  pair of greyish blue drawstring pants, they were priced at over a thousand rupees and there was no way I could afford them, I walked out, heartbroken. But I had to buy something, so I waited a few months, collected some money and bought a tee shirt instead, it was a nondescript, unflattering, dull brown tee shirt but it was Benetton and had cost three hundred and sixty five rupees — it went on to become my favorite.

Thirteen years later, I entered the shop again. As if to welcome me, Richard Marx sang I will be right here waiting for you, a pretty north eastern girl ushered me in and left me alone to browse in peace. I was reminded of the time when the shop assistants would hound us until we told them that we were there only to look, trying hard to look nonchalant. Realising I have outgrown the brand since, I soon walked out of the store, without buying anything — yet again.

As I walked out, I noticed that the street was now abuzz with activity, it looked more like a weekend than a Monday afternoon: there were frantic shoppers out to make the most of the sales, there were students who probably had bunked college for their share of fun, there were office goers out for the daily dose of sunlight, and there was me.

Walking along the street, I crossed the various shops and buildings: Sewakram and sons — perhaps the first lingerie store in the city, a store from where every girl wanted something from but never could afford, the stall at the intersection that once sold tea, coffee and cheap ball pens other than cigarettes, now also sold momos — veg, paneer and chicken, Cathedral — the church where I diligently dragged my mother every year on Christmas (God only knows why), Sanskriti — the beautiful Saree shop from where I bought an expensive Saree for my farewell party, Leela bros. — the only store my father bought his clothes from and where my brother and husband now shop from. It was heartening to see that these iconic shops that I and even my parents grew up with, were still around and flourishing.

Since I have walked the street a million times, I remember the exact order of the stores and was looking forward to browsing through the store that was next in line — Devi Radiogram — the most iconic music store of our times and the only shop in Hazratgunj where we  regularly shopped from. Most of the music my father owned was bought from this store — they had thousands of cassettes and their store assistants were no less than magicians: you only had to name the song and the tape would be with you in a matter of seconds. My chain of thoughts was broken when I noticed the large window: all I could see inside the shop was luggage, to ensure I was at the right place, I stepped back and read the signboard, it was the same shop all right but it now sold high end luggage. To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement, but what did I expect? In times when even the biggest music stores are shutting shop, I should not have expected a stand alone store to sustain.

Reminiscing about the evenings spent at the store and heartbroken at the condition of music in times of piracy, I walked on. I walked past Love lane — the tiny flea market, Modern Silk house — one of the biggest Saree shops of the city, Kohli bros — the oldest branded men’s wear store and Bata — the biggest in Lucknow.

I would have walked on had I not noticed the crowd outside a famous chaat stall. Watching people enjoying hot aloo tikkis on a cold afternoon made me realise how hungry I was. Now, as independent as I claim to be, I can not eat alone. I find it very embarrassing to eat on my own and I would rather starve than to eat out alone. I ignored the chaat and walked on when Chedilal changed my mind. In any case I had to drink and not eat their iconic cold coffee.

With the tall glass of cold coffee in one hand and a cone of bhelpuri in the other, I settled next to an elderly gentleman, on a wrought iron bench and silently thanked Ms Mayawati for installing these Victorian benches.

The gentleman was eating peanuts out of a small newspaper packet and diligently depositing all the waste on the road although there was a waste bin right next to him. Just as I warmed up to  the large poster on the facade of one of the oldest cinema halls of the city, where my friends and I had once chased Hritik Roshan’s car, a huge, white SUV come to halt right in front of me, blocking the view. Out came two middle aged, white, starched kurta, pajama, vest clad, men — as they walked towards one of the many government offices, their car, complete with a beacon and driver, made itself comfortable on the road — an otherwise no parking, no halting zone. Somethings will never change, I thought.

My coffee was soon over, having nothing else to do, I crossed the road — once again dodging the moving cars, I walked straight into the corridor of Hanuman Mandir. I have no idea how old the temple is, but it has always been there for me — to help me pass my examinations, to help me get my first and only vehicle, to help me get a first class. And the things it did not help me get, I am glad it did not. I wanted to thank God for everything but he was asleep behind the curtains. I bowed my head in reverence and moved on.

As I walked on, I realised it was almost the end of the road. A decade ago, I would have wanted to hang on, to delay going home. But today I did not.

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