A Slight Return

Oh Blighty, how have I missed you? Soon, I will find out for I return to sojourn in my old life. In this briefest of stops, I hope to catch up with one or two of you, if you’re reading and if you – absent friend – are not, then you don’t yet know what may or may not pass: as is life.

I’m preparing to take a holiday in my old life and I’m looking forward to it. Although I originally hummed and a harred about whether to buy a ticket, now that I have I’m happy about the impending trip, but not the long haul flight.

When I arrived in India, I dreamed (more of a nightmare) I was in England doing my utmost to return to Asia. Now, those dreams are going to be lived out, somewhat, though it seems dubious that I shall once again find myself standing in the sad old Eastender’s corridors or being forced to work as an assistant director. “But I live in India. There’s no way I’d come back to TV,” I wailed inside my dream to any apparition that appeared as my history combined with my present to play out a fractious combination of two aspects of my life. Neither, too, do I believe there shall be a handy tunnel into which I can dive in order to transfer between the two continents, alas.

I return for the week of Halloween and Bonfire night, my favourite time of year: dark and dank and cold and moody enough to feel like a proper season in itself. It is the week when I came into being and a time when the air can smell of fireworks and catches with frost and the lingering foretelling of Christmas. It has been, in part, the smells and sensations of England I have missed so while November might seem a bad month to visit, for myself it is the most potent. At least, I hope so – or am I in danger of romanticizing England, her seasons and her sensations?

Will it feel smaller than I remember it? Will I hate the aspects I imagine I will hate? What will it do for my mind or for my understanding of how far I’ve come? Will anyone discern the change or is it only deep down private me who can know the extent and the profoundness of the changes that have occurred because of experience? How detectable are shifts in a person? Maybe there are one or two who could tell or perhaps it will reveal itself to be a private evolution only I can know.

I’m sure there shall be some physical changes you might note. I’m a sponge. I absorb people’s gestures and idiosyncrasies. I don’t even mean to do it but I’ve acquired the click of the tongue and sucking of the teeth which indicate ‘no.’ I seem to have appropriated the head wobble to indicate I’m listening and I understand. Largely, I put this down to the fact that my Malayalam extends to ‘dog,’ ‘cat,’ ‘no problem’ and a few other relatively useless words and so the gesture has been applied in all sorts of queer situations to invoke some semblance of a sense of understanding and communication. Also, my hands have become expressive in other ways. They spread their fingers and flutter to draw emphasis to a point or to drive an argument away. I can’t hear myself speak but maybe my inflections have altered. I’ve picked up the throated ‘aa,’ which may or may not signal ‘yes,’ still I’m not sure.

You’ll find my alcohol tolerance has greatly diminished but perhaps you’ll see my lust for certain cuisines has multiplied. Bring on Avocados, mozzarella cheese, toasted pine nuts and vegetarian sushi options. Please bring them on, it’s been too long. Before I left for India, I jested how my diet would constitute beans and rice. How poor my knowledge of Indian cuisine has proven to be: it turns out I eat lentils and chapattis. Rice is by far over-estimated in its ability to be a healthy staple part of any diet. Rice bellies abound in Kerala. They protrude over the tops of lungis but more than that, consumption of white rice leads to many malnourished people (people I know) who have its various forms for breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday of the week. Rice. Overlook it now. However, rice aside, my cheeks have hollowed out. It’s not that I’m gaunt so much, I do my best to eat what I can and what I like, but my body has changed because of being here. I never thought about how high in fat my diet was: cheese is such a pleasure, and wine so easy to consume. Why not over-indulge as and when the mood takes you? A shift in continent and perspective, it seems, likely means a shift in diet and therefore a shift in physicality. Therefore, when you see me, anticipate my eyes to bulge and my dinner plate to be bigger than my belly but I shall try, nonetheless, to consume what I can in the time that I have because how I have missed choice.

This said, irrespective of my desire for variety and having my wants satiated, I’m certain my calculations and sense of what a thing is worth have changed. Why on earth should I willingly pay £2.75 for an all-singing and all-dancing cup of soya hazelnut latte from a certain Bucks of Star when for that same price I could travel to Munnar (return + change) on a bus or to Trivandrum (return) on a train? And how much is Pizza Express these days? I think I shan’t be able to overlook the (really, how much?) cost of a salad because, while I understand exchange rates and the pound being stronger than the Indian Rupee, I feel my idea of value has altered. Why pay so much for so little? Do we do it because it’s all that we can do or do we have too much in the first place and fail to question the value of things? Or, is it that we are simply too familiar with paying through the nose, so to speak? Let’s see.

