A large courtyard, surrounded by the small, two-storeyed hostel on all sides; a group of girls playing volleyball/badminton/catch, making whatever use they can of the badminton net put up there by the hostel; a few of us sitting in one corner with plastic chairs we dragged out of our rooms, the rest on the raised ground level outlining the lawn. Every time I go to the rooftop of my house on winter afternoons, I am immediately transported to what was, winter afternoons seven years ago (or was it eight? I can never be sure, time has mixed nostalgia and sunshine and my friend’s voices into a big ball of Past).
The hostel was small, for first-years only, and most of my nights were spent either talking to my then-boyfriend, or roaming the corridors listening to music like a ghost in mourning, after the breakup. The courtyard was quite large and opened up to the clear night sky, sparkling with stars in the pollution-free air of a Jharkhand small-town. It reminded me of palatial homes of large Gujarati joint families from Hindi TV soap operas, where the wives would make pickle in the lawn and talk to each other from across the yard. That’s how we lived as well. You could hear arguments, songs, conversations, movies, anything spoken in a moderately raised voice in other rooms, from outside. Everyone knew what was happening in each other’s lives.
When I first joined college, I met one of my closest friends (to be) on the very first day. And for as proper and snooty as she looked, she was even more crass than some of the boys I had seen in Delhi growing up. She allowed me to own up to my own tastes I had been quasi-ashamed of until then. When I hear that one song from Singh is Bling, or that oddly cheesy movie dialogue she threw around at everyone, I am reminded of us sitting in the Material Sciences Lab in college, one of the last few classes we had together before taking up different thesis specialisations, where she would tell me her collected gossip of the week. It was wonderfully low-brow of us. She also wore quite an expensive perfume for a college kid, that was mainly because her family was unrealistically rich (it was very realistic, but I was not used to seeing so much wealth as an 18 year old). A few years after I graduated, someone in my office walked past me, with the same perfume, and I was suddenly back to being propped in my friend’s room on her bean bag, eating the food her mother would dedicatedly send for her every week, and making fun of her for having a perfume that cost more than the monthly pocket money of all her friends combined. And it was a delightfully stupid memory, because as I grew older, I realised people did spend on perfumes, quite extravagantly too, and apparently some even started as early as in college, while my friends and I sat eating salted makhana and taking digs at each other. It was so naive of us.
I think of her when I use a hair straightener, because she taught me to, dedicatedly partitioning my hair into sections and smoothing them out every time I wanted to have straight hair, and essentially gave me her straightener after a point. I think of her when I eat Ferrero Rochers, because she used to buy them in huge family packs at home and then get a box for me at college. I think of her when I see t-shirts from Mango, a brand I have seen nobody else support as loyally as her. I think of her whenever I pet dogs, because she is the one who got me over my fear of them, with her two beefy Alsatians I warmed up to. I think of her now, while writing this, and wonder where she is.
I haven’t travelled by train ever since I left college. The opportunity, or need, never came. Back then though, I was taking a train every two months. The fares were inexpensive, college students were broke. I took the train to come home to Delhi for the longer summer and winter breaks, and to travel to see my grandfather a few hundred kilometres away in Kolkata on smaller vacations. The trains to Kolkata were simpler, cheaper, easier to book last-minute. They barely took half a day and were overnight, when I would deboard at the Howrah station, smelling of fish and garbage as early as seven in the morning.
Sometimes I also go back to the other college, in the neighbouring state of West Bengal where although I didn’t study, I ended up going every year in January for their fest. It was a uniquely college-level experience, crossing the sylvan plains and small hills in the middle of the night in biting cold, travelling in sleeper class coaches because half of us hadn’t told our parents and had no money. An immense and unruly group of students keeping the entire train up at night. There were systems in place, seniors bartering seats in other coaches so we could get a whole coach to ourselves, our own place to rave, which would maybe end up being Dumb Charades or two cigarettes or in some very daring instances, a quarter of Old Monk shared by twenty people. A friend and I declared ourselves the ‘Dumb Charades Champions of Inter-City Sleeper Train, Jharkhand-West Bengal edition’, based on just this.
