Spending nights playing with dice
Going out on moonlight nights
Keeping the festive day in honour of spring
Plucking the sprouts and fruits of the mango trees
Eating the fibres of lotuses
Eating the tender ears of corn
Picnicking in the forests when the trees get their new foliage
Decorating each other with the flowers of some trees
Pelting each other with the flowers of the Kadamba tree
These and similar other amusements
Should always be carried on by citizens.
– Kama Sutra, Vātsyāyana
First look from morning’s window
The rediscovered book
Snow, the change of the seasons
– Pleasures, Bertolt Brecht
Images of India wax and wane, over five years spent there only serving to confuse, now. This is an essay on traveling, in so far as coming home is a kind of travel. Because once you have lived away from your place of birth long enough, it becomes strangely unfamiliar in a way that ought to be forbidden.
Though far fewer people roam the streets in this small town, I find myself bumping into them accidentally, out of habit. They find this strange, and I do too, responding to their looks with addled stammers. Running also into familiar faces, not seen or heard of in years, strangers now. When I first returned, in the summer, it was close enough — hot and unyielding, even humid — or rain, rain, rain on steaming ground. The winter is what caught me. The sound of a pandemonium of parrots passing overhead being replaced by the cackle of ordinary pigeons, gathering in the cold and damp. The way sundown crawled first away and is now inching slowly back. The quiet fills up my head like the cold does my lungs — winter is as uncomfortable as a heavy coat is foreign on my back. It was winter when I left here six years ago, went to a place that, at the time, was wild and strange. It still feels that way, but now Budapest does, too.
In Mumbai, summer is what there was, always. Whether it rained or didn’t, it was never not summer. But it never felt like real summer to me— it wasn’t earned through the bone of winter and the rites of spring: just one humid, balmy exhale in your face after the other. There was no autumn. No turning of the colors, no crunching underfoot, just like there is no monsoon in Budapest: no swelling of water on sidewalks, no children playing in it.
Things change in your absence, which is why you can’t go home again — not to the same home, anyway. I often think about calling a certain phone number, the number that would, on the other end, have my grandmother. Always one for lofty aspirations, she would answer by saying her last name followed by the word residence, as if that made it seem like she was likely to have a majordomo. But that number is no longer active now, and someone else lives at that address.
The winter fog, the frost on the ground. Less music, fewer colors — more order, though not, like in India, that everyone knows their place in relation to everyone and everything else — but because your place is separate from other’s places, neatly removed. But also, the feeling that I, as a woman, am equal to men. No bathing suits on New Year’s Day, but snow for Christmas – the first snow I’ve seen in half a decade. No juice vendors on every corner, but also no maimed children. Homeless people the same, but these dressed in thick rags, moving alone, not in groups. People so much more guarded here, but more sincere in their affections. No daily call for prayer, but the ringing of church bells. French arthouse films in cinemas instead of Bollywood blockbusters.
I have spent more time in Mumbai than anywhere else — more in one piece than in the city I was born into. Forcing a feeling of recognition like squeezing blood from a stone. Yes, Budapest has changed — it is more commercial now, places I knew closed, lost, renamed or just different — but I have changed, as well. I must have, because the person who sat with friends on that bench until dawn or waited by that tram stop seems not to be the same person.
There is no portrait of Gandhi on the bills here, though the currency of my home is one thing I did not lose familiarity with. That, and the knowledge of public transport connections, or the language. Cold facts to hold on to in place of emotional safety. And, of course now, I have walks, again. Walks brisk and aimed, walks slow and contemplative, in European cities anywhere, so perfectly set up for pedestrian thoroughfare. Hours of forward momentum, just going. Like moving meditation, often without any purpose, to try and stumble onto something, or just to get a beer somewhere across town. There are no open manholes here, no cars swerving, no cows to watch for. Only a feeling that you couldn’t get so lost that walking for ten minutes wouldn’t bring you back someplace familiar. Budapest really is an inspiring city, especially seen from a pedestrian perspective. All blue light and rumbling trams, it presents a solid challenge to any other city that a person born here may move to. It’s a little like Paris, but smaller and more endearing. It breeds melancholia and, in the same vein, romance. Grand old edifices, lights illuminating living rooms, airy squares you can cross elegantly.
Mumbai has no squares. Alleys run into streets run into roads. It does not have the languid cobblestone boulevards of Europe or even a grid system with traffic lights. No place there is suited to a nice impromptu evening stroll, one where you can clear your head while the city breeze loosens your shoulders. There might be someone’s dwellings in your way, or a row of dogs sleeping, a cobbler’s stall and a place where whatever is evidently boiling under the concrete in that darn city seems to have bubbled up, leaving a mountainous growth with roots weaving through it and bricks scattered around. Dark stores kept from collapsing onto themselves by nothing but the grace of God. A shack selling gum and cigarettes or a man seated on the sidewalk, surrounded by wicker baskets of spices and grains, aided in his work by his little daughter. Stalls for men’s grooming services — hair cuts, head massages, straight razor shaves, ear cleaning, teeth fillings. A small shrine to the virgin Mary or Krishna, a lone woman with a suitcase offering mehndi using wooden stencils instead of a free, tired hand. Masses of people hurrying past you. You’re always going somewhere in Indian cities. It may be the heat, crowds, or the fact that there is no public place in which to idle, but you leave the house only with a purpose — you just can’t get there walking.
