There are few things sadder than an arrival, after such a long journey, with no one to receive you. Rishi stood alone amidst the crowd outside Indira Gandhi Airport. Taxis came forth and people slowly, in practical fashion, filed into them. Other people met family, kissed children, smiles everywhere.
But for Rishi there was no family nor the pomp or celebration of years past, when he would arrive with his mother and father, to everyone's embraces; the airport terminal turned carnival; flower garlands and laughter; hugs and tears of joy.
Return was a cherished event coupled with the visceral impact of the Indian heat. And the colors: As if a switch had been turned on to the kaleidoscope, merry go around and roller coaster – all at once. Though now, disheveled and with nobody around he knew, Rishi felt the ache only nostalgia gives. His stubbled face held an empty expression, looking for solace in some strangers face, though everyone unaccompanied waited for their taxi with distracted unease, looking at their cellphones. Airports can make you feel so, alone.
At the luggage carousel, he felt his spirit turn; he hadn't expected such intense sadness. He had a feeling nobody would show. His mother said she had informed the family though something about the way she said it made him think twice.
Now outside, he still looked around. Perhaps someone had come? Maybe it was a mistake? Of course, a natural mistake, with the time difference and all.
Back home, in his parent's Queens apartment, the time difference used to be ingrained through the two clocks upon the mantle; one Indian the other New York time. He could never look at one without looking at the other, even outside the house; he would always know exactly what time it was in India.
The clocks were a constant reference point for Rishi's father, who would work overtime in the 70s to make one 5 minute phone call a week, to hear distant voices that haunted his memories and dreams.
Rishi's father was a man's man; rarely shed a tear, generally unexpressive. But those phone calls were what he lived for. The rest of the time was just in anticipation of that moment or in planning a return visit. Gifts constantly collected, life was suspended till that very moment of return - in the airport terminal- when life truly bloomed, transforming Rishi's father; from a man who read the New York Times in brusque silence; watched Peter Jennings in a trance, into someone who had purpose again; India, family.
Whenever things got tough, his father planned a trip; it slowly became the solution to all problems. And it worked. Upon returning, for months, his father would have renewed energy to pay bills and go to work, only to slow down again, get into a rut and plan another trip. India, India. Repeat ad infinitum. Not a bad life.
New York was purgatory, a grand waiting game, for that moment of return. His father enjoyed New York; it mesmerized with its energy, opportunity and edge. But something about being in- between, in the greatest city on Earth (he sincerely believed this) made him feel more alive to everything. In but not of it - nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Debilitating for some, exhilarating for others.
His father had come over on scholarship, to study at NYU for his masters in Math, and stayed on to work and gain citizenship, the typical immigrant story of its time. But he was never at ease in this new dreamland, even though nobody waxed more poetic about it; about the subway; the 5th avenue library; the jazz clubs in the village; the New York Times, even.
And then Rishi was born, unexpectedly, or so his father said, after they started frequenting Atlantic City, leaving his sister with family friends. His father gambled while his mother walked the boardwalk, and "that's where you were conceived, Lucky 7", referencing Rishi's year of birth; 1977.
Given his father's eccentricities, he wasn't sure if this was some joke or not. His parents did obsess over Atlantic City; it's was almost always where they wanted to go whenever a long weekend came. But he never really saw his parents touch, so it heartened him to think of time when they did. Whether or not it was true, the very idea of them together made him happy. His mother in a sari by the Jersey shore, holding his father's hand, as they looked over at the sunset. Care free, gambling, eating together. Probably not true, but hey, who knew? He asked his mother about it once and she just laughed. But then she laughed whenever his father did anything crazy because if he wasn't doing anything crazy he got depressed. He closed the lights in the living room, put a blanket over his head and never spoke to anyone for days. And then he'd watch old Benny Hill episodes on VHS and this one dance video of Sridevi, over and over. We all have our unique ways of coping with our frustrations and losses. But these episodes were intermittent and if they got really bad, there was always India if something didn't pique his interest first.
Like how one day, after school, his father gave him a cutting of a restaurant review from the New York Times. It was written in that floral style only the Times gets away with. "Read this article, look at how they divine they make it sounds." Divine, his father had taken to improving his vocabulary during Rishi's SAT preparation but had retained his loose pronunciation and grammar.
