Fiction: HOME AWAY FROM HOME

Dr Chandra Mohan Bhandari

by Chandra Mohan bhandari

Anshul never thought that the very beginning of his trip back home after a five year gap would be so awkward, dull and frustrating. Not that he had any misgivings about the state of affairs there, but to have a direct confrontation with reality after having experienced life at a different level gave you a chill in the bones. He repented to have planned the trip along with his friend Sarah with whom he had innumerable talks and discussions on India, its culture and life in general. During the two and a half years preceding this trip they had developed a good understanding taking their friendship level to a notch higher than usual. It was this understanding and bonding that led to planning and execution of a six week-long visit to India – a homecoming for one while an altogether new experience for the other.

The train had, to his consternation, picked a horrible place for an unscheduled stop. What came before eyes was a slum like habitat with garbage strewn all around. Add to that the foul stinking smell that could have been unbearable even for majority of passengers. Dozens of semi clad children could be seen picking things from garbage heaps and women could be  seen washing clothes in the nearby drain where water was far from being clean and hygienic. Anshul’s mind was weaving a web around his reasoning faculty especially when he found his American friend busy with her camera. What a grand location for taking out camera? These foreigners always find poverty, slum dwellings and garbage heaps very fascinating. Of late he had heard of a new kind of tourism –so-called slum-tourism. What a mind-set these slum-tourists have? Probably their psychology is not so difficult to understand; their happiness is based on the unhappiness of others. Anyway he did not want Sarah to see and photograph things that portrayed his homeland in a poor light. With Sarah by his side on the trip he resented her presence, something he had aspired hard to get for the last two years. He often got perplexed with his own thinking, as also his likes and dislikes. After half an hour’s stop the train started crawling forward and Anshul heaved a sigh of relief. When Sarah returned to her seat, Anshul seemed somewhat in defensive:
- In spite of all progress made during the past decades it has not been possible to make an impact on the lives of the poor.
- That’s true, but poverty need not always be associated with filth and garbage. It’s difficult to believe that the Indians in the Silicon Valley could be so indifferent to their own homeland.
Anshul felt a pang of discomfort with that answer; it was difficult to guess if it was particularly aimed at him, but he could not miss the element of sarcasm. In any case he felt hurt and disturbed by her comment.
- But what can they really do. It’s the mismanagement of the political class and bureaucratic set up here.
- May be, but to put all the blame on them is also unjust and unfair. In a democratic society we all have a positive role to play, if we are ready for the same. Each of us can contribute in some small way.
 
The conversation was drifting to a scenario not of Anshul’s liking. Fortunately the
Ticket Collector asked for their tickets and he was happy to drop the matter there.

This woman was a puzzle to his mind, and he often found his own thinking no less puzzling. He was looking for answers that weren’t easy to come by. Like most others he was in America for a better life and future, and he was close to achieving that. Having almost completed his studies all that he had to do was to wait for the exam results and with a reasonable grade his first and foremost dream could be close to being fulfilled. Like many others settled in the promised-land he too carried a chunk of India with him, and he had been trying hard to find a harmonious balance between this chunk and the other one about a new life out there. There were many who had left their past affiliations behind and adapted smartly to the new life and living with unanticipated freedom and abundance, but there were few who carried with them a sense of ‘guilt’; Anshul was among them. This ‘guilt’ was re-enforced by Sarah’s comments a while ago. Having said that Anshul’s plan to settle down in US was taking good shape. He strongly felt the need for a home away from home where things looked better.

Anshul recalled the pleasant days spent in Sarah’s company. Among his classmates at Columbia University she appeared to him much different from others. She had strong likes and dislikes and spent much of her spare time reading or whenever possible, hiking. These features being common between them they gradually came closer and became good friends. Moreover, Sarah showed a keen interest in Indian Culture and other related matters. Their coming together on an India trip was a culmination of the same, although now as Anshul discovered it not to be of his liking. Understandably any person in his position would have most likely felt the way he did. After initiating a joint foray into Indian thought and Yoga some time back such an exposure seemed unbearable and undesirable. He was certain that by the time they returned to US, Sarah would be totally fed up with anything that concerned the land and people. He clearly remembered their initial conversations motivated usually by her inquisitive queries about Yoga and Indian influence on American Transcendental movement that originated in the mid-nineteenth century.

