I am on Indian Soil at last. I recall our wonderful lunch together in March. You had mentioned interest in having me document my move to India after 10 years of living in California. I thought over it several times after that, my mind running live commentaries to you as the experience tread over my emotions. I had planned to write interesting articles; weaving our adventure chronologically for you—but thoughts and emotions are random. I do not wish to lose the flavor of thought in a quagmire of words.
Leaving “home” is never easy. Leaving it behind is harder. We lived in California for 10 years, and in many ways, adopted, and became Californians. I became acutely aware of some things. My mockingbird for one; it chirps its song endlessly all summer outside my bedroom. It rails, rants, trills, and squeaks a repertoire of more than 23 (at last count) songs. I miss him.
I packed away my art first, paranoid like a mother hen about the chemicals and solvents essential to my creative impulse. The boxes seemed to resist closure, opening of their own will to yield new ideas and opportunities. I was invited to speak to a class in Stanford, participate in another exhibition, and parade the VW Bug at an art festival South of Market. There seemed no time to pack and move. Living in those last weeks was like a visit to a no (wo)man’s land. Surrounded by a murky ring of ifs, buts, musts, shoulds, needn’t, could and would, every moment seemed a mental exercise.
Amidst all this, Murphy’s Law took effect. My taps sprung a leak. I rushed over next door to ask for a wrench. Somehow whatever we had was always inadequate, but no matter. I was led to the garage and offered a pick of six, along with an accurate estimate of which one would probably suit my needs. I returned an hour later with my tale of success and the wrenches, relieved to get away from the sorted heaps that surrounded us anxiously anticipating their fate at the hands of unknown movers.
Our neighborhood in Santa Clara is unique. Although we were the only Indians on the Court, the atmosphere was more Indian than India is today. I grew up in Chennai where we knew all our neighbors. Children had free run of the locality, assured of security, food, affection, and shelter at the ring of any doorbell. Perhaps, being the youngest at 23 had something to do with it. We were a young couple loved and cared for by the Court with whom we were also the dearest of friends. I grew into adulthood there. My children, a boy and two hearty, huge dogs that took it upon themselves to mark and guard the whole court, blossomed with the security and attention. Books and delicacies criss-crossed the asphalt and conversations flowered over our fences. The dogs peeked at each other through the gaps and (we suspect) exchanged juicy tidbits about our soft spots. They all seemed to know which buttons to push on whom.
Preparing for the move just seemed a headache in the scheme of an eventful live. Stuck at a light at peak hour traffic on my way to a meeting of the Planning Commission at the newly built Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose, I found myself examining the bored and exhausted expressions on the opposite lane. The music from the opera, Carmen, played with my spirits. I grew up listening to that opera in India, the sound blaring from my father’s huge speakers vibrating my soul. Perhaps this is the last time I will see such faces, I thought. I wondered what they were thinking of. If they noticed me, they certainly did not show it. “I will not be here much longer!” my mind shouted to their preoccupied ones across the yellow line. Carmen called me back to my childhood. It would be wonderful, I thought, as my eyes brimmed against my will, the irony not lost on me.
The adventures have begun. We arrived in Chennai airport, anxious about our animals and effects. As it was our first experience traveling with our dogs, I browsed the web until I found dogpatch.com. I found it incredibly useful and interesting; highly recommend it to anyone traveling with dogs. Taking their sagacious advice and putting their user recommendations to practice, I photographed my animals, wrote “Dear Pilot and Co-pilot” letters, painted the kennels bright red and gold (ghastly, but visible) marked it with their names and like any paranoid mother, pasted flight details along with emergency contacts and our seat assignments. I also added the essential “Friendly Dog” for any animal-friendly ground staff. Despite all this, forewarned by the website about airlines, we spent a nail biting hour in Chicago. United Airlines could not find our dogs!
By the time they were located, my husband had disappeared to run errands and I, armed with baggage, and a child, found myself with two puzzled, relieved creatures desperate in need of a patch of grass. I was also informed in no uncertain terms that I had exactly ten minutes. What ensued was a run that probably matched the entertainment value of the chariot race in Ben Hur. The two huge animals bounded forward, with me swinging behind, zigzag like a weightless chariot car. Maithreya, my son, running parallel, yelling to catch up. People stopped to watch, others sprang out of the way, my apologetic smile whizzing past their stunned expressions.
Frankfurt was no piece of cake. Having delayed our departure to get a visa so that we could exercise our dogs there, we were astounded to discover that there really was no place to do so. Everyone was too exhausted to do anything. My husband cleared customs to retrieve the animals. When it was time to check them in again, the officer informed him that the animals, checked in only up to Frankfurt by United had no passage to Chennai on Lufthansa, despite our having paid their way through! They wanted him to physically recheck the animals in. The import of this statement: Aravind had to haul two live animals in huge kennels to the second floor, stand in line, and jump through German Hoops. Fortunately, with the intervention of a manager willing to reconsider that option, the animals got on board. That cleared, they stopped him coming in, asking how he “got out,” with an Indian passport. People with Indian passports cannot “Get Out” legally, or so it seems. He mentioned his Schengen Visa. To add insult to injury he had to patiently listen to the German officer’s two bits about why “Chennai” should really remain “Madras” and “Mumbai,” “Bombay!”
