The Annual Pilgrimage
It’s March again and spring is just around the corner. The tickets are only £450 each.
“I miss India. Lets just book our December trip now.” She says.
“Yes me too. Tickets should be reasonable this far in advance, right?” You reply.
Four months pass. Work priorities take over. The tickets and trip are forgotten. It’s summer in London – the sun sets late, the restaurants are buzzing and the summer sales are in full swing. You find yourselves eating out most nights. You need shirts for work, jeans for play and apple’s new gadget to breathe apparently. Both sets of parents take it in turns to visit – more restaurants, shopping and entertainment. You make weekend trips to Europe and before you know it, its time for your annual holiday in Greece with friends. Your credit card account though is bursting at the seams. You consider cancelling. But, your Greek friend has just had a baby and other people are flying in from as far afield as Canada.
“I think it will be rude if we pull out. Plus, the parents have just left and I need to relax a bit.” You plead.
“Hmm ok, but please, lets just take it easy when we get back. No more eating out!” She says.
It’s early September now and the ticket prices are £600 each.
“Are we going to India this year? We should really book our tickets now. The prices are increasing. I thought we were going to do this in March!” She yells.
“Have you seen the credit card bill, my dear?! We need to wait for the next cycle. We can’t afford to buy them this month!” You fight back.
Silence and grumpy looks for the rest of the day.
Then, it’s your birthday. Another expensive month. The following month, the weather in London takes a turn for the worse. You have not seen the sun in three weeks. Your moods are darker than the skies above. You rent ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ and no sooner has the movie ended than you have booked a trip to Spain. One more month, one more credit card cycle.
It’s late November now and the ticket prices are at an all-time high of £900! Each!!
Shit shit shit! The prices have gone through the roof and the credit card must be replaced as the magnetic strip has worn out from all the swiping.
“I have had enough of your procrastinating! The tickets are going up by the day. I am just buying them today!” She is livid.
“Do we really need to go this year? I mean, the parents have only just left and the expenses…” you begin to protest.
She shoots you a look that says ‘carry on with this and ALL privileges will be withdrawn, buddy boy’.
Later, when things calm down, she comes to you and says “Don’t worry sweetheart, we won’t shop much this time. Plus, we are staying at home – so hardly any expenses. We are saving money really, if you think about it. We would have spent much more over Christmas and New Year’s if we had remained in London.”
You scratch your head.
The credit card is replaced, the tickets are bought and the bank account is now in overdraft. Meanwhile, there’s less than a month to go and at least six kilos to shed before the trip (you have been having day-mares about aunties coming up to you, pulling your cheeks and saying “Healthy boy! She is feeding you well in London, hain?”). Three of those excess kilos are on your face and perhaps two are made up entirely by your double chin. A beard is the only solution, you decide. You start to grow one. Your colleagues, your client and pretty much the entire tube compartment is suspicious.
Mid December – it’s T-minus-three days and counting. The packing begins. Baggage allowance = one bag, 23 kilos each. At T-minus two days, you are at two bags, 37 kilos each with one suitcase devoted entirely to gifts for friends, extended family and their pets. Another suitcase is for the many lists that have been sent through by close family. The rest of the baggage is mainly made up of her seven options for each night including roughly 33 pairs of shoes. As the trip, in its entirety, including fog-delays, will last two weeks max, you can do nothing but continue to scratch your head and pack the half handbag that is available for your stuff. You decide to carry just enough underwear for one week with an internal agreement to ‘flip’ for the second week, should suitable washing facilities not be available.
You arrive at T3, London Heathrow and are reminded instantly of what you have let yourself in for – a goat-rodeo. The lines, composed almost entirely of desis, are snaking their way outside the building. You join the end of the queue, behind a fellow countryman with five unruly children, nine bags, four trolleys and a disarming smile beneath a thick, bristly moustache. His wife, who is wearing a sari, Nike sneakers and an oversized eskimo jacket has a baby in one arm, a toddler in the other, a bag over her right shoulder and is yelling at the other three kids to stop running. The husband continues to smile and says something to you in Malayalam. As you ask him to repeat himself, you realize that he is actually speaking into a miniature hands-free kit that is inserted neatly into his other ear that you cannot see. An hour later, you are checking in and like everyone else, opening your bags at the counter and re-packing to reduce weight. You can only watch in horror as you realize that only three of your undies have now made it into the final consignment headed to India.
