“Oh ya? Come at me! See what happens!” I screeched at the top of my lungs. Hot anger pulsed like a Bollywood drum through my veins churning adrenaline into outright rage and hatred. If she dared to step any closer, I would charge at her; an angry bull aimed to kill.
There’s an unwritten rule in India when crossing the road: step into traffic, avoid eye contact, and hope for the best. After 3 years, I’d become skilled at avoiding chickens, cows, steaming piles of feces (animal and human), ox carts brimming with colorful fruits, rickety bicycles balancing eggs, auto rickshaws, motorbikes, racing street children, and the occasional automobile; usually air conditioned, closed to the outside world, always driven by an upper class Mumbaikar.
“Wait for me!” I hollered at my friend as I squeezed my way across the busy road. One foot into the lane and I was immediately pinned between an ancient, yellow rickshaw and a shiny, black Audi with tinted windows; the kind that is air-conditioned and closed off to the world.
“What the hell?” I’m walking here!” I shouted over the din at the tinted window. Sweat dripping from my brow as I pleaded to be let free gesturing toward the tinted window, hands outstretched. I even threw in an authentic Indian head-bobble, you know, to show cultural empathy.
A middle-aged woman, whose husband obviously made a healthy income, probably illegally, peeked her head out the window. She was dressed in a lime-green sari, sapphire crystals dripping from her earlobes. If she weren’t scowling and waving her fists, she may have been beautiful. As it was, the dusty orange glow of sunset cast her in the light of Shiva rising from the depths of hell.
“Why are you crossing da road here, it is waaaay too busy. You are too stupid to see that. Mother-chode, idiot Americans tink you own da world ha! Stupid!”
This is unusual. I thought. I;’ve only been addressed this way when I won’t give the street kids money. How am I going to play this? She’s clearly upset, and I made her feel that way. On the other hand, she called me an idiot and I can’t just stand here and let that happen. I have to stand up for myself. What’s the worst that could happen?
“Look lady, I’m not trying to ruin your day here, I am just trying to cross the road. I would really appreciate it if you’d unpin me.”
Hooooooonnnnnnnkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk! She blared her horn, maintaining her icy gaze.
“Seriously? You’ve already busted my kneecaps, you want to bust my ear drums too? What the hell?”
“You idiot fucking American, coming to Mumbai to find yourself? How do you find yourself now bitch?”
“Wow. Ok. This is clearly not your day. I can assure you that I am not a mother-chode American intent on ruining your life, but if you do not unpin me I will damage your car.” I balled my fists into bullets aimed and poised. “Your choice.“
The Audi inched closer, crippling my stance. WHAM! I launched my fist onto the hood of the car, making a sizable dent.
“Hit me again! I dare you!” I spit at her barely hearing the advice of my friend imploring me to calm down, catch my breath and disengage. I fired another fist into the Audi’s hood.
“You bitch!” She hollered, “You’ve dented my car! Wait until I get out of this car and show you what dented knees look like!”
“Oh ya? Come at me! See what happens!”
She opened her door to step out, but stopped. We stared at each other, hotly, seething in hatred, fear, anger, and racism. Eventually she turned, flipped the bird, called me a mother-chode idiot American, got back into her car and released me.
I fell into the arms of my friend and wept. I cried out all the anger and hatred, all the filth of India, the sickness, the noise, the dust, the smells, the poverty, the racism, all of it. I cried out everything I didn’t have the strength to face. I had become an angry human, unbalanced, and judgmental. I knew it was time to change. Shiva, the destroyer is a highly regarded God to Hindus. They believe the only way to rebuild is to first destroy. Shiva destroyed me that day, and I am forever grateful to her.
A few weeks ago, I was asked to perform a piece of writing in front of people. It was scary and exciting. I expected a few people, maybe 10, in a coffee shop who may or may not be interested in hearing my story. Instead, there were 150 people crammed into a small bar in mid-town Tokyo listening intently as I shared my writing.
