It was my sixth visit home in ten years, a first in summer. I had avoided visiting India in summer, afraid to confront again the effects of heat which, after these long years in a cold country, was like a distant unpleasant memory. That summer, a gloomy May of an unhappy year, I was in the middle of a difficult phase at work, so when a two week interval came up I decided to visit home, to switch off completely, instead of taking the usual hiking trip to Austria or to Switzerland.
On my way, during a stopover at Dubai airport, which in truth is a gigantic mall with gates and terminals appended as an afterthought, I picked up dates, raisins, and cashews for Ma. Then, as I waited at the gate for boarding to commence, I spotted a bird, a tiny creature with a yellow breast, brilliant blue wings, and a small beak, perched lightly on a flight information screen. I had only begun to wonder where it had come from when the bird took flight and disappeared into an enclosure – in the middle of this giant terminal – with pine-like trees, bushes, and grass, all of them so polished and dust-free that I couldn’t figure if they were real or not.
When boarding was announced I walked up to the gate and, still thinking about the bird, I handed my passport, rather absentmindedly, over to the lady in front. As she flipped through the booklet I turned around, hoping to catch another glimpse of the bird. Would you turn this way so that I can see your face please, the lady said, in a steady no-nonsense voice, and turning back I found myself looking into her eyes, sharp and purposeful, and then, lowering my gaze as she went back to the passport, I saw her badge, which listed a long Arabic name and her title: Security Officer. She was a young woman of dark complexion, an oval face, hair tied into a bun, small mouth, lipstick the color of blood. A character out of a David Lynch movie.
The flight was almost empty. There was no one beside me to converse with, and my thoughts wandered to the two weeks that lay ahead. I had no specific plans (experience teaches you to leave India trips unplanned), only some “must-do” items on my list: Gopi, Ashwini, Rahul, books, DVDs, movies, mangoes, chat. Anything else was a bonus. I took a nap, skipping the in-flight meal, and spent the last half hour reading ‘English, August’, laughing inwardly at the madness of Agastya and the absurdities he describes.
At the baggage section in Bangalore, when my suitcase came into view, I spotted an X mark on its side: a sign for customs to examine this piece. It was a chalk imprint, a brilliant white that stood in contrast to the dark maroon of the suitcase, which refused to fade when I casually rubbed it with my hands. I placed the suitcase on a trolley and moved towards the exit, calmly, as if I had nothing to declare, and when I handed the customs form over to a uniformed elderly man, a young man near him stopped me. He was in plainclothes, and he looked like a street vendor, unkempt and unassuming.
Any electronics in the suitcase? he asked. For a moment, still lost in Agastya’s world, I considered telling him I had a virtual-reality camcorder, a cloud-enabled hi-fi system and a robot that can mop wet floors.
A camera, I said, to which he asked if it was an SLR. Yes, I nodded. How much did it cost? 450 Deutsche Marks, I replied, looking straight into his eyes, wondering how he would react to this allusion to a now-defunct currency. He paused, made an expression as if to calculate the Rupee equivalent, then waved me away.
Outside, I spotted Pa and Ma waiting, looking closely at the flood of passengers emerge from within. I waited, avoiding an elaborate gesture in public, until they saw me, and I acknowledged their waves with a smile and a nod. People gave way as I reached them, some out of politeness others out of curiosity, and as I hugged them both I was conscious of eyes watching us, staring at this universal ritual of arrival.
Any trouble with customs? Pa asked, knowing full well my history of love affairs with customs during previous visits. Once, in Hyderabad, I had given a five hundred rupee bribe to an officer who had insisted that my camera, iPod and electric shaving system had together exceeded the permissible limit. (I later found that personal belongings such as these were exempted from duty.) On another occasion, carrying a box for a friend of mine, a container whose contents I had no knowledge of, I found myself explaining why I had in my possession a pair of handcuffs, a menacing whip, leather boots with spikes, and instruments of torture I had previously seen only in period films set in the medieval ages. The box also contained a dildo, a pink contraption of startling proportions, which in the end saved me further explanation. They kept the dildo and let me carry the rest.
You’ve lost weight Ram, Ma said. I pointed to my paunch: Look at this, Ma, I’ve got to reduce this in the two weeks I’m here. I’ll have none of that, she said, shaking her head with a smile; you have to gain a few kilos at least.
The battle lines were drawn, each had taken a position.
The drive home, from the new airport beyond city limits, took longer than I expected. Ma and I, not given to talking much, soon ran out of topics, but Pa, opposite in nature, continued without pause as he drove. I showed Ma some photographs on the iPad, albums of recent vacations in Europe. At one point, talking about my work, I mentioned a recent promotion. Why didn’t you tell us earlier? Ma asked, patting my head. Pa’s eyes had grown moist.
Déjà vu. As a boy of ten, returning from boarding school for my summer holidays, the drive back home traced a similar curve: I told them proudly I was first in my class, Ma patted my cheek and Pa, holding the steering wheel and looking straight on, had water in his eyes. Why is he crying Ma, I had asked. Happiness, dear, she replied; those are tears of happiness.
It had grown dark outside, and in place of uneven settlements I had observed earlier in the outskirts, a city had suddenly emerged and surrounded us. We were in the middle of a street brimming with traffic, hemmed-in by tall buildings with dark windows – a power outage, perhaps. On a scooter a family of four – father with a boy in front, mother with a baby on her lap – drove past, and I reminded myself that this was not Germany, that life here, though not any less precious, is constantly lived on the edge.
Home, a modest apartment in Vijayanagar, was as I remembered it: the large brown sofa dominating the living room, the glass cabinet spilling over with curios collected on their Eighties “world tour”, the faded Persian carpet with a mouse-shaped stain near the center, portraits of Grandpa and Grandma, pale walls, cracked tiles, dust-laden windows. We should get this place painted Pa, I said, placing the suitcase in a corner. Ma emerged from the kitchen with a plate full of mangoes and apples: You must be hungry – eat this first, while I quickly fry some bondas. It was too early to protest; I took the plate and sat down.
And yes, she continued, call up Vidhya chikkamma now. She’s leaving for Chennai tomorrow. The rest you can speak to later.
Can I do this später Ma, later? I just arrived and I’m tired. This was another game Ma and I played each visit: I tried to dodge the courtesy calls to relatives, she resolved to make me give in.
It won’t take two minutes, she persisted. Here – I’ve dialed the number.
Later, lying in bed after an unusually heavy dinner, I thought about the marvel of air travel and the speed it delivers you with to a distant place. Germany seemed a world away, a remote cold planet that stood apart from the sunny warmth of home, of Ma’s endearing persuasions and of Pa’s boundless energy. A warm wind drifted in through the window, and I soon fell asleep.
* * *
(To be continued. This was part one of the fictional series “Visiting Home”.)