Bill Bryson is one of my favorite authors – primarily because his writing is totally non-pretentious, is not about any great philosophical. political or scientific thoughts, uses an English which does not need a frequent visit to dictionary.com and has a genuine frank quality as if that’s how he intended to write it in his first draft – ‘straight from the heart’. One such published works of his is “I am a stranger here myself”. Bryson was born in Iowa and spent a great deal of his lifetime (20 years) in Great Britain. This book is a collection of his memoirs after he returned from the Queen’s kingdom and started a new life in New Hampshire, USA. The essays in the book talk about his memories of life in America when he left and the difference in the life in America when he comes back. Of course, Bryson with his blunt and acidic style lends these essays a humorous and a candid tone. This post is not about this book, but just about how similar these experiences are for me personally when I visit India (moving back to my motherland might actually further broaden these experiences).
With every trip after the first 5 years of living in the United States, I find my own country, even my own town a bit stranger. I find myself trying to look for a sign of some semblance of that place I could relate to, of a place I was familiar with. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like there is nothing that I cannot relate to. There is plenty, as they say, you can never leave home. The home I grew up in, still feels like me, still responds to me and I to it. I know its secrets, and it mine. I know where the courtyard slopes slightly and a small puddle of water will form after it rains, I know which cabinet door needs a little play to open, I know which light switch needs to be pressed a little harder for the light to stay ON, I know that place underneath the window sill where a sparrow builds a nest in summer, I know how the light flows in the living room as the Sun struts from East to West, I know where my dad keeps the tools, I know where my mom keeps loose change, I know how it smells in every season, I know that the sink faucet drips – I know it, and it knows me. Sadly though, I can’t say the same about my neighborhood, about my city, about my country. I am loosing it, by each passing day, or it’s loosing me with each passing day. But to them three, the loss doesn’t mean much; to me however, it’s like losing a parent. It’s all but natural to have a neighborhood, city or a nation change after 10 years, after all I have. Some of this change is just a natural progression of things; most of it happened while I was away (totally my choice – to be away) and hence comes off as a shock when I experience it.
I don’t understand my neighborhood when I don’t see that little clearing where we played cricket after school (there is a temple there now – like we needed more of those), when some of my childhood friends (with whom I played cricket on that clearing) have become exactly the kind of people I keep myself far away from, when the lake near my house is now a garbage dump, when I hear the screams of a woman and find out that my neighbor is beating up his wife brutally (and the rest of the neighborhood says – it’s a regular thing). This whole neighborhood seems like a bizarre place – it bears no resemblance to the one I left 10 years ago – save for the flickering street light in front of my house – it still flickers as if along with me it’s trying desperately to hold on to a sweeter past.
I don’t understand my city when some of the streets I rode my bicycle (or moped) have disappeared, when old cinema halls have given way to new shopping malls, when my school building looks like a sad ware house, when I feel scared driving on a lonely street at night, when the evening Sun blankets a dense smog/haze on the city which lingers on late into the night rendering the night sky absolutely starless. There is a big cricket stadium, there are a few multiplexes, there are swanky new restaurants, but at the same time the slums have grown in size, the Thursday crowds at the Sai temple offer tens of thousands of rupees to the temple and the hundreds of kids begging for money outside the temple seem to be increasing in numbers each Thursday.
I don’t understand my country when I see people stand up dutifully to the national anthem before the start of a movie in the cinema hall and completely ignore their civic duties to the Nation, when everyone seems to be in an insane hurry on the roads but have all the time in the world for everything else, when people are running over young children and senior citizens on the roads as if it were a competitive sport, when people honk incessantly at nothing or no one in particular, when cell phone service is cheaper than sugar or pulses, when television oozes such gunk it stinks up the entire living room, when SMS and Orkut scraps is an effective way to communicate with the youth, when I see little kids wearing masks on school buses (supposed to protect them from the swine flu), where every village has cell phone coverage but little essential medical facilities, when vegetables are spray painted to make them look fresh, when you can pay your water bill online but there is little water in the taps, when you can pay your electric bill online but have to spend 4 hours a day (on a good day) without electricity, when I cannot tell how many exact states there are in the Nation.
I am sure, no I am positive, that if I spend sufficient time (cannot quantify this time just yet), when things will change in front of my eyes, I will become one with the change. But for now, every time I visit, I feel like I am walking in a dream, a bizarre dream, a dream that I wish I will wake up from any minute and will find myself back in a familiar place. Instead, the dream keeps becoming even more bizarre and incomprehensible. What is comforting though, is that after spending an entire day of living through this crazy unfamiliar dream, I can return back to my familiar bed in the room of my childhood home, a bed whose musky smell I remember and whose little quirky bumps my back knows of and automatically aligns itself to avoid them.