I am the last person in the immigration queue.
“What are you doing in India?” “I’m here to see a friend” “What friend?” “Anil” “Anil who?” “Anil the policeman” “You don’t have a friend who is a policeman in Mumbai!” “Yes I do!” Jeepers, where has this guy been? Doesn’t everyone in India know Anil?
“OK then, where are you staying?” “At a hotel” “What hotel?” “The hotel Anil booked for me” Audible sigh and major eye roll from the immigration officer “OK, OK, where did you meet this Anil the policeman?” “In Bangkok. Of course”
Clearly struggling he decides to have one last go at establishing at least one verifiable fact. “Who is your favourite cricket player?” “I don’t like cricket” I think I have him on the ropes now as his eyes go wide with horror and I see the dawning understanding that I am less a risk to national security than to his equilibrium. He stamps my passport. “Just go now”. I happily trot off. I am safe and self assured in the knowledge that when I exit into the moist heat of this Mumbai Sunday my friend Anil will be there to greet me. And he is. He strides towards me with the joy of the world bursting around him. If I can bottle this moment I will have enough happiness to last until the next super moon rises in the Mumbai night sky.
Next thing I am in the backseat of the car with Anil’s youngest boy Sunny and it is like joy in stereo. Father and son seamlessly filling the space with questions, observations and all round isn’t it good to be alive type energy. I look out at what could be the setting for an action movie. Cars, taxis, auto rickshaws, motorbikes and people converging in waves and wonder out loud if my driving skills would pass muster in the Mumbai traffic. As I send a little wish heavenward for that to happen, Anil turns and gives me the Anil smile.
By the time we reach the hotel Sunny has ascertained that I know nothing useful about cricket, wrestling, computer games or auto rickshaws and sets himself the task of giving me helpful bits of information. At one point in the afternoon, quite unsolicited he says, “My Dad is his Mummy’s favourite” and it is clear to anyone listening that in Sunnys mind the logic of that particular truth is incontrovertible.
During the afternoon I start to glimpse the treasure that is my friend. His family are busy preparing for their annual holiday to Pune however they take the time to welcome me into their home with a bounty of love and kindness that blows apart my staple diet of Anglo Australian emotional anorexia. I’m struggling to find due North with my inner compass, overwhelmed as I am with the touching and gentle attentiveness I am being given. I joke and say “if you were a guest in Australia, we would make you go to the kitchen and wash your own dishes”, they all laugh in disbelief and I die quietly inside. It’s that moment when the rawness of my cultural grace deficit rubs. Ouch.
One by one the neighbours drop by, to greet me, to meet me, to bless my time in India, to share a moment. Anil and his family are the centre of this world. Or maybe love is the centre of this world and they are all drawn into it through the simple acts of everyday life, living close to one another and filling their lungs with the very stuff of community. It’s all so mysterious. My Australian backyard keeps me immunised against this kind of closeness and I feel the familiar whip crack in my insides. It’s the homesickness I don’t feel when I travel.
Tonight Anils family will leave by overnight train for their two week holiday. He will stay in Mumbai. It’s OK for about 3 days he says, and then the house feels very empty without them. I think about how I met him and the three months of separation spent in Bangkok studying. I am starting to understand the enormity of the sacrifice they all made and wonder about the lonely offices of peace.
Enter Khodi. Mr. Interesting. Motorbike riding, street dog feeding, philosopher on life and the universe. He appoints himself my guide, caretaker, mediator and taxi for the days to follow. Before I know it, I have agreed to a sunrise tour of Mumbai on the back of his bike the next morning, sans helmet!
Evening arrives and with it Khodi and the motorbike. And the helmet. I have been invited to farewell Anils family at the train station and Khodi will be my India- in- all- its- beauty- and -chaos experience interpreter. He is very gallant but I wonder how hard it could really be getting myself to the station and finding the right platform. I’m reasonably able. Maybe he thinks my cultural ineptitude goes beyond the emotional terrain, maybe he thinks I’m intellectually failed as well? By the time I have had this conversation with myself we have arrived at the station. I need to hold his hand just to get a ticket to the platform. Finding the platform is another journey again. It’s like paying the ferryman to cross the river Styx. Without Khodi, I would be Mumbai train station mincemeat.
The farewell feels disproportionately sad. The sounds of Mumbai swell around me and in me. Maybe I am tired? Maybe I have said too many goodbyes? Or maybe these are people I think I could love and I am grieving for the loss of that possibility. Or maybe it’s because I am with Anil. And everywhere he goes, love follows.
To be continued………