2009 – India

2July 31, 2009

I’m about to land Bombay…anticipation and nervousness build. It’s my
first time landing alone in over a decade. What will I feel? My heart
is still in California, a crying baby on the plane made me yearn for
my own baby, I wanted to reach out and hug her, but she’s not Sitara.
It won’t satisfy me, rather it will make the void greater.

We touch down Bombay airport on time and I gather my things and make
my way to customs–memories of traveling with my parents as young kids
invade my mind, my mom always made us make a mad dash from plane to
customs because of the serpentine lines and the excruciating slowness
of the process– the first big difference I noticed is how not unlike
any other airport the gates i passed looked, the renovations of the
past decade and a half had brought the airport on par with the
standards of a good airport, even the bathrooms were impressive. The
second big difference was how much cleaner it looked and smelled, and
lastly ohmygod they were efficient too!  Aside from my bag taking long
to come out, which could happen on any flight where you’re flying with
600 of your closest friends, every other experience at what should be
called Sahar International Airport was a fabulously pleasant one. Even
exitting, which I remember as being particularly painful and haphazard
bore all the marks of an airport and a people finally up with the
times, vs. behind them.

There must be at least 500 people waiting to receive their friends and
loved ones, yet I’m confident we’ll spot each other within minutes–
she is after all my closest friend, some sort of strange unnameable
energy exists between us that makes us do similar things in two worlds
that couldn’t be further apart. She’s a die hard fan of India, this is
where her life is, India is her home and her love; I’m the exact
opposite — I knew USA was to be home for me long before I figured out
how to actually make that the case. I was a misfit here…I never
truly belonged here. Living here in the 80s sure everyone aped the
West, wore western clothing, behaved in what they thought was surely
the American way– but for me it was different. Yes I did those things
too, but it wasn’t a phase–it was my lifestyle, my dream and my

So it came as no surprise to me that I found her in the crush of
people within less than 30seconds. I saw her waving at me, I didn’t
need to wave back, I knew she saw me see her. Rolee’s and my entire
adult relationship has been long distance save a few stolen hours two
or may three times in the 16 year span since I left India in 1994. She
was among the only people outside my family to know that this was not
a vacation to the US, it was a move. I still remember her standing
with my brother in the foyer of our building waving goodbye to each
other till we could no longer see each other, tears streaming down my
face and clouding my vision as I left with the knowledge that I didn’t
know when I’d see her again. Despite how little we’ve met in these
past 16 years we share a bond that sometimes even takes us by
surprise. The way we can put the other at ease in difficult situations
of our lives, the ability to make each other laugh, the way we
understand each other’s philosophy of life– essentially the way we
‘get’ each other. We’re like twins, simply an extension of the other.
This trip was to be no different, all we had was the time from which
she picked me up at the airport till 4am when her driver came to take
her back to the airport as she boarded the plane to Bhopal where her
brother and family were flying in to visit with her and her parents–
the timings overlapped unbelievably perfectly; we’d get no other time
together on my trip here. Needless to say we didn’t stop talking for
the 4 1/2 hours we were together, and now she’s gone, I’m just waking
up here in her room where she lives as a ‘paying guest’ which is the
phrase used here to describe someone renting a room in someone’s
house. Her room overlooks the American consulate and the Arabian Sea.
We’re on the 11th floor and I’m staring at the sea in my best friend’s
room, mesmerized by the sights and sounds of my Bombay below– except
it’s not my Bombay anymore, this road we’re on is as familiar to me as
the road leading to the home I lived in, as I traversed it for 5 years
to go to college–except that was a lifetime ago. Bombay much to my
chagrin hadn’t caught up with the times back then, and it has now–
much to my chagrin.


I was staying this day and night with Anu’s family in Maker Tower ‘H’.
Another really good friend, Anu and I go back a long way. This is the
building where we grew up. I on the 6th floor, she on the 9th. My
parents no longer lived here, they rented out the apartment after my
brother and I moved out, and moved their base to Pune, a technology
and educational hub three hours by car from Bombay. Anu now lives in
Los Angeles, but her room is frozen in time, a time where life’s
biggest problems were what to wear, or how to extend curfew! Her mom
sent their driver to fetch me and so began my first drive in 16 years,
through my ‘usual route’ to college for five years. Passed breach
candy, Premsons, Amarsons, my college, Sophia College lane, turned at
the Cadbury chocolate plant, passed Om Chambers– home to the
legendary China Garden an iconic Indian Chinese restaurant. For the
uninitiated Indian Chinese food stands a world apart from any other
cuisine. It contains dishes that simply don’t exist in authentic
Chinese cuisine, but that are staples in Indian Chinese food. I also
discovered that there are names of dishes that simply don’t exist within
Chinese food that are staples in Indian Chinese food. Its a culinary masterpiece!

