Leaving Home, Coming Home

– Oct 15, 2004

It is a mixed bag of emotions that I bring back each year from my six weeks’ vacation in India.

There’s that old familiar sadness, as I head to Sahar airport in Mumbai, at leaving behind so much that is close to my heart. For apart from the family I miss so much, I also leave behind the only culture and ethos that I truly understand or am part of.

There’s a sense of anticipation too, though I leave the land of my birth to go to another country. This anticipation, and the bubble of happiness that rises and grows as the breathtakingly beautiful coastline around Nice becomes visible from the plane, were given voice this time by my three-year old daughter Indira. As I unlocked the front door of our apartment here in Mougins, she sang out, “Home, sweet home!!”

Every year I feel homesick already for the noise and vibrancy that characterize India, while we wait at the airport in Frankfurt or Zurich to board the plane that willl take us to France. The time in India seems to sharpen my awareness of how different – foreign – everything and everyone here seems.

And yet isn’t this really where my true home is?

My French is still not quite fluent. Hence, I worry at the prospect of Indira going to pre-school at the l’ecole maternelle in our village because I am apprehensive about my ability to interact effectively with the staff there.

And I confess I still whinge and whine sometimes about all the tedious household chores that I have to do without any help. I appreciate the work ethic in western cultures and the dignity accorded to labor, but I was steeped for so long in that other way of life that I do occasionally miss the pillars that hold up daily life in India – the dhobi, the kapdewaali bai, the bartan waali bai et al. And I miss all the things I grew up on and love so dearly which can’t be had for love or money, at least in this part of France. Things like okra, mangoes, chaatwaalas, mithai shops, Hindi films, and bookstores that sell books written in English (of the last, there is one here but the prices they charge for providing this luxury are nothing short of scandalous).

But this is where we have chosen to build a life for now. And every once in a while during those six weeks in India, I find myself missing this life with a longing that catches me by surprise.

What leads to these ambivalent feelings is the realization of a conundrum – that much as I miss the staples of life in India, I would find it extremely difficult to go back to that old way of being. For one thing, I’d find it impossible to delegate household tasks to others.

Having done these chores myself for so many years, I cannot now resist supervising even my own husband’s sterling efforts at mopping the floor, say, for fear that he’ll miss some corner. A husband puts up with such interference but perseveres. I am not so sure about those redoubtable bais.

Then there’s that other aspect of living in India that I have grown unaccustomed to. This is what I think of as the FOM – Friends of Ma – syndrome (though it applies equally to other varieties of friends and to members of extended family).

FOM are the women in my mother’s neighborhood who are her closest friends. With their children all grown and scattered around the globe, these women have now become each other’s family. Constantly out of each other’s houses, they accompany each other on visits to the doctor, throw birthday parties for each other and keep their collective spirits high with daily games of rummy played over several cups of tea, discussing all the while the minutiae of their lives past and present.

Don’t misunderstand me. I have genuine affection in my heart for all these friends of Ma. They are all very loving women and during each visit home I enjoy many a convivial evening with them, sharing meals they cook gladly and fondly for us. Most important of all, they are there for my mother in a way that I’ll never be. What I can’t deal with is the interest that FOM take in the changes in my complexion with the passage of years. They remember the first time they saw me, when I was twenty years old and accompanied my parents on their move to Jamshedpur, where my mother now lives.

Hai, tab itni gori thee” they say. “Pata nahin dheere dheere tere complexion ko kya ho gaya hai. Saanvli hoti jaa rahi hai“. (You were so fair before. Whatever happened to your complexion? You seem to be getting darker.) After observing me and my attire carefully over a few days they advise, “Pink color zyada pehna kar, rang usse zyaada saaf dikhta hai“. (Wear pink. It lightens your dark complexion.)

I want to explain that the years of traveling by train and bus in the hot and dusty interiors of the country as a marketing executive is the probable reason for this change. And that I look back on this experience that helped me earn my stripes as a sales person with fondness and pride, notwithstanding the changes it wrought on my visage. In fact, I am inclined to think of the resulting freckles almost as a sort of badge of honor.

But I desist because I am reminded of a recent conversation, with a college friend who is a highly successful professional. During the course of our chat over lunch, after a searching look at my face she said, “Whatever’s happened to your skin?” She then proceeded to tell me that she keeps up a weekly regimen of a homemade face pack because this apparently keeps her facial complexion lighter than it would otherwise be. She also suggested that I ask a Japanese friend of mine to bring back for me green tea from Japan because that is supposed to be very good for one’s skin.

So I decide I haven’t the gumption to argue with these women I love and respect when I know younger women who prescribe to the same bias.

I also feel ill equipped now when it comes to dealing with all those well-meaning neighbors and relatives who feel it is their duty and right to point out to me the mistakes I am making in all my choices. Whether it’s to do with the food I feed my daughter, the age at which I plan to have her ears pierced, or the jewelry I wear (I am always being reprimanded for wearing too little), they seem to think I need a guiding hand and an opinion – theirs.

So while I sometimes miss the bonds formed within an Indian neighborhood or extended family, I find that the level of familiarity involved in these relationships is something I am no longer comfortable with.

This is why I find myself far more at ease with the quieter life we lead here. Sure, our doorbell here rings as often in a fortnight as my mother’s does in one morning. Indira, for one, quite enjoys the hustle and bustle in my mother’s house or in my brother’s in Mumbai, caused by the constant comings and goings of the milkman, the postman, the cook, the watchman, the assortment of bais, the maali, the dhobi, the machliwali.

It’s not as if our existence here is of the reclusive variety. As a family we are fortunate to be part of a community whose members look out for each other and we take a sincere interest in each other’s lives. There’s Fujiko, a dear friend who telephones to check if Indira and I are doing okay if she doesn’t see us for more than a day at the children’s park, whenever my husband is away on one of his long business trips. And there’s Anna Chiara, who called this morning to make sure I know that the dance class, for children of Indira’s age, at the exercise studio in our village is beginning this week and that today is the last day they will accept registrations for the same.

But it is not an intrusive kind of community. I feel no pressure from anyone to conform to any standards of any sort, and no one seems to want to tell me how to or when to or why to do things – or not. That choice is mine.

In the meanwhile, I continue to pine for all that is thousands of miles away…

So today, after I drop off Indira at the Maternelle – where the teachers are more patient with my French than I had dared hope and where Indira seems to be settling down and enjoying herself – I plan to visit Heidi’s English Bookshop in Antibes. I am looking for a couple of books whose reviews I read on this website a while ago. I’ll also stop by for a jar of mango pickle (made and bottled in Britain but the genuine article) at Geoffrey’s, a food store run for Anglophiles by a retired Brit. And the Arabic deli that sells Zlabia -virtually the same, in taste and appearance, as the Indian jalebi- is just around the corner from there.

I will then walk down to the beach, to eat my favorite lunch of Pan Bagnat (a delicious specialty of this region). I like these quiet times by the sea, to store away memories of the beautiful blue Mediterranean for a time when I may not live here any more.

Mindful of recent admonitions to take care of my skin, I find myself reaching for the tube of sun block to put into in my bag as I prepare to go out.

I guess I have taken myself out of Jamshedpur, but I can’t take Jamshedpur out of me.

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