I’ve missed a day because I crossed the international date line. I arrived past midnight today. My cousin Malini and her husband Pikoo fetched me at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. Turns out that this airport has been awarded the Number 1 airport in the world in 2014! Wow!! What an accolade! Take away the Indian staff and signs in Hindi and this could have been any airport the world over.
I’m trying to acclimatize my body to IST and so force myself to sleep as soon as we get home…this isn’t hard considering I’ve gotten to sleep for possibly a total of 4-6 hours in a more or less upright position these past 24 hours. Mala Didi’s mom…and my favorite auntie in the world is visiting from Dehra Dun and I want to spend time with her before I get whisked off to Agra by cab today- so I’ve set a 7am alarm. I whatsapp with my coaching client back in Califormia and then it’s time to visit with family I’ve not seen in years! I start my morning with homemade masala chai and a couple of digestive biscuits. Malti auntie and I catch up…when I was in 8th grade my mom had placed me in an all girls boarding school called Welhams. Malti auntie and Mala Didi who at the time was in her twenties were my local guardians and there was nothing more exciting to me than to be picked up by her every other Sunday to be taken home (fattened up on home cooked food) pampered and loved and sent back with a stash of snacks! All prize possessions of an always starving student athlete who never felt like she’s had enough to eat. Of course they fed us very well at school including having to have egg flips (raw egg whipped with milk and sweetened with vanilla extract– ewwww gross!) for athletes. But snacks and processed foods were in very short supply- they were privilege we could have a couple times a week when the ‘Tuck shop’ opened and if we hadn’t spent our allowance or lost it for bad behavior (like talking to boys over the school wall, or not having our uniform just so, or not being on time to classes efc…)
Anyway- then I got to FaceTime with my kids and Jason which was awesome and they got to talk to their auntie and grand-auntie as well.
They also got to meet Barney- the golden retriever who welcomed me last night – who loves digestive biscuits, paneer (Indian cottage cheese) and is a friend to everyone in the neighborhood.
My taxi chaperones are servants who have been with my grandparents for a lifetime. Ram entered employment with my grandfather 40 years ago, and so has seen me in diapers! Usha has been with them 20 years! They drove out from Agra this morning to come fetch me because my parents wouldn’t hear of me traveling alone. Although I’m sure this route is traveled by many people – a woman traveling alone in India is probably not a great idea- I didn’t resist because as long as I got to see my grandparents I didn’t care if I had to have police escort all the way to Agra!
We hit the road around 11am this morning and immediately got stuck in horrible traffic. An hour later we had cleared the city traffic and were on the Yamuna Expressway which is 185km of orderly freeway-like stay-in-your-lane, don’t-honk-for-no-reason, cctv-monitored driving. This expressway is entirely built on an elevation above service roads and took 6 years to complete.
2 hours in- we stop for some food! Chana Bhatura; Indian bread made from a certain flour that is then rolled out and then deep fried so it’s puffy served with spicy chick pea masala! Gastronomic heaven for me. It’s been years and years since my last Chana Bhatura.
Sated and struggling to keep my body clock on IST I’m about to doze off for an afternoon nap.
We enter Agra city limits and my senses are immediately bombarded by the noise, traffic, cows (yes, cows! Like the big animal that provides us with milk and is sacred in India) people and dirt. There’s no rhyme or reason to the way people drive here. Rules are meant to be broken, and almost anything goes. Our very skilled driver adeptly and safely navigates through the melee and soon we are turning down an even narrower street which I immediately recognize as the approach road to Dayal Bagh; the gated religious colony where my grandparents have lived and will live out their days since I was a year old! My grandfather (Daddy) had been appointed Warden of the Boys Hostel and for his service was given two adjoining homes to live in with his family. This home was once the crown jewel of Dayal Bagh real estate. Daddy tells me that many people were very envious of this home. It’s situated within a stone’s throw of the Satsang hall where twice a day hundreds of people come to attend the prayer services. I’ll go and pay my respects tomorrow, but for this evening’s services all we have to do is keep that front door ajar and the melodious sounds of hundreds of people singing in unison filter through to us. I can’t understand the words, but the singing takes me back all the years to my childhood summers that my brother and I would spend with daddy and mama. (What we called our grandparents) – then the prayer services were an obligation out of respect for our family’s ways, and if I’m to be perfectly honest a bit of a bore. They felt endless (they’re only 30min long) and the women and men sit segregated (they still do), the women would get there a bit earlier and use the time to gossip about whomever (I bet that’s not changed either).
