May 30, 2008

City Girl

A few days ago, walking on the stripped concrete roof of the apartment complex to which my family had recently shifted, I realized how odd it was that I was eager these days to read up, ask questions, and learn about Goa (where I hope to make a home one day), but had not had a similar curiosity about the city of my birth.

My relationship with Ranchi has always been strange, marked by a huge disconnect.

Many years ago, trusting and ingenuous, I went from home to school and school to home, riding a school bus, with no thought to what was going on outside. I was shaped by the pedagogy of the time and place. Children were neither taught nor encouraged to be inquisitive about material realities, nor engage with the world, not by our families and not at school. The focus of education was on performance in the classroom -- to do better at school subjects, get higher marks -- which I was very good at.

I grew up a dreamy, bookish, apolitical child, the kind who devoured unabridged Dickens and Kipling but had but a vague idea about the space she inhabited – its pre-Independence and post-Independence history, economic history, political aspirations, weave of inter-ethnic relations, clannishness based on region of origin, hierarchies based on caste and class. The disconnect with “life outside” was so tremendous that I didn’t think it could have any implication for my life.

And in a way it didn’t. In 1998, I left for Bangalore to study law, returning periodically during term holidays. Then I moved to Delhi to work and into a whole new life consisting of a shared rented apartment, friends, and increasingly non mainstream ideas, since we found we wanted different things in and for our lives than the mainstream.

Ranchi was a place I returned to just to spend time with my family. Most of my school friends had married and moved elsewhere. My interactions with the family’s friends were quite often not about me as much as about what a daughter of the family who has made it should look like. My real life in Delhi was carefully folded away from the scrutiny of that slice of the Ranchi society we moved around in.

Sometimes, when I went back, I took independent excursions. One Christmas, I walked to a beautiful brick church. Once I met the editor of a women’s magazine at a public lecture and later went to her house, where she talked me into getting a year’s subscription of the magazine (of which only a copy or two turned up in the mail). These were thrilling moments. I was breaking away from the expectations and doing what was not easily understandable for a girl of my “family background”, and just about tolerated for its eccentricity because, normally, my family was respectable.

I’ll be 28 this July and am choosing to be rootless for now. After almost five years in Delhi, a desire to replant myself cropped up. So I am in Goa for the summer (but not in Baga or Anjuna or even a pristine South Goa beach, before someone pipes up “holiday”!). The day after I reached, a friend who has returned to Goa after studying and a short stint of work said to me, we have to go back to where we come from; we have to deal with the problems of that place; we have to help in the solving of those problems. I think he meant this is how we can find the “home” we are all looking for.

I’ve been thinking about this, especially on my recent trip to Ranchi. It’s difficult to love my birth-town sometimes, I get so frustrated by the things that are happening there. Yet, that is home, the first home, and I have to find some way to go back. So perhaps I will begin by asking questions. Who, what, where, why? Maybe I won’t find the people who have these answers soon, maybe the answers themselves would take some time coming. Then again, maybe my questions will show the way for more questions. And that could be one way back.

For Nancy Mairs, last encountered in the stuttering adventure of her essay.

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