Memory, the threads that extend from events in the past to now, tying our present-day to our past, they never fail to fascinate me for the sheer amount of power they hold. Like Floo Powder the wizards in the Harry Potter-verse used, sometimes disastrously, to travel from one place to another, there is no telling what around you might take you where, at that instant. Sometimes it is to a place of pain, sometimes to a happy recollection, and sometimes it’s just a big deep sigh. Free time on weekends I spend alone at home reminds me of my fifth and final year at college, where I had little to do. My thesis guide wanted to spend as much time as he could with his new-born daughter, and barely ever called us. I would probably only go to class once a week to perform rudimentary inconclusive experiments on my project and spend the rest my time watching movies or eating, while recovering from an unfortunate heartbreak. The movie V For Vendetta reminds me of another close friend who loved that movie, who made me watch it, and who wrote a whole alliterative speech inspired by V’s speech from the film. Benedict Cumberbatch in any movie now reminds me of when I stayed up till 3 am watching Sherlock in my first year at college, chatting up that senior I found cute. Neither the show nor that relationship worked out.
I met someone in that college in West Bengal. He introduced me to the world of comedy shows and sitcoms. I started watching The Office, Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, even Bojack Horseman on His recommendation. It was all great of course until He wasn’t around anymore, and I had to deal with having to watch my favourite shows and not be reminded of Him. One could say it was fresh then, but even four years later (or five? I really am bad with years), when I rewatch them, a line or a scene may drag me right back to the small room in a quiet guesthouse where we would sit and watch these shows, the physicality of our beings merging with our emotions, defining the moments we fell in love with each other. And I know I am not the only one struggling to detach meaning from everyday objects and occurrences. We’re all fighting against the tide of Past Memories, trying to not let them overwhelm us when we pick up a loose thread and unravel the yarn all the way back to the starting point in our history where that meant something. It’s not easy to watch a movie and forget that the first time you watched it was with a friend who is not around anymore, or to listen to a Childish Gambino song and not immediately picture the time you played it in the background while *cough* you were with your partner.
The above-mentioned person also introduced me to people. Lots of them. His friends turned into my friends. His social life and mine started overlapping, and maybe after a point I unwillingly took over all of it, and He slowly receded into the background, willingly on his part. He moved away from me and the circle of friends I had started co-inhabiting and after a point I became the sole thread tying him back to them. Today, maybe some of those people are closer to me than he had ever been. And sometimes, when in the throes of drinking with those friends under an open night, I am reminded of what actually brought us together - His departure from my life and my need to have a shoulder, a support, and all those people turned up. It was like picking a side in a breakup without really picking a side. And when I am reminded of this, I am inadvertently reminded of Him. And this innocent thread unravels all the way sometimes to the starting point, when I first saw Him from across a road and found myself immediately drawn.
A few days ago, I took the Blue line of the Delhi metro after two years, to meet a former colleague, and came across what was once my office too, an imposing 21-storeyed structure right next to the metro station. I did not get down there though, we were meeting somewhere else. And as I crossed the glass-fronted building, now aware that half of it was empty, I was thrust into the moment two years ago when I would have been on the other side, sitting inside the office and looking at the trains passing, waiting for the day to be over. I sometimes travelled all the way to the end of the Blue line to the last station, Noida City Centre, and then back again, to get a seat and to spend more time with my then-partner. When the train sped away from the building, further towards the next stop, where I usually never went except for with him, there was a sudden pit in my stomach caused by the emptiness of the seat next to me, his absence that I was so used to now, making itself be felt with each passing station. Noida in itself felt like a representation of him. I had never come back there after I had broken up with him, and it felt like the place beckoned me slowly, willing me to look back into what I had abandoned.
My older memories of objects, people, places, smells, sights, stations on the Delhi metro, American sitcoms, and maybe even present-day friends, reside somewhere inside me waiting for the day I can look back at them the way I looked back at Noida. It intimidates me a little too. To reconcile with a part of my life that's changed so much, is a terrifying thought. How much can one hold up against the tide of the past, heavy with information and feeling? How does one live with the knowledge that ‘then and now’ for the same thing are different, maybe because of me or others? Or circumstances? But we must. It’s who we are and how we are.