Anandi Mishra on Mukherjee Nagar and her journey to writing.
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In 2013 I shifted my luggage into a small room as a paying guest in the northern part of the capital. Called Mukherjee Nagar, this part of Delhi was known for its tuition centres and coaching classes, its cheap dhabas and super-affordable accommodation. It shared a couple of metro stations and an arterial road with the northern campus of Delhi University, too. I had just completed my law school degree, and was clueless and terrified.
On my first day as a student preparing for the Provincial Civil Service-Judicial Exam (PCS-J), I found myself shivering with anxiety. My legs shook in the early February wind as I dried my laundry on the balcony and lousily patted water out of my newly washed hair. I didn’t know if it was a peculiarly harsh winter, or if I was feeling colder from the nerves, or if it was the third-floor solitary room that had made the mercury drop substantially. On the balcony, I flipped lazily through the newspaper, not paying attention to anything in particular. After pretending to read it, I neatly folded it and left it for the other five other girls with whom I shared the floor.
Over the next few months, as summer came, I found myself hot and claustrophobic in that tiny room. In retrospect, that life feels alien, even unliveable, but at that time it was what everyone around me was doing. Everyone’s expectations of themselves and the country’s judicial system were high – too high – and so some of my law school batchmates and I decided to work at the impossible: prepare for the exams none of us knew how to clear.
If the paying-guest room was a trial, then the coaching classroom and route there were greater tribulations. The class was at the top of a commercial building laced with dubious air conditioners. The make of the building, the narrowness of its staircase, and the audacious absence of a working lift all hinted at the fact that it was illegal – which translated to the fact that not a soul would care if anything happened to the building, and, by extension, us. I toyed with this thought each morning while taking the stairs to reach the top of the building.
That four-storey climb steeled me in ways I didn’t immediately realise. I was 23, a non-smoker and pretty slim, then. A later version of me wouldn’t have been able to make that trek. Fresh out of mollycoddled, private university life, I couldn’t get used to the grime and muck of this new adopted life. It was also early 2013, a couple of months after the deadly rape incident in Delhi that jolted the conscience of the world. The news was almost always scary, making me constantly suspicious of the city, its people, and my own confidence. Usually, when people move to Delhi, a slow-motion falling in love takes place. For me it was the exact opposite.
The specific geography of Mukherjee Nagar didn’t help. It was aloof, away from the contested south Delhi pockets I had grown up in, and completely alien even to people who claimed to know Delhi inside out. With batchmates, friends and an ex-boyfriend, as I tried to scavenge my way through these new pockets of the city, the city kept limiting me. One time, at the post office, as I waited patiently in line wearing a fake Superman tee, a boy roughly my age leered at me, whispering the words ‘oh womaniya’ while biting at his lower lip. Another, I bought a new mattress – after my previous one was reduced a thin duvet in less than a month – and the shopkeeper refused to help me load it onto the autorickshaw. Alone, tired, but relentless, I learned how to make my way through this part of the capital with absolutely no help.
The judiciary tuitions were a daily charade. The teacher was a self-appointed guru. If we had queries, he’d ignore them; if we scored poorly, he would shout; if we stole glances at each another, he would down tools. What he excelled in was waxing eloquent about himself. It never occurred to him to even introduce himself to us; we were, after all, a batch of 250, maybe 300, packed under one roof, our eyes peeled on the white board where he scribbled in this cat-paw handwriting.
All this inherently, subconsciously pushed me away from a legal career and towards a writing life. In Mukherjee Nagar, I found no room for creativity, thought, free exchange. The cartography of that living made me think of my time as limited. There were days when classes would run for eight straight hours, and the only food I would have would be a refrigerated cucumber sandwich with a couple of Styrofoam cups of water.
Embittered, I started trailing off the legal path and finding my way to literature. I took advantage of my proximity to Delhi University and started visiting the campus every time I had a free hour. It began as a change of scenery; within a few days, I had bought the admission form for a master’s in English literature.
Walking through the serpentine lanes of the Nayi Sarak book market, I looked for appropriate reading material to prepare. I would hop on the metro from GTB Nagar and get out at Chandni Chowk, trying to find the guidebook to my future out of here. After browsing through numerous stores and roadside stalls, when I finally found it in a shop, I remember feeling underwhelmed: a 180-page book with questions and answers about all of English literature. All literature, fitted into under 200 pages, for me to mug up and clear exams.
A week later, sitting the entrance exam in a college classroom, I asked myself what I was doing, why I was quitting law, why I hadn’t yet told my parents about this, and what I would actually do if I cleared this exam. I was weighed down, too, by my fellow exam-goers’ preparatory theatrics. Students, mostly women, were filling reams and reams of paper. I put my head down and wrote away the answers I knew, leaving the rest till last. At the end of the examination, when I looked around, most students were still filling up pages. I, on the other hand, had honestly only written as much as I had known.
Months passed, and I moved out of north Delhi and back to the known comforts of the south of the city. I kept checking the results, refreshing the du.ac.in page to find my name. A few months and two cut-off lists later, when I still couldn’t spot my name, I gave up and started looking for journalism courses instead. By the end of the year, I had made my peace with the fact that I didn’t make the cut. By then I had joined a tiny law firm working as an unpaid associate, when one day, smoking alone on the terrace of the south Delhi rental, I tapped my credentials into Google along with the university’s name. There it was: my name in the third cut-off. I took a hard drag at the cigarette, closed the browser, and played Nirvana’s Heart-shaped box. ‘I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn black’: the words swallowed me whole as I passed out on the weather-beaten cot, unthinking, unfurling, undreaming.
Anandi Mishra is an essayist and critic, who has worked as a reporter for The Times of India and The Hindu. One of her essays has been translated to Italian and published in the Internazionale magazine. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Virginia Quarterly Review, Popula, The Brooklyn Rail and Al Jazeera, among others. She tweets at @anandi010.