Thursday, December 16, 2010

The question

December 8th, 2009
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"So how do you feel? [About returning to India]", asked a friend from the seat row ahead of me as the British Airways flight from Boston to London circled above the bright night lights of England's capital. This was the half-way mark on my return to India after one and a half years in the USA but I lacked the gung-ho optimism which had been my constant companion till the second I had boarded this flight. I replied rather circumspectly "I don't know!" I felt uneasy; like one would feel if every invitee gifted him a deodorant on his birthday. 
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Putting it mildly, I was having a blast in the USA. An ever growing circle of friends; a significant number of well settled and welcoming relatives sprinkled around the country; California one weekend; New York City in the other; U2 live; canoeing in the forests of Maine; sailing on the Atlantic; skydiving; driving for hundreds of miles of spectacular open highway in a variety of vehicles yet I would simply laugh off the suggestion if anyone ever mentioned "settling in the US". Life itself was some sort of adventure, the people were friendly and the work culture was awesome yet...
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Not being able to justify "yet" even to myself was frustrating. The long queues and noise at Heathrow airport added to the gnawing doubt that an objective answer to the question posed was not going to be so comfortable. My parents had come visiting in the wonderful last 2 months of my stay there and our collective luggage handling on the return journey was a chore which kept me busy at Heathrow. Finding my seat on the plane to Bombay, I waited till the plane took off and buried myself in the in-flight movie options just to escape my thoughts.
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In the process, I ended up watching the Pixar Studios animated "Up", a movie about Carl Fredrickson, a retired widower who had filled a lifetime with happy dreams of travels to faraway lands with his beloved wife but never got to fulfill them as the pressing needs of a regular life kept them entangled. With his wife now deceased and old age caretakers knocking on his door, he ties thousands of multi-coloured helium balloons to his house making it float away for a highly entertaining and touching journey. To my relief, the story was such that I was completely engrossed.
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Soon we landed in Bombay, a city that I had always adored blindly, at least before I left the country. But now its airport looked in complete and utter chaos. The luggage conveyer belts were mobbed and it was hard to last 10 seconds without having a marauding trolley crush your feet. Completely spoilt by my brief stay in a more orderly nation, I really shouted at an overenthusiastic luggage bearer who only wanted to transport our suitcases and asked him to move on, cruelly ignoring the fact that all he was trying was to ensure his hard-earned daily bread.
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It was past 3:00 AM when we left the airport and headed to my brother's flat down the empty Western Express highway. I noticed more than ever before how much of a work in progress my country was. There were flyovers and buildings coming up everywhere, a screen of dust in the air, barefooted families walking alongside the highway for an early morning arrival at the Siddhi Vinayak temple as the driver of our vehicle speedily ignored one red signal after the other. As expected, not much had changed in my time away and a deep seated dissatisfaction troubled me.
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Suddenly the quiet of the night was invaded by what sounded like countless buzzing bees. We looked to see a dozen odd motorcycles loaded with whooping and joyful youngsters zoom past us. These were not imported super-fast models, but regular Indian motorcycles doing 55 mph at the most yet the look on their faces said that they were having the time of their lives. The driver angrily blamed "Dhoom picture" for misguiding the youngsters; mom was making her clucking sound of disapproval; dad I suspect was, like me, smiling. I smiled because I realized the very personal nature of happiness.
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The place and the environment that one has grown up in are inextricably entwined with what one needs to be happy. I used to think that this idea was solely based on the romanticized ideals of patriotism and gratitude to the homeland, but now understood that this was also cold fact. All things put together, in a life overburdened with personal wishes and desires, without being compelled to, the tricolour with a wheel in between had become my flag, the cricket team in blue was my team and a chunk of land in the south of Asia was my country.
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I remembered being asked by curious foreigners to discuss Diwali, Eid, Royal Bengal tigers, the Mahabharata, Kalaripayattu etc and my limited but enthusiastic explanation of the same because an Indian was expected to know all of these topics and many more. I recalled hating "Slumdog Milllionaire" and the personal sense of guilt at being unable to deny that many people still did live like this in my country when an American friend asked. I was a fool to objectively compare what was irrevocably mine (both great and not-so-great) to foreign standards and crib about situations which were partly my responsibility.
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So we have our problems of brutally real and politically projected inefficiency, injustice and inequality. "We are like this only" is a philosophy that should not be blindly encouraged. There is much to see, learn and implement from the world outside. I could easily give an arm and a leg to continue visiting foreign places and work there for brief periods of time. But all doubts were quelled and I was finally at peace. It was as clear as if Carl Fredrickson had floated the answer using multi-coloured balloons across the grey of the approaching Mumbai dawn. “Home. Heart. India.” 

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4 comments:

Kumar Bibek said...

Slow down Roy, 55mph is still fast out here...Haha, The autowala's "Dhoom" comment must have been hilarious for you...

Roy said...

It was a Jeep I was in but yeah, it was funny. 55 mph sure is fast in Indian road conditions and that was my key point in illustrating that for some people 120 mph is thrilling and some even 55 mph is heaven.

Pranab Kumar said...

Is it in observation of completion of a year of your stay in india that you posted this piece NOW?

Roy said...

@Pipa: Yes, I waited for a whole year before putting down these thoughts of mine. I wanted to see whether that feeling of positivity, of belonging which I felt on my return to India in those moments would last the test of time. Apparently it did! :)