What it takes to make a home
I sit here in a vacant chair at a strange airport, feeling the weight of dirt and grime of three continents on my skin and hair. Home never felt more far away this moment, as the air felt warm and balmy as it washed my face. I cannot feel my legs, but I can feel very much the weight of my lifeless body, in wait of a warm bed.
As I wait for my friends to arrive, my sleep deprived mind starts to roll footage from a few months ago. In the midst of a dreamy haze, I see myself sitting on my unmade bed under the toasty affection of my azure colored comforter. Wearing only a figure hugging t-shirt too comfortable to throw away and tattered shorts that gave any modicum of modesty a run for its money, I watched a rerun of M*A*S*H on cable TV. This act was accompanied by my shoveling handfuls of spiced, deep-fried rice flakes (or chivda as it is known in India) into my gaping pothole of a mouth. The weary mind can paint quite a vivid picture. I smile as the comforter under my backside feels soft, like heaven, and the four walls that surround me feel like a piece of my own self.
Home, dear diary, is where the heart is.
My phone rings, and not a moment too soon, dragging me out of my not-drug-induced stupor. I speak briefly to my friends who have reached outside and are in the parking area, waiting to pick me up. I hang up, stumble upon my wobbly feet and with all my remaining energy haul my carcass alongside my luggage towards the parking lot. I look right then left, a habit I would soon need to forget, to catch a glimpse of two friendly faces I had seen in person for the first time in seven years. The two musketeers were here to pick up the third. My two friends, my colleagues, my seniors, my two saviors, my knights in shining armor. I looked up to them ever since I was a young kid fresh out of college and had their advice in my ear every time I needed them. So what if they had been miles away from where I was and I hadn’t seen them in person before? It was as if we’d known each other for ages.
Pleasantries exchanged, my luggage made it into the trunk of the car and we were on our way. I was a bit more awake now, soaking in the lights of the city as we moved into and then away from downtown towards a more suburban area. The hard laid concrete roads and well-lit street signs were a welcome break from the potholed tar beds we called roads back home as the car zipped and zoomed at seventy miles per hour. Try doing fifty on a Saturday evening on the pockmarked highways of Mumbai. It took about twenty-five minutes and we were here, at a house that belonged to one of them, and I was happy to take my shoes off and let my feet breathe. In a city of unknowns, I am eternally grateful for the hot meal and warm bed given to me at the end of that long day, and to both of them for taking care of me as one of their own.
I had agreed to stay with friends for the first week until I got some sort of bearing on the new country and was fully over my jet lag. Whoever said payback’s a bitch has never hear of jet lag. The first week I was here, as soon as it turned five thirty p.m., my body decided that it was time to rebel against my natural instinct and take a nap. Never mind that it is summer and the sun is out until nine in the night, but my eyes wandered into nothingness a good five minutes before they shut down for good. I had no responsibilities yet so I could afford to sleep for an hour or two. But I made it a point to slap myself in the face and get up in a couple hours to help my friends with getting dinner ready. For that one week, I could sleep at will on any surface without the comfort or protection of a pillow and blanket.
That week, I crashed at a couple of friends’ places until the week after, I had an apartment of my own.
Apartment hunting in America was a challenge on its own. My place of work was about 15 miles from the city, and about the same distance from either of my friends’ houses. I had no car and no way of getting one, so I had decided to find accommodation close to work. The public transport in the area is abysmal and there are long waiting times, even if you want to hail a cab. Someone had so thoughtfully and strategically located this office far away in the suburbs, away from the crowds and the noise, yet surprisingly connected to one of the arterial routes that linked between the city and my friends’ homes. Genius, I said, having me at the center of a possibly painful tug-of-war.
I had done my homework long before my travel date. I gave my friends a list of prospective properties to scout, pulled out from the internet, and weighed my options in terms of distance from work and rent. I did the unthinkable thing of selecting and putting up a down payment on a year’s lease, all that on a property I’d never seen personally. I chose to trust the instincts of my confidants and signed the contract electronically before even stepping foot in the country. It wasn’t hard; all it took was a series of blind clicks on the ‘I accept’ button on a bunch of serious looking lease documents, and a hundred dollar deposit, to reserve a dainty yet cozy soon-to-be bachelor pad. I had a roof reserved for my head even before I ever got on a plane.
It is a week later, dear diary. It’s time to move in. I enter the long driveway of the apartment complex, lined in the center with cherry trees and on the sides with flowering shrubs. I’m immediately taken in by the tranquility and serenity available at a meditation farm meant for the rich and famous. There are more trees and flowers in one lane than I would expect to find at a park in Mumbai. There are lakes and ducks and a family of jackrabbits near every open area in the complex, and these indigenous fauna are known to come and nest right near an apartment’s patio. That’s another thing; I’d never thought I’d be one ever to have a patio outside my living room. Patios are lost on beings that have lived all their life in crowded cities full of skyscrapers.
Luggage in hand, I walk towards the crimson door that opens into my empty apartment. I feel ominous, a pang of expectation, as I turn the key in the padlock, about to see my new home for the first time. The door opens and I enter an empty living room, freshly painted white and step on the pastel brown carpet that has just been steam cleaned. I turn and look around; greatly admiring the expanse, comparing the stretch of the area in front of me to the cubicle-like apartment blocks back home that made me feel claustrophobic. This apartment has a full-size live-in closet and includes a separate space for washer and dryer, you know, so that I stay indoors at all times in a temperature-controlled atmosphere.
One must complete a customary process prior to a move in. The leasing company asks that we check each aspect of every room within two days of the moving date and make a list of anything in the apartment that isn’t working or not in good condition. It could be a leaky faucet or dinged paint on the doorways or blinds that won’t go up or down. They ask for this inventory for two basic reasons. One, to cover their losses in case something breaks on my watch so that they can get it fixed using a generous chunk of my security deposit. Two, to make sure that I sign off that everything was provided to me in the best condition possible so that I may not sue them later if something turns out to be unsafe or unsatisfactory. I think the protection is reciprocal. I also get to protect my interests and raise any flags and get them fixed if I please. This rarely happens in India. A tenant there is just grateful for having a place to stay, and everything else is negotiated on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. You either take it or find some place else.
My front porch (is what the area in front of my door is called) had a package with my name on it, and it contained something special, nay, something of supreme importance as I would soon come to know. My internet provider had delivered a Wi-Fi router on subscription. Wi-Fi is considered amongst the baser necessities in America, right alongside food, clothing and shelter. I was the proud owner of Wi-Fi in an empty apartment that had nothing but my clothes and some stuff from back home, and a pillow and blanket that I carried around with me.
In the coming days, I would acquire a mattress, a faux-leather couch and a set of easy tables that came in a box as planks with screw-on legs. I’d littered my kitchen counter with mail-order pots and pans, plates, spoons, cups, and other paraphernalia needed to start a new life.
It’s hot but cloudy on a summer day one week from the day I moved in; warm enough to turn on the air conditioning, and dreary enough to turn on lights at five in the evening. I sit on my cushy couch in immodest shorts, slightly longer than underwear, transferring handfuls of cheese puffs from the bowl to my mouth. I have a Netflix subscription and I’m watching the next episode of M*A*S*H on my mobile phone using my newly acquired Wi-Fi. I feel a distinct purr in my belly caused by the incessant cheese puff stuffing, and I let one rip to ease off some pressure.
Home, I know very well now, is where the fart is.
© 2015 Mihir Kamat