One morning in the first week of May, I hop on a Delhi Transport Corporation bus to Paharganj. There has been a light shower a few hours ago. Unable to sleep throughout the night, I seek refuge in the air which is unusually cold for a summer morning in Delhi. There is something that cannot be explained about not having slept for days on end and leaving your flat for a short trip around the city. The simplest way to put it is to say that you feel like you have been drugged.
Everything is out of focus: the paperboys on bicycles jostling for space under the newly constructed metro station, the Nike gear-clad fitness freak running alongside the makeshift tents of daily wagers, the rickshaw wallas smoking biris while calling out to potential customers, and parents accompanying their underslept children to school. The sight of a red DTC bus leaving the bus stop resembles an amateur video shot in a super-shallow depth of field, and you can’t help but think it has all been staged for you.
Every once in a while I become a character in this routine morning play. I like going to Paharganj this early in this specific bus. It goes past Nizamuddin Dargah and Humayun’s Tomb, flies near Delhi Golf Club, winds itself around India Gate, and makes an appearance at Connaught Place before I finally get down outside New Delhi Railway Station and take the dusty road straight to Paharganj interiors. It is a really short journey from a Muslim ghetto to a meltdown of so many different nationalities via a few stops at what remains of Sufi, Lodhi, Mughal, and British India. Like a time traveller, you skim through at least seven hundred years of history in about twenty-five minutes.
On this particular morning, however, I have an extra reason to find an escape. I have written two-semester examination papers in the past four days and tomorrow I have my third paper: Postcolonial Literature in English. But that will come later. Right now, I don’t want to think about that.
Right now, I want to think about all the backpackers, hippies, and travellers leaving Paharganj for the road. I want to fantasize about the places they will soon be. I want to imagine what their lives are like. I want to make up stories about them, stories full of assumptions and stereotypes. This is my idea of happiness on the morning after a sleepless night. However, at the same time, there is also a strange sadness lurking inside me. Probably I am sad because I still have not been able to spot that person among them: that person who looks exactly like me. But let me forget even about that for now.
As I walk past 6 Tooti Chowk, I spot one of the many chai wallas who are visible in this part only in the mornings. The chai wale bhaiya is seated on a stool behind his cart while two men are standing beside him sipping tea from disposable cups. I stop for a moment, make up my mind for a quick tea before I walk into one of my favourite cafes here for breakfast and quickly trace my steps towards him. Before I reach him and ask for a cup of chai, I watch him jump up from his stool. He moves aside, gently pushes the stool towards me, and gestures me to sit down. This is odd, but not completely unimaginable. He hasn’t vacated his seat for two customers who are already there, and this makes me uneasy as I settle on the stool. I brush off the annoying thought deciding they must be in a hurry, and that vacating a single stool for two people wouldn’t have made much sense. He puts the kettle on the gas stove, and my mind once again wanders off to “backpackers, hippies, and travellers.”
I am brought back from my reverie as he turns his face to me, and asks, “Sugar?”
Okay, now the alarm bells have officially rung for me. But before I can actually process this information that has flooded me in no time, I find myself saying to him, “A little.”
Why did I say “a little” and not “thoda sa?”
As he turns back to his work, I get to break down what has just transpired between us. No chai walla ever asks someone from this part of the world whether they want sugar in their tea or not. It is a question that has been reserved for “foreigners”. Is that why he jumped up from his seat when I approached the stall? But that is fine for now. I am more concerned about saying “a little.” I must admit that on one hand I am enjoying this privilege that comes with being a “foreigner” in India but on the other hand I am feeling a little guilty for misleading him and playing along his cue and making him believe that I am actually a “foreigner” who prefers little to no sugar in his tea and says that in English.
A few minutes later he passes me the disposable cup of tea.
While I sit on the stool sipping tea, a small board advertising a café catches my eye. As I finish the tea and am about to hand over the ten rupee bill to him, I ask pointing to the board, “Where is this?”
This is when the hell breaks loose for me. He smiles, forgets the three other customers who are waiting for tea, separates himself from the stall, walks in front of me and asks me to follow. I do as he says. He leads me through a narrow lane, and a few dozen yards later, at the dead end of this lane, he opens a not-so-heavy glass door in front of me. I walk through it, and as I look back at him, he waves me a goodbye. A really cute story of hospitality, some would say.
However, as I sit on one of the chairs in a corner of this nearly empty café, I realize I have been perspiring heavily, and my heart is pounding against its many walls. The photocopies of Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” and Ngugi’s “Decolonising the Mind” suddenly feel like a heavy burden in my small backpack. I take it off and rest it on another chair beside me. My classroom discussions on Postcolonialism had come to haunt me even when the whole purpose of this “trip” was to escape exactly that. Now that I have settled down and ordered an “English” breakfast, I can further break down what it is that unsettled me a few minutes ago.
Without saying it, without naming it, without pointing as much as a finger towards it, we had entered the relationship of an erstwhile colonizer and colonized. Even though political colonialism might have ended years ago for this country, these relations have not. This is all we have been talking about when we talk about Postcolonialism in classrooms. This isn’t the first time I have seen it in action. It is everywhere around us, wherever you can spot a White Foreigner interacting with an Indian. This isn’t an example of Atithi Devo Bhava, for do Indians behave the same way when a person visibly from Africa walks to their tea stall? I don’t think so.
However, even this is not what unsettled me. I have read and talked about this so much by now that I am immune to it. I have exhausted the topic in lectures and seminars and discussions. It doesn’t affect me now.
My heart was pounding the way it was because since the time he asked me about sugar and more so after he left his stall to lead me to the café, all a certain part of me could think about was what if he goes ahead and asks me where from I am? Would I play along once again and name a European country or would I state the truth and say Kashmir?
If I did go ahead and state the truth, wouldn’t his whole belief system be shattered? Isn’t this what constructs are: based on hundreds of years of beliefs and yet so fragile? Wouldn’t our positions in the relationship we had just entered be turned upside down? For now, I was playing the colonizer, and suddenly he would take that position, and more worryingly, come to realize that I had cheated on him. Indian intellectuals like Shashi Tharoor may convincingly argue that Kashmir and India do not share the same relationship as Britain and India did back then, but then I don’t know how he or anyone else would negate the other ‘softer’ aspects of colonial relationship they share. For in the larger Indian imagination, aren’t Kashmiris at one end exotic, green-eyed, and red-cheeked, and on the other end naïve, violent, and terrorists?
It is this realization that I found so exhausting. And yet after it was all over and I was back in my flat still unable to sleep thinking what if I was over thinking because of all these classroom discussions and texts and theories? What if I was just conjuring it all up and he would have done the same thing for any other human being?
Well, there is no way of knowing that. We live our lives guided by constructs, and perhaps there is no escaping them, and all we can do is talk about them to the point of exhaustion.