This is the first article of a five-part series.
I was cuddling with my mother. A full-grown adult at 23, notably taller than her and larger in size, I was coaxing her to give me her attention. “Please can I go to Delhi to get some of my stuff?” I asked her. She responded in a tone Indian parents use all too well – non-committal, but you know you have initiated a conversation. She dismissively mumbled, “Dekhtey hain (we’ll see).”
When the second wave of the COVID-19 crisis had shaken our worlds, I had returned ‘home’ (the place where my family lives). I was working as a journalist in New Delhi, visiting hospitals and vaccination centres, and had inevitably contracted the virus despite taking all precautions.
I was confined to a single room at my parent’s house. For two weeks, I thought about the choices in my life that had led me there. In the post-Covid identity crisis that followed, I quit my job. I wanted to be away from Delhi, and was confused about my place in the world. It felt intense and serious in a way that only a 20-something young adult can feel.
I wanted to belong somewhere, to feel like I was at home.
Whenever I pondered over the years from early childhood to the present day, I could, with strange familiarity, recall the feeling of not belonging. In my own house, I felt I did not belong in my own room. I was convinced it was because I did not have my own books, my favourite bedsheet or my crooked pen stand.
So there I was, awkwardly wrapped in my mother’s arms, too large for her to hold, asking her to help me belong.
‘The small town always aspires to be the metro’
Drishti Sharma, who was born in Guwahati in Assam, thinks of it as a small town aspiring to be the metro. She recalls the hidden nooks of Guwahati, its sonorous music scene, and the many ways in which she could cover the stretch of the city on a bicycle.
However, she also struggles with the definition as she thinks about how Guwahati is no longer a Tier 3 city but a Tier 2 city. While this is just one way in which we quantify cities, the small-town sentiment is not so easily pigeonholed. It is a sentiment of constant waiting, of thinking that life is not really here, that it will start elsewhere. You’re not always consciously aware of that waiting, but it lingers subtly. It is a sense of lacking. Every time you visit a city better equipped with facilities, you’re made aware of what your own hometown lacks – maybe there’s no McDonald’s, no multiplex and no bookstore selling scandalous novels but just ‘Pratiyogita Darpan’ for students preparing for IAS. And maybe the mall looks more local than global.
It was because of this lack that Drishti moved out of the city she was born in. She also wanted a good education. She had not anticipated her own moving out and, in leaving for college, she reached Hansraj College at University of Delhi.
In this sense, my story was similar to Drishti’s. I met her at Hansraj when I joined my literature class. I too had moved out of my hometown for an education. Born in an obsolete city in Haryana, I had managed to score very well in my Class 12 board examinations. I was a deviant in my family of doctors, fostering a proclivity for the arts.
With my move to Delhi University, I became the first of my cousin sisters from my father’s side of the family to ever leave home for studies. One side of my family was in shock, for which I had my mother to thank. She is from a family of five sisters – all of them fierce consumers of books and education.
All of us – my mother, her sisters, Drishti and I – left our cities. All of us were small-town girls.
As my conversation with Drishti progressed, I asked if she identified as a small-town girl. “I do not identify as a small-town girl, but a small-town girl is definitely a part of my identity,” Drishti’s articulation was an eureka moment for me. I thought, “Aha! This is how I feel all the time!”
For me, the statement was like an echo. It said that a part of her knew that she was from a small town, struggling to make her way in the big city, but it was a part that was often in slumber, the part you keep burying under the layers of identities you take on over time. But there were days when this slumber would be perturbed, and you would suddenly be made aware of how it existed in you all along. There are days when I cherish this part, when I sit down and talk to it. Then there are also days where I wish I could put it to sleep forever.
This part is what does not let me belong. Like all small-town girls, I am torn between its push and pull of identifying and being identified.
When I had moved to New Delhi, I had felt the way the small town feels, always trying to make up for something that was lacking in me. I looked around myself and saw classmates well-versed in the language of Delhi. All of them knew each other, and came from similar schools – D.P.S. RK Puram, Modern School, The Shri Ram School, D.P.S. Vasant Kunj among others – their very own fraternity of cool kids.
Rana Dasgupta, in his book Capital, in talking about Delhi, writes, “…here, introductions are necessary. People want to know who you are before they will let you in, which is why name, and address-dropping are so much part of social conversation: people must advertise their connections and allegiances if they are to enjoy a proper social existence.”
Apart from not sharing their schools and address, I had not seen all the shows they had seen, had not read the books they had read and couldn’t pronounce things with suave.
It felt like my own life was a movie that I was watching. I was a character in it, but only like a spectator. I aspired to be like the big-city folks.
I wasn’t particularly angry at the so-called ‘big-city folks’, and I don’t want to portray myself like a victim. Even though I realised the way class and socio-cultural capital were playing themselves out in front of my eyes, I understood that they too were a product of their circumstances. Even in my experience as a small-town girl, I come from immense privilege when I write this – of class, caste and having a stable family, among many other things. However, I have tried speaking to people who did not share these privileges. I have heard their stories, and we have laughed off certain feelings together. We have found a certain common ground that I seek to articulate.
Not having the same exposure as many of the others around us meant that we had a lot to look forward to, that we had the option to not be a cynic. We could be romantics. It meant we could still discover Richard Linklater and Shakespeare for the first time – a pleasure that ‘big-city folks’ don’t get in their adult lives. Oftentimes, it was accompanied by a sense of feeling “behind”, but eventually, we found many like us – those from Patna, Moradabad, Thrissur, Panipat and Ambala, among others.
It also meant that along with our learning, we had much to unlearn. And finally, it meant that our life was finally starting.
This five-part series will attempt to answer some questions: What happens when you arrive in the big city? And what happens once you move back to where you came from? What happens after you fragment yourself between the small town and the big city? In what ways do our experiences alienate or empower us? What happens when you live neither here nor there?
Muskan Nagpal is an English Literature graduate and a Young India Fellow.
Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty