First, curiosity. What does it look like now? Of course, every place you visit has changed; most places have changed radically. The roads are better, the buildings taller, there are new flyovers and subways. Admittedly the roads are not cleaner, the buildings defy both taste and norms, and there are stories of subway accidents and flyover crashes. No matter. The changes are signs of some vibrancy, an undeniable groping for a better life, a matter of interest and curiosity.
And yet, thirdly, there is a curious sense of comfort. The city, despite all the changes, feels like a familiar groove, where you can once again breathe in a familiar air, polluted and lung-busting to be sure, but also warm, friendly, heart-lifting. You take a turn, the locale seems vaguely familiar, you look for the old café, before you realize you are mistaken, you are in effect lost, and yet you don’t feel uncomfortable, for you feel somehow in accustomed terrain, like an old shoe or tea in a cracked but cherished cup.
Contrasting with those ravages is the pleasure of encountering what hasn’t changed. After savoring haute cuisine in fifty countries, I still exult over what you find street vendors purvey on Mumbai streets and tiny restaurants serve on Kolkata’s winding lanes. The joy of rediscovering what I had enjoyed and loved as a callow youth is immeasurable. Music is now eminently portable, yet I have to come to India to realize what vast treasures remain beyond my reach without a visit to my pristine land.
That is what I feel: a man in exile, not really estranged, not even – as the official term goes – ‘expatriated,’ but just someone who has been abroad for a long time, but has now taken the time to come home.