Leaving Delhi after 20 years was both a long-drawn and tortuous process and surprisingly quick and easy. The former had to do with the arduous and frequently painful task of disentangling family relationships which felt, at times, like unpicking an embroidery made of nerves and ganglia. The latter surprising because of something I’d not noticed before: that with any big or difficult decision — in my case, moving my son 4,000 miles away from his father, his school and his friends; packing up, selling off and giving away all our stuff; leaping from the security of a lovely and full-time job into the murk of the unknown; from a flat of our own to a not-sure-what-of-a-not-sure-where — there comes a tipping point. Until about January 2015, it felt like I was engaged in a Sisyphus-like task, threatening to be crushed at each step by the boulder I was pushing. But then, almost unnoticed, things started to fall into place.
Dates had been fixed: the move seemed like an inevitable next step rather than a fearful leap. It felt like the very force that I had been struggling against was on my side, and me and my boulder could coast along now that we were over the peak.
Some people put my desire to return to England down to a midlife crisis — the urge to just shake everything up (or buy a sports car) that kicks in as the half-century looms. Others put it down to planetary alignment. When I was planning my move to Delhi 20 years back, most people assumed I wanted to discover my ‘roots’ (being half-Bengali, but brought up in England). I would bristle and roll my eyes: this was not some dippy hippy trip to get in touch with my inner Indian, f’god’s sake. I’d got a job offer! With Oxford University Press! It was a career move! And anyway, if I was so keen on roots, I’d be moving to Calcutta not Delhi.
Two decades on, my return to England feels much, much more a return to ‘roots’ than my trip the other way. But, post-Alex Haley, white folks don’t have roots; ‘roots’ is a dark- skinned, ‘ethnic’ thing, re- served for ‘the natives’. Something you need to dig around for — a buried part of your self. Homing towards leafy, middle-class Buckinghamshire sounded altogether much less exotic, less ‘rad’.
But homing I was. As in pigeon. Something very primal and physical was pulling me westward. The German word zugunruhe is used for the anxious behavior exhibited by animals and mainly birds just before they migrate – zug meaning move, and unruhe meaning restlessness. My last few years have been characterized by my feeling itchy, jittery and distracted, like the songbirds who list in the same direction as their migrating fellows. It was an urge not so much to change the circumstances of my life – job, house, routine etc – but the physical, the sensory aspects of it.
I longed not for generic trees but for specific species: gulmohar or neem wouldn’t do, I needed beech and oak and sycamore. I wanted not just ‘flowers’ but cowparsley and nettle, for foxgloves and bluebells. I wanted fields that were edged with thick hedgerows of hazel and hawthorn. I wanted to smell that specific smell, redolent of all my childhood springs; to swap parakeet screech for blackbird warble.
I wanted clouds – lots of them – and big, wide skies, not the Tata steel lid that passes for a sky in Delhi. Indian weather – at least in my part of the country – is like an extreme sport: grueling stretches requiring stamina and endurance punctuated by heady adrenalin rushes. The March to July climb of the mercury til it shudders at 40+ screaming pitch for days and nights and weeks on end so that when it breaks – oh, when it breaks – the sheer relief is responsible for half the songs on the subcontinent and three-quarters of its romantic poetry. So it’s not that I’m not alive to the flood of feeling unleashed by the monsoon rain, or the thrill of a winter’s day chill, with hot samosas and chai, or the languorous loveliness of the first ripe mango of summer. But perhaps, as I gently pass my own personal tipping point – the vernal equinox of my fiftieth birthday – I’m more inclined to temperate pleasures: less phasers set to stun than windscreen wipers to intermittent.
I also wanted to spend more time with my parents; I wanted my son to have at least part of his childhood in England; I wanted to be among people who would instinctively get my jokes because we shared a set of cultural referents. These were some of my ‘pull’ factors. The pushes were equally strong: the absolute horror – nothing less – at what was happening to my immediate environment, and the at times wholesale, hell-in-a-handbasket approach to development that was unfolding around me at breakneck speed. In a word: mall-culture (okay, that’s two words but…) In another word: Modi (a four-letter word that brings to mind several others). In a third word: Gurgaon.
Each of these words demand many, many more than I have space for in this article, but I cannot not mention the air. The English, for whom griping and moaning is a national pastime, cannot quite grasp the extent of the problem in other parts of the world. In April this year, Londoners were up in arms at the levels of air pollution in the capital city – Dreadful! they cried. Ghastly! We Must Do Something About It! The particularly nasty form of particulate matter known as PM2.5 spiked at 57 (for a few days), six times higher than the recommended limits. In Delhi, it is on average around 215 – that’s twenty-three times the recommended limits. In fact, if you take all types of air pollution into the equation, Delhi is ten times as polluted as London, leaving Beijing a not-very-close second.
“You lived in Delhi?” one woman exclaimed at a dinner party in Somerset a couple of weeks back. “Goodness, that must be even more crowded than London.”
I didn’t know what to say to that.
I think I must have said something like “Er, yes.” Or even more perspicaciously, “There’s no comparison really.” But, of course, there is comparison – in some sense there is only comparison. There is not here. You are not I. She is like quite like him, but less like her. It is how we make sense of and order the world. But in order to marshall any kind of meaningful response to people like the dinner party lady, I knew I’d have to get together some more stats.
When I got home, I googled around and came up with some broad-brush but nonetheless hard numbers. With a population of around 18 million, Delhi has almost twice as many people as London but in considerably less space. The population density in London is around 5,300 per km2; Delhi is pushing 25,500 – that’s five times as many people in the same space. Just to put that in perspective, taken as a county, Somerset has… wait for it… 0.5. Yes, whereas a couple of months ago, I was sharing my square kilometre with 5,299 others, now it’s just me – with my bottom waaaay over there.
I love it when English people moan about the dreadful traffic. It’s so charming! So when the Brits sigh and tut at the orderly four-car queue at the traffic lights outside Waitrose, I can while away the time by telling them that Delhi has 8.43 million registered vehicles, compared with Mumbai’s 2.33 million, Beijing’s 5 million and London’s (frankly paltry) 2.6 million. And they were all doing a U-turn and simultaneously honking, on Aurobindo Marg outside my house all at the same time. Or at least that’s how it felt, mostly.
Another time, I found myself leaping to Delhi’s defence against a well-educated, Bengali NRI journalist who announced that he routinely tells all his female friends and colleagues to not go to India. At all. Under any circumstances. As though they will set foot on the tarmac at Indira Gandhi International Airport and promptly be set upon by gangs of priapic assailants. I found myself semi-yelling, “I’ve lived in Delhi for twenty years and I’ve never been raped! And I’m not the only one!” And yet, I cannot deny that one of the feelings I most love not having, now that I live in England, is that little, but daily, internal struggle I had about what to wear. I would take out a t-shirt and wonder if I had that necessary extra oomph, that stiffness of spine, that resilience to go with the V-neck. How stupid. How petty. How ridiculous. How belittling of the human spirit. How glad I am now to be able to wear any old thing and not worry.
Do I miss Delhi? Of course I do. Did I hate living there? Yes. Did I love it? Absolutely. Do I regret leaving? Not at all (at least, not yet, anyhow). Is the grass greener in Somerset? Literally, yes, and there’s a lot more of it. Metaphorically, I’m not sure. But I what I do know is that I can walk out of my door and ten minutes away are fields and trees and streams and hedgerows and the Blackdown hills and a wide blue sky full of clouds. What wouldn’t I trade in for a breath of fresh air and a V-neck t-shirt? Not much, it turns out, not much at all.