The taxi driver skillfully navigates through throngs of people, fresh vegetable cart vendors, stray dogs, auto rickshaws, man powered rickshaws, trash piles and cars on a narrow two-way road that’s got no business being two-way and gets us to the gate where he must register his car before entering. License plate and number of passengers and address get logged and a few minutes later we’re on our way now driving 15-20mph on narrow but pristine tree lined street and again I’m awash with childhood memories. Here down this street lived a ‘weird uncle,’ who us kids were a bit afraid off, there down that alleyway lived my absolutely favorite house to visit. Home of my three favorite girl cousins who were all older than I– I adored spending time with them and ran away to their home as much as I possibly could. Their mother; also one of my favorite people was and apparently still is a nursery (think pre-school) teacher and in fact when at age 3 years, I visited here after an 18 month stint at sea with my parents where my dad was a chief officer on a British shipping company, I had this thick English accent that my parents wanted me to lose. Spending time with my auntie learning Hindi quickly took care of that.
Soon we were pulling up to the house. My second home, my childhood summer home and the home where my favorite place to sleep was between daddy and mama.
Mama greets me at the door. daddy is unable to walk anymore and is bed bound except for when he’s wheel-chaired for Satsang every evening. My parents visit once or twice a year and so I’ve seen pictures and am prepared for how much they’ve aged. Their bodies are giving way but their minds are just as sharp. I sit next to Daddy who can’t see except for blurry outlines and he knows it’s me. It’s been 6 years since I’ve seen them last. It feels like I’ve had a lifetime of experiences since then but this house, they, the smells, the pictures on the walls are all the same. It’s as if time has slowed down considerably and perhaps in some ways has even stopped here. They don’t hear very well and are hard to understand because they don’t speak that clearly anymore. On top of that, my Hindi is rusty from years of disuse. Luckily they have savants who’ve been here with them and can help translate as I get accustomed to their sounds.
They make do with a battery of 12 servants each of whom come at different times of the day and have different purposes. Ram comes over at 9pm and stays till 6am. He’s Daddy’s right hand man. He gives them tea and then leaves. For mama, Surekha does the same- stays overnight to keep and eye on them. Around 8:45am Priya comes and makes them breakfast and stays through till 5pm helping them with whatever they need and also cooks and serves them lunch. Around 5pm, Usha comes to take mama to Satsang and Rajesh comes for Daddy. After Satsang Pooja comes over to serve them dinner and get them bed ready. And then Sulekha and Ram will be back for night duty.
These are servants- not trained medical professionals…but the clockwork with which they serve and support my grandparents is impressive. Daddy is 99 and has no major illness or disease. His heart, lungs and vital organs are all clear. His blood pressure is normal. He can’t see or hear well or walk at all and for this former career military man who has been so self reliant his whole life- being so dependent on help to live is hard. I asked him what he thought was the secret to long life…he didn’t answer but said long life is a curse. He wondered why God “isn’t ready to terminate yet.”
Mama has high blood pressure and asthma but other than that can function quite well. She is able to walk with a walk in stick and is still as feisty as I remember her. She rules the house in quite the same way she did 20+ years ago. Her thick silver white hair are braided and reach nearly to her waist. She was a beauty in her younger days. They both made such a dashing couple. He in his military threads and she as the perfectly coifed military wife.
I crawl onto the bed between them. Both of them immediately grab one of my hands each and we hold hands. This place, between my grandparents is my serenity here. I’ve had and found peace in many ways in my life but this is my first core memory of security and peace.