That winter, three years after arriving in the USA, I returned home to visit my family. For the trip, I took a British Airways flight from New York to London. It was morning in London when my flight arrived. I had a long stopover there; the next leg of my flight to Kolkata would be in the night, at around 10pm. It worked out well; for I wanted to try my luck to get the return visa from the American consulate in London. I remembered how nerve wrecking it was to get my first visa from Kolkata.
Out of the airport, London appeared decidedly old; the buildings bore the sign of time, the sign that did not elicit any aristocratic elegance to my senses! The streets looked narrow, hawkers displaying their wares on street corners, the crowd. All the sights made me feel that it was not America. Scene of laundry left drying outside the apartments looked very under-developed in my eyes! Three years ago, I spent nearly fourteen hours at the Heathrow airport. But it looked different this time in my eyes. While I was changing my dollars to pound at the exchange shop I received a peculiar feeling. A white Brit sales girl responded to my request and she seemed to subtly make fun of my questions and appeared to be sharing her belittling me with her young friends. With a little apprehension, I swallowed my dent and moved on.
I took the tube to Piccadilly Square. The visa line in the consulate was not very long and there were some other Asians like me in the line. A young Brit behind the line made some decidedly insulting comment about why he had to face ‘these’ people even when he is applying for an American visa. There was a sudden hush in the area; everyone in the line went uncomfortable and shocked. I did not quite catch the words he used; his accent was beyond me. But, it was very unpleasant. I never experienced quite anything like that in America in the last several years. Well, may be not quite so blatant; at least not up till then. But I got the visa. And the young tall and lanky American officer did not ask me any question.
By the time I was returning from the visa office it was office hour and the commute in the tube was heavy. But I got to see the racial infract in the society; students returning from school; with groups of white faces in one area and a couple of quiet and lonely Asian students walking distinctly separate from the others. The airport felt much cosmopolitan, much to my liking. I wanted to get aboard and head home.
The plane was full of passengers; mostly from the Middle East. But there were a sizeable number of Indians; and some Bengalis from Kolkata and Bangladesh. Shortly after the plane reached cruising altitude, we had our dinner and we promptly went to sleep. When I got up, we were flying over the deserts in Saudi Arabia towards our destination in Doha, the capital of Qatar. From high up, I could see the vast expanse of the brown desert running along the sea, water in which was sparkling in the mid winter sun. Mostly empty, the lifeless monotony of the endless sand sometimes got punctuated by the barren grey hillocks. And then the plane touched down at Doha International.
Our airhostess was a pleasant Indian girl in a warm blue sari. She, smilingly, took great deal of vexing from the passengers. New passengers from Doha were mostly Indian and Bangladeshi. Many were day laborers, working in the Middle East for a better pay than in their home country. A piece of clean cloth did not hide the rustic look of their grimy life. To me they appeared out of place in an airplane. ‘Ha! Didn’t you look the same way to someone else when you boarded the plane first time some years ago,’ I chided my shamelessness! And I felt, from those passengers’ embarrassing faces, that they were feeling same way too. Or they were made to feel so by the curious stare from the suave city slickers from their own country. Some of them kept their heads down as they were greeted by the airhostess, who I believe, would not even talk with them on the street.
I don’t know if I should feel ashamed to mention, but when I reached my destination, my home country looked so old and tired to me! Like London on the way appeared underdeveloped, Kolkata looked shabby and without sheen. The airport terminal looked colorless and rusty; a drab building in dire need of a coat of paint. The gray lines of dried moss on the tall walls down the seeping water pipes stared at me. And the people at the airport appeared lifeless. Many of my relatives came to receive me. Even my brother’s house, where I lived for so many nights over the years, looked rather naked. And I did ask him, if there was any change in the rooms.
“No, it’s the same,” he answered. “It’s because you have come from America.”
I took bags full of cheap American gifts for them: colored umbrellas for the little girls, chap-sticks and cutlery for my sisters, shampoo and moisturizing lotion for the teens and a potato peeler and red satin sleeper for my mother. And I took Hershey’s candies and See’s chocolates. Everyone loved to get a piece of America. And some of them carefully preserved the glossy wrap of the candies or the shiny perfume packet.
It’s the same way my probashi (out of state)’ relatives from Hindustan brought gifts to our home in East Bengal when I was a little kid. And it was the same way all of us reacted to those items. In those days, those relatives were the heroes in our eyes. They talked about places like Mogolsarai and Jhansi, long distance trains like Bombay-Kalka Mail and Toofan Express. It took days in those long distance trains for them to travel! And they ate and slept in them! We used to listen dumbstruck; only dreams for us to be there. One of them brought a gramophone from Hindustan once and he played it before all of us. Never before had any of us heard anything like that! It looked as if the whole village gathered around the machine. And my relative became an instant sensation. Most of them lived in places like Bundelkhand or Gaya, Delhi or Katihar; and many such places with exotic names.
They wore nice clothes, used colorful thick towels, not the gamcha, the thin bath towel that we used. To clean their teeth they used colorful brushes and white fragrant paste from shiny red tubes; not like the gray black ash from the oven with which we used to rub teeth each morning to cleanse ours. To get a whip of the strong peppermint smell of the paste, I used to play around them while they brushed their teeth. Mixed with many Hindi words, they used to talk in a very different twang as if they were slowly forgetting our Bengali tongue – an honorable distinction, we thought. Mothers used to be proud for having a son in Hindustan; all young men wanted to go there one day and all eligible girls dreamt of marrying a boy from Hindustan.
And I felt myself to be a reincarnation of that past. Only I was an US educated engineer and not a ‘ducktar (doctor)’ from Bihar. I did not come to visit home from Jhansi or Motihari but from Cleveland or Cincinnati of Ohio. The English twang in my vocabulary was just a replacement of the Hindi twang in their tongues. America of my present was taking over the Hindustan of my past. My Nikon camera became the gramophone of that era; a hit among my technophile relatives. They all talked about the famous Japanese brands: Canon, Minolta and Olympus cameras they have seen with their friend’s relatives. People wanted to know how much I earned or how much it cost to buy rice and fish in America.
“What kind of fish do you get there?” they were curious. “Singi, Magoor? What about Katla?”
“Do you go to bazaar every day or just twice a week?” someone asked. “Are the shopkeepers are all sahebs and mems?”
“Why don’t you find an old lady for cleaning and cooking,” a relative suggested when she learned that I had to cook by myself.
“It’s not like here,” I tried to explain to them. “A cook earns many times more than I do as a teaching assistant.”
“How is the weather there? Must be very cold.” “Snows all the time? No?” Do I use a hat like the foreign people they have seen in pictures and movies? How cold does it really become?