Simar grew up in Noida under the shadow of Kashmir Himalayas, as she claims. She moved to Mumbai while Noida was still a sedate outpost and began a long stint in the dramatic media world discovering the joy of sending pages to print. She worked as the editor of an in-flight travel magazine called JetWings for several years, managing to squeeze in an 18-month break as well to wander around the mountains of India, Nepal and Bhutan. She has since been published in a number of magazines including National Geographic Traveler and COLORS. Two years ago she packed up her Mumbai home and shifted to Himachal Pradesh, where she now lives amidst postcards, deodars, sugary chai and morning conversations with a blue whistling thrush. She’s currently writing fictions set in the Himalayas. Her mission in life — besides dodging smart phones and ultracrepidarians — is to learn many languages at once. At the moment she’s surrounded by Kulwi, Urdu and Ladakhi.
Arrivals And Departures In A Grey Area
Home is the yardstick we measure the rest of the world against, and my yardstick is called NOIDA.
NOIDA. All capitals. Always capitals.
Growing up in this prodigiously named place, I could see Kashmir in the distance. We lived on the fourth floor of a building at a time when every building in the neighbourhood was four storeys high. All I had to do was lean over the rooftop parapet. Since there have never been any travellers in my family (that is to say no leisure travellers; most of my relatives have traversed long distances from their homelands due to reasons beyond their control) there were no compasses around, and no one inclined towards introducing me to astronomy. So I assumed that the direction where the horizon seemed to stretch was north.
There, very far away, I could see an almost imperceptible something – a kind of greyness that wasn’t nothing (it had a someness to it that allowed the imagination to play) – outlines of grey hillocks that, I was sure, belonged to the glorious Pir Panjal Range of the Kashmir Himalayas. Today, Google Maps tells me that Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital, is 857.9 km (non-approximately) from my house, so it must have been around 1200 km when flyovers hadn’t yet scaled down the flatlands and travel writers’ lexicon lacked verbs such as ‘to zip’. NOIDA is now a sprawling suburb of Delhi, officially a part of the National Capital Region.
No, it’s not. That’s the traveller in me trying to seduce you with latitudes and longitudes.
It’s actually a satellite township built during the ’70s — part of the urbanisation drive of the dark Emergency period that India fell into, courtesy politicians gone ballistic — a bastard child dressed up like a sanguine doll.
I wish. That’s just the writer in me exploiting a postulated birthright to embellish facts for more memorable consumption.
Screw that. NOIDA is New Okhla Industrial Development Authority.
It is also my personal grey area. We used to put a period after each letter, but over time punctuating it became more tedious than the urgency to define it. Also, over time, one of our thoughtful governments installed an imposing statue of the Buddha at the border that separates us from Delhi, and baptised the district as Gautam Buddha Nagar, thus adding a dimension of omniscience to our new-fangled existence.
NOIDA’s story began with numbered sectors (the house with my Pir Panjal vantage point was in 37) but since the first batch of denizens comprised of retired army men, landmarks were renamed as per quondam lieutenants’ whims and the country’s combat casualties. For instance, when the Kargil War was fought — in Kashmir, as it happens — a power substation, a petrol pump, six apartment blocks and two roads were renamed to honour NOIDA’s homegrown sons who attained martyrdom. A memorial park was built as well, to commemorate them. Over time, civilian investment in the area’s real estate forced the army elite to relent to the former’s nomenclature preferences, and we had our address books updated yet again. Recently, newer politicians clinched the transformation by uprooting 300 trees planted in remembrance of martyrs to make way for a magnanimous park project dedicated to the more deserving oppressed classes instead.
I belong to the first generation nostalgists of a city that served as a prototype for ensuing satellite townships of the country.
The landscape of nostalgia is a reflection. Like light and sound, life too creates waves that are reflected at the interface of past and present. This reflection is inevitable, regardless of the content of the memory. My parents feel a healthy nostalgia for their previous homes, in Delhi and Punjab, where they lived before practical concerns pointed towards NOIDA. My grandparents inherited a stronger, more intense flavour of nostalgia for their homelands belonging to the pre-Partition era, which are now a part of Pakistan. Like so many others, they found home in collective estrangement as they embarked on the long march of 1947 from one severed side to the other, from that Punjab to this Punjab. Thirty-seven years later, their progeny watched homes metamorphose into living cremation sites. It was Hindus against Sikhs this time, a familiar game played out on a different chessboard. For each, nostalgia sharpened in direct proportion to the time and distance covered moving away from the mother’s womb.
And I? I was born in Delhi, and at the age of three transferred to NOIDA. The only part of my parents’ nostalgia that I borrowed was through their resolute non-communication of the 1984 riots, which transformed in my subconscious to a vague image of strangers breaking our garden door and barging in.
