When I first thought about having to shift so far from home and my family for in-person college, I didn’t think of it in solid terms. The feeling manifested in my chest as an abstract ball of fear, homesickness, excitement, and thrill. These waves of emotions bled into each other until I could not distinguish one from the other. All I could decipher was the urge to move on and get away from everything that had become so familiar that its existence no longer registered as an entity separate from me. I wanted to come to Delhi and cut this abstraction out from my heart, give it dimensions, carve out its shape, and place it in the safe cage of measurement and quantification.
Home had seemed like an antique relic, valued for its permanence and familiarity but so bent and twisted by time that newer and shinier substitutes were bound to be sought. So, when I moved, the loss of the reliability of familiarity was more or less pushed back by the spirit of adventure that accompanies the unknown. I did not see moving as a challenge apart from the immediate logistical concerns. It was a change from the two years of pandemic-induced stillness, a change that brought with it movement, creation, and becoming. The past and nostalgia did not find a place in that dance of progress except in comparing what was and what is. So, when I hugged my mom and dad goodbye, I felt a sort of righteous pride over leaving home because it was the first time after the pandemic that I was the one doing something to alter my world and not having it done to me by things I had no control over.
My first night alone in Delhi was enough to expose my delusional naïveté to the ravages of reality. My roommate was due to arrive a day after I had shifted, so I had to spend two nights alone in the room of the Paying Guest service my parents had booked for me. Everything in that room was red. The desk, the cupboards and even the beds. A bright, oppressive red that my brain exaggerated to such an extent that after I switched the lights off, the redness of the furniture left dancing shadows behind my eyelids. As my head hit the pillow my Dad and I had bought in the afternoon before he left, the red darkness of that room swirled around in my head, digging up all the thoughts I had refused to think.
Back in Gujarat, my identity was shaped by the spatial and familial tethers of my home. I was the girl who couldn’t make plans with her friends because she lived so far. The girl woke up early in the morning and went cycling. The girl who read all day. The girl who wrote. The girl who knew that all that was being said about her was true but found it grossly inadequate. I found it so because I wanted to do so much more. Delhi was my first chance at that so much more. I was placed on the map of a city I knew nothing of, but more importantly, the map of the city knew nothing of me. I could create an identity not bound by the tethers of a place that had created one for me, brokering no space for negotiation. But, the problem with being bound was that once I got it, freedom seemed unnatural, like a gun in a child’s hand. Those tethers had left deep clefts in my skin, and as I lay in my narrow, red bed with my ankles sticking out from the end, I felt the absence of those bonds like a scab I could no longer scratch because it had shed. Freedom, at that moment, presented all of its chiselled angles to me. I realised that just because I had freedom did not mean I was free. Being untethered also meant that I was completely responsible for myself. I was responsible for crossing roads safely, for waking up in the morning on time on my own, for soaking in almonds at night before going to sleep, for not cutting my finger on the loose nail in the balcony door, for eating healthy, for taking my meds. For the first time in my life, I was responsible for my own survival. Responsibility became a reality I had to build my life around.
Just as freedom and responsibility redefined themselves, I also had to refigure happiness to fit the contours of this new city. Happiness in Delhi means buying fruits without being overcharged. It means going to college on seven hours of sleep and a filling breakfast. It means reading in the morning and also being able to clean up my apartment. It means being able to talk to new people. It means spending time with people I like. It means understanding myself a little more. It means not losing myself in the heady smoke of anonymity that clouds the city. I had to reshape my happiness to fit the maze carved out of responsibility and survival.
When I was a kid, I had once fallen asleep with a piece of chewing gum in my mouth, and when I woke up and found it stuck in my teeth, I was terrified, thinking I had broken a tooth and it had turned to mush because I slept too much. It took me a few seconds to remember the moment when I had eaten the chewing gum and to believe that it indeed wasn’t a broken tooth turned to mush. In the beginning, being in Delhi was the same. Every morning I woke up in that room with the garish red furniture, it would take me a terrifying few seconds to recollect the moment I left home for Delhi and then slowly spiral back to that point on the map of the world.
I always thought to create an identity I liked, I would have to find myself. This was a grand proclamation I made without fully realising what it meant. What does it mean to find oneself? If I wanted to find myself, would I have to situate myself somewhere in this world? And what if one is stuck in a limbo where the edges of their lives are so badly blurred that they cannot hold onto them? The moment I broke the tethers of familiarity, I floated off into an unfamiliar universe with nothing to hold on to, and I am yet to find my footing. While I do not regret breaking those tethers, it makes me wonder whether to be found, one should lose themselves to the place where they want to be found. It makes me wonder, how do I find myself if I am stuck in limbo between not wanting to belong to a home I left and struggling to belong to a place I left home for?