Fiction on the topic ‘When an NRI Returns… Observations and Experiences’
‘You must be out of your mind!’ Neetu bangs the bowl so hard the shiny black table, that it cracks. The bowl, ofcourse, not the table!
‘Ravi! Did you meddle with my iPhone again? Something’s not quite right!’
‘Not pizza again, Neetu! Let’s have some ‘proper’ Indian food. Why don’t we just hire a cook?’
‘Ravi, your dirty clothes are supposed to go inside the laundry bag, not outside!’
My ears ache. I am often tempted to use those white sponges – er, what Neetu calls ‘ear-plugs’ – you know, the thing she always steals from hotels!
Some weekends however, are different. The house is filled with silence. Eerie silence. Those are the days when these two go absolutely mad, and cannot stand the sight (or sound) of each other! Comparatively pleasant, I have to confess.
Three months. Exactly three months since my children returned ‘home’. When Ravi left Chennai nine years ago, to work in London, he said he would return in just two years. Two rolled into three, four, five, and slowly nine. Finally, it was my illness that called him back. I know Neetu did not want to come back. After all, she is an educated modern girl. What is that thing she says all the time? ‘Spaaace’. Yes. She screams ‘I neeeeeed my space, Ravi!’.
Really, what is this space??! We have a beautiful 1500 sqft apartment! On the main road. In the heart of the city. That too, just next to the bus terminus! If I was young again, I would just get into my favourite Bus 12B and travel all the way to Marina beach and spend the day there, for just Rs.5!! Did you know, they have introduced Air-conditioned buses too now. That ticket costs Rs.10, and personally, I do not mind paying that much. But you know, my milkmaid – Bala, she says it is exorbitant. Poor woman. Carrys her aluminium tin full of milk packets in the bus and even on her head.
Anyway, Neetu is always asking for ‘space’. I think she has forgotten, that her apartment in London was only 700 sqft. I went there once, you see, when Ravi’s Appa was alive. Nice city, actually. Though, I do not understand why those people always say ‘How lovely to meet you!’ What is so lovely about meeting a stranger?! But they are polite, those English people. We can actually learn some manners from them. Here, even walking has become a nightmare. Never know who will bump into you, or land his motorbike right on your feet, and not even bother to say ‘Saari’.
But nothing like ‘Home’. London was very peaceful. But it was dead. Perhaps any city would be ‘dead’ for an old woman like me. But here in Chennai, I am alive. Every moment. I wish Neetu would also realise this.
‘Crash! Bang!’ – more plastic cups flying across the dining table now. Ouch! This must be a really big fight. Talking to you, I seem to have missed what this was all about! Let me listen carefully.
‘I hate this place, Ravi. I H-A-T-E Chennai. I am going back to where I belong!’ she cries.
‘What do you mean ‘where I belong’?? You lived all your life here, my dear. Have you forgotten your childhood days in Mandaveli area?’ he yells.
‘I have not forgotten. And that is EXACTLY the reason I cannot stand living here!’ she gets hysterical.
If you ask me, Chennai has changed so much in the last decade. When these children left for London, what we had was a quiet, old-fashioned city. Today, it is a modern metro. Complete with metro, shopping malls and the works! In those days, there were a few excellent schools and colleges for the youngsters. Some new foreign banks had opened. That is where Ravi himself joined. Rukku Mami was so jealous about Ravi’s good fortune. To counter it, she used to brag about her daughter, Paddu, who had joined some ‘software company’. Shameless!
‘What’s your problem, Neetu? We have great jobs. You yourself earn a lakh of rupees a month!!’, Ravi continues to argue with Neetu.
‘You don’t get it, do you, Ravi?’ Neetu is on the verge of throwing a glass vase.
Please, not that vase, child!! I want to scream! I bought it about twenty years ago from Poppat Jamaal – what was then, one of the biggest shops in Chennai. Please choose another vase. Like that cheap imitiation you brought from London. Do you remember, how we laughed, when we turned the vase over and it read ‘Made in China’? Throw that one, please. Of course, she does not heed me. She never does.
‘We are both happy here! We have everything we can dream of!’, Ravi pleads.
Well said, Ravi. You both do have everything. Neetu also is doing well, I suppose. She has made so many new friends in the last two months.
