The three bedroom home of my parents in Bhilai, Central India is dank and dark with the front door thrown open. A single fan tethered to the feeble inverter, circulates heavy, squeaky air. The electric power has been out since past night due to raging thunderstorms. Dripping with sweat, I follow the origin of light and realize – I am in my hometown.
Outside, on the patio, fussing flies buzz and collide. A couple of mini frogs and two red plastic chairs are lined on one side. The concrete is cracked in places begging for repairs. I make mental notes while a characteristic smell of dried dung few feet away from my home, crawls up to me. The neighborly sound of bells across the street wraps around my head and I imagine several, sparkling Hindu Gods being offered a sugar lump, a silver coin and a sandalwood incense. The Hindi Newspaper is curled in my hand as a deadly wand, dispersing the flies as Meena, my mother’s aide brings tea and biscuits. I dunk the biscuits – the taste is heavenly. The street hawker shouts and walks barefoot with ragged dhoti and a basket of fresh, seasonal vegetables over his head. Water drips from the wooden mesh over to his face. He wipes it along with his sweat and looks at me expectantly.
It has stopped drizzling. The grass is buried in water. The neem tree over at the boundary wall is bowed in prayer with its branches hanging loose, tired of bathing. I inform Meena that I will be around the neighborhood. “Ho“, meaning yes, she replies as she carries the empty cup and kettle in. Closing the iron gate and walking on the street with a camera hanging around my neck, an omnipresent, dull light hovers patiently all around me. Nothing is extra-ordinary and yet everything is.
The monsoon is the trickiest season of all – months of rainfall leave you sticky and irritated; smelly clothes stay damp even after several, useless attempts to iron and relentless mud follows you everywhere. Some days, you feel tempted to take a long stick and poke the clouds to let the sun out. And when it does, it is weary and sluggish. You wish it goes away and it disappears leaving a craving behind. To feel dry. To be relieved of sweat.
A riot of color moves quietly invading the monochromatic morning. Light drills shadows of clouds all over the landscape. The fingers of time caress spaces where eyes cannot reach. How do I take a picture of that?
I keep walking. I keep observing. Words come and go like slippery, camouflaged earthworms crossing the road; wild mushrooms bloom, growing by the minute. Humidity is the best friend of certain species. Definitely not me.
I come across a stall of fresh fruits. Mangoes, mostly. My favorites. I start negotiating. Triumphantly, when I pick up the plastic bag of sorted, ripe, awaiting mangoes, I realize I have left my purse at home. My demanding tone wrecks to a softer version. Tobacco stained, wide-spread teeth of the old owner smile in response. I point to the house I am staying in.
He eyes my camera.
I place the plastic back. He hands it back to me.
“I am here everyday,” he says. “You can pay me tomorrow. ”
He is relaxed, I am not. I feel angry at myself for first forgetting the money and then for bargaining. Then his cell phone rings. A studded, state of the art gadget sticks to his ears and I am a little less guilty.
I move on. A flock of poor kids are playing in the dirt, jumping in the puddles, half-naked. They are a true vision of happiness. I recall my days of growing up, studying fifteen hours in a day at a certain time of my life to get somewhere. Puddles like these always remained far away; playing in the first rain of the season has been a distant dream. But this time, the splash finds me. The frightened eyes of children follow my movements of wiping the glowing mud stains.
“It is alright” – I wave at them. They start playing again. I think of taking a photo. They stop in expectation and pose with made up smiles. I feel stupid. I lower the camera and turn around.
A few yards away, some street dogs are fighting. Mating season drives everyone crazy and these are just dogs. A few houses resonate with the smacking sounds of brooms and water fighting an unending duel. The maids with raised saris above their knees spread out wet clothes. A school bell suddenly goes off. Verses of prayer reach my damp senses, reminding me of drenched socks , the hissing sound in the shoes and a new raincoat – smelling of latex and excitement. I recite the prayer that I learned in my Catholic school. Word by word.
I walk ahead. Sitaram’s general store is at a stone’s throw. I recall so many days, evenings, afternoon, collecting groceries from here, loading them on my bicycle and riding home slowly, avoiding bumps and ditches, carefully by the side of scooters, cars, rickshaws, a herd of cows and buffaloes moving leisurely all over. Besides driving, roads In India are perfect places for animals to stroll, relax, birth and even die. Same goes for religious, political and social processions. A lot happens on the road.
I reach the grocery store. Sitaram’s son runs the shop now, he got married a few years ago or so my mother told me. He went to the same school as I did and here he is, sitting over a bunch of white, starched cushions, with his hair oiled back and a vermillion tilak on his forehead. He is praying to Goddess Laxmi ( the Goddess of wealth) wishing for a successful and productive day. He catches sight of me. A smile wider than his shop welcomes me, warmly.
“How many years it has been, ben (sister)? He says affectionately. I nod, remove my camera, put my plastic bag down and sit on the extended chair. He orders tea before I could say anything. His servant brings snacks and a boiling chai in a matter of seconds. In the meantime, his father arrives in a Maruti car. He remembers me. I touch his feet, he blesses, hugs and takes out a five hundred rupee note as a token of his affection. I open my mouth to refuse and his authoritative smile silences me. I stuff the money in the pocket thinking about my unsettled payment to the stall owner.
I take their leave, pick my camera and walk back, straight to the stall. The owner smiles, eyes my camera again and returns the change.
“Do they sell fruits by the side of the road in Amreeka?” He ventures.
“Not in the city where I live.” I reply.
“Come again tomorrow.” He insists.
I nod and wave.
My mother is standing at the gate, signalling me. “The breakfast is getting cold, where have you been?” Her irritated tone makes me sprint.
With every step, the aroma of mangoes, the musky earth and the prodigal surroundings come together. The lumps of mud stick to my feet, slowing me, making a connection.
Few months later, in an Indian grocery store, thousands of miles and several oceans away from India, I pick up a soap bar, I used as a kid. I smell it. From a distance, my daughter watches. She can tell I am finding another piece of my childhood to stitch me to my home. She can see – I am homesick, once again.