America at last!
I had stopped believing in palmistry. Hosts of palmists have deciphered the rather strange line on my left hand as the ‘Foreign Line.’ “You will go to foreign many times,” said one of them when I was ten years old. The closest I got to this promise was the glass doors at the Sahara(as it was known then) Airport in Bombay, where we received and sent an endless stream of relatives. I almost gave up till the line justified its existence at last. Anita Raj, a New York based producer invited me to write scripts for her programmes on India to be telecast on her Bombay Broadcasting Network in New York. Bidding a fond farewell to my family, I stood in the long line of passengers at the Air India counter. It was 4.30 a.m. Like a typical first time “foreign goer, “I wove dreams of what I would do in the Promised Land and occasionally pinched myself to make sure it was all happening. It seemed to be happening rather slowly because the computers at the counters were misbehaving. So were my newly acquired shoes, which pinched me as I inched my way to the counter.Two hours later, my enthusiasm considerably dimmed. I presented my economy ticket and passport. My adventure had begun! The economy class was over booked and I was upgraded to the business class. “They also benefit who stand and wait,” I said to myself and hurried to the exchange section for the $ 20 before I was whisked off to take the flight to dream-land. Dragging my pinched feet and my overloaded sling bag bursting with MTR mixes, pickles and agarbattis, I wended my way to the seat.
“Are you Chaya Srivatsa?” asked the lady seated in the third row.” I met your aunt who told me you would be on this flight. I am Lily and this is my husband. We know your aunt very well.” Its a small world !Later, Lily invited me to her daughter’s wedding in the famous Balaji temple in Pittsburg.
I also met four very lively officers from KEB, Bangalore who were on their way to London for a short course. If KEB could afford Business Class for them, it must be thanks to us consumers who pay hefty bills! They were ostensibly on their way to study some sophisticated method of conserving energy and were themselves bursting with enough of it as they chatted away in Kannada, exchanging notes on what they would buy in London. I got talking to one of them and complained about the lack of proper street-lighting, erratic shut-downs and fluctuating voltage, in Bangalore city. He was politely attentive but more interested in the delicious food the air hostess started serving, minus the papad and pickles promised in the snazzy menu card.
Palmistry is a believable science after all, I said to myself as I walked out of the Air India tunnel into the JFK airport. Following others, I went to get a luggage cart. Trying to look like a seasoned traveller, I tugged at one of them, tugged again, tugged harder the third time... nothing happened. I then spotted a sign which said to insert one dollar. I only had the two crisp $ 10 notes I had exchanged in Bombay so I went to the counter nearby for change.”
“May I please have one dollar notes? “I asked the gum-chewing officer who looked slightly puzzled for a moment and then brightened up with a “Oh, you want bills,” counting out the change!The first thing that struck me was that the cart would cost me Rs. 16. “Don’t convert” was the advice my recently foreign returned friends had given but that is more easily said than done. The Customs officer eyed my cardboard box with suspicion, “Mangoes there?” he asked and I told him they were only books and shoes. He didn’t believe me.
“Show me the mangoes,” he persisted.
“They are not mangoes,” I persisted.
But he had come across too many mango carriers and was in no mood for debate. I opened the box and satisfied with the absence of mangoes he said, “OK, have a nice day.”
“You bet,” I mumbled under my breath as I repacked.
“Welcome to New York,” said Anita Raj effusively in American style and ushered me out of the airport onto the sun-drenched pavement. I looked around with curiosity.
Is this the land that absorbs all the brain that drains out of our country? Is this the attractive monster that swallows up the talent produced by India? Is this the EI Dorado that pulls fortune-seekers so irresistibly? Is this the country that stands for human rights and dignity of labour? Is this the dreamland of my expectations? Questions like these crowded my mind as we drove through the city towards Manhattan where I was going to stay in an apartment.
Of all “foreign” jaunts, America is “top of the Pops” and I wondered if it would live up to its reputation. Well... I was there and I would wait and see...