Mumbai will forever have been a home to me. I remember the lightness of living and the smells, obtrusive and all particular, such as can’t really be found in Europe. I know that you have to leave Bandra by half past four if you want to get home before the traffic. (and what traffic). I know when the people of the city lower their Ganesh idols into the Arabian sea at Juhu beach and know when the Speaking Tree — the spiritual insert — comes with the Times of India (on Sundays). I know that there are cows, cats, goats, rats, crows, parrots and horses all over town — but that you’ll never hear a cricket. I know the signs on houses by Mount Mary that declare this home is catholic and a temple covered entirely with sixty-thousand bells, each one of them representing a wish fulfilled. I know the dogs of that city like they are one kind and hungry puppy. I know that electric hum, made by the promise that luck will smile on you. The buzz sustained by thousands of newcomers every day to drown out the protest of people resigned to ordinary lives with the first step they are forced to take towards it, on those seven islands where a million dreams are born and lived or come to die. All of this information is no longer of any use to me.
Returning quietly are the things I know about Budapest – that every Sunday of the summer, the highway back from the lake is packed, or where to see the fireworks from in August. I know what is being celebrated on what day and where you can go for the best cocktails in town. I know the names of all the bridges and know to point out houses where famous writers lived and worked. I know we have the finest zoo in the world and what the parliament looks like from across the water at night. I know that even though 150 years have passed and you could clink beer glasses, you still don’t, out of habit. I know the smell of weather turning and the time the city looks most beautiful. I know when the Jewish food festival takes place downtown or how to get from one side of the city to the other if you’re in a rush. I know metro stops and know that our anthem is unique in that it is sad and pleading. I know, but maybe everyone does, that Hungarians are into suffering. There was a poster released a few years ago by the Indian ministry of health, to help people cope with depression. On it were handy tips: eat fruit, travel and be creative. If only. Shoes don’t pinch Indians like they do people elsewhere. But then, you never see your breath in Mumbai.
Whenever I looked out the window, over the palm trees at dusk, it never really felt familiar. Certain things did, of course. They slowly trickled in. I began to favor certain brands over others and found my preferred greengrocer, went to restaurants people had been going to for ages and had my favorite meal. There were things I adored — the fact that stores are open late every day or that you never needed a coat. And things I hated, like the fact that punctuality is a foreign concept or that the cutting of corners applies to electrical wiring. I had favorites, there, things that Indian children know and love and I did too. Rickshaws, mango season, the sea wind — familiar pleasures.
But all through it, I missed my own, original set of things, too. Hungarian jokes, European pizza, poetry and supermarket box wine, cheeseburgers and mini skirts. I even missed those little bottles of lemon juice in the shape of a lemon, though I don’t think I ever bought one. All I know is that they did not have those in India. I also missed the seriousness of Europe – the way things mean a lot. In India, virtually everything is accepted as the way life just is. Things are written into the stars for a reason, though we don’t know what. I often think about myself in the other dimension, the me that stayed in Europe. What would she be like, now? Sure, had I done what was expected of me always instead of never, maybe things would be different. But then, maybe it’s a good thing I left. Maybe that’s why this all can be new to me now. Perhaps the people who never leave get too bogged down with the realities of the bus not coming, of the cold rain, of their favorite bar shutting down, and don’t have room for the dream of a place to flower. But here I am, a windblown seed, still, in a strange country, despite everything. I love India. But a day did not pass that I didn’t miss my old self left behind in the smells and winds and sunsets of home. Because those are mine, too.
Strange how obvious it becomes that Europe is so compartmental. India is like threads in a cloth woven together — Mumbai knots out further and further until all of India is covered. The rules in Europe are different: you must not walk on the bike path of the sidewalk, you must separate your trash. You must not cut lines, you must be on time. You are not to stare at people like you can in India. Here, a glance that lingers a moment longer than it ought to is met with stern reprimand. There have been scores of precedents for everything, every moment fileable into a suiting cabinet.
So it’s sometimes cold and there are no dogs, no cows, no goats on the street. But there is a city I do recognize and there are poems that do come to mind. It is the smell of the water, the wind on the bridge, and having seen the first snow. I’m getting slowly used to it. It’s like something you notice suddenly even though it’s been happening for a while, like that you look older now. I remember a time in Varanasi — a procession carrying a small, lifeless body on a board covered in flowers to the water, the only thing I ever really saw. Sometimes, and this is what I have learned, to pay attention to something is all we can do to feel alive and forget the impatient child of eternal nothing tugging at our sleeve. Just to stop at a busker’s feet and listen to his song or to look intently at the clouds, observe an animal or, for once, really listen to what someone is trying to say. You know the feeling of unquestioned, strident invincibility you feel in your teens and early twenties? I do. At some point, there comes to be a crack in that mirror overnight and that truth you held, the one that said you just might be the first person to live forever, somehow becomes untrue. And still, the wind feels like a breath of eternity, and that’s hard. But then sometimes, life floors you with her mere presence, as you are walking through an airport or seeing a bird dip for prey. Sometimes you watch in awe from the gutter as life dances in the light.