“Hello, India!” I yelled, and thousands of echoes bounced back.
India – the land of my birth, called out with seemingly open arms, “I am here for you, welcome back!”
From London to Bangalore – it’s been a year, a seismic change that transpired from our desire to live ‘the big Indian dream’. A dream came true when I returned to India after 11 years, with our British-born child, bringing a million memories back to life.
The transition has been smooth, and I didn’t feel out of place for a single moment. The initial days of uneasy curiosity are long forgotten now with the mind calmer and routine resumed. We still have a lot to see and explore of this mystical land, but there is no rush, in fact there is an opportunity to savour as this time we are here for long.
Unlike when in the UK, I have chosen to work part-time from home here, giving myself the luxury of time to recharge and indulge in my 4-year old. We live within a gated community, colloquially referred to as a ‘society’, in an apartment overlooking green spaces, water fountains, and an outdoor swimming pool. No doubt, it’s a life of privilege. While the society has all the amenities that one can find in a developed city, it has us wrapped in a warm social fabric akin to the 80s and 90s. Everybody knows everyone, kids mingle with careless abandon, the elderly share stories and the rest of us indulge in all kinds of chatter. No one seems to be in a hurry to get anywhere.
Our apartment, located across a dilapidated lake, is unhindered by high-rises and accentuated by swaying coconut trees. And when the night skies are clear, we feel closer to the heavens as we gaze in awe at the stars and the occasional planet. It is a secure bubble for a peaceful existence while just outside the gates, the road teems with life as local traders and shops go about their business briskly – ‘the India that is busy, noisy, eager, and chaotic’. Roads lined with a colourful melange of tiny shops; people squatting on the ground selling fresh flowers, fruits, plants, and pots; aromas of fresh-fried snacks rising above; the clamouring at shrines and small temples; all of this constant din is characteristically Indian. My ‘society’ is really an oasis, a contrast.
Our suburban life as a young Indian family in Kingston-upon-Thames feels light years away in a span of only a year. Sometimes, I feel flashes from that time pass before my eyes, the freshness of a November morning or a stuffy commute back on the District line. The satisfaction of end-of-week work drinks, the delight of catching a play at the West End or simply taking a walk by the Thames with only the quacking of the ducks to break the stillness around. My morning commute on the suburban train into London Bridge, the sharpish nursery drop-off, a coffee-to-go at Pret’s, a lunch-time stroll to Borough market, early bedtimes for the little one and late night BBC binges for us. There was no dearth of these innumerable small and big moments that are now encapsulated in a scroll of memories. I feel the uncontrollable urge to hold, touch and feel those memories, all but in vain. I loved London, will always do, there isn’t another one like it. We had our reasons and things were said, but I am glad we parted as friends, and I would love to return some day to say to the city, that it will always hold a special place in my heart.
Here in Bangalore, the purposeful yet mindful mornings deserve mention. The day starts with alerts, the arrival of my housemaid, milk and the daily newspaper delivered to the doorstep, some rigorous exercise or a game of table tennis before a hot breakfast and a fresh brew. I find it hard to complain when the weekday mornings are spent like this. I have come to draw unequivocal joy from such small things, probably more than I would like to believe. The smell of sun-soaked laundry or painstakingly chosen plastic-free fresh fruit and veg. From the sheer idleness of midday naps on summer days to just being more spontaneous and less planned; it is the little things, I have realised, that have the power to make a real difference to each day.
Off late, due to the ongoing pandemic, we have had to change some of the routine that we were gradually settling into. The school run has been swapped with online classes and the office ‘dabbas’ with hot lunches. As a family that eats together, we have no doubt become a more cohesive unit.
In Bangalore, the time or ‘pahar’ of the day is clearly evident in the changing colour of the sky. The bright-blue morning sky turns to a glaring metallic in the afternoon. From the orange evening hue to the inky blue night sky, I can feel the mood of those around me tracing these changes in the sky with me. I remember how I would agonise over the sameness of the ‘pahars’ in London, as the morning, afternoon, evening would often fuse together in a block of 12 hours, with the day plunging into darkness suddenly at 4.30 pm on a winter’s day and night arriving fashionably late after 9 pm on a summer’s day. Now, my body clock is at one with nature once again.
However, not all changes have been that easy to adapt to. Despite my Indianness, I don’t think I could become used to crossing the menacing roads on foot, or indeed get behind the wheel anytime soon, life in the UK has clearly got the better of me in this respect. The fact that I used to be able to drive and roam about carefree in Delhi when I was 21, seem like fiction.
Upon arriving in Bangalore, I expected to find an uber-modern and world class city befitting its name and reputation as the ‘Silicon Valley of India’. Instead my rose-tinted shades were rudely knocked off the eyes, both figuratively and literally, by the crumbling infrastructure across the city. Potholes, dusty roads, and rough traffic etiquette, all barged in. In many ways, the city didn’t even match up to the civic standards that I was used to from my recent trips to Delhi. I expected Bangalore to be better than Delhi but turns out that with recent development Delhi has outpaced this alluring city of the South.
People, animals and cars, all navigating the treacherous city roads, jostling to move ahead of each other, hurtling towards a seemingly indefinite goal. . The notorious two-wheeler drivers who appear and disappear swiftly like shadows, and their fearlessness fill us with dread. But the one thing that stood out was the curious network of wires aloft the electric poles, dangling ominously over the busy junctions and roads, jumbled and tied up in knots, brightly illuminating the city lights in spots.
I think I now know why so many people here express that ‘once you come to Bangalore you will never leave.’ A tall claim at plain sight, but somewhat realistic when seen with an open mind, as what the city lacks in form it makes up in spirit.
