I visit Aurangabad, my home town (in the state of Maharashtra in western India), twice a year. The city changes upon every visit in subtle ways – a new brand, a new temple, a new pothole, a new hoarding. To get there, I fly to Pune from Bangalore where I live, and board an Aurangabad-bound Shivneri Volvo bus operated by MSRTC. As one does when traveling home, I yearn for the familiar from inside the tall windows of the bus – the barely flowing river Godavari, its perennially dry tributary Shivana, the factories at Waluj, the derelict CIDCO development, and the Holy Cross. They bear witness to my upbringing and offer a tired embrace as the bus zips through. Welcome home. Their fate also holds up a mirror to what Aurangabad has come to be – an entitled welfare-poster child from the latchkey districts of Maharashtra.
I left Aurangabad in 2005. By then, farmer suicides in the Vidarbha region of the state had gained notoriety world over. Quietly, though, the farms back home were slowly leaving their farmers’ sides. Rivers were drying up more frequently. The people in the region were being rechristened as inhabitants suffering drought-like conditions. Drought had become our new reality. I sought the window seat more frequently in search of it, but its effects are not always instantly visible to a layperson’s eye. Swathes of brown are interrupted by patchwork of green. Crops hide the degrading soil they take root in. Rivers are always “one good monsoon away” from filling up the dam reservoirs to capacity. Bad debts are a suicide away from being written off. Everything and everyone is delicately laced with the brown of misfortune.
On the other hand, its presence is evident. Dim city lights greet the weary traveler, but in a drought even the bright lights of the city appear parched. Dust blows until it banks at the base of walls and footpaths. The Volvo bus drives through cakes and mounds of dust that line homes and roads. Our buildings weather with dust. Drought was everywhere around me – in the way the mud cracks, crumbles, and dissipates; the odorless neighborhoods; the playful pop colors of big canisters that line the streets in anticipation of the water tanker; or the water tanker that creeps under the wrenched-open water pipeline outside the city.
Peering out of the windows of the cool Volvo bus, one also sees motorcycles in abundance zipping into the city and back. Her occupants at once belong to the city and the village. In the absence of strong urban economies, the city and its hinterland trade opportunities amongst themselves. Opportunities invite, dust compels. Motorcycles run through the region like life’s blood. Handkerchief-turned scarves flutter from the village to the city and back. Thin bodies capitalize on the arched seats of the motorcycle. Three is the new normal.