We drove past Chowpatty beach, Bachelor’s ice cream, and onward on
Marine Drive, passing the Acquarium, the cricket fields of Parsi
Gymkhana onward toward Air India building, through the government
buildings of Mantralaya onward to Colaba Causeway, passing Dalamal
apartments, childhood home of Ashish who quite possibly is my first
friend ever. We’ve known each other since the age of six; and then we
were turning down the approach to Cuffe Parade, past
President Hotel down the tree lined street with familiar buildings on
each side– here’s where I took piano lessons, there’s where I went to
get my arms waxed, here’s where I had playdates with my friend,
there’s where I’d buy my stationary and books for the school year. And
then we were pulling into Maker Tower ‘H’. I had a rush of familiar
feelings come over me, it’s in this lobby that the kids of the
building would get together and host a talent show! We’d spend the
summer months practicing dance, songs and skits. Then we’d set up
chairs for our parents and others and perform for them. During the
riots in India in early 90s my mom who then was secretary of the
building society had had a gate installed right past the elevator and
stairs of the building to prevent anyone unauthorized to get in,
particularly because the lobby entrance was wide. I remember when my
parents were traveling, when we were finally of an age to be left
alone, myself and four friends– Ritu, Rolee, Shagorica and Salonika
essentially took over my house. We would return home around 5-6am and
very guiltily would have to wake up the watchman (guard) on duty at
the gate to let us in! I was always convinced someone would rat me out
to my mom, whom all the staff adored because she always furthered
their cause. But miraculously no one ever did. Mom, I’ m sure your
maternal instinct told you this a long time before you reading this
right now!

Anu’s sister, Ashima who recently got married was at the house to greet me
along with Usha aunty, Anu’s mom. It was such a warm familiar feeling
to be here, I practically lived in this house, Anu and I plotted a lot
of mischief in her room! After a delicious lunch and a little while of
reminiscing with Ashima I turned in for a nap, my childhood friend and
classmate throughout my school career Parik was coming to fetch me to
go out to dinner and a night on the town along with his wife who also
went to the same school as us, but a year our junior and Amu who went
through school with us too who was to fly out to Dubai where he lives,
but had stayed back to meet me.

We went to CCI or the Cricket Club of India for dinner to this sports
bar called The Wet Wicket. We had appetizers or ‘starters’ as they’re
called and waited for Salomi, Parik’s wife to join us. Amu, Parik and
I reminisced about our time at school, gave updates of other
classmates we’d been in touch with and just generally talked as if we
were in touch daily, instead of meeting after 16 something years.

Salomi joined us and we moved to a restaurant/bar/lounge called
Indigo. Apparently Indigo was a Conde Nast-recognized Italian
restaurant with excellent food. We’d eaten, so we went up to the
private party to which we’d been invited. We bumped into Ashish there
as well. From there we moved to Tatsuma, a happening sushi
restaurant.  Here I bumped into Ashima and her hubby Urvaksh. Moral of
the story, Bombay’s a small town! At 2am sharp the police arrived and
started ushering people out! The small backlane behind the Taj leading
to Tatauma was packed! We wove our way out and managed to set a place
for Parik’s driver to find us.

Amu wasn’t ready to call it a night so we drove down to Cuffe to see
if Trattoria, once my and Anu’s favorite coffee shop to see if we
could hang out there, except that at 2am there was a half hour wait,
and the bar was closed by 1! We decided that the place to go would be
Parik and Salomi’s house where all us parents spent the next couple of
hours talking about our adorable kids and exchanging kids pictures! —
finally at 4am, his driver drove us home, me first, and Amu came right
up to the 9th floor to see me off — Typical Indian chivalry…sometimes.



Mom’s coming to pick me up today, and we’re driving back to Pune
together. I have my absolute favorite breakfast — aloo paratha
(seasoned mashed potato filled into a whole wheat flour, rolled out
and roasted with oil) Usha aunty and Avinash uncle (Anu’s dad).

Aunty and I spent the morning chatting and reminiscing about Anu and
my antics through the years and then she left on an errand.