I wonder what I’ll observe when I see the faces of all those people who make up my slice of England and: will I yearn to return to Incredible India on the day my flight exits the country?

I predict I shan’t take too kindly to the potential grimaces of some unhappy members of UK society who feel it proper to express their grumpiness and intolerance with a dour smile and a mild cuss. I haven’t experienced that English snarl since, well, okay I’ll admit this: I’ve observed it in myself but not since England, not truly. See, when I arrived, the implacable smiles that appeared in the face of adversity or insult infuriated me. “I’m having a problem,” I’d say. “Ah, no problem,” said whosoever I was speaking to. They would deliver a head-wobble and a smiling gesture. No matter how irate I felt inside, and or how hard I endeavoured to express my frustration, all I’d get in return was a calm jovial smile. Well, now I see the benefits of such response.

I seem to go off at a tangent but bear with me, it all adds up. I watched, thanks to the power of BBC Iplayer, Sue Perkin’s documentary on Kolkata. First of all, her pomposity annoyed, though I wondered if it’s because I live in India and so watched with different eyes to that of the British audience the programme was designed for. However, her comment about the traffic rang true. In amongst the pell-mell of car horns, motorbike horns, rickshaw horns, bicycle bells, pedestrian chatter, bullock carts rolling and so on, there comes a fluid weaving of solid objects. In amongst the chaos, order prevails as metal and flesh meld into intersecting courses that, for the majority of the time, do not crash into one another but, rather, allow traffic to flow, to pass and for life to continue. She noted, “Where’s the road rage?” There, you see, is the benefit of the vanilla smile rather than the howling, the wild gesticulating or the red-faced rage that too frequently flare up. Perhaps with all of the space we live with (in the UK) surrounding ourselves and, in deed, with our own precious sense of self, of place and of privilege, we have forgotten that we, our lives, are lived in much the same way as that pell-mell of intersecting traffic. Take away the vehicles and put people – only the passengers and drivers sans car, bus, bike – into the place of the merging lanes, would we holler, rebuke, or swear vengeful acts of violence or would we say, “no matter”?

This nature of response is one of the many things I have come to love. I’m not here to romanticize South India as the perfect place to live, or its culture as the most excellent way of being; certainly, it is no model of perfection but it is a good reflection of how we might choose to modify our responses and remember our humanity when faced with the oncoming rush of interdependent lives intertwining, clashing and departing. I can’t promise that I won’t want to react violently or to swear if someone pushes into me, reaches across too closely or whatever. However, I am aware that there are other choices about how to react to things and, I realize, there are benefits to responding in different ways. Here, culturally, it’s not okay to explode with rage at a traffic intersection when someone drifts across three lanes almost knocking various people off motorcycles, and so on. Culturally, it is acceptable for shop assistants to leave you hanging while they have a quick natter with on their mobile or fall into conversation with the person before them or for something not to be ready at the allotted hour. I wonder if it is this constant mass confluence of lives that encourages all of this apparent (to a foreigner) civility.

I think of the people I’ve seen in the UK tutting and cursing under their breath when things haven’t gone quite their way or quite quickly enough; when they lean across and say, “my car is parked on double-yellows, can you hurry up?” And I think, in ways, as infuriating as it can be, I prefer a place that allows conversation to occur and encourages less fitful vitriolic responses to everyday situations; a place where gentler, cordial responses are the norm rather than hostility arising from, is it a sense of privilege? I feel it in myself: choose to smile, choose to wait patiently and surrender to ‘this is how things are.’ When I do this, I feel much better, less attacked by the violence of anger than when I reach for tried and tested ingrained responses, “I’m a customer, god damn, give me preference and deference!” We are, after all, all in this together. And so it is, with these things in mind, I wonder how will English culture look in comparison to Kerala’s?

Next, of course, there’s the matter of catching up. What will it be like to catch up with friends (assuming they’re available)? What will have endured, what shall have become shy and what will have altered? What can be said, what can’t be expressed? I feel excitement pumping through my veins at the prospect of seeing those I hold dear, who I can mess about with, be silly and not censorious with.

Besides missing profound things like friends, I miss the stupidest things, too. The almost first and foremost is pavements. Ridiculous, I know, but it’s so wonderful to be able to walk around upon a designated pedestrian area without having to watch your back for any sort of vehicle. Here, there is no flat space, paddy fields excluded, that is not driven upon and this can lead to dicey walks into town so to be able to walk on pavements where I have only to worry about fellow pedestrians, well, I look forward to it. To being able to press a button and wait for a green man so that I can cross a road in peace, without dicing various oncoming, erratically driven vehicles.

