I have returned to Delhi after twenty years. The war is over now. And so are our lives. Our winter fashions, our book parties, our kebabs, our chai, our seemingly naïve belief that we were right, and right would be done by us. Our era. It is over. I didn’t know anyone in this war-torn city anymore. But the dilapidated city still smelt of love. I am a divorced mother of two now. I am lucky to be alive. Most of my family are dead. I ran away to Canada as a refugee at the age of twenty. I built a life in small town America as a teacher and middle-run writer. But this is not my story. I am only a teller of this story. And a mute object of his affections. He was my uncle Rana – Ranajit Choudhury.
It was the summer of 2019 when I first arrived in Delhi. I was eighteen. My mother taught at a school in Darjeeling, where I had spent my whole childhood. I didn’t do very well in my board exams. And yet, some strings were pulled in Delhi to procure a seat for me at a girls’ college in Delhi University. I was to pursue English Honours. And so, I arrived in the summer of 2019 to mark the beginning of a new phase of my life. I hadn’t thought anything, throughout my rather uneventful childhood, of the fact that my mother came from a distinguished Bengali family based in Delhi. My father was French, and I was a lovechild. And he left my mother when I was quite young. So, I was a strange bastard, a half-breed. My grandfather had left a meagre amount in my name when he died. My grandparents were both professors; they lived their life in pity of me and concern for their daughter. We visited them in my summer holidays. They had passed before the summer of 2019.
Rana was the eldest son of my grandmother’s sister. My mother’s first cousin. He was two years younger than my mother. My mother and he were very thick when I was a child. In the summer holidays spent in Delhi, I was often put in charge of my grandmother, while my mother and Rana went to the cinema and dinner afterwards. I was rebuked for not calling him mama, the Bengali name for maternal uncle. But I persisted in calling him Rana as others, adults, did. I don’t know if he had a girlfriend at this time. He was married by the time I arrived in Delhi in the summer of 2019.
In 2018, Rana, at the advanced age of thirty-eight, took to matrimony. His mother, my grandaunt, was relieved. His father had died by that time and she wanted him to settle down. My mother could not attend the wedding because of my tenth-grade exams. Her name was Tara. She was a tall Punjabi woman. With a strong topknot on her head and high heels. She was a lawyer. They lived in Green Park in a small double storey house (that was built by my granduncle in his lifetime), with my grandaunt. There was a small garden in front of the house which my grandaunt tended to. My grandaunt could not stand me. Not so much because I was a lovechild, but I looked funny, according to her. She told me so when I was a child. I was a fair girl (fairer than most Bengalis) with dark brown curly hair. I wasn’t beautiful but I wasn’t ugly by any standards. At any rate, my grandaunt didn’t take to my biracial appearance.
I arrived in Rana’s Green Park house as a house guest so that I could go to college in Delhi University. I wanted to stay in the hostel. But my mother’s purse-strings were tight. The money left by my dead grandfather had been put away in a fixed deposit to help if I ever wanted to study abroad or for any calamity. I was not ambitious at the age of eighteen. Delhi seemed to me like a foreign country. A few worlds away from Darjeeling. I missed the mountains. I missed our small house with blue windows. But I did not miss my uneventful childhood. I was ready for the world. But in Green Park, I had only one friend. Rana. My grandaunt was suspicious of me. Tara thought I was too insignificant to bother saying anything more than hello to me. She was also very busy, and worked until late in the night. Rana worked in an advertising firm, which was hit badly by the declining economy.
Soon enough, I was being driven to the Green Park metro station to take the yellow line to the North Campus. I spent about five minutes alone with Rana. He teased me about my baggy jeans or about my funny horsetailed hair in the car. I liked being teased by him a lot. He seemed lonely. Or maybe that is how men are if they are dominated by their partners. He seemed unhappy. Brief laughter and stupid jokes seemed to be his insulation jacket. And soon enough, he would come to the North Campus to have chhola bhatura with me at one of the university canteens. My friends asked about him. Obviously, hanging out in the university canteen with one’s uncle seemed strange. I said he was an older cousin. They laughed.
Someone said:Have you slept with him yet?
I was livid. I kept silent. My lips were trembling with rage.
You know you want to.
The girl provoked me further.
I had never even been kissed at that point. I was late for my age and generation I realized. I knew Rana was not just visiting me innocently. But sex was not on my mind. He was just friendly, teasing, unhappy Rana. My only ally in Delhi. My friend. My mother’s first cousin. He was tall, lean and greying. He wore rimless glasses and flannel shirts and blue jeans. Always. Mostly. Once or twice, he took me to the cinema. We watched the new Star Wars flick, and the new James Bond one. By this time, our daytime rendezvous was a mutually acknowledged secret. Soon enough, he kissed me. I tried to kiss him with my limited skills and unlimited ardour. In his car, at the metro station. It was 9. 30 am in the morning. On 22nd November, 2019. It was gloriously hot though the season calendar would call it autumn. A bustling south Delhi and the whirring air conditioner were quiet witnesses to this event. It changed my life entirely. I walked to the classroom in shame, confusion and absolute ecstasy. Rana began to kiss me every day as our short car ride came to a conclusion.