He had a good night’s sleep that softened hard feelings of the last evening.  As the train drew into the platform he saw his younger brother Shambhu waiting there to receive them. The drive to his home was pleasant and the route too was not too bad. This part of Bhopal’s suburb was more or less presentable and relatively free from filth. Anshul had become too sensitive for filth and garbage in Sarah’s presence.

 On reaching home they were given a warm Indian welcome as expected while for the foreigner it was much more than anticipated. We Indians are really good in such matters, he mused. He was especially happy to note that mother received the girl affectionately and did not indicate any emotion of having been hurt by his closeness to Sarah. However, she kept alive a bit of sarcastic smile on her otherwise affectionate appearance. Sarah too had practised earlier the manner ‘namaste’ was to be done bowing her head forward. This brought the desired effect and she improved her rating in his parent’s eyes. Anshul was cornered by mother one afternoon when Sarah was away on a tour of the village with his sister:

- You have grown up Anshu.
- Well, the credit goes to you, mom.
- When children grow up they donot need moms.
- Why mom, are you angry.
- Do you plan to marry the girl?
- So far she is only a friend. Any step beyond that would take your opinion into consideration.
- I like the girl.
The matter seemed to conclude at that as there were visitors from among their relatives. Anshul was pleased to hear mom’s approval of the girl, although he knew Indian moms are just like that. Till then there was not a single conversation in that specific direction with Sarah although that possibility could never be discounted. Time was nearing their visits to selected destinations which he had taken special care to choose depending upon Sarah’s liking and his understanding of it. It would be unfair to claim that he understood Sarah’s mind and mood and he did not completely forget this in his train journey from Mumbai to their hometown when the train had apparently stopped near a garbage dump and slum. ‘Life’s like that’, he consoled himself and carried his thoughts forward planning the next course of action. Barring last one week at the end of their proposed 45 days stay in India they had enough time to go through the proposed tour. And a good part of that included the regions in the Himalayas. His plan was to spend most of the time in the cooler regions as the summer heat in most other areas would be intense, especially for the guest.
The days in Himachal and Uttarakhand tour were well spent. With his past experience of these areas and his friends and relatives to guide and arrange things the visits seemed to be well managed. Anshul’s subconscious was always working out ways and means to plan the visits that showed his homeland in a sober and cheerful light. The visits to Binsar and Kausani in Uttarakhand with a view to experience the splendour of the Himalayas too worked fine and he had all the reasons to feel satisfied with his immaculate planning.
However, there were hidden tensions as well. Sarah very often drifted alone along the towns with her camera around her neck. Once while reviewing her photo gallery he glanced at the pictures which were mostly about poor folk and only few about picturesque spots. He had a strong feeling that the foreigners take some kind of a hidden pleasure in the portrayal of others misfortune, and in that respect Sarah was no different. His strong liking for her now co-existed and modulated by some of her actions and he himself was in a state of utter confusion. He held himself also responsible for not sharing his responsibility towards his less fortunate country folk. However, such thoughts were only transient and easily superseded by less reasonable arguments. 
There were joyful moments as well, and one among them were the three days spent at Almora where he had done most of his schooling. Being in touch with one of his class mates Raghu who had taken up teaching position in the college helped him to chalk out a plan where he and Sarah were to interact with the students and teachers in an informal way. The most important thing of the visit was their being treated as visitors from America although this was the place where he spent eight years of his schooling. The college had a tradition of inviting old inmates for that kind of interaction with young ones and he himself remembered few events of this kind when he was a student. Of course the presence of a foreigner in Sarah made the visit more special. Raghu’s efforts in making an effective planning made the whole thing more attractive. There were some difficulties in Sarah’s interaction as her American accent and lack of Hindi knowledge made the discussions somewhat slow but he was there to interpret when difficulties arose.

In an interaction session students asked frank and details questions about American schools and institutions of learning, the differences between education there and in India. Both of them answered youngsters’ queries with interest. The enthusiasm among the students and the visitors’ willingness to interact led to few extended schedules. On the second evening there was a brief cultural programme comprising of music and folk dances of the region which they enjoyed although Sarah had to be helped as regards the language. At the end of third day’s commitments they were given a touching farewell with almost a hundred students waving them goodbye. Sarah became emotional and could not stop few tear drops from rolling her cheeks. To her all this was totally unexpected and unanticipated.

