The preparation of going home to Kolkata starts almost ten months prior to the actual date. It starts with pinning my husband down to look at his calendar and give me some dates to work with. Then comes the intolerable stress and anxiety about finding the best price for tickets, looking at layovers, working out swim meet conflicts, assuring the competitive son that going to India is more important than swimming in the Divisionals. Finally, when the tickets are bought, thinking about and looking for gifts to bring back home. And while doing all this, pausing suddenly to savor the sweetness of a childhood memory, smiling at some inconsequential snippet of home that is precious to only me, being mindful of the soothing, calming, reassuring feeling that I will go home soon and I will bask in everything that is so familiar, yet somewhat different with the passage of time.
Driving to the airport, standing at the check in line, getting on the flight – I don’t quite mind. There is the hustle bustle of fellow travelers. The energy of others, at the beginning of the journey, energizes me. I see fellow South Asians and play guessing games with the family – which city do you think they are going to? I note with awe, the immaculately dressed and impeccably made up women getting ready to board a long flight. How do they look so good and will they look this good at the end of 24 hour travel, I wonder. Some actually do!
As I find my seat on the plane and buckle my seatbelt, I look around and grin foolishly at whoever catches my eye. My joy is contagious, I get smiles and nods back generally. And every time the flight starts moving for take off, I invariably say, ‘Here we go! Goodbye_______ (my hometown)! We will see you soon!’ The children haven’t chastised me about it yet! They smile indulgently at my enthusiasm.
As I feel the plane starting to descend, I grip Sean’s arm and smile, despite the terrible ear popping, ‘Half the journey is over, dude” The lay over is spent walking around whichever airport we are transiting from, looking at duty-free goodies and eyeing the chocolates. Then it is time to get back on the next plane again. This time, the flight is full of Bangla speaking fellow passengers, saree or salwar kameez donned, brown-skinned, small boned, familiar! I eavesdrop shamelessly, butt into conversations unwanted but soon get accepted. The common topic of discussion, generally is ‘Kotodin por deshe jacchen?'(How long has it been since you went home) ! Desh….motherland…a word that fills me with a warm and fuzzy feeling of belonging.
I bear the 24 plus hours of travel in relatively good humor. I smile and nod ecstatically at the grumpy immigration officials at Kolkata airport. I seem to want to impress upon them that the entry stamp that they so nonchalantly pressed upon my passport is so meaningful to me. They are the gatekeepers who just opened the door to the enchanted land where my past is waiting for me.
I turn into a very disagreeable person at the baggage claim, I confess. Every second there seems intolerable. My husband feels my irritation, he massages my back, smiles kindly, tries to distract with conversation, yet I remain irritated. Each time this interminable wait to retrieve our luggage becomes unbearable. So close, yet not quite there. I politely harass the young airport officials, ‘Bhai eto deri hocche?’ (Brother, what’s taking so long?). Invariably, the carousel gets stuck and I mutter under my breath.
I do all this because just behind the wall stand two humans who I simply can not wait to see. They have been counting months and then days, like me, till our plane touches the ground. I know they have come early to avoid getting stuck in Kolkata traffic and I know that as every passenger goes out of the terminal, their eyes brighten with hope. And then dim again. It’s not me, yet. Not us. They are the treasurers of my childhood and youth, they keep my memories tucked away in their treasure chest and guard them with love and longing. They are the ones who smile wistful smiles at my ‘remember when’s. They are the only two people who ever so eagerly await my arrival and shed tears at my departure.
Finally, when our luggage is gathered we push our cart to the exit past the custom official, my eyes scan for those two beloved faces as the children run ahead. This reunion happens every twelve months and I am parched for their presence. When I see them, or they see us, my father’s face is a combination of relief, joy, excitement, happiness. His face seems just about ready to burst with all these emotions. My mother is more expressive, she smiles from ear to ear, squeals our names, comes forward to envelope the grand children in a bear hug, and then hugs me fiercely with unspilt tears of happiness glistening in her eyes. My father gives me an awkward side hug (hugging doesn’t come naturally to him), he hugs his grandkids and shakes hand with his son-in-law.
He, then, gets busy warding off unsolicited help from airport porters, calls the driver of the rented car that will take us home. My daughter, who is fluent in Bengali, claims Didiya (grandma) and narrates all that happened on the flight. Little Ryan is generally shy, unable to speak the language, stands quietly with a shy, tired smile. Didiya notices and takes his hand. His little hand willingly disappears in her grasp. He nods and smiles mostly while his sister talks nineteen to the dozen. In the car, as we head home, Ryan slowly reaches out and touches Dadai’s (grandfather) shoulder giving him a little nudge. Dadai nudges him back with a conspiratorial smile while I blink away some unexpected tears at this silent communing.
Finally, my two worlds meet.