As the Dust Settles

Recollections of the Delhi storm

Photo by SHAH Shah on Unsplash

When I moved to New Haven, a city both geographically and climatically a world apart from my home in Delhi, I was repeatedly told to watch out for its bipolar seasons. In Delhi, weather apps are redundant — seasons stroll through the months at a lethargic pace, unlike the 90 and 50 degree days that appear in rapid succession in New Haven. Before my departure, I remember aunties enquiring, “Thand mein kaise rahogi?” (How will you survive in the cold?). None of them could locate New Haven on a map, but the city was foreign not just in its geography. Few of us had seen snow in our lifetimes. For once, my family’s institutional memory failed me — I was left to fend for myself. And so, as the chill set in during the fall of my first year, I read WikiHow pages titled “How to Dress for Winter,” shopped for Himalaya-proof coats, mittens, and boots, learned to check the weather, and familiarized myself with the Fahrenheit scale. That first New Haven winter passed uneventfully. The cold was intense but ubiquitous central heating provided ready respite — a luxury compared to Delhi’s winters, where smog clogged my lungs and the only solution to the cold was wearing layers like a Matryoshka doll.

However, true homesickness descended upon me the first day heavy clouds gathered above New Haven. The rain that followed felt sanitized and devoid of sentiment. It poured from the skies in line with my textbook conceptions of the water cycle. It didn’t smell or feel like anything. I missed Delhi, my friends, its food and overpowering dust storms. I conjured images of thunderclaps, gale-force winds, descending darkness, inadvertently swallowed dust, and sweet petrichor wafting from the dry ground, crafting stories to regale my unassuming American friends.

Memories of attending school in the scorching summer are seared into my memory. Our lives were structured by arbitrary timetables and the final bell always rang promptly at 2:30pm to signal our dismissal. I often felt dizzy after hours of studying electrophilic aromatic substitution in unairconditioned classrooms, so sweltering even ceiling fans seemed to lose faith in the civilizational project. The journey home lay ahead of me. Over the 1.6 miles that separated Sanskriti School and New Moti Bagh, I waged a battle against the heat radiating off the asphalt and dashboard of our car. The weight of exams and expectations bore down on me as relentlessly as the sun did. I was a bulbous mass of perspiration and frizz by the time I got home. Irritation compounded my tiredness as I stripped off my uniform, its orange-white checks worn into nothingness over countless cycles of washing and drying.

On some days, I would step out of the shower to find the sky turned deathly grey as the sound of slamming doors started to punctuate the weeping winds. I ran through the house shutting windows as the breeze turned into a demonic sandman in our sixth floor apartment. In the ridge below, the pastel yellow and pink bougainvilleas dotting the sepia landscape became obscured by dust.

As the winds and thunder crescendoed, the chaos gave way to a quiet stillness. Only the drone of rain striking the dry ground remained. The trees below looked renewed, as the pain of raising a forest in the middle of a twenty million strong city was momentarily washed away. The rain carried back to earth all the particles suspended in limbo. The sky awoke from its dull whiteness to serenade me with a stunning blue that stretched across the horizon. I too, escaped the limbo of my mind. The ever-present chatter of classes, applications and relationships quieted. I felt the breeze and noted the changing rain, first slanting in the wind and then falling straight down as the clouds slowed their march.

Photo by Anandu Vinod on Unsplash

This is where most of my recollections of Delhi’s storms end. The picture I paint is rosy, straight out of the love song sequence of a Bollywood movie. I romanticize the dust storm as those before me have romanticized Christmas in Central Park, dreary downpours by the Thames, or Bombay local rides during the monsoon. However, I often fail to mention, but regularly think about, the epilogue of my story:

As the sweet, post-dust storm smells, sounds, and soothing breezes permeated my apartment, I thought of my parents inhaling exhaust fumes in traffic jams. I tumbled into the kitchen and made chai to stave off my solitude. The muddy puddles started to evaporate, returning their trapped heat to the air. The sound of cars whizzing by on the highway had turned into a monotone of consistent honking, forming the soundtrack to downed power lines, thunderstruck trees, stranded passengers, frustration, misery, sadness.

When I omit my epilogue, I omit one half of my relationship to Delhi. The city that raised me, built my character, and shaped my personality (founded on sarcasm) also encumbered my horizons. In the city of twenty million, everyone I knew, somehow knew everyone else. Our conversations and aspirations were minor permutations of one another’s. For a while after I moved to New Haven, the dust storm was my go-to recollection about Delhi and served as a refuge for my own subtle disdain for the place that raised me. Weather is a prime topic for small talk for a reason — it is simple, relatable, and deflects profound questions of belonging and identity. And these are not easily resolved questions, requiring years of reflections that progress at a glacial pace. Today I find myself queuing rain sounds on my speaker while brewing chai in my New Haven dorm. The ground outside is peppered with white snow as if the skies sifted sugar onto their own baking project. From a distance, the dust storm lies in clear view.

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