As I sat on the plane, I wondered how heavy my suitcase would be and if I could lift it from the baggage claim. Though it sat deep into the belly of the aircraft I could not get my mind off of the burden it would be. People would always ask for things when I came to visit and their requests were always strange to me. My mother used to ask for needles and Ziploc bags that she would hoard in a cupboard in the bedroom; in case there was a shortage, or maybe out of fear that I would not return. My cousins would ask for even stranger things like Tang or push pop candy. I couldn’t imagine how they would choose to have these artificial products when they were lucky enough to have nice meals that I would dream of. But we all want what we don’t have and apparently for them, it was Tang. My suitcase would always be overweight with these requests, bearing the burden of what it meant to return.
At first I thought I would visit once every couple months, but after nauseating plane rides and the newly discovered cost of air transport, visiting once a year was already difficult. I was so homesick by the time I made it back that I could’ve cried when I stepped off the plane. But I was knocked back into my senses when I could barely pick up the luggage. I realized there was no way for me to reach the driver and I wasn’t sure he would even recognize me anymore. My face was much paler than the sun-kissed – or maybe sunburned – look that the Chennai heat gave me. North Carolina winters would do that to anyone. I also had not cut my hair in months and was most likely malnourished as a result of living out of the three ingredients stuck in my refrigerator for all eternity: canned tuna, mayo, bread. My days were filled with food that would never go bad. Cheap, easy, simple. These days would change now as people would insist I had gone frail and needed more ghee, and I would take a dosa drenched in droplets of buttery grease over my tuna sandwich any day.
The driver waved me over and as I walked in the Chennai heat, my hair started to frizz and I became uncomfortable in my own clothing. I wouldn’t even make it home without a mosquito bite.
The ride was long and uncomfortable and reminded me of how foreign things had become. My heart pounded as traffic increased, cars maneuvering into each other’s lanes, narrowly avoiding each other without a scratch. When we arrived in Velachery, my head hurt from car sickness and I wanted to lie down.
Three days after I arrived, I was still experiencing fervent jetlag. I also had forgotten the real reason why I was here until I unpacked the piles of notebooks filled with impending timelines and deadlines. It was a visit to family, but it was also for research; my thesis was on Global Music Patterns and I was to focus on Carnatic and Hindustani classical music. It was what my relatives called “a waste of time and money” and I believed them to a certain extent. I had left home to go to America to study what home is known the best for.
Margazhi, the Carnatic music festival in December, was my sole focus. Every morning, my mother would circle which events she thought I should go to, and I would leave in a rush as crowds formed in all the famous venues where esteemed singers would play. Originally, I would eat the tiffins that were served before the performances, but after they made me sick I transitioned to pomegranates and upma at home. After coming back, it seemed everything made me sick. The noise of the streets and the bright lights that shone through the window when I was trying to sleep elicited a strange nausea that I never felt when I lived here.
One evening, I went to Narada Gana Sabha to see a kachari. Sleep overcame me during the concert. Earlier, the cousins had come to collect their Tang and as they’d drunk the horrible highlighter orange liquid, their voices had harmonized with the cawing of the birds outside into an awful melody that had given me a headache. But, I needed one more performance to write about for my paper. I wasn’t familiar with who was performing — he seemed to not be very famous as the hall wasn’t even half full, yet I still proceeded to the back. The chairs were slightly uncomfortable and a bit torn, but the blast of the AC made me slightly drowsy.
Curtains opened, lights dimmed and my eyes closed. My gaze became softer and smaller and it was as if the harmonies and melodies were drifting above the musicians and into the crowd. It was as if I was processing everything happening in front of me but in deep slumber, the way that spirits creep their way into our deepest moments of solitude.
I jolted awake to unexpected light beaming on my face. A singular bulb had been turned on, burning in the center where the performers had once sat. The hall was devoid of the people in their bright saris and kurtas. The silence was haunting, as if it were finally quiet enough to hear the music hall speak. The light cast a glow across the stage and in the shadow, the violin played.
It was an intoxicating sound and it drew me closer. But lurking in the front row was a figure that was so familiar. Something that felt like a part of me yet so disconnected from my body.
I wasn’t alone. A small child sat listening to the violin. His legs barely touched the ground and I could hear the sound of his crisply ironed kurta every time he shifted in his seat.
The music oozed through the floors and filled the hall like a great whale hitting a boat with its tail. The water splashed; the music played. And the boy listened.
It brought me to tears. It was how this boy sat so comfortably in this haunting music that cracked my bones and sent shivers through my body. It was something I could not reconcile and something that maybe I would never come to understand. The comfort I sought was long gone in the emptiness of the auditorium. I drifted back to my mother’s home, wandering aimlessly through the night markets and desolate backstreets. I could only hear the violin in my head all the way through the twists and turns.
I returned to the US earlier than expected. I could no longer handle the constant headaches and I was not eating. My homesickness faded into discomfort and over time, turned to dust. I looked at everything in my mother’s house as if it was a long lost object. Everything became warped as if my life here existed as a figment of my imagination; familiar but separated from reality. During the first snowfall of the season in the suburbs of North Carolina, I missed the Chennai heat that radiated from the terra cotta floors and through my entire body, fueling me with fire. But I filled my time by writing my dissertation and watching the heavy snowflakes turn to water droplets running down the window. A silence I had never heard and a coldness I had never felt overcame me.
Visual by Van Tran