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Return of the Native

Manish Nandy |

For years I visited India rarely, when work demanded it or leisure permitted it. Even vacations had conflicting priorities: a romp in the snow with my American relatives or a lake-side holiday with a dear friend would not let me be homeward bound. The thrill of exploring a new country seemed a bigger draw than the charm of revisiting a familiar land.

When I visited India, it was quick and short. A family wedding or ailing mother were persuasive events. My two brothers in two cities added variation. A project in Sri Lanka or a conference in Bangladesh made Indian shores a convenient stopover. I never stayed long enough to get over the jet lag. So, none could cavil if much of my stay in Delhi or Mumbai was under a blanket. A short visit, interspersed with calls on old friends, seemed the right combination.

I marveled when Indians in the US told me that they visited the homeland every year. Some did so to the exclusion of all other countries. They saw London or Dubai at most for a day on their way to Chennai or Chandigarh. I asked myself if my link with my country of birth was weaker than theirs.

Of course, I missed my brothers, my cousins, my friends. I missed celestial Indian music and the baffling breadth of Indian cuisine. But, meanwhile, I had new neighbors to know, new colleagues to cultivate, new friendships to develop. I had Mahler and Miles Davis to hear, eat in New York and Washington an astounding range of food from Guinea to Guyana, Burma to Barbados.

I am not, like my father, a natural traveller, who loves being in new places. Nor am I like my brother who can be comfortable in all manner of places, by the simple device of ignoring whatever he finds disagreeable. I would rather stay put in a congenial space and see familiar faces. Switching from country to country every four years or less absorbed much of my stamina and whittled my yen for further travel. Kolkata remained a remote dream.

Then, about six years ago, something changed. A nephew, who lives in Ireland and was visiting Kolkata, saw an attractive collection of Saratchandra’s works and, on an impulse, paid for it to be shipped to me in Washington. I was taken aback by this unexpected and unusual gift, and started reading it at bedtime, usually past midnight. What I lost in sleep I gained in juvenile pleasure, of reading novels I had read with indescribable excitement when I was a high school student in India. I read with different eyes, but the astonishing wizardry of the author melted my heart just as it had done eons ago.

Maybe it was just a trigger, which combined with my growing inclination to reduce my work and focus a little on discovering myself: what really matters to me and what makes me tick. I started taking a closer look at what I was doing, where I was going. The upshot was that I decided to visit India and spend some time there. Specifically, I chose to spend more time in Kolkata where I had grown up. A close friend invited me to stay with him, as I had earlier sold the home I owned in Kolkata.Since then I visit India every year. It is my annual pilgrimage. It is not easy.

Of the countries I have visited the last ten years, India’s cities are certainly the most polluted. Every time I come, I cough, I retch, and I get sick. Transport is chaotic and bothersome. I spend an enormous amount of time sitting in cars that move in traffic at snail’s pace or don’t move at all for long periods. I enjoy the food, especially as it is quite different from what I normally eat, but the standard of hygiene is low, and I have to trust my luck to escape from intestinal trouble. The water is murderous. It far easier to spend a week or two in Bangkok or Barcelona, Prague or Panama City.

It is even more curious that, though I have travelled quite a bit, I am essentially a home-bound, travel-resistant person. I am never happier than when I am sitting on the deck of my Washington home, reading something inconsequential and sipping a Negroni. It differs little from the time I was a student when I sat on the veranda of my parents’ large apartment on College Street in Kolkata and sipped Darjeeling tea. No, travel does not come naturally to me.

Then why do I come to India, painfully bracing a dozen time zones? There is really no reasonable answer. I come here because I have to come here, almost as irrationally as the mountaineer George Mallory persisted in climbing the Everest, “because it is there.” India is in my blood. It is with me every moment of my life, no matter where I am. It gave me the language I dream in. It gave me the community that nurtured me. It gave me my childhood memories, my adolescent dreams, my adult hopes and aspirations. It gave me my parents, my brothers, my wonderful set of caring, forgiving, generous friends.

Its land was my landing ground and my take-off point. Its grass, its mud, its very dirt and filth were my sandbox, its narrow streets and winding alleys my playpen. I learned here, laughed here, worked here, loved here – sometimes unwisely, often passionately, always earnestly. Wherever I am, India rests in my pores and in my heart. I have to come here. Yes, it is a pilgrimage, for pilgrimage is not just a visit to a shrine or a holy place, it is also a journey into one’s innermost recesses.


The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]