The city was grey and new, stuck in the past for the most, teeming with opportunity to a few. Years I spent there were suffocating, congested, marked with memories of smoke, noise and family. My parents are from the city, my grandparents were refugees within it. I had a happy childhood, or as happy as one’s childhood can ever be. Mum and dad got along with each other most of the time, they weren’t violent and they loved me. I think they get along better now, when I no longer live with them. It’s funny how these things work.
I didn’t grow up in any one city, I flitted between a few. Dad is a vagabond at heart. He likes the comfort of concrete and dust, but holds in his heart a childlike fascination with adventure. He tells funny stories a lot. Somehow there is a sense of contentment that he finds within urban life, one that romantic poets of the 19th century would find rather horrifying. I find his love for cities poetic as well, a true artistic testament to the cosmopolitan acceptance that they provide. I share his love for urban life, the suburbs suffocate me. Mum is different, it’s harder to determine what she feels more comfortable with. She revels in nature in a way Dad and I don’t. The chirping of birds, the scent of flower gardens and the petrichor from the small patch of soil in front of our house gives her immense pleasure. Yet she is as urban as they come, she cannot imagine life without the conveniences a busy city provides. Although it might be that she’s held back by us. All of us, Dad and I, and her other family members. We’re all city-dwellers, urban and uncompromising, surrounded by impatient neighbours who don’t know our names and shopkeepers who know our birthdays.
Our neighbour’s house has a mango tree within the courtyard, but it bends under its own weight, creating a canopy over the street where the electricity wires tangle to show a patterned sky above us and the buses rush through underneath them, with cyclists weaving among the pedestrians and buses alike. There is no footpath on the street, and the residents rely on their abilities to stick to a side of the road to preserve their lives. I am quite good at not getting hurt on the street. The mango tree has always been a source of wonder to me, because I have marked many a day by counting blossoms I could see from our balcony. And when the nor’westers hit the city, the bustling street stopped, took a pause, and gathered to catch the newly ripened mangoes as they fell prey to the wind. It didn’t matter that the wind was perilous, that the nor’westers were often cyclones and turbulent storms, the promise of the sweet reward was all that mattered. Or perhaps it was merely that these mangoes were free, that the only costs that one needed to pay for them were braving the winds and flirting with danger. Mum says they’re getting rid of the tree now, it was damaged beyond measure in the last cyclone. I haven’t been home in a while, I can’t imagine what my street would look like without the tree.
When I looked out of the balcony onto the street below, I saw the post-independence generation in their ravaged mental state. I felt sorry for them quite a lot, and then the shopkeeper in the store across the street would pick a loud argument with his customers, and I’d lose whatever sympathy I had garnered for the people. The few days after he died, the neighbourhood had fewer loud altercations. His son runs the store now, and upholds his father’s tradition of being in constant conflict with his customers. The notion of the customer being the king is a very foreign tradition to those who are not American. We’re all very American now.
Our balcony is protected by a grille now, although it’s not quite the invisible grille of today. The grille is black and blocks our view with its geometric mish-mash of horizontal and vertical lines, and the occasional circle thrown in to create some form of art. I’m sure it is art to someone’s taste. It’s painfully tasteless and ugly to me, but then a lot of the refugee colonies are rather hideous. There’s a bizarre fascination with modular flats and kitchens and other styles that seem like they walked out of a real estate agent’s pamphlet on uninteresting decor. But the balcony didn’t always have the big and ugly grille. You could extend your arms to collect raindrops on your palms and watch over the neighbourhood without feeling like the metal bars keep the outsiders out. Now when I’m back in the city, the only time I find myself on the balcony is when the electricity goes out (a rare occurrence these days, but an oddly normal one fifteen years ago).