India: Heartbreak and Healing

This article was originally published in the Sunday Times.

The first time I went back to India, I was four years old. I remember running across a muddy field trying to find my grandmother’s house. Despite it being dark, I managed to find her, sitting on the veranda, rocking in a chair. “I knew you would come back,” she said, wrapping herself around me.

Going back to Kerala was like stepping into a fairy tale – a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by palm trees and paddy fields; an old grandmother who lived in a light-blue-painted house with a farm and a rice mill and lots of interesting characters passing through to gossip with. My grandmother proudly told all who came that I was her granddaughter who had come from London. When my mother came to collect me after the six-week summer holiday, she had to drag me back onto the plane. It was cold and wet in London; I hated it and spent days crying, wishing I was back home.

The next time I went back, I was eight. It was Christmas and I remember feeling reluctant, as I knew Father Christmas would not travel to places like India – I thought it would be too hot for him. I was happy to see my grandparents, but I remember sitting around a lot and wishing for a television, and baked beans. My uncle said that he could make me a doll out of a sweet wrapper, and I watched as he turned one corner of the sweet wrapper and said: “There.” He obviously had no idea what a Barbie looked like.

The last time I went back, I was 13 and filled with dread at the prospect of returning to the village. “India: a hygiene hazard” was my main perspective, and I packed toilet roll as there was no way I was going to employ the bucket-and-mug system. I refused to eat with my hands and spoke only in English, to dissociate myself from a place that I thought was dirty, dusty, polluted, filled with strange insects and disease – carrying mosquitoes. I know I was a complete brat and I wish things had been different, because, six weeks after I returned home, both my grandparents died.

There are a number of reasons why it took me almost 20 years to go back – above all, I think I had been putting off the sadness of seeing an empty house and the guilt of not having said goodbye properly. But a book I was writing needed some first-person research into ayurvedic spa treatments. Kerala is the centre of ayurvedic medicine. It was time to go home.

I landed at Coimbatore and breathed in the smell I remembered so well from childhood – roasted peanuts, humidity and traffic. My village was two hours away, near the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, and my uncle (the one that made the Indian version of Barbie) came to meet me at the airport. It was 32C and he was wearing a woolly hat. I held out my arms to hug him and he shook my hand.

He showed me to the car and asked why I wasn’t married. I desperately searched for questions to ask him, but after 10 minutes we both fell silent and the sound of horns and rickshaws dodging errant cows became even louder. I watched a group of people dressed in the brightest colours congregating outside a shop called Bloomingdale’s; as far as I could see, its wares consisted of a few odd shirts and a bucket. An hour later, the road became quiet, and on either side there were paddy fields, palm trees and banana plantations. Across in the distance was the backdrop of purple mountains.

As we drove into the village, the people at the communal pond stopped to stare. Some pointed, and some children ran after us. As I got out of the car, my uncles, aunts and cousins came to meet me. It was strange, I didn’t feel a connection with any of them, and I tried so desperately. I gave them their gifts and they scrambled away. My aunt invited me into her home and a few people followed. She asked me why I had not got married and why I was so thin. Some intelligent cousin made the connection between not being fat and not being married; food was soon being pressed on me from every direction.

After lunch, another aunt commented that perhaps nobody wanted me due to the fact that I had short hair and wore no jewellery. Yet another nodded fervently and said that prospective husbands would think that my family could not afford the dowry. “Is this the case?” she shouted in Malayalam.

I felt strangely alone and sad and wandered off, without anyone really missing me, to my grandmother’s empty house. The mill had been pulled down, there were no cows, but the house had been renovated and whitewashed by my parents. I walked in and went straight to grandmother’s bedroom, the room that she and I had slept in. I looked for the secret hiding place in the wall where she hid the money my mother had saved up to give her. Then I went into the kitchen where we had spent hours cooking together.

My mother had put in a Western-style toilet, hoping that one day I would return. I looked at the bathroom and I was overwhelmed with tears. “I’m so very, very sorry,” I cried, looking at the toilet.

For two nights I stayed in that house, feeling safe and unconcerned about the mosquitoes, the lizards running up the wall and the sound of croaking toads. I stayed there, concentrating hard on trying to remember every conceivable detail of how it used to be.

When it was time to move on to the “real” reason for my visit, my uncle and aunt drove me to Cochin airport. I felt nothing when I left them, except perhaps a sense of sadness at that very lack of emotion. My uncle shook my hand and my aunt said that she would pray for me, and they left me outside the airport because the car was running on a meter.

My room was a little thatched Keralan cottage overlooking Manaltheeram beach; even if there had been no treatments, this would have been restorative enough. But soon I was booked in for a consultation with a young doctor who looked like an Indian version of George Clooney.

“Thirty-one,” he said. “Don’t you want to get married?” “Are you asking?” I wanted to reply, but managed a coy smile instead. He diagnosed me as a kapha/vata type (kaphas have smooth skin, thick hair and are calm, cool and complacent; vatas are tall, have irregular teeth and are inclined to mental illness; nothing to worry about there then) and suggested a 10-day rejuvenation package to restore balance. I was promptly given a dressing gown and led away.

As two technicians started praying over me, I wondered what I had let myself in for. They began massaging me in sync with each other, and then one of them asked me to lie down on the floor. She washed her feet, hoisted herself up on a rope and began sweeping her feet across my body. After that, a stream of warm oil was poured over my forehead to enhance mental stability. Instead, it sent me off to sleep and when I awoke I had a mudpack plastered to my face.

After 10 days of being massaged in this way, I felt I had found my paradise and it was incredibly hard to leave. I’d made friends with various members of the staff, and each felt obliged to impart invaluable advice. The doctor asked me to eat lots of black-eyed peas and, realising they might be hard to get in England, suggested “brusol sprats”. The cleaning lady said that I had changed so much in 10 days that a husband must be on the horizon, as long as I grew my hair, ate more and wore earrings. Maybe I could get hold of some gold jewellery, she suggested. I told her I would try. She wept as I said goodbye and said she wouldn’t eat for three days.

We drove to the airport and the smell of wood smoke and roasted peanuts made me cry. I’d come home looking for the warmth and love of my childhood, and found it gone; but another warmth, a genuine welcome and connection, had taken its place, and when I’d least expected it. The Kerala of my grandmother was a memory now, but something of her tenderness lived on.

As I boarded the plane for London, I found myself surrounded by children. The one behind me must have been about four and she was crying her eyes out, saying she didn’t want to go home; her older sister was pestering their mother for one of the items in the in-flight magazines; and the teenager was scratching her bites, saying that she hated India. I closed my eyes and I wished I had gone back sooner.

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  1. Excellent prose. Giving a lucid expression of how a kid brought up in Europe will feel on visiting Kerala occasionally.

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