HOMECOMING By Ahana Mukherjee
“Welcome back Aarav!” Everyone exclaimed in unison and the huge space reverberated with applause and cheers. I had just stepped into my office, after two months of travel in Iceland. Alex Kent, Director of National Geography, came forward and patted my back. “You’ve outdone yourself, Aarav. The photographs are a treat to the eyes and the article’s written from the heart. It’s so touching.” “Thanks Alex. The country’s so beautiful; I mean I just couldn’t stop taking pictures. I couldn’t go wrong in that paradise,” I grinned with excitement. “Aarav, you must thank me for suggesting Iceland,” said Birgitte Juul, the editor, beaming. Birgitte, though a Dane, had spent her childhood in Reykjavik. She gave me the opportunity to do a cover for Iceland, something I had wanted for a long time. When Eyjafjallajökull erupted in April 2010, it immobilized Europe in entirety. It was an interesting phenomenon where the eruption though relatively small, the ash plume created turbulence in the air. Researchers and scientists made a mad rush to the spot to find out why and so did journalists. I was a trainee at National then and much as I wanted to cover it I didn’t get a chance. Iceland since then had been on my mind. I fell in love with Iceland with all its fiords and geysers; hot springs and volcanoes; serene lakes and riotous spring flowers; the valleys and the foliage; the sky and its vivid blue color; the sun and the daylight; the night time; the equinox and solstice. “Hey Aarav, your photographs of Iceland could be winning awards soon,” chimed in Annie, a colleague and friend. “Hahaha, Annie you optimist,” I guffawed, slapping her shoulder lightly. “By the way, after all the din is done, you should call up your dad, he has called a million times in the past two months. Why didn’t you leave your phone number with him?” “Because I didn’t want to be bothered a million times.”
Annie just shrugged. “Look, I’m tired and not in a mood for a lecture from anyone just now. I know it’s nothing. I’ll call them when I call them.” I added irritably. Annie stalked off. I took a deep breath and looked at Birgitte. “Your dedication to your profession’s commendable and that’s why you’ve reached such heights so rapidly. But I’d listen to Annie. “ Alex came to my rescue. “We’ll all meet at the Tavern after work folks and drinks will be on the house,” he announced. Amidst a thundering ovation, which made me cringe a little, I headed to my quiet corner. My desk looked relatively neat, except for a huge pile of mail waiting for me. I had been non-communicado in Iceland, trying to be one with nature, listening to it, taking photos, writing. I had been in touch with my office here of course, but that had just been a mandatory glance at my mails every day. Even so, I had told my folks that I would be off the radar and they won’t hear from me during the trip. While I was ruminating about them, I couldn’t shake the funny feeling that off late they did act a little strange and my mother often sounded distant and detached. I picked up the phone to speak to them. “Hello dad, I came back late last night so couldn’t call you.” “Oh good! How are you? How was Iceland?” his voice was so expressionless it kind of irritated me. “It was good, had a splendid time. Nature was at its best, couldn’t have asked for more. How have you been?” My father was silent. “Hello, dad, is everything alright? Where’s mom?” I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. “Well, I… listen Aaru, I have to go now, maybe you should come for a visit. No compulsion, I know you’re busy. But it’s kind of hard to explain how we are to a son who hasn’t visited home in the last four years,” My father rambled. “Dad please! You know I wasn’t exactly entertaining myself. I’ve been carving out a career, a place in society among my peers. Oh my photographs have been nominated for awards and will be part of an exhibition. Do you think this would be possible if I was irresponsible?” I screamed at him.
