Silvery clouds brushed with the marigold underpinnings of a dawn just rising in India, hovered above a canopy of thick, linty smog. Dazed and worn out after a 15 hour flight from Newark to Mumbai, I elbowed my way through the baggage area, rife with curried body odor and rapid fire Hindi prattle. I muscled my bag through the hordes and out onto the littered curb of the airport. A diminutive, dented, green and yellow TucTuc taxi -- open to the elements on three sides and barely big enough for my luggage -- bumped up onto the sidewalk in front of me. Faltering slightly, I readily accepted the drivers offer of “cheap taxi, missus”, and let him haul my belongings into the mini.
Out on the congested highway, we headed toward the old city of Bombay. Rickety flatbed work trucks with roll bars brimmed with colorful passengers, some sitting on laps three deep, their dupattas flying out behind them. A drizzle of sun fell through the early morning fog and trickled across my arm resting out the car window. It was deliciously warm. Here, it was 26 Celsius or about 80 degrees Fahrenheit at 7:30am. Coal, dried dung, brush and pyre, created the trademark hit to the senses that is India -- at once repulsive and addictive. Later my eyes would itch from the dust and zero humidity in Gujarat, a desert state a half day’s train ride from Mumbai, where I was beginning my month long journey.
On sensory overload, I leaned my shoulder against the cool, crud- caked metal frame of the car. But I couldn’t close my eyes. Garbage and filth of all manner besieged the landscape and it was obscenely fascinating. Indians, rail- thin, black skinned and barely clothed squatted on the side of the road, doing their morning business. Children picked through the litter, strewn with bits of food, looking for breakfast, and women in colorful saris, balanced woven baskets of kindling atop their heads, heading back to their homes constructed from tarps, blankets and old tires. Everywhere breakfast was happening, a meal I passed up on board the flight. It was past U.S. dinner time by my body clock, but I doubt my family had eaten much either, even though our house was likely filled with trays of lasagna, crocks of beef stew and plates of foil covered brownies. The fridge was stocked before I left. I wondered where my husband, Michael, would stash the heartfelt offerings.
As I left New Jersey, dragging my 60 pound duffle bag behind me, my father- in- law, Jack, lay dying of last stage emphysema in a hospital bed in Morristown, 20 miles south of my departing flight. A text message came from Michael, minutes before the plane pulled away from the gate, confirmed his father’s death. Plagued by guilt, I thought of the family I left behind-- a confused, startled daughter and an anxious, intermittently weeping husband -- at Morristown Memorial. How would my child process her first big death? I needed to be home, to commiserate, and to explain. Thousands of miles separated us, yet we were all venturing into foreign territories.
The TucTuc inched and beeped its way toward the train station where the Bombay Express would leave in minutes Gujarat, a prominent bulge on the world map just below Pakistan. Blond-haired, blue -jeanned and besieged by beggars motioning to me with their fingers, pantomiming food to mouth, I looked straight ahead, shouting, “Nay, NAY” as I fought my way to the ticket window of the train station. The onslaught was heartbreaking. I wanted to give them my rupees, but had been warned not to. But I could feel the sting in my sinuses of emerging tears. So I stopped. Dug into my purse, and threw a handful of rupee notes into the entourage behind me. They went wild, and I ran for the departure gate, with a throng of starving children clambering behind me, begging for more. Tears dripped onto my shirt. I cried for them, for Lizzie, for Michael, for Jack, and for myself, because I was profoundly homesick in a place where I had only just arrived.
Having settled into a seat on the train, my sobbing began in earnest. I turned my head to the window for a semblance of privacy, not easy on a fully packed, standing room only car.
“Mamaji, mamaji!’Exclaimed my seatmate, waving a partially used napkin, a crumpled but welcome offering, in my face. Her head bobbled, Indian style. Don’t cry, Krishna will provide. The “bobble” means many thing -- yes, no, maybe, ok, oh well, – but this bobble was all compassion.
My own mother would have wrapped her arms around me, but instead, I sent her to New Jersey to do that for Lizzie.
‘You must take this once in a life time trip, “Mom urged during a phone call from her home in Connecticut, several nights before Jack took a turn for the worse. Should I cancel this trip? Was it selfish of me to leave now?
“Remember Dad and my first trip to India in 1978? Your sister went to the hospital for a ruptured abdominal cyst. You completely took charge of everything. You weren’t much older than Lizzie is now”. I did remember. I was terrified.
Their second trip to India in 1981 put them in the epicenter of a 6.2 Richter scale earthquake in the foothills of Nepal where there was no phone service. Their third trip lost them among hysterical masses of distraught Indians in Delhi the day Indira Gandhi was shot and killed. The summer the Bangles came out with Eternal Flame, my parents once again flew off to their beloved India, leaving my brother, me and sister on Cape Cod in the eye of one of the biggest hurricanes of the 1980’s. “I know and believe you guys will be okay,” cackled Mom’s voice over the shaky telephone call from Ahmedabad to Hyannis. “Namaste, honey”. Really?
I heaved a final sign into the hanky, wadded and wet. I turned and smiled at my fellow train rider and pointed to the twenty or so heavy silver bracelets dangling from her wrist, giving her the “OK” sign with my fingers. Beautiful. She smiled and slipped one off, and head- bobbling, gave it to me.
The train ground to a stop in Surat around lunch time .After a long, deep nap, I woke to the buzz of my phone. A text from the other side of the world. My daughter, Lizzie was writing remembrances of her Grandfather to read at his memorial service to take place in four days. But she was going to bed now, it was 2:30 in the morning New Jersey time, and could I please read it over for her, in the morning. I wondered if she even realized that in the morning, her time, I would be fast asleep, my time. I breathed out a silent Namaste to my little family back in New Jersey and knew, even across so much distance, I had done the right thing by letting them fall into hands much larger than mine.