I still hear the key turning in the door from the outside and you stepping in. Can you believe it? I still see your face, darkened by the sun. Dressed in your cricket whites, you drag your massive cricket-bag-on-wheels behind you by your left arm.
“Did you take the sun-screen with you?” I ask.
“Yes, it’s in the bag.”
“Did you actually put it on?’
“Mamma, I’m hungry.”
I still wait for you to join us for dinner. I cook the foods you like, especially on your birthday: spinach-paneer for mains, chocolate mousse for dessert. I wonder what you’d be doing in this realm if you were here. Job? Girl-friend? How silly! Isn’t it? I can’t help it. It’s involuntary. It’s got something to do with the heart. With longing. With missing. With love. It’s not supposed to make sense. You would have had a good old chuckle at my expense if you were here. But you are not and I am. How random is that?
I still remember the first time I felt you elbow-ing or knee-ing me from inside my tummy, as if we had an inside joke between us. I remember holding all three kilos of you in my arms for the first time. I couldn’t believe you were for real. You were all mine. Now my arms ache with emptiness. Is this real?
Do you miss me sometimes?
Happy birthday my darling.
It will be the past
And we’ll live there together.
Not as it was to live
But as it is remembered.
It will be the past.
We’ll all go back together.
Everyone we ever loved,
And lost, and must remember.
It will be the past.
And it will last forever.
– A poem by Patrick Phillips, on the New York subway.
(“Ghar aa” is a Hindi phrase that means “Come home”)
Nineteen months passed before I could travel again. The uncertainty in the air for all this time meant no one knew when they would see their close family that lived in far-off countries. The news relayed the horrendousness of the situation in India and the 6700 kilometers between them and me made me feel utterly powerless. I would have flown to India at least thrice in this time but I waited for it to become possible.
Then, it did. Si booked my tickets and I felt like I was flying already but coming up to the date of travel, the extra layer of bureaucracy turned me into a tight knot of nerves. This test, that certificate, the other QR code, the timing of this, the reference number of that, one on-line form to be filled on the way out and another on the way back and so on and so forth. I had 2 close friends on speed dial, one in India and the other, a frequent flyer in the UK.
Yet, in the run up to the date of departure, my antacid consumption seriously shot up. In my awful dreams, the faceless uniforms looked at my paper work and shook their heads from side to side. They sent me back home from the airport. They told me I would have to quarantine at the other end in a seedy hotel for 10 days. That would eat up more than half my holiday. I woke up in a bath of sweat.
My two suitcases were mostly packed with chocolates, cheeses, cheese-crackers, sheep’s wool, woolly jumpers, bamboo socks and other such goodies for my folks. I got on the plane at Heathrow and landed at New Delhi safely, utterly grateful to be united with all my loved ones back home. How much I take for granted!
I immersed myself in the everyday life back home- boiling milk, making chapattis, creating rangolis at Diwali, indiscriminately consuming sweets dripping in desi ghee, singing, praying, chatting and overeating at every meal. I set aside my concerns about pending jobs, deadlines for writing assignments, hacked e-mail accounts, consciously locked them away in a clanking steel Godrej cup-board.
Yes, there was pollution and poverty. There was religious and political bigotry. There was the Right and the Left and the Middle, the Farmer’s protest, the choked Press and the Covid dictats. There was my mind, noticing that Saagar was not physically present in the room. His cousins were messing about, grandma was cooking his favourite chicken curry, Olivia Rodrigo was singing ‘Jealousy Jealousy’ on the Bose speaker, his uncles and aunts were drinking beer and chomping on roasted, salted cashew nuts, talking about the joys of driving on the new highways network and the high price of petrol. We were celebrating our togetherness but he was not here.
In that thought, he became present to me. His essence appeared in the room, as me, my presence, my noticing, my love and my longing. It was subtle, only perceptible at a certain frequency that in now accessible to me. This nameless, formless realm that makes itself known when I pay attention. My real home. Its doors always open.
Before I knew it was time to come home. My two suitcases filled with silk and cotton fabrics, saris ‘borrowed’ from my mother, home-made carrot halwa, cashews and almonds and proper Darjeeling tea.
I am back home from back home now. Rested and reconnected. Refreshed and reassured.
All those years ago, when we were kids, we attended medical school together. The Batch of 1983 had its 3rd re-union at Cochin, the capital of Kerala in South India over the last 3 days. I travelled from snow-bound Wiltshire to lush green tropics. Many of my classmates came together from all over the globe. Some brought their families. Others brought videos of their kids doing this and that. I brought memories. We shared stories of our teachers and colleagues from our time as adolescents and young doctors at our alma mater. We felt close to each other, reminiscing our naivety, vulnerability and innocence. Nostalgia of our ‘good old days’ of simplicity, like silk threads knitted us close.
We went sari shopping. My friend chose a pale blue sari with a gold border. Her 15 year old daughter commented, “it’s as bland as playing tennis without a net.” It was exactly the kind of thing Saagar would say. He would also take great pleasure in imitating the way I say, “So pretty. No?”. Aaaaaaaaargh!!!
If I told my plight to a river, it would stop flowing. If I told it to a tree it would shed all its leaves. I burn in this fire of longing, again and again, every day. I have become a boat of compassion filled with the gold of nothing, riding the waves in search of my beloved. I weather the tides of sorrow and happiness while my longing lives in me. I find my beloved in my longing. There is no destination no more.
An ancient parable goes like this: Once a forest caught fire and all the birds and animals of that forest started to leave. There was a bright little parrot who decided to stay. The tree that housed it said, ”You have wings. Go. Fly away.”
“I ate your fruit, I soiled your leaves, I played from branch to branch. You burn and I fly away? You love but once.”
The utterly foolish parrot goes and plunges herself in a nearby lake, comes back and flaps her wings over the blazing forest fire. Two drops of water fall. She goes back into the lake and come back with another couple of drops of water and sprinkles them over the humungous fire. The other fleeing birds and animals start scoffing and laughing at her.
“What do you think you are doing?”, they say.
The parrot turns around and says “I am doing what I can.”
Just then the Gods pass by and see this bird. They take the form of an eagle and watch her closely. They are incredible moved to see her do what needed to be done, be in the here and now and her passionate endeavours to quench the fire in and around her. The Gods wept and the clouds burst into a heavy down pour of milk.
Everyday my love is new.
I wish you the same.
“Whatever happens in your life, no matter how troubling things might seem, do not enter the neighbourhood of despair. Even when all doors remain closed, God will open-up a new path only for you. Be thankful when all is well. A Sufi is thankful not only for what he has been given but also for all that has been denied.” – From ‘Forty rules of love’ by Elif Shafak.