Although I returned from home #1 (India) some 7 weeks ago, I have only recently begun to feel settled in home #2 (my much-loved city, Baltimore, USA.) This time the trip felt longer and far, far more tiring, which makes little sense since I last went there just 2 ½ years ago. Perhaps, there’s been a speedy continental drift, I told myself, and home #1 had floated further into the Pacific Ocean.
And then it occurred to me. Get real, I told myself. You’re older! Travel takes a toll.
But isn’t age just a number? I’ve heard that so often it’s almost a cliché. In any event, I googled the saying and found a zillion. I chose three to contemplate upon.
Age is just a number and young is an attitude.
Age is just a number. It should never hinder you from accomplishing your goals.
Age is just a number and weed is just a plant.
Well yes, over these many weeks, I’ve amassed plenty of attitude that has not hindered me from being asleep or half asleep both day and night, if that was my goal.
And of course, I know weed is a plant! After all, I have a B.Sc. in Botany for heaven’s sake, which should count for something! My father, a botanist, used to say a weed is a plant that grows where it’s not welcome. If a rose grew in a cornfield, it would be a weed, he would say. Little did my father know that weed also grows where it is warmly welcomed.
With that out-of-the-way, let me write about one of my best friends in India. I visit him whenever I go home. If you’ve read “How Far Away is Far Away?” (scroll down) you’ve met him too. He had travelled to the far end of the street and now he was back “home” tucked in his little shop at the corner where he has worked since I was a teenager.
I was delighted and relieved to see him. As always, I’d taken all my sandals that needed repair to India so my mochi could work his magic. They are too beautiful and unique to discard. I buy them from roadside vendors, who may be here today and gone tomorrow. So, my sandals are irreplaceable. Shoe repair in America essentially involves glue, whereas my mochi sews right through the leather, stitch by stitch, using his coarse well-worn hands and a long, thick needle. No machines, no glue. He uses his feet as a clamp. In fact, whenever I buy pretty sandals in India, he fortifies them for me even though they are brand new. Only then do they nestle in my suitcase en route to America.
I was with my brother when I met him this time. As usual his head was bent, working, while people walked around him on the side-walk. When he looked up, I smiled and asked him if he remembered me. And his eyes just lit up! He smiled his warm toothless smile, nodded, and simply said “Hahn ji” (Hahn means yes. Ji is a form of respect as in Gandhiji.) Then he said in Hindi, “So many days, you didn’t come.”
I was deeply moved. I didn’t expect this old man, who sees hundreds of people walk by everyday to remember me. My brother, who is also his customer, was equally shocked at his memory.
“I didn’t know you were brother and sister,” our mochi said.
There is a Hindi proverb that says, “the heart at rest sees a feast in everything.” Over the five years that I lived in Bombay before making the U.S. my home #2, and all the years thereafter whenever I returned to India for brief visits, this poor gentle man, who works everyday as if it’s his first day, has been an inspiring example of what life is truly about. He has given me many fold more than I could ever pay him for repairing my shoes. He is as faithful as the sun and the moon. In this transient fickle world he has been a rock! My family aside, he is what home #1 means to me. And why I must keep returning, no matter how far India drifts away.
Below is a poem entitled “From Bombay to Baltimore” taken from my book, Her Skin Phyllo-thin.
FROM BOMBAY TO BALTIMORE
The Arabian Sea still flecks with fishing boats
like paper toys my father taught me to fold
and float in streams behind our home.
My plane, a silver scythe knows no ache,
splices clouds in half like cotton scarves,
shreds and tosses wispy threads afar.
Dim one-bulb huts recede, pinpoints of fire flies,
five star hotels shrink to match-box size,
coconut fronds to dainty fans.
This time, my heart, quiet and stilled,
leaves behind a billion people, maybe more,
who say their destinies are written on their foreheads.
And still I search between continents,
between sky and sky,
between then and now