This is how I imagine my first 24 hours in Bangalore will be when I visit home in August 2009.
It’s around 20 minutes after Midnight and the Air France arrives in the Bangalore Airport. Wow, I’m back at home… I haven’t felt this humidity in over a year… but it feels good to be back. I remember what I prayed one year back when I was deciding about the MBA, I prayed to god and said “”God, thank you so much for taking care of me and mom for the whole year. I’m truly thankful for all you have done. Now, I have some difficult decisions to make in the next few weeks like where I must study, about whether I must quit work and if yes then when, about what I can do to make mom happy and many more questions which I don’t have a list of… please help me make these decisions in a way that I won’t hurt anyone in the process and I won’t hurt myself. Thanks for helping me make my life meaningful”
I’m very aware of the fact that I look tired and that is not good especially considering that my mom and two other relatives (because it’s after midnight and mom cannot come to the airport alone) are eagerly waiting for me outside the Airport. So, I head straight to the restroom to do the best I can with the hair, sweat and my ugly face in general so that I look happy and not tired when I see mom. After all, it’s the moment of truth and I need to send the right message. As I enter the restroom, I see that it is absolutely clean and tidy. Strangely, a tidy restroom makes me proud of my country… but then, I think “Well, it’s a brand new airport and the Zurich Airport has a significant stake in it… the clean restroom is just one of the benefits of privatization”. As I wash my face, a guy in his mid forties passes by me. The guy, has a paunch which tells the story of his idle lifestyle, he has strategically chosen his T-shirt to indicate that he lives in California (although not sure if he is a Stanford student!), The T-shirt is matched (or unmatched) with formal trousers and white sneakers. We don’t even make eye contact and I can tell the guy is full of pride for he is the only one from his poor middle class family to be privileged enough to be earning salary in dollars. Oh, by the way, his pride seems to have increased with dollars’ exchange rate. But then, I think… it’s not him, it’s just my immature mind that is imagining him that way… but I also think, no matter how I feel, others will see no difference between me and this guy! Alright, Ashwin, stop the negative thoughts, its just 5 minutes since you arrived in Bangalore. You must be excited to meet mom… her pulse rate must be twice the normal speed in anticipation of seeing you.
I move on to immigration check… this is the best part of getting out of the airport. As soon as I reach the immigration officer, I give him a big smile and do the magic trick which calms him down like a baby and he lets me through without any annoying questions. The magic trick is that I speak Kannada :)
OK, so from here I get to the baggage claim area. For some irrational reason, I’m taken over by uncontrollable fear! How could it be?! How could the first feeling I have after landing in my hometown be FEAR especially when I’m surrounded by “Incredible India” posters showcasing all wonders of India. Could it be because I fear that my baggage will be lost… no, it can’t be lost because it’s a direct flight. Could it be because I’m not authorised to enter my own country. Of course not, I have no problem there. I then begin to think that I should feel afraid only if there is uncertainty and a non-negligible chance of a bad thing happening to me in the near or very near future. And then I see the reason passing me by on the conveyor belt. It’s a baggage on the conveyor belt which has been marked (A cross using chalk) as it comes through. Little does the owner of that baggage know that he is so screwed, because my dear friends in the customs have figured out through the X-ray that he is carrying an extra laptop or a printer maybe :) My fear is not that my baggage might be marked as well. Actually, there is no way that could happen because I have nothing but clothes in my luggage. But then, even if it’s not marked, there is a chance that the customs officer after seeing that I have been out of the country for one entire year simply won’t believe that I have nothing to declare. So, he will ask me to open up my suitcase just so that he can be doubly sure. But then, I also remember that I brought two laptops and two iPods from India. Shoot, there goes INR 500 because I lost a lousy paper.
As I walk by the customs officer I walk right behind a guy whose baggage is marked which means the customs officer will not stop me because he is too busy checking the guy in front of me. It quite a sight to see the guy summon the foreigner… it’s like he is welcoming the foreigner into the country with utmost courtesy while at the same time is absolutely sure that he is going to make some money under the table. The foreigner for his part has visited Bangalore a few times to know exactly what is coming at him and he is pretending all innocent… lol. I’m not stopped!!! I’m free of all checks… I can now run to see mom… how am I feeling now, angry? relieved? confused? Elated? No clue. But it was not an easy ordeal and I’ve been in India for only 20 minutes!
