I woke up early that morning, without assistance from the usual buzzing of the alarm clock in my ear. The pit of my belly was craving breakfast but rejecting it at the same time. Churn churn churn. Were those butterflies in my stomach? Of course, I’m not in love!
A quick shower later, I set out from Auroville, completely and confidently depending upon a stranger to hitch a ride with.
I stood on the side of the road with my thumb sticking out to my right, like they show in aspirational Bollywood movies, and in under a minute a young fellow in his early twenties halted just ahead of me. “Pondicherry?” I asked aloud. He nodded in the affirmative, I brisk-walked to him, hopped on to the bike and off we went.
The journey was plain and unexciting, and my companion chatted incessantly, distracting me from my thoughts about Pondy. I sat on the pillion and smoked my cigarette in the warm wind.
We reached twenty minutes later, said our polite, unattached goodbyes and I found myself standing in a strangely familiar place, yet with no memory in particular.
I was expecting a few new surprises while I explored Pondicherry — surprises that any city would offer if one visited after six years, albeit finding solace in its somewhat known surroundings. The same feeling one would get after meeting an old friend after six years.
Leisurely, I strolled through the Sunday Market on MG Road, bustling with people chattering aloud in Tamil, the jingling of earrings and bangles that women tried on before buying, the occasional tender coconut seller arguing with his customers while they tried to bargain, and the stomping and scraping of a thousand feet quickly struggling to go about their way. There was an overcoming smell of idly and sambhar preserving the essence of the street like an invisible umbrella, infused with undertones of jasmine flowers, old wood and rusted iron. It was as if these intricacies were brought together by mistake, but it was almost esemplastic, nevertheless.
The road, usually used for motor vehicles, becomes a walkway on Sundays, and vendors spread their items merely on the pavements.
A particular piece of rustic cane chair caught my eye. It was rounded and made in light wood, exactly the colour of all the furniture in my house. I imagined myself lounging in it at home enjoying the sun in my face when suddenly the shopkeeper snapped me back to the engulfing smell of sambhar, with his rather rough “Inna aachi? Ungalaka ven ma?”.
I sullenly shook my head, bereft of any contemplation, and walked ahead and out of the Sunday Market, relieved to have moved into a space with fewer people.
On Beach Road, the ocean spun a whiff of nostalgia around me. I breathed some memories from my college days and walked the very path I had walked with my friends. The sight of all of us standing on the rocks and blowing soap bubbles didn’t seem distant at all, and yet it was.
I have a picture from that day, when all six of us were walking with no care in the world. Today, I was expecting the town to overwhelm me, to spark the same feeling it had then, but something felt amiss.
I walked ahead to the end of the beach and onto the jetty. I stood there, physically present, gaping into the sea, yet ignoring it, and thinking about what was missing in the moment. Was it a person, a breath, pain, the air? What was it? I couldn’t put a finger on it, but it felt like a lot more was lost, than found.
Disappointed, I walked back and decided to jaunt around White Town and admire the charming French architecture, marked mostly by chrome yellow, white and bright blue minimalist buildings.
I stared at one particular yellow one with a large balcony for long enough to cynically imagine the chicanery behind the beautiful wooden doors. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t see or hear a thing. Was there a devil child who mischievously ran around inside the sublime structure all day? Was there an old man who liked to smoke his cigarette outside on the lazy wooden chair in the verandah waiting for his unfaithful wife? Was there a marriage falling apart behind, and the beauty of the house was just a facade? Oh my god, was there an orgy happening? Were all BDSM aficionados cooped up there?
A group of young teenagers asked me to take a picture of them as they happily screamed and jumped — all fifteen of them. Against that same marvelous pile of bricks that the yellow house was, I wanted a picture too. But I decided the beauty would be lost if I stood alone. I didn’t have anyone to scream or jump with, and it was alright.
After a satisfying meal of mashed potatoes and some great Mahi Mahi fish at Umami Kitchen, I continued watching the structures that seemed less and less mesmerising as I walked past staring at them. I decided they were just structures after all. Maybe I was just tired of walking in the sun. At 44 degrees, it was a quiet and underwhelming Sunday afternoon.
I dragged myself into the Romain Rolland Library, expecting it to be closed on a Sunday. My half-hoping heart and exhausted body took me in and to my surprise, almost all of the seats were taken. I haven’t known libraries in India to have people gather like bees, particularly on a Sunday. I immediately lit up. I found a corner, made myself comfortable and read for two hours. I chanced upon a book by Ezra Pound and a particular line written by him in a poem I can’t remember too well, stayed with me. “Emotion is born out of habit,”. That line changed something in me, although I can’t be certain of what exactly it was that changed. Maybe it was an epiphany, realized late. I don’t know. But it liberated me from that moment on.
There was a nice slight breeze outside and the sun was not so harsh anymore. I was drawn, with the excitement of a little girl, to one of my favourite bars, Ajanta. I didn’t order my usual beer or vodka. Instead, I sat down drinking watermelon juice, dazed, looking at the ocean, and suddenly I knew what it was. I knew why I was underwhelmed, why I didn’t feel the same. I knew that I left myself behind, that I was six years older.