She is very fond of driving, and in London, she never managed to get a license. Can you believe it? She tried four times, each time, she failed. As soon as she came to Chennai, she called ‘Metro Driving School’. They got her a driving license without her even going for the test! Five thousand rupees and two photographs – job done!
Now, this is really getting annoying now. What is so dirty about India? Agreed, the roads are very congested. But the government has built so many flyovers. Many roads are one-way, and traffic is quite smooth, if you ask me. Ofcourse, you won’t! It is not fair, I think, that people obey rules and follow one-way signs when they are abroad, and when they are here in India, they crib that it is causing delays!
But look at it this way, our immune system is so much better than those who are living abroad. Our children roam around in the hot sun, but do not fall ill. I remember Neetu used to apply some expensive sun-screen lotion during the few summer months in London. We never do this drama! We are naturally robust.
Talking about being robust – look at our mental strength! Our country has been attacked so many times, in the past, and even now. The Mumbai blasts, terrorist attacks… every day, some part of our country is destroyed, damaged. But we Indians bounce back to Life. That is our biggest strength. I wish this girl could see these finer points of life.
‘We have to start a family, Ravi. Look at the free health system in London. Excellent education too, and all free!’ Neetu is pleading her case very hard today. I do not know how Ravi will reply to this.
You see, in India, education is not ‘equally’ available to everyone. There is a huge difference in government schools, and private funded schools. The former are usually very mediocre. There are some bright students, ofcourse, but they do not always get a fair chance. The poor people cannot afford a decent education for their children.
‘You’re right, Neetu. State schools in London are world-class. And free. But we can afford to give high quality education to our children. And we have the best possible schools here. Look at your own nieces and nephews. They go to the best school in Chennai. Haven’t they turned out brilliantly?’
‘But Ravi, what about our daily commute to work? I spend two hours on the road every day, in the dust and heat, travelling to the outskirts of the city on work. This will take a toll on my health, don’t you think?’ Neetu seems to have softened her tone a little now.
‘Darling, you used to travel an hour a day even in London. Remember those horribly crowded underground trains, in peak-hour. And every other day, there would be a delay because of some signal failure! Atleast, you get to car-pool here. Or travel independently, if you like’ Ravi gently kisses her on the forehead. I have to turn away now. I know where this is leading!!
‘Now, Neetu, don’t be unreasonable. Every country has its faults. I know we have not seen much corruption in London. The machinery moves even without the ‘extra’ oiling. But do you see, how slow things are there? It took us three weeks to get a broadband connection. When Appa fell ill, we had to wait two whole days, to get an appointment with the government doctors. See how accessible things are here in India…’
‘Hmmm’ I hear Neetu’s unspoken words. She cannot refute the points my darling son is making.
‘Remember the day we landed? You and I did not have to do a thing!! Helpers did everything for us. And what did you do? You yelled at poor Lakshmi-amma, for not wiping the mirrors well enough’.
I see Neetu squirming. Now her cheeks are turning red. Oh no, Ravi! You have treaded dangerous territory now! Seems like Ravi has heard my alarm too.
‘Sorry, darling. I did not mean it that way. I was just trying to make you see how convenient it is to live in India. We have so much help. You do not have to lift a finger! In London, we did everything, from cleaning bathrooms, to painting the house. We have people to do every little piece of work here. All you have to do manage them!’
At this moment, the lights go out. Before I assume these children are upto some hanky-panky, I hear a loud knock on the door. ‘Nityasireeee, Current illaya?’ (meaning, no current?) comes the booming voice of our neighbour, Chandra Maami. How much I miss her. We used to leave our front-doors open, and sit in our respective hallways, and chat with each other, during quiet evenings. Her children live in Seattle. Naturally! She educated them so well. IIT, IIM. And what did they do? Flew away to the USA, and settled there. I know exactly how she feels. I used to feel the same way. Until Ravi and Nityashree returned. Such a beautiful name – ‘Nityashree’. She gets angry when anybody refers to her by this name. She said her friends found ‘Neetu’ easier to pronounce. Sigh!
Sometimes, I think the best way of putting some sense into her head, is to show her the restaurant bills they have both run up in the last two months. One would think they returned to India for me. From the way they have been ravaging the Chaat shops and Dosa-outlets, it looks like they have been starving for the last nine years. ‘Mmmm… mmmmm…’ is all I hear when they bring home a take-away. Slurp. Of all the food they have gobbled, I loved the aroma of pav-bhaji most! I know – Ravi knows it is my favourite dish. He is a loving boy, my Ravi.
