Can you ever leave Bombay?
Francis Thomas writes about leaving a city he loves, to find space, solitude and his very own chilli tree.
I didn't live in Bombay long. Seven years is not long, not in the great scheme of things.
But when you are 27, it feels like a lifetime.
I lived in Chennai until I was 20. When I left Chennai for Bombay, there was no sense of loss, only of excitement. I thought I loved Chennai. I was just going to Bombay for a year to study, maybe work for a couple of years, just for the experience, before returning.
A week before I left for Bombay I met Sajan, my boss and mentor to say au revoir. It didn't feel like a farewell to me - only a slightly long break after which I'd come straight back to work for him. Sajan seemed sadder than I was when I said bye. He said, everyone says they'll come back, but once they go to Bombay, they never come back. I laughed. I wasn't like everyone else. Of course I'd come back. Chennai was my home. Bombay was a strange place full of people who spoke a language I didn't know. What would I do there? I'd be back before he knew it.
A year later, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
And then my girlfriend of nearly a decade decided she wanted to pause being an architect and be in the movies.
I'd just started making a little money. My career was just taking off. But we'd done long distance for almost 8 years now, and we were getting married. I didn't want to have a long distance relationship anymore. I thought we would move into a tiny Bombay apartment and struggle a little and save a little and eat all the city's magical food and throw parties and drink too much on Tuesdays and sleep late on weekends.
But you can't live in Bombay and have a career in Malaylam cinema. So I moved to Cochin. Cochin is a port city, like Bombay. That's where the similarity ends.
In Bombay, my house was an overcrowded mess. At any given time, there were enough people around to start a party. More people floated in and out at all hours of the night. We hosted couchsurfers. We routinely woke up to strangers asleep on the sofa or snuggling with a pile of fresh laundry.
In Cochin, we rent an independent house for a fraction of what I paid to share a room in Bombay. A gardener comes to tend the lawn. In Bombay, we had one pot with a plant that routinely died and was replaced once a year.
The space is a shock. When I am alone at home, I sometimes sit in the middle of the room that is supposed to be my study just to feel the space around me. We have not furnished the room. I call it my study and it embarrasses me. For seven years my study was a second-hand mattress on the floor. Having a desk seems too pretentious, so I spread out on the red tiles and prop myself up on my elbows, like I'm used to. But then the silence gets to me, and I go downstairs and join my wife in front of the television. I am unused to being alone.
On Friday nights my WhatsApp groups come alive with plans being made and cancelled and changed. Blurred pictures appear.
These are the people Bombay gave me, incredible alpha intellectuals with a crackling sense of humour. The kind of people you admire despite your own oversized ego.
I don't know anyone in Cochin other than my wife. She doesn't know anyone here either - all the friends she grew up with have moved away. We sit at home and watch MasterChef. I make cocktails. I get good at it.
Slowly the restlessness that accompanies Friday goes away, dulled by the exquisite pleasure of being able to stroll home for a hot lunch and a nap.
We become regulars at a café. Kerala became a semi-dry state when nobody was looking, and most of the bars shut down. The ones that survived serve only beer and wine, and we both detest beer. So we go to our cafe and I learn to savour double espressos without sugar. We eat too many desserts. I put on five kilos and join a gym. I hate talking to people in gyms. They are fitter and better looking than I am. I am not used to feeling insecure.
In Cochin, I am often insecure. I do not have my father's gift for languages. For the first time in years, I feel frustrated and angry at work. It took me years to learn enough Hindi to express myself at work in Bombay. Now I'm the office idiot again.
Making friends is not as easy as it was in Bombay. Cochin, like Chennai, is a closed city. As adults, there are very few places outside of work where you can strike up a conversation with an interesting - seeming stranger. The few friends we make are much older than us, and require us to make plans weeks in advance.
On the other hand, I have more time to write. I begin working on a screenplay and inch closer to finishing my novel. I get a membership in a nice local library and start reading again. I sleep longer and better. Buying alcohol is a tedious process - I have to take an Uber to the store, withdraw cash and stand in a long queue to pay. I begin avoiding it. My liver rejoices.
Suddenly, some of my work in Cochin is successful - I am viral. I begin to not hate the rains as much as I used to. We make a few more friends and make impromptu plans. My wife signs a new movie and gifts me a hammock for my birthday. I hang it in my balcony and stare out into the mini forest that has enveloped the empty plot next door. There are birds here I've never seen before, and some of them sing. My friends make furious plans for Friday night. I mix two glasses of Bacardi and lime and a drop of honey with soda and ice, add a sprig of fresh coriander and drop in a slit chilli, fresh off our own chillies tree.
My wife puts on a Prateek Kuhad album. It begins to rain.
When it gets too loud to hear the music, and the drinks are low in our glasses, we will go back inside and lounge elsewhere. There is lots of space. And it's not like Bombay is going anywhere.
Francis Thomas is a copywriter with an unacceptable sense of humour. He falls in love with cities and collects interesting people. He's probably eating something right now.
Illustrated by Snehal Corda