Like swallows flying south in winter, we fly to India as the year end approaches. Each year for the past three years, we’ve marked the end of one year and the start of another this way. If we mark this phase as India, the grandparents mark this time of the year as Maya.
We book the tickets well in advance, usually by June or July. The time can’t seem to pass fast enough and then we’re on the plane, filled with equal parts of thrill and dread. The dread is mostly about how Maya will fare during the long flight and how we’ll cope if she gets unhappy. The first year we went with Maya, she was not even one and I was a tad apprehensive about how she would react to the air and the not-so-sterile environment of the land of her parents (she did fine). Traveling with infants in their first year is the easiest, we heard parents say. They’re too small and will sleep most of the time. The second isn’t too bad, but the third and fourth are the worst, the kids seized by the restlessness of their age and the long time in cramped quarters making for a parentally lethal mid-air combination.
After my mostly successful flight and first week with Maya last year, I dreaded this year’s travel even less. I figured that with her age, she had better ability to reason and understand the situation than before. We started prepping her in advance, telling her that she couldn’t get upset on the plane, that the stewards and stewardesses on the plane would get upset with her and we couldn’t travel any more after that, that she had to listen to her pop during the flight. For all that, she’d be rewarded with good times with grandparents, our friends’ kids and magical India. She nodded and started chanting this mantra every time she saw a plane.
I travel alone with Maya a week before Shanthala joins us and the lack of a backup adds to my concern. My difficulties would begin once we landed. I knew that I had to synchronize my jet lag with hers, sleep when she did and be awake when she was. The first week is also when the long flight with recirculated air and lack of sleep leaves us more vulnerable to upper respiratory infections and gives cause for our stomachs to be upset with us. The first year, Maya puked a few hours after we landed, throwing up everything she had consumed during the past 24 hours or so. Shanthala’s mom put it down to stomach distension due to the long flight. This year, I was more worried about how to keep her occupied. There are no cousins she interacts with, no children near my parents’ house that we know. Here in the US, she goes to a park practically everyday leaving us with only a few hours of dark to keep her occupied. In India, there are no parks for her to play in near my parents house. The two parks nearby are closed during the day and the playgrounds are in a sad state of repair. I only worried about that first week, for after that, the ever-practical Shanthala would be there to help. Also, Maya clings more ferociously to me during that first week, when the foreignness of her ancestral lands and jet lag confound her.
For every such part of dread, I’m filled with equal parts of thrill. Bangalore has always held a special place in my mind. From my childhood days, my mind would fill with anticipation of new toys, watching the latest English movies (for years I watched the newest adventures of James Bond in Bangalore) and eating at fantastic restautants. And now, my mind is excited with thoughts of good food and good times, and the excitement over new toys has yielded to an eagerness to visit the book stores (Strand, Blossom, Gangarams and more). Walking down the MG Road promenade always made me feel grand, like a kid in a toy store, even though so many things have changed there. My mouth watered at the prospect of eating the excellent Dosas and other South Indian delicacies at select restaurants. While the Bay Area has a surfeit of Indian eateries, none can do justice to the South Indian eats, especially the quality of Dosa, Sambar and Chutney that I’m used to at Bangalore. Even the most mediocre of restaurants in Bangalore produced better South Indian fare than what we get in the Bay Area. I wanted to drink Sugar Cane jiuce, coconut water. I hallucinated on the quality of the Indian desserts that I would be able to feast on, my sweet tongue lolling in anticipation. And the thrill of seeing family and some of our closest friends, of nights spent talking about everything and anything.
At a friends’ place here in the US where there are twin girls about 10 years of age and a boy of seven, Maya has a glorious time. She vanishes with the kids once we arrive, leaving me time to chat with the adults. I thought that she’d be the same with our friends’ kids. One of them emailed me regularly about eagerly she was waiting to play with Maya. The last two times, she hadn’t bonded too well with all the grandparents. With her being almost three, I thought that this would fare better too. So, overall I predicted that this trip would be even better than the previous two that we had taken with her.
So, what could possibly go wrong ?
An Irish Perspective On The Journey
Our winter escapade to India is not unusual among Indians, at least amongst those without children or their school-going variety. I think Indians of my generation and socio-economic class are blessed amongst the immigrants. We were welcomed with mostly open arms in the US, provided an excellent path to make this place our permanent home and respected in the community because we were in the computer industry. Unlike immigrants of the past who landed here and started at the bottom of the unskilled job market, we arrived as skilled immigrants, starting fairly high in the socio-economic totem pole and usually heading upwards that ladder. We arrive in a place that has a surfeit of Indian restaurants and Indian grocery stores. Movie halls play the latest Bollywood flick, Holi and Deepavali are major organized events in several places nearby and we even have a choice of temples (for the observing Hindus) to visit. That is not to say we don’t have our share of existential angst, but compared to other immigrants, past and current, we’re fortunate in a myriad ways.
