On the third day, I notice a mysterious iron door that is rarely left open. Like the 29th day of every fourth February, it stands out among the wooden, varnished doors. It is 2014, I am living in a small room in a large guest house in Chhattarpur Farms, Delhi; it is the season when no one dares to walk under the sun for long, and the popularity of buntas soar like high-flying vultures.
Three days ago, when my employer’s cab brought me here from the airport, I had noticed the large neem trees, the calm atmosphere, and the serious buildings with large lawns and unwelcoming gates. It seemed like a world separated from the real world; behind its gates, in between its tree-lined manicured lawns fountains watered the plants on time.
In a few weeks, I would move to Sonipat to start my new job but now it is summer break. There is little work, and my installation in this guest house that has a welcoming, cheerful website is temporary. During the day, I work at the office in Vasant Kunj or attend pedagogy meetings at the soon-to-be-deserted offices in Aurobindo Ashram. Perhaps, I notice the door because I am too sensitive of binaries : the welcoming website, but the unwelcoming gates; the wooden varnished doors and the solitary ugly iron door.
Though I had lived in Delhi before, I never had to visit Chhattarpur. Young migrant students who tried to save Rs 20 by walking from Vishwavidyalaya Metro Station to Kamla Nagar in the scorching Delhi summer to have a plate of Maggi anda-nimboo pani at the campus dhaba later, had little to do in Chhattarpur. I marvel at that old me. After freezing for three years in Minnesota, US, I am now in a city that bakes itself in summer, living in a building that is like a fortress.
But despite this luxury, I am as curious as Alice Liddell.
One morning, when I climb down to the mess area to have breakfast, I find the door ajar. Long, bright beams of sunlight invade the building through that little door. I hear chatter and the sound of different kinds of vehicles that usher turbulence into the tranquil world of Chhattarpur. I consider the idea of stepping out through that door after breakfast. In the meantime, I concentrate on my poached eggs, bacon and brown bread. I grow unsure of my intention because I am worried someone would lock me out. I stab on ripe papaya pieces with my fork and wonder: what is there in that sunlit world? What if this is the only way to return? When I finish breakfast, the door is locked.
I spend my days designing my syllabus as if this would be the last syllabus I would design. I pour in everything I have ever learnt at graduate school. I don’t know that I am suffering from the First-Year-Professor Syndrome. Fresh out of graduate school, still waiting for the bound copy of my thesis to reach India, I want to design the best syllabus in the world. I work hard to be a good teacher and pretend to others that I am not working hard, that everything is easy, that I am a pro. I am not. I feel like a fake.
I accept a dinner invitation from an old friend. Before leaving, I work all day on my teaching materials. I write and rewrite the essay prompts. I create and destroy rubrics and grading policy. I create a strict attendance policy and then make it lenient because I want to be a popular teacher. I feel ashamed that I want be a popular teacher.
My friend lives with her girlfriend in the Other Chhattarpur: a village where buffaloes with shiny black skin block your roads and bystanders offer help by pushing them away. Vegetable vendors dot the roadside. The milkman brings dairy in large aluminium cans and open-haired women sit on verandahs, killing ticks from each others’ heads. Their small locality where everyone knows everyone, their we-will-pay-you-tomorrow relationship with local vendors highlight the desert-dry solitariness of my world. In their small cheerful apartment, we talk about the recent general elections and worry about the world.
After dinner, my friend’s girlfriend offers to drop me home. She has consumed at least two pegs of whisky. I have gulped many. We talk loudly because of the alcohol and because we know that her two-wheeler will drown our voices.
It is midnight. Technically, this is a new day. I can see some stars. I feel the cool air on my ears and cheeks and wish it was like that during the day too.
Technically, the Other Chhattarpur and the Chhattarpur with Guarded Unwelcoming Gates like unfriendly-receptionists-in-may-I-help-you-desks are conjoined twins; the gated Chhattarpur is like a colony: with new names, new plantations, with its natives cast away. My friend’s girlfriend rides through serpentine routes and I see more haughty houses and more unwelcoming gates. I have never spent so much time at a happily-married-like gay couple’s home. I am still thinking about alternative families where children may be raised by two mothers or two fathers or couples who choose to remain child-free.
Technically, the iron gate would lead me to the real Chhattarpur. In a bed that sinks down under my body’s weight, I wonder how different that world would be. I am now Alice Liddell again. I think about my finished syllabus, the assignment prompts, the rubrics, the detailed grading policy, the files I would upload on the learning management system, the schedule I created, the lecture notes. I dream about noisy sunbeams full of hope.
When I wake up, my laptop refuses to start. I panic, bile rising to my throat. I believe I am about to belch out my intestines. The room is 22 degrees. I sink into the soft mattress and sweat profusely. The temperature-controlled room and the soft bed don’t calm me.
I run down the stairs barefeet. When I inhale the paper-crisp morning air amid the familiar and unfamiliar din, I realise I had crossed the line just like Alice. I return to my room, grab my wallet, wear my slippers, and step out through the door before someone locks it, and this time, being locked out isn’t my concern. Still panicking, I sit on a wooden bench of a tea stall and order a cutting chai, then a paneer pakoda, and then a bread pakoda. At the tea stall, I don’t know that two months later, on my first day at work in Sonipat, I would still be mourning my beloved old laptop.
First day at work. It is still summer, still 2014, my intestines still intact, and my laptop still refuses to provide access to my own secrets. I think, maybe this is a good thing. A new life is ahead of me. After all, I am returning to New Delhi to do something new after 10 years. In 2004, I was so clueless about Delhi University’s colleges that I went to apply to the “women’s only” Daulat Ram College because a family friend told me to “apply to each and every college” as the cut-off marks were unpredictable, like Indian general elections.
Suddenly, I miss those people from 2004, those crowded streets where I gulped bunta for the first time, the long queues in the colleges and our long marches across North Campus to save a few rupees. But a few days later, when I walk towards teaching my first class, I don’t miss that guy who thought Daulat Ram College is a co-ed college and was thrown out of its premises by the guard when he went to seek admission there. I feel grateful about that iron door for reasons I don’t know and I enter my class with confidence.
Aruni Kashyap is assistant professor, creative writing, University of Georgia, Athens, USA.