Another short extract, this one from the end of the fourth chapter, Mr Hall, and the end of the book. I wrote this part on a cold January morning in 2006 in my room in a flat in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar, and then set down my pen with relief at having reached the end. The last line, with its mix of flippancy and nostalgia, seemed to sum up the mood of the book. I felt then, and some readers have pointed this out, that the open-ended ending suggested a sequel. But there remains an element of unwillingness at having to revisit the same characters again. I had started writing the book seven months earlier in my old room in our old house (now demolished) in Shillong, the same room where I first hesitantly put pen to paper as a 15-year-old schoolboy. If I had known then that it would take me another 15 years to get to the end of my first publishable novel I doubt I would have persisted. But even after I had completed that first draft it took nearly two more years for the book to see the light of day. It’s now been just over a year since the book came out, and about the same time for the blog. I stay alone now in another part of Delhi, but when I sometimes pass by that Lajpat Nagar flat I shared with two friends from Shillong I can see potted plants on the balcony along with a few Tibetan prayer flags, and I think maybe there’s someone inside that flat reading Jet City Woman and chuckling at its descriptions of the Tibetan colony at Majnu ka Tila.
A week later, in the third week of May, I was back at the domestic terminal at 8 in the morning to catch my flight to Guwahati. I was leaving, more or less for good. In the taxi on the way to the airport the sardar driver had been playing Punjabi folk tunes, and they had made me think of Ajmer Singh and his Canada plans. Everyone who could, seemed to be planning to leave this country. Temperatures were up now in the high forties in Delhi, and India was on the brink of going to war against Pakistan—it was a good time to get out of the capital. In the taxi to the airport I looked at the city where I had spent five years—I had arrived in May of 1997 on the North-East Express—and felt the first pangs of homesickness. I knew I would miss Delhi, miss the harshness and loudness of it, the very things that had unsettled me upon my arrival. I entered the departure terminal, checked in—a suitcase and two duffel bags—and waited in the passenger’s lounge having a coffee. The other passengers were an odd mix of sleepy and alert characters at this early hour.
It had been easier to dismantle my life in Delhi than I had thought. My meagre possessions—bed, mattress, table, chair, rack—I left with Bashan, along with the keys to my motorcycle. The rest of our co-owned stuff—the television, music system, cooler, fridge, utensils—was now his. I would send him my share of the rent until he found a roommate or a single accommodation or, as he hoped, until Sonam agreed to move in. When I finally told him about my restaurant plans he looked hurt at being let in so late, but later congratulated me and wished me the best and said even if he were in with me he couldn’t leave right then. He called me as I stood in the security check queue—he’d just got back from work—and I spoke to him, and to Sonam. I would be coming back in a month or two for purchasing the restaurant equipment, I told him. There was an entrepreneur’s loan I had to apply for in Shillong before that. We also made plans to meet in Shillong for Christmas later that year, me and Rebecca and Bashan and Sonam, all of us at my new restaurant, wouldn’t that be great, yes that would be great. “All the people we used to know, they’re an illusion to me now,” were those lines from Tangled up in Blue.
I went through security and waited on my feet in the stuffy boarding area listening to the unclear flight announcements. None of the glamour of air travel here; in a country with a population like ours it felt like an upscale railway waiting room. It was all part of a country on the move; the new economy airlines, the call centres, the malls. But it would all seem unreal after I got off the plane at Guwahati and the taxi took me up the winding road to Shillong, with views of wet, green-blanketed hills rolling away into the distance. Did cities matter less the further you got away from them? I called home from a phone booth and told them I would be taking a taxi straight to Shillong from the airport, and I called Rebecca. The last day at the office had ended badly. They refused to clear my legitimate dues, not a very large sum, on flimsy grounds, and finally I flung my resignation letter at my boss and stormed out. Screw them, I had thought, I didn’t need them anymore. I was going home to my woman. Saxena the photographer, the old warhorse of the company, also picked up a fight with our boss over the issue of my dues, and quit to join a new magazine, getting a hefty pay-raise for his experience. ‘You opened my eyes yaar,’ he had told me over the phone the night before I left. ‘No loyalty left anymore in this world. Let’s see what that chutiya will do without me now.’
The boarding call for my flight finally came. Naina’s Esteem I had fixed up and sent to Guwahati the previous day by train. Samir, my old roommate from Indra Vihar, would collect it for me and hold it till I could come down from Shillong. There was a short ride over the tarmac on the passenger bus to the flight. Going up the boarding steps I tried to spot the restaurant on the second level of the terminal. The ghost of Naina and me. I took my window seat, and then an old couple, they looked Gujarati, occupied the seats beside me. As the fatigued airhostesses went through the safety drill I looked out at the hangars and planes and tractors pulling luggage trolleys. Some distance away stood the private jets—Gulfstreams and Cessnas—looking sleek and unbothered amidst the general busyness of the airport. Did Maurice Gautier own a jet? Our plane taxied towards the runway and then waited for take-off clearance with its engines throbbing.
Was I leaving Delhi defeated, like so many other young people from the north-east? In a way, yes, but I couldn’t see myself making a life here, making a career out of journalism. A different future awaited me now. With a woman who loved me. The plane started on its take-off run and gathered speed. Rebecca, the restaurant, family, friends—these were the only things I had that I could hold on to. The plane took off and climbed at a 45˚ angle up into the sky and I looked out as Delhi opened up below us, bright and distinct in the morning sun—goodbye, ancient city. There was something else I had to do too. Wait. Wait for that call. Wait for her to turn up someday. I would keep her car ready for her. Where do you want to go? Sohra? Dawki? Ranikor? Nartiang? Mairang? ‘Remember all those places with the charming names you used to talk about?’ The roads and cars and stacks of housing complexes shrunk in size as we climbed into a clear blue sky. Maybe she would walk into my restaurant one day, just like that, unannounced. Maybe I would call it Windermere. I would ask the cook to set out what she liked—steamed rice, and pork with bamboo shoots and garlic and Naga chillies—and then I would make her a drink at the bar. Not a pink gin, but a martini. With gin, not vodka, and stirred, not shaken. She liked Tanqueray with dry vermouth. That would be a problem in Shillong. I would have to remember to get a bottle of each the next time I came to Delhi.