As I stood, dazed, at the entrance of my dear old hometown, the urgent need to run away, which I had felt almost 10 years ago, reared its ugly head again. Back then as a driven 16 year old, I had followed my instincts and traded my hillstation home for a life in the big city. Now, I couldn't.
Bracing myself for emotions I hadn’t felt in a long time, I picked up my tiny suitcase and began the long walk home. I hadn't walked for more than five minutes when I heard it; the faint sizzle of jalebis being fried in a wok. Almost reflexively, I turned and started walking in the direction of that inviting sound. As I got closer, I could smell the sugary delights that were once a Sunday staple. All I could remember in that moment was my grandfather, the gentle, kind man who would take me and my brother to eat hot jalebis with curd every Sunday morning. The man who inadvertently helped shape my life more than anyone else.
When I reached the shop, I noticed the portly man who used to make jalebis when I was a kid was gone. I couldn't help but ask the young boy behind the wok, "Where's Ghanshyam da?"
The boy looked at me sheepishly and said, "Baba died two years back. I run this place now."
I muttered a feeble apology and turned back. A part of me had known things would have changed over the years but I was also unreasonably hoping for everything to be the same. That would have made the whole thing much easier; familiarity.
After walking for a couple of minutes, I got my first glimpse at the lake. The focal point of my hometown and one of the reasons I had left. Still, the lake was undeniably beautiful and for all the things I hated about it, it was a pleasant sight to my city-sore eyes. I began walking along the lake with the main bazaar running parallel to the pathway I was walking on. This is when I noticed that most of the shops I knew were gone, replaced by Dominos, Cafe Coffee Day and other creations of corporate greed. I couldn't help but lament at the sight of the hills I once called home dotted with shops, restaurants, and hotels. I stood staring at the hill for a few silent seconds of despair and then continued on. I knew what piece of my past awaited me next and I couldn't tell if I was excited or nervous. A couple of moments later I saw it. My favourite spot in the town; the library.
Perched carefully on massive blocks of wood that went deep into the lake bed, the library was a sight to behold. To my delight, it looked exactly like I remembered it. Painted a soothing shade of green, with a massive wooden door that stood ajar, welcoming passerby. While I was in a hurry to reach home, I couldn’t help but give in to the familiar comfort of the books that were once my best friends. I stepped over the entrance ledge and experienced what can only be described as travelling back in time. To my right were rows upon rows of dusty shelves, each stacked to the brim with books of all genres. The seating area was on the left corner with my favourite window-facing bench overlooking the lake. Smack in the middle was Ms. Abha, the librarian. While everything around her was the same, she looked unrecognisable. Her hair was ashen grey and her eyes were barely visible behind the black rimmed glasses. But her toothy smile was still the same and she flashed it at me in recognition. All the dread I had been feeling about returning home was lifted the moment I entered Ms. Abha’s library.
“Divya! How are you? I can't believe you are here!” she said in the sing song voice I had missed so dearly.
“Hello, mam! I'm good. Mom told me about your knee surgery. How are you now?” I replied, beaming from ear to ear.
“I'm fine, dear. I heard you were in Delhi, working as a writer for a magazine? How’s the job?”, she asked out of concern.
And just like a lamp in a storm, my happiness was extinguished within seconds. A million thoughts darted through my mind, all focusing on the fateful meeting I had had with my editor last week. How could I tell the person I had admired since childhood that I was fired from my job for not being good enough? How could I look her in the eye and admit that I was wrong to run away to the city without honing my skills as a writer first?
I stammered for a few seconds and finally blurted, “I left the job, mam. I wanted a break so came to visit Ma and Papa for a couple of weeks.”
I could tell Ms. Abha didn't buy my lie but pretended not to notice the disappointed look on her face. To avoid further awkwardness, I dropped my suitcase at the entrance and leapt towards the books. As a kid, I had devoured almost every book in the library but always came back for one; Ruskin Bond’s Children's Omnibus. After a couple of seconds of searching, I found the book perched on top of a pile of untouched Nancy Drews. I picked it up and turned directly to the last page. 10 year old me, in my infinite wisdom, had written the following note to my future self:
‘No matter what everyone says, you'll become a writer and return to this town and sign this note for crores of rupees.’
A sharp twinge of embarrassment washed over me. I took the book with me to the front desk and asked if Ms. Abha if she could issue it to me. She smiled faintly and handed me the book.
“Take it. I think you'll need it.”
I wordlessly accepted the book, picked up my suitcase, bid Ms. Abha goodbye and left the library.
It was 4 in the evening and the mountain air was crisp and biting. I hadn't had lunch and decided to visit the final stop of my leisurely tryst with the town I had given up on; my home. Turning back, I made my way to the boat dock, hoping to avoid walking unnecessarily around the lake to reach my home.
The boat swayed gently in the still waters of the lake as the helmsman made his way to the other side of the lake. Dusk was upon us and the entire lake was blanketed in a fiery glow. It was in that moment that I realised how dearly I had missed my hometown.
I lost track of time staring at the endless expanse of the lake I once hated and only realised the ride was over when the boat gently hit the shore. With a heavy heart, I started the trek up to my home. I was still lost in thought. The day had been a reminder of how wrong I was about life in a city being better than one in a small town. With every step, I was falling in love with my hill town all over again. And in that moment, I knew everything would be okay.