A Moment for Return

It rained heavily while I waited to board my flight at Pune's Lohegaon airport. It is only a short walk to the plane, but it was the kind of downpour that won't allow even those few steps. The ground staff, who can't but be out and about, were struggling even with their big, workmen-like umbrellas. My cheap folding umbrella, a companion I learnt to keep while living in London, has to remain safely tucked away: This rain is just too mighty for its makers to have imagined. So I waited in the erratic queue ful of busy-looking people, for the bus to do the one minute ride, which the bus was doing, with all its elaborate maneuver around the plane and along the pre-set routes, once in every fifteen minutes. That's when I started writing this post - partly to get around boredom, but also to remember this smell, the smell that comes from such rain. It may be my imagination - in fact, must be my imagination - that I was smelling the wet soil even through all the mixture of fuel air, sanitizers, assorted perfumes worn by people in the queue, and airconditioned air vented out at various spots from inside the passenger area as we waited outside, but I would like to believe that it was there, and it indeed reached me.

This smell makes me feel Indian. I have not lived in this country for fifteen years now, but have never forgotten the smell. The memory is so strong that I can even imagine it at times, as I must have been doing here right now. This is that smell from my childhood which arose from wet ground when the rains touched it. With a very unscientific imagination, I always imagined that such rain must be poring through the ground to touch earth's heart - and bringing out her deepest love for everything us. That smell therefore bonded me to the land, with an emotional tie that can transcend all practicalities, and remained with me as I surrendered to my ambition and left the country. This smell remained though, in my mind, to make occasional appearances in unlikely places, as it is doing right now, as I stood in bored abandon waiting for my one-minute bus ride for my eighteen minutes flight to Mumbai thereafter, fidgeting with my mobile phone to look as busy as everyone else on the queue.

They say smell is the most memorable of all feelings and obviously I shall agree. And, it is to me to the most evocative - my childhood lives through this smell - as well as an answer that I am searching for: I am forever reconciling my idea of happiness, an idle winter morning where I visualise myself standing in the balcony of my childhood home enduring the northerly breeze and waiting for the sun to become stronger; with my idea of success, which I conceive as a mixture of globetrotting, glamour and gold rush. These are two diametrically opposite ideas and I live in the tension between the two: I can never make a home in England nor settle down to be a babu in Kolkata.

Surely, I am fully aware that this is a false dilemma in many ways, because the two propositions are not opposite but relate to two different things, work and lifestyle respectively, and any trade-off will involve my own sense of priority for one over the other. But, at the same time, the trade-off involves my life, what I do in my waking hours. And, as I have come to know, such trade-offs, while it may sound normal to many of my compatriots, should not be taken as a necessary price to pay to be in the modern world. What I saw, as I traveled, that this proposition presented to me as normal, hide the fact that there is a hierarchy of choices underlying it: My idle winter morning is so impractical because we have come to accept that such things value less than an idle winter afternoon spent in a Swiss resort (or an yacht somewhere). What we take to make sense is actually to buy into the conventional meaning of 'sense', as told on TV perhaps, and what I think of as success is merely accepting that my childhood and heritage meant nothing. I have come to accept to live in a bubble and accept that I must spend my time, the only thing that is really mine, in servicing a desire which was imposed upon me.

That the smell of the ground brings forth such reflection is liberating. As much I celebrate transient identity, I see identity as an anchor, a way to resolving dilemmas such as mine which has no easy answer, and also to escape the prison of other people's ideas, which are usually dressed up and presented as self-evident truths in so many areas of our lives. The smell of the ground, as I mentioned, overwhelms all my supposed rationality and makes me feel that it is coming out from the heart of the earth (while I am perfectly aware that the real smell may be of Sulfur). But at this very liberating moment of standing in a queue, this is not just a smell but an anchor, a signal on how to resolve questions I can never really resolve by trying to make sense, because what I believe to be 'sense' is merely buying into other people's percepts, often constructed to their advantage. 

This narrative will end in a rather obvious way. The bus will come, the queue will dissolve, the plane will do its absurdly short flight, and I shall be back to the hustle-bustle of Mumbai, haggling with cab drivers for a ride to my hotel. In a few moments, I shall not care when this rain will stop, and just make an assumption that like all rains, it would stop. Life will become normal when the rain stops and the scorching Sun returns. All these, put in this blog, will remain to earn the scorn of occasional visitors as nonsense: In fact, it is very much intended to be so. I am writing in this very bored, very evoked moment as if to say what if life is really unreal, and what if this smell is from the earth designed to remind me who I am and what I ought to do. This will be no more a conspiracy than all these rationally constructed logic of living in London, expressed in terms of career, money, and progress. This smell is no less real than all the luxuries of Louis Vuitton and Gucci and all that. In fact, I get more time to adore those luxuries than this rare opportunity to get bored and really smell the soil: If simple rarity would have the predictor of value, this moment would be infinitely more valuable than those assorted shopping mall time that I am destined to spend. This is a moment when all my childhood, and all those people associated with it, with all the love, all the dream, all the pride, come compressed in one distilled moment, cleansed off all the disappointments, cries, injuries and limitations, as in a perfect pearl preserved with great care in the crest of time. The real, the queue, the boredom, the pretenses of myself and of others standing here, the absurdity of the bus and the plane, are no more real than the imagined, water tearing through the surface of the earth and touching its heart, breaking down its defenses and bringing forth emotions deeply hidden: This is what is happening to me.

The flight must call, I must rush, the phone must be switched off and the ruminations must end, but one knows where to return, which may wait but an wait that goes on forever.   


Neha Gupta said…
This is such a beautiful post; touched my heart !
It was Onam yesterday and we were wondering what to do - neither of us is religious or diligent. We are in a modern Danish flat, in a cold European city, away from the world where the word Onam means anything.. and we started talking about what we used to do as kids (2 different versions) and how we are running after all things progressive - but thats not where the heart is, and we know we want to go back, and we know it ll be different - but our souls will be happier or atleast at peace. We know we want to celebrate festivals with our families and for our kids to experience them as we did. And we say to each other - In time ! - and then go make a cup of chai, enjoy the view of the city, a privilege our little balcony provides us with - forever thinking of the monsoon-y, misty afternoons back home.

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