How To Find Your Way Home

by Shaun Terry

afterlight

I awoke each morning to the song of an orange-headed thrush, and now, the birds are completely different; not better or worse, but definitely not the same, either. I wonder if that thrush still sings the same song. On those South Indian mornings, that now seem so distant and hazy, and before my mind had a chance to form a thought, I could smell the saline ocean air mixing with the distinct, sweet aroma of the masala chai that my particular chaiwala offered. His name was Suresh, and he and I spent our early mornings discussing the Super Kings and local politics. He was an older, crinkly man, and he was filled with inflated ideas of all the things that India once was, and rigid ideas of what it once again could be. My last year in Chennai, the Super Kings amazed us all with a super-human collection of complementary heroes. Never could there be a more-skillful, more-dominant brotherhood of cricketers; surely not. But that was also the year that I said goodbye to everything that had ever resembled comfort and familiarity.

My parents always encouraged my education, but they were ignorant to, and therefore, fearful of, this strange university in this strange country. I still remember, in our first phone call, spending several minutes trying to explain to them what a pine tree is and what pine needles are, until finally, my father realized that he’d seen a pine in a movie, once. The smell of pine is a good smell, like a warm, clean kitchen, but even nice things can seem a little strange, at first. And no one back home could understand or appreciate the strange life that I have had to lead, and they know that. For this reason, so many of them, though well-intended, were filled with skepticism and trepidation on my behalf.

They all seemed to express fears and doubts. I was precocious, and my views of these things were shrouded with blind spots. I was observing my destiny through a peephole, and I was running like a great, big, wild horse, with the wind on his back. Still, I remember the sounds of their voices, asking in unison, “How could this soft-spoken, completely unremarkable young man be the one of his peers to achieve this absolutely remarkable distinction? It couldn’t be.” But life isn’t always confined by impossibilities and statistically insignificant odds. I am the bumble-bee, short on self-awareness, and long on faith. For this, I am grateful.

When I held the plane ticket in my hands, I was surprised by how small and flimsy it was. This instrument of such tremendous power could be stolen by the wind or eaten by a few insects. It’s not that this glorious piece of paper-board should have been any different, but this nearly-weightless thing was the key to a profoundly different experience. At least, for me, that’s what it was. I had worked tirelessly throughout my childhood and early adulthood to be able to hold, in my hands, this beautiful, delicate piece of paper. Okay, maybe to call this piece of paper “beautiful” is an exaggeration, but I imagine that it may be a little like being a new father: everyone looks at the newborn babe, and thinks, “what a slimy, little, egg-headed alien of a creature,” and the father’s eyes and heart grow to be the size of Mount Everest at the sight of the most beautiful thing he feels that he has ever seen.  I wanted to shout in the terminal – a shout of accomplishment, determination, and fear and mourning. The universe was changing in each moment, but all the passersby simply continued with their business trips, served their patrons, fed their children, and so-on. What a strange world this can be.

My first days and weeks here were spent relatively isolated, away from sociable desis, apart from other students. I spent my time studying and meditating, not even so much as emailing friends and family back home, so as to not reveal any of my anxiety. Finding edible food proved difficult, but I managed to choke down enough of what some Americans describe as “food products” to not look completely emaciated. This life has been, for me, a strange departure.

The air is different here; even the sun isn’t really the same. The well-paved streets, with their British-sounding names; the people, so many of whom speak in dialects only heard in rare films; even the dishware – it’s all some contorted version of what has always seemed to have been the real thing. And that’s fine, but sometimes, the comfort of experiencing something that you know, and take joy in, can feel very warm and reassuring.

So eventually, I began to spend my mornings walking about town, hoping to find a cup of tea that didn’t leave me wishing for the sight of Suresh’s copper kettle. His tea, admittedly, is at least slightly different from the other chaiwalas’. My mother, with the sort of smile that seems to force one’s eyes unusable, would say that I “only like something if the other children don’t.” Suresh’s tea was slightly sweeter, though subtly. The combination of spices was designed to surprise you without overwhelming you, I always thought. So many American chai-producers seem to make a watered-down cup that contains a misplaced combination of spices, instead of the brand of tea that shows the proper reverence for cream and cardamom that everyone knows to be so vital to a good cup of masala chai.

One morning, I walked farther than I yet had, determined to taste a tea that would make me smell the ocean, that would inspire thoughts of M. S. Dhoni successfully swinging his bat, and that would conjure up images of all those beloved faces that I had so been missing.

I turned off Main, and found a cafe awakening with the sun; inside, a mild vibration of workers and patrons brewing up some hope of promise. In my slight accent, I asked the bleary-eyed young lady at the counter for a cup of chai, and she told me what I needed to pay. She handed my cup to me, and I found a couch to rest in, as I waited for the tea to cool some. It smelled of cardamom and not completely unlike Suresh’s mysterious spices.

As I pressed the ceramic mug to my lips, the tea slowly drained into my mouth. Overcome with relief, I drank too much, too fast. My tongue was burned, but I smiled, anyway, with eyes open wide.

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