My attempt at fictionalizing facts:
She waited for what seemed like a lifetime of boredom, tossing and turning, flipping websites, waiting forever for someone to show up online and say a hi. She squinted at the clock ticking dutifully at the green painted walls. It was already 3 hours past midnight, and given the quiet and peace, she knew everyone else in the house was peacefully ensconced in sleep. Yet sleep had eluded her, mainly because her jetlagged system was ticking in a different time zone altogether, and because deep down, she missed the life she had for the last 4 years.
When she was about to leave for Seattle 4 years ago, she was told by the so called well wishers who despite never having traveled or lived abroad had an opinion about everything “foreign”, that she will not be treated equally and will always be differentiated. Racism. Color segregation. Gender differentiation. Brown skin and all that shit. Things had been surprisingly different, with not many “racial glitches” but for one incident of misunderstanding while buying a car, when the owner had remarked, “It might happen in your India, but it doesn’t work this way here”. She had smoothly blended in with the people there, celebrating Thanksgiving and Halloween with as much enthusiasm as celebrating Diwali and Holi.
She was back after 4 years, to spend a few months with family. When you go home every year, you are excited. When you go home after four years, you are anxious and overwhelmed at the prospect of anticipating changes, still living in an old time capsule and not really knowing how much change to expect. Her first minor verbal friction happened an hour into landing in Kolkata and entering home when she looked around, taking in all the changes that seemed immediately evident.
Tomader ekhane microwave aache?, she smiled, noticing there was now a microwave in the house that wasn’t there before.
Tomader ekhane na, amader ekhane, she was curtly corrected, it’s not “your house” but “our house”. The differentiation seemed unnoticeable and subtle at first, and having lived on her own for so many years, it seemed natural to think she was visiting her parents’ home and not her home.
That incident was a preview of many more that were to come in the next few weeks, through parents, relatives, and even close friends. She was meeting him for the first time and was jumping in excitement. He had promised to take her some place new, and when they entered the huge upscale mall in the hinterlands of South Kolkata, she could only crane her neck, staring wide-eyed at the jaw dropping wonder that Kolkata had become. The Kolkata she remembered was very different from what she was seeing now, branded shops, the glitterati, money flowing like a free commodity, like it had never before. She looked back at him, only to see his disapproving glance at her expression.
“What were you expecting Kolkata to be? Some village? We are doing equally well as you are, even better”.
It took her a while to register who these “we” and “you” were. She tried to reason, saying she was not thinking on those terms and was just excited to see something so grandiose. But it became an uphill task convincing people she meant no insult to the ipods and imax, Gucci and GAPs that India had become. There were soon flurries of jibes and sarcasm oozing from every conceivable direction.
What is there to fasten the seatbelt every time you get into the car? No cop will give you a ticket.
Nyakamo korar jaiga paoni? Don’t you know people don’t get a ticket here for parking illegally in the middle of the road? It seemed the American has forgotten the ways of India.
We enunciate it as root and not route. You are so American these days.
Why did you say “check” and not “bill”? The waiter looked shocked.
Girl, switch to Hindi. I don’t follow your accented English anymore [Be assured dear readers that her English by Indian standards is still very understandable and un-accented]
Why do you want to do a PhD in Curriculum Design? Do a PhD in something real. You Americans just pick up any random thing to do a PhD in.
Oh, you cannot handle the spice in food anymore? And where are the mineral water bottles? Tucked safely in your bag? [This was when she was flooding tears after biting into several potent chillies hidden in the food]
You must be finding everything so ethnic here.
Why do you take a cab for everything? The buses here are great.
You will be such a misfit if you ever came back for good.
Since when do you wait for traffic signals to cross the road? This is Park Street, not Times Square.
Jibes and seemingly well meaning/good natured sarcasm came in oodles from everyone. It seemed every expression she had, every thought she harbored went through a stern scanning system. Everywhere she didn’t fit in, the gist of the conversation was, “3 years of staying there undid everything you learnt for 25 years?”
Feeling extremely guilty and utterly self-conscious for not being able to do even small things like crossing the road without running the risk of being squished by a bus, she asked her architect friend why things were happening the way they were? She seemed compassionate and a patient listener. Her white American friend was visiting India for the first time and was having a ball, with all the street side food, the shopping and haggling, and other things that made life so vibrant here.
“The first time of visiting India is always the hardest. Your brain cannot match the image of things you have been familiar with since childhood, and then you start feeling guilty for not being able to blend in, even do simple things like handle currency, cross the road, or negotiate. The good news is it gets better with time, and your brain learns to flip between the two worlds like a switch so that when you are in India, you act accordingly and when outside, you act accordingly”
The whole involvement of the brain and the learning process did make things sound better. She was relieved to be told that it was but natural to feel disoriented and she was not suffering from a mental condition.
She still woke up in time for her Seattle friends to get home from work so that she could steal snippets of conversations with them. She still looked up the Seattle weather forecast, and read the online news for Seattle more out of habbit than anything else. Her friend was performing in a play she performed in the last 2 years, and was eagerly waiting for facebook updates on how things went. Her laptop still showed 3pm local time though it was 3:30am the next day actually. She felt conscious every time she felt unbearably hot because people remarked how much her physiology had adapted to the cold weather, which was bullshit because the same people would sweat, stink, and swore at the unbearable heat.
She tried to hold on to Seattle in small ways. The facebook updates from her Seattle friends made her feel connected to her world. Unable to sleep, she dabbed a generous amount of the Bath & Body works lotion she got from there and sniffed deep. The smell reminded her of Seattle, and of the numerous things she did there. She missed the little things she had left behind- the feel of the wheel of her car when she drove, the voices of people she heard every time she switched on the National Public Radio when she drove, the sights of the all too familiar roads and exit signs. She thought of the numerous occasions when she had tried to blend in back at home, when she refused to wear anything but Indian clothes so that the relatives didn’t think she was too western [to which a friend said, you are so western, you would only wear Indian clothes to show off], when she littered the street instead of putting the remains of her food in a trash bag and disposed it off later just because people had glared at her the two times she had done it previously, and had stopped asking stupid questions like why don’t people get a ticket when they park their vehicles here and there on the streets. She had even started to sit huddled to her co-passengers in crowded metros, not quite reveling in the smell of sweat and the feel of bare arms touching instead of deciding to stand at a distance and travel. Acceptance is what she trained herself in, though she wished people would not subject her to harsh scrutiny every time she spoke or did things in a certain way. And with this, she had a strange realization.
She imagined she was standing in a crowded street in Kolkata, trying to blend in with the people around her. These were the same people who had warned her against foreigners discriminating and differentiating in the US. The same people turned to her and told her- you are not one of us anymore. In more ironic ways than one, her own people were rejecting her. Most of you might think she was imagining things and making up stuff in her mind. But if you have been through chasms and temporal cultural divides, you will know what she meant.