The weather is my biggest comfort factor here. Weather that is stable and predictable, warm during summer and mild and breezy through the rest of the year. The sun is clearer and sharper than in Delhi despite a lower heat index, but comparable in altitude and visibility like in the UK. As I now bask in the assurance that tomorrow too shall be a glowing day, I reflect back on days that were spent anticipating that one warm sunny weekend. No doubt, I loved London on such days and made the most of ‘the sun’ whenever it did appear. But somehow, I never could enjoy that warmth in my own time, it was always fleeting.
As I write this, Bangalore is in the throes of the monsoon season, the mornings and evenings are interspersed with thunder and rain showers and the afternoons are quieter and sunnier in comparison. The rain makes the all familiar pitter-patter sound (unlike the quiet and inconspicuous rain in London) and the air fills with the sweet aroma drifting from the wet soil. Moreover, the rainy weather matched with the unique taste of ‘jamun’, a type of sharp tasting indigenous plum that signals the arrival of monsoon, truly hits home. Enough said about the weather for now though, I think.
As a devout vegetarian, South Indian cuisine has always been my go-to comfort food, although admittedly my exposure has been limited to the popular tiffin items served across eateries in Delhi, Mumbai, as well as the UK. The intricate differences in food preparation and tastes across the various southern states/regions are unraveling only now. Regardless of the provenance though, some of the local food that I have come to savour is unmatched. From the soul quenching Onam Sadhya to the hearty Udupi vada sambhar, from the indulgent thali with the many flavours at a highway canteen to a simple rava idli at the iconic MTR cafes, I have tasted and eaten platefuls in the knowledge that this is only the tip of the iceberg. There is so much of this popular yet distant culture that I still have left to explore. I am trying in earnest to bring the best of all these flavours in to my kitchen, learning and cooking meticulously with a hope that the same aromas shall also fill up my home.
Given the variety and ubiquity of the traditional cuisine across the city, one could be forgiven for not realising that Bangalore is also famed for being the original pub city of India, a melting pot of people from around the country and from abroad. Pubs with in-house breweries are somewhat in vogue which, when combined with an array of cuisines and garden restaurants pack a punch. The city owing to its vast base of young IT professionals has a cosmopolitan vibe, but pledges it to the proud generational Bangaloreans who lend confidence with their deep-rooted and rich culture.
My heart swells with pride when I see my son relishing this new setting every bit as much as me. How he has come to adapt has left us, the adults, looking pale in comparison. The boy has always been the inquisitive kind, curiously knocking at surfaces, almost as if wondering what it was made up of. My husband liked to say, “Smart and handsome both! Just like me.” It was true; he had big gleaming eyes, that shined and analysed at the same time. Of course, the black, lustrous hair; I believe came from me.
Bangalore became home because of my son. A moment now etched in our hearts was when he went purposefully around a supermarket and came back looking inexplicably delighted upon discovering a box of laddoos, a type of Indian sweets, while we contemplated a box of blueberry muffins. Other times, like when he adapted to our interim abode or when he was screened by teachers for school admissions or when he met relatives and distant cousins; he displayed such composure and maturity that I couldn’t understand if it was a result of just shaking things up a bit. Or maybe there was something more intangible, probably even divine that came about from being connected to one’s roots. He has since grown into a confident and expressive boy, never shying away from meeting new people or embracing a new hobby/activity. From our perspective, outcomes such as language skills, better eating habits, rigour in upholding traditions and festivals, and overall wellness, are the other positives that come from living in the home land. When I weigh up, the loss of his sweet British accent is the one thing that I have come to miss the most.
Life has transformed itself into a joyful ride, shared with friends, grandparents, and cousins, each one adding a different shade to the canvas. Learning in a formal setting and from play with others from evening till night, exploring new sports and traditional games alike, impromptu visits to friends’ homes to rummage through toys, eating together without invites, all this and much more is now weaved in the fabric of my child’s life.
Unsurprisingly, my son’s love for travel and ‘holidays’ has found a new meaning; he now likes to conjure up plans to tag along grandparents and others with whom he has already forged a close bond. He wants to explore, share, and express everything about his new finds and make others a part of his ever expanding world. For a child who has been to some exciting destinations and seen impressive things in the West, the way this relatively low-key city of Mysore had him enthralled, is rather fascinating. He has promised every family member a trip to Mysore since.
As a traveller, exploring new places across Europe and further afield was no doubt very enriching, there was so much of new culture and history to soak up. The modern environs entwined with the old made every holiday picture perfect for us as a couple and later as a family of three. Prepared with our backpacks, comfortable shoes, and a list of things to do, we would head out to experience the new places and cities with eagerness. Such trips were a recipe for rejuvenating the mind and the body.
In India though, travelling has a new dimension, a degree of ease or ‘sukoon’ which bodes from familiarity. Sharing journeys with loved ones, telling stories through the night, looking out for one another, and debating heartily about what to do next, all makes for a fulfilling holiday. Our trip around the mystical state of Rajasthan, via Indian highways and trains was quite the experience, and one that completed our homecoming journey. The palaces, the ‘havelis’, and the ‘bazaars’; riding camelbacks at sunset; enjoying the folk music and local cuisine; made for a sensorial treat. It was those moments with parents, grandparents and others, by our side that made all the difference. Each one contributing a different perspective, a different interpretation, and setting a different mood.
As a parent, I am glad to have been able to give the gift of such an experience to my child, one that would hopefully stay with him forever and beckon him to his roots, regardless of where the world takes him.
A childhood full of similar stories, of travel and family, is perhaps what tugged at our heartstrings, bringing us home.
Ashima Jain is a consultant project manager based out of Bangalore. Born and raised in Delhi, she has rediscovered her childhood love for creative writing. This is a personal essay chronicling her relocation journey back to India from the UK. She writes at https://grandmainspires.blogspot.com/ and can also be found on Medium.