"Naukri ke interview ke liye aaye ho (have you come for a job interview)?" asked the Jat autorickshaw driver, as he dropped me in front of PTI Building on Parliament Street in Delhi. I nodded: I had cleared the written test, and was now going to appear for the interview that would decide my future. If selected, I would be joining Press Trust Of India, the country's top news agency. More importantly, I would be living in Delhi, the so-called Mecca of journalism. "Koi nahin, ho jayega tumhara (don't worry, you will get through)," the driver said rather seriously, as if he was friends with the board members.
The interview got over. I had no clue whether I was in or rejected. I came out and bought a cigarette lighter from a hawker who had spread out his wares next to the building. Before lighting the cigarette, I looked at the lighter suspiciously, wondering whether it would last more than a couple of days. The hawker read my mind. "Not to worry," he said, "if you have a problem, bring it when you come here next time." Next time? I did not tell him that there might not be a next time.
But I was back in Delhi within weeks, this time for good. And that morning, when I had a quick smoke before I reported for work at PTI, the blue cigarette-lighter was still working. It is amazing that I should still remember the colour, even though that's the most irrelevant feature of a five-rupee lighter.
Thus began the journey of a 23-year-old man from Kanpur, in a city which belonged to no one in particular, but the high and the mighty belonged to it. Till then, Khushwant Singh was my god. I had read a bit of Shobha De: or did I read about her? I had a copy of Naipaul's An Area of Darkness, but never got down to reading it. Till then, I had not had a woman boss, and dreaded the thought of having one: blame it on small-town mentality. I had never seen a woman smoke or wearing short skirts, except in the movies. I had never seen men and women -- rather boys and girls -- putting their hands around each other and walking on the streets. I smoked less than 10 cigarettes a day, and drank once in a blue moon (each time, I only threw up). I did not suffer from hypochondria. My parents were young then: father was 50, and mother 42. The year was 1994. I landed in Delhi with a blue VIP suitcase, packed with a dozen shirts and half a dozen trousers -- all stitched by the neighbourhood tailor.
My maternal grandparents lived in Delhi, so place was not a problem. And my grandfather was a cool person in many ways: he dug out one of his old ashtrays and gave it to me. Twenty-three years before that, he had given me my name. Then my grandmother: she would stay up all night till I got back home so that she could re-heat the food. But their affection was smothering me. After playing the son for 23 years, I did not wish to spend my days in Delhi playing the grandson. I wanted to be free. Fortunately, I knew someone in Delhi. She was my age, and her kindness matched her beauty. In hindsight, I think we were in love with each other, but at the time, she was being just a friend, rather a mother. Holding on to her fingers, I explored my Delhi. There was not much time left: she was to leave in a few weeks.
One Sunday afternoon, we went to Priya cinema in Vasant Vihar. I think we went there to watch Lion King: remember Elton John's Circle Of Life? That's one song that still makes me cry. Anyway, it was that afternoon I got the first -- and the last -- culture shock of my life. I saw girls and boys loitering about hand-in-hand, and I also saw the girls smoking. Even traditional-looking salwar-kameez-clad girls were puffing away, as if it was the most natural thing to do. What turned me on was the assertion of freedom -- "If the boys can smoke, why can't we?"
Suddenly I wanted to be a part of that taboo-less, liberated world, where the women wore the I-don't-give-a-fuck attitude on their bindis. But I was a newcomer to the city, that too from a conservative town like Kanpur, so how do I get such women to people my small world? I took the easiest way out.
There is a Shiva temple in Connaught Place, on Kharak Singh Marg. One afternoon, after my shift in PTI got over, I went to the temple and prayed: "God, get me some of those women -- the kind I saw at the cinema hall the other day. Do you think it is fair that I should always be stuck with girls who only have marriage on their minds?" It was the most casual prayer I've ever made to Shiva, trust me. I really didn't mean it. It was a prayer made due to a momentary loneliness, more for the fun of it because you know gods are not going to take it seriously.
But Shiva, being the large-hearted god that he is, decided to shower me with extraordinary kindness. Suffice to say that life was never the same again. But what surprised me was the swiftness of my transformation: one Sunday I was at the cinema hall with a sense of longing, and two Sundays later I was there again, with a sense of belonging, holding the hand of a young woman and watching Keanu Reeve's Speed.
That was also the starting point of other transformations. Egos crumbled, attitudes changed, education began. Today, as a man of 38, I feel like telling that 23-year-old man from a small town, "Serves you right!" Because at the time he dreaded the idea of taking orders from a woman, but eventually ended up spending 10 out of the 16 years of his professional life so far reporting to a female boss. Today he hates it that he does not have a female boss -- just look at the transformation!
Today, at 38, sitting in the laidback and yet far more agreeable city of Chennai for the past eight years, I can see many more transformations. New egos have taken over, and new attitudes formed. But it was in Delhi that this boy became a man. This Saturday, I am returning to Delhi on one of my twice-a-year visits. But this time, for the first time, I am going there solely to meet the boy whose face I still see in the mirror every morning. I also know where to find him: he would be loitering around in the inner circle of Connaught Place, window-shopping with a woman. If he is not to be seen, he must be hiding in a bookshop called The Bookshop. Many of the books I own today were bought by him from that shop.