The first time I travelled outside India, I had stars in my eyes. It was going to be a long flight from Mumbai to New York, the city which had always had an iconic status. Glamorous, frenzied, wealthy, it was a character in its own right in many of the books I had read. My first introduction to New York had been through the book, “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn”, in which the protagonist was a girl of my own age. I loved the book and identified myself with Frances, though the events in her life could never have happened in mine. But her angst was mine, her hopes and fears were mine, and I felt her pain as keenly as she did. I read the book several times, and fervently wished a happy ending for her, but the book ended before she grew up. It was a coming of age novel, after all. I grew up too and realized that she belonged to a different world and time. But the city of New York left a lasting impression on me as seen through the eyes of Frances across the Brooklyn Bridge, as she longed to be a part of the nearly unattainable world across the bridge.
So when my first trip abroad was to New York, I was excited and happy. We flew over London, with a brief halt for the connection. The sky was clear and I saw the landmarks of London laid out clearly, its bridges across the Thames and the imposing Westminster clearly recognizable from countless movies and photographs.
In New York, a cousin was kind enough to put me up for a fortnight and show me the sights. We went into Macy’s, and drove down Sixth Avenue, and walked in Central Park, craning our necks to look at the Trump Tower. Ground Zero and Harlem were part of my education. Everything was impressive and the shiny Manhattan and the townhouses around Central Park were what I had hoped they would be.
On our way back to India, I had insisted on a short stay in London, where we were on our own, though we had managed to get a short stay apartment in Golders Green. With the help of a four-day Tube pass, we made our way around the city, which, in those days of no cell phones and Google maps, and no local friends, was an achievement of sorts. Added to it was R’s habit of converting his pounds to rupees and his refusal to spend more than what he would have spent in India, which meant we were on a shoestring budget, which meant we literally starved for a week. We had the cheapest cornflakes for breakfast, half a jacket potato for lunch or no lunch at all and half a packet of ready to cook rice and vegetables cooked in the microwave. But the joy of walking over the bridges on the Thames, the visit to the Fort of London and the Westminster Abbey where we walked over graves of the rich or famous with a little shiver, the look at the Buckingham Palace from outside, all compensated for the constant hunger. Every stone, every building had history behind it and to us, who, as Indians, had grown up reading all things English, there was a rush of familiarity at the sight. So I returned to India, hungry but satisfied, and with as much “foreign” stuff for our children as we could buy, which I was happy for them to show off after years of watching other children dressed in “foreign” jeans, eating “foreign” chocolates.
That was to be my one and only foreign trip I believed. There was a short visit to Singapore a few weeks later. That was that, or so I believed.
But a few years later both A and S had moved to London and a US city, and I made longer visits to both cities. From being a tourist I went to actually living there, like a local person, and became familiar with moving around and getting through the day as I did back home in Mumbai, but in Western surroundings. It was not very difficult though adjustments had to be made. Being with my children made up for everything and I was sorry to leave them behind when my visa ran out.
My husband retired and we made many more such visits. D also moved abroad and we have to visit them if we want to spend any time with our children because their visits to us are all too fleeting.
Over the last few years, I realize that the gloss has worn off. I am not a starry-eyed third world tourist anymore and few things impress me now as they used to in earlier years. It may have something to do with familiarity or it might be that I have more insight now with growing age. But the dyed blondes, the fake tans and the cheery “How are you” all ring false. The world is now the same everywhere in my eyes. The Tube is better, the traffic is better managed, the crowds are less and the parks are more beautiful. There is more garbage and more greed back home and more desperation perhaps, but then there are the temples and the familiar food and the places where we do not stand out in our foreignness to compensate.
I have now found a balance between the two ends of the world. I no longer believe everything is beautiful here because it is the developed West or that it is all bad back home. The good and the bad exist everywhere and we are slowly getting there.
My children are more pragmatic than I have ever been and and have never seen the world through rose-tinted glasses. They have always laughed at me for believing in the best. I am learning from them.