The following “letter to juniors” was written for 2016’s Annual Alumni Magazine of Delhi Public School, Dhaligaon (Assam, India).
When I left home and school for a new city, I was barely 16. Now I am 23, and still leaving to arrive – all for good.
While I was doing it – leaving home at such a tender age – it naturally seemed very exciting, the prospects of ‘charting the uncharted’.
When I had done it, it began to get not just exasperating but also depressing for apparent reasons of being away from the warmth of home in a big, bad city. But, in retrospect, moving away early was perhaps the most significant decision I have taken in my life as yet – one that would alter my perspectives and perceptions forever.
This is not because I had to face some sort of a dismal atmosphere at home, which I had to run away from. I had the most loving and encouraging parents one could hope to get, and was nothing less than an unabashedly mollycoddled child.
This is because I decided to voluntarily expose myself to the chill before it was to get terribly cold.
As the only child of my parents, moving away from home was invariably a painful decision, especially because most of our ‘well-wishers’ stood against the very idea. From next-door aunties to fellow officers of my father, an absolutely uninspiring crowd of skeptics armed with high-end advice for my parents, thronged to our doorstep to stop them from parting with their only child at such a tender age.
Only later would it dawn on to me that what my parents ultimately did amidst that outrageous ruckus (which is let me move away) was almost superhuman. They ignored their nagging peers, some with very convincing arguments, to believe in their own judgement and toss a gamble for my good life.
When I look back at that, I realise I could never be grateful enough to them.
I have lived away from home for almost seven years now, six years in Delhi and one in England. During that time, I have jumped academic streams like a game of hop-and-skip, moved houses like they were refugee camps, and lost friends like pen-caps.
I have also trekked up the Himalayas to camp at a hot spring, gotten mugged in an Istanbul backstreet, vainly attempted to run an online magazine with more than 30 employees, navigated a Scottish city on foot for four hours straight using a faulty map, gotten tear gassed by Delhi Police while photographing a protest march, and blockaded a main road in the city to shoot a film at 4:30 am.
Was it all worth the labour? I don’t know.
But, there is one thing that I know for certain – moving away to trace the unfamiliar and do the nameless ultimately pushed me to my effortless best and my vulnerable worst. This would never have been possible if I were safely hounded up in familiar spaces of well-being and convenience.
When I first arrived in Delhi in 2010, I got a massive ‘culture shock’ because of my presumed belief that the north is far more reticent than the northeast. For someone was already exposed to the ‘Hindi’ culture of north and west India through Bollywood, school, and popular literature, that sounds incredibly bizzare.
Evidently, in addition to a massive bunch of clothes and books, I had also lugged a heavy bag of preconceived notions and prejudices onto the plane.
Nevertheless, as a new city dweller, I was hugely suspicious of everything and everyone – from the sly autorickshaw driver to the hostel mess staff. The suspicion often bordered along fear, brooding, and anxiety.
It has been six long years since then, and now, I am much more comfortable and conversant with my new setting. This is despite the not-so-trashy advise that, I think, should be displayed alongside traffic signs at toll entries and intersections: Caution! Do not get too comfortable with Delhi.
What changed during this time?
A simple reality, amongst many other things – my ability to acknowledge and understand different perceptions.
Being the quintessentially mobile cityfarer, painfully self-conscious policy analyst, ridiculously gun-shy journalist, and disdainfully infrequent traveler, I have had the opportunity to meet and converse with people from many walks of life – professors, students, hawkers, rickshaw pullers, policemen, cab drivers, shopkeepers, gutka-sellers, diplomats, civil servants, filmmakers, waiters, restaurateurs, painters, singers, curators, writers, daily wage workers, et al.
While it goes without saying that each one of them think and perceive things differently, what was most crucial for me was that they don’t think like I do.
They often posit a daunting antithesis to my thesis, a valid counterpoint to my point.
Against this clash of perceptions, I grew up into a far more responsive individual who now tries to understand without judgment, and engage without suspicion.
Thus, I believe it is absolutely crucial for one to move out of their duly protected ‘comfort zones’ to step into the bluest waters inhabited by stranger fishes (perhaps sharks). Although institutions like the family, the school, and the immediate society provide an anchoring for a stable life, they often become ‘echo chambers’ where the only voice you hear is your own or your friend’s or your parents’ or your mentor’s. This creates alienation from and distrust of the world beyond your immediate reach.
It is important to operate as an ‘individual’, who can think and act independently.
But, an ‘individual existence’ doesn’t necessarily denote a lonely existence. It is merely one where you take your own decisions and constantly mediate between luxury, need, and choice. Such an existence of everyday barter can actually be oddly satisfying – to directly deal with the plumber, the maid, the laundryman, and the electrician, to take public transport because of lack of money for a taxi, to buy medicines on your own with fever surging through you, to get bread and eggs for days without a cooking maid, to learn the basics of frying, tossing, and boiling, and to perhaps skip the morning shower because the water pump just conked off.
All of it might not guarantee any kind of ‘material success’ in your lives, but it will certainly make you a more adaptable, tolerant, and patient human being than you were ever before.
Also because ‘comfort’ tastes better when earned and not when handed over to you with default love.
Bongaigaon, the lower Assam town where I grew up, and DPS Dhaligaon, where I studied for the first 16 years of my academic life continue to remain the two foundational pillars of my being. I still like to self-identify as a small-town swain, fascinated by the fact that in these cosy little places, no face is a stranger and every turn a déjà vu. I still reminisce copiously about my alma mater – my incorrigible class squad, the extremely patient teachers, the unforgettable whiff of fresh cut grass in the corridors, and the smattering of competitive fervour during events.
Yet, I believe that moving away from that space of ease and comfort at a relatively early stage was hugely significant for me.
More than anything else, it hurled on to my unsuspecting face, a new life that thrashed me to tears and sweat before tickling me to smirk like a fool.