I heard them quarreling even as I stood in the boarding line at the gate. Not much a line, really, considering it was Delhi airport -- but rather a solid wedge of humanity pressing forward, obstinately pressing hand luggage against other peoples shins, impervious to the airline rep's shrill calls of "Zone 1, passengers traveling in zone 1 only please." As the crowd thinned out, eking individually past the burly man checking baggage tags, my attention was drawn to her voice. It was a relatively deep voice, well-educated but not accented or affected in that peculiar socialite way, firing a blizzard of English words from a couple of feet behind me. I risked a nonchalant half-turn to take the scene in. The voice appeared to be coming from a middle aged lady, bundled up in black woollens, topped off with a black monkey cap. Her middle-aged Sikh companion - obviously her husband - was trying to interject but he clearly had no chance. His wispy beard smacked of defeat, his light blue turban more a white flag.
I boarded the plane and made my way to my seat. It was an aisle seat in the center towards the front of the plane -- my trusty Hong Kong travel agent knows my preferences and uses her heft to get me this location whenever she can. There were three seats across the center. The one in the center was unoccupied; the one on the other aisle contained an old white guy who was already dozing. I tucked my laptop into the empty bin overhead, stuck the eyeshades into the front pocket, and settled into my seat. I don't do my seat belt on until they close the doors.
I people-watched the train coming down the aisle and hoped that the center seat would stay vacant. And then I heard them again. They had boarded and were headed my way. I watched on, thankful that my etymotics
would save me the trouble of having to hear them squabble the entire duration of the flight.
And then I realized what was going on. They had been split up. Auntyji had been assigned the center seat next to me, Sardarji located in the seat ahead. They were fighting with the flight attendants to put them together. I realized I'd be popped the question soon enough.
And so I was. The bright red attendant bent down and asked me -- "Sir, would you mind changing your seat so that these people can sit together?" Despite the fact that I knew what the answer would be, I asked -- "Do I get another aisle seat?" "No sir, mid-dle." (Ah, that Cantonese accent.) I decided to be a bastard. "If you don't mind, I'd prefer to keep this seat then." "No problem, sir." She turned to ask someone else.
I felt a tinge of regret. I normally always move to accommodate families. Memories of my first trip to Hong Kong flooded back -- the direct flight from NYC was rerouted via Seattle due to solar activity, causing a difficult-for-first-timer 16 hour hop to metabolize into an scarcely-tolerable 21 hours inside the aircraft; my genial self having given up the aisle to a fashionable middle aged lady and her young daughter who was sporting a two month old baby; the growing mound of used tissue papers underfoot causing me to spend the last five hours standing by the galley. Indeed, barely 24 hours previously, TPB and I had given up our seats from Amsterdam to Delhi to a woman our age who was traveling with two children, and had spent the nine hours squashed into two center seats. I had already flown three legs and twenty hours in the last few days, and there is only so much I can do for humanity. I stood up and allowed monkey-cap lady to squeeze into her seat. I settled down.
A minute went by. She was quiet but fidgety. Finally, she turned to me and pointed to the light fixtures overhead and asked -- "Do you know if there is a plug point for my laptop?" I said, "I don't think so. Only a few seats on these aircraft have them, and I'd be very surprised if any of ours did. Plus you need a special plug to use them." She listened to me, then turned and waved down a passing attendant. "Hello. Is there a plug point for my laptop?" The attendant answered her patiently, repeating much of what I'd said. She listened, unconvinced. The attendant moved on. She flagged another one. "Excuse me, is there a window seat free?" I sighed to myself. The plane was packed. The attendant said no, there wasn't. "Can you please ask and see if someone wants to exchange with me? So many people just get a window seat by chance and then pull the shades down and go to sleep. Such a waste. I find it so fascinating to look out." The attendant looked uncertain. "Ask, no, please." "Okay ma'am. I will go down the plane and ask a few people." "Yes yes, doesn't have to be now. Maybe in one hour."
She turned to me. "Such a waste, isn't it? I love to look out of the window. Don't you?" She pulled her monkey cap off. She looked in her forties, strong face, intelligent eyes. I decided to delay plugging my ears for a bit. "Not really. Most of the time, after a few minutes all you can see is clouds." "No, no! There's so much to see. Do you fly a lot?"
And so we got into conversation. The more we talked (or rather, I let her talk, except when I was answering her questions) the more I found her interesting. She was a lecturer in a middle-sized town in North India, her specialization was literature and gender studies. She had done a post-doc in Berkeley a few years ago. She had stayed at I-House (and was delighted to know that I'd been there myself). She has a passion for new experiences. She was devoutly Sikh. Just last month she and her husband had been on an organized pilgrimage to several Sikh shrines in Pakistan -- she told me in detail how wonderful the experience had been. Her faith also has positive externalities: when she travels, she saves money by staying in local gurdwaras.
She chattered on. Then she turned to quizzing me about myself, my life, my experiences in the United States, in Hong Kong, and in academia. She took my opinion on visiting schools in the Northeast, where her husband would be based for a few months next year. We talked about Taiwan, where her husband was going to give a talk. They had two days in HK on the way back -- I suggested a couple of things they might enjoy. As we spoke, as she became more comfortable, the conversation went from purely English to a mix of English and Hindi. She heard about my recent travel schedule and apologized for keeping me awake. I apologized for not giving up my seat. She accepted the apology saying - "At least you think that way. Most people don't." There was a lull in the conversation. She pulled out a little booklet printed in Gurmukhi and started reading it. At one point her husband got up to go to the restroom. He too had a similar booklet. They exchanged not a word.
