Back in 2007, I, a reckless 17-year-old, bunked the last class of 1.40 pm at my undergrad college, St Stephen’s College, Delhi University. There was nothing defiant about the act. I was to leave for home, which is in Dehradun, the very next day. It was the first day of summer holidays. And so I went to the Syndicate Bank inside the campus (I didn’t have a debit card at the time) just before it shut down, withdrew sufficient amount of money which was to be the hostel fee, the fare for the Volvo, and, well, a bit more to let off some steam. For a penniless student, that would be a day of bargaining till my voice gave out, followed by a bottle of Keventers to replenish from the hard day’s work.
Just to give a context to the story before it goes any further: I, like many outsiders, came to Delhi with a sense of deep-seated mistrust and acerbity towards its landscape and people. Everything that went wrong would evoke a “That is such a Delhi thing to happen/do”. Whatever discipline and politeness my army upbringing had lodged in me, had worn out in the first few months.
And so at Janpath, I spent hours with a friend, looking at identical collection of clothes at every stall, negotiating with whatever little dignity I could muster. After around four-five hours, we walked up to Keventers and ordered two cold coffees. But when I reached into my bag, a Mizo jhola, I gasped. My wallet was missing. I looked around in the crowd. Whoever stole it would probably be standing next to me and I wouldn’t even know it. I was in tears by the time I had done a recce of the Janpath sidewalk and back to Keventers, when the owner, a kindly old man, noticed my haggard state. “What happened?” he asked. I told him, tearing up profusely in the process. He sent an errand boy to check outside for good measure. But we knew that wallet was gone. He sat me down and asked me where I was from, which college I go to, and if I have money. “I was supposed to go home tomorrow,” I sobbed, “But now I have no money. Half of that money was my rent too.” He went behind his cash counter, took out a wad of cash, and handed it over to me. “Here. This is enough for your rent, your Volvo and even a few extra if you need,” he said. I looked at him with disbelief. I shook my head with embarrassment but he insisted. “Beta, you return the money whenever you can. For now, take this and go home and pack,” he said.
I’m not sure if I was shocked or grateful. Perhaps the former. Shocked at my own prejudices, and how someone could trust a complete stranger without batting an eyelid. That was the day Delhi changed for me. I learn that unlike other cities, Delhi never yields. It never embraces. It toughens you up, tires you out, and, on certain days, manages to even break you. But on certain days, when you least expect it, it surprises, enthrals and, on some occasions, gives you a reason to have faith. Just a little, but enough.