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August 13, 2018 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Lucknow Spaces

Lucknow greets me grey and greasy. It is the end of October 2017, and I sit on the platform of the train station, using my data to read an email from Victoria University. This feels like it should be significant: finally, I know where I am going next year. But I am distracted by my location, the many people around, the rats skittering across the train tracks, the texts from my friend trying to find me.
Lucknow is a city in north India, the capital of the state of Uttar Pradesh. Were UP a country, it would be the seventh most populous one in the world. Lucknow has around 3 million people. It is autumn now, and air pollution makes the sun a distant orange disc, decidedly inaccessible.
I am here to live in a slum. Unlike most people who live in slums, I have chosen this. I am on a gap not-quite-year, and I have already travelled in Southeast Asia for a month, gone tramping, done an internship, and some volunteering. I still have two months before I’m going to leave India, and this is how I have chosen to occupy myself. I want my choices this month to be acts of meaning, distilling an indefinable more into my life. It is to be the most dislocated (in all senses of the word), and possibly the most beautiful, month of my life so far.
I pick up my heavy backpack, find my friend, and we ride a succession of rickshaws to where I will live for the next month. She shows me around: I have a small brick room in the corner of another family’s house, accessed by a practical slat of wood as a bridge over the open sewer. My friend, who has come to visit our family for holidays for the last few years, lives just around the corner with her husband; I am to eat meals with them every second day. I lay my thin foam mattress on the floor, set up a water filter, and meet the family I’m renting the room from.

There are four children: Ifra, Aarif, Abdur, and their older sister who speaks her name so quietly that I don’t hear it. After the third time I ask, still not catching the word, I give up, and live with an anonymous neighbor. This is the first of many questions I am not brave enough to keep asking, and I am still ashamed. The room is narrow, but I have a lot more room to myself and light than them; most nights, six people sleep in the back room.
Even in these tight conditions, most families make space for animals. My family has two inquisitive goats and, as I discover the first time I venture into their room, a number of parrots. The exact quantity fluctuates from day to day: one morning there are three parrots, and in the afternoon ten, then down to eight by the end of the week. I slowly figure out that they have a side business in parrots: I am often asked if I want to buy one for only a hundred rupees ($2). The mother complains to me often about the parrots’ high mortality rates, and how she wants to sell them before more die; I refrain from pointing out that this probably has something to do with keeping ten parrots in a 30cm3 cage in a dark room.
Most days, I go to my internship, creating resources for a sexual health and rights organisation on the other side of town. Work is more like “work”: I sit in the sterile corners of an office, sipping chai, proof-reading documents, and tweaking designs to brochures, in between writing angsty emails to people I love, watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine compilations, and browsing VUW’s course finder, my imagination creating futures from small certainties.
I am living here, not visiting, and so I learn my own route across town, catching a succession of rickshaws trucks, called tempos. I learn the rules: if there are two people on each side of the shuddering vehicle, I sit on the side with more women. If one person gets off, you’re allowed to slide back, claim more space for your hips, but not to switch sides. The worst space to sit is directly behind the driver, where the vibration of the engine and heat is faintly nauseating, but not so much that you remember to avoid it.
When my tempo arrives at the nearby bridge, I spring from the enclosed space and walk along the road, air pollution like the most bitter notes of burnt caramel. I cut though a yard where men hammer screens and poles from long pieces of bamboo. There are always children around: many of them do not go to school. Apparently Aarif used to work in a sweatshop, but now he flicks spinning tops against the packed dirt of the alley with his friends.

