Ashmi Ahuwalia’s city through the lens of nostalgia #TheCityasMuse Special Mention
It’s amazing what a city can come to mean in nostalgia. Somewhere between a microscope and a dream, you really see it, the way you never had when you were there.
In my little studio flat at Putney, I remembered the chaat with the imli chutney. It had such a particular flavor only found in that one red-brick corner, behind the car park. The guardian of that corner was always in faded white, a chai in his hand. He was frying potatoes, feeding gol-gappas and chatting with his ardent line of customers all at the same time. He had a secret ingredient— and on a cold icy November evening—I tried recreating that delicious feeling in my kitchen. Time became that taste, and all I could think of. I made it with papdi I bought from Southall, and chutney I found in the local Indian shop. But my favourite city had patented that flurry of emotions, and nothing else was a patch.
Sometimes I was reminded of the midnight lane. And dancing to my heart’s delight on a small terrace with a man I was beginning to fall in love with. Everyone young in the city was thronging these little mazes of twilight, where love sometimes teased, sometimes lusted, sometimes fell into endless pits and sometimes ended. Between alcohol and the latest pop songs, hearts would beat faster; and young adults would slowly become adults. But we grew up more every weekend, learning the ways of the world. I like to think of it as the ambiguous tar passage that led to heaven, or hell. Or more appropriately, in Jhumpa Lahiri’s gray world, to ‘Hell-Heaven’.
Staring outside my window at the little boys playing ball often took me back to our Gandhi park—nondescript but warm with everything childhood. This place was memory-foamed; it was where the boundaries of friendship had moved from blurry to solid, like the chalk lines we drew out for Stapu every evening as kids. Our togetherness was that little eight-numbered, symmetrical game. Even today, going back quietly affirms that we have each other’s backs— the way we did in our chuppan-chuppai then, the way we do now.
And lately, what I miss the most is that newly constructed Superbahn in my city—where as a 25-year old having returned home from the holidays I would sort out my emotions. The quiet Expressway, quieter than the night where I drove like the wind and became self-aware—alone with my thoughts. Where I learnt what it means to fight my own battles in the marathon race of life, based mostly on gut and rarely on logic.
Wherever I am in the world, nothing compares of these spaces etched in my mind. These fragments are home; they are the narrow passages of space and time that have distilled quietly into my skin. I am a collage of these cityscapes, a map of memories I carry in the pocket of my heart, refusing to let go.