Old Hindi songs remind me of mother.
She is mother here in a cold, white flat in Frankfurt with the wind and rain lashing at the windows, imprisoning me indoors. She is not amma or the person with a name. She is comfort and memory and stillness. She is idli and bendekai gojju and filter coffee and endless food. She is the always washed clothes, a constantly tidy house, and the chatter in Kannada that is home.
I don’t miss it, no, but I would like it to be there. When I call, I still scream, get annoyed, and get irritated. It feels so rich to be able to do that, to speak to someone with authority even if it’s one’s own parents.
Here, I am quiet, reflective, submissive, a housewife with no real worth, no talent to speak of. Here, I am nobody because I can’t even speak the tongue. There are days when I wake up and stand at the window and tell myself that I am somebody. I am a known somebody. I do meaningful work. I have an identity. I am someone. My voice is not convincing because, here, I am out of my depth. How can I show anyone I have a sense of humour when we can’t even understand each other? Here, I get scared of washing machines with buttons in German, a prepaid phone connection that quotes the balance in German and Euros. A prepaid connection! Here, when I try to familiarise myself with the public transport I feel inadequate and overwhelmed. Though, I shouldn’t. This is Germany. They are neat, meticulous, and orderly. Not like the French. But here, I am literally a small person who has to count small change. Here, I am someone who cannot drive and be independent and do my own thing. And not only because we don’t have a car. I have to count pennies here. I have to be careful we don’t spend too much or waste. I never waste even at home but I never have to think about it ever. Here, I have to think. Plan meals. Dry, cold meals with no heat to offer comfort or solace. Do the laundry. Tidy the apartment. Miss sight-seeing again because the weather is so unfriendly and arthritis inducing.
The rain lashes some more. The wind seeps in through the cracks in Venetian blinds, and chills. Kishore Kumar sings of rain and it’s romantic and I wish I were draped in a sari and wore a bindi and laughed without a care in the world in a world where they all knew me. Instead I am still, huddled in pain, and feeling comforted that some things here feel familiar, like home. Like the white on the walls. But the walls and the icy floor are home now too because I have been intimate with them. I have vacuumed them and scrubbed them so it’s a clean house. So he comes to a clean house. So he knows I think of this space we inhabit as home. And soon it will stop being home. So we bicker and fight and abuse each other. When I laugh even as I cry it’s still without a care in the world because in this world no one knows and no one cares about who I am. It’s only wonder that drama can smite you in the most unlikely places. My mind whirls in the murkiness that is our relationship. Best friends for ten years is too commonplace for what it is. I don’t want to go into what it is. We are here now together again and we have always been there for each other and that’s enough.
I call home to still the restlessness. They say it’s windy and that it’s raining in Bangalore too. I smell Bangalore with its traffic fumes and wet and mud and those trees. Here, the air is clear, sparkling, like the water they drink, and sanitised. Sometimes you taste frying wurst in the air and fries that they call by another name. Unappetising food even if they add curry powder and make it into an exotic dish. Not the smell of sambhar that is so wholesome and satisfying.
Here, they call it curry smell. Indians have a smell here, they say, it’s very distinct. My untrained Indian nose cannot smell it. But when I am out with a man from here, he leans in mid-conversation, smells my neck and says, “I love the way you smell.” I think he means my perfume and it pleases me, this almost-lovers’ talk that is the same across all continents, but then he says, “You don’t smell like an Indian at all.” I’m too caught up in the intimacy of having his handsome, blonde face on my neck for the indignation to take root. But it eventually penetrates the romance of the moment and it doesn’t end well. I feel unduly proud to be Indian and want to defend my country and its people when I have never been so strangely patriotic or nationalistic or whatever before. Blissfully unaware of the things surging within me, he brushes his thumb across my lips, leans in some more, and says, “Your smile is great. You have such white teeth, how do you do it?”
I smugly reply, “I am Indian.” and look with faint disgust at his yellow teeth and quickly hide it by closing my eyes, preparing for his kiss, but I know he has seen it.
And I am strangely satisfied.
Kishore is singing another soulful, romantic song, and my soul feels satisfied again. There’s so much depth of feeling in Indian voices. Has it always been there? Am I only hearing it here now because the sounds are rounded, softer than the crisp, harsh, almost cold German my ears are so used to now?
Yet, I will miss this. I will miss this sanitised air, these harsh sounds, the man, everything, when next week I am back in Bangalore and its chaos and its dissatisfaction even on a quiet full moon night.
The moon here curves on the right.
The moon here curves on the right, I think, as I hear the duet about the moon and a balmy night. I remember how a German friend told me that she realised so harshly that she was away from home in India when she saw that the moon there, our moon, was curved to the left.
“My mother, she does not see this moon. She sees this different moon at night, ja, I kept telling myself this”, she told me a week ago, and how she was inconsolable for the rest of her time in India being a housewife, being a woman desperately in love and trying to keep her marriage together.
I struggle in Germany in a similar fashion. For him, I cook, clean, speak sensibly, be charming with his friends, or at least try. I don’t shop impulsively, listen to his instructions on diet and exercise. I cook for his friends without a cooker without even being interested in cooking. He plays Hemant Kumar as I chop vegetables including the onions. He doesn’t chop uniformly and it bothers my sense of perfection that he won’t dice vegetables the same size so I seize the board from him and do it myself. We have an issue when it comes to onions. They make me tear like crazy and so I don’t want to cut them. He refuses to chop onions because they stink later, he says. I roll my eyes. But it is true as everything he’s ever told me is. He knew I would love Berlin and I did. He knew it would get under my skin and claim me and it did. He knew I would not like Paris and while I was dismissive when I heard him, it turned out to be true. I didn’t like Paris. I ought to stop rolling my eyes at the things he says because the onions stink too much. The stink never leaves my fingers so that Berlin will not only always taste of Mars chocolate and weed but also smell of onions mingled with my Japanese cherry blossoms hand cream.
