The title of the essay can be read as “THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL”, although it literally means ‘The Lad Is Back.’
September 25, 1989. As you descend through the shimmering heat haze, you close your eyes and think “…aah, I’m home!”
You alight onto the tarmac and are assailed by the familiar smells of Mumbai. You enter the terminal and your jet lag vanishes amidst the cacophony of touts badgering you to jump queues and offering you a ticket through Customs. For what, you ask, the couple of pairs of jeans you’ve brought back after penny-pinching on your student allowance? But kismet, karma and all that Eastern jazz plays its hand, and as you pass your bags through the X-ray machine, the bottle of whiskey you’ve brought your dad breaks and the disgusted Customs officer mutters something not very polite as he passes you on.
You walk out and find the family. And a million people waiting with garlands. You walk to the car. A doddering Ambassador. Yes, you’re home, alright! You walk a step to right side front door before you realize that here, the passenger sits on the left. You drive home through the noise and grime of the ‘Express Highway’, where you can barely shift your car into fourth gear.
You arrive home to be greeted by a ferocious doberman who was a pup when you left and now doesn’t recognize you. You sit down to your first family meal in two years and are actually excited at the thought of eating mom-made rotis* off a steel thaali^. But no, it’s the same insipid bhaaji** as ever before… and what, no Coke?
You put your feet up and the phone rings. “Just because you’ve been to America, you’ve forgotten us,” the accusing voice scolds. And as you start explaining, it adds, “two years and you’ve got this accent already.” (But I haven’t!). You want to call your friends and remember the familiar area code but the last four digits stay stuck at the tip of your tongue. You dial and are greeted by an engaged tone. Welcome home! You fix to meet at four sharp. But this is India, where four means five-ish.
You venture out and are amazed at the traffic. The little green islands. The quaint black & yellow cabs. And of course, the price of gas – oops, petrol. Because by now you are used to a dollar a gallon. You pass by the Marine Drive flyover and as you see Malabar Hill, are reminded of Manhattan. You crane your neck at a pretty girl and you think, “hey, no blondes?” Your friendly barber here isn’t going to go into raptures over the texture of your hair. I mean it’s your standard, black, desi hair.
You get home and switch on the TV and the newsreader says something about the second innings score and think, “oh, ok, seven more innings to go,” before you realize it’s cricket not baseball she’s talking about.
As night comes and you start walking towards your room, your sisters say, “not there! You sleep in the other room. This is ours now.” Now? Since when? “We didn’t think you’d come back.”
Sigh! “Good night, mom, dad”.
*roti – chapatti, a flat bread, a staple on the Indian plate
^thaali – a traditional steel/metal plate to eat off
**bhaaji – a vegetable preparation, typically an accompaniment to the roti