Words saved me. Well, words and my baseless insecurities. And no, it did not save me from the cruelty of this world or the wickedness of the people inhabiting it. I have been under that wrong impression for a few years now, and it is time for me to speak the truth.
Words saved me from ruining myself and prevented my imminent plummet into darkness. And for that, I’m forever in debt to my liberators. I cannot thank them and be done with it. Neither can I praise them and put the whole memory to a rest.
So, I bask in their wonder, let them coax me into their familiar lair, and willingly sneak into their presence often – like a wild dog craving to be petted. Words saved me – and it is to them that I owe my success, my failures, and everything that makes or breaks me.
I moved to Delhi when I was 16 years old – away from the familiarity of the city in which I’d stayed my entire life. The initial thoughts that treaded through my mind as I landed in Delhi were, “How do things move so fast in this place? Will I be able to run toe-to-toe with everyone else? Or will I be left behind?”
You see, from the very beginning, I was internally torn by my need for acceptance. I rebelled against my parents when they informed me about their plans to take me along with them. I knew right then that it was not the right course for me – and somehow, I could sense the sorrow that was waiting to engulf me. There were no concrete reasons for me to think the way I did, but I hated the idea of going to Delhi.
Language was not the issue at all. I could understand and also fluently speak the colloquial language, as impeccably as any native one. Growing up in a school that had a mixed diversity of students from all over the country, I learnt to speak Hindi very early in life, just like everyone else in my school. It was do or die for us, and ‘dying’ meant being left behind during those chatty lunch-breaks and sports-periods that we all so enjoyed as kids.
I adapted to the new place without much drama. But there was a grief that constantly gnawed away bits and pieces of me. Initially, I thought that it was the people of Delhi that bothered me – but I soon came to accept that it was my ignorance in getting to know them that made me come to that conclusion. If it wasn’t the place, and if it wasn’t the people, then what precisely was the reason for the void in my heart? I’ve repeatedly asked that question to myself, and I’ve failed to find the answer.
The government quarters in which my father got accommodation was smack in the middle of New Delhi – and was only at a walking distance from Karol Bagh, an area famous for the majority of its residents hailing from South India.
I would, in the two years that followed, walk to Karol Bagh a number of times, just to catch phrases of my mother tongue. it made me feel safe in the alienated land. The metro station was just a few minutes’ walk from Rajendra Place (the area in which in lived). I would leave for school daily at around 6:30 AM in the morning – bag jam-packed with books, my mind always distracted on thoughts unknown, but the morale to get through the day still as strong as ever.
I loved the school building with all my childish heart – an ancient brick structure that had been mounted decades ago. It had that strange oldness associated to it that gained my affection immediately. The vast grounds that seemed to stretch on forever, the tiny swimming pool that was out of bounds for non-swimmers like me, the basketball court that eternally swarms with kids from all classes, and the canteen which started my unending lust for samosas – I loved it all. Every elaborate detail about that school has been etched in my mind everlastingly.
I surprised my classmates a lot. this was probably because I was an intruder in their lives, someone to prod and poke at, to laugh at, and someone to torment. And do I hold any grudges against them for their inhospitality? Not in the least. It was the adolescence surging through their veins that made them lose their clarity. Everyone in that classroom was fighting their own demon. I could sense that there was an endgame to their unfriendliness, which accelerated rapidly as they established that I was an amiable guy who did not deserve too much detestation.
After their initial coldness, came their surprise towards me. There I was – a guy from the other part of the country, who could speak their language without much trouble, a guy who could delve into his little novels and not remain lost in them for a very long time. They saw me as the embodiment of the word ‘weird’. Soon, they came to terms with my quietness, and learned to love me for the person I was.
This was the first obvious change that I noticed in myself – my silence. Back home, I was the most mischievous and arrogant prick that my teachers had ever come across. I was a prankster, I was a daring and outspoken rebel, I would get into fist-fights, and I would be the driving factor behind any major havoc in our classroom. Delhi stubbed me out, and I coiled into a shell of insecurities, for good or bad. It was the beginning of my transformation – from an extrovert to an introvert.
I liked all of my new classmates unbiasedly, and they retaliated their love by embracing me into their lives, eccentric though I was. I remember a couple of guys with profound clarity – they used to derive absolute pleasure from teasing me. This involved non-harmful tricks like running away with my books, slapping me in the back, and devouring the tasty lunch that my mom used to pack for me (without so much as informing me) – but all of this was done good-naturedly. And I would always laugh with them at the end of the day. I never went home with hard feelings against anyone. I was liked by everyone. No, loved is the word. I was loved by everyone – teachers and students regardless.
Only three years has passed since those days, but I can’t recollect much about what it was that happened with me over there. Although I got along with all my classmates, I never hung out with them for the three long years I stayed there. There was not a single evening when I met them after school hours, or went over to their place during holidays. Neither did they bother to invite me anywhere. In school, I would meet them, laugh with them, have a good time, and go home to decipher the reason for my misery.
The only thing that I can recollect with profound clarity is books. I think of Delhi, and I am automatically reminded of the rope of hope to which I held on tightly to survive.
I was a complex paradox – an anomalous riddle which I was trying too hard to crack. What scared me more than anything was the normalcy of everything. Had I been ill-treated by my classmates, or had my teachers resorted to racially discriminate me, I would have had something to pin my unhappiness on. But there was nothing of the sort. My mind was constantly lost in its own multifaceted thoughts – yet, after a few minutes, when I tried to recollect these thoughts, I would be at a complete loss to do so.
Yet, there were moments when I could forget about everything that bothered me. This happened almost always during my metro train journeys back home from school. I would, at all times, stand by the door, lean back on the glass wall attached to the seat and look out of the transparent doors to witness the busy streets of Delhi – crowded with office-goers, school kids, rickshaw wallahs, tourists, college students, and many more people. They all had one thing in common – everyone was caught up in a frenzy of action. They all ran incessantly towards something mystical. And I refused to do that. I just stood by and watched as millions of people overtook me. I was clueless as to why they were running – my determination to stay my ground and not be influenced by the masses invoked a sense of superiority in me. I was happy, but I wasn’t.
What was it that consumed me? I remember being regularly sad during those years. What tormented me? I have mulled over this question as intensely as a philosopher ponders over the existence of god, but in vain. To this day, the answer to this query has eluded me.
I was on the verge of resorting to some extreme means to fit in, like attaching myself to the wrong group of friends, when I stumbled upon words. Although I’ve been an avid reader since a very young age, I saw books in a new light during those days. What had changed? Nothing, probably. It was just my perspective that had changed. My inactivity was replaced by reading. I would read, read and read till I had prolonged my mother’s patience. She would, at an unbearable point, snatch away my book and chase me off to my study-room, begging me to finish my school work before I indulged myself in reading for pleasure.
I was still lost – there was no doubt in that. I was lost in my adolescent desires and my need for acceptance among friends in school, lost in the feelings that I did not understand fully. But there was a light that shone through me when I found words, it was this light that drove away the demons that were plotting my kill. The light saved me, when I was in need of saving.
I evolved as a person. My sadness helped me grow as a human being – it taught me compassion, and suddenly, I could feel deeply for the little things in life that had once seemed unimportant. It taught me to stand my ground for what is right and stay the hell away from what is wrong.
Most importantly, it taught me the power of individuality. All through my childhood, I had always tried to fit into one gang or the other. This was a nature that was associated with my very being – my longing to be a part of the coolest crowd, and being a part of that crowd always meant losing my uniqueness. Delhi taught me the necessity to stand alone when life demands it of me.
Featured image used for representative purposes only.