"So how do you feel about returning to India?" asked a friend from the seat in front of me as the British Airways flight from Boston to London circled above the bright night lights of Britain's capital. This was the half-way mark towards my return to India after one and a half years in the USA, and suddenly I lacked the gung-ho optimism which had been my constant companion till the second I had boarded this flight. I was rather circumspect in my reply, "I don't know!"
I was uneasy; like one would feel if every invitee gifted a deodorant on his birthday.
To put it mildly, I was having a blast in the States. An ever growing circle of friends; a significant number of well settled and welcoming relatives sprinkled across the country; one weekend in California; the next in New York City; U2 shows live; canoeing in the forests of Maine; sailing on the Atlantic; skydiving; driving hundreds of miles along spectacular open freeways in a variety of vehicles. Yet I would simply laugh off the suggestion of "settling in the US".
Life itself was some sort of adventure, the people were friendly and the work culture was awesome yet...
Not being able to justify this yet even to myself was frustrating. The long queues and confused noises at Heathrow added to the gnawing doubt that an objective answer to the question was not going to be comfortable. My parents had come visiting during the last two wonderful months of my stay and our collective luggage handling kept me busy at the airport. Finding my seat on the plane to Bombay, I waited till the aircraft had taken off before burying myself in the in-flight movie entertainment platter just to escape my thoughts.
In the process, I ended up watching Pixar Studio's Up, an animated 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 rooted and locally entangled. With his wife having passed away and with 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 kept me completely engrossed.
Soon we landed in Bombay, a city that I had always adored blindly, at least till I had left the country. But now the airport looked like and sounded of complete and utter chaos. The luggage conveyor belts were mobbed and it was hard to last ten seconds without a marauding trolley crushing your toes. Completely spoilt by my brief stay in a orderly nation, I could not help shouting at an overenthusiastic, self appointed porter who only wanted to transport our suitcases, cruelly ignoring the fact that all he was trying was to ensure his hard-earned daily bread.
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 in various stages of construction everywhere, a semi transparent shroud of dust perpetually in the air, families walking barefoot alongside the highway for an early morning tryst at the Siddhi Vinayak temple, our driver ignoring one red light after the other with speedy nonchalance. As expected, not much had changed while I was away and a deep seated dissatisfaction troubled me.
Suddenly the quiet of the night was invaded by what sounded like countless buzzing bees. We looked up to witness a dozen odd motorcycles loaded with whooping and joyful youngsters zoom past us. These were not imported super-fast motorcycles, 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 the 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.
The place and the environment of one's nurture are inextricably entwined with his needs for happiness. 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 a very cold fact. All things put together, in a life overburdened with personal wishes and desires, without undue compulsion, 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.
I remembered being asked by curious foreigners to discuss Diwali, Eid, Royal Bengal tigers, the Mahabharata, Kalaripayattu and so on, and my limited but enthusiastic explanation of the same because an Indian was expected to know all these and 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. Was it fair to objectively compare what was irrevocably mine (both great and not-so-great) to the foreign standards and crib about situations that were partly my responsibility?
There was so much of construction-work going around - noise, bricks and cement flying midair, they thought it safe to move their dwelling to the middle of the road. Will the ‘big’ people who will soon move in ever know what some ‘small’ people went through?
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. 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.”
Anuranjan Roy is a guest contributor based in Kolkata, India. He blogs at http://virtual-inksanity.blogspot.com