O Kochi!

Jayati Narain 

I’m not really sure why I did it. I am sure that at the time I did have a reason. But right now I’m completely drawing a blank as to why I decided to go out that day, or why I wanted to go to that part of the city. That being said, much of the time ‘why not?’ is a good enough reason for me.

So why did I accidently walk across Kochi? Well, why not?

Navigating the inner streets, I began to overlay what I saw around me on to the Google maps layout. Which seemed to make the idea of getting lost more and more appealing. The sewage covering acting as a sidewalk kept me just aware enough to pay attention to where I was going. The persistent fear of falling in and having a fate like Prince stayed with me throughout my exploration (and throughout most of my time in the city). While the sewage covers were, by and large pretty reliable placeholders for the sidewalks, constantly checking on them kept me from staring at one of the best sights in the city; the sky.

Most people in the city did not understand my excitement about the sky, but having been in Delhi my whole life, a sky like this just felt fake. It was like the set of some movie, which makes you think of all kinds of ridiculously clichéd statements. Something like, ‘a sky so blue, it has been picked from an artist’s palette and spread across evenly’. The bright green heads of the coconut trees, against this blue did not make matters any better. Every time I looked at them, they reminded me of how limited my idea of a city was.  A clear blue sky and streets lined with coconut trees was enough for me to not consider Kochi a real city. For me, it was a beach town at best (the lack of an actual beach complicates matters slightly).

The city invited me to walk, with the slight hope that I may just find a hidden beach (none to report thus far). The narrow side roads, twisting and turning, allowing me to discover five routes to the same place, made up for the lack of proper sidewalks. While the city seemed to want me to wander, the people seemed to be pushing back. It wasn’t the kind of hostility or aggression I’ve learnt to deal with (an unconscious life skill developed growing up in Delhi), rather it was a confused curiosity.

With rapid ‘development’, like metro construction, road widening and planning the next flyover, the commercial capital of the state is trying its best to engulf the old trading port. And walkers like me seem to be caught in the crossfire. The city doesn’t seem to be developing for those who are walking along with no real purpose; out of place, and out of choice. The dearth of other women walking simply for the sake of walking, truly seemed to make me an anomaly. Unfortunately, the male gaze that I thought I’d be free of followed me to the end of the country, just slightly altering its character along the way.

When the bemused looks got a bit much to bear, a change in path always seemed to be around the corner. These constant ventures into different streets also led me to discover what would become one of my favourite places in the city. The ‘book hanger’ as I call it, was literally a large warehouse filled with second hand books, simply waiting to be bought by me. It’s like all the twisting lanes, and at times annoyingly curious glances were sending me towards the promise land. Back on the trail a few hours later, with a significantly heavier bag, I was almost pleased with my social awkwardness. All the issues of uncertainty and ineptness had finally paid off, leading me somewhere no bus or auto would have.

Blindly following the turns on the road, ahead of me was a familiar signboard; ‘India Coffee House’. After hours of exploring every street corner and gap in the drain covers, it was strangely reassuring to see a place I knew, or at least thought I knew. The moment I set foot inside, I realised this was not a place to sit around enjoying time, company and partaking in activities which may fall in legal grey areas. The traditional colonial uniforms the servers were wearing gave me the impression that I might actually get food here.

Staring at the calm sea in front, being challenged by the sounds from the main road (one of three in the city) that were filtering in, reminded me where I was and what I was doing.

I was on my own, learning to adult, starting out with the task of eating alone in public.

 

Do I belong here?

– Nikhil Jain

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I am kind, undemanding and silent (most of the time).

Every weekend I leave my temporary residence to experience the city and beyond. Generally, I am joined by my friends who take turns to lead, with me leading most of the time. A pounding begins inside me when I reach the highway, looking at the giant vehicles zipping by me. It doesn’t seem particularly calamitous, for I am used to this rush. Nevertheless, the indifference of these vehicles make me livid. But I have made peace with these gas ejecting bodies, rushing around me. I no longer claim the commons, although I wish to. The commons remind me of lakes. This city has many of them; some are well maintained, and others have been left to their sorry fate. I pass by one of the better maintained lakes every day. My rider calls it Sankey Tank.

Let me give you a snapshot of my society. The social stratification of this city is now an accepted principle. And it’s not just between different types of vehicles, there is a hierarchy within a certain type of vehicle too. For our convenience, let’s call them as varna and jati as termed by humans. Jati is recognised due to the social roles we play. For instance, the difference between road bikes, MTB and mountain bikes. Let’s not get further into this, for the world is complex and full of confusion.

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In this city of never ending complexity, I meet many fellow bikes. There are “modern” bikes that boast superior suspension and greater gear combinations. I feel the pride flowing, but I am content with what I have. I see many bikes belonging to different jatis. The riders chat among themselves, occasionally looking at us with appreciation and awe. What matters to us at the end, are empty roads and green fields all around. The smell of soil pervading, combined perfectly with the fragrance of leaves is what I enjoy. Some of my favourite journeys have been to Menchanabele dam, Nandi hills, Hesaraghatta lake and Turahalli forest.

There are few journeys where minor disasters have taken place, one such being a ride to the airport. Out of fourteen bikers, two were injured. One of them had to be taken to hospital as well. Part of the blame fell on us; but then we are silent, humbly accepting responsibility. With my rider injured, it was strange to be carried away by an auto, when I truly belong to the road with wind gushing past me.

A strange chord of subtle sympathy resonates when I see my fellow bikes not rolling down the road, dumped at a corner, forgotten or lost. How can I forget the powerful urge to roll downhill, cutting through the air?

Once out of the city, it’s all about the speed! My rider pushes the pedals hard, but with confidence. I roll, overtaking tractors and autos. Dew on the green grass shimmers in bright day light like pearls.

While they sit on the grass to rest, we rest on our stands, introspecting our belonging. I want to be there, amidst flowers and greenery. But I return to the city, every time.

City? Whose city?

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Happiness is just a phase, and it ends sooner than anticipated. I come back to the treacherous path where I feel lost, ignored and vulnerable. Sometimes I want to rebel against the boundaries society has prescribed for me. Is the city closing in on terrible doom? Since I go to IIHS every day, despite not having the privilege to attend classes I hear my rider talk about rapid urbanisation, and how the city’s rate of growth has exceeded its infrastructure capability. Big words! I dream to roll freely, not afraid of monstrous vehicles, not afraid of falling, or being hit or being ignored. I dream of being respected.

Someday.

Will I ever belong to this city?