An evening in lockdown

The new flat isn’t done yet. Especially my room. I have to get some furniture, more bookshelves, but obviously that isn’t happening anytime soon. There are books strewn around the house, TV shows paused in-between, work is an effort to get to, and every look at the news makes me anxious. It is a very strange time.

It started raining mid-afternoon. The skies went dark, and the air felt cooler, lighter. I lay on the bed listening to raindrops pattering on the air conditioning unit and fell asleep.

When I got up, the evening still felt empty enough to try to fill up with something. So I dragged a chair out to the balcony, put my feet up on the large pot with the dead plant, and started Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster, an account of his overland journey to China in the 1980s. I didn’t particularly take to his writing the last time I read him, and this seems as good a time as any to give people a second chance.

The rain fell, slowly then quickly, then becoming one of those comforting, calming drizzles.

My first-floor balcony has no view. It’s blocked by thick, heavy boughs of what we call the golden shower tree, the Indian laburnum. I know it from university, it is the tree under which I learnt to dream. The rain makes its yellow flowers look prettier. The tree’s branches fall lustily over the railing, obscuring the three money-plants that travelled with me from Madras.

A conversation drifted in from below, it grew darker, and the watchman went by, switching on the apartment’s corridor and stairway lights. I couldn’t hear any traffic, and this is unnerving to me. I’m used to the noise and the bustle of restless, modern India, and I have realised, several times during my trips abroad, that nowhere else can be home.

In the book, Theroux was talking about the greyness of suburban Paris and the ugliness of most of modern Belgium; he was looking through the windows of a train.

I understood what he was saying, but I couldn’t see, couldn't place the scenes. I was thinking about something else. 

On train journeys in India, I wait and look for a scene that’s very important to me. Now that I think about it, it’s laughable, but I always look for the railway crossing in a small town, or a the sight of the station-master’s musty cabin over a lonely platform. Behind this is usually the railway quarters, recognisable by the compulsory rows of bougainvillea and jacaranda and gulmohar and champa, and of course, laburnum. 

I lived in quarters like these once, when my maternal grandfather worked in a sugar-mill, and the house we had looked exactly like this. Later, my uncle, his son, lived in Perambur in Madras, where the Integral Coach Factory is. When I was visiting, I would try to find some time to drive over to the road where the quarters were, and there that familiar scene would be, all the trees and flowers I knew but could not name, a few Anglo-Indian aunties sitting under them.

Something about these scenes of domesticity, of stability, have always remained important to me.

I read on, and when night fell, I came in. I left the chair there. Maybe it’ll rain again in the morning.

Written March 2020, in Pune, during the first lockdown.