Fly Away Home

by Lucinda Nelson Dhavan

With no room to pace in my shared apartment, I paced the cold streets of Boston all of one February day, having a lonely lunch and too much espresso in the North End, while I asked myself, over and over, if I dared to do it. Did I dare marry the man I’d met in India? Did I dare to leave America and make a conservative, ultra-Indian, Hindi-speaking city my home?

As sometimes happens, I finally got so fed up with my own indecision that I accused myself of cowardice and yelled "Why not?" at the unresponsive universe. I telephoned my parents, and then went to announce my plans to an old friend from my college days.

Perhaps this friend and I, at that point, weren’t as close as we had been when we shared a dormitory suite and agonized over what to do with our lives. In between, I’d gone to India for a year while she’d married a very cool man and had a baby that made motherhood look like something to die for. But we were still close enough to analyze each other’s lives.

I told her my father’s reaction—that I, as middle child, always had to do something bizarre, trying to stand out.

She laughed with me at that, but she then said the most unamusing, frightening comment I would hear about my decision.

"You’ll never have a real friend there," she said. "They think of friendship differently."

If she hadn’t been so much further up the scale of sophistication than I was, I might have thought this was a bigoted remark. But she was smart, intense, hip—and had spent her high school years in India. She loved the place. She wanted to be Meher Baba’s disciple. She had no prejudice.

It was unsettling, but rather than putting me off my decision, it spurred me on. What was this nonsense? I’d already lived in India for a year. There were people I called friends. Did she mean to say that I’d misunderstood it all? Were basic human relations so distorted in the mirror of culture that you could never trust what you saw?

When I look back on this, I can’t believe what a parochial, self-absorbed little twit I must have been to make such a fuss over the decision. I should have had more faith in love, friendship, human nature, and myself. I thought I was being terribly bold, flying off where no man (or at least no man I knew) had gone before, but in fact, I was about to find out how lucky I was.

America, priding itself on its status as a melting pot, shows no surprise when Poles, Italians, Salvadorians, Japanese, or Indian immigrants learn quickly to wear jeans, enjoy burgers and barbeques, speak English, or run motels and convenience stores. That’s normal, Americans think; they’re just buying into the American Dream.

Fort Jaisalmer, Rajasthan .
Fort Jaisalmer, Rajasthan Art Print
Adams, Peter
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The first time I tried to have a normal social conversation in Hindi, you would have thought I’d uttered a gorgeous, original poem, instead of the "I like these potatoes" or whatever mundane thing I said, possibly incorrectly. However hysterically they may (or may not) have laughed behind my back, to my face people encouraged and appreciated my every effort to speak. When I made my first samosa, you would have thought I’d mastered rocket science for the compliments I got on my cleverness. I had only to eat normally spicy food, and people would ooh-and-aah over how I must have been an Indian in a previous birth.

This could have gotten tedious, but before long, in this not-so-huge city, I became a familiar face. There’s nothing like being taken for granted to make you feel at home. Like so many thousands of other women in the city, I was just a wife, with a relationship to take care of. I was a mother with children who went to school and birthday parties, had music lessons and basketball practice and all the normal ties to the place where they lived, and then I was a working woman with colleagues and bosses.

Yes, it was a different culture. Yes, I had to learn cultural undertones, just as I had to learn a language. It was often difficult, it was hard work, but there is nothing more exhilarating than the flashes of insight that come from living in two widely-different cultures. Like lightning at times, some bit of American (or Indian) life will be illuminated and I’ll think, "My God, that’s a strange tribal tradition," or, "Good grief, how kitschy!" while the important things go on shining like the snow on the Rocky Mountains (or the Himalayas). When you live in a single culture, you tend to think of everything as a given—inevitable, important, right—even when it isn’t.

I needn’t have worried about being lonely, either. I think the Indian sages developed meditation because there wasn’t any other way to have a moment to yourself around here. Whether it is the defined relationships—mother-in-law with daughter-in-law, sisters, cousin-sisters, master and servant—or the more self-defining bonds of neighbors and friends, people are there for you, and you can, if you want, be there for them. This was amazingly true when I arrived in Allahabad, and there wasn’t even any TV to while away idle hours. People looked toward each other for entertainment and enlightenment; they visited each other, celebrated each other, hopped in the car and drove down to the Ganges just to stare at the moon from the bridge together.

Modernization has changed this. People here, as everywhere, are more focused on their work now, on what’s on the tube, on getting their kids into good colleges and keeping their heads above water. Friendships are subjected to the same strains they are everywhere. People move; people change.

But I wish I could tell my old college friend that maybe her ideas about friendship in India came from the fact that she was here during her high school days—a notoriously difficult period for an outsider girl the world over. I wish I could tell her about the ten days I spent in the hills this spring. I visited the first woman I got to know well in India, who now lives near a picturesque lake. Another woman, the widow of my husband’s old school friend, joined us and, like a trio of teenage backpackers with bad knees, the three of us explored part of the mountains we hadn’t seen. I can’t remember when I’ve had such a refreshing time, or been more thankful for friends.

I can’t tell that old friend about it, though. The last I heard from her was a note in a New Year’s card in the old millennium telling me her son was on his way to India and would visit me. He never did, and she never answered my letters after that. I have no idea where she is. The friends I lost were the friends I left behind. I may regret those losses, but I can’t regret the "risk" I took. I flew far, far away, but I flew away home.

BIO: Lucinda Nelson Dhavan first went to India on a Fulbright Foundation grant, immediately after graduating from College. She's still there. After several years on the staff of a regional newspaper, she feels she may have learned enough to write fiction. She is polishing a collection of short stories and working on a novel. Contact Lucinda at: ldhavan@yahoo.co.in

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