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First Trip back home – October 1st, 2007

Rekha Gurusamy

Author of this article, Rekha, a freelance copy writer hails from Mumbai. She has contributed articles to ‘Times of India’, related to her publicity job. Here, she banters over her first trip to Mumbai, after five years of migrating to Singapore.

The flight going to Mumbai was just 45 minutes short of landing and my heartbeat raced faster, not with the result of aircraft turbulence, not even with the effects in my tummy caused by my stubbornness to control nature’s call against the repelling faint odours of dettol and urine that filled the carrier every time the toilet door waved open. It was in fact the overwhelming anxiety and excitement building inside me since past few days mixed with patriotism that was increasing as Mumbai drew closer.

Hundred questions hit my mind. What is the first thing I will see, hear, say, do…will I be picking handful of soil and kissing the ground filmy style, or will it be touching my mom and dad’s feet although the south Indian style is to kneel down on all fours and bend. Of course, I wasn’t expecting anyone with Aartis and garlands unlike the reception my sister and brother in law received from her in-laws on their first visit to Mumbai ever since migrating to the US of A. I did a quick mental mapping of the roads that will lead to home, the shops that must have sprung up along the way in recent times, the street dogs that will aggressively hound in groups to scare away secret lovers, some not so friendly neighbors who would be waiting to catch a glimpse of their phoren-return sassy neighbour.

The new India I had been reading about lately was about to unveil. Two years is a good enough time to expect change in anything, a person or place.

My flight of fantasy changed course with the sudden compression in the air. It was about time. Just ten more minutes to land. I looked out and saw the airplane descending amidst a thick cloudy layer (which I thought was the so called ozone layer, silly Me.) followed by a familiar smell. Soon the wheels kissed the ground, the carrier slowed down and positioned itself to park.

5.35 am. Bang on schedule.
Bombay, here I come!
As I got out of the aircraft with slight irritation in my eyes, a voice echoed, “Welcome to Mumbai madam”
Friendly officers queued up to wish passengers along the strip leading into the form filling area.

“Welcome to Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport Madam” said another officer. I almost felt like a warrior making a grand red carpet entry into the Maratha dynasty of the Deccan. Curvaceous damsels on either side of the path showering my each stride with rose petals, twenty one guns salute, firing arms, bright fireworks dispersing in the sky and shrill battle-cries “Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Kii. JAI”, “Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Kii JAI” followed by a deafeningly loud trumpet.

I smiled, sheepishly.

The smell persisted.

“This way to baggage Ma’m” the voiced spoke politely and my eyes opened up to a plush grandeur, well tiled expanse. WOW! What a pleasant surprise! The airport had been renovated. It didn’t in any way resemble the place I left, before marriage. My tummy was aching and I couldn’t resist any longer. So I rushed to the toilet at first. To my surprise the toilet not only ‘didn’t’ smell bad, but was also well maintained with toilet rolls in place and the cleaning lady going about her job devotedly. Cleanliness is godliness. Hmm, not bad! Is this the new India everyone talks about? Looks like I’m in for a treat.

My eyes were still irritable, not really tired. I proceeded towards the baggage. A man with a mouthful of paan suddenly wheeled in with a trolley. He looked like a Maharashtrian. Sometimes you can tell. “Madam, Allow me pick your baggage and usher you till the vehicle parking,” he mouthed retaining the paan cautiously inside his mouth. “No thanks” I said, suspiciously; trying to avoid eye contact. An office came by hurriedly, “Don’t worry madam, he is there for help. Pay him whatever you want”. The corner of my eye suddenly crossed familiar suitcases in motion. The paan chewing guy gazed my look and leaped to fetch the suitcases before I moved and placed them on the trolley before I reacted. I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears at the way service was being provided.

We marched towards the gate. No words exchanged. I paraded down the isle like a supermodel. Eager mass of people suddenly flanked open at the gate. There! I spotted Mom and Dad. Gawd. Why had they grown so frail!
The tobacco chewing man followed, silently of course. How could he talk? His mouth was so filled with red juicy paan. And better that he didn’t coz if he did, I would need two packs of wet tissues and stain removers to wipe away those red spatter marks all over me.

At last, I set afoot on my motherland, my soil, my Mathrubhumi. I wanted to burst into a Mhd Rafi song Mere desh ki dharti….

Our family is not the overtly emotional types, so there was no shedding of tears and the typical drama. Just a Hi! Yepdi Irkel? I caught hold of my mom’s hand tightly and resisted the temptation of embracing her and Dad. We didn’t have the tradition of embracing in our custom. The East Indians had it in theirs, and I was too much ‘at home’ with the paus like mom often complained. We embraced and greeted every time we met at my Goan friend’s place.

