The tickets arrived yesterday. One-way tickets. The date for our return is set.
We are going back home for good. There is the usual sense of anticipation that precedes any trip to India. This time there is an additional element of finality in our actions. It’s not just the suitcases on the floor but boxes that need to be filled. Before that I have closets to empty, papers to sort, and furniture to sell. The connections to the phone, electricity, cable, all the amenities that made life at this hectic pace not just pleasurable but possible, have to be severed. What is harder to do is to break the ties to the people, the places, and the part of me that I know will still linger.
I buy a small bag of rice and wonder if it will suffice for the remaining few days that we will be in America. I am overcome by a fierce wave of emotion. There is no way of predicting what might trigger the sudden bout of sentimentality—the gallon of milk, the neat boxes of pasta, or the jar of creamy peanut butter. Previously, only the sight of tiny baby clothes that my daughter once wore could bring me to this state. Now I have to steel myself and reduce the contents of that large box of infant clothes and keepsakes to a reasonable size. These items are more than mere tokens of the childhood that I am trying to freeze for my daughter to linger over at a later time. They have turned into priceless mementoes.
I sort through a waist-high pile of boxes that are full of photographs. I study souvenirs of long ago vacations. It takes forever. The simple task of emptying a closet takes immense effort. My arms are leaden extensions of that part of me that is reluctant to engage in this cleansing ritual. I feel like a child, hesitant to give up old clothes, even though she knows she has outgrown them.
My brother and sister-in-law arrive one Saturday morning, astonished at the lack of progress on the packing front, not used to such behavior on my part, familiar as they are with my preference for planning ahead. They patiently fill and tape six boxes before getting discouraged at my obvious resistance and lack of cooperation. They need me to decide what stays, what goes. I am not ready.
We have an endless string of invitations to honor, lunches and dinners hosted by colleagues, friends, and relatives. There seems to be no accepted protocol for this kind of parting. They are unsure whether to congratulate us, wish us luck, or simply say goodbye. To some we embody the action they wish they had taken. Some assure us that they will follow us when they are ready. To others we appear foolish for leaving the apparent comforts of American life to embrace the uncertainties of life in India. To some we are the proverbial sacrificial lambs. They wait to see how we fare before weighing the outcome of our decision on their scale of “to stay or leave” dilemmas.
There are two cakes that say “farewell” at a party at a friend’s house. We are introduced to another family that is in the same situation as us. It is reassuring in a way, but also doubly depressing.
Is it possible to feel nostalgic about a place even before you leave it?
Why then do I feel this helpless kind of sadness when I drive by the hospital where my daughter was born or while pulling into my favorite parking spot at my workplace or while using the ATM?
There are more questions but few explanations, none adequate to fully express the range of emotions that I experience everyday.
The entire house is in disarray. The kitchen is worst hit. We eat out a lot. We abandon our regular Indian restaurants and fill up on chips and salsa, eggplant in garlic sauce, and tiramisu. I get into my old faithful Toyota and savor the drive on the scenic Interstate 280, realizing that it will be a while before I drive on the right side of the road. Probably a long time before I drive for pleasure.
I give away my formal suits and informal turtlenecks. I stock up on sandals and moisturizer with sunscreen.
The logistical details of a cross-continental move are enormous. The days are physically exhausting, emotionally draining. I thankfully fall into deep, restful slumber. There is no time to brood about the “what ifs” and “maybes.” I feel a sense of completion at finally arriving at this decision that had always seemed within reach, though obscured by the realities and routines of everyday life.
I am acutely aware of my losses. I will miss the perfect Bay area days, NPR, ultra-pasteurized milk, and central air-conditioning. What I will feel more acutely is the loss of people who form a circle of support and security around me. The patience of my Chinese-American friend, the wisdom of my academic advisors, the laughter I share with my American colleagues, and the hospitality and solidarity of fellow Indian immigrants whose friendship I could develop only after we left the common country of our origin, these I will miss the most. I know that the universal human characteristics of kindness, generosity, and compassion will cross my path again. But how long will it be before I surround myself with another group endowed with qualities that truly complement mine?
There is an unwritten family rule that there will be no tears at the time of parting if the separation is a necessary stepping-stone towards an auspicious beginning. Does that rule apply now?
I try to keep the tears at bay but it is the sight of the bag of rice, still unopened on the day of our departure, that opens up the flow.
Too many fragments of the spirit have I scattered in these streets, and too many are the children of my longing that walk naked among these hills, and I cannot withdraw from them without a burden and an ache.
It is not a garment I cast off this day, but a skin that I tear with my own hands.
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
Ranjani Nellore recently moved back to India with her family after living in the U.S. for 13 years.