After a moment of silence he said, “That’s wonderful. Congratulations. I’m very happy for you. You take care of yourself now. I’ve to run to visit your mom.” The line went blank. I had a bad feeling. I dialed again to book an air ticket to Philadelphia. I ran to Birgitte and told her I would be visiting my parents. She smiled and nodded her head. I quickly went home, packed a travel bag and made a dash to the airport. The flight was on time and as I sat down in my seat, I heaved a sigh and shut my eyes. I didn’t see Iceland. I saw Ranchi, a small town in the state of Bihar in India. Most of my childhood was spent in a Steel Colony in Ranchi. The streets were laced with trees bearing flowers of different colors. It was so green those days. There also was a railroad that circled our little colony. Sometimes when the train chugged by, we heard its loud whistle blowing thick black smoke into the air. In the spring of 1987, when I turned thirteen, my father was deputed to Nigeria for two years. My mother was overjoyed and so was I. A new country, new school, new friends, it all seemed surreal. Anyway, the date wasn’t finalized. Soon, weeks became months and months became a year. In the meantime, my mother sold off most of our household stuff. She felt it would be inconvenient to do it altogether just before we left. It seemed like a good idea then but soon became the butt of a joke in our little colony. It kind of embarrassed me too. My mother wasn’t deterred. One day she suggested to my father that he leave his job and we all migrate to the US. My father protested but my mother is a strong woman. She wouldn’t listen to him and gave him practical advice on how they could both run the family. The next few months were a blur. Between applying for a visa; putting up my mother’s nursery school for sale; bickering with my father’s colleagues; bidding farewell to my friends and doing innumerable paperwork; time just flew by. There were a few of my father’s well-meaning friends who did their best to dissuade him, insisting that it was a ludicrous decision. They told him that there was still time; he could withdraw his resignation and save himself from further humiliation. My mother staunchly stood by her decision. “There’s no harm in trying, is there? And if we fail, we’ll come to you for help. You all have been so kind.” “Bhabhiji, we’re here solely for your well being. We’ve nothing to gain if you stay back and have a stable life.” “Thank you so much for your concern, we’ll think about it,” my mother would answer graciously.
My father was forty five when we moved to Philadelphia and reinventing at that age for an Indian is a daring decision. An engineer by profession, he ran from pillar to post in the US after giving up a good position in his home country. “Many work at petrol pumps and supermarkets, till they land good jobs. You have the credentials and will get one soon, don’t worry about it. Until then we need to run the family,” my mother suggested. “I’ll look for a governess’s job until I get a break at a school.” Soon my father was working double shifts, at the supermarket and the gas station. My mother became a nanny for an American family. We lived in an Indian ghetto. It was a dilapidated building,but we didn’t complain. The kids from the local and adjacent neighborhoods studied in my school. It was nothing like the elite school I went to in India. I felt quite lost. That’s when my mother had a word with me. “Beta, I know you think you don’t deserve this, but give me a little more time and I promise you things will be different. These boys and girls have a hard life, try to understand them. They are as much a human being as you are. Maybe you’ll appreciate what little you have once you know them well.” Mother was the pillar of strength in our family. It was her courage and resolve that got us here and we trusted her to guide and steer us out of all difficulties. “By the way, I have some good news,” she said, beaming. “The Steinbergs suggest I take a few more children under my wing, and I could do it at their place. Two of Mrs. Steinberg’s friends will drop off their children too. They are school going kids and I can help them with their homework too.” “Ma that’s wonderful!” I exclaimed, hugging her. She never ceased to amaze me. I still remember the day Mr. and Mrs. Steinberg helped Ma to set up a small nursery and crèche of her own which gradually grew into a full-fledged school. I don’t know how she did it, but she did. On the contrary, my father had to struggle for a job. Steel factories weren’t doing well due to an economic downturn. At the behest of my mother, he left the job at the gas station and came home earlier than usual. We moved into a better locality, which meant a better school for me. Though our new home was not a big place it was airy and spacious, unlike the dingy dark abode we were first in. Much later, my father cracked a good deal with a leading engineering giant; my mother’s little school grew from a crèche to an elementary school and then to middle school; and we moved out to a swankier home. We made it after just a couple of years of struggle. I jolted out of my reverie as the flight touched down. I sped all the way home in the Ford I rented at the airport. As I drove into the driveway, the double-storied house gave an ominous aura.
My father was at the door, amazed to see me. “Aaru, what happened? Is everything fine?” I felt ashamed that my homecoming could raise questions such as these. “I just wanted to be home dad. Where’s Ma?” Father just stared at me in contemplation. “Come with me, I’m going to her,” he said quietly. “Dad, please tell me what’s wrong,” I pleaded. “Sshhh, you’ll soon find out.” And I did find out. We went to Hart Center for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Care. There she was sitting on a reclining chair, gazing out into the gardens. “Ma!” I cried, touching her hands. She looked at me, clueless. “I should’ve come sooner Ma, I should’ve come sooner.” I put my head on her lap and at long last I was home.
An avid reader, can read whatever I lay my hands on but I think as I am growing old I am gravitating towards lighter reading. I also like travelling. I have been to a few places but the the world is so huge and with so many many beautiful places to visit and new things to see and experience, this life time will be not be enough to explore all.
And last but not the least I am a movie fanatic. I am not just interested in movies made in Bollywood and Hollywood but everywhere around the world and in any language. Gives me an insight into people and what they love and what motivates them - something an aspiring writer is always looking forward to.