As I walk out, I see at a distance that my mom is standing right next to the exit. I mean absolutely right next to the door and she is looking at the escalator… I bet she did not miss any person who got down from that escalator in the past 20 minutes. I also see army commandos with automatic weapons which makes me proud again. It’s sort of a relief that the government did not remove the security immediately after the national elections in June-July following the terror attacks last year. I feel safe. I now reach the escalator and of course my mom saw me and she is telling my relatives that I’m here. My relatives, as happy as they are to see me, are sleepy and tired just like me :) As I get closer, I can tell what happened on the way to the airport. My mom has been crying during the whole journey… her eyes are red… Finally, I reach her and hug mom… she cannot help but cry as soon as she hugs me… I feel like I’ve gotten back to my nest, but also feel like “Ashwin, how could you do this to mom, how could you leave her alone for one whole year!”.
My relatives and friends have to now react. They are standing two feet away watching mother and son feel so happy to each other and are feeling left out. So, they could congratulate me for being back in India, they could say that they are really glad to see me… but they use a strange reaction. They don’t even say anything to me. Instead, they show Pity! They tell my mom (not me) “Look how skinny, dark and exhausted your son has become without your home food”… lol. I find it funny and give a big smile on that comment. I truly like it. Now, I’m under pressure about how to react!!!
Fortunately, there are a different group of people at the airport who help me tremendously in not needing to react. Because this group strikes before you can react! Its literally 5 seconds since I hugged my mom and I haven’t even had a chance to take the moment in and there are 5 taxi drivers making me feel like that they own a taxi only for one purpose – to do to me a favour and to treat me like a prince. They promise to charge me the lowest price possible on earth. They promise not to overcharge although I did not accuse them of intending to do so and they are going for my luggage even if I’m more than happy to carry it myself. I feel like a VIP who absolutely cannot afford to stand in that one spot of the airport to tell mom how happy I’m to see her again, for I might be attacked by paparazzi. So, they scoop my luggage to the taxi. I begin to wonder, why they have to fight for customers. Then I tell myself, according to porters five forces, a taxi in an Indian Airport is a terribly competitive industry to be part of because the suppliers, customers, substitutes and direct competition are all royally screwing the taxi drivers. So, it’s not the taxi drivers, it’s not the culture, it’s simply the competitive environment that leads the taxi drivers to behave the way they do.
Alright, so my relatives joined my mom on her 2 hour journey from home to the airport and then waited for me for another 2 hours at the airport and after only seeing me for 3 minutes and speaking 3-4 sentences, they bid goodbye to me after helping me and mom to the taxi. I know they spent 4 hours of their time to meet me for 3 minutes with absolutely no regret. That’s the beauty of people in my country. Absolutely no way that such selfless act can be expected from people in any other part of the world, especially in parts where time is money :). At this point, I truly feel at home.
Ok, the car is nice.. the seats are far cleaner than any taxi in Europe, it smells good too. The taxi driver puts the fm radio which blasts dance numbers since it is 1.30 AM. All FM stations know that the once people who ply the roads at this time are youngsters between 22 and 30 working night shifts. So, they know exactly what to play. The bad music is no different from any other part of the world… so I have no regrets. As we leave the airport, I’m amazed at the quality of the roads and the blue reflectors on the roads. It’s like driving through a runway. The car is great, the roads are great, the music is fine and mom is sitting next to me… the only annoying part is that the car about 10 meters behind cannot stop blowing horn. My mom is holding my hand, Oh god, I feel like her palm has more wrinkles… could it be imagination or has she become week without me. Guilt!