The biggest deal for me on this trip aside for my reason for it, was
the food! I was very clear about the different foods that I had to eat
to satisfy cravings that were 16 years old. This included Indian
Chinese food, corn on the cob roasted on a charcoal flame, seasoned
with a spicy chili-salt mix dabbed on with lime, kebabs from Bademiya,
Parsi food from Mogambo’s cafe in Colaba, chat from Kailash Parbhat
and the most important of the list was mango! You have never eaten
mango unless you’ve eaten it in India. Mexico and the Philippines
don’t hold a candle to India when it comed to mango.
This is what i was relishing when mom came to fetch me. I was in fruit

The drive to Pune from Bombay has been significantly improved by the
expressway that was built a few years ago,  but the getting out of
Bombay was still a tedious and lengthy process. Being a Sunday, we
hoped to make a quicker getaway. We stopped at CCI for a quick lunch–
you guessed it, Chinese food. Here I met one of the banquet staff who
has been a permanent fixture at the club since I was a little girl,
competing in swim meets at CCI, and sure enough he remembered me–
wow! How many kids have come through here in the past 25 years? and he
remembered me!

Finally we were on the road. Once you clear out of the sludge of
Bombay traffic and start seeing beautiful green hills, the drive is
rather pleasant. We drive through Lonavala, a hill station where I’ve
been many times as a young girl with my parents for weekend getaways.
It’s a lovely hill station where the weather is beautiful and the pace
is mellow.

We got into Pune at about 6pm. My parents live in an adorable little
community of 16 row houses (what we call townhouses). Their home is
reminiscent of an English Cottage, tastefully decorated in my mom’s
signature touch. Mom’s neighbor is the mom of an old friend of mine,
Jack.  We go back 18 years! He’s a drummer by profession and one of
the most humane people I know. His pet cause forever has been to help
reduce the ever prevalent stray dog population. His dad is my parents’ doctor
His mom, Winnie whom I adore, had tea ready for us, and we spent the
next hour or so with me regaling her and mom with Sitara stories.
After a delicious dinner of chicken biryani, a saffron flavored rice and
chicken medley we called it an early night!



Today promises to be a pretty mellow day. It’s mom and I and we have
nothing planned except for a trip to their apartment which is on rent
and shopping! I wanted to buy souvenirs for friends and also check out
the mall scene in India — just as a comparison to what we have in the
US. After a lazy breakfast of — yup, parathas followed by mango, we
started by going to Sophronia to check out the apartment and then head
to main street. We hit two shops,  Kashmiri and Rajasthani
handicrafts– spent nearly two hours between the two and before we
knew it we were starving and it was 2pm! We went to Mayur, a
restaurant that serves incredible ‘thali’ food. A ‘thali’ quite
literally is a platter– in this cases with 5 little bowls — servers
come around with an unlimited or all you can eat version of different
foods, a lentil, a veg sweet curry, a couple of different veges, roti
(Indian flatbread) or puri (deep fried Indian bread) and chaas
(seasoned buttermilk). All this, plus to drinks for the equivalent of
$10 for both of us. We ate in absolute silence — we were starving!

It was nearly 3pm by the time we got home– shopping is exhausting and
the two of us fell asleep till nearly 6pm!

After tea we head out to Lifestyles — a Pune style mall! Advertising
huge sales, I found the experience of shopping in a mall in India to
be an interesting experience. This mall culture is a new concept– no
grocery stores or malls existed in the years that I lived in India. We
went to the vegetable market– here they’re called farmers markets and
it’s ‘cool’ to shop at them, there it’s called the natural order of
things, and now infact it’s cool to shop at grocery stores here. Mom
and I browsed around finishing up the last of the souvenir shopping.
Now here’s the big point of difference– when you buy jewelry as we
did, you get a receipt which you pay for and then take your paid
stamped receipt back to the jewelry counter and get your wares. It was
nearly 9pm by the time we got home, and we hadn’t eaten dinner yet–
it’s so strange, in the US I can’t eat past 7pm– I’m starving and
cranky– here everything is a few hours later. After dinner we packed
our goodies away in anticipation of the less than 24 hours we’d have
on our return before driving to Bombay.


We have to be at the airport at 5:00am, and luckily it’s only
10minutes from the house. My mom has scheduled an autorickshaw to pick
us up. An autorickshaw is a three wheeled vehicle that seats 3 —
although in different cities the bodies of the vehicles are
different– in Uttar Pradesh, they can hold at least 15! Not that
they’re supposed to — but it’s not uncommon to find people hanging
off the side.

