chicago o’hare international airport: excited, happy, and relaxed. we make it to the airport with enough time for a giant frappuccino (heaps of whipped cream) and good bit of airport yoga, including handstand practice against a wall in which i almost kick a passing man in the face. i’ve actually never made it to an airport late, but after five years of nightmares of missing this very flight, this feels good.
it seems like an overstatement to say i’ve imagined this day for five years, but it isn’t. two years of incubation, three years of research, pages and pages of drafts and notes and papers written just to organize thoughts and data that no one speaks of. and now this: in an airport with the man who snatched up my heart just before i jetted off to india for the first time at nineteen.
frankfurt airport at the final gate: waiting, surrounded by indian travelers, and my confidence evaporates. what am i doing? i suddenly feel very young, very idealistic, and very inadequate. we are visiting three group homes and interviewing the staff and i’m simply trusting that they understand english, will understand my motives, and actually exist. all i have are slips of paper with lengthy street addresses, and one or two short emails saying, yes, please visit. and what of prema vasam? what will it be like to go back? three years that have shaped vast portions of my life and suddenly everything i’ve done seems distant and foreign. everything ahead is entirely unknown. on the flight, i refuse to track the in-flight map, my stomach all knots. nine hours in the air suddenly seems too short. i write in my journal: when ego is lost, limit is lost, and pray, and remind myself to trust.
we arrive at midnight.
that first deep inhale, even in the airport, smells exactly like india. i feel light and sleepless and very alive, and that scent is all i need. confidence returns and settles.
we collect our baggage and enter the hot, busy air, past lines of men holding signs scratched in sharpie with indian names. there!—my name, misspelled. we wait with our hotel pick-up delegate for our driver for twenty minutes, standing on the curb. everyone drives by, beeping horns to let drivers ahead know they are coming through. dogs sniff through plastic waste beside taxis and government cars. when we arrive at our tiny hotel on mosque street, a man is mopping our room so we wait in the lobby. our room is plain and functional: large bed, thin hard mattress, two plastic chairs, tv, sink, toilet, shower. one wall is painted a deep, golden yellow. we fall asleep at 2:30am, local time.
we wake at eleven, shower, and take a taxi into the city to orient ourselves to chennai before heading to prema vasam in the evening. everything is so much like i remembered. the three sites i’ve picked are all places i visited in 2009, and want to show j. we stop first at kapaleeshwarar temple, a temple of shiva first built in the 7th century. the temple is mostly empty. men and women sit on the ground braiding jasmine garlands and a tv crew is filming the lead priest. a large annual festival takes place tonight and doors to storage units are open, showing statues of elephants, bulls, peacocks, all painted white and gold and turquoise. we see the seven chakras painted on a ceiling, wishes tied to the wish tree, and the holy cows eating hay in a gated room.
next, briefly, san thome cathedral: chalk white in a hot brick courtyard. san thome houses the tomb of st. thomas, who carried christianity to india and was reportedly martyred here in 72 AD. we walk to the tomb and sit on the cold polished benches and both of us say a silent prayer. the marble is cool on our bare feet. in the entryway to the tomb, pink lotus grows in a brass basin of water.
our final stop is marina beach. we buy chilled maaza (mango juice! finally!) and walk through the market, which is a dirty strip of sand leading to the sea and lined on both sides by stalls. we buy samosas topped with chickpea sauce, fresh onion and cilantro, and take pictures. the most common items sold are hanging fixtures of seashells pasted together, colored glass-and-gold bangles, plastic sandals, lays potato chips and popped rice, hot sweet corn in cups, sweetened flavored milk in glass bottles, simple beaded necklaces, and fresh fruit sliced and sold in plastic cups with a toothpick.
driving back to the hotel, i am quiet. we gather our things, rest for a few minutes, and wait in the lobby. when a girl about our age walks in, i know she is there for us, although i can’t remember her name—anisha. she leads us outside to the car, where indra is waiting. after five years of emailing back and forth, it is so good to see her.
on the drive to gerugambakkam, indra keeps asking me if i recognize the place, but i can’t. gerugambakkam has grown so much and many of the rice paddies are replaced by buildings. everywhere: cows, water buffalo, palm groves, and water lilies.
we arrive at prema vasam in about twenty minutes. it is so familiar. i am definitely feeling jetlagged—a bit dazed, but happy and not uncomfortable. it feels strange but right to be here. the children surround us and sing their usual welcome song for volunteers: “happy welcome to you,” sung to the tune of happy birthday, and place heavy, damp wreaths of red roses and jasmine around our necks. amahl takes my hand and leads me into the office. he looks the same, but a few inches taller. we are given chai, and then anisha takes us for a tour. she asks if i remember the special children and i remember most faces but few names. barath and anandh, of course, i have never forgotten. and mani at the end! he is not very responsive and has a large bandage on his head. he is 10 or 11 now. it is not an emotional reunion for me, although i am very glad to see him and am impatient to spend more time with him.
i feel at ease as i walk through the room, and i am already slipping back into the habits that i formed here: touching faces and arms, lifting the little ones, scattering smiles over the faces that hold such distant expressions. it is sweet to see j. holding lively conversations with the talkative ones—conversations entirely unhindered by mutual inability to understand each other’s languages.
we are sent to our room to rest until dinner. we climb the roof and listen to the village, lying on our backs on the flat bricks. there is a light breeze. later, i fall sleep tired but happy.
in the morning, i wake at six. we drank the last of the water overnight, so i slip into a skirt, wrap my shoulders in a pashmina, and carry our water bottles down four flights of stairs to refill. the schoolchildren are awake: sitting in the stairwells and leaning against the walls in the hallways. the girls comb coconut oil into their hair and plait the strands with ribbon. good morning, akka, they say, which means good morning, sister.
i leave the water at the door of our room, which opens to the roof, and wander barefoot through the potted garden. the plants are freshly watered and the bricks beneath my feet are wet and scattered with sand. the sky is salmon and gold, the air hushed and humid. fresh plumeria blooms are opening, and yesterday’s laundry rests damp on the line. i stand at the side and soak in the view below of the courtyard, the sky blue walls, the white-rimmed arched windows.