You know you are back home when passengers elbow others to disembark even before the plane completely comes to a halt as though a second longer and they will be left hanging mid-air.
There is no faster way for a journey’s high to fizzle out and yet what is the bet that these same passengers will sit quietly in their seats once they reach a foreign destination, walking out in an orderly queue as though to the manor born.
A lady with a mask positioned almost at her neck urgently breathes down me some minutes later and I take a step forward asking her to maintain distance, Covid or otherwise.
But these days everyone loves a good outrage and in keeping with the sentiment she is immediately affronted demanding that I respect the elders, (she looked my age if not younger) irrespective of their deeds- a truly Indian thinking if ever there was one!
I have often tried to put myself in the place of a foreigner who visits the capital for the first time, wondering at his or her reaction once they exit the world class Delhi airport.
The contrast with the outside can be more than disconcerting when the senses are assailed by loud horns, a sting in the air, cabs that make basic sound luxurious and a sea of humanity that has had no option but to find a method in the madness. Is it baptism by fire for a tourist or do they embrace it mistakenly as the colours of India?
The last two years of the pandemic has changed most of us irrevocably whether it is in our lifestyles or how we approach work. Delhi though seems to have come out all guns blazing as though making up for lost time. There is no longer ‘peak hour traffic’ in the city, it is a nightmare on the street at all hours and all days.
The suburbs of Noida and Gurugram have become distant and exhausting as a day trip. In a hurry to catch up, the pain of the second wave is long forgotten, and ambulances are once again stuck in traffic at the mercy of fate.
Sunday does not mean a holiday on the roads just as pollution hits even in the months after December and January. It always has but it is peak Delhi behaviour to only bring up issues that are visible. What it doesn’t see, can wait. All it takes is a pause to realise, the charm of the city that made us its loyal courtiers is becoming harder to defend. You don’t even have to scratch the surface.
The rich have become richer
Conversations in Delhi are only about people leaving- those who can afford to that is, and we know the pandemic has only made the rich, richer. Others are resigned and digging in deeper to muster everything in a city that is chaotic and it’s not just the traffic.
There is clarity though in the thinking- unemployment, rising fuel prices, traffic nothing compares to the belief of WhatsApp forwards and unfortunately for the first- time school going children are being indoctrinated by their families to dismiss inclusion.
I heard of people leaving upper middle- class colonies because their children are being singled out even by their classmates and peers. The perpetrators will themselves go abroad to study soon because nowhere has the gap in the education system been more exposed than in the country in the last two years.
The mask mandate has now been withdrawn in many cities but that is just a formality.
Starting from the leaders, masks have been worn below the nose or not at all, malls and markets are packed and if you are one of the cautious types or have a compromised member at home, it isn’t easy to stare this out. Many of these people though will maintain social distancing when they travel abroad just as they won’t throw garbage on the road in a foreign country or risk driving while drunk.
Delhi is bursting at the seams and is a city that is choking. It has been for a while now and nothing could be more heartbreaking. Like millions, others, it was the answer to my dreams of leaving a small town behind and making it big in the city.
This time I was surrounded by chatter of leaving it behind, of finding peace in smaller places and of no longer blind acceptance. Despite the glimpse in spring of a city that we fell in love with and a city that took so many of us into its fold, Covid has perhaps deepened the fault lines with Delhi.
India remains in its villages and small towns and for those who grew up there like me, that is now increasingly the only homecoming. This coming full circle whether because of age or circumstances though is a story for another day.
In my town of Jalandhar in Punjab, the birds are still chirping through the day and the stars shine clearly behind the giant eucalyptus trees at night. After the push and pull of the capital where a love fest is dying, here nothing wavers. The pandemic has taught us all one valuable lesson- to keep it simple. Those who can, should grasp it with both hands.