Numerous friends and acquaintances pose this question often – at least more often than I’d care to answer; or even to respond with some plausible explanation – one way or another. “Explanation”, because if my answer is in the affirmative, surely there’s a reason why – an occasion, a wedding, to circuit the golden triangle (or is it quadrilateral?), or just because familiar foods and fashion beckon, (while some forgettable foibles may silently mock). Or if there are no plans in the offing, then why not? Doesn’t one’s matrubhumi and matrubhasha mean anything? Have I turned so ‘firang‘ that des ki yaad hee nahin aati? Veiled under surprise or an understanding nod hides indignation… “How can someone who has lived in India for a lifetime not want to return – if only for a brief 10 days or two weeks!”
If I had not immigrated, still a resident in India, perhaps my thoughts may be a variant of the above. Perhaps… but here’s the fact, I am no longer living in India. For many years now, have been away from what was once home – with its good, bad, ugly… that was home, and I knew no better, nor worse – although I’d traveled abroad a few times before I actually immigrated. When one travels, one’s a tourist… everything you view is just looking at the veneer. No matter how perceptive you are, the time – or rather, shortage of time – gives you zero luxury to scratch beneath the veneer of life outside of India (or your home country). You live in hotels, or park with a friend (or some distant relative) who may obligingly put you up for a couple of days, and on occasion, may even rise to give you beyond bed, bath and breakfast — no no, don’t jump to conclusions… I meant, provide you with dinner and take you on a day’s outing to the closest National Park – which may be a couple of hundred miles away from their own residence.
So what does this have to do with paying a visit to good ole India? Well, here’s my predicament. The situation has reversed. When I visit India, I’m now a tourist in what used to be my own country. Even before I land up there, I must suffer the rigmarole of procuring a visa… an arduous exercise in itself – if you haven’t yet acquired the PIO or OCI… which, in turn, would be a long-ish process by itself. Once I have the visa that will permit me to visit India as a tourist, I land up in a city that looks way different since when I left it almost a couple of decades ago. Wait, I said, “looks different”. I did not say, “smells different”. So, now there are new systems in place, I hear there’s a new airport that appears more inviting – speaking of Mumbai’s international airport. But say I head to the air-conditioned taxi stand (if there’s one), or if a friend has been kind enough to send a chauffeur-driven car to receive me (Wow… isn’t that cool, I’d almost forgotten about this distinct advantage of being in apna desh), what do I say to the cabbie or to the chauffeur? “Please could you drive me to XYZ Hotel” or pile on to my dear friend for all of the above… bed, bath, breakfast and beyond! Yes… this is where my troubles begin. As we used to say of Mumbai… “Someone may give you roti, but to offer a roof in times of difficulty”- oh, that would be very hard in Mumbai. Friends and family may have been hard up in the past, but they have a big heart… yes, true… no denying that. Today, times have changed. Friends and family “have arrived”. No longer are they hard up, but have hard cash. The burgeoning middle class has brought that. But even those without hard cash get on in life flashing the ubiquitous credit cards. Indeed, for the past twenty odd years, just as in the West, debt is nothing to be ashamed of. Keep your 22 carat jewelry in the safety of your bank’s vault, but many have vaulted into the big league, flashing their gold – credit cards. Well, so you ask, will these friends (or family) be inclined to putting you up in their 500 sq.ft. home – you, who is on vacation – while they head to work? Unlikely… although some may feel obliged to do so, the friend’s spouse and kids may be less enthusiastic about an outsider encroaching on their space for any length of time.
So, the next option — or better still, the first option — is to check into a hotel. “What, a hotel!” you think to yourself… In the city I lived my entire life, I now go and check into a hotel? Hotels are for vacationing spots. Hotels in metros are for the business type visitors… Who checks into a hotel in India unless you’re at a hill-station! Ah… now there. Caught me! But that’s been a trend now for sometime. Even in India, folks don’t go piling onto friends and family for a clean bed, bath and breakfast. For that, there are hotels of all categories. But yes, perhaps if you’re lucky, you’ll receive invitations to dinner or to brunch, or a quick power lunch. Or to a get-together, where one friend takes the initiative to get many friends together, so that one doesn’t need to negotiate through snarling traffic to visit folks in distant suburbs, or even at the end of the road you had once lived on.
All this sounds crazy, you think… for me it doesn’t. On the two occasions I visited India, in all fairness, a dear friend put me up for days! When I visited other cities, a dear aunt or a dear friend elsewhere put me up. But somehow, it does not feel right. I always feel I’m imposing. Is it my perception or is it just a silly notion in my head… Beyond the first couple of days I know I’m encroaching on their privacy. It’s not like in the days of youth – a sleepover at the friends’ house was fun. Now, a degree of formality has crept in.
We all change. When you live in a place, the change is so subtle you never quite notice it happening in real time. When you visit people after a length of time, those you had known closely in the past, the changes seem stark… you have to learn to be comfortable with the “new” person/s. But you aren’t going to be there visiting long enough to fathom the changes… to like, dislike or accept these changes would follow much later. How does one cope with that in the short term?
My sparse visits to India in fact caused me immense sadness – by the changes I was not quite prepared for. By the same token, those who met me had preconceived ideas about me. The general notions we have about NRIs unless we know them closely. Those I’d known as babies, had grown into adults now fully immersed in families of their own. They didn’t quite know me, and I had to face the fact these were no longer the kids I had loved to indulge with chocolates or ice-cream. The older relatives were now either ailing, or had passed on. The face and skyline of cities I had known had now changed into that of a ‘foreign’ city. India is as foreign to me now as the US, Canada, UK, Europe or the Far East was to me then before I immigrated from India. There’s much in this world I have not visited. Should I opt to visit one of the other nations, in another part of the world, or better still, travel just within the US – there’s plenty to enjoy here – for a week-long or two week vacation?
One final word… matrubhumi and matrubhasha always beckon, but when your mother lives within driving distance — or just a short flight away — to fly fifteen thousand miles with hopes of meeting just a few friends, one thinks again. That’s when Facebook or Facetime seem the more practical way to go.