I heaved my bottom into a chair at the far end of an international airport with relief, reassured by the company of untameable hair, hunched backs, and rainbow t-shirts over full bellies that I’d known for most of my life. Intimidating, model-like physiques with cashew skin and golden curls had fortuitously filtered out along the aisle. The scene was so homely that I nearly jumped out of my chair at the sight of the thing seated beside me. A big, queerly alive hook slumped into a chair with its dot touching the carpet. The shape of a question mark, its voice in my head: “what the hell am I doing here?”.
The thing seemed to have bought a ticket to Delhi like me. It followed me past the pantry as I swallowed my drool at the whiff of masala with an affected disdain for ‘too much curry’; and out of the flight gate as I stepped into Delhi’s misty, wintery breeze with a tch-tch about ‘too much pollution’.
Three years since, my constant companion and friend – Mr Question Mark – has blossomed to monstrous proportions. I suppose it thrived in the passenger seat at the smell of garbage dumps on my way to office, and gloated over my shoulder while I oscillated between the roles of lawyer, clerk, paralegal and secretary at work. In a world where no two things have the direct causal relationship they should – invoices have no direct causal relationship with client payments, hard work with more work, merit with success – the hustle that is the life of an Indian lawyer seems to have put the chap in the absolute pink of his health.
On some days still, I simply long for air that smells of soap, filtered into a monochromatic work-space, inhabited by people executing a small set of pre-determined tasks, assured that they will get on in life if they simply do their job. A foreign law office. Just the memory of row on row of excellent resources – books, online databases, interns, paralegals – disposed to facilitate the actual job of a lawyer – lawyering – is sometimes enough to bring a simmering tear to the eye.
So, why did I come back, and – don’t you know it – what the dickens am I doing here?
At some point in my time abroad, for some reason, coming back to India seemed like the most natural thing to do. Perhaps a part of me believed that I could just waltz into the Indian legal scene with a flashy LL.M. degree and a couple of years of work experience and take the crowd by storm. That part died pretty quickly when I realised that there were many who came before me with the same idea. “Leveraging international best practices” and “filling the gap” and “taping into a niche” and the like.
It’s a free country folks. You’re going to have to stand in line at the court registry and sweet talk the guy in the listing section just like the rest of ‘em. Between the boss and his favourite, the judge and his favourite, the client and his favourite, success belongs to the aggressively enterprising and not the keenly skilled. So, if you came here presuming to be recognised by dint of your past experience in ‘so and so’, you might as well get on a flight back to ‘so and so’.
That’s the odd bit though. I know this now and I knew it well in time to turn around, but I didn’t. So, what was the real nub of my longing to be in India?
Was it love for parents, siblings, etcetera that made me junk the western dream I had wrestled so hard for, from so many people? Maybe a little bit, but not entirely. I love my folks, but I would have been quite content to express that love sporadically over Skype for the sake of some larger picture. Unfortunately, that picture was blurry while I lived abroad.
Was it the promise of the astronomical success that Indian legal practitioners have? Rumoured mountains of money and entire streets of houses? Sounds like quite the inspiration, although the probability of that kind of success is one in a million. Even if one achieves it, what one does with it after fifty, other than bequeath it to an entitled offspring, is not exactly clear.
And if it was something opaque like ‘quality of life’, I was obviously being an idiot. No amount of house-help and bed-tea in the morning was going to preserve my lungs from pollution, or my blood-stream from seasonal attacks of mutant mosquitoes, or just my life from a car-crash.
So, some of the above may have weighed in, but it was not enough on its own. There was another clincher, it strikes me now, which made everything seem convincing and matter-of-fact. Right from that final homebound flight which I had no intention to reverse despite all the self-doubt.
It seems that there is something about the smell of curry, the romantic mood of Delhi’s milky white winters, the chaos of the Indian Bar, which I understand deeply, in my bones. And it understands me, in a way that I have never been understood anywhere else in the world. Somewhere in this sense of belonging lies the confidence that I can do anything, here, in this place. I can practice on my own, set up a topping law firm, become a judge, show up at a friend’s house unannounced and sweet-talk her maid into making me parathas. No need to hesitate over what is appropriate or possible. No need to hide awkwardness behind a contrived smile.
I am conscious that this sounds like the title track of ‘Swades’ in the making, but really, is there any limit to your growth by whatever parameter – family, money, fame – in a place where your roots run deep? Will I make it? Compensate for the stability and predictable progress of the professional life I left behind? I don’t know. All I can tell you is, it is easier to try here, where I am sufficient. A small but seamless part of the chaos that is India.