He remembers Chennai, the way it was. Madras.
The quaint old-fashioned city with its quiet, cultured inhabitants.
The beautiful Marina beach. If one could just ignore the number of slum-dwellers who performed their morning ablutions in front of our eyes! Still, it is a beautiful beach. Countless families who relish their Saturday evenings. Lakhs of ‘lovers’ walking hand-in-hand, dreaming of a future so bright, and in a world miles away from here. Little realising, that this place – right here, and right now – is a heaven on earth itself.
Call me a frog-in-the-well, if you like. I have breathed my entire life in this beautiful city. In this magnificent country, India. By far, I believe this is the most wonderful place ever.
‘This is the most wonderful place, ever, Neetu’ says Ravi, almost echoing my thoughts.
They have lit a candle. In the darkness, all I can see is Neetu’s eyes, glistening with tears. And Ravi caressing her gently.
‘I miss my life in London, Ravi! I miss those beautiful rainbows on a quiet summer evening’ Neetu whispers.
‘Oh, I miss my Tropicana orange and Cider too, Neetu’, Ravi says teasingly. And Neetu bursts out laughing. She actually looks quite pretty when she is happy.
‘I know you miss London. I do, too. But we cannot deny the fact that whatever be the case, we led a monotonous life’, Ravi looks quite serious now.
‘We spent our days shopping, travelling, eating, drinking…’ he continues. ‘Which is not bad at all. That is exactly what everybody wants to do. But you will realise, some day, what I mean when I say Life must be more Fulfilling’.
Neetu starts to get up. Ravi holds her hand and pulls her back.
Really, these children have no shame. Holding hands freely, in front of elders. Er, is this what Neetu means when she says she wants her ‘space’? Anyway, I have to perk up now, if I want to catch any more of their argument. Which I know, Ravi is going to win!
‘We want to start our family, Neetu. How do you want our children to grow up? In play-groups or nurseries with strangers? Or with your own family here – with your parents! Do you want your child to be lonely and bored despite having expensive toys? Or do you want her to simply walk down our apartment complex, and just join a bunch of energetic children playing excitedly?’
Neetu nods slowly.
You do not need a dramatic tryst with poverty and misery – for you to have a change of heart.
You do not have to stumble upon an orphanage, to realise how much there is to be done here in India.
You just have to open your heart and mind, and realise that there is so much more to share here. With so many more people. You can share your sorrows. Your joys, even. There is just so much to give, and to receive too!’
I feel a lump forming in my throat. This boy is wise beyond his years.
‘We cannot change this country, Ravi. You’re being dramatic!’ Neetu argues.
‘Nityashree!’ (Ravi only uses this name when he is very serious). ‘I am not trying to change this country. All I am saying is, give us a chance, to return home!’
Well said, my boy! I almost whoop in delight!
‘Look around you! Your life is brimming now. With people, activity, laughter, sorrow, noise, light… you and I, are fully alive! Unlike our depressing winters abroad. There is something about the air in our country, that makes me feel alive. I hope you will realise it someday, too’.
I feel a tear roll down one cheek. I feel alive here too, Ravi. I want to walk right up and embrace him.
‘When I came back to Chennai last year…’ Ravi continues. I suspect a tremor in his voice.
‘When I came last summer, Appa was already gone. But Amma – the sight of her shook me. She was alone, naturally. But she was so content. Simple, yet, so peaceful and calm. That is when I realised, that we, despite all our material comforts, were sorely missing something by being away from our homeland’
‘When Amma also died last year, I realised that the most important pieces of my life were gone.
First my father, and then my mother. The only thing I had left now, was my hometown – my country, my home. My roots. I could not reverse Time. But I could gather the remnants of my life…’
Neetu nods slowly. She looks up and stares at me. Rather, at my photograph that hangs on the mango-yellow wall.
Her gaze meets mine. Hers, undecided. Mine, pleading.
‘He is right, child!’ I want to cry, ‘I hope you too, realise that a large chunk of you belongs in your roots. No country, no home is perfect. But if you give it a chance, you could actually stop chasing rainbows, because they are right here – even in a drop of adulterated water, even in a ray of light. Happiness in every breath! Well, almost’, I plead silently.
‘Ok, Ravi’ she finally whispers. ‘Let’s do this!’ she says more affirmatively.