Return to Neverland


Return to Neverland

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Nothing seemed to have changed in the last four years. Charbagh railway station with its domes and arches was still the prettiest station in the world. It smelled the same as I remembered: a mix of urine, charcoal braziers, and the signature aroma of Indian railways that leaves a metallic taste at the back of your throat. It was a muggy July morning, so I could detect an additional whiff of mangoes in wooden boxes, stacked on the platforms. It felt good to be back home.

I had been away from the city where I grew up, for only a few years. I’d left as an adolescent at 11, and was returning as an almost-man at 15. In that short span, I’d grown from a piddly four-footer to a stately 5’6” and had stretch marks to prove it. I must have matured mentally as well, but the impressions that I carried of my hometown, were those of a child. For the last four years, those memories had simmered inside, relived like moments with a long-lost sweetheart and shorn of all blemishes. The tricks fondness plays on our minds!

Just as before, I wanted to run on the railway platform, but I held myself back. People don’t give a second glance to a child’s exuberance but a “man” skipping and scampering in a public place would have drawn amusement. But I had to make a ritual stop at the A.H. Wheeler bookshop on the platform, to pick up my favourite Rajan Iqbal detective novels. The shop was out of those, but something else about the large, impressive establishment seemed odd – in the last four years, it had been reduced to a kiosk with a faded, peeling sign.

As I walked out of the station, a cluster of rickshaw-wallahs gheraoed me. I asked the eldest of the lot: “Hasanganj Charhi?”

“Chaliye Babuji,” he replied.

Babuji! No one had called me that ever, an address reserved for adults. He quoted an exorbitant price, expecting negotiations, and was quite taken aback when I thrust my bag into his hands and said, “Chalo.” I followed my man into the 8 am sun, already scorching the back of my neck.

As the rickshaw traversed the streets of my younger self, I noted the passing landmarks with keen interest, drinking in all the details. Something was amiss. Something had changed and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

It hit me when we reached the Iron Bridge. There’s a steep climb up the bridge as you approach it from the Bans Mandi and cycle rickshaws cannot go up until the rickshaw-wallah gets off and pulls it along. My parents had inculcated the habit of getting off the rickshaw on steep climbs to lessen the load. As I jumped off and walked, I noticed that the bridge was much narrower than I remembered. Somehow, it had shrunk in the four years that I had been away. The Gomati too had transformed into a stream from the massive river it used to be. I stood on the bridge and watched in amazement, unable to reconcile the reality with my memory.

As the rickshaw traversed the streets of my younger self, I noted the passing landmarks with keen interest, drinking in all the details.

I remained silent for the rest of the journey. When I reached home, I was shocked further. The massive house seemed to have shrunk to half its size. Some of the old neighbours recognised me and came to greet me but I was dazed. How had everything become smaller?

Had the increase in my height changed my perspective? Sohan’s mithai shop was just a nook now, instead of the spacious structure it used to be. The wide road had become a narrow lane. The massive chabootra in front of our house, where half the mohalla used to sleep during the oppressive summer nights, was just a cement strip, barely wide enough to accommodate a few children.

The house itself looked sad and forlorn. When we had lived there, it was a cheery, sunny place, vibrant with voices and the aromas of a ready meal. As I unlocked the front door and stepped into the courtyard, moss-covered walls and closed doors greeted me. The rooms were covered in dust and the smell of dampness hung in the air, like something had died in there.

While I was away, I had imagined this moment many times. How I would touch and feel the memories of my childhood, walk through the rooms, sit on my favourite stool, stand on the balcony and watch the traffic on the busy road. This house held so much of my younger self in its grasp and I had hoped to recover and relive it. But I realised that it was not to be. I felt like my childhood had forever been exiled, banished to a Neverland that I would never again enter.

As a teenager, you acquire a sudden awareness of all experiences. It is as if things are beginning to come into sharp focus. Childhood memories and impressions, on the other hand, inhabit a world of their own. As children, everything is larger, grander – in adulthood, everything is dwarfed. The same holds true for nostalgia: Our memories wear a sheen that is rarely dulled by age. In fact, the years only burnish them to a shine.

Our family did eventually move back to Lucknow and the house went back to its cheerful old self. But since that July morning, there has always been a difference. The difference is that the child in me had grown up.