I am not stranger to Kolkata. It annoys me every time I land at the airport and stand in line for immigration, always surrounded by a bunch of NRIs who cannot stop complaining about how slow the line is moving or how Kolkata is never going to change or flash their foreign passports to get ahead in line. Yes, the first thing I step out of the plane, I smell the warm, humid air mixed with phenyl/floor-cleaning chemicals. And that is the smell I associate with the airport, my gateway to my home. When in the US, I used to visit annually. Now from Germany, I visit almost twice a year. But every time I visit, there are certain things I relearn or unlearn. Day 1 is always the hardest, reorienting myself to a different, if not new way of doing things. It's like a switch in the brain that turns on and off. Here are some of the things that always surprise me anew in Kolkata.
1. Sweating. Every time I step out of the airport, my glasses fog. And I slowly start sweating. It's an alien feeling, since I do not sweat in Germany. Not even for a minute, unless I am working out seriously. The seasons are differentiated by the number of blankets and comforters I heap on myself, and summer means using only one instead of three. So suddenly when I am standing outside the airport, not lifting anything or working out and I start sweating, my clothes clinging to me, the feeling is very disconcerting.
2. Roads. It takes my brain a little bit of re-programming to remember that we now drive on the left hand side of the road. It always surprises me how much smaller, bumpier, and un-geometrical the roads look. The first few times of crossing the roads without signal are scary, and I involuntarily look for the traffic lights with the red hand or the green man walking. It doesn't take long to unlearn the western ways and relearn the Indian way though. On our way from the airport this time, dad asks me if I see something different about the roads. Unmindful and still thinking about why I am sweating, I reply, "Yes, it's so much smaller and we are on the left, which is freaking me out." Dad was pointing out to how much cleaner and organized the roads now look, with road signs and all, thanks to our chief minister. His message was completely lost on me.
3. Mosquitoes. Two days after I arrived, I woke up one morning, my right arm completely riddled with mosquito bites. In a strange way, it felt very nostalgic. Sensing a mosquito that’s sitting on my leg and killing it without seeing it is a skill that has taken me years to master. I don’t even know why we switch on the electronic mosquito repellant. I don’t think it works.
4. Lizards. I am used to staying up late. I am also used to raiding the fridge at night. Often, when I switch on the kitchen light, I see a lizard or two quickly crawl by on the floor. We have learnt to accept each other's existence. It feels assuring to know that someone else is up and scouring for food as well this late.
5. The ceiling fan. Eventually, when I am done working, I switch off the laptop and the tube light before hitting the bed. In bed, I lie on my back, looking at the silhouette of the ceiling fan moving. And I always wonder what if it falls on me? I wonder when they last serviced the fan and how well they checked the screws suspending it. Sometimes, I am afraid that my thoughts alone will change an unlikely event into a likely one. So I try to think of something else until I fall asleep. However, every time I lie down, I always wonder if I should switch it off.
6. The door bell. It’s amazing how many times the door bell rings here. In Germany, I don’t think I even have a door bell. If I am expecting someone, they just call beforehand. There is no domestic help or newspaper person or mailman or the plumber or electrician to ring the bell.
7. Food. I am always thrilled by how much stronger fruits and vegetables smell here- garlic, ginger, onions, mangoes. My hand smells of food all day long. Back there, fruits and vegetables are four times the size, but hardly have any smell.
8. Wet bathroom floors. This is one more thing that takes me some time to get used to. The fact that there is always water on the floors. And buckets, yes. I don’t have any buckets or mugs back in Germany.
9. The domestic help. In Germany, I am the cook and I am the cleaner. I do the dishes and clean the floors. I wash my own clothes. I make my tea. Not here.
10. The clothes line. I do not have one back there. The dryer dries my clothes, although I feel so much better drying my clothes in the sunlight.
There are so many more, including experiencing extended periods of time when there could be no water or no electricity or no internet or all of the above. Electricity-wise, it is so much better than it used to be when we were children. I actually miss those one hour in the evening summer power outages when I would do nothing but lie on the terrace, looking up and admiring the night sky and the blinking airplanes while riddled with mosquito bites.