Fifty days. I have fifty days here this time. It is meatier than the paltry two weeks that we’ve spent here in the past. But the heart is greedy. Time here is never enough.
We’ve been on an airplane for twenty hours, traveled across oceans and the International Date Line. My body is here in India, but my brain hasn’t caught up. It’s 4:00 AM. I’m biding time, waiting for the rest of the family to wake up. No, I’m waiting for my mother to wake up. I want the rest of the family to wake up later.
I guard my time with her fiercely. As the eastern sun rises, the city bathes in the heady fragrance of jasmine and bakula flowers. A cuckoo announces the morning from a faraway tree. People are already up and about on the streets. Vehicles honk as if in a concerto. Does this city ever sleep?
Later, I plant myself on the cool kitchen floor, while my mother potters around the marble counter top, her hair in a low knot, pouring my hot coffee from one steel tumbler to another to make it frothy, just the way I like it. I’m like her in so many ways. We’re both grumpy in the mornings and we cannot function without our morning coffees.
She sits next to me, cross-legged on the floor with her cup and we talk. About writing, motherhood and family gossip. My dad sits in the hall with his newspaper. I know he is listening to us talking. The rest of the family is cozy in their beds. If this isn’t bliss, I don’t know what is. If there is a wicked witch who can turn the world into stone, I want her to come now. This is the moment I want to be frozen in forever.
Later in the day, I venture out. To familiar places. Familiar places which I almost don’t recognize. My childhood haunts are a shade of their old selves. Some have aged gracefully, some try too hard to compete with teenybopper coffee shops and burger joints.
I hesitate to cross the road. I’ve forgotten how to dodge approaching vehicles. Vehicles don’t follow discipline here. You have to be as erratic as the traffic to make it to the opposite side. The noise and crowds on the streets confuse my jet lagged brain. Angry drivers honk at my indecisiveness.
At airports and bus stations, I reel from the lack of understanding of personal spaces. I almost jump out of my skin to guard my toddler from strangers wanting to pull her cheeks, much to their surprise. The calm and sense of belonging I feel at home with family vanish into thin air. The city has burgeoned beyond recognition. I feel unmoored, like a feather flying in the wind. Do I even relate to this place anymore?
A few days pass and I find my sea legs. I meet friends who are doing wonderful things at work and in life. Our regular vegetable vendor at the roadside market smiles, his eyes twinkling in recognition. He gives me a new recipe like he used to, this time with radish greens. He proudly shows me his new smartphone and an app which helps him accept mobile payment from his customers. We talk about the recent currency demonetization in India. He doesn’t mind the long lines outside ATMs, he’s optimistic about the future of this country on the brink of change.
Teenagers hanging out around the block rush to help my mom and me with grocery bags, offering to carry them up to the third floor without being asked. The sense of community and the smiles on people’s faces despite their hard lives gets me every single time.
India and I are like childhood sweethearts. We’ve moved on to different things, but there’s a special corner in our hearts for each other. I don’t have to choose. Both India and the US are home.