I have missed wind and drizzle and the cold that catches in the back of your throat and renders hands and eyeballs numb. Maybe it’s because I spent too many years working in TV production, which invariably entails standing around in puddles while wearing damp, allegedly waterproof clothing in the coldest hours, but I have missed England’s climate. This said, though, there’s nothing better than being able to languish in the tropical heat – the all encompassing, wrap itself about you, cling to you and worm its way inside of you heat.

It’s the strangest thing to know I’m coming back. It has made my body do funny things. I have experienced what I can only call body memories awakening. I wasn’t aware they were sleeping. I wasn’t aware I’d packed them away. However, there I was talking with someone about something entirely disconnected to England when I felt something within me stir. I felt my senses raise their head and shake something out. Like a scattering of dust, the memory of cold British air drifted across my skin and I grew excited to know that I should soon get to experience it in reality. I look forward to walking along Brighton seafront and being (I hope) buffeted by adverse wintry conditions. I look forward to swaddling myself in layers. Because, while I have missed people and a sense of connection, stranger still are the things that one cannot anticipate: how the body misses an environment. I want to experience certain smells again. I look forward to sensing another kind of light and another feeling against my skin. Mostly, Kerala is humid; it’s a sweaty hug. The monsoon season can be kind but still I sweat. As delightful as constant heat is, I really have started to look forward to the idea of wearing a hoodie and to having to put on socks and to wearing my favourite biker boots. I look forward to pulling my down jacket around me and feeling the air soak out as it deflates and to hear the crumpling cracking of feathers inside. I look forward to putting on layers (damn, I hope November is cold and fresh and not mild) and walking around feeling encumbered. I look forward to the evenings being drawn in and to that funny sense that comes when Christmas is considered just around the corner. Then again, I look forward to seeing Kerala hang out her paper Christmas stars. So, while perhaps England’s winters are dull and unexciting, depressing and a lackluster time of year, it’s something I have missed, though not that soggy end of the season when finally the darkness and the coldness have worn down any tolerance and it seems Spring will never arrive. I won’t miss that but for one week, I wouldn’t mind a little.

Some of the stupid things I want to do, in no particular order, are: go to the pub I used to work at, sit upon a bar stool and watch bad haircuts and the latest fashions (what is the latest fashion?) pass through; go to some of my favourite eateries to indulge in wickedly satisfactory meals washed down with a biting white wine; eat red licorice – don’t ask me to explain; walk about my old hometown to see what has remained and what has vanished, to see which old faces linger and which have rattled on; to stand in shops I once stood inside of as a child; to eat at least one Sunday lunch – the sort only a mother can make; I want to put my bike back together again and ride it across smooth English asphalt; to eat Avocado and mozzarella and olives; I want to see to the looks on British peoples’ faces; I want to remember what it is to walk around and to not be noticed because of the colour of my skin; to hear pebbles grind under my feet on Brighton beach; to meander around the Laines with, probably, cold hands pushed into inadequate pockets; to be a tourist inside my old life and to know whether that shoe still fits; to come into land at Heathrow and be struck by the enormity and technical wizardry, the ugliness and greyness, the polished finish of the sprawling airport; to hand over my passport to a British immigration officer and to know this isn’t for long; to look at the rupees tucked up next to British notes inside my wallet; to plant my face into my old mattress and be certain I shall not miss the lumpiness of the one that awaits me in India; to feel the M25 and its old familiar lanes roll, crawlingly, underneath the wheels of some car, or to sit upon an English train that will likely smell of fast food and to be grateful for the well-voiced announcements prior to each station; to go into a shop and drift aimlessly without bother, without a sales assistant trailing my every move and unwrapping every product my eye glances over; to take a walk on the Downs and feel the wind gusseting through my muscles and my marrow; to sit with friends and family and to remember the colour of India, to know that I cannot explain any of what has happened, no not at all; to witness my ridiculous quasi-Indian gestures punctuate my sentences and to know that time has passed and I have been away; to see a friend again for the first time, to watch the look upon their face, to feel the awkwardness of conversation, the shyness move in, perhaps, for reserve to temper our initial steps while we remember that we do know each other and still speak the same language; and so on until the end.

Here we are. Not much more to say but a lot to wonder about. I’ll let you know how it goes. If I see you, I’ll tell you or it could be that I shan’t be able to explain so I’ll sit in moderate dumb-founded silence over-whelmed by the shift in geography and situation or, instead, defer to nonsense chatter. After all, it’s not as if people haven’t endured stranger things or longer times away but this is my first time and I’m curious to know what the culture shock may or may not be now I’m doing it in reverse.

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