I sit down to my lunch all alone. My friends are on the ground floor, and I can probably join them, but ‘Butter Fingers’ being my second name, one I have christened myself with, I decide not to carry my food down the escalator or the steps. I sit by the balcony and look out into the distance as I eat. I think of reading the Agatha Christie memoir I have in my bag, but I wonder if it will seem ridiculous. (It won’t, as I realise later, when I see a person at a table downstairs, eating lunch in the company of friends with his eyes on a thick library book- which reminds me that I need to find the library).
A rocky mound rises out of the barren earth, topped by a white, domed building. I wonder what it is. I don’t see any gently rolling, velvety hills anywhere- just rock and mud, glass-fronted buildings and complicated architecture. The domes remind me, for some strange reason, of minarets. I think of the books I’ve read in the past few months, or am reading at present. My Name Is Red. The Kite Runner. A Thousand Splendid Suns. In fact, the memoir I am reading is also set in Syria. The last book I bought in Mysore- Istanbul. All set in countries with a similar background and culture, the same kind of architecture. And here it is, thousands of miles away, in a distant country as well. What has set off this interest and affinity for the Middle East and Hyderabad, I wonder. I am reminded of the time in Vizag when I used to awake early to prepare for the Board Exams, and sure enough, at four o’clock, the azan would sound from the mosque nearby, rising mesmerisingly in the quiet, dark morning air. I would listen to it fascinated, books shut out of my mind for the moment, not comprehending, just listening.
I think about places. About Mysore, where I stayed for just a little more than two months on a nicely-tended, well looked after campus, a world far removed from the dirt-strewn lanes and the chipped paint of the small town outside, one that seemed frozen in time, not concerned with the frenzied pace of its bigger cousins. The splendid buildings constructed ages ago seemed to preserve the ghosts of the past, keep them from being influenced from evil. Walking down a narrow lane one evening, I saw the unsymmetric houses inhabited by strangers- voices calling out from behind curtains, the air swelling with a scent I seemed to recognise as the soap my neighbour in another small town had used, a memory from when I was five years old. What the olfactory senses can do to you, bringing back memories of a town lived in long ago! Mysore is like Malgudi, unhurried and docile. The few pretences the town has are often hidden by wiser, more sedate elements. Small towns are, in fact, the same all over the country. The little garishly-painted temples sheltering under trees with sprawling branches; the bored, patient people waiting for a bus that may never arrive; the walls painted with the script of the local language, as if put there on purpose to confuse the occasional innocent tourist; the animal droppings along the road- all quintessential features of any small town.
I have heard people denounce life in small towns. They say life there is too quiet for them. Perhaps. But these are the places that throb with aspirations and dreams, where ideas wait silently to break out of their shells and create the success stories we all so love to hear about. True, opportunities are rare, exposure is limited. Life, however, is placid and comfortable. At times, it doesn’t hurt to slow down.