Our eventful transit included an encounter with an octogenarian Indian in Frankfurt Main, hysterical and terribly lost. The poor man, separated from his fellow passengers, had lost his earpiece and was faint and teary when we found him. Lost in an alien place without any knowledge of English, prior experience flying and procedures, he was unable to communicate his dilemma. Disgusted at the inconsiderate relative who booked such an elderly individual with a nine-hour layover, we escorted him to the Red Carpet Club. Just as one insensitive American passenger at the Club began to heckle, another American with enough transit time came forward to take over the care of this passenger. We hope he reached his thoughtless relative in safety.
The humid air wrapped around us in a warm embrace as we disembarked in Chennai. My eyes skirted the tarmac for the kennels. Just the thought of hundreds of passengers shoving and elbowing each other at the immigration counters made me sigh. I entered with a sense of inevitability. I was pleasantly surprised. Passengers, responding to the organization, immediately fell into line, patiently waiting their turn. Better organized than Frankfurt Main, with the clearly demarcated lines and immigration windows, Chennai authorities cleared the passengers with swift efficiency. Baggage: the next challenge.
The animals arrived at the oversize section, feeling sorry for themselves. The innate fear of dogs etched in the Modern Indian Psyche caused the crowd to surge back clearing a wide berth for passage. With permission, (flexibility and accommodation being bone of the benefits and pitfalls of India), they were escorted out to waiting grandparents. We remained, loaded our luggage and headed for customs, prepared for the worst.
I recall one rude officer stopping me in 1987 in Mumbai. The irate man ransacked my baggage, convinced of a bounty in its heavy contents. “Books,” I had informed deaf ears. Three uniformed officers greeted us at the red channel counter. We declared what we had. Genuinely helpful, they were almost apologetic for having to duty our second laptop, reiterating the reasons for having to do so. Was it just we who were treated well? I watched the way they handled the case of an elderly Muslim man with his cardboard boxes bound with fluorescent nylon rope. Our profiles could not have been more different. The courtesy and decency continued.
Are we in an India of a new age? We hope.
I truly believe that India is a state of mind. I taught myself to drive by stealing away in my father’s old Ambassador at age 16, panicked at a tight corner, challenged myself to figure out how to reverse and returned the vehicle. Only my father noticed that the car was parked on the other side of the street. He never said anything but trusted me with his keys. I married and we left India before my license came through. San Francisco was a new learning ground. Everything moved faster and on the wrong side. The first time I parked our stick shift on a steep hill, I was with the DMV test officer. I passed. I drove.
Driving was a pleasure. Interstate 280 had a stream of drivers, invariably women, hitting 85 to 90 mph during the 55 speed limit days. We whizzed by the slowcoaches derisively. Returning from my first trip back to India just in time to resume classes at SFSU, I once found myself facing oncoming traffic on Brotherhood Way. That scared me, but not enough to deter my spirit. Both my husband and I continued to drive in India every visit, determined to separate the driving experience as one would separate the skills learnt for two different sports. I mentally switched to India mode and hazarded the road. My left hand automatically changes gears. It also occasionally turns on the wipers expecting the indicator. I always confirm which side of the road I am to be on before I move, although it is easy enough to adjust here!
Driving in India is a state of mind. Skilled and aggressive players engage in this well-honed game as a matter of routine. It is much alike the challenge to see who blinks first. Will you get out of my way or must I get out of yours? What if we both do not give in? What if I call your bluff? What if I remain where I am and you plough along until you can move no further, not unless you hit me? You blinked. I win.
A rush courses through me every step of the way. People still overtake from all sides. No one sees you, or at least they pretend not to. They must see you. They never hit you. You never hit them. It is amazing. One would expect a million accidents along the way. None happen. I find myself driving as if I never left. I am one of them, playing the same game. I find myself adamant about my right of way, glaring down male drivers in anything from a bike to a bus.
The biggest defaulters are the buses, water lorries, government vehicles, and two-wheelers. The two-wheelers wheedle in and out of narrow gaps tightening a congested situation. The bus drivers block the road by blatantly overtaking waiting traffic. They are impatient to get ahead, to squeeze through one more inch to get a yard ahead. Do they not realize that in the ultimate analysis, they are no further ahead of you? Apparently not. The other government vehicles are equally bad. The official white Ambassadors seem to demand right of passage. They come close behind and honk in a manner that seems to indicate that honking makes metal objects on wheels disappear. That, we know, is a fallacy imparted at the Government Driving School, but who is to make them the wiser? There is, however, a great pleasure in moving with slow deliberation when the honkers tailgate. Another option, which I have also used with success, is to roll down my window and remind them that as a citizen, they are really in my service, and therefore bloody well wait their turn.
Chennai traffic is heavy but a lot of positive, ongoing civil work facilitates improved conditions. The city government has given a private contract to Larsen and Toubro to construct one way overpasses for vehicles to bypass congested intersections like Adyar and Saidapet. The work is on schedule with minimum disruption of traffic. The old trees saved wherever possible, remain in grand majesty. It is a pleasure to drive through some of the roads tunneled from the harsh sun by a canopy of shady leaves. There are still long stretches where traffic flows freely and in an orderly manner. Lanes are painted on all the broad new roads. People are slowly learning to negotiate them.
M. Karunanidhi’s son Stalin seems to be showing some civil interest. To his credit, the helpful bright blue signs installed at major intersections by the previous Jayalalitha government still stand. There are clean and modernized gas stations popping up everywhere. These clean service centers, unlike the old dirty places, are modeled along the lines of gas stations in the Unites States. Every station has several pumps. There are some with better reputations than others and therefore do well. Unleaded gas is easily available even in tertiary cities. This is a change from 1996 and 1998 when they were few and far between. All new cars and new models are required to fuel only with Regular Unleaded. Super Unleaded cannot be very far behind.