For example take the flight back home. We decide that we will catch up on sleep to compensate for the last couple of sleepless nights, when we were busy tying loose ends and trying to finish our packing. But just as I begin to make myself comfortable in the cramped space of the airplane seat, the person right next to me (who by the way is always an elderly, somebody's parent kind) decides to investigate a little into my background, which part of India I hail from, who I am visiting and for how long, what kind of job I have, how much I earn, what caste I belong to, whether I am married and for how long (quick check into B and whether it is a good match), if I have kids and the reason for not having them yet, making me wish that I hadn't agreed to taking the middle seat while letting B sit in the aisle. By the time I am through hearing all about the various accomplishments of my co-passenger's son and daughter, and can give the IRS an accurate account of their finances, B is snoring, making any attempts at sleep quite impossible. But I still try. God knows how much I need this rest since the trip back home will be one of whirlwind activity with very little time for rest. And just when I think that there is a God and I am drifting off into a tranquil slumber, someone prods me in the ribs, almost making me jump out of my seat. It's my co-passenger. Well of course it is.
"Beta could you let me out. Bathroom jana hain."
Apparently God has a peculiar sense of humor and He's going to prove it to me through the duration of this flight.
Strangely enough I survive the flight. In fact I even catch an hour of sleep right before the plane lands in Bombay. When I wake up I'm sure there must be some kind of mistake. It appears like I've been transported into a different flight while I was napping. Where did all the passengers go? I mean the ones that boarded the flight with us. I could have sworn atleast half the flight comprised of bright young women dressed in the same way I was. Yet now in the brief span that I was guilty of sleeping, these women had magically transformed their jeans and T-shirts into beautiful ethnic garb of sarees and salwars, complete with jewelry and bindis. It is mindboggling to say the least.
So we get off the flight. The first thing that hits us (literally) is a blast of warm humid air that is stifling and leaves us gasping for some oxygen. It's like you're way up on some mountain where the air is very thin and you cannot breathe unless you make a laborious effort. Or when one steps inside one of those 37 degree rooms that we use for growing cell cultures and not being able to leave. By the time our body acclimatizes to the sudden increase in heat and humidity I become aware of my shirt suddenly sticking to my body. Suddenly everything is icky and sticky and I can smell the person standing next to me. That smell which I had almost forgotten, of stale body odor, sweat and unwashed shirts. Almost forgotten.
We get through customs. And I sort of start getting used to the throngs of people pushing and jostling each other. I almost begin to enjoy myself. I'm home. Back where I belong. I can identify with these people. Minus the body odor. And the pushing. The next thing I know there's three different men trying their best to wrestle my cart away from me. As I try to stop them from robbing me of my possessions I realize all they are trying to do is transfer my luggage into the bus that will take me to the domestic airport. Welcome home. Where people can be paid to do your physical labor. I take a ten rupee note from my purse, only to find the guy shaking his head and saying,
"No, no. No Indian rupees. Only dollars".
I can barely believe what I am hearing. I let B handle the situation. But I don't think he fares any better. We tell ourselves that we are in India now and we have to get used to the haggling and bargaining and the people taking advantage of you bit.
So now we are waiting at the airport for our connecting flight to Calcutta. And I'm dying of thirst. I tell B that we have to careful about drinking water and he is to buy bottled water to keep us from having cholera (which is what I've been told since I was a little girl). We see a guy selling bottled water and we get one. The price: Rs 30 (which I discovered later was supposed to be Rs 10). We drink it and comment on how bad the water tastes. Sort of metallic and salty. And then we see it. There's this place for drinking water. A mammoth sink with a dozen taps where people are drinking water straight out of the tap. And our man is filling a couple of dozen Bisleri bottles with the tap water. And then I knew. I had just paid thrice the amount to buy a bottle of tap water. And just put ourselves in way of coming down with cholera. Needless to say I didn't drink another drop of water, bottled or not, until I reached the safety of our home.
The flight to Calcutta is wonderful. They offer us three choices for breakfast. Three choices! I mean, I am so used to having a miniscule pack of pretzels thrown at me on the domestic flights in the US, that having to choose between continental, South Indian sambhar and idli and North Indian paratha and sabzi has me all confused and worked up. It was just beautiful. We were home and it looked like it would be a beautiful day.
We arrive in Calcutta amidst a whole troop of relatives that had descended upon the Dumdum airport to greet us. Thank God none of them had bouquets of flowers or garlands, unlike some of the others who were there to welcome home their prodigal child. The drive back home was traumatic. Cars zip past us without any regard for oncoming traffic. I couldn't bear to look out the window for fear of shrieking every second. By some miracle we reach home without crashing into another car, man or animal and without having anything crash into us.
