One of the things I missed most while in the US was having a supermarket around the corner. Walking for twenty minutes each way just to buy a loaf of bread or a bag of raisin chocolates was never fun, because it wasn’t even a pleasant walk. You just crossed junction after junction, waiting impatiently for the pedestrian sign to come on, reading the names on the grey or brown buildings. This was nothing like walking through the South Downs, where you marvelled at the rolling hills that blended almost seamlessly with the horizon, or like the short trip to the local supermarket in India, where you were preoccupied with glaring at the motorists who dared to climb on to the pavement while riding in the wrong direction. And once in the store, you tried to figure out which Alka Yagnik song was playing in the background, because the shop assistants had this annoying habit of picking out the most obscure pieces from the 90s – which, despite my thorough exposure to Bollywood in 90s Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, I had no knowledge of.
Not having tasted butterscotch ice cream for three months – it seems surprisingly elusive outside India – I was determined to get some before the rain started. Yes, Bangalore. Chennai has rain in the evening too. I don’t know if this is a regular occurrence or a welcome-home present, but I am quite prepared to gloat over it while it lasts. If there is no electricity at your place and you are fanning yourself, staring bemusedly at your phone with the charge rapidly dwindling, know that I am sitting by an open window with the fragrance of damp earth floating in, mingling with incense and a negligibly faint chemical odour.
It is good to be back in India and not have to bemoan the absence of decent sambar powder at the lone Indian store. My trip was only three months long, and while I enjoyed being in the US, I must say very honestly that I liked living in England better. This probably has to do with the diet of English writing I grew up on, the constant exposure to cricket, and the fascination with the English “accent”. Would I have perceived the US differently had it been the first country I visited abroad, had I stayed in a part of the country with more access to nature, hills and the sea? Maybe. I feel a marked difference in the way I absorb things now than I did five years ago, probably because I pay more attention to politics than I used to. However, this is a subject that I will deal with separately, especially because of some important incidents that took place during my stay in the US.
Waiting for the bus that took us to the Indian store every week, I watched a building under construction grow rapidly. I felt the last vestiges of winter dissolve indiscernibly into summer, that much-beloved season of spring shying away from an appearance. I saw the parades of Memorial Day and the spectacular fireworks of the Fourth of July, with the red eyes of the Washington Monument glowing in the dusk. I learnt to admire Thomas Jefferson and question the naming of highways after Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, both heroes of the Confederate side in the Civil War.
I haven’t even scratched the surface of the vast, complex country that the US is, despite its relatively recent origins. Conversations with Americans and immigrants take you deeper into the mystery, instead of clearing your doubts. Race, religion, colour, and political affiliation are not always postcolonial preoccupations. The pursuit of self-serving interests and the presumptuousness of politicians don’t necessarily help matters. Make no mistake, I appreciated free access to the library and the Smithsonian museums, the clean roads, and the convenient public transport. However, in my view, the US is far from being that perfect home many people seem to aspire towards. In terms of long-term opportunities and the chance to make a visible difference, India is not a less exciting place to be in. What it lacks is discipline, and this is the thing that drives so many of us away.