Of course, mom is expecting me to say something about the year. Something exciting. She asks “So, how was it there, tell me all”. This is the worst part of being a boy. I have nothing more to say except that “It was really good mom, I had a great time”… and then silence… lol. Well, I cannot talk much about studies, because that is boring and frankly, hard to explain. That leaves the other exciting stuff. Hmm… Should I say something about partying… NO! I’ll get killed if I do. Ok… what about the few and far between dates… NOO!! I might as well ask her to get me married to someone in the morning if I talk about European women… OK.. That leaves me with nothing to talk about… Silence :) So, my mom talks for the next 20 minutes while I gauge which parts of the city have nicer roads, where are the new potholes, the new metro construction and new hotels… As we reach the city centre, the horns go loud, especially if a car in front stops because of a red signal. The guy blowing horn is basically telling the car in front “Moron, how stupid are you to stop on a red signal at 2 AM, get going!”. As we reach closer to home, there’s very less traffic except the Tata SUMO vehicles transporting night shift workers. Mom and I are quite. At that moment, I imagine what it would be like for mom if I was not sitting next to her right now… it would be so lonely! It’s a reminder of how fragile the balance in life is.
The taxi stops in front of the house.. To get in, I need to open the shutters, but it’s hard to open because it has rusted at the joints.. There’s a technique to opening the shutters that I seems to have forgotten. Any case, I open shutters and we get to the door. As my mom inserts the key into the door, the lights in all my neighbours’ windows goes on in all three floors. But none come out to welcome me. That is considered rude… but I know everybody has been eagerly waiting for when my mom will come back with me. So, everyone switches on the lights as if to signal they are still awake. Just as I enter the house thinking nobody will come out, the grandma from her window screams “Ashwin, have you come back?”… I give a big smile and say “Yes, grandma”. She replies “Ok, I’ll talk to you in the morning, your mom has been counting down days ever since you left”. I smile and have no more words to offer. Its new bed sheet, new pillow covers, the house smells the same as when I left, and the fan is placed strategically so that I can switch it on from the bed. I see the new keyboard my mom has been learning music on. My dad’s picture and the lamp has been lit recently… God! It feels so good to be home. To be back on my bed again.
This is when my mom brings the fruit juice and tells me “drink this”. I absolutely don’t want to drink juice at 3.30 AM, but I know she has been waiting to offer me that drink for weeks. Its orange and grapes with honey and some other secret stuff which makes is taste truly amazing. I drink it. As I settle down in my room, I try hard to avoid the temptation of switching on the 29 inch TV, for I know it has absolute nonsense programs and it will only make me totally angry and depressed. But then, as soon as my hand reaches the remote the TV is switched on automatically… it’s like travelling back in time… like I have learnt nothing in the one year of studies. Damn! As soon as I switch on and flick through the 88 channels… I realise there are no new channels added it’s the absolute non-sensical male chauvinist songs, vulgar and gross news tabloids, the shameless liftoffs of western music and movies. I come to the realization that nothing has changed. The entire population is still obsessed with fantasizing about being machoistic super heroes, they still whine about cricket which adds no value to their lives and TV channels still try their utmost to push the limits of how low on the blouse and high on the skirt they can get within the constraints of censorship. This makes sex a childish and vulgar pursuit. I switch off the TV in frustration.
I’m going to bed and mom asks the quintessential question, the final question of the day – “Do you feel good to be back”… I think to myself “God knows I feel good to see you and to be back home mom, but I don’t know how I feel right now, whether good, confused, scared, comfortable or what… there is no way to tell”. Of course what I tell mom is “Of course it feels great to be back mom”… My mom is smarter than me… she has already read my mind and does not ask any more questions. Strangely, the one thing I’m most happy to see is my Sony home theatre system… having listened to music on IPod over the past one year, I can’t wait to play music on 3D surround sound as soon as I wake up in the morning. Incidentally, all my neighbours know my sleeping habits just by when the music begins to play in my room :)
So, its early morning and the grandma has come to visit me. I’m half awake pretending not to be awake yet (I have no clue why I do that)… grandma peeps into the door to see me and then congratulates my mom that I’m back. She speaks so loud that it is impossible for me to pretend anymore… so I wake up and walk slowly to the hallway to greet her. I ask “How are you grandma?”… She does not talk to me.. She calls my mom who is in the kitchen and tells her “look, your son has become so thin, dark and tired without our home food, don’t ever let him go away again… even if you do, I won’t!”… My mom is basically going with the flow “Ok mom, I won’t let him go”… I’m left standing there speechless :). The unconditional love I receive from her and from all near and dear ones is overwhelming. I wonder how is it possible that someone could receive as much love as I receive. Its such a privilege and its also such a responsibility. Just as I’m thinking this, grandma utters the golden words “Now, find a girl and get him married as soon as possible”… now my mom is not going with the flow, she is super enthusiastic.. She says “Of course, this time around, I am going to get him married for sure… no more excuses”… It’s about this time that the dreaded album flutters in front of my eyes… Oh god, I cannot imagine that torture. It’s also the time I remember all the beautiful women I’ve met in the past year. The time when I want to elope and get married in Central Europe… lol. I try a joke “Well, nobody will marry me now because I don’t have a job”.. Oh god… that is a BAD joke… it’s not funny and nobody is laughing… so I quickly retract and say I’m just kidding. My mom then adds “Well, even if you don’t have a job, you are surely getting married ASAP”. Oh no.. I’m trapped, I’m feeling weak, so I go back to the room and lie down on the bed as if that will solve the problems… lol.