In Berlin, I realise that cooking, like hair, like mad laughter, like arthritis, like a sense of ebullience, is in the blood. I cook like mother. The daal, sambhar, rasam, and balekai palya I make taste like home, like mother, but without any warmth for me. I merely flush in pleasure as I sit and enjoy the others eat and finish most of the food and shower praises my way. That too is like being mother. And he sits quietly, eats, and doesn’t say a word in appreciation. Like father. And just like mother, I get irritated that he won’t notice or say nice things. In India, I go about my work expecting no praise, pleased when it comes my way, indifferent when it doesn’t. How clichéd is it that we become our parents, after all, in foreign lands and resort to what’s comforting.
When we fight he says I am his equal. That he treats me like an equal. In India, this is all one wants from one’s male friends. Here, in Germany, I miss my friend who always indulged me like I were a four-year old. I am a four-year old. I am also a woman clamouring for praise and love and satiation because I have never done these things before and I am doing them so well now.
‘Look, mother, I can do even this. I cook just like you. I keep house just like you. I don’t spend too much or waste anything, just like you. Someone notice how I am doing all this! Someone take note of the fact that I have erased myself completely to become mother in Germany.’
But equals don’t merit praise. And you can love someone so you show it by living with them day in and day out, hearing their stomach rumble, knowing their smells, the way they sleep, how they like their coffee, sympathising when they feel unwell, but not by saying, ‘I love you.’
And yet, living in two different countries saying I love you is all we do.
It’s easy to be in love when one is separated by time zones and geographies. I love mother. I love father. I feel the honesty now but I don’t say that when I speak to them. I say instead that they must treat me like a flower when I get back because here I have been a hardy root. Letting myself grow, sinking into the soil, assimilating, saying ‘allo’ instead of ‘hello’ and saying both ‘thank you’ and ‘danke schon’. Mother laughs and says, ‘I will do that but you can’t get irritated at me either.’ I immediately suspect that they have both done something that will not please me when I get home. Mother laughs some more and gives the phone to Father whose voice has always sounded loving on the phone. He asks what I want to eat when I get home. I tell him how I had dreamed of a masala dosa and how I had almost tasted it in my dreams. He assures me that it will be the first meal I taste when I get home. Food is home. Or maybe home is having someone make you whatever it is you want to eat.
Home is acceptance and an indulgence of desires.
The sun comes out a little. Mukesh croons nasally while I munch on an apple and a fresh apricot that tastes faintly of mango. I open the window and smoke a cigarette and am hit by cold air on my cheeks that turns it red and dry. So dry that in the evening he says I look white and I apply moisturiser for the first time on my face. I think it’s too cold to go out but I must. Or he will think I wasted another day being lazy and at home while he worked so hard at work. I want to laugh and tell him that I am on vacation and being lazy and relaxing is what I ought to be doing but I know no one will see it that way. Travelling has become not about the soul and finding oneself but about seeing all the sights and making sure everyone in your world knows that you have seen those sights on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter. I want to dissociate from that world of exotic filters that make a tower or a mountain or a bus stop or a coffee table look moody, nostalgic, bright, preppy, whatever; status check-ins that will make you seem cooler among your thousand odd friends only ten of whom have subscribed to your feeds because they anyway think you are pretty darned cool. I have failed in all this terribly because how do you take pictures of contentment, epiphanies, memories? How do you check into people’s minds and conversations that alter the way one thinks?
My vacation is of the mind. It is of learning who I am and what I can do and why I do the things I do. My vacation is quiet but full of stimuli that is about work, culture, perspectives. I chat up PhDs and social workers and hear about their lives. I want to speak to a graffiti artist but there’s no one who knows one so I decide to write about one instead. My vacation is about seeing what makes people tick and do the things they do. My vacation is also an experiment to see if I am too stuck in my ways or if I can change. It is to see if I will survive outside home. It is to see what I do when the layers of comfort and recognition I wear in Bangalore are peeled away. My vacation is to see how I define home when I am no longer in it. My vacation is to see if I have the resolve to exercise because there’s no skipping it, stick to a diet and allow my palate to be assaulted by tastes that are strange and somewhat alien. My vacation is to see if really holidays clear your head, give you a sharper focus, bring you relief.
A peppy Asha-Kishore duet makes me want to step out and flirt with the rain in Frankfurt. I tell myself I must step out in the rain and stop the music or I will continue longing for home. As I trudge on wet pavements and wait to cross the road, I smile and say ‘allo to a stranger who smiles at me. Clearly, he thinks I am from here. That I belong here. He doesn’t see me as a vacationer.
This is home now. I do belong here. I belong with him, my best friend for years, bickering, laughing, keeping his house, and doing the mad things we have always done together. I belong with mother and father and being the pet. I belong at work where I can light up and get lit up by language and love. I belong with those lovers and friends who have helped me discover myself in new ways. If home is people how can you have all of them in one city?
I realise then that I no longer need to listen to old Hindi songs except to enjoy them.
My longing for home is splintered, muddled, indistinct, and faint.
There is no physical location for home.