It was the 22nd of December when the smoke-filled smog rushed into Indira Gandhi International Airport and I spotted my favourite people waiting to pick me up.
This was my first time home in six months, even though it felt like it had been so much longer. But, just like that (after a couple of long flights and a lost bag), I was back. As I left the airport, my break from a life of continuous introductions, finding better ways to get places and learning to live on my own started.
I grew up in Gurgaon, a city less than 30 kilometres from New Delhi known for housing corporate offices, a variety of renowned eateries and not much else.
A few days ago, a friend asked me how many times I had moved growing up, I paused as though the answer wasn’t simple. I had never moved. I grew up in one 732 square kilometre city in the same house and graduated from the same school I had entered 14 years earlier.
There is not much about the city that I used to worship, and before moving away, you would have often caught me thinking about all the darkness that lies between every third functioning street light, the restlessness of rush hour traffic and the absence of nature for miles around me. I’d constantly complain about how divisive the politics were, how conservative and old-fashioned people were and how limited it all felt.
Although, I have boundless love for my physical home, which, growing up, was mainly my room. My dark red walls were painted in the midst of my teenage angst, with old polaroid photos and arcade tickets hanging on for dear life. Unfinished crosswords, Lego blocks or puzzles are scattered across my bookshelves for when my obsessions were reignited.
Outside my room is the dining room. The walls are lined with collectable paintings that have lived in every corner of the house each for a couple of years. Pickles in the centre of the dining table that changed every fortnight, and the fruit I was obsessing over that month (tiny Mandarins usually) waiting to be devoured in a ceramic yellow bowl.
Outside our apartment is the elevator for our building tower, which has seen me pant in exhaustion after a rare evening run and whose stairwell has been the spot for an evening full of hide-and-seek with childhood friends.
Outside our tower is the park and the other apartment buildings that saw me make my first friends, go on walks with my high school boyfriend and win my first game of POISON — a version of basketball so much more thrilling than an NBA game.
Outside our apartment complex is the road which saw me miss my school bus at least once every two weeks, the grocery store that I frequented with my mom to get snacks on a gloomy day and the street that becomes a raging ocean with merely a couple of hours of rainfall.
Connected to this street were so many others like it, with houses that had vast terraces where families would come out and sunbathe in the warmth of the winter sun, with parks that children spent hours in during their summer break, and of course, with cars parked with so much precision. I hope my sarcasm is apparent.
Though I was back only for two short weeks, I left knowing that Gurgaon is a city that I whole-heartedly know, that watched me grow from 2 to 20 and that knows me.
I missed the city. Although more than anything, it was more the feeling of home that I longed, and continue to long for, more strongly than ever.
Home is knowing the route to my best friend’s house by heart, even though my ability to read directions gets me on the wrong bus at least once a month. It is being able to bring up old crushes to childhood friends to make them laugh about the horrible decisions they made during our era of teenage crushing. It is watching a new mystery show on Netflix with my family only to realise that as the most important clues are revealed, my mom had chosen sleep over the quest for the killer. It is catching up with loved ones about all the trials and tribulations you experienced while being physically apart, as though the kilometres and time that separated you are of no significance at all.
This December, I closed my eyes to blow out the two and zero candles on my birthday cake on the same dining table that has seen me play hours of table tennis (the net was made of a row of hard-bound books, so I was really gunning to be an Olympic-level player). In the same living room that has watched me drape my mother’s chunni — a shawl-like garment worn with traditional Indian wear — to present a puppet show for my ever-loving parents.
As I stood in a home where I no longer live but am only visiting from a university 11,136 km away and blew out my candles, I knew there was nothing quite like it.