Jetlag has completely set in. For the past three hours I have checked and re-checked my watch hoping this anxious behavior would speed time along. But it doesn’t. Normally when I cannot fall asleep I read, but turning the lights on will wake Dad, Chacha (younger paternal uncle) and Chachi (my aunt and younger paternal uncles’ wife). Instead, since I’m wide awake I think, while Delhi has changed, really changed, I'm amazed at how much stays the same.
India has a smell. It’s a sweet mix of petrol, burning wood, sweat and something I cannot place. I smelled something similar once. Several years ago a huge forest fire had broken out in Montana and the winds pushed the burning air hundreds of miles eastward, over Minnesota.
Indian ants remain pretty tenacious. In the bathroom, in the light or in the dark, they march along the walls in a very serious and single-minded line. They are undisturbed by time or gravity. Dogs and cows continue to run rampant all over Delhi. And my fear of lizards returns. They lurk in the dark shadows of the night, and when I’m tucked in bed I hear them race across the ceiling and I pray they don’t fall into bed with me.
The sight of beggars is still hard to bear. But I am not five anymore demanding to know some children are naked. And I am not eighteen when the truth of real poverty set in and made me physically ill and depressed for several days. In fact this time around I am amazed by what Mom and Dad endured and how hard they slogged all those years ago to get us out of India.
Dad worked as a draftsman by day and then went to night school to become an architect. The course took seven years to finish, but he was determined to be a professional. America only wanted desi doctors, engineers and architects back in 1967 and had immigration quotas in place to control the Indian population. Mom worked too. She was the telephone operator (the old fashioned kind where the lines were plugged in and out of a call box) in the building where Dad worked.
Dad’s entire family (parents and six siblings) lived in basically a two-room apartment. And they shared a loo with four other families with an outdoor toilet, an uncovered enclosed space that required him to use an umbrella when it rained. The rain also cancelled Dad’s classes because he went to school in a tent.
Mom’s family seemed to live a little better. My elder aunt loved shoes, Mom loved nail polish and my younger aunt liked clothes. I like all three – shoes, nail polish and clothes. I am clearly one of my mother’s people. But I think their standards were such because my maternal grandmother would get up at 4:00 am and go to the Old Delhi Railway Station and wait for the morning trains to pass. She would then walk along the tracks and collect the coal, bring it home to use as fuel for tea and food for her kids. On the days she ran out of food, in order to feed her kids, my maternal grandmother would claim to be fasting for this festival or that festival. And for an uneducated woman born in 1917, my maternal grandmother was adamant that all of her kids, three girls and a boy, be educated.
So when you think of life from this perspective, I should stop feeling sorry for myself. So what if I’m not married or don’t have kids. My life is rich and blessed in so many other ways. And it’s unfortunate that I have to come back to where we came from to remember my luck.