The Return

No self-respecting American would do that. Thank goodness!

The ancient gray and blue carpet covered the entire floor of the Indian air carrier we boarded in New York. Most of the passengers are harried couples with children, searching woodenly for their seats. One wailing baby crawls on the floor and wets himself. The stain spreads slowly on the carpet.

Impatient nudges prompt me to find and slump on my seat. The plane starts to vibrate, while I continue staring at the stain on the carpet. I could have flown Singapore Airlines, but picked this one because it was cheaper.


After all, I will not be paid in dollars in India.

I still am not able to believe it. I have spent my whole life dreaming about living in America. And now, after I made the impossible leap, I am leaving. In fact, I have left… we are now in mid-air.

A sigh escapes me. I first came to the United States in 2004 on an international fellowship. It had hit me in the arrival lounge at Newark International Airport – introverted middle-class Indian women do not get all-expense paid trips and fellowships. But here I was, in the land of my dreams.

I was in the US only for a month at the time. But it changed me forever. No pressures. No guilt. No judgment. And so much beauty. Such delights motivated me to return the following year on an internship, working for the same magazine that had awarded me the fellowship.

Lost in thought, I am brought back to reality by a slight touch on my forearm. When I notice my next-seat companion, I groan silently. Trust the fates to seat me beside a leering Indian businessman. This one looks slightly older than my father.

“Hi, I own a motel in Kansas,” he says, licking his lips. “Ever been in a motel?”


I silence him with my wooden stare. I feel disgusted. No American would have breached my privacy in such a crude manner. The male colleagues in my office were utterly professional and courteous to the core. Why can’t Indian men learn something from the Americans?

I worked in a picturesque town in Pennsylvania. My colleagues often joked that I had visited New York City more times in a few months than they had in their lifetime. I was at the bus station almost every Friday, my little burgundy suitcase packed with essentials. In three hours, I would be magically transported from a genteel small town to the pulsing cultural melting pot of the East Coast.

What can I say about Times Square that has not been said before? I have spent countless evenings just taking in the cold air there, feeling it expanding my lungs, my vision, my essence with its mingled aromas and sounds. They thrill me, fill me. If I concentrate enough, I can recall its language – the lilting mixture of various languages, united in one strip of land on this island.


I can even recall the specifics. An impatient woman’s voice asking for tickets for The Lion King. The haunting Tibetan music played by a group of musicians in the 42nd street subway. The taste of tender lobster, smothered in butter, eaten in a noisy restaurant.

The food trolley passes me and I glance at the offerings. At least they look better than the interior of the plane, I think, as the tight-lipped air hostess serves me. A moment later, I push the plate away in disappointment. No one can eat croissants on an airplane after savoring them in a neat little deli in Williamsburg.

In New York, you can eat at a different restaurant every day for decades and never visit the same one again. The food, the cuisines… Mexican, Cuban, Ethiopian… the cafes and deli restaurants in New York had seduced me, enveloped me in gastronomic ecstasy.


Land of the Free. I was free to live and eat, to play and celebrate. Only I was never free from my roots, from the cultural umbilical cord still throbbing in my core. One pull and here I go.

That’s enough, I order myself and close my eyes. A few hours later we are in Mumbai. But I am still not home. For me, Chennai is India. From the lounge, I can see the terminals. Men and women, old and young, laugh and chatter, with hope and sadness reflected in their eyes.

Airports are so fascinating – they are portals to our future, to a place free of past mistakes and lost chances. One final way to escape the demons, memories, hurts… yet, they also take us back to our personal hell. Dejectedly, I convert my dollars into rupees and board the connecting flight.


The journey from Mumbai to Chennai is too brief. As the smaller connecting flight touches down, I experience a horrendous panic. What have I done? Why am I coming back? Thousands of Indians extend their visas and become NRIs. Why hadn’t that thought even crossed my mind?

I complete the immigration formalities in a daze and enter the restroom. I take a look at myself; my hair resembles a bird’s nest and my face looks haunted. I brush my hair violently until it is flat, but there is no salvation for the fear in my eyes. I would be never ready, I think. I clutch furiously at the tissues and wipe my face.

I proceed to the baggage claim area. Five and then ten minutes pass. No sign of my suitcases. Restless, I walk through the arts store in the airport. I peek inside, beyond the ornate door of the boutique. The walls are filled with knick-knacks that scream Indian. Sequined slippers, oxidized jewelry, tiny elephants carved out of wood. There are a couple of white women, trying out the pashminas. I look at them wistfully. Wanna trade visas? I want to ask.


