I grew up with non-resident Indian kids whose local guardians were my parents. My dad’s best friend and his wife slogged away in Kuwait and met their four kids only twice a year during the summer and October breaks so they could all have a good life together eventually. It was always a glamourous and exciting time when Uncle and Aunty, who always wore lipstick, came down from Kuwait – especially to my five-year old eyes. There were sacks full of new clothes, more chocolate and cheese than you could finish and the most exotic of toys like a musical TV that played all the Disney characters in a row when you tuned it.
In the evenings, all the grown-ups sat in the patio eating cheese and other fun food my mom had prepared and guzzling beer. We, as kids, played around them as they spoke world matters, shared stories of common friends and relatives, and told each other dirty jokes and laughed well into the night. That’s when I had my first beer and my first taste of chicken that shocked my Brahmin vegetarian mother no end.
And then suddenly on August 2, 1990, we heard about the war. Iraq had occupied Kuwait and Indians living in Kuwait were managing to escape the war zone – some taking almost nothing with them. Everyday there were phone calls or messages from friends and friends of friends. Uncle and Aunty were safe – they were on their way.
They did eventually come down in October. But they were different people. Uncle was gaunt and serious. The flirtatious twinkle that was such an intrinsic part of his bearing was suddenly gone; Aunty had lost weight and her laughter. The most generous of women, she now began to horde things. It became all about ‘that’s mine; that belongs to my children’. And every morning (as this was the age when Cable TV still hadn’t made its presence in India) she would stay glued to the BBC on the radio and hear about how a life she had known and loved was gone forever. She was never the same person. They no longer had beer evenings late into the night. They moved quietly and without fuss to Mangalore.
Not even all the glamour of coloured lipsticks and sacks of new clothes and chocolates and cheese would compensate for the lines of worry on Aunty’s face as she listened to BBC reports on the radio. And nothing could make up for the fact that Uncle no longer tried to kiss me. And that’s when, all of nine years old, I decided foreign lands were not for me.
For the longest time I had no passport. I saw no need for it. I knew that if I did have to go that’s when I would figure a way. I did want to travel and see the world, but I’d decided it would be on my terms and that when I was all grown up and rich, I’d go travel the world and see the sights – particularly those in Europe. I was so sure that’s how it would be.
But that’s not what happened. Last year I was told I had to travel to Sunnyvale on work for a conference I could not miss in spite of my illness and chronic pain.
At every step, I was sure given the way things work in India, my passport/visa to the US would never materialise. But it did. And suddenly I was in London and hearing people address each other just the way I did, and that was fabulous. It was also short. It would have been perfect if that was all it was.
But I had another 12 hours worth of travel. And I came to America – land of the big and the aplenty. There was no culture shock. There was nothing except pain. In December even in Sunnyvale it is cold unlike the cold we know anything about in India. And the sessions at the conference were interesting and exhausting and I was in severe pain. I was constantly surprised every time I opened my mouth and spoke coherently.
And in all that, I managed to travel to San Francisco because Cat had told me so much about it. And just like he’d predicted, I fell in love with San Francisco and Castro Street and was awed by the Golden Gate Bridge and thrilled to see Lombard Street. In my head as I shopped for gifts, and clothing for myself, I was walking around wearing flowers in my hair even though in reality I had tears streaming down my eyes from the strain my joints were under.
Coming back home, it was an achievement. I had survived it. I had survived travel of over 27 hours with fingers the size of cucumbers and I could sit back and gloat. It was over.
Only it isn’t.
I’m in Sunnyvale again waiting for the conference to begin and fiddling with the heater in my room and being a complete sourpuss about everything in my life.
This would be, and may be rightly so, a dream-come-true for many people I know as is evident by the number of people who ‘like’ my reached SFO status and those who tell me to have fun.
But when you have a scarred history like mine where you know travelling to foreign lands and making moolah doesn’t always have a happy ending and in addition to that if you suffer from chronic pain and various others ailments like I do, exhaustive five day conferences that take you around 26 hours in a cramped plane seat to reach, become all about doing one’s dharma so as to not lose out on the artha.
I’m sorry to be such a wet blanket but I just can’t wait to finish and get back home to Bangalore where hopefully it would’ve stopped raining and being cold and pretending to be London.
But it hasn’t been a complete waste as I got to reconnect with a gorgeous writer friend of mine and meet her extremely sweet husband for the first time, both of whom really showed me how I could have a lot of fun even here in America, if this were indeed a holiday and I was just an idle traveller seeing the world.
And there I am happy and optimistic again. I think I’m losing the essence of my existential angst. Sartre, here I come! You go listen to this song, please.