Sunday, December 02, 2007

Mussorie 11-11-2007 by Omair Ahmad

Omair Ahmad is back on the blog, writing for us after a gap. I am tempted to introduce this piece but I will let this opportunity pass. Let Omair's piece speak for it self and it begins immediately after this.

It is cold outside, cold and clear. I can't tell you the centigrade or fahrenheit of it, but in a light jacket worn over a sweatshirt, the breeze is less than comfortable. An older gentleman, possibly British but more likely American, pulls on heavy mittens before embarking on his evening walk. We are nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, a little over six thousand feet above sea level and November carries all the portents of a sharp winter to come.

Here, at a cottage just outside the hill town of Mussoorie, overlooking Dehradoon on the plains, there are few lights to take away from the glory of the stars. They fill the sky to overflowing, and it looks like it is straining under the weight of them; a rotted jewellers’ cloth that is filled to bursting, about to scatter stars upon our heads. Mussoorie, too, is brightly lit, as is Dehradoon, glimmering through the haze of pollution. Diwali, the Festival of Lights, has just finished, and its glowing ornaments have yet to be put away. Occasionally a stray rocket climbs up into the sky, exploding with a bang and a scattering of pretty lights, as if to prove that the store of fireworks hasn't been completely exhausted.

You can identify each distinct explosion, just as you can catch the sound of individual cars and motorcycles. The hills throw their sound in a myriad of manners, and you will suddenly hear, with crystal clarity, a conversation happening a mile or so away. Down the hillside, about half a mile away, I can make out the contours of a brightly lit basketball court, and the thump thump thump of basketballs being dribbled on the court, voices raised in encouragement and instruction. It is the Ridgewood Boys' Hostel of Woodstock School. I remember playing there.

It's been a while.

The first time I came to Mussoorie was a shade over twenty years ago. My father had come to accompany me to my first trip to this boarding school. Memory is strange thing, and the only moment I can recall clearly across the years, is the one of scorching embarrassment. Just as he was about to leave, having left it to the end, Abba hemmed and hawed, and asked me what I knew about sex. I can't remember the exact words, just the overwhelming panic that gripped me about having The Talk.

"I know everything," I bleated in a pre-emptive strike.

It was a rather exaggerated claim, a somewhat unbelievable one for a twelve-year old to make, even one who had studied in American Embassy schools in Saudi Arabia for the five years before. Abba looked unconvinced, but thankfully decided not to press the point, and father and son said our goodbyes with a sense of relief at pitfalls avoided.

That is how I first arrived here, glowing gently from embarrassment.

Over the last few months I've been told, more than once, that I have 'arrived' in some other way. I have a couple of books coming out in India and overseas, and a few other interesting projects in hand. The most powerful editor in India is overseeing my work, a personal choice he has made. My last book was not so well marketed, but I have received compliments on it from one of India's leading public intellectuals. My great-uncle, who happens to be one of our accomplished military men, especially on issues of counter-terrorism, (and who I happen to be somewhat in awe of) patted me on the back and said the book was well-received. I move with confidence among academics, policymakers and artists, and calmly contemplate possible appointments with ambassadors and kings. It isn't that great a deal, but it means that I have been lucky enough to come to a place where I don't have to kowtow to anyone.

Though I don't know how long such a position shall last.

I am told that this means that I have 'arrived'. I don't understand the term, but there are some things that are similar to the point when I arrived in Woodstock, and some that have changed.

When I arrived at Woodstock, it was as an Indian among 'internationals'. India was becoming progressively poorer and our Prime Minister would have to beg the US President for help soon enough. I was from a middle class family, from one of the worst administered parts of the country, which became steadily poorer in those six years.

Again it is the petty things that stand out. In my case, the shoes.

Mountains are hard on shoes, especially for somebody like me, always curious, with a penchant for exploration and hiking. But I didn't have the chance at the expensive sneakers that most of my classmates could afford. The closest I could get were the canvas sneakers manufactured by North Star, the athletic spin off from the grimly stoical Bata shoe enterprises. They would last me six months, and end with raggedy heels and lost shoelaces.

I hated being poor, but it was becoming more and more a part of my national identity.

No matter how many times we sang, "Jana Gana Mana", the national anthem, a financially insecure nation doesn't breed respect. I had already received a brutal education in the racism of wealth from the American children at my previous school. One of the few Indians at the school, I had chosen neither to bow before them, nor to assimilate. Being one of the brightest children in class hadn't helped. In the end the confrontation was inevitable, unsurprising to the kids, completely unanticipated by the teachers.

Woodstock had none of that, but maybe I was still compensating for those initial taunts and slights. I also had the advantage of a mind that found standardised tests easy, and homework unnecessary. My rebellion took the form of exceptionally high scores in all the tests, and very little work otherwise, engaging just enough with the system to prove that I could best it whenever I wanted to.

And yet I, too, was cut off, as out of place in my country as the 'internationals'. The bearers loved me since I would take time to speak with them, crack a few jokes, and treat them as I had been trained to deal with servants in my household: more as part of the family than anything else. They used to call me, "Dilip", and when I visited the school half-a-dozen years ago, they still addressed me by the name. It wasn't until much later that I discovered that the nickname was after "Dilip Kumar", one of India's more famous movie stars of the past. It was a long time after I left school before I even found out who he was. I still don't know why they chose to give me that name. I had accepted it as simply as one accepts other nicknames in one's childhood.

I shall not find out this time. It is a new day, and I had come to Mussoorie only for an evening, a night, and a morning; just long enough to taste the silence, walk down the old road at the Top of the Hill, and look upon the snow clad mountains in the distance. Even if I went down to the school and asked the bearers, I don't think they'd recall why they had so christened me. Even if I had the courage to ask. It was all so long ago.

And arrival? I don't know. The word still has no meaning for me. All I can say is that I am still poor, as is much of my country, but we aren't defined exclusively by it any longer. I still wear canvas sneakers from time to time, but they are Converse All Stars. I, too, have become something of an 'international', though with a death-grip on my Indian passport.

Arrival? Maybe that is a word for others to define.

Here, outside St. Paul's Church, at Anil's cafe, I can tell you what a good cheese omelette is, stuffed with tomatoes, chillies and onions. I can tell you what a cup of tea tastes like as it mixes with the taste of cigarette smoke. I can tell you about the quality of this air, the glory of the sun on my back, this late autumn day.

In twenty years maybe this is the sum of all I have learnt.

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