The taxi arranged by my dad was waiting.
The maharashtrian porter seized the bags and pushed them into the dickey single-handedly. I was impressed. My parents were amazed too. I quickly discussed with mom how much to pay him and placed a 50 buck note in his palm unwillingly. He accepted without a flinch.

The age old Fiat looked smaller than I thought. The driver turned the meter head upside down. It read 15 rupees. Lord! Prices have gone up. Windows all rolled down and no worries about wearing seat belts, we dashed towards the road.

Dad made customary enquiry about my journey, the flight, food etc. Mom spoke about what kept her busy in the kitchen the previous day. I realized I was not even paying attention to the roads, people, traffic or the nuances except when huge, posh buildings crossed my sight. I was so conditioned lately to multi storey constructions made of iron and steel covered with glass, that the smaller finer details of Mumbai hadn’t enthused my senses.

The corner of my eye barely registered the cemented residential blocks that made no promises, no added frills, no fancy shapes, three storey on a average, non-painted and oldish some even partially broken down. Trees were dusty and pale. Dull shop houses filled the gaps all over. Ordinary mass of Indians crossed alongside traffic and no one seemed to care about anything or anyone, even their own lives. Nothing was worth giving even a first glance. I had to retrain and readjust my eyes to see things in a different perspective.

And then, sister called on Dad’s cell phone-all the way from US, to talk with me. Technology had bridged distances. “So how was the flight dear?” she asked. “Did you manage to get some sleep? How does it feel breathing pollution?

“WHAT POLLUTION?” I snapped back.

“Didn’t you see a thick layer while landing, don’t you get any smell? That’s pollution my dear”

“You mean that’s the big bad word POLLUTION?!” I croaked.

I did experience the sights and smells of Mumbai all along- the foggy smelly air. But never realized it indeed was Pollution. The skies have always looked partially cloudy to me for as long as I remember. I loved that foggy feeling and actually thought it resembled Ooty or some nice hill station. And lived and breathed the smell daily- completely ignorant, never complaining. Has anyone ever bother to check the PSI levels in Mumbai? Or does it stop reading after a certain point.

So ultimately, the question was not about: What is the first thing I will…see, hear, say, do, but; SMELL.

The dogs did a welcome bark when the taxi turned into our gully. A young Nepali opened the gates and saluted our cab that wheeled in. He then helped unload the luggage and bring them into the house. I asked mom in Tamil who the fellow is and where was the previous guy? She replied the earlier night watch man (a Gurkha from Nepal) had passed away 1 ½ years ago and the job is taken over by his son. I was tempted to talk to the stranger but didn’t. His dad and I used to chat so much. About his poor family in Nepal, their blind faiths and what kept them so backward. Which was not very different from so many families here in India too, even today.

The former was often worried about his children and saved almost every penny from his paltry sum of 2800 Rupees to bring back affordability and happiness to his family in Nepal, at the cost of living away from them forever. Like many of us, in foreign countries. I took a long breath in his memory. Who will bring me those pepper seeds from the forests of Nepal that relieved my cough and cold?

I turned around and gave a hard look at the colony I lived, breathed since the day I was born. Our neighborhood hasn’t changed a bit. Buildings look the same in height, shape, color. Little plants have sprouted up like veins over the cemented pipes. Yes, some flats belonging to business men look dramatically ‘richer’ in colors and size with expensive heavy metal grills, grand chandeliers balancing on ceiling fans and intricately carved wooden doors like the ones we see in saas-bahu serials.

And then, there were other flats in the building too like the one my dad owns, which still continues to look modest and middle class with no fancy carvings, all colors ran out and a scratched wooden double-door with the garland of fake flowers catching dust outside the door. But yes, the unfailing signature kolam at the entrance which my mom so effortlessly sketches every single morning will never go out of style. She has managed to attract an ever increasing fan following with her artistic display for the past 30 years, and her ardent fans (and now graduating into second generation) never fail to assemble and witness this live display of Indian ground mural art form unveil each day.

Dad as usual was outside, engaged in a tiff with the cab wala over some small change. Some things never change. Dad has only grown older and more bitter in this regard, in dealing with cab walas, bhaji walis, cleaning bais, day watchman and all the doors-to-door sales men and women who knock every now and then, trying to sell anything from pots and pans, to sanitary napkins to oxford dictionaries to Sanjeev Kapoor’s latest cookery collection.

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