I can hear Aligarh from a distance – Sehba Imam


Do cities have a voice? Can you hear them when they speak? Do we live in towns and cities, or do they live in us? And if they do, then for how long? If I let a new city live in me for long enough, will my small town find some other place to live?

Last evening I had a sweet encounter that connected me to the hankering for the feel of Aligarh in me. It also brought Daddy alive for a tantalizing fraction of a second.
I was picking tomatoes at mother dairy. They were messily overripe, so it was taking time. For no reason at all my eyes registered an aged gentleman standing a little away from the columns of green plastic containers piled up outside mother dairy.

Don’t know what it was that was pulling me – his pin striped rust kurta, the grey in his hair or just the calm, gentle gracefulness of his stance – but my eyes would go back to him again and again. I wanted to strike a conversation. I wanted to ask him if I could help or just ask him something about the tomatoes or baingans or about the cobbler working away in a corner behind him. These thoughts are clearer to me in hindsight. At that time I was just aware of a presence without really being aware that I was aware.

Then I heard a woman’s voice call from near the billing counter, ‘Daddy, aap ne phal le liye’ (daddy have you picked the fruits). And that could have been my voice! The ‘Daddy’ in the voice went right through the senses that are real to some place in my head which seems to have a switch to a fountain of unending tears that threaten to overpower me at the most inappropriate moments.

‘Nahi beta, hamm ne abhi kuch nahi liya.’ (Nope, daughter, I haven’t picked anything yet.)

I heard Daddy. I heard his politeness, his calm, his grace, his deep deep love for his children in that one word ‘beta’. My father used it too, very often – in discussions, arguments, anger, when he was pulling our leg or when he was exhausted with our stubbornness. Looking back, I can now spot the word plonked more prominently through the toughest of discussions he had with his children. The more exasperated he felt, the more ‘betas’ found their way into his speech.

I took a break from squishing tomatoes and looked for this Daddy’s daughter. She was clad in a salwar kameez and her Daddy was moving towards the car – slow, sure, graceful steps. Powerful steps – no swagger but a calm strength – I heard Aligarh in the sound they didn’t make and I had a de ja vu moment of many many moments together.

I couldn’t stop myself and walked up to the lady, younger than me, but older than Daddy’s little girl – You couldn’t hear that in her question though. I knew that the answer to my question would be a yes, even before I asked her.

‘Are you from Aligarh?’ I asked her.

And yes, the answer was yes!

We talked, her brother is my younger brother’s friend. She turned out to be my neighbour in Gurgaon.

The encounter left me wondering if others can hear or feel Aligarh in my voice. I hope they do. I want my town to live in my mannerisms and my speech. I want it to fight for space with the millennium city’s noise and clamour. Whatever my differences with my town for its tendency to keep itself cocooned in a time wrap – It’s my legacy. It’s Daddy’s legacy.

By Sehba Imam
(Sehba Imam writes, walks, listens and writes again. She is the founder of Lets Walk Gurgao)

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