The striking contrast between us and other immigrants of the past is brought home every time I hear the Irish ditty, “Kilkelly, Ireland“. The Irish fled their homeland in droves, somewhere between 1 and 1.5 million leaving during the worst period of the infamous Irish Potato Famine, between 1845 to 1855. Unlike the independent India we came from, they were still subjugated by the monarchy in Britain at that time, with the Irish famine probably analogous to the horrific Bengal famines. They set sail, usually from the harbour of Cobh, on a journey mostly to North America, that took 45 days or more and cost anywhere between 55 shillings and 5 pounds. The cramped, insanitary conditions killed so many people, that these ships carrying Irish immigrants were dubbed “coffin shps”. One description of the conditions on board such ships reads:
“Hundreds of poor people, men, women and children of all ages huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart; the fevered patients lying beside the sound, by their agonised ravings disturbing those around. The food is generally ill-selected and seldom sufficiently cooked in consequences of the insufficiency and bad construction of the cooking places. The supply of water, hardly enough for cooking and drinking, does not allow for washing. No moral restraint is attempted; the voice of prayer is never heard; drunkenness, with all its consequent train of ruffianly debasement, is not discouraged because it is found profitable by the captain who traffics in grog [watered-down Rum] “.
“Kilkelly, Ireland” one of the most moving songs I’ve heard, captures the longing for the absent faces in the form of letters sent by a father, living in Kilkelly, to his son who has immigrated to the US. Each stanza of the 5 stanza song marks ten years. The song, written by the Americans Steven and Peter Jones, is based on the letters sent by their great-great-grandfather Bryan Hunt to their great-grandfather Bryan Hunt.
Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 60, my dear and loving son John
Your good friend the schoolmaster Pat McNamara's so good
as to write these words down.
Your brothers have all gone to find work in England,
the house is so empty and sad
The crop of potatoes is sorely infected,
a third to a half of them bad.
And your sister Brigid and Patrick O'Donnell
are going to be married in June.
Your mother says not to work on the railroad
and be sure to come on home soon.
Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 70, dear and loving son John
Hello to your Mrs and to your 4 children,
may they grow healthy and strong.
Michael has got in a wee bit of trouble,
I guess that he never will learn.
Because of the dampness there's no turf to speak of
and now we have nothing to burn.
And Brigid is happy, you named a child for her
and now she's got six of her own.
You say you found work, but you don't say
what kind or when you will be coming home.
Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 80, dear Michael and John, my sons
I'm sorry to give you the very sad news
that your dear old mother has gone.
We buried her down at the church in Kilkelly,
your brothers and Brigid were there.
You don't have to worry, she died very quickly,
remember her in your prayers.
And it's so good to hear that Michael's returning,
with money he's sure to buy land
For the crop has been poor and the people
are selling at any price that they can.
Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 90, my dear and loving son John
I guess that I must be close on to eighty,
it's thirty years since you're gone.
Because of all of the money you send me,
I'm still living out on my own.
Michael has built himself a fine house
and Brigid's daughters have grown.
Thank you for sending your family picture,
they're lovely young women and men.
You say that you might even come for a visit,
what joy to see you again.
Kilkelly, Ireland, 18 and 92, my dear brother John
I'm sorry that I didn't write sooner to tell you that father passed on.
He was living with Brigid, she says he was cheerful
and healthy right down to the end.
Ah, you should have seen him play with
the grandchildren of Pat McNamara, your friend.
And we buried him alongside of mother,
down at the Kilkelly churchyard.
He was a strong and a feisty old man,
considering his life was so hard.
And it's funny the way he kept talking about you,
he called for you in the end.
Oh, why don't you think about coming to visit,
we'd all love to see you again.
The money sent home, a family taking root so far away, a family seen only in one or two probably blurry photographs and the longing, oh! the longing, expressed with such eloquence in just “what joy to see you again”, does violence to my heart each time I listen to the song. I hear my father’s voice when I read the lines: “You say you found work, but you don’t say what kind”. He always wants to know more about my job than I find the patience to explain.
Now you see why I think we’re blessed. With cheap telephone and the advent of video chats, families separated by many oceans can still see each other and a journey is not just affordable, but far more comfortable and short.
Back To Our Adventure
So, what could go wrong ?
The first shoe dropped two weeks before we were to leave, Shanthala’s backup was diagnosed with cancer. So, she had to cancel her trip. I pondered for an instant if I should cancel the trip too, but coupled with my fantasies of Maya playing with older kids here and my desire to not rob this time from the grandparents, I decided to journey alone with Maya. I secretly realized that I may have to give up visiting any bookstore. I like to spend an hour or so at each store and I knew that wasn’t possible with Maya in tow. She’d probably be patient for about 15-20 minutes. But I hadn’t given up hope completely.
The second shoe dropped a few days after that when my parents informed me that they had moved houses, from their current location in a fairly central part of the city to a remote hamlet, far from the city. Their move took me by complete surprise. It is considered a rural area, my father said, so the landline is a via something the local telephone company calls wireless local loop. Do you have any Internet connection, I asked. We have something, he said and my heart sank. Go to a place where there is not even an Internet connection ? That was so last century, I thought.
From Bangalore Airport, it took about 2.5-3 hours to travel to my parents’ new place. Not wanting to risk traveling in the middle of the night to a place I hadn’t even seen, I scrambled to make arrangements to stay with a friend immediately after we landed. How was I going to meet my friends and relatives ? I flinched at the thought of sitting for a couple of hours each way in the car with Maya. Travelling in a car in Bangalore’s congested roads was like chinese water torture, who knew when the car would stall ? What about eating at all those places that I had been fantasizing ? Could I even walk down M.G. Road ?
With a steely heart and iron resolve (which I hoped wouldn’t rust), I boarded the plane with Maya. The only one facing the whole thing as a real adventure was Maya.