Days ran into months. It rained quite a bit at the end of that summer. Delhi was a hot, sultry mess. And so was I. I made lame excuses to come back late from college - saying I had drama and debating classes, none of which interested me actually. I did take to the guitar. And wrote some adequately stupid love songs that summer. I sang in the shower. But never ever in front of him. He would tease me, I knew that. And he might just come to know the depth of my affections if he listened to those songs, thought I. He would pick me up after classes in the late afternoon and take me to restaurants and bars and concerts and the cinema. Me, who had had the most uneventful life up until now could not get myself to believe what the direct affections of an adult man actually felt like. I was nineteen and boys in my classes sometimes sent me valentine messages. I found them all so silly. With their guitars, and unkempt hair and beards, spouting Shakespeare and Eliot and listening to electronic music. Rana spoke much less than these boys. But when he spoke, he looked straight into my eyes. His thoughtful, smiling eyes hidden behind rimless glasses spoke much more in silence than they did in speech.
An authoritarian government was unfolding into ugly tentacles all over the city in 2019. Protesters gathered in Shaheen Bagh, in east Delhi, to strum their guitars and recite socialist Urdu poetry. I didn’t understand why things were so bad. I was interested in the next morning’s kiss. Rana was into this protest culture. He took me to Shaheen Bagh in the winter of 2019. We smoked a joint in the car. He said, “Things are going to get really bad. You should get out of here after you graduate.” I was confused to note that he wanted me to go away. “Why do you want me to go away? Are you tired of me?” I said, feeling insecure.
“My dear, you have your whole life in front of you. It is my responsibility to ensure that you don’t throw it away because of a forty-year-old creep.”
I was angry and hurt. I did not want to go abroad. I didn’t care how authoritarian the government was turning. I didn’t care if there was very likely going to be an outbreak of war. I wanted us to go on exactly as we were. I didn’t care if he was married. Tara didn’t bother me. On the breakfast table, I sometimes wondered if my grandaunt had an inkling. But if she did, she never said anything. We acted aloof towards each other, in the house. I was okay with that. But Rana seemed to think there was an imminent end of our relationship.
In February 2020, Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in parts of east Delhi. Classes were called off due to curfew in the city. Our opportunities to meet unchaperoned, dwindled. I became restless, staying shut up in my bedroom. Strumming the guitar endlessly. Watching action shows on Netflix. Opening the door intermittently to see if Rana were in the living room. On one of these curfew nights, Rana texted me ‘keep the door open tonight’. He rarely texted me. I did as he said. At about 4am in the morning, he came to my room and lay against me on the bed. He stroked my hair slowly and woke me up with kisses on my right cheek. I was confused and happy.
“What are you doing here? What if Tara gets to know?”
“She is fast asleep. I am going to the riot neighbourhoods with a photographer friend.”
“NO. Please don’t go there.”
“I have to. Don’t worry. It will be fine. I should be back by the evening. I am joining the relief effort for riot victims.”
“What if violence breaks out again?“I doubt it will. Things seem to be under control.”
He made love to me for the first time ever. I tried not to scream. I slept in oblivion within minutes as he finished. Rana, a tired forty-year-old. Me, a confused and easily-validated nineteen-year-old girl. Little was I to know that was the last time I would see him.
The police picked up Rahul, the photographer friend and Rana along with others, for questioning. They were initially booked for breaking curfew. After a day at the police station, they booked him and Rahul and some others under a law that was meant for times of emergency, that did not allow the usual legal protections to an arrestee. They were charged with conspiracy and sedition. My Rana, with smiling eyes, flannel shirts with rolled up sleeves, who whistled in the car in the months of spring, whose eyes opened and shut, in quick succession as he kissed me – behind bars. He was taken into judicial custody on April 1, 2020. A battery of lawyers, Tara’s friends met day and night in our living room. My grandaunt sat in the corner looking most helpless.
Then the police came to our house. It was a raid. Rana was found to have links with nefarious anti-national groups. They questioned me and Tara.
“He came to pick you up from college? And then take you to the cinema?”
“Yes. Sometimes,” I said, worrying about Tara’s expression as she was standing right behind me.
“What do you know about his links with the Azadi groups?”
“I don’t know anything.”
The same question was asked in varied ways for half an hour. They seized our cell phones. Wrecked our furniture. I went to my room after they left and locked the door. We did not know that a dictatorship had been announced formally on TV. Trade and other sanctions had been brought on India by various powerful western countries. UN troops had moved into Punjab and Haryana and were waiting to take on Delhi. I did not sleep that night. Tara watched news on the TV the whole night. None of us ate. We quietly and collectively came to the conclusion that Rana may have been killed already, and that we may never see him again.