Upstairs, before heading to security, she stuffs all the items that were removed at check-in into both your handbags.
“Nobody weighs them anymore.” She says grinning. You are thankful that you now have a full complement of underwear for at least one week.
On the flight, your clever choice of emergency exit seats has placed you next to a six-month old, perpetually-cranky-baby and hysterical-mother combo. She (your wife, not the hysterical mom) is lightly snoring as soon as the flight takes off leaving you to deal with the stress of working out how such a big metal tube packed with so many people and bags is managing to stay airborne. Your faith in the almighty has been renewed as you find yourself praying whenever there is turbulence. You try and peer out of the window but it is being blocked by the overweight, incessantly talkative, Punjabi man seated next to you. His strong musky aroma is mingling with the smell of the seventeen aloo-parathas, (in silver foil) that he is working through with determination, to produce a heady mix.
“You want sirji?” he offers, grinning ear to ear. You politely decline.
You arrive at Indira Gandhi International Airport. She is fresh, having only woken up twenty minutes before landing. Between the screeching baby, the hysterical mother, the talkative Punjabi man and having to keep the aircraft flying with your thoughts, you feel like a zombie. To add to your woes, you are at the back of the ‘foreign passport holders’ immigration queue / fan formation. This used to be the shorter line, you recall.
As the customs agent hunts and pecks on the computer keyboard with one finger, asking inane questions about why you switched your nationality, you have an urge to reach across and gently stroke his chin fat (which seems to jiggle with every key stroke). Then he smiles in that genuine, desi way and you feel guilty. Collecting your bags you head out into an impenetrable wall of people from within which both her and your family magically appear. Its tight hugs all round and much back-slapping and kisses. She is crying, her mother is crying and you are near tears with exhaustion.
Not wanting to offend anyone, she travels with her family and you with yours. Their car, as always, is a riot of gossip, emotion and loud voices. Yours is understated – mainly quiet discussions on the state of Delhi, work and life in London. The formation makes its first stop at your house.
“So, what’s the plan?” Both parents ask in chorus, once inside.
All eyes are on you and her. A trick question for which, over nine years of marriage, you have come to devise a cunning strategy. The plan, which can never be spelt out explicitly but must be followed to the tee, involves spending the first night at yours, the final night at hers and spacing the others equally across the two homes. During the day, the team is split with her spending time (i.e. shopping) with her parents and you gently snoozing with yours in the terrace. That’s the idea anyway. Reality though, as with most things in India, is a little more colourful.
You spend the first week acclimatizing, which is odd, given you grew up here. Whether sleeping at the in-laws’ or out-laws’, you invariably wake in the morning to find a steaming cup of sweet, elaichi chai and parle-g biscuits waiting for you. Your dirty laundry magically disappears from the basket in the loo and is replaced by neat bundles of washed, ironed clothes each morning. You are not used to being waited on hand and foot but are not complaining – no sir. Wearing ironed underwear is what real men about town do, you tell yourself.
Bed tea is usually followed by a heart-attack inducing breakfast of fried eggs, sausages, cheese and white buttered toasts. Sometimes there are dosas and at least twice, there are aloo, paneer and gobi parathas. Belching and burping your way through to the afternoon, you barely ask for heartburn medicine when lunch is served. By the evening, you are nursing a mild stomachache but for fear of causing offence, you eat again. When you stop, your plate is automatically filled, twice.
By the end of the first week, you have attended in excess of nine lunches, twelve dinners and several farmhouse parties. Your favourite show on TV is Splitsvilla, you enjoy Arnab’s nightly grillings and find the news channels hugely entertaining compared to the responsible journalism you are used to from the Beeb. Your stomach has, at the same time, expanded to accommodate the seven meals a day you are consuming, your arteries have begun to clog, your jeans are tighter and you have started asking for “chhota ones” at parties.
“You know what. It feels like we never left. I could actually imagine myself living here again. I love it.” You say while sipping your tea on the first day of the second week.
She shakes her head, turns and drifts back to sleep.
An hour later, you are keeled over, clutching your stomach while sat on the throne. Yes, Delhi belly has struck and both your stomach and your anus are on fire. After the seventh time, you crawl back into bed and groan. Meanwhile, she is getting ready.