Okay so I don't get to go home (as in my home) right away. Well you see I got married before I came to the US and my rightful place in India is my shoshurbari (sasural/ in-laws place). So I bear through the next couple of hours while we shower and eat and unpack the chocolates (before they melt completely) and stash them in the fridge. Then we are allowed to go home. My home. I immediately go on this exploratory tour of the house. Checking out each room to see if things have changed. Everything looks different. Different curtains, new furniture, strange bedspread. And everytime I go, "hey that's new", someone informs me that it has been changed three years back, reminding me that may be the only thing new there was me.
Sights and sounds and the smells:
We both lose our voices within two days of landing in Calcutta. Everyone tells me it is the pollution that chokes your voice. So we have to resort to hoarse whispering and a great deal of nodding and shaking of the head. And even though there really isn't too much of jetlag for some reason I always feel exhausted. May be it is the sheer strain of having to travel through such chaotic traffic, blaring horns, throngs of suicidal people who prefer to walk on the road than on the sidewalk, the heat and humidity and the constant exhaust from cars and buses that cling to the air and choke your insides. I suddenly become aware of a hundred different sounds that are around me at any given time. Sounds that I had started to forget. Almost. Like the cacophony of cars honking, as they honk on every corner before they make a turn just to let you know that they are approaching. Or the guy with the metal bucket who washes our car every morning and makes sure he lets everyone know that he is doing his job. Or the people selling their wares on the street "Didi ekdom joler dorey" (as cheap as water). People are everywhere. Yelling, shouting, making themselves heard. And the smells. Of rotting garbage. Of clogged waste-water drains. Of smoke and motor exhaust. And amidst that, of tempting street food. Of rolls and telebhaja (fritters). Of peanuts being dry roasted. Of deep fried shingara and spicy chowmein.
How the West changes us:
Well we try to claim that things haven't changed much and we're pretty much the same folks who left the country a few years back. But somehow we've changed. In subtle ways. Like now I have an accent. I swear I didn't try to acquire one. It just crept in on me. May be when I was teaching undergrads in the University. May be when I was just trying to fit in. And now......it's just a part of me. And people look at you funny when you open your mouth. Like you don't belong there anymore. And I guess we even get a certain bideshi (foreign) aura about us which make hawkers run after us with handicraft items and try to bargain in broken english,
"Very good item sir/madam. You pay dollar?"
What is this obsession with dollars in India these days? So now we have two currencies doing the rounds? You can pay in rupees or in dollars?
And people stare. Unabashedly. You may be sitting in the privacy of your car and stopped at a traffic light. While the person in the car right next to yours will be looking into your car and just staring at you like you were from a different planet. Staring is not considered rude. And meddling in other people's affairs is normal.
The other thing that bothers me is our expectation of getting a job done on time. Like when I went to the bank to withdraw money from my account and expected it to be a real swift operation. After all it is my money and I have every right to take whatever I want from my account. But that wasn't meant to happen. Because they had to verify my signature which by the way has evolved a great deal since my signing days in India. When that posed problems they needed further identification, things like passport which I had to go home to fetch. And then there was this business of passbook and updating the information in that. And I get shuttled from one counter to another, one where they fill out the form that expresses the desire to withdraw money, to another where they review it and give you a little note that you take to a third counter where they give you the money but make you go back to pick up your passbook from the first counter. And all this while I am missing my ATM back in the US. Missing it bad.
Or the time when I walk into a store that sells kurtas for men. (Kimbadanti for those of you who'd really like to know.) And it's a little weird because you have to tell the shopkeeper exactly what you are looking for and he will "show" you the items that he has stocked which meet your specifications. And I stand there patiently waiting to be "served" and the guy is merrily chatting with another guy who happens to own a shop next door. Now we are spoilt here in the US. We are told things like "the customer comes first" and the "customer is always right" and people who are selling always greet you with a smile, they ask you if you found everything okay and if there's anything they can help you find. There is something called 'customer service' and I love it. But it is sadly missing back home. And while we wait and wait with the expectation of being attended to, the shopkeeper could care less. And that I cannot take. Not anymore. So I walk out. Without having bought anything. And the shopkeeper really doesn't care. How crazy is that!
Getting used to it all:
Two weeks into your vacation your voice comes back miraculously. And you are less conscious about the stares. And you don't complain about the heat anymore. You fan yourself with a magazine while you sit it out in the traffic. You have resigned yourself to being in a constant state of diarrhea. And you are getting the hang of bargaining. In the shops, in taxis, everywhere. Like they say, it's only a matter of time.
And all too soon, it is over.
And before we know it we're on a flight back to the US. And we're on familiar ground. Where it is nice and clean and pretty, and people are smiling and polite and the non-staring kind, and lines move fast and things work with clockwork precision, where the roads are wide and the cars follow rules. And it all looks and smells so familiar. So predictable. And there's no acclimatizing, no getting used to anything. It's like we never left.
I feel a gush of emotion as I see my house. Exactly the way I left it. I go in and check on my plants. I go to every room and touch my things. Exactly where I left them when I went to India. And strangely it feels very comforting.
I whisper to myself, "Welcome home".