"We must go there, we must eat there, right now right now!" He got into the car, revved the engine and blasting the horn to make Rishi hurry. Rishi would feel a mad rush of energy and joy in those spontaneous moments. His father thrived on unpredictability. "Surprises, good surprises, are a precious thing. Our lives generally have bad surprises but good surprises make up for the bad ones."
His father was different than the other Indians, less "practical" and too showy, with tastes a bit too refined for a new immigrant. Though he earned no more than his colleagues, he spent more, and feared less. Looking at old pictures of his father you always noticed the well-dressed handsome man amidst tackiness and anxiety. The corduroy blazer, the disco shirts and gold chains. It's as if his father belonged on the Amalfi coast, with movie stars, instead of ugly modernist Queens with a bunch of square engineers as neighbors, colleagues and friends. All Indian, all so uncool.
Rishi always wondered what it was that made his father different than the rest, and with age, and some life experience, realized it was because his father was already quite well to do before coming to America. He was the main breadwinner for his joint family and as a result the go-to man for all problems. Money, prestige, respect, and already married to Rishi's mother; he had it all. Only to leave it behind for a dream - or was it ambition?
"I wanted to study and come see what all the fuss was about," he said to him looking at him through the rearview mirror. Rishi in the backseat, his mother up front organizing the tapes in the glove compartment, "Why doesn't anyone put the tapes back in the right covers?" This was a pet peeve of hers, though nobody ever listened.
His father usually opened up driving, on those trips to Atlantic City, with the New Jersey Turnpike spiced by Bolly wood soundtracks. It was as if the road ahead and the movement made him relax and look Rishi directly in the eye, albeit through the rear view mirror.
It was on these trips that he learned that his father rented not a room, but a dirty mattress on Roosevelt Ave, for 8 hours a day. He worked nights at a candy store, and took over the mattress from someone else, on his return, from a person about to do exactly what he just did; a low paying shift if not in a candy store, in a gas station or restaurant.
His father could have gone back to India, and everything would have been fine. He wasn't from a small village, or supporting a family, or any of that sacrificial stuff that paralyzes or motivates many a immigrant. It was curiosity and adventure that drove him. The same spirit of adventure that was bringing Rishi back, to India.
Being of Indian origin allowed him to feel connected to something more authentic than his drab American life. He saw in his Indian family a love and spontaneity few had in America. The absence of absurd consumer comforts made them stronger, healthier and more alert to the visceral aspects of life. Or, so he thought, in his romantic escapism.
We all want to be somewhere else, and that far off place helps us make sense of what home means to us. For Rishi, his depression about America was always a result of having India to compare it to. It became a deeper fissure, an unwashed wound, that as he got older, held him back from ever being comfortable with who he was; where he was.
Rishi's father understood all this. He knew that excesses and absurdities of the West could only be curbed and tempered by the East. That is why he wanted Rishi to fall in love, with India - but as an American. "India needs a De Tocqueville" he would absurdly say. Rishi didn't expect such highbrow, political philosophy from his father. That's what the New York Times did to him. It made him memorize trite phrases that surprisingly worked within the context of what he was talking about. "America is the greatest son, trust me. The opportunities, dignity and possibilities. The endless possibilities of being. You don't know how lucky you are, you have choices, and options, that I never fathomed or thought about. The problems in America are a result of bad choices. Eating too much, drugs, sex, over-spending, but at least people have the choices and the second chances to make it right. In India there are no second chances. People are condemned to their fate, and lament and whither away wondering what could have been, if only, if only..."
These diatribes were a common fixture in Rishi's upbringing, often colored by his father's constant unease for those he left behind. Not guilt, just plain and simple longing. If family defines a man's life, little else can substitute it. If his father every knew love, or was ever pressed to describe it; it would be this one desire; to return to touch again his land and people.
Rishi knew this meant more to him, than being with himself and his mother. In this regard they were similar to families of artists, rocks stars or politicians, all of whom work for something bigger than themselves, only in Rishi's father's case, what filled that god-shaped hole was a huge, poor country, on the other side of the world, filled with smiling, adoring, pandering family. Family.