MEXICO — The monsoon rains had been slow in coming. The heat built and there were clouds in the white-hot sky but the rains did not come. People died in their houses and in the streets. Everyone looked to the sky.
Now, during our last hours in India, storms lashed the windows.
Impending change sends enough adrenaline into your system that you can maneuver through the coming obstacles no matter the time of day, no matter how heavy the baggage. You feel yourself begin to fade into a transitory state. You physically exist in one place but your soul is moving ahead to another.
Finally, that moment comes when you inhabit only the present. You check your pockets, extend the handles on your suitcases, round up your people and your things. You look around a space you called home, knowing you will never return. You lock the door behind you a final time and take the first step of the voyage.
We ferried our bags to the lobby of our home of two years: eight rolling duffels, two strollers, two car seats, a child carrier backpack and a collection of carry-ons. The rain fell in a solid sheet. The van pulled under the overhang but we were half-soaked by the time everything was loaded. I banged shut the sliding door and had never been more ready to leave a place. We pulled out and I tried to feel sad.
All I felt was fatigue and dull relief.
For the two preceding monsoons, I had worked on a series of abstract photos shot through rain-smeared windows. I didn’t feel like it but this was it, these were my last moments in Mumbai, and I didn’t feel like looking upon it with nostalgia. So I put my camera to my eye and shot frame after frame, dark, blurred images running with obscure colors and electric stained shadows.
We turned off NM Joshi Marg and drove past the notorious Arthur Road jail, through Jakob’s Circle, and onto Worli Seaface. Then we were on the Sealink Bridge with the black void of the Arabian Sea to our left. I remembered arriving two years before when the midnight city was on our left and how I had imagined this moment of departure that would surely come.
I took my last photo somewhere in Bandra and it is just a dark messy blur. Then we were in front of the airport. Then we were checking our bags. Then we were going through security…then we waited for our flight.
One of my favorite states is being through security with time to drink a cup of coffee, when you cannot go backwards and it is not yet time to go forward. I was just beginning to enjoy the process of the journey. My four-year-old son told me he was hungry. There was nothing to eat but tired pastries at the coffee stand but I got in line holding him. An expensively dressed woman pushed in front of me. She looked me in the eye, daring me to say anything. In a calm voice I told her what she was. The shock on her face was of someone who had never been spoken to in such a way. I bade her a goodnight and walked away with a still hungry child.
I didn’t feel good and I didn’t feel bad and the rain rolled down the airport windows.
We boarded the full plane. I normally look at the crowd and wonder if these are the faces of people I am going to die with. This time I looked at all those faces and wondered the same thing and found that I didn’t care. I was filled with the awful, singular thought that none of us are very special. If we were blown out of the sky it would not change much at all.
A few hundred out of all the multitudes, soon to be forgotten.
A few days ago I was dying. In the morning I coughed blood and in the evening I was lying on the marble floor of the bathroom barely able to move, covered in the thin black vomit I had thrown up over my feet and legs. India had been trying to kill me for two years but in a desultory fashion. Realizing I was about to escape, it redoubled its efforts, sending waves of plagues in a last ditch effort to do me in. The doctors diagnosed walking pneumonia and figured the antibiotics would also kill whatever was making me vomit black water. They were right but it would be a year before I felt fully healthy again.
India’s cities are now the most polluted in the world. New Delhi is worse than the famously contaminated Beijing. The air quality of Mumbai is not as bad as the capitol, but unlike New Delhi, Mumbai is in the tropics. Its seasons vary only in their degree of heat and humidity. It is built on landfill, connecting what were originally seven islands and mangrove swamps. It has always been a hazardous place and the walls of the old British churches are covered in melancholy plaques to colonials who never went home. We joked that the foundations of the Maximum City had been laid on the corpses of English cholera victims and this dark notion was not entirely inaccurate. With an ever-expanding population of over 20,000,000 people and no adequate sanitation, it is a perfect urban petri dish.
Rain flowed down the Plexiglas of the jetliner’s windows. The engines howled and the rain streaked backwards. We were pushed into our seats and broke free those surly bonds of India, of earth, and were airborne, wheels up, heading home. I allowed myself to smile just a little bit.
In the hissing twilight no-place of air travel, I told myself that we were done.
