Once upon a time the thought of foreign travel was very tempting to the experience-starved Indian middle-aged male. The younger people had not yet begun to apply to foreign universities as a matter of routine. Education was considered to be finished once they were out of an Indian university with a degree and the immediate need was a job. The unlucky few who did not move into jobs in the months following sought a higher postgraduate degree to avoid facing awkward questions. The day of the MBA degree had not yet begun.
The older people had no hopes of ever traveling anywhere outside India. They were barely able to make ends meet within their income. Travel within the country itself was confined to the odd pilgrimage and the fairly regular visits to uncles and grandparents where one was not very sure whether one was really welcome.
Those were the days when the possession of a passport was itself a matter of awe. Normal people never sought to apply for one.
Then came the wave of the Gulf workers from Kerala whose ambition to work in Arab countries was stoked by the riches sent back from there by the pioneering adventurers who went there as nurses, carpenters, electricians and plumbers. They were both envied and somewhat looked down upon by the more educated whose services were not in demand but who wished their turn would come to mint riches similarly.
Meanwhile a few lucky Indians who were the favorites of their bosses began to be rewarded with brief trips abroad. Passports were hurriedly procured and kept ready in the hope the call would come. When it did, the news was announced with great pride in family circles. The old wedding suit was brought out of storage and brushed and dry-cleaned, shoes were bought as a necessity, and woolens were borrowed from the lucky ones who had already traveled abroad. Finding shops which stocked woolen coats and jackets was almost impossible in those days. Meanwhile shopping lists were received from close ones and neighbors, and even the odd acquaintance. With limited foreign exchange at one’s disposal, these lists were a matter of much heartburn. Finally the traveler was off on his journey, having made all arrangements to be met or allowed to stay with friends of friends, and his victorious return was a matter of triumph for his family. Visitors dropped in to be rewarded with a ball pen if they were lucky or with a few chocolates. Those higher up in the hierarchy received souvenirs in the shape of keychains and little stuffed toys. There were no fridge magnets then or more accurately, not everyone had a fridge at home.The cheap lipsticks, colognes and shaving creams were for family. The wife was proudly gifted a bottle of liquid diswash along with cheap costume jewelry which was proudly worn for years to come. The children were thrilled to get video games.
By now, some of the earliest to move abroad to be educated had settled there and married and begun to raise families. This led to the phenomenon of the traveling grandparents who were invited to help in the birth and care of new babies. They went happily, eager to be of use and quite often this was their first airplane ride. They packed whatever they imagined was necessary, their ragged suitcases containing a strange mix of unfashionable clothes, spices and condiments needed for cooking in a strange country which had none of the essentials needed for Indian cooking, and idli plates, coffee filters and even the odd mortar and pestle. They did not expect to be anything but useful and quite often were sent back home after their six month visas ran out, with small gifts of soaps, shampoos, and a cheap sweater to wear in the mild winters at home. The occasional packet of almonds was displayed proudly to neighbors as a loving gift from the grateful son or daughter and their spouse. The fact that the entire six months were spent in the four walls of their home with an occasional trip to the local Hindu temple or the Indian store was not mentioned. The chilly welcome from the son-in-law or daughter-in-law was a humiliation to be swallowed quietly.
But this is the age of travel, for the young Indians, who fly in and out of various airports with great ease and and think nothing of holidaying in other countries, used as they are to earning in dollars or pounds or any other currency. Even the rupee earning Indians earn much more than their parents would ever have dreamed of, and plan foreign holidays without any trepidation. We Indians have learnt to spend and are among the highest spenders abroad unlike the penny-pinching foreigners. I am not saying this, surveys show this to be true. Often, many of them are generous enough to fund their parents’ holidays as well, if they come armed with the required visas.
Some amount of travel has fallen to our share as well. Our children have been generous enough to invite us frequently to their homes and provide us with whatever we may need to spend our days in comfort. We have also been happy to accept what is strange and foreign and adapt to life in new places. Incidentally, R has stopped converting pounds and dollars to rupees. But the strange bathroom habits of the West will never find acceptance in me. The Paris lavatory with a curtain instead of a door, the Roman lavatory with transparent glass doors, the complete lack of water in most, offend my soul profoundly. Of course A would say that they do not even begin to compare to China where people travel with toilet rolls in their handbags.
Airplanes have taken all the romance out of travel now. Taking long rides to airports, the long waits, the intrusive and generally offensive security checks, and the inedible airlines food, have all made travel a pain to be endured with gritted teeth. Immigration lines and the officer at the end of it crown the whole miserable experience. Occasionally one comes across a really intelligent and friendly official like the one at LHR who spoke to us in our own language. Where once the adventure began with the ride to the airport, now nothing is certain till we are back in the comfort of a welcoming home, whether it is our children’s or our own.
But at the end of it all, there is always the happiness of being back in our own country, even amidst all the complaints of bad roads, crowds and the weather. There is no need to worry about our papers being in order, no reason to justify our travel, no questions about when we are planning to leave. We are back and this is where we belong.
I go to my puja room and look at my Gods and at Sai Baba and thank them before I walk through all the rooms with a feeling of joy at being back home. This is my kingdom, this is where I rule.
Now my life has come full circle and having seen many cities and sights, I realize that no matter how much I travel, there will always be many beautiful places I will never see, and there will be many places which look identical and indistinguishable. Even if I travel every day of my life, there will never be time to see it all. It is perhaps time to hang up my boots and stay at home. To sleep, perchance to dream.