Chandni Chowk to China

Originally published on the Times of India blogs, 10th February 2012

Three years ago, I was in the final semester of my degree at art college. I was drawing and painting and printing and taking photographs (and writing my dissertation), and I was pretty happy. The only problem was that my course would end in the early summer, and I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do next.

Getting a job was the obvious option, but with a degree (Honours degree, actually!) in Illustration, that wouldn’t just involve doing a lot of drawings, rather, I’d have to network, draft pitches, get an enormous number of rejections, and probably (at least in the beginning) work for free.

At the tender age of twenty one I didn’t really want to  begin the downward spiral of a failed artist, and so, as soon as I graduated, I did a TEFL course and got a qualification to teach English as a foreign language, and decided to move to Australia. I’d live in Melbourne, teach English to Southeast Asian students, eat ice cream on the beach, and maybe even carry on with my artwork. What an excellent life I’d have.

But instead I ended up in Delhi.

While I was searching for flights to Melbourne, I had the idea to stop somewhere on the way and have a bit of an adventure. A random internet search for cheap flights brought up one for the Indian capital; the fare almost £100 less than to other destinations.

I’d never really considered travelling in India, but before long that mysterious land of elephants, elaborate moustaches and multiple-limbed gods had swept me up and taken over my imagination, and I booked the flight. A six-week solo-stopover to add a kick of masala to the beginning of my post-academic life.

A few weeks later I was ensconced in economy class at 30,000 feet, eating foil-wrapped paranthas and watching Chandni Chowk to China with English subtitles. Even on the tiny screen those winding, warren-like bazaars of Old Delhi looked like something from another, far more magical, planet. Silver and spices and rooftops and goats – I couldn’t wait to see all this in the flesh.

And not so very long after the plane had touched down, I was there. In real-life Purani Dilli, sipping masala chai with an Indian boy I’d just met, whose name started with B.

It really is amazing how things turn out. And in the two years that have followed I’ve done incredible things that I’d never imagined I’d do. I moved in with B’s family as soon as I returned from Australia (yes, I did go to Melbourne. But not for long) and began my crash-course in becoming a perfect Indian woman. I learned how to make chai with plenty of sugar and just enough cardamom; I wore colourful salwaar kameez, glass bangles and ankle bells. I tried to learn Hindi.

And I did learn Hindi, later, at Delhi University. I can read and write in Devanagri and understand the Oblique case, and I know where to get the best samosas near the Arts Faculty. I’ve lived in three different apartments; two in north Delhi and my current one in the south. Here I’ve learned about expat life. About maids and drivers, parties and malls. About the obscenely wealthy, and the people who have nothing.

And I’ve travelled – to mountains and beaches and deserts and jungles. Kashmir, Khajuraho, Manali, Mussourie, Rajasthan, Goa, Kerala.

And I’ve laughed. Cried. Danced. Sung. Loved. Broken up. Laughed again.

And in the middle of all this, I got asked to write a monthly column for a Delhi magazine. And I got asked to write this blog for this newspaper. I showed my photos in an exhibition, and I made a film, and I hosted two events, and I started an online magazine. These have been amazing opportunities, and all of them – and all of this – happened only because I booked a flight on a whim.

You see, I do impulsive things like that. And, luckily for me, they tend to work out. Last week I admitted that I wasn’t sure whether to stay in India or to go, and, while I really do love this place, I know now that it’s time to move on.

In the summer I’m going to a little city in the north of China. It’s in Inner Mongolia, actually. I’ve got a job there, teaching English. In the same way that I booked that Delhi flight, I applied for this job on an impulse. And when I was officially offered it yesterday, I answered, confidently, ‘yes’. I’m ready for a new adventure.

There are so many things I’ve learned here in India, and perhaps the biggest of these is the realisation that I am so lucky. Unlike so many people, I have the freedom to make my own choices, and I can go almost anywhere and do almost anything. To understand that is overwhelming.

And that’s why, when I think about what I’ve been doing these last few weeks – mostly getting sick and tired of Delhi life – I feel kind of ashamed. I have about two-and-a-half more months here, and although I know I’ll be back sometime, I want to make the most of these remaining weeks.

I have a train ticket. Thirty six hours in Sleeper Class to Orissa. And, later, I’ll swing by Varanasi. I’ll wear bangles that sparkle up to my elbows; dip my feet into the Ganga and the Bay of Bengal. And I’ll play Holi, in Delhi, with friends.

I’m going to fall in love with India again, and leave, lighter, with a smile.

2 responses to “Chandni Chowk to China

  1. bye sussan

  2. very nice article and real facts about d capital city ,which can be enjoyed by the one who lived here for sometime,,,,,,,

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