I want to be twenty-one again.
Early one August morning, I cried in front of the bathroom mirror because I was told, after having finished my training at work, that I’d be posted in Pune. I felt scared at the thought of moving to a strange new town without any of my closest friends- I’ve never been one to make friends easily, even though on certain days I can talk people to death. A miracle later that morning changed the posting to Hyderabad, and I exulted because I’d live and work in the city that I was born in, which I’d visited almost every summer, and which teemed with family. In retrospect, that isn’t always a good thing because you sometimes need to live alone, all by yourself, for that intoxicating feeling of sheer independence. But good home food on weekends often tips the balance in favour of having some family around.
Then, when they told me I could go to Singapore if I wanted, I said yes immediately. I didn’t stop to ask anyone, find out who would be accompanying me, or even to consult my parents- whatever happened to that girl who cried because she was being sent to a different town in her own country, why did she not think twice about crossing an ocean? It seemed like that door to all childhood fantasies, which had lain carefully ensconced in layers of imagination, had materialised suddenly. My happy dreams have done a pretty decent job of coming true. At five, I dreamt of having a green telephone at home and we had one eventually, only our first one was grey. I had a premonition about Singapore one night when I was in college- it could well have been a random dream plucked out of a generous tree- but it turned out to be true. And it was the stuff of dreams, after all- a girl brought up entirely in industrial towns (two of them places most people can’t point out on a map) goes to Singapore. Not unusual, but still a matter of immense awe for me.
A little consternation followed in the family- my grandmother worried about me, who’d never been away from home, going away by myself to a new country; I was made fun of for having despaired over Pune and soon after that, getting my passport ready for Singapore. I was delighted, anxious and troubled all at once. It didn’t help us that they told us on a Wednesday that my teammates and I would have to fly out on Saturday. Perhaps it was a good thing, though. We didn’t have any time to panic at all.
A thorough drenching in the rain on Thursday gave me a high temperature: I was offered the chance to postpone my trip, while the rest of the team went on as planned. I refused- I was too scared of being left behind, I’d heard stories of people being promised various things and then told that they weren’t to have them after all. The disappointment would have been harder to bear than the side-effects of the flu. Being young helps you make up your mind very easily- you don’t think much about practicalities, you just go with single-minded determination after what you want. You also think you’re being very brave, which does your self-esteem a world of good.
Our group wasn’t a particularly cheerful crowd. One of my teammates, with great potential for being a professional killjoy if he ever finds himself out of a job, regaled us with stories of rough take-offs and sickbags while we waited in the departure lounge. He told us several times of how important he was to his family (while I was perfectly convinced they must have, that very moment, been dancing for joy). Another of our teammates cried in a remote corner, while a third groused about the rest of us having used up all our free baggage quota and not letting him offload his excess stuff on us. The rest of us were girls, all stoically putting up with what I then thought, in my most uncharitable mood, were snivelling specimens of humanity.
All sniffles and dosed up as I was, I boarded the plane, cold and uncomfortable. It wasn’t a particularly enjoyable flight because I would have liked to be with one of the other girls, but was left all by myself to deal with my first time on an aeroplane. On a more adventurous day, I would have enjoyed it- that night, I struggled with my seat-belt, thought the turbulence would smash us to smithereens, and dozed fitfully through the various announcements the four-and-a-half hour flight was sprinkled with. I tried to read but my head ached, the effect of the medicine began to wear off and I felt my breath getting hot. I felt sorry for myself and turned into a snivelling specimen of humanity myself. However, I couldn’t really be very cross- I was on a Singapore Airlines flight for one, one of the best airlines to fly. I was also very proud of myself for not having got sick during take-off.
A few hours on, as the plane began to descend, I pressed my nose to the glass. The brilliant blue sea, with its sprinkling of boats, filled the window: the sky was clear and sunshiny, and all of a sudden, I was trying to convince myself that I was going to be on an island for the very first time in my life. I was going to see a new country, hear new languages, wade in the waves of a different sea. I had left potholes, open disrespect for rules and the swirling crowds of people behind for an airconditioned, sterile, mall-dotted Paradise: and here I spent one of the best years of my life. I craned my neck at impossibly tall buildings, revelled in the colourful alleys of Chinatown, and generally behaved like a young woman freshly transported from her small-town upbringing to one of the most developed parts of the world.
I’ve never been able to conjure the same amount of heady enthusiasm for a new place since, not even for hauntingly beautiful England, to be honest. That first time in a foreign country is always very special, especially if you’re young, green, easily pleased and quite alone except for a few acquaintances. Even if I resist age in my head, I’ll never have that bittersweet experience ever again.
PS. I’ve been writing a lot lately. Is that a good sign?