I need to escape this state of mind, so what do I do. I have to somehow connect to the past. So I open up my laptop and connect to the internet. I open up my email. Its broadband connection and yet feels excruciatingly slow. The digital divide is showing up. But then, I’m not exactly sure why I opened the internet because I’m not expecting any emails. Well, unfortunately, I’m not surprised. I have no emails from any of my ex-classmates. At that moment, I feel, have I lost touch with everyone as soon as I graduated. All those good times, did it not mean anything to anyone. I fail to see that everyone has their lives and I am not the most important part of their lives. I’m not in the mood to get into face book for sure. That’s another place to feel angry and disgusted. So, I head to the next source of technology to feel elated. The Cell Phone! I begin to call my close friend circle. It’s Wednesday, so everybody is at work, so I cannot talk for too long. I call one after another and let them know I’m in town… the only response I receive is “So, KC how many women did you cheat on”… Its absolute non-sense because they know I wouldn’t fool around and I know that they know I wouldn’t fool around and yet I’m supposed to play cool and say “Well, I’ve lost count” to which they respond “you have not changed at all… you are still the same KC”… lol. The good part is one of them agrees to meet me in the evening. The rest (most those married and/or with children) promise to meet me during the weekend. I finally cancel on the friend who wants to have dinner in the night because I want to have dinner with mom.
Finally, I’m awake and have taken my bath and prayed to the gods and my dad and have thanked them. My mom, comes over and asks me to get ready because we need to visit a few temples. NO!!!! I’m tired and I don’t feel the devotion to go to temples now. But then, I believe that I had such a good year only because my mom went to these temples every week diligently and prays for me. She also promised all the gods that as soon as I’m back, she will visit all the temples with me. So, I would be a VERY thankless person to tell her I don’t want to go. So I say yes and I begin to think… “Well, there you go, and here begins the list of things I must do which I absolutely don’t feel like doing and a large list of things I want to do will never be done”… I do to the temple and of course, the priest has been waiting for me because he knows my mom. She has after all asked the priest to pray for her son, whose name is Ashwin, around 52 times in the past one year. So, he is happy to see me and prays on my behalf. He then looks at me with such authority that I’ve been indebted not to god, but to him all my life and I should now pay him a priest fee which will justify the services I have received from him over that entire year! Of course I pay the priest! I begin to think, maybe I’m looking at the wrong end of the barrel. Maybe mom will be happy to live in Europe and India. Because irrespective of whether I work in India or in Europe, we are going to be away from each other for half of the year any case… maybe it is better for her to see more of the world rather than to wait for me between these four walls while I’m gone on business trips every three months.
I then go on to pray to god “God, thank you so much for taking care of me and mom for the whole year. I’m truly thankful for all you have done. Now, I have some difficult decisions to make in the next few weeks like where I must work, about whether I must marry and if yes then whom, about what I can do to make mom happy and many more questions which I don’t have a list of… please help me make these decisions in a way that I won’t hurt anyone in the process and I won’t hurt myself. Thanks for helping me make my life meaningful”.