“Am off shopping with mom. Will you be ok?” She says, still looking in the mirror.
“I thought you said you won’t be shopping this time?” You ask in a feeble voice.
“Oho! Just chill – mom wants to buy me some stuff. And, if I spend a little, is it really that bad? We have already saved so much by being in India last week!” She answers.
You do some quick mental math but the numbers don’t add up.
“But all those restaurants we went to last week…” you begin. She has however already gone and its time for your next visit to the loo.
This second week is different. It begins with Delhi belly and ends with the flu. You grow more and more irritable as the week progresses. There are people everywhere and they are constantly invading your personal space. You are sick of being Sir’d all the time. You cannot walk around in boxer shorts at home for fear of morally upsetting the maid. The news channels are ridiculous with everything being branded ‘breaking news’. The questions and unsolicited advice at every party are beginning to get to you.
“Achha, London? Is that London proper? My cousin is also in London, you know.”
“Where in London, aunty?” You ask wondering what ‘London proper’ means.
“Manchester.” Aunty answers.
“Arre what are you doing in rainy London yaar? The money is here doood! You should move back. Europe is dead. I am making ten lakhs a month. Just bought a Merc last week yaar. Cash down! Seriously, come back man!” Your high school friend slurs placing his arm around your shoulder. His breath smells of whisky – several of them, actually. You control the urge to knee him in the gonads.
“9 years? But no kids? Why?! Bhai – give us some good news, no?” Uncle 1 says.
“If there is a problem, tell me – I know a really good doctor.” Uncle 2 mock whispers. The two of them guffaw loudly while elbowing each other.
“Yes, the problem is that I had my…you know…surgically removed last year.” You answer pointing at your crotch and cupping your hand to indicate balls.
There is no reaction – they continue to smile while shoveling butter chicken into their mouths.
Then, its New Year’s Eve and you have driven around for three hours trying to find the perfect party. You wish each other and the driver a very happy new year while stuck in a traffic jam on the Ring road.
The day after, its time to fly back and at this point, it could not have come any sooner for you. You are done. At the airport, after much confusion, you are turned back as there are fog delays. You return a few hours later to learn that the flight has in fact been cancelled but you were not informed. You are now on the flight that leaves the next day. You can’t complain- there is no one to listen.
You come back the next day and thankfully, the flight is on time. However, the previous night’s farewell Indian-Chinese meal has caught up with you and suddenly, you must go. You run to the loo and are pleasantly surprised to find plush, modern facilities. This is nothing like the squatters you remember from when you were growing up. You open the first unlocked stall to find an elderly man with his phiran hoicked up to his ears, washing his nether regions with the little shower by the side of the WC. You hurriedly exit apologizing profusely. That image haunts you to this day.
You approach the second unlocked stall with trepidation now. Do they not believe in locking anymore, you think. Luckily, there is no one inside. Just as you are about to sit down, you notice shoe prints on the rim. Yes, the previous occupant, it seems, has squatted on the WC rather than sitting on it like a civilized human being. As there is no TP in the stall, you pull out a roll from your bag (oh yes, you were prepared for this) and wrap the rim three times over. Then you do your business and after a brief wait in the lounge, you are several thousand feet above the clouds, leaving India safely behind.
Landing at Heathrow airport and once outside, you take a deep breath and heave a huge sigh of relief. Its cold but its clean, the sun is shining and it’s a beautiful day.
“Back to civilization, eh?” You remark.
She shakes her head and looks the other way. She has only just stopped crying. It’s this special mother and daughter bond you don’t seem to understand.
A few months pass and before you know it, it’s March again and spring is just around the corner. The tickets are only £450 each.
“I miss India. Lets just book our December trip now.” She says.
“Yes me too. Tickets should be reasonable this far in advance, right?” You reply.
[Guest post by Chetan Chhatwal. He tweets as @chetan_chhatwal and can be found on Facebook here . His first book, ‘55’, an irreverent, witty, coming-of-age story about a South Delhi brat, is out in Jan 2013. A nervous flier, his hobbies include researching terminal illnesses and facebook stalking. He works as a Management Consultant in London and observes India’s progress from a distance.]
[If you would like to write for amreekandesi.com, please read this first, and shoot me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org]