I can’t say that everyone belonging to my age group shares my wary fragments of nostalgia; in fact, most people I went to school with or played in the martyrs’ park with are happily settled right here. Those who moved away opted to, either a) merge their memories’ coordinates to fit in with those of nearby, more respectable, Delhi — an easy task of incorporating the capital with the negligible smattering of sectors that existed during our childhood days, or b) delete the memories altogether. I did worse: I migrated to Mumbai and became a travel writer.
As a travel writer I was constantly assigned the task of finding places that weren’t yet guidebook fixtures or editorial clichés, and in that sense my own backyard should have been an obvious choice of subject. But as explorers we look for places that have character, and character is the sum total of human history. Even to practise the art of adoxography that travel writers are trained in, we need the story to, at the very least, have enough old people to paint a picture of golden days, to reminisce an atmosphere preceding changes unleashed too fast, a bullock cart here, a ‘reclaimed’ lake there, perhaps. But NOIDA is semi-arid land with water high in unpalatable magnesium and calcium, which leaves a bitter taste on unaccustomed tongues. Large tracts of field lay barren, barring a few worked upon by stubborn farmers, and the general unruly vibe was the same as elsewhere in the district. There was no feature to distinguish what would become my grey area. When my house did come into existence, there were no factory chimneys spewing fumes through its windows, but I still associate capital letters with all things industrial because New Okhla Industrial Development Authority didn’t have to belong to a literally grey landscape to connote bleakness. A land that lay barren for eons cannot sprout history for a township’s convenience, especially at the dizzying rate at which this one is gentrifying.
It was more convenient to borrow the nostalgia of Mumbai as I wandered from place to place, to deconstruct the tomes of Cairo or the art of Barcelona, cushioned by the old promenades of an equally busy city by the bay. The more I travelled, the more NOIDA shrank despite its capital letters. A psychological and literary transition from fact to fiction made my improbable home easier to acknowledge, but to travel without a strong connection to the root is akin to drawing an incomplete circle. Coming home is a significant part of any journey; it is the time when we rewind footsteps and read between the lines. But why is it that travelogues, much like happily-ever-after Bollywood romances, end with wisely-ever-afters? Why must travel only inspire a full-stop of contentment? Can it not end with an ellipsis of confusion?
During my days of scrounging for the Himalayas in misplaced northern horizons, I had a recurring dream. I’d see the road leading up to Sector 37’s neighbourhood dairy. Beyond the dairy stood a black gate, which would tremble and shatter in the imagination to reveal mountains growing out of the earth at the speed of my tricycle, growing superfast to climb up into the sky and establish their dominion. During my years as a travel writer the distance between those fictional Himalayas and my journeys into the real Himalayas increased. The mountains never came home; it was I who had to leave my home to find a home in them. Travelling long distances along a horizontal road shrouds the memories of home in a rosy haze of nostalgia, but for me it worked in a vertical manner, like flying high and watching home become tinier and tinier. We’ve since moved to Sector 28, a mathematical distance of 9 numbers, a class distance of middle to upper middle, but a psychological distance of the identity itself. Returning to my NOIDA home after seeking homes elsewhere induces vertigo without sufficient history to cushion the fall. Our personal history ought to overlap the place’s history, but if God is a cartographer, I’m sure he can see my incomplete circle from up there.
The sound of azan is my favourite epiphany to wake up to. The five calls have reminded me of the passage of Time in different homes I’ve inhabited and abandoned — amidst Hyderabad’s antediluvian boulders in the south of India, in Mumbai’s highstrung suburbs, even in Ladakh perched above this world. But in NOIDA, back in the day when I was in school, when I’d be up all night studying some irrelevant subject, when I was unconsciously nurturing a nocturnal routine that hasn’t left me twenty years on — back then, I’d hear footsteps before the world woke up. Left. Right. Left! Left. Right. Left! A symphony of footsteps. Left. Right. Left! I’d push the heavy quilt away, spring out of bed and rush to the window. Left. Right. Left! Looking through the thick grey fog of the winter dawn I’d see a mass of army troops march past, practising for the upcoming Republic Day Parade. Left. Right. Left! Fully dressed soldiers marching past, spines straight, footsteps firm syncing in the bitter cold of a NOIDA morning. Left. Right. Left! To a mind unaware of politics and all the things that a uniform may mean, it was, quite simply, poetry in motion. That’s what I miss most — the left and the right moving together in harmony.
I live in the foothills of the Pir Panjal Range now, and cannot see NOIDA down below like I’d imagined. I have been told, though, that Noida (now lettered in a less vociferous manner, having transcended its abbreviated existence) had its first ‘destination coffeetable book’ published two years ago. The soldiers no more march along the road that has graduated to a highway, and the city seems to be making a blip on the tourist radar for the distinction of being home to one of Asia’s largest amusement parks, and a mall whose jammed parking lot affirms its success. The yardstick, you see, is becoming glitzy; the time is right for the travel writer to acknowledge home.