Returning Brand New
Returning is at least as significant as leaving. The first steps of the return were much like the first steps of the beginning. I sat in a taxi—this time alone—and smelled the smells of 16 million people. This time though, the sulfurous stench was nauseatingly familiar. In both cases, on a personal level, I myself had not shat for days as a result of the long journey. Mumbai was no better for that, however. Ahmad, my driver—an older man with a square head and an impressive salt and pepper quaff—pointed at the sights: Marine Drive, Haji Ali Mosque, the glittering and gaudy mall, “Where the rich come”. He said more than he intended.
That satisfied and expecting resolve of leaving a place once foreign yet presently familiar filled my gaze with forward-looking as city lights disappeared behind me. Only this time I knew—more or less—what I was heading toward; I had been there before. I was less sure of who I had become.
The sun blazes down on me now through a clear pane of terminal 2E, gate E83 of the Charles de Gaul airport, Paris. Its brilliance reflected on the gold accents of my shiwaz camise—a typical Indian version of a western long-sleeve t-shirt. Memories of yesterday are still present within me: Masses of dark-skinned people in bright colors, whites of eyeballs glaring forth at me, chaotic and unpaved roads, four-membered families on one motorcycle—infant up front between father’s hands on handlebars, baby in mother’s arms in back, long, black tresses moving with each thoughtless change of lane. Images of free roaming cows and tethered water-buffalo with horns painted blue and green, bells on tips, stray dogs—medium sized, short hair, sometimes with gaping wounds and bald spots itching on corners and in alleyways–puddles of standing water; greenery; spontaneous rainfall; Hindi, Tamil or Malagalam making deals—haggling, broken English, mustaches on small, round, bobbling heads—Ganesha, Shiva, Vishnu, Lakshmi in bright blue and pink; marigolds and jasmine flowers.
Unable to see myself—lucky for me—I came to believe I was fitting into all of this. I could haggle a given price in half, recognize monuments and streets, give comprehensible directions to a taxi driver: “Malum, Kala Ghoda in Fort. Sri sai baba marge. Malum?” I could order exactly what I wanted at a restaurant: Alu palak, no ghee, no paneer. Thank you”. But now, under the blaring sun, it’s “Bonjour. Comment allez-vous?” …”Your attention, please”.
Here, I flirt with Air France flight attendants, order espresso and chocolate from a café in French, delighting in the thought that I could possibly be fooling everybody.
But the flux of identity is too much. I have to sit in a corner chair and exhale deeply, knowing in a short amount of time I—whoever this I is—will be across a different ocean, among a different language, amidst people existing stably and continuously in their identities—a powerful product of time and habituation. But how am I to make sense of myself? Should I even try? The groundless, swirling, airy feeling of letting disparate selves exist simultaneously, like a roller coater ride, is fun and liberating for a while, until nausea sets in. Something inside me telling me I have to choose, some anchor seeking a rational compromise between persons. To be true to the gifts of the past, rather than forcing an identity upon myself, I must choose to trust in the relation of consciousness with its environment, the same relation at the root of this crisis and know that in time habit will dig its furrows and sow its seeds without me, and a “me” will inevitably emerge.
“Excusez-moi”, a woman dressed in black interrupts the solitude, “quelle heure est-il maintenant”?
“Désolé”, I respond, “”je ne sais pas. I’m still on Indian time”
“Me too”, she laughs.