This event came like a bonus for them that provided enough psychological space to combat their own inner conflicts. This was particularly true for Anshul who was passing through inner conflict at two levels: the first was vis-s-vis his relationship with Sarah and the second his own incapacity to take a pro-active role accepting his social responsibility. And to strengthen this Sarah’s words during the train journey seemed rather sarcastic. At times this girl was an unsolvable puzzle, but the girls were always like that. He smiled at his own analysis and found some relief in his own confused analysis.

But Sarah was made of another material. None can say that she did not have her own conflicts and confusions but she had the vision and will to take an action when the time came to take a decision. She seemed to know and manage her mind a notch better than her friend Anshul. No decision can be hundred percent safe and fool proof but under given set of conditions it was relatively easier for her to take the best decision based on optimisation.

Their next visit included Delhi and part of Rajasthan including Jaipur. Anshul had earlier planned for visits to places of historic interest in these cities, but out of nowhere these invitations from some NGO’s seemed to spoil his planning. Well he knew that in this age of laptops and Wi-Fi’s even poor connectivity did connect people and there was no way for him to stop his friend from making a good use of this. At Delhi she was to interact with the inmates of a women’s college following a brief talk about her experience in India during her first ever trip. And at Jaipur too it was women related issues organised by an NGO, and Anshul had no role in either of the events. He could not rationalise his thoughts and actions vis-à-vis Sarah and acted more on impulse; yet, the more he tried to play a guardian’s role the more he distanced himself from his friend.

The last week preceding final few days stays back at home were spent in Nepal. Things were more or less of routine nature and the time was well spent. They enjoyed hiking in adjoining mountains of moderate climb in a relaxed manner and captured the Himalayan splendour in their cameras. After their magnificent brief stay in Almora the Nepal trip too was a time well spent and to their liking. As they were heading towards Anshul’s home to say good-bye to parents before leaving for U S  Sarah received a phone call from Jaipur. Apparently it was from the NGO with whom she had interacted and organised a joint plan of action. She did most of the talking by avoiding Anshul, and he could not exactly know the contents of the call. She did inform him that it was from NGO Arunodaya in Jaipur about a possible future interaction. There was no further talk on this.

Back to home - sweet home; Anshul had a mixed feeling of nostalgia coupled with high ambitions and found his mind a cauldron of innumerable desirables and those that were not so. He remembered days spent with his close friends and those endless animated discussions about the new generation’s possible role in shaping a future of the society which according to them needed a new brand of activists and leaders. He was then known for his idealism and for motivating others for a greater cause. Now he understood his limitations very well and did not worry much about the past. What mattered most was that he still involuntarily clung to a part of the same nostalgic fervour.
                                           
                         
“Bhai, when are you planning to marry the Mem Sahiba”, his sister said half- jokingly.
“ It seems Mom has opened her mind to you”, he said, and turning towards mother he said “Ma, we have not talked yet but it should be possible once we settle down in our jobs after results are announced. So far none of us has taken initiative.”
 Mother did not forget to express her approval of the girl if such a situation arose in future and that was a great relief for Anshu.

                                                                        *****************

As per their plans they were back in the US and their grades too were known by that time. Sarah fared much better than Anshul, and she also received a good offer from a software company. Anshu was not satisfied with his offer and decided to wait for a better option. He had a mind to propose to her but his not getting a good job held him from moving ahead. It could wait, he thought.

However, there was another and more important reason for him with certain new developments. The greatest setback to his dream plan came like bolt from the blue when Sarah told him that instead of joining the company job she was planning to go back to India for a two year assignment. Her impression of the land and its people was positive and she planned to accept the proposal of Jaipur based NGO Arunodaya aimed at understanding and strengthening the movement for children’s education and women’s empowerment. During her two years stay her basic needs including boarding and lodging would be taken care of by the NGO along with a small pocket allowance.

Anshu had no words to express his dismay; the only thing he could think of was the girl having lost her head completely. More than this he was disturbed at his own analysis of the person whom he thought to have understood to some extent.

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