After I unlock my door I usually lie on my bed for half an hour, reading articles I’ve downloaded or applying lotion to my mosquito bites, walls a necessary isolation from the intensity of the space beyond. Then I open the doors, and children from the house where I’m living and their neighbours trickle in. Some are too shy to do more than peer around the door while others prance in and ask me to entertain them any way I know how. Their parents are making food, or at work, or otherwise too drained by the world to engage with their children. They ask me to sing for them, and I try to sing songs from Moana or Into the Woods. They usually stop me, saying that I’m not that good at singing, which is fair. Then Abdur wants to tell me about a movie he’s watched, or Ifra wants me to look at her exercise book, where she has carefully written the letters, in English, of words she doesn’t understand. We colour patterns together with my pencils, or draw mehendi on each other’s palms, or do each other’s hair.
Outside, their sister watches, sifting rocks from lentils, or washing the dishes in yellow water. I invite her to join us, but she always says no, never even crosses the threshold into my room. She seems to be responsible for much of the housework: their dad, when he’s around, lies on the bed watching the tiny television in his underwear (if there’s electricity, that is). I wonder if her parents have banned her from interacting with me, and I’m not brave enough to question further.
I want to find some people my own age, and my friend introduces me to some teenage girls who live nearby. Their house is a distribution centre for cheap nylon bags, branded with the logos of sweet shops and tailors. They sew the bags themselves, or pass the fabric on to their neighbours. When we arrive, they shove the piles of fabric aside, and ply us with chai, but they’re distracted by another friend who has come to visit. Her headscarf is tied in a different and fashionable style, and they discuss it at length.
As this is a Muslim slum, I wear a headscarf when I’m outside, and a long kameez at all times. I say nothing, but watch closely, and copy the style on my commute the next day, the scarf covering everything but my eyes. I feel safe like this. I feel, in the spaces between breaths, that I could belong.
I have chosen to come to Lucknow, and I want to make that choice more significant by doing something.

I am perpetually haunted by the idea that being here is not enough: I need to be writing a novel, working on Hindi exercises, learning local history. I want to be selfish, to focus on my own goals and ambitions and future beyond this place, and ignore the children knocking at the door, asking for something as simple as conversation or a song. I find it difficult to concentrate on being here, absorbed by my own preoccupations, drawn into the world beyond by my phone. I do not know what way is the right way to be, to be here. But going places makes me feel productive, and so I wake early on some mornings and venture into the world. My legs are always twitching and restless: here, it is not normal for women to exercise outside, so all I see is the same spaces, again and again.
A kilometre away is the British Residency, where several hundred British people and their Indian servants cowered for seven months during the events of 1857, variously known as the Mutiny or the First War of Independence. The place was quickly abandoned when relief forces arrived. Today, the plaster has peeled off the walls, leaving bare bricks riddled with cannon holes. There are lengths of sparse lawn, space that is inaccessible even to people who live nearby; Ifra, Abdur, and Aarif tell me that they’ve never come here.
I see a specially marked hole, where a cannonball hit the wall after killing an eighteen year old English girl and find myself crying. No eighteen year old, colonizer or otherwise, deserves death by cannon fire. I wander around the complex, finding couples cuddling in dusty moats and behind chafing columns; India has little private space for such activity. There’s a comfort in this tangle of other people’s history, a distraction from my flickering thoughts. The Residency is close enough to where I live that I return several times, craving the warm clarity of brick against my dense aloneness.
One morning, I decide to come to work late, walking instead to the botanic gardens. Torrents of middle aged Indians chug around a looped path, their cars clogging the road outside. Most of the more interesting plants are inside locked greenhouses, but I wander around, watching workers spray leaves so they look less grimy. Despite this, it still feels like a sanctuary, and I find a tree to sit beneath, where I read a book and write. I extract stubborn sentences from my fingers, thinking of the person I am going to become when I am not in this place. As I write, I am anywhere, not lost in the unrelenting realities of where I have chosen to come.
I return from work one day in the middle of November to find that one of the goats—my least favourite one, who never wanted to eat my tea bags — has given birth, leaving a puddle of placenta on my doorstep. I cradle the goat kid, damp and trembling, her heart a flurry against my palm.
There are various conveniences to living in narrow spaces. Just two steps outside my alley is a tiny shop, selling off brand chocolate bars and single sachets of shampoo. I get to know the grandmother who is always there, fingers wound in knitting. Sometimes, I go and sit next to her, knitting a sock of my own. She asks me little questions, the same ones each time. Where do I go each day? What do I eat? How did I get to know my friends who live here? I choose my answers carefully, containing my life in the words that I know and the concepts she can understand.

Every day, when kids come to see me, they ask when I’m leaving and when I’ll come back. I tell them the time and date of my train, but I don’t have an answer for the second question. I don’t know what I want the answer to be. I am halfway here, and the rest of me is planted elsewhere.
So I hold small goats, and watch kites skitter against a grey sky, and greet my neighbours, and try my inadequate best to occupy this very particular space in the world. Every time I answer, I make a choice.
“Maybe,” I tell them.


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