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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

A Thirty Day Journal

Being Back in India After 17 Years

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INDIA: After 17 years, I was looking forward to a return to my homeland with a one-way ticket with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation because of the pandemic.

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Early evening on 22nd March, my friends who came to pick me up and drop me to the Jakarta airport probably wanted to ensure that I would finally leave. We had a great ride talking about bygones and how we would miss each other. During the ride we had an elaborate mobile bar serving Rum, coke, ice. An experience difficult to imagine for many Indians with a limited “Bali” view of Indonesia. Thanks to the finesse of Anuj and hard work of Anjan, the mobile bar was possible. The entertainment as usual was owned by Sharmji.

I reached the airport, checked in smoothly only to realise that it was only going to be downhill and stressful from here. Kids howling, people wanting to change their seats, and general social brusqueness prepared me for India well before I had landed. With little sleep on a redeye flight, I landed in Delhi at 7am. Let the great India circus begin, a day before the Government had announced PCR tests at the airport, for all flights coming in from the Middle East. Voila we are directed to get PCR tests as the authorities firmly believed that Indonesia is in the Middle East! Protesting passengers force a quick consult of Google Mata convinced the authorities that indeed Indonesia is not a part of the middle east and we all could get the Safe Flight Stamp and proceed to the immigration. Welcome back to India!

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Now began my mini Bharat Brahman Delhi-Guragoan-Gaziabad-Chandigarh-Gaizabad-Gurgaon-Bangalore-Pondicherry-Chennai-Chandigarh all in 2 weeks.

The first leg of the journey was more of a pit stop and organising my luggage. The real adventure began when I took my Royal Enfield Himalayan bike on a trip from Ghaziabad to Chandigarh.

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My Google maps failed at the start of the trip due to lack of data, so I went old school by asking directions from friendly strangers. Nothing had changed we are still the same, sure or not sure, we give directions with utter confidence. The misdirection cost me an hour. I was trying to do a non-stop ride to Chandigarh to prepare for a longer ride later in the month and to my surprise I could, “picture abhi baki hai dost”.

A few days later I am back on the road traveling to Ghaziabad with my friend Puneet who on the road spoke about all that is happening in his life. In between we stopped at the famous Murthal dhabas to have stuffed parathas, white butter, and tea.

After a few days stay I was off to Gurgaon to stay the night with my sister, in the evening she had a very interesting visitor who was a veteran in the field of advertising, the field I had just said goodbye to (hopefully), small world indeed.

The following day I left for the Airport to go to Pondicherry and meet two ladies with whom I had only interacted online, when I was in Jakarta, talk about a leap of faith.

Why Pondicherry? This was a place that I had visited a few times before and was always keen to see if this is the place I can settle for a while. More a recce trip.

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Here began a comedy of errors. I was supposed to book the flight to Chennai and then take a taxi to Pondicherry. I booked a flight to Bangalore still not sure why, but I decided to make the most of my mistake and decided to spend a night with my sister in Bangalore. As luck would have it she was not keeping too well and could be Covid positive. I decided to take a Taxi from Bangalore to Pondicherry from the airport itself. What an idiotic decision it was. The journey started at 8pm, in a Tamil Nadu registered taxi and I had no clue about the mistake I had just made in taking a TN registered taxi. Residents of Bangalore will surely understand why?

The driver took all the small unpaved roads to avoid traffic to reach the highway. The roads were all under construction with no street lights and stretches in between that made me regret getting into this ordeal? To top it all it was election week, and we got stopped for checking five times in a span of 2 hours. Frustrating but necessary.

Entered Pondicherry at 4.30am, checked into my online friend’s apartment. I had to wake up Salochinee, (whom I had met online) as the driver and I could not find the apartment. Once I entered the apartment, a regulatory salutation and I head straight to the sofa cum bed and doze off.

Waking up around 11am, I headed out with Salochniee breakfast at a nearby Government Cafe on the beach, on the brightest of days, with not a single cloud in the sky. What a disappointment the cafe was that it could not get an omelette and bread right. Made me think that in the past decade and a half nothing has changed on the competencies of Government run cafes. Prime locations and bad food are great recipes to be featured on “Restaurants on the Edge series”. Netflix are you reading :).

Afternoon we have a potluck lunch with Vandhana (my other online friend) joining in, who stays across the hall. We ate, chatted, and made plans for the evening. Based on the plan we had to go shopping for items, my favourite thing when I visit a place as it gives a perspective on what is the local flavor of the community that resides in the neighbourhood. Armed with Old Monk, Thumbs Up, Lays Masala Chips we are set for the evening. It was a fun evening where I got to know my online friends in real life and could connect and gauge what kind of individuals they are. Human connection is all about the stories and whose stories connect with you.

Photo credit: Gaurav Arora

The next day was vegetable shopping from the wet market and buying fish and chicken with Salochnee. I had volunteered to cook the chicken. The market was bursting with movement and organised commotion, the vegetables were as fresh as it could get and the chicken too. I had a hard time selecting it as I had never bought it from a market, but with the help of a friendly seller we managed. As we were about to get into an auto to head back, I spotted a corner filter coffee shop and sure enough I went to have one with the auto driver. While sipping on the coffee I gazed around and was taken aback by the expressions of the people around me who all seemed happy and content. I wondered when will the majority of the world realise that this is a million dollar expression that each individual should strive towards and not the materialistic race which has no finish line. The chicken I cooked was well appreciated for lunch. In the evening we all went for a long walk on the beach. It was nice and breezy but no Covid protocols were followed.

We decided to rent an SUV for the next day so I could drive around the town to get the vibe of the town and visit the world famous Auroville ashram. We left for the ashram late morning and it was quite busy with visitors. We stopped at the cafe in the ashram and had overpriced coffee and samosas. My friend Salochnee called a friend she wanted to meet who lives in the ashram. He was a young happy person who looked so content with life that made you wonder if surrounding yourself with like-minded people is the key to happiness. We then took a walk to visit the spherical golden dome that is the highlight of the ashram, but for me it was not the dome but the walk which had plants from around the globe that was special. It made me wonder if different nationalities of plants can grow in the same soil, then why we humans can’t coexist as we too share the same soil. It was getting really hot, so we decided to head back home and rest. Since we had the car, we decided to visit another beach in the evening and Google Mata was activated to lead us to it. We missed the small road that could lead us to the destination twice, because in our judgement by the looks of it, it did not seem right in spite of Google Mata telling us this was the turn. Lesson learnt: Goggle Mata is always right.

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A beautiful sandy beach with people from at least 30-40 different nationalities doing various activities and enjoying the beach in a carefree manner. We took a long silent walk as all of us were deep in our thoughts. I, for one, was looking for future answers, only to realise why I should bother about what lies in the future when such a beautiful present lies before my eyes. The walk made all of us hungry and we stopped for sushi dinner on the way.

Election day and everything was shut, so I decided to walk around the white town area where I was staying as I wanted to explore. I stumbled upon a corner shop that was open and was serving tea, coffee, and juice. In the evening Vandhana had invited a very interesting German single lady that has been in Pondicherry for over 26years and had travelled across south India on a bicycle. The stories she narrated about her friendly encounters made me feel very proud of my ‘Incredible India’.

The following day I had booked a taxi to head to Bangalore to catch my return flight to Chandigarh, the journey was smooth and so was the check-in and the flight. Arrived before time so used that time to buy some booze at the airport and wait for my father who was picking me up.

All in all, an interesting home coming. Some positive surprises, many things the very same, giving one a sense of dejavu, but overall satisfying. There is nothing like home, nothing like India.

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