Anyway my mom is the queen of being waaaay earlier than she needs to
be. So at 3:30am, the alarm was going off!

Pune airport is a small little airport, not unlike Santa Barbara or
Oxnard’s, the kind that would have transit stops to a major airport,
so it was really impressive to see a flight out to Frankfurt direct
from Pune.

An uneventful ahead of schedule flight later, we’re at Delhi airport
where we’re being picked up for our 5hour drive to Agra. Delhi traffic
is out of control insane! People, autos, scooters, motorbikes all
weave through traffic with a seeming disregard to traffic patterns and
rules. Everyone is horn happy– you use the horn to inform people
you’re passing, that you’re happy or sad or just generally because you
feel like it!! And you don’t just beep once or twice, here they give
the phrase ‘leaning on the horn’ a whole different meaning.
Unfortunately the route out of Delhi doesn’t pass through any of the
nicer parts; we don’t get to see the parliament buildings, or temples
or forts or even popular markets– mom and I fall asleep and wake up
with just about 90 minutes to go– we stop at a roadside ‘Dhaba’ for
lunch. The oppressive heat wraps around you as if youve steppped into
a sauna. You’re instantly sweating.  A Dhaba is a punjabi word for
small roadside eating place, the equivalent of which would be a
truckstop in the US. The difference being, there’s no truckstop in the
US that serves such delicious food. We had parathas (stuffed roasted
flatbread) and chickpeas masala! Yum! Everything was suspect here,
this is NOT a place I would ever recommend to a non indian. Their
stomach would revolt instantly! I was armed with a prescription of
Cipro (antibiotic) to be safe. The ladies bathroom was a very
disgusting hole in the floor; I’d have preferred a bush! Note to self–
pop a cipro when I get to hotel.

We get underway and expect to reach Agra by 2:30pm. The thing that
strikes me is that we pass no less than 15-20 universities primarily
advertising technology and MBA studies, with at least 5-7 more under

We arrive at our hotel Howard Park Plaza by about 3:00pm and are
grateful for the strong airconditioning in the room. After a short nap
we head out to New Agra where my father’s older brother and his wife
live, and where Daddy has been staying for the past month since his
brush with ICU. Daddy, my grandfather on my father’s side is 94 years
old and had a ruptured ulcer in mid June — the
close call made me realize that I hadn’t really seen too much of him
in this past decade save for a few hours during my Indian wedding in
2005. With Jason’s blessings and assurances that he’d watch our baby,
I am able to leave him and our 2 year old daughter and reach out half
way across the world to fulfill a family and deep personal duty. I
adore my Daddy. He is a retired Indian Army Officer who aside from my
father and brother was the most important man in my young life. My
grandparents live in a religious colony called Dayalbagh where we
spent most of our summers. My fondest memories are naps taken lying
between both grandparents in the cooler cooled room that was their
‘summer’ bedroom.

He looks the same! Older, more frail perhaps but otherwise the same.
He was sitting in a chair and I positioned myself directly opposite
him. Cataracts in both eyes have robbed him of his vision…he says he
can make out that someone is sitting there but can’t see details. I
didn’t talk much — I was just drinking in the sight of him, finding
it hard to believe I was finally here in front of him with no other
busy agenda except to spend time with him. Tomorrow onward he was
moving back home to Dayalbagh where he and my grandmom have lived for
the past 30 something years–

We returned to the hotel and decided to stay in for dinner. After the
heavy Dhaba lunch, all I wanted was a light dinner and a cold beer to
fight the heat! India’s premium lager is a beer called Kingfisher–
it’s what I ordered along with some delicious sheesh kebabs (minced
lamb, seasoned and molded around a skewer and cooked in a clay oven at
600 degrees farenheit), garlic kulcha (garlic stuffed naan), and some
samosa chaat (samosas topped with plain yogurt, diced onions,
seasonings). Mom and i split this and were sated! Not stuffed like
every other meal so far, just comfortable. It’s a good thing I don’t
live in India anymore, I’d be 300lb– I enjoy the food so very much,
but perhaps I enjoy it so much because I don’t have easy access to it
here, except of course when my mom comes to visit. I always say that the best
Indian restaurant in Ventura County is my house when mom is in town!

We call it an early night, we want to get to Dayalbagh early enough to spend
as much time with them as possible. I can’t wait.



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