I was slotted the second to last spot on a Sunday night and as the night wore on I worried more and more that the people in the audience would grow tired and leave. Actually, I secretly hoped they would. They stayed. When it was my turn, I pretended to be confident and took the stage, sounds of Alice in Chains’ epic ballad “Don`t Follow” pounding in my head. Breathed in. Breathed out. And shared my story:
Home, A story in 3 Acts
Act 1: The Fuckin’ Yankees
Slam! The screen door shuttered on it’s hinges. Causing the whole house to shake. Shocked by the tremor, my attention swiftly shifted from the Charles in Charge reruns I was watching to
to the screen door.
“The fuckin’ Yankees won again!” Dad announced. He’d just been outside, cleansing his chi. His doctor told him that he needed to walk barefoot in the garden to reduce his hypertension. He does this. Every summer evening. He carries with him, his one companion: A rusty old transistor radio. The one his father gave him after the war. Sounds of crackly a.m. radio baseball sneak out of Dad’s pocket as he enters the kitchen.
“I swear on my father’s grave, the Orioles’ ONE goal in life is to lose to the fuckin’ Yankees!”
“Hmmm” says my mother, calmly snapping peas at the kitchen sink. 40 years of marriage has taught her to react subtly when he is being irrational. Especially when it’s about sports. Especially, especially when those sports are the Baltimore Orioles.
“What happened this time?” She asked
“Derek Jeter, That`s what happened. They can’t seem to stop Derek “f-in” Jeter. ”
“Well, Maybe They will stop `em tomorrow.” I offered, one eye still on Charles.
Next to me my younger brother, Kevin, was too busy playing with his new guitar to care about the scuffle in the kitchen.
“One can dream,” Mom said turning her attention back to the peas.
This was our routine, my parents me. Dad would complain loudly about New York sporting teams and mom would hum show tunes to drown out the din. Kevin played guitar while I contemplated the latest episode of Growing Pains. That kitchen, with its mustard yellow walls and cherrywood cabinets is where we became a home and where I learned what it meant to be home. It is where I learned to love, negotiate, laugh, cry, and listen.
I grew up in sunny Colorado, riding bikes, climbing trees, building snowmen with my little brother, sprinting up mountains as fast as my legs could carry me. Its where I kissed the neighbor boy for the very first time and fell in love on my front lawn.
Summer days spent skipping stones into glassy mountain streams and evenings in dusty old theaters learning everything from Shakespeare to Rogers and Hammerstein.
Its where I learned how NOT to be a successful college student, and how to lie to my parents about being kicked out. Colorado is where I learned the word integrity the hard way, and that failures are stepping stones to success and not life ruining events. It’s where I learned that home is where they have to take you in no matter what. Because like The Rocky mountains, silent and majestic, home is a place for new beginnings and fresh starts.
Act 2: What`s that smell?
“Woah. What the hell is that?” I asked as I stepped off the plane into the dense heat soaked Bombay summer.
“Nothing mad`am. Burning trash only.” he said with a dismissive wiggle of his head.
“Oh.” I replied. But I wasn’t convinced. I’d never smelled anything like it before. It smelled like steamy old rotten bananas mixed with the sour blood of a freshly slaughtered goat.
India is like that; It’s an assault to the senses. We made our way through the busy airport and after only 2.5 hours of waiting for luggage we were finally set free into the steaming buzzing streets of Mumbai.
He turned, looked at me, and with arms wide open he breathed, “Welcome home mad`am.”
“Thank you, Suraj.” I canted.
It hit me then.
This is home?Where the pollution-soaked-sun casts long shadows of overstuffed rickshaws busily buzzing people and sugarcane and cows?
Where Ravens the size of small children incessantly chatter and debate about who gets the last morsel of decapitated rat?
And where limbless people writhe and spill onto dirty dusty roads fighting street dogs for discarded bits of chicken biryani?
“This can’t be home.” I thought. “I won`t survive here.”
