Everyone in my small town wanted to have a glimpse of me. Women and children came out of their houses as they came to know that I was passing by. Even the orthodox widows invited me warmly to their inner home. Had I not been returned from America, I guess, they would have sprinkled Ganges water to cleanse their homes after I left them, because I had eaten the beef. But no, they did not even want me to leave my shoes out! I could guess that the Ganges water had lost its potency, now that I had returned from America. I felt an uncomfortable invincibility.
Someone asked me, with great hesitation, if I had eaten the ‘big meat’.
“You know what I mean,” he smiled.
“Yes,” I said, smiling just as much. “It is very difficult to live in that country,” I explained to him honestly, “without eating beef.”
“So, Manik-da,” he wanted to know, “do you cook it like we cook fish ?”
I described to them the way I lived and cooked and ate. I told them about how a grocery store in America looked like and what I usually buy from there. I told them about my rooming house kitchen and what I cooked in there; or what I did not cook. They were surprised to know that the students had to cook for themselves. And when I could not cook, my almost daily adventures to the fast food restaurants: the McDonalds and Burger Kings, the Arby’s and Wendy’s. I told them about a hamburger and French fry, about a cheeseburger and apple pie. But I did not mention to them about my struggles to get accustomed to the American life. I did not mention that I, initially, like most other newly arrived students before and after me, tried avoiding beef by not eating the hamburger and lived only on French fries, Apple pies and colas. But then, slowly with time, I started eating them. And they taste good in my palate.
Everything I did, appeared new to them and I became the subject of their talks. My casual answer of “yaw” instead of “yes” was keenly noticed. My saying of “o.k” became the classic American habit of all. My many American gestures: the way I stretched my eyes and brows to show my surprise or the way I lifted my shoulder to show many of my emotions were big hits. Children questioned why I say “Uhu” to agree with something when in Bengali it completely means the opposite. And I felt horrified that out of my newly acquired American habit, I showed my thumb to some folks as the victory sign, when in fact in Bengal it was a sign of degrading someone. My shirts and my pants were patently the big subject of all. And my jogging shoes became a signature American item. Once, in Kolkata, when I was crossing a road, a young man came running at me “Have you just come back from the states?” Surprised, I asked him how did he figure it out.
“Your jogging shoe,” he looked at me with a grin.
The money exchangers around the Dalhousie Square in Kolkata came swarming around me to exchange my dollars. “Dada, dada! bhalo rate debo (Sir, I shall give you better exchange rates),” they tried to entice me. With my meager dollar amounts, I felt ashamed. Some of my well-heeled relatives, who never considered I would amount to anything when I was in India, became friendlier (as if going to America was, indeed, amounted to something!). “Tumi kee shesh porjonto states-ai settle kore jaccho (Are you finally settling down in America)?” some of them asked me with friendly smile and genuine attention. They always termed USA as states, something I did not do myself. They invited me to dinner, something I could not keep because I had to meet all my close relatives first. It appeared that just to have me as their guest was a prestige! And I must mention that all these were absolutely genuine and did not have an iota of insincerity in any of their acts.
And I immensely enjoyed all the attention, something I did not quite attain in the past. But my stay was short. Even with all the attention, though, I was looking for my own privacy. I wanted to see and live my old life in my own way. I wanted to taste the life of my bygone years that I had missed so much: lonely walks in the empty winter fields behind my house, all the way to the village on the other end; listening the eternal sound on the overhead power lines that crossed over the field and where the doyel and the shalik birds sit in the sun. I missed the green durbo grass, laden heavy with the morning dew; that used to wet my feet in flip flops; and the gray-white morning mist that slowly fades into the mellow yellow sun of the dying winter days. I wanted to savor the cool northern winds that so gracefully embraced me once and for ever left its unmistakable touch. I wanted to taste the memory of all those days, once more, all by myself.
But I was now the center of attraction of so many friends, relatives and strangers. They have so many questions beyond the ordinary. Someone carefully crafted a question and asked me if I had been harassed by any white American girl. I knew what he really wanted to know. But I feigned.
“No, not really,” I answered.
“I heard they are really interested about good Bengali boys,” he good naturedly mentioned. To him, a Bengali boy in America was unique and there was no hint of any blemish to the glory of the boy in his imagination. His naivety was enchanting. He never could have thought how the little-town Americans were thinking about the foreigners. But the folks in my town wanted to know. They all were immersed in the brilliance of their native son, who they imagined was wallowing in the mythical American splendors!
Before I came to America, I ate local seasonal fruits at home. But now, because I came from USA, my relatives offered me only apples and oranges. As if the native fruits were not up to my standard any more. I felt lost. I was tired of apples and oranges. I wanted the things that I used to enjoy at home. They only cooked elaborate hotel style dishes for me while I was salivating for the lowly greens from my mother’s garden. Jams and jellies I could not tolerate anymore; still my relatives wanted me to taste their western creations. I felt America had stolen the soul of my existence; it had thrown me at the center of unanticipated attention that I so dearly wished to deny.
But my mother was happy having me back with her. As were all my other relatives. Only my stay was short. My return journey to the USA this time did not feel so difficult. I had gotten used to the elegance of the international air travel. I knew its ins and outs. I knew what food to ask in the airplane and what to avoid. I did not crave for the window seat anymore. Nor did I greedily pick any ‘foreign’ candy from the glistening candy jars. Bells and whistles of a jumbo jet were toys to me. Mature of things around, I showed an air of confidence. “Wine, sir?” and I could politely decline the attractive air hostess’ hospitality with urbane graciousness.
When I returned to the USA, things had changed in my old address: a mix of sweet and sorrow, as if the story and the characters grew out of my own imagination: Richard and Pauline, David and the senior lady, Anna, the home-owners daughter and James, her boyfriend. I grew to see the world in a new dimension. Or that’s how I thought it was. And the year that followed only added to the complexity. This is a story too long to describe here. But it only reinforced my developing knowledge, at a painful cost, that my understanding of human relations is amply immature. By the end of the year, I left my old dig, the place where I grew my roots in this foreign soil.
With many memories on my wings, I moved to a new address in Tolbert Hall, a student housing complex close to the school. From outside, Tolbert Hall looked like a mini-mansion, brick colored and near U-shape at its front. My place was in the second floor on the west wing and at the tip of one arm of the U. The entrance, facing south, had a set of wide steps ending in a cozy yard. And I would enter the west wing on the left. Taking another left at the door, I would walk along a green-carpeted hallway that smelled a unique damp, to the door to my room on the left, at the end. The room had a bed, a kitchenette and a bathroom: all for me. They called it a studio. And although the rent was about twice that of my old place, a pain on my wallet, I started liking the ambience of the new environment. The bed was, in fact, a sofa that opened to a bed. The cover had a soft, delicate pattern. And its color was a faded fuchsia. The corners and edges, that did not suffer much mishandling, revealed a shaded gradation in the pattern. It was pretty and I felt amazed at my own sense of beauty. The room had three sets of wide windows on each of its two sides. In the south, at a distance, a line of trees, green in the summer and lifeless in the winter, marked the bank of a quiet river. Beyond that, it was the open sky all the way to the horizon. And through the wide windows in the east side of my room, I had the view of another studio, where Rachel lived.