The Barbra Naidu Prize for the Personal Essay 2017–Overall Winner
After assemblies every Tuesday and Thursday morning, we walked back to class in two files. Boys and girls. We were instructed to hold hands, finger-to-finger, palm-to-palm, till I was never sure whether my hand was sweating, or it was his perspiration that was clinging to my skin. After reaching the class, I would bring my palm to my nose very slowly, subtly; after I was sure that the boy was not looking. My hand always smelled. One day, the smell was so bad, I couldn’t get myself to stop smelling my hand. I puked all over my desk in class, and then wiped it off with the tablecloth that Ma sent in my tiffin bag.
After that, I held only Brandon’s hand whenever we walked back to class. His palm didn’t smell.
When I walk, I must walk fast, and alone, so that when I look around, I can see the trees passing by me in quick succession, like in movies, when the main character is sitting in the window seat of a silver Metro. When I walk like this, I tell myself that I can get anywhere I want to, even though I will need my inhaler in two minutes.
This is how I walk when I’m walking from the Science block to the Humanities block in college. I walk fast-fast, and I look straight ahead without looking at people who walk a slower walk, where they don’t seem like they have to be everywhere. My back is fully straight, and my sports shoes work like a spring that makes my legs move faster than my body can comprehend.
It’s not nice to walk with someone. I can’t hold anybody’s hand. If I do, our palms stick together with the sweat we produce under the furious sun, and I cannot stop thinking about how they feel while holding my hand, whether my hand is soft enough, whether my fingers are too thick, or whether my long nails are digging into their skin painfully.
Perhaps, I can only hold Brandon’s hand.
While in America on vacation, I had taken on a persona that usually comes to me only on some days, when I am grumpier than usual, when my period is going to bless me the next day. We were in New York, and papa wanted to do all the things and see all the things. I resisted with a rebellion that would shame other rebels, and we ended up going to the 9/11 Memorial and walking on the Brooklyn Bridge, all within forty-five minutes. The Brooklyn Bridge boulevard is long, and only very few people make it to the other side. We didn’t plan to walk the entire length. I sat on the stone bench at the beginning of the boulevard and mumbled to myself, ‘I’m tired, why are we here. I don’t want to walk’.
Eventually, I sat up and walked a little. And then I continued walking till the East River was beneath me, and the large pillars of the bridge were above me. As I looked up, I noticed (as if for the first time) the clouds, and the glaring sun that didn’t do much to keep us warm. I asked myself, “are the clouds in Bangalore this pretty?” I turned around, then around again, and everywhere I looked, I suddenly understood why people travel.
At California, two weeks later, I made another 360 degree turn and wondered, “are the skies in Bangalore this pretty?” I argued, with whatever little knowledge I had of geography and humidity, that the sky should be the same. That I’m not just taken prisoner by the fascination that comes with Amreeka.
In California, we stopped in a town called Carmel. Carmel was a real-life Star’s Hollow that didn’t have signals, but had community parks and shopping complexes instead. While walking on the sidewalk there, I looked at the tiles and thought of how perfectly angular they were, with one tile cutting off the other one perfectly, as if it was done very carefully. At crossings, the cars moved in a pace that I slowly got envious of, and I couldn’t remember, as hard as I tried, whether cars in Bangalore moved as slowly.
When I compared the lazy stroll of Carmel to the urgency I witnessed in New York, I wondered where my city fit on this scale. And at night, when I went to bed on the too-soft mattresses of the hotel room, I felt an intense longing to know what made my city what it is. There, in that bed, I couldn’t remember why Delhi and Bangalore were different.
In America, I walked behind the rest of my family. Shreya and Nikita walked behind our parents while I made sure that they were also not getting left behind. When we slowed down, at New York signals, and San Francisco malls, I put my palm on Shreya’s back to let her know that I was behind her. She stiffened every time I did, and I wiggled my fingers a little bit to annoy her.
