Exactly a year ago today, I was up till 4am Eastern Standard Time, battling two bursting suitcases. I was yanking out random clothing and possessions, discarding a few items at random and re-stuffing the baggage, till finally both weighed less than 23 kilograms. I collapsed into an exhausted sleep, dreams of logistics, unsold furniture, pending accounts, and unreturned cable boxes haunting my dreams.
The next morning was a strange one – I did things I’d normally do on a day off: brunch, Shoppers Drugmart (I weep for all my unused Optimum points) and some last minute banking stuff. But by early afternoon I arrived at Toronto Pearson with exactly 46 kilograms of checked baggage, the maximum carryon allowance, and one very unhappy cat.
I had left her at the vet the previous night, and as thanks she pooped in her cage on the way to the airport. So, after x-raying her carrier, I held my squirming furry baby, the airline attendant held the washroom door open, and my then-boyfriend squatted on the ground with a bunch of dampened paper towels and cleaned the whole thing out (sorry and thank you – I still owe you big time!).
After we got her back in, and finished the paperwork and formalities, I bought us lunch (you can’t not buy someone lunch after he cleans out your cats poop cage), went through security and then fell into a zombie-like state that I wouldn’t recover from till jetlag was over.
I had spent 6 weeks preparing for this move, perhaps the biggest of my life. I had 100 kilograms of unaccompanied baggage to move, a pet to vaccinate and certify, an apartment full of furniture and more personal effects than I knew what to do with. And this was after I had gotten rid of half my closet, and sold/donated over 100 books.
I sold a 6-year old laptop that I had been procrastinating getting rid of, and dissected a decade-old laptop, thanks to the good folks of Best Buy. If my brother Arjun is as much of a procrastinator as I think he is, he probably has yet to take a hammer to that hard disk I left for him.
There were so many administrative things to take care of, so one of the first things I did, when I found out I was moving was to call the Indian Consulate. After several days it struck me, that answering their phone was not something they practiced regularly.
Finally one day, after trying for ages, I got on the subway and went. I figured they must be busy: I had a mental image of a crowded waiting room full of chaotic paperwork and people waving forms around angrily trying to cut each other in line.
It was deserted. Empty. Pin drop silence. A lone woman sat by a phone looking slightly irritated that she had a visitor. I couldn’t imagine what she had been doing 20 minutes ago when I had frantically been trying to call, but hoped it had been more important than the staring at the wall she was doing now. I asked her if there was anything I needed to do from a paperwork standpoint to transfer my residence to India. She looked at me blankly for a moment before saying:
“We don’t do that”
So I asked her my other questions, so it wasn’t a completely wasted trip. What were shipping companies I could use to transfer my possessions? What about customs duty? How did I change my PIO Card to an OCI so I had lifetime visa-free access to India? How could I certify my cat to enter the country? Each time, she would give me that pitiful blank look and repeat the same thing:
“We don’t do that. We don’t do that. We don’t do that.”
When I asked her who did do any of these things, she brightened slightly before telling me she could give me the web address of the Indian customs website. By now, I should have known to check the paper before leaving the premises.
She gave me a geocities website. You know the precursor to social networking – where you could have your own “site” and presumably other people could look at it? So I was back to square one. I don’t remember what Indian High Commission in Ottawa said, but I remember that it wasn’t much better.
Bringing a pet into the country is complicated but not as bad as some places. Penny was not thrilled about being micro-chipped, vaccinated and poked and prodded multiple times within this six-week period, but she survived it okay.
If any of you ever travel internationally with your pet, I recommend you use KLM. They have an amazing pet service with pressurized pet cabins, a full animal hotel in Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, and are just generally well versed in dealing with animals.
That last flight was one of the longest I’ve had. I picked KLM because of the pet service reviews, but it also had a five-hour layover. I arrived into Delhi at 1:30am on November 22, 2013. By the time I had battled my way through immigration, baggage claim and customs, it was close to 4am.
I spent most of the week before work began sleeping and getting started on some of the paperwork. The administrative stuff was endless – it took 2-3 months to get it all done: PAN card, drivers license, OCI card, Aadhar card.
The one that broke all records though was my salary bank account that took a record six weeks to open, involved many arguments with ICICI (for those of you who’ve seen the Amitabh Bachchan commercial with the iPad, don’t believe it, it never happens like that!) and reviving a 15 year old dormant bank account with a relatively relaxed but much more efficient government bank. This is why, no matter what, my loyalties will always lie with the Bank of Baroda.
Adjusting back to the country has been so easy in some ways, so difficult in others. For one thing, I had to transform myself from someone walks and take public transit, into a car commuter. I hated driving in Toronto where the traffic goes the way it’s supposed to, everyone stays in their lane and uses their indicators, honking is not a legitimate way to communicate with other drivers, and where roads are bereft of cows, dogs, and humans running helter-skelter.
I still am not totally comfortable driving here, but I manage to make it through my 15 minute commute without hurting myself or anyone else, so everyday I count my lucky stars and sing along to John Mayer, Maroon 5, and any other cheesy songs I can find on my iTunes to calm my frayed nerves.
My antibodies have grown fat and lazy from living in relatively sterile Canada. According to my doctor, it will take three years for the bacteria in my gut to change enough so I stop getting stomach bugs (I got one every two months for the first ten), and I have developed this wheezing cough in the winter smog months (I’m not asthmatic) that renders me incapable of speaking for long periods of time, and makes things like watching live performances embarrassing and awkward.
I miss my friends – people that truly know me – that I can call when I’m sad or confused or conversely when I’m excited about something only they would understand. Yes I have made friends here but it takes time, and things like Skype are pretty useless with a nine and a half hour time difference.
On the plus side I have been able to spend a lot of quality time with my family. As a person that is generally terrible at keeping in touch, I have missed this bonding time for many years. I am getting to spend some time with my Grandmother in her old age, and even if she drives me bananas asking me the same question a hundred times within an hour, I still love her to pieces and wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. Also, I’ve found people here very warm, so it has been relatively easy to start to make new friends.
I am working in a company whose values match my own. Yes, it is a family owned business in an industry that has absolutely nothing to do with anything I’ve ever done before, but my colleagues are honest hard-working people who I am quickly coming to admire, and who I want to help succeed. They have accepted me whole-heartedly, without resentment or suspicion, and it has made all the difference to me professionally.
Today, after a whole year, I’ve learned to speak slower, and conversely those around me understand an exponentially greater amount of what I say. Even better, fewer people ask me if I’m a foreigner.
Living in Toronto my days blurred into weeks that blurred into months. In India I remember every single day. There are few days that go by when something interesting doesn’t happen, whether it is the cows running, a man deep cleaning his ears with a pen, or people hanging their laundry on broken sound barriers on the flyovers.
There is no boredom, because every day is different. I wouldn’t want to live any other way. I feel alive for the first time in as long as I can remember. And that made all the paperwork and headaches worth it a million times over. And now I leave you with an example of the types of unsolicited advice you receive from the most surprising places in India – featured here at the back of an autorickshaw on Bangalore: