The one thing that amuses and comforts me in equal measure in Lucknow is the language. The हम and the आप, the lilt and the singsong; the subtle goading and the open dismissal all done with love and brotherhood. I wonder if I spoke like this too (some people say I still speak like that) and am reminded of the day my हम was confused for we on the first day of work in Delhi, and that evening when I was told in office that I’d have to polish my intonation. I had made a vow to change then; today I wish I hadn’t. As I listen to the group of ladies sitting outside a trail room, discussing shades of tops and quality of the material, I wonder if I would ever be able to talk like them again, and something tells me I won’t.
Sitting in far away Delhi (not so far in miles as in the spirit), I often romanticize Lucknow. I write odes to its food and verses in praise of its culture. I wonder how nice Delhi would be if people there were like the ones here. I long for its languid pace and inherent sense of peace.
I also dream about moving back some day: oh! what a pleasure it will be to spend long leisurely mornings listening to the birds chirping in our lawn while sipping my coffee. I dream of re-doing my parents’ home the way I had when we had just moved in — only this time I would also bring in china, porcelain and beautiful lamps and hang sheer drapes to show off those beautiful french windows. I imagine spending evenings walking the streets of Hazratgunj, indulging in batashas and kulfi. I think how wonderful it would be to do all the things I couldn’t as a college kid with no money.
I plan doing things that I never knew about as a kid too. Morning walks in Residency, drives to the imambara, and rides to chowk. I could perhaps also catch a play or two on Sundays or try my hand at a Mushaira on Saturdays. Dressed in my cotton saris, with a few strands of grey, I would surely fit in.
When you leave a city behind in your youth, there are many other things you leave behind with it. Your identity as a citizen is one of them. It, of course, doesn’t matter at the time. All you want is to get rid of everything that has been holding you back — the family, the friends, the systems, the mindset, and most of all your own inhibitions. In a new city you have the freedom to be whoever you want to be, something that is harder to achieve at home. Sometimes you succeed in being that person, sometimes you fail, but never are you the person who had packed her dreams in her hand-me-down suitcase and got on to that train to her pursue her dreams.
Ironically, in life, whoever you may have become, and wherever you may reach, there eventually comes a point when you long to go back to your roots. The 40-year-old suddenly craves the same things that the 14-year-old had wanted to run away from — the neighbour who asked too many questions, the corner shop that never had what you needed, the street that was always too crowded. And so you decide thatbsome day you’d come back to the same place you had run away from.
That is where it becomes tricky.
Initially, when I started to come back to Lucknow after a long gap, I loved the feeling of being back home. A smallish town in India doesn’t usually change much even with time, and Lucknow hadn’t changed much either. I had a few friends to catch up with and a lot of places to go to. I had to make up for all the pani ke batashe and aloo ki tikkis that I hadn’t eaten in the past 15 years. I also had to fulfill my wishes of walking the streets of Hazratgunj without a care in the world, having uncountable glasses of Chedilal’s cold-coffee with ice cream. I wanted to come back for the stores I could never shop from and the evenings I could never spend out. I now had both, a man and the money, to be able to live the life I had wanted to as a 20 year old.
And so, over the past few years, many pani ka batashas have been had, uncountable tikkis have been devoured; the deficit of gulab jamun, a mithai I touch nowhere outside UP has been taken care of, and umpteen visits to Tundey have been made. The cold coffee ceased to matter after two times, and Hazratgunj was just a place you passed by enroute the railway station. The shops, after much effort, did manage to offer a thing or two of my choice, but they no longer enticed.
The thing about coming back is that all that allures you from afar eventually becomes matter of fact. It ceases to matter that the samosas are the best in the world and the city is the only one where you eat chaat and kebabs. What matters is what you can do on a daily basis, if you have engagement or not. Do you have any friends left in the city; do you have any job to do. Sadly, the answers to all these are not what one would want to hear.
In the last few years, every time I have come to Lucknow for extended periods (usually during summer), I have wondered what am I doing here. Every time I have gone looking for things that were once aspirational, or brought joy, I have returned disappointed. And every time I have stepped out to meet people I have realized I do not belong here. The practical aspects of life have started to bother too: why is garbage not collected everyday? why are domestic helps so unprofessional? why do they still use coloured plastic bags? why do the sweet shops use vegetable fats? Things that never mattered are suddenly important.
It is during these trips that I also wonder if I can ever come back and live in the city like before. I may love my house, or my chaat, or my kebab, but my life is more than that. To live in a place I need people I can relate to, and places I can connect with. I need an ecosystem that sustains me — not only physically but also mentally, emotionally, intellectually — and I do not see any of that here. What I have begun to see is a city that I was eager to get out of and make it big. While I am not sure if I have been able to make it big, what I do know is that this city may never become ‘home’ anymore. And that is a loss I may never be able to make up for.