I return to the lounge, wiping imaginary moisture from my forehead. I squirm uneasily, the buckle of my jeans digging in, a reminder of the times I had let my inner glutton loose in New York. Can I get dim sum in Chennai? Would they have somehow recreated Times Square there? Not likely, I kick myself. Not when I had been gone for only nine months.

It’s hard to explain to Indians why NRIs love living in the West. It’s not the money at all, though it does help. Mostly, it’s about the discipline in all aspects of life; the pleasure of living in a beautiful ambiance, the contentment of knowing that your privacy is yours alone and not for your relatives to dissect and trample; the absence of chaos; the possibility of planning a vacation a year and making it; the joy of knowing that you won’t be stared at if you wear tight jeans or groped on a crowded bus; the chance to wear red lipstick without being made to feel like a slut out on a prowl …

I know what I will go through in India. The place will embrace me quickly; the people won’t. If I want mineral water, I am a stuck-up NRI. If I want tap water, thanks, it’ll be “Oh, this is not U.S., you can’t drink water straight from the tap, ha ha ha.”


Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. I’ll probably spend the rest of my life explaining to strangers why I came back.

I return to the conveyer belt. No suitcases. I have a foolish thought. Will they allow me to go back if I tell them that I left my suitcases at JFK?

Suddenly a man in a dirty beige shirt comes before me. “Madam, your name?”

I respond automatically, before becoming alert. “Why?” I ask.

Too late. He has already moved.

I sigh. It has started. Welcome back to India.

I glance at the arrival gate. No sign of known faces. Friday evening traffic, probably.


A few minutes later, my Good Samaritan returns, simpering. He places my suitcases on the floor. Then he grins idiotically. No self-respecting American will ever do that. Forget charm, at least have some grace when you beg for a tip, I think savagely.

 “How much?” I hear myself snap. His smile falters.

“Your wish, madam,” he says, carefully.

I dig inside my wallet and out comes a ten-rupee note. His lips turn downward. Uncaring, I give it to him and leave. I can hear him muttering behind my back. Did he expect a fortune?

I am still fuming when I see my parents.

What did I expect? They still look the same. My father is waving a huge bouquet at me. My mother is calling out my name and furiously clicking her digicam. I wave back. Both wear million-dollar – oops rupee – smiles. I can’t see my brother … maybe he couldn’t make it.


As I come out and feel the sultry air of Chennai, a flood of memories threaten to dissolve me. I remember the taste of life in the past nine months. Plays on Broadway, carriage rides in Central Park, bag shopping in Chinatown, window shopping in Fifth Avenue, hindi movies at Union Square, designer dosas in Soho, evening walks on Brooklyn Bridge, stints at the Youth Hostel on Amsterdam Avenue, the polar bears at Bronx Zoo …

Terror claws at me. How can I go back to a world of 8 pm curfews, rows of autowallahs for Rs 10, and zero respect to individuality? How can I deal with the mediocrity, the mockeries, the unjustness, and the hardships that seem native to this country of mine? How can I return to what I was before?

Just as I get ready to scream my head off, a blast of water hits me. I now see my little brother, emerging from behind a column. A bell tinkles from the fancy water-gun in his hands.

I have just been terminated.

“Hey, loser,” he shrieks, laughing in a manner that only a 16-year-old Gemini can. Even as she throws angry words at him, my mother’s arms go around me. A comforting medley of Mysore sandal soap, Ponds talcum powder and coconut oil envelop me. My first hug in nine months.

“Oh, we all missed you so much, we are glad you came back!” says my mother.

I look at my parents. My father, who has spent his entire life working for others, often at an unflattering pay. My mother, who has spent her youth taking care of her sick in-laws. Thoughts of leisure travel or being food connoisseurs never occur to them. They were too busy surviving, so that their children would, one day, live the way we all deserve to live. They didn’t even have passports.

I suddenly know why I came back.

“So, how was US? Did you have a good time?” asks my father.

“It was lovely,” I reply slowly. “But it will be even lovelier, when we all go together next year.”

“Lord, look at my daughter promising the moon to me,” trills my mother. But her red cheeks tell me that she is pleased. I promise myself that I will go back to the heaven I found on earth as soon as possible, as soon as I can make arrangements. My family would love to eat lobster in Times Square.

As my mother walks towards the parking lot, my brother gets busy. He aims another shot at me with his water gun. No self-respecting American would do that either.

Thank goodness!

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