I remembered reading in Edward Rice’s excellent biography, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, “Shipped down from Bombay, he seemed like a man at the end of his rope… At the end of the year, he returned to England. Here, still on sick leave, he continued to be plagued by the problems that had developed in India. He had a wan look on his face, indicative of more serious ailments. Liver trouble, bronchitis and other pulmonary diseases and internal inflammations sapped his energies and kept him a walking invalid.
We were now on our way to London ourselves.
We had decided to take a 24-hour layover on our way back to the United States. My wife and I were unsure if we’d made a mistake, if we shouldn’t have taken the direct flight all the way home. It’s a brutal, grey, 19-hour haze of airline food and unhappy children but at the end of it all you are done. Stopping in London would break the trip into less inhumane periods, but it would mean going through customs, baggage claim, and all the attendant hassle an extra time.
Still, we were getting better at this type of logistics, moving our lives, our family, and our things over and over from place to place. We reminded ourselves that the contemporary ideal of sleek, stretchy clothes and black, minimalist luggage is a modern contrivance, that our bags and cases and reliance upon porters was, in fact, more historically accurate for a family moving from South Asia to North America via Great Britain. Of course, that family would have travelled by ship and had weeks, if not months, to make the transitions from continent to continent, culture to culture. From leaving India to stepping through the door of our new apartment in Virginia — including 24 hours in London — would take less than 48 hours.
There is a Sofitel in Heathrow Airport. It is not near the airport it is in the airport. It is fine to travel on the cheap when you have nothing but a camera bag and a backpack but it is far better to pay extra and save your strength and sanity when you have a family and a mountain of bags. To make the 24-hour layover worthwhile it had to involve a minimum of extra effort: thus the very expensive but very nice hotel, very close at hand.
We collected our bags, went through customs, hired some waiting porters, and made a trip of several hundred feet. Shortly thereafter we were checked in and revelling in decadent acts like drinking tap water and showering with one’s mouth open. It was only 8 a.m. We ordered a glorious spread of room service: silver pots of strong, black coffee, omelettes and smoked salmon, French cheese, flaky pastries, nothing curried. My wife and I toasted each other with fresh squeezed orange juice.
It was one of those fine English summer mornings, blue-skied and perfectly mild. We had promised ourselves that we didn’t have to do anything but we weren’t tired. We had a few ideas but the first on our list was to visit the tomb of Richard Burton. The explorer is buried with his wife in a life-sized expedition tent carved from marble in the London suburb of Mortlake. We arranged for a car to take us there. The small, Catholic churchyard was slightly overgrown and shaded with old trees. Our boys ran and played between the mossy stones and time-weathered crosses. The playing field of a school adjoined the graveyard and my sons talked through the fence to English boys while I talked to Sir Richard.
I didn’t feel any real presence of him but it was quiet and the air was clean and there were things I wanted to say. We stayed there in that corner of England’s green and pleasant land for a long while and when we left we found a narrow path with a sign pointing the way to the Thames.
Along that path we passed the open door of Saint Mary the Virgin church built in 1546. I walked inside and said hello. Echoes answered in return. I knelt and said a prayer of thanks in that still and holy place. I could barely speak the words before crying spontaneously from sheer relief and sudden joy. My son watched me with quiet concern and I picked him up and sat on one of the benches. I let it pass over me and when it had I dried my eyes. I felt happy and fit. We walked a bit farther and soon arrived at the muddy old Thames. Men were at crew practice, sculling to the cries of the coxswains. Seagulls answered them.
We continued down the path until we found the first pub, an old building called, “The Ship”. The windows and doors were open to the day’s breeze and a pretty bartender welcomed us inside. There was that familiar smell of hundreds of years of ale and smoke, wood polish, whiskey, and laughter. A young mother was having lunch with her father while a new baby slept in a stroller. A man in a business suit read The Times at a sunlit window. On the patio two men drank pints and smoked with spaniels at their feet. We ordered fish and chips and pints of hand-pulled IPA. We ate our food and drank our beer and when the meal was finished so were we. It was time to sleep.
In the morning we would board another plane and that would take us somewhere new. Somewhere else would follow that and somewhere else would follow that, and nothing would be permanent except for change.
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