My grandmother cannot walk much, but she takes her stick and sets herself in the kitchen when we come. She will make us food and treat us, and let us keep our hands on her face. Her skin is soft like silk, warm, dark gold. We put our sunglasses on her and take pictures. We send our father pictures of her cooking his favourite dishes. They talk on the phone – she misses her son. He misses his mum.
It is a typical Indian family visit. My aunt is visibly stressed at running a household and business, but the edge is taken off with my mother there. The younger daughter-in-law can revert back to being twenty-something with the older-daughter-in-law there. There is catching-up, message-giving, present-opening. All the adults share information, but most of the kids are adults now too, so we listen in, sometimes commenting. We are brushed off.
There is tension at times. I contract a bacterial infection. This is the first time I have ever been ill in India. On previous trips, I have been brazen, drinking tap water and drinks with ice, not caring too much, but I have always been fine. Better than fine even. This time, I have been very careful, but it seems my immune system is finding this to be a completely new environment.
I become irritable; people start to annoy me. I fight with my mother, and get annoyed with my cousin. She is seventeen with a sprained left wrist, and my grandmother feeds her. I ask my cousin if she is left handed. She is not. She takes her plate and starts eating, silently angry. I am angry too. If we were at home, my grandmother would eat first.
I get worse as the trip progresses. I take antihistamines, opioids, painkillers, anything to stop me feeling dreadful. Or to just stop me feeling.
I am fed up of it all. It is in the mid-forties, I am feverish, I cannot stomach more than a bite, and am constantly cramped over the toilet. Everyone keeps asking if I am OK, if I want to go to the nearby hospital – it’s a top medical college, they’ll fix you. But no – I want to be at home, I want to talk to my local GP, and lie in bed, drink Lucozade and eat grapes. I want cold weather. I want to be away from my mum, and away from my sister. I want to go home, but more importantly, I want to be away from here.
It’s not just the obvious things – I’ve grown up, others have grown up, India has grown up. In fact, the urban jungle, the hustle and bustle, the connectivity of it all may be completely different to the India I once knew, but it is familiar. It is like home. Only grander. And everything moves faster. It makes me feel little, and it makes me feel lost. Not spiritually, or emotionally, but physically, as if I have no idea where I am.
I have changed, and India has changed at the same time. There seems to be no connection between us anymore. It is trying to be something that I know, and I am looking for that old place. I tried to love this new place, and at times, I have. But mostly, it is like a new world, one that I am too undeveloped for.