Where the Heart Is: Pune reminds me of spilt milk

I have this dream where I’m seventeen again.

I’m standing at my mother’s faux-marble counter at an ungodly hour before school begins, clutching a plastic bag of milk whose corner I ripped open with my teeth.

And I spill milk on the countertop of my kitchen, missing my cereal bowl by a couple of centimetres.

I grab the nearby roll of paper towel and fold the milk into the sheet. I cup my hand to scoop the liquid onto the tissue, so it can’t escape and further soak the table. I keep folding the milk but edges escape my palm, and I’m stuck in the dream trying to contain a puddle that refuses to behave the way I want it to.

I watch myself in my pathetic dream eye, judging my failure at this simple task. The milk sits around on the counter, mocking my inability to fold it in one neat swipe. I am in desperate tears, obsessed with containing this spillage.

The sliding glass panes to the balcony stand apart, letting in Pune’s most noticeable feature —  heavy air. This air weighs me down, like a hand grabbing you too tightly. It’s uncomfortable, but you’ll survive.

I am seventeen and all I want to do is leave this town and its heavy hand. I try to pour the milk, but I choke on the air, so I spill, melting into a counter puddle.

I spilt the milk and I am the spilt milk. I’m failing at folding into a paper towel. And I fold and I fold, but I fail to be contained. I need to escape the city’s heavy air and heavy hand and fall into the embrace of the paper towel. I need to tuck and fold, swipe and scoop, contain and transport myself and the milk, as far away as humanly possible because I’m afraid if I stay too long the air will finally choke me.

Every so often since I moved, I’m back on the counter spilling away, wiping eternally. As if I can contain the identity I had in the town I didn’t like. I left too hastily and now the milk is never completely folded in. Something is still on the counter, only this time I can’t go and wipe it back.

I can’t seem to stop trying.

On any given day, I was within a five-mile radius of my house in Pune. I live in what is called a township, a mock-up mini-town within the town, sort of like a large-scale shrine to consumerism and provincialism. Within a convenient one-kilometre radius we have two shopping malls, five convenience stores, three hairdressers, a fire station, four smoke shops and two vegetable vendors.

You could spend your whole life in Pune, within Pune, and never notice you haven’t left. It’s like Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, only for brown people who love shopping malls. It is a city planner’s wet dream, the perfectly manicured picture of civilization.

In Pune, I never had to answer absurdly irrelevant questions like “Where are you from?” People knew from the dialect of my language and the verbs I misplaced when I spoke Hindi. My town lurked behind the subtle choices of curse words I used, the way I drove and the specific type of food I ate.

Located behind a mountain range separating it from the sea, Pune City, in Maharashtra is called the Detroit of the East, or something else equally pretentious and equally inaccurate.

The food is great and soft green rolling hills enter the landscape if you drive far enough. The apartment building I live in, an exact clone of hundreds like it from all over the city, has enough people to invite judgemental incredulity from those who grew up in the West.

You can smell the desperation in the artfully designed building fronts that some architect of no-note designed, thinking it would be his big ticket item. All this abundance yet there is nothing to do here. This bag of milk is tasteless and washed out, yet it’s all I’ve ever known.

I am the provincial product of these nested towns, these implicit urban functions that no one seems to notice despite their garish in-your-face attempts.

The tall overcrowded buildings have terraces where I spent almost all my evenings, looking over the skyline with cigarette smoke curling around my hair, thickening the air. There are small parks where children don’t play after 5 p.m., where my best friend and I used to lay down on the plastic grass that smelt like shoe soles and toddlers.

The Pune roads are overrun with the most unregulated pedestrian and auto-rickshaw traffic known to man, that I drove through every evening just to have something to do. It’s warm in October of all months, but the street markets are lined with nearly a mile of the most beautiful silver jhumkas that I hoarded before I left.

There are second-hand book stalls with books for under ten cents. If you drive by the dam at night and park your car over the bridge, you can sit on the hood and stare at the semi-rank river smell. It grows on you and coats you in its viscosity. If you spend too much time in that oppressive comfort of provinciality, you will turn into me. Hating, obsessive, waxing overly nostalgic for something she voluntarily left.

When someone asks me what people do for fun in Pune I say, “leave”— the joke is equal parts venom and regret.

And when I finally succeeded in escaping my hometown, I became crudely aware of my origin. “I am from Pune,’’ is a line I will be repeating until one day I give up, seeing people’s confusion and just say Mumbai. It’s easier — geographic simplifications never hurt anyone.

But every time I lie, the air gets heavier and the hand tightens. It feels like a betrayal to wipe that away, tucking and folding it into a paper towel, just as I had done to myself and to the milk, in my dream.

I am tired of being from a city that has no identity of its own but contains the entirety of mine.