And I almost didn`t.
One year and three months into India, I was diagnosed with Typhoid fever. Like American Civil War typhoid Mary contamination thousands of people typhoid fever. I’d managed to contract the disease even though I’d had the vaccination. My doctor, Dr. Ajit Sadi, “it’s like this Andrea. A vaccine is like a small umbrella in monsoon. You’ll still be getting wet, but you won’t get as wet.”
The hospital became my home that week. The nurses my sisters, the doctors my parents. It wasn’t so bad. There were catered meals and wifi. But I was glad when it was time to unhook the iv be discharged back my real life into my real home. Unfortunately, three weeks later, I stumbled into the hospital again. This time it was encephalitis. The scary kind. The kind that kills people.
“Welcome home, Andrea! We cannot keep you away!”
I would’ve smiled, but it hurt to move.
“Come. We’ve two new nurses just learning how to insert IV’s. They are very excited to meet you.”
“Perfect! You know how much I enjoy needles. This should be fun.” I said, mustering as much sarcasm as I could through the encephalitic fog.
“What a good attitude you’ve got Andrea. India has kept well,”
And he was right. Despite two deadly illnesses and countless rounds of antibiotics India was keeping me well, because it’s there that Ilearned how to build a home. How to create my own family. I molded important relationships with the shoe guy and the ice guy and the knife walla, the coconut lady, and the fruit guy, and the little kid who sold gum and old Bollywood playing cards. I grew attached the giant fruit bat family that lived in a tree by my window and the fleet of stray dogs who stood guard every night.
India is where I learned to embrace heat, and noise, and how to celebrate multiple deities, seemingly every weekend singning, “Om Gan Gana pata ye Namo Namah…shri sidd tviyak namo namaha ashta vinaiyak namo nahama ganpatti bapa morya…” It is where I learned to steer myself around noisy firecrackers, and goats, cows, dogs, burning piles of garbage, people, people, shit,more people, chickens, crows, more shit, bats, palm trees, discarded bits of goat, elaborate wedding processions, and even the occasional elephant.
The heart pounding deafening drum beats that echo down the dusty cobblestone lanes became my pulse. India was my heart. It’s where I learned how to really, truly, love being surrounded by the best of humanity.
And worst of humanity.
Because India, that is where I learned the truth about corruption. And blatant bigotry. And racism. And rage.
So much rage.
My home was becoming hostile and turning me into a person I didn’t recognize. One who became irrationally upset with tiny-insignificant things. So irrational that when doors were slammed, they rattled the whole house. I knew that as much as I loved India, and as much as I wanted our relationship to work, we weren`t healthy together. So with a heavy heart I broke up with home sought younger, fresher pastures.
Act 3: Silent Sardines
“Do you hear that?” he whispered
“What? I don’t hear anything,” she replied.
“That. There. Listen.” He said, tilting his head toward a distant sound.
They let the silence sit between them for a while before she reached over to him.
“I miss India.” she said.
“I know you do. But this is home now. You’ll get used to it.”
“When you wake up.”
“When you wake up.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I mean, when you wake up from dream you are in, you will get used to Tokyo. You will adjust to the silence. You will learn to embrace the cold compartmentalized disinterested public and you will see that it is respect for your space and not you being snubbed.
You will learn to love clean air, blue skies and pouty pink blossoms in spring. You will learn to love balls of rice and seaweed and riding your bike on vacant streets in below freezing weather. The rocking hum of tightly packed tin trains carting silent sardines downstream will start to feel safe. Like a communal hug. Silent swarms of silverly salary men and new moms with tiny button babies that rock and sway in the ebb and flow of the foot traffic, will carry you with them if you let them.
