‘Smells like India!’ someone exclaims from the back of the plane. Even the weariest passengers laugh at the veracity of the comment. We all file out of the plane, exhausted after over 24 hours of plane flights and airport waits.
Yet fatigued as I am, I prepare myself for the adventure I face ahead: maneuvering through the labyrinthine Bombay airport. It is 2:00 a.m. in Bombay, and yet the airport is still packed with Indians.
Hasty travelers bustle around, making rapid exclamations in Hindi. My mother herds my little brother and me to the mile-long immigration line, where we rub our drooping eyes and acclimate ourselves to the busy, crowded atmosphere. Everything feels so different.
The singular smell, an ineffable mixture of Bombay’s cool equatorial air with the essence of America, China, France, South Africa — “ the sample each traveler brings with him from his distant home. The noisy chaos of the hordes of people, each one clamoring to reach a distinct destination. Amidst the disorder, I look to my mother for guidance.
She is calm; she can expertly maneuver her way through the place, chatting casually with passersby. She is no stranger; it is I who am lost. And yet how strange this is.
In America, my mother is the foreigner, looking to me for guidance in what is to her an outlandish culture. In America, she is the eternal stranger, never fully assimilated to the American ways that are so disparate from her Bombay childhood. On the college visits, I explain that ‘rush’ refers to joining a sorority, not the perpetual state of the Bombay streets.
At the American wedding, I explain the tradition of the bride throwing flowers to an eager group of unmarried girls. Yet strangely, I am now the alien, and she guides me through the country I dare to claim as my homeland. After getting our passports stamped, we head to the conveyor belt to get our bags.
I gape at the dense crowd — it will be hours before we can retrieve our baggage. But my mother boldly elbows her way through, my brother and I clinging to her. After we struggle to the conveyor belt, the challenge begins. We have to find our suitcases among the thousands of nearly identical black ones on the belt, haul them onto a trolley, and all the while avoid being trampled. I clutch my brother by my side, sheltering him from the waves of pushy travelers who could carelessly sweep him away at any moment. We inspect every suitcase that passes, frequently being deceived by a look-alike in the multitude of bags. I am almost starting to wish we had purchased that hideous flowered carpetbag the Sears saleswoman tried to sell us; at least it would be distinguishable from this mass of black bags. Finally, we spot our suitcases — “ three of the largest ones from our attic, bulging with six weeks’ worth of clothes and gifts for all the relatives.
As we leave the airport, the humid, traditional smells of coconuts and sand and India fill our lungs as we search, wide-eyed and sweating in our jackets, for my uncle. Even in my zombie-like state, I am amused by the long line of people waiting outside the airport for their relatives. When I walk past them, I feel like a celebrity parading down the red carpet, being scrutinized by hundreds of keen eyes. The muggy air of the early morning brushes against my sleepy eyes as I stare at the billboards written in Hindi, the small stores so closely packed, the old apartment buildings and the women sleeping with their infants in their arms on the quiet streets. It all comes back to me, as it does every summer. I inhale, and India flows through my blood. I am no stranger. I am becoming Indian once again.
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