She’s extremely ticklish.
When my friends and I visited Jaipur, I was constantly fascinated by the freedom that came to me because I was away from family. All cities, I realized, are different, and I learnt to see what makes each one what it is. I learnt that people walk differently. In some cities, they move around with a leisure that only comes with being a part of the city, and in some cities, everyone walks with an urgency that makes others walk just as quickly.
Most of our walking was done in Jaipur when we went and became nice tourists who observed all the monuments with a sharp concentration. The guides walked in front of us, giving us history lessons in prefect, Rajasthani Hindi, and the four of us: K, L, S and I walked lazily behind them, taking pictures of each other, talking, and taking pictures of the monuments.
In some moments, I worked hard to convince myself that I was actually looking at the perfect sunset in front of me, that I wasn’t looking at the perfect picture of a Jaipur sunset. I walked closer to the horizon and looked at skies that were sometimes pink, sometimes orange, and sometimes and interesting combination of both. In these moments, I blinked twice, to give myself the impression that I am taking a picture, and I can convince you and your father, that these pictures are still stored in my brain, better than any other picture my phone can take.
The city is pink, in a faded, lazy way that extends into your mood. Most roads are large and empty, with only very few people walking on the road in the classic Jaipur way I had come to recognise.
In the markets, where we bargained our way through mirror dupattas, juttis and silver jewellery, people walked faster, with their necks permanently turned to the side, looking into stores as they decided whether they wanted to step inside. When they stopped mid walk, the stop was abrupt and happy, and after they walked into the store, I never saw them again.
When we crossed the roads, S held on to my arm to make sure I walk with her and don’t get left behind. She held my arm below my elbow, only with the tips of her fingers, and she let go immediately, once we reached the other side.
Sometimes, she loops her arm through mine and our elbows rest against each others’. I make sure not to too fast or too slow. As long as I’m walking correctly, we can walk together.
V and I went to Matteo for our writing group meeting, and we spoke about Elena Ferrante and class politics. I wrote two hundred words on my phone while she read Ferrante’s third book. The piece I began that day reached a peak before falling in small, bits of paper that I could never find again.
I dropped V off at the Times of India office, and I walked back home after that. With earphones on, I considered putting my hoodie over my head before deciding against it. It was raining, and I imagined myself in a music video, one that is emo and rock, a little bit like a twenty one pilots song.
I looked at the footpath I was walking on, and I looked at the buildings that lined the road to home, and as I walked, I realized that I was walking slowly, not like I usually walk, as if I’m off to a catch my next story idea, that is flying away from me on little wings. Bangalore footpaths are more erratic than Jaipur’s. The stones make the road seem uncertain and angry, and when one stone meets the other, they meet with an angry carelessness, as if no one cares about symmetry.
I thought of what I would write when I’d get back home. There were no people in front of me, and the roads I walked on were littered with dead flowers that were crushed by feet after feet after feet.
Someone once told me that when we’re thinking of writing, when we’re imagining writing the best sentence we will ever write, we’re predicting a future in which we will write, and this prediction is the first step to writing.
The flowers next to the footpath on MG road are particularly nice when it’s drizzling. The ones on the footpath are black.
In America, I learnt to look outside and see that pretty skies have the potential to swallow you whole if you let it. That if you just look around, you can see what you didn’t know you were missing. When we came back to Bangalore after the trip, I looked at the Bangalore sky, and tried to see what my friends were seeing when they said, ‘Bangalore skies are the best’.
And for a while, I could only look out and think that the US has prettier skies.
Jaipur then taught me that sometimes, it is better not to take a picture of what you’re looking at, no matter how much you want to save the moment forever. The moment is saved when you decide to shut up and look around you.
So now when I look at the Richmond Road flyover from college every morning, and the sky is cloudy and dark, I let myself look and be swallowed whole, until I can finally tell myself, ‘Bangalore skies are the best’.