Home calls to you when you hear the train conductor whisper, “Kichijoji, Kichijoji desu.” When you wake up and realize that you made this move on purpose. That just because you shifted locations doesn’t mean you shifted homes. Open your eyes and look around and you will find that home has been here all along. It’s in the song of the mountains and the laughter of school children being called inside with the sweet tune of home. It’s the trees you climb in Nogawa park and the Indian wool blanket you wrap up in at night. It’s in the 4:30 am sun rise and the dense heat of Tokyo Augusts. Home is the crack of the baseball bat when the pitcher for the Swallows gives up another base hit. It’s what you carried here from Colorado, and India.
Home is what you bring with you, and home is what you learn.
So wake up!
Stop fighting, and see it.
It’s waiting for you.
And those tremors you feel, those are probably just the fucking yankees.”
I finished reading. Swallowed back tears. Bolted from the stage directly to the bar where a cold gin and tonic was waiting for me. I didn’t hear the applause or see the partial standing ovation. People had to tell me about that later. I am glad I did it. Felt good to share a part of me with strangers, to get good feedback. The writing isn’t as polished as I want it to be, but I guess that is the nature of writing. It is cyclical. I will come back around to this piece, and when I do, I will find home waiting for me.
It only took three years, but I’ve become an Indian. I take my shoes off before entering a home; I eat spicy food; I bow and place my hands in front of my face to greet people; I waggle my head and eat a lot of rice; I wear pants and long sleeve shirts on sweltering summer days; I speak kilos/meters/centigrade; I prefer tea to coffee; I wear long loose tunics and gold bangles; and I don’t cringe at the smell of fish markets. Busses, horns, goats, cows, scrap dealers, flute wallas, chaiwallas, shoe makers, funeral processions, goddess parades, rich pigmented celebrations, human pyramids, church bells, calls to prayer, Ghanpati drumlines, and rickshaws don’t phase me. I didn’t think it was possible for me to adjust to this way of life, but somehow it’s become my normal.
Not for long though, in August, I will trade meandering lanes for straight lined streets. Colorful spices for white rice and fish. Rickshaws for bullet-trains. And 24 hour noise for almost deafening silence after dark. I’m moving to another vibrant Asian city, one whose description couldn’t be more opposite than the one I’ve just called home for three years. It’s exciting to think that, in a few short months I’ll be turning Japanese. Tokyo or bust!
I’ve never been a lover of sapphires. Their deep blue color was nice, but not so appealing to me. Having an April birthday, I prefer the clean, crisp diamond to colored gemstones. But, one look at the azure sea of sapphire toned homes in the Indian city of Jodhpur instantly changed my opinion on the shade.
This most beautiful tangle of royal blue, turquoise, indigo, and slate homes weaves it’s way through the muddled terra-cotta streets leading to the gem in Jodhpur’s crown: Mehrangarh Fort. Deep red, gold, and amber in color it’s stark contrast to the royal blue beneath it only enhances the beauty of the city.
My parents and I had the pleasure of strolling through the alleyways one afternoon clicking photo after photo. Beautiful blue after dazzling purple, rows and rows of azure abodes, we were mesmerized by the simplicity of these monochrome streets. However, what struck us most was not the richness of color but the strong sense of community woven together as tightly as the intertwining rows of buildings.
Women, men, children, animals clumped together like rubies in a crown, basking in shadow and protection of the ancient fort. Worshipping, having tea, chasing chickens, playing cards or gossiping about the strange tourists asking permission to take their photos. We were welcomed, embraced, shown personal artifacts, and told stories of how magical their blue city is.
Our time spent in the silver chain of sapphires was only an hour, but it was the most significant and astounding part of the city. What lies amongst the ocean of aqua is a deep sense of serenity, contentment, and pride to be part of the diamond that is Jodhpur.
There’s a little village close to me called Mahim. There’s nothing really remarkable about this typical middle-class neighborhood except for the few days before the Hindu celebration of Diwali. As if from nowhere, shining shops pop on the streets and lanes enticing onlookers to walk amongst the glow of hundreds of colorful paper lanterns. It’s magical. Diwali, my favorite time of year in Bombay. Light the lights!