It was mid summer before the desire to go back to India was rekindled. Gerard managed to plan a new route but including two old favorites, Goa and Varanasi, and of course the obligatory stop in Delhi to see our Indian family.
The day before we left a storm dropped a foot of snow on Boston and shut down the airport for 24 hours. But thankfully, there were no problems with our departure. As we flew above the city, I understood the meaning of crystal clear –the darkness had already descended and a brilliant mass of golden lights were polished by the cold winter air, drained of moisture after yesterday’s snow.
We used frequent flyer miles to fly to Delhi via Paris. Both flights were surprisingly uneventful with no crying babies and no disturbances. The brief layover in Charles DeGaulle airport felt like a mini Parisian vacation, including cappuccino and fresh baked croissants in a little cafe! After I complained about our seat assignments on our second flight, we were upgraded to business class in the upper level of a Boeing 747 – remarkably spacious with a wonderful wide ledge next to my window seat for my sundry belongings. Secluded from the main cabin below and with our own friendly cabin crew, it felt as if we were part of a select group flying in a small private plane.
We arrived at the brand new Delhi International terminal- gleaming and orderly; so different from the chaos, dirt and confusion of our first arrival here 33 years ago. But like certain smells that bring back childhood memories, the familiar mix of aromas that is distinctly Indian is welcoming in the face of change. We both agree that is seems like we have just left – indeed it has only been nine months. We’re both very happy to be back.
Our friend Shruti’s husband Arvind and her father Bhushan have come to meet us. Arvind is tall by Indian standards and as we exit the airport into a huge throng of Indians come to meet arrivals, a waving arm above the mass leads us to Arvind’s welcoming face.
We joke with our Indian friends with what they like to call “Indian time” – what that amounts to is that they are habitually later than scheduled and for no apparent reason. They don’t defend it. But “Indian time” could also be interpreted as the manner in which Indians always have time for each other. Whether it means going to the airport at 2 am on a cold January morning to meet a friend or relative, or stretching their already confined living space to accommodate an elderly mother who can no longer take care of herself; or a daughter, son-in-law and grandchild whose lives have taken an unexpected turn and need time to relocate; or travelers from the US like ourselves who are passing through and appreciate hospitality for a night or two.
Indians often live to a very old age (perhaps it’s the antioxidants in all the chai they drink…) Shruti’s paternal and maternal grandmother both now live with her mother and aunt respectively. Shruti’s grandmother tried to communicate with us to no avail. But when I said, “Radha Soami” (the spiritual path we all practice), she smiled and touched her forehead and said the name of her Master. Something in common, something shared without words.
The Mahajan’s home may be crowded, with Shruti, Arvind and their two year old daughter Simrita staying here temporarily; but no one complains. They accept the situation and deal with it. Simrita is surrounded by three generations of adoring relatives, and with constant attention has grown in confidence. Her grandfather, Bhushan, has taught her to chant boldly, “I am brave…I am strong… I am not afraid of anything! I am not afraid of Gerard Uncle’s beard!” And she touches his chin to prove it. Six months ago, the first sight of him and his beard would send her off screaming!
Shruti is happy to be back in India where she no longer feels alone; she has plenty of help with the baby, and no longer has to cook, clean and wash. Practically, life is much easier for her than in the US. Asked what she misses if anything, Shruti says without hesitation: “The space and cleanliness. We used to enjoy driving out into the open country easily. Here any outing is exhausting. And the weather, especially spring”. Delhi goes from winter cold, straight into the broiling heat of summer. It is cold here right now – not as cold as Boston – but the concrete houses without central heating are frigid. You can’t expect to come in from the cold outside and warm up.
Delhi also has a new metro system which is changing the face of the city. Shops and businesses are springing up along the route where previously there were none. Progress was spurred on by the Commonwealth Games held here last summer, and it is now almost complete. Fairs are cheap (one rupee per km) and the trains are numerous, which is good because even later in the evening they’re still crowded.
After only two days in Delhi, we leave on the night train for Chennai in the south. I was not looking forward to the 33 hour train ride, but now half way through it I must admit it’s not that difficult and many times preferable to the long bus rides we took last year up in the mountains! Like our flight, the train is unusually peaceful with no screaming babies or even loud voices. We share our compartment with two young men who are relatively quiet and spend most of the journey sleeping. Indians have an amazing capability to pass long periods of waiting/travel in sleep. They can literally sleep through the day and following night also. Lulled by the motion and sounds of the train moving along the tracks, we also sleep and catch up on our jet lag.