Visitors


I sat in the doctor’s office and flicked through the pages of the book that I brought along. The rising panic at being examined intimately and the annoyance of having to sit takes away the pleasure of uninterrupted reading. The door opened and a heavily pregnant woman of Indian origin walked in, followed by her saree clad mother. From the youthful look of her, the woman was perhaps pregnant with her first child and I simply assumed her mother had flown all the way from India to provide her with care, support, love and nourishment at this hour of her need. Mine did 9 years ago. The memories made me smile. Yet there was something in the body language in the elderly woman that made my heart yearn to touch her shoulder in reassurance. An uncertainly, a certain diffidence in her every action that proclaimed ‘I am so out of my comfort zone’! The daughter guided her mother every step of the way, telling her where to sit and wait while she filled out her paperwork, the mother held on to the daughter’s coat and water bottle so she could have her hands free. Once the paperwork was done, she made sure the daughter’s back did not hurt, touched it and said something to her in a language I did not understand. I was called then, and as I followed the nurse into the doctor’s office, I tried to catch their eyes to smile, but they were busy among themselves.

These days, as this country gets richer with the advent of different cultures from all parts of the world, many seniors are making the long trip to come here to visit family. The sight of elderly couples in traditional outfits walking a few steps behind their immigrant family, with a look of wonder and bewilderment is quite familiar, especially in the cities and other touristy places. Since my loved ones live far away, I often watch these visitors with pleasure mingled with envy, and more often than not, give a big smile if I happen to catch their eye. And more often than not, my smile is either acknowledged a tad late and returned with a surprised smile, or I just get a surprised stare – I don’t know you, why are you smiling at me? And more often than not, I notice the diffidence in their body language. A feeling of uncertainty about being in a foreign land with a very different language and culture manifests itself in their steps, expression. That, and also a sense of amazement at the novelty of the place, at how different it is from their homeland. And when I see the uncertainty, I want to reach out and give them a hug. I, of course, am not crazy enough to do it but I want to 🙂 !

So I seek out the ones who look most vulnerable and in need of help at airports when I travel from India to the United States. I unashamedly eavesdrop – I am a Bengali after all, and when I feel there is enough confusion between an elderly couple at what the next step should be in this complicated process of immigration and security check, I take it upon myself to guide them through it. And trust me, the feeling of relief at having a guide who speaks their language is almost palpable.

Many visit to be with their loved ones for a few months and many, while doing so, try their best to be as helpful to their sons or daughters as they can. They sometimes come in an hour of need and try to alleviate the stress of child-birth or new job or any other crisis by being here and helping in any capacity. When I first came to this land of do-it-yourself from a land of abundant domestic help, my family back home just about cried at my condition. ‘The poor girl has to do everything by herself. She has no help!’ they lamented. At the beginning I wallowed in self-pity and lapped up the commiseration till it started getting old. Then I tried to convince them I am not doing anything out of the ordinary, majority in this country do everything without much help. The argument to that was, ‘they are used to it, you are not.’

My parents, when they come, take over certain chores to give me a break. My mother takes over the kitchen, and my father takes over the responsibility of the dog and the children. He often regrets the fact that he can not drive and hence, can not go to the grocery store and spare me that chore as well. Oh, and he switches the laundry, empties the dishwasher AND cleans their own bathroom. One incident stands out in my mind. It was a hot summer afternoon and I was mowing the lawn. My father came out with a bottle of water and waved at me. I was thirsty so I took a break and gulped down some water. He asked me if he could do part of the lawn while I rested. I refused to have him help me, I said, ‘Go inside, stay cool!’ He, however, sat out at the garden bench with my water bottle in his hand with a distressed expression on his face the entire time I mowed the lawn. Once I was done, he was equally impressed with my lawn mowing abilities and disturbed that I married a man who made me mow our lawn! He said a few times, he felt very helpless sitting there while I toiled in that heat. And when Sean came home from work, after an initial hello, he launched into how I mowed the entire lawn, how hot it was, how impressed he was at my strength and what not. Later, in the privacy of our bedroom Sean chuckled, ‘Your father certainly had an accusatory tone when he told me about your lawn mowing prowess! Did you feel there was a hidden message to me cloaked in your praise about ME making you mow the lawn?’
And I said, ‘Buddy, you better believe it. His princess married a pauper who MAKES her mow the lawn. His heart is breaking!’

😀

Almost home…


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.