As the plane neared Hong Kong, she got restless again for the view. She got up and walked around the plane, craning her neck to see through the waist-high windows near the galleys. She got chased back to her seat by the attendants. The landing announcement came. "We must be really low now!" she said. She unbuckled her belt and squeezed past the old gent to her right, frantic to get a view of the Hong Kong islands I'd been raving about. She was chased back in a hot second. "Just like I thought, they don't leave you alone even for a second," she muttered to me as she settled back in her seat.
The plane landed; everyone got their hand luggage together. Her husband said to her in Punjabi -- "The guy next to me has spent a lot of time in Taiwan. He gave me some great tips." She said something back to him; I didn't hear it. I bid her farewell, we smiled at each other and wished each other luck. As I walked out the plane and on the passageway leading to the arrivals area, i could hear them behind me. They were quarreling again.
I smiled to myself.
I was back in Hong Kong!
I zipped through immigration as usual and made my way to the carousel. Pulled out my old cellphone. Had my first negative moment -- the damn thing said the SIM card was not valid. That was annoying. I pulled my bag off the belt and headed to the taxi stand. Joseph, my regular cabbie, was not at hand today -- the first time in literally years that one of his guys wouldn't be at hand, waiting for me. I got into the cab and brandished my perfect Cantonese, glowing in the satisfaction of my immaculate delivery. The cabbie too looked happy that there was no confusion regarding the destination. We gathered speed on the freeway. I looked out the window at the familiar sights. I coughed. He looked up into the rear-view mirror, concerned, and asked me a question.
As usual, I had no idea what he was saying. The comfort of familiarity :-)
We pulled into campus. I'd be staying at the guest house this time. Driving past my old block felt weird. As the cab stopped, I saw a graduate student whose office had been near mine. He looked at me with recognition in his eyes. I checked in and dumped my suitcase in the room and went right out again. I could see my old apartment. The balcony doors were closed. No maroon curtains hung in them, framing the view.
It just felt so... wrong
I made my way to the taxi stand and got into the front-most one. Told the guy to go downtown. First stop, an hour and a half long massage at the place TPB and I had gone on one of our last days here. I then walked to the cell phone shop. Again, just as we had done back then. And from there, to my favorite restaurant in the world. Crystal Jade.
Saturday evening there was, as usual, about fifty-odd people waiting outside. I walked up to the girl at the counter and said, "One person." She looked up and recognized me and smiled. Not that strange for her, I thought -- people often go months between visits to a given restaurant. Turned out there was a seat for one person free. I went right in. As I sat down, one of the managers approached me with a menu. We smiled at each other. I knew exactly what I wanted. Dan-dan mian
and xiao long bao
. No need for a menu today. Go straight for the classics.
Oh, it's good to be home.
Back in campus I stop by the department office to pick up several months of mail. Sort out the junk from the bank statements. I'll junk those tomorrow.
The next day I walk into the department. Get the key to my old office. Was intercepted at four different points during the twenty yard walk there. Old friends and colleagues -- how are you? When did you get here? How long will you be staying? Welcome back, welcome back! Have you come back for good? Hey I thought we got rid of this fellow! Want to go for a coffee? We're meeting tomorrow, right? Hey man did you see Ganguly's double?
I met my old buddies. Went for lunch at the only conceivable place. Real roast duck
, after all this while! Melted in my mouth all over again. A two hour meeting with my grad student; the progress on this project looks positive - tomorrow we talk about your dissertation. Met another grad student - she wants to visit my new place for a semester but has visa problems. Five of us who'd been the juniors at one time went down for coffee. Talked about the new crop. For various reasons, four people are on their way out of the department but three rookies have already accepted offers. A fourth is dithering between us and Wharton. She says she's concerned about the teaching, but if that's really the case she should accept us in a hot second. How do we find out what she really wants? There's so much uncertainty right now, but a weird mix of uncertainty with optimism thanks to the new blood. A time of flux.
I ask whether anyone is free for dinner. One person just had a tooth extracted, one has two babies at home, one needs to finish stuff before leaving town this coming weekend. One guy says yes - let's go out. We have an amazing Korean dinner -- light-years better than the "good Korean" that I've been having for lunch these last few months. I've never had duruchigi
before -- it's new on the menu here. We talk some more as we eat, conversation smoothened and rounded by the comforting beckseju
that we've ordered. We fall silent on the drive back. My friend is going slowly round the curves that hug the hillside on the approach road to campus. His wife is beside him and she knows we've been drinking.
I wake up early; go down for breakfast. No meetings all morning but the afternoon is packed. The campus bar now has Hoegaarden on tap - I make a note to ask folks whether they'd like to hang out here at night, the open air area where I'd stop by for a breather and a snifter after class. I stand against the railings, elbows propped, and look out at the old familiar view. As beautiful as ever. A tree to my left has grown; I cannot see my old apartment from here. Far beneath by the side of the water I see the sports ground, and a group of people walking slowly round the track. I look out at the gently twinkling horizon, a deep sense of sadness filling me, a melancholy, but one of complete restfulness and peace.
Is it harder to feel a certain way if one doesn't have the words to describe it?