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Debotri Dhar
An Indian Abroad

Debotri Dhar is a visiting fellow and lecturer at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Delhi Diaries: Anatomy of a Holiday

As a traveller, one often finds oneself meditating upon the meaning and significance of permanence.

This time it rained a lot. It had started raining the very day the dates for the India trip were finalised; I was in Ohio at the time. A helpful ex-colleague drove me to the airport, sharing important life skills on the way such as "don't dig up the past" — which we giggled and agreed was rather ironic, considering he's an archaeologist. The flight itself was uneventful; and when the plane landed in Delhi, there was incredible joy. Even though joy is a tad hard, at the end of a long journey filled with checkpoints requiring the submission of one's shoes and one's soul to the scrutiny of laconic men in uniform, with passports being psychoanalysed and passengers subjected to intelligent questions like "Is this you?" But some of us are warriors, and we vanquish every impediment to touch down upon the motherland with a triumphant battle cry. When I walked out of the airport, into a city the washed colour of impending storms, an evening rain was falling softly.

The trip was to be divided between Delhi and Kolkata. It rained torrentially in both places. A book launch in Delhi saw a smouldering sky, windscreen wipers teetering across rain-spattered glass, little visibility. Kolkata was as blue: roads like rivers, swollen and overflowing, the rain turning the streetlights sallow.

The only event where it did not rain was a book reading cum talk at JNU. A scheduled lecture tour in India had been cancelled earlier in the year owing to a sudden bout of flu, so this was my first time formally addressing students at an Indian university. I found myself confessing to the students — old enough to know about the divided self and existential angst, and young enough to empathise — that I felt more joy speaking there than I have at any other university, including the Ivy Leagues. That afternoon, the rainclouds parted briefly and the sun shone.

The brisk business of life can leave the strongest of us wounded, especially in fabulous and twisted cities like New York and New Delhi. At a book reading in JNU, I confessed to the students that I felt more joy speaking there than I had at any other university in the world. That afternoon, the rainclouds parted briefly and the sun shone.

Then, the people. A part of me likes to believe true friendship, like love, lives on forever. But as a traveller, one often finds oneself meditating upon the meaning of permanence. Cities, countries, continents...with the road shifting and changing shape without, what endures within? One rain-smudged afternoon, I wanted to pick up the phone to dial an old friend (Sorry, Nick) while rainwater streaked grimly down the sides of buildings and one of Thomas Hardy's preludes played in my head: "Rain on the windows, creeping doors, with miles that besom the green/and I am here, and you are there, and a hundred miles between." The brisk business of life can leave the strongest of us wounded, especially in fabulous and twisted cities like New York and New Delhi. But does the exquisite dialectic between unlikely friends, between each one's adhikaar and each one's abhimaan — a weight only authentic associations can bear, for anything less idealistic would collapse — have to be doomed? Outside the calculus of real and imagined agendas, what endures?

These thoughts wove themselves wetly around an August holiday until it was almost time to return to America, this time to teach at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Then, out of the unsullied blue, came a lunch invitation. Here's the backstory. Once as a schoolgirl, I had won a district-level elocution competition. The then-chairperson of India's National Commission of Women was the chief guest.

Despite a busy schedule and a political meeting — her secretary, I remember, was pointing urgently at the watch — she had spoken to me at great length and encouraged me to contribute to women's and social issues. This time life serendipitously reconnected me with Dr Mohini Giri in Delhi, years after our first meeting, and she invited me for a home-cooked meal. She is still the same — ageless, filled with love and a sense of service, her myriad projects including a school in Vrindavan where she also works for widows, and another in Kashmir. Her affection was so genuine I found myself crying. The tears returned again at night, while saying goodbye at the airport. The most beautiful raindrops are perhaps those that cling to our eyes, bearing silent testimony to everything beautiful and fragile that still endures.

 
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