Tuesday, October 11, 2005

I get a kick out of eating at places that let me park leisurely on the fringes of roads – the care-of-footpath types places. There was this place in Vels – Wang’s kitchen, who made divine noodles and fried rice for 15 bucks a plate. What made the stuff even better was that he had some tables on the footpath, on the edge of the narrow street that led out of Krishna gate. You felt you were one with the road, the street, not closeted or confined, being out there made you feel free – in that sense the experience of eating the stuff became directly connected with the entire locale itself. You could sit, relax, take your time. You just felt like looking on at the street, at the people who passed by, the tea guy, the Xerox guys, the people out there for a fag or two, the houses that you could almost call huts.

It sometimes fascinated me, amazed me that these people, all of them that comprised Vels, would just stay there, year after year, what seemed like age after age. You and me and everyone in IITM would move on, get rich, become far too important to want to be seen in a locality like Vels, it would, well, just pass out of our lives when we went out of IITM. These guys, all of them, would stay right there. No, they wouldn’t whine or complain about their existence or poverty, they’d be perfectly happy the way they are, for a life outside of Vels or a life other than their own would be unfathomable, unthinkable to them. Vels was their entire existence, their entire universe. When you aren’t even ambitious, you don’t complain about fate – you’re content with the life you have, and you let other different people be the way they want just as well.

Somehow, it seems beautiful to lead that sort of life, to stay in a place like Vels all your life, to grow within it, to age with it, see it change imperceptibly just as it sees you do the same, be its companion all along, to see and love every bit of what it has to show you.

These people, these satellites of the students who kept walking out of the gates, have been doing the same things they’ve been doing for decades. Some things changed – new Xerox machines came, computers came to Xerox shops, new pepsi and coke refrigerators showed up in corners of tea shops, but everything else really seems just the way it must have been when the entire place began to exist – the primarily pedestrian traffic, the shopkeepers, the small talk the chaps made to the regulars there, the cool drinks, the huts, the rows of residences hidden by those immediately flanking the road.

I’ve mused about the life of a Vels guy, and often wondered what it would be like to be living that life. In a small room of a thatched house curtained off from the main road, growing up amid the typical crowds, in the relative crudeness and the pervasive it-doesnt-really-matter feeling, amid the peculiar noises, amid everything that's a part of a labouring class locality that's some way from being a slum - sleeping on mud floors or mats, the only light in your life being the dim bulb whose paleness suggests more gloom than its meager illumination suggests cheer, perhaps going to school, but invariably ending up making tea, or holding chilled cool drinks on a sweltering afternoon, or lighting a fag, or making noodles in sweaty kitchens for students as old as you, who simply happened to be rich enough to be able to do different things.

Chatting with these students, their words coming forth in all accents of Tam – Bihari to Angreji to stranger and completely indigenous styles, knowing full well that these guys would fly off in a year or two, and become hotshots, researchers, business honchos, that their life would change so much that they would never, ever come in contact with your life again. They would be replaced with a new crowd of students, that would in turn come to Vels, go out of it, move on, go ahead with life, while you’d stay put. You’d still go on doing what you’ve been doing, you’d grow up, grow older, get married, have kids, all in your backyard Vels, all the while the numerous people you've meet and talked to, jet set around the world. But you know you dont have to go anywhere. You dont need to. You're happy where you are, and that's enough.

Sometimes there’d be ever so glancing a point of contact with some of those students after they've grown up and left, perhaps in their discussions with old chums that are supposed to be nostalgic, discussions in which all parties know that they don’t want that life back, and that besides it’s beyond them to do that, and yet, in a strangely ironic way, they’d still continue to reminisce about those very days.

Even if they did want a peek into that life, and decided to drop by to see the place where they’d spent all that time all those years ago, they simply wouldn’t be the same guys – they’d never quite feel like giving themselves entirely to the place the way they used to – accustomed to being draped in formals, they wouldn’t quite want to remind themselves of a place where they came in torn shirts and unwashed shorts and rubber slippers. No, that would be more painful, that would be a stinging reminder of something precious they’ve lost, what they are simply incapable of recovering. They’ll have changed far too much. They'd rather stay away.

They might have left Vels behind, but there’ll be a part of it still within them. You imbibed just a bit of the place and took it back with you when you ate at Wang’s. Somehow, it didn’t really seem to matter that there were vehicles hovering around you, cycle bells shrilly shrieking or horns blaring or dust rising, kids hollering, women screaming, that the road or the tables weren’t cleaned often, or that that was the sort of place you'd think twice before you'd take your dad to or before you'd show off in front of non-IITM friends. Wang and Vels was somehow far too personal for all that to matter.

Eating at Wang’s gave you the time, gave you an excuse to look on at Vels, the forgotten twin of IITM. One so entirely different from everything IITM has ever stood for, but one bound inextricably to it. It was a twin hardly noticed, but it was always there by IITM's side.

And then, the day after my second year’s summer vacation, I landed up in Vels for dinner, and found Wang's shutters down. The guy had packed. Left. Just like that.

Everything else in Vels went on like nothing had happened, like Wangie never existed. Maybe he never did. Maybe Vels does change after all - it's just that we dont notice.

I haven’t seen Vels for ages now(it’s only been a year, though, and it already seems that long), and when I think of it, there’s a bit of trepidation, a sort of haunting feeling that I always have when I think of revisiting beautiful places in my past. It’s the feeling that I’ll probably not be able to love it any longer, that either I or it will have changed far too much.

I do want to shelve this apprehension now. I want to be seeing Vels, live the numerous unlived lives I had there, and love the place all over again.

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