I have a journey, sir, shortly to go.
When Kent speaks this line at the end of King Lear, he has a truly final journey in mind, but the journey ahead of me now is just as all-encompassing as his. For 22 months I’ve been half a world away from my home. Now in less than 4 weeks I return there, and I‘m filled with a sense of unreality. You know, I can’t say for certain if my USA home even exists. Logically of course I know it does – daughter Alex lives there and Kim was there only a month ago. Yet, the feeling remains. Given enough physical and cultural distance, we become disconnected, floating. Having seen up close how big the world is, how strange to suppose I shall float back exactly to where I started.
Writing this post and thinking about journeys, the picture above occurred to me. This bullock cart is a common kind here; it is used for carrying long things, like bamboo poles, which would jut out 2 or 3 meters off the back end. What struck me was the driver’s concentration: keeping his balance, watching the bullocks, heading back to a precise and (for him) important destination. A humble journey to be sure, but how many of us can say we go from one place to the next with such certainty?
One thing I should tell anyone considering a long expat experience is this: Make sure you are comfortable being alone with yourself. In my time here I’ve made new friendships, and deepened existing ones, but the fact is here, me and my family are different. Wherever we go we are noted, many times stared at. This isolates you; you will never be a regular guy, one of the crowd. In the precincts of high-tech companies here in India, the effect is less – my colleagues at IBM work with Westerners constantly – but still there is a barrier. Even in the lifts at work (see, I now say ‘lift’ and not elevator) it’s there. Who is this guy? I can almost hear people thinking. Does he know where he’s going? Maybe he’s lost …
This quote I found captures the feeling quite nicely:
The loneliness of the expatriate is of an odd and complicated kind, for it is inseparable from the feeling of being free, of having escaped.
— Adam Gopnik (Paris to the Moon)
The family and I, just 2 weeks ago, did have a great experience of not feeling isolated when our driver Rupesh invited us to his family’s village home. About 100 kms south of Pune, we left on a bright Sunday morning and reached in a little over 2 hours. Here’s Morgan and Kim (wearing kameez, no less) with Rupesh, Rupesh’ Dad, and Rupesh little boy in front.
This was just beside a backyard garden where I had just invoked much astonishment among the children by eating some chilies right off the plant.
Soon after we had one of the greatest meals I have yet had in India. I’ve written before on Indian hospitality. Here, if you come into someone’s home you will be given the best of everything and the food, I guarantee, will be there in such quantity even the heartiest eater will be challenged. We had mutton curry, potato curry, dry-braised ribs and bones of mutton, two kinds of rotis, salad, rice and chutneys … but the star of the lunch was freshwater crab curry. The gravy was amazing. Rupesh told us his Mum would take the claw meat from the crabs – which were not big, the bodies were about 4 inches across – and lightly pound it till it was a flaky paste. The claw meat then goes into the gravy and thickens it and flavors it. The gravy was more of a soup – the richest, most intense crab flavor I have ever had. Now, I have had Lobster Bisque at some good restaurants, “five star” as they say here in India. This crab gravy put any such soup I have ever had to cringing shame.
After the meal we relaxed a bit, and then I prevailed upon Rupesh to walk us around the village:
Here’s the village school, with hills in the distance; some chilies drying in the sun; and, an old bullock cart, the ancient uncle of the one we saw on the road. The village is a modest place and the pace there now is slow; farmers await the coming of the monsoon before starting the next planting. It is a time for maintaining tools, cleaning the sheds and, mostly, sitting in the shade and talking.
A wonderful afternoon. Children played outside with their friends, and many relatives were visiting. They were there to see the famous Salazars (other than aid workers the first Westerners to ever come to this place) but we were not on display, everything was welcoming and easy-going. The ladies worked furiously in the kitchen and invited Kim in for some impromptu roti-making lessons. One young cousin of Rupesh asked us many questions about USA. He told us science and history were his favorite subjects, and that he hoped to go to an American university. May it be so.
Then, it was time to leave and as guests we cannot go without gifts. For me was a nice shawl, such as Indian men might wear to keep out the chill of winter evenings. But Kim got a unique gift:
This rolling pin and board – a belan and chakla – were made by hand, by Rupesh’ Dad. The wood is smooth and heavy; a hundred years from now I expect our descendants will still be using them.
I know that, in time, the village will become as unreal to me as my own home now seems to be. But for the moment the image of it is very clear: A good place, where there are many challenges and obstacles, but also achievements and celebrations. We should all have so much in our own homes.
And so the start of the next journey draws near. In the weeks I have remaining I hope to make some posts on the good, and the bad, I have seen here. Take care till then.