The scorching sun of April could not hide the helicopters whirring across the skyline of Delhi. No more book parties and love affairs hidden in the Lodi Gardens. Overnight, Delhi was a warzone. Television channels had been shut. Internet connections had been blocked. Food packets were available at the nearest counters set up by the UN. We sat at home like ghosts. My grandaunt lay in bed. Tara did not speak at all. There was no news of Rana. I thought of the touch of his hands, his muffled giggles in bed, his teasing, his sad eyes. And I could not stay at home any longer. At 3 am in the morning, I packed a few packets of biscuits and a bottle of water, and put on my sneakers. I was going to find Rana.
I walked through our lane keeping to the sidewalk hoping the army cars would not spot me. There were all kinds of sounds – helicopters, army cars, police cars. Reporters hanging about in the corners smoking cigarettes. I had about a thousand rupees with me. I didn’t want to use it, and even if I wanted to use it, there were no taxis. The metro was shut indefinitely. North and central Delhi, we had heard, had been heavily bombed by the NATO. I would not dare go north. But I would have to pass some part of central Delhi to get to the east. To get to Iqbalpur police station where Rana was arrested. I believed Rana was alive. And I was willing to risk my life to find him. At any rate, I wasn’t going to go back to the wretched Green Park house. With Rana gone, there was nothing for me there.
At daybreak, I was passing the Purana Qila area. And what should have been that area. Now it was all rubble. There were some rescue teams present, who were trying to pull out limbs and body parts of unidentifiable corpses, and the occasional alive person. There were split parts of military tanks and other equipment that were lying around. I did not know the names of these things; they were all foreign to a twenty-year-old’s existence. But central Delhi was no longer civilian territory. The dictatorial government had come out in its resistance to the NATO effort with all guns blazing, literally. The NATO had waged a military opposition to this regime, while the UN peacekeeping troops were routinely pulling people into camps outside of Delhi and trying to keep them alive. It was also April in 2020; and the horizon was awash with the colours of amaltas, whatever was left of them.
I walked fast and yet quietly through the rubble. There was dust all over my clothes, which was a good thing, because I may just have passed for someone on a rescue team. I thought of Rana to keep myself from getting too exhausted or scared. In the glaring sun of the morning, it was too risky to keep walking. I hid below a huge piece of military junk, hoping no one would come until nightfall to remove it. I sensed the war solely through sounds; much of the horizon was blocked from my line of vision. I ate some biscuits, and drank water. And sat tight through the angry afternoon.
At nightfall, I began my journey again. I had to get to the DND flyover. I wasn’t exactly sure how. All of Delhi was rubble in these parts. There was no distinction between road and government building and Mughal tomb and garden. Rana and I had gallivanted these parts so frequently - laughing, eating roasted moongphali or ice-cream. I have no memory of this city that is not attached to him. Was he dead? I tried very hard not to entertain the thought.
A man shouted from behind. I tried to hasten, but he caught up with me. He wasn’t in uniform, so I guessed he was not an army man. He could have been part of a rescue team.
“I…. I … have to get home to east Delhi. To Iqbalpur. I live in Iqbalpur.”
“You can’t go there. There has been bombing in east Delhi last night. Even we can’t go there. Let me take you in our car.”
I was dead afraid of government cars – either operated by the army or the police.
“No sir, I am quite alright sir. But thank you sir.” I babbled.
“But you can’t go anywhere on foot in this area. If no one else, the military guards will catch you. I am part of the UN Press Corps. You are safe with us, please come.”
I wasn’t sure if I should trust him. But why would he cheat me in the middle of a war? I followed the man. An SUV was parked around the corner. It was hard to say where we were exactly in the city. There was a UN sticker on the front glass-pane of the car. And a Press card stuck behind the steering wheel. So, it looked like I was in safe hands. But I needed to get to Iqbalpur. I just had to get there.
“I want to look for my family.” I said. “I am sorry we can’t help you with that. If you give us names, we can pass on a message to the rescue teams. But they are overworked. And I doubt they can look for specific people at this time.”“I lied, sir. My uncle is a political prisoner. He was locked in Iqbalpur police station the last time we saw him. I need to find him.”
“Hmmmm, that is even more difficult. But let us first get you to a camp.”
“A relief camp.”
“I don’t want to go to a camp sir.”
“Where can you stay then?”
“I must look for my uncle, sir. Please help me.”
“Let’s get you to a camp. And pass on your message to the rescue effort of the UN.”
“How long do I have to stay in the camp?”
“We don’t know. We don’t even know if we can get you to the Faridabad camp at this point, there has been trouble in those parts too.”
I remained quiet for the rest of the journey.
It is 2040. I am thankful for the Faridabad camp that sheltered me for eight months beginning the night I started to look for Rana on foot. In a UN lottery, I was selected as a worthy liberal person (young enough to vote and pay taxes). I was granted refugee status. I came to Canada as a refugee in 2021. Am grateful for the free world. India has witnessed twenty years of war and dictatorship. It is no longer the country of Darjeeling tea and Delhi summer amaltas. I have arrived in Delhi amidst two decades of war debris and a twenty-year-old heartache. I don’t know what happened to Rana. I don’t care about the others. As an adult and a school-teacher, I now realize he was overstepping a moral boundary in entertaining my youthful amour. I believe I will find him.
Atreyee Majumder is an anthropologist, she teaches at the National Law School of India University.