“Ira! Kemon acho? Are you here for a holiday?”
The familiar voice broke Ira’s thoughts. Which wasn’t such a bad thing really, she thought. “Hello, Uncle,” she replied while she watched the old neighbour inspect her from head to toe. No sindoor. No bangle. Clad in capris and a tee shirt. He had his answer. Ira opened her mouth to ask him if something was wrong, but stopped herself. Her mother had warned her. “You know how people are here. Your business is everybody’s business.” She was right. Ira had chosen to come back. So she had to get used to it. After allowing the Uncle another thirty seconds of staring time, Ira continued her journey.
It had just been two weeks and she was going crazy. In New York, she barely spent five hours a day at home. Kolkata was like another planet. Everything was just the way she had left it five years ago. The same medium-sized malls. The same sleepy neighbourhood shop owners. Hideous traffic on every street and in every narrow lane. And of course, the same nosy people. Ira hated Kolkata. She grew up telling her parents that she didn’t understand why anybody would live in such a lazy, boring city. But she changed her mind.
When Ira had received the offer letter from Princeton, she had cried the house down with ecstatic tears and shrieks. Her dream had come true. It wasn’t about Princeton as much as the whole prospect of being able to live life in America. She had never stepped out of India before. Family holidays had never been beyond Rajasthan or Agra. Her parents were happy for her. The day the letter came, Ira’s father spent the whole day on the phone calling friends and relatives to share the news. Or rather, to boast about his daughter going to the land of opportunity. “Prabirda, our Ira is going to Princeton. Ivy League!” Even her usually reserved mother couldn’t control her delight. She called each one of her sisters and boasted, “My Ira is the first one in our family to go to America!”
So one humid August evening, Ira left Calcutta. Her father had wanted to accompany her but Ira refused to let him. She was a big girl. And besides, “America is safe.”
Ira spent the flight tracking the plane’s path on the TV map. She slept in bouts. Her mother had packed two boxes of her favourite sweet into her carryon luggage. She ate a few and surprised herself by getting teary. Suddenly, it dawned on her. America was a whole day away from her parents. Ira realised that she was scared. For all these years she had wanted this. She had pictured herself in a world of intellectual people, fun friends, and good looking boyfriends. Would she fit in?
Ira did fit in. Her first year went by in a breeze. She got good grades. Her friends loved intellectual conversations. She even dated a classmate. The boyfriend was the best part for Ira. An American born and raised in the suburbs of New York City, when she was with Jason, her previous life in Kolkata seemed nonexistent. They talked. They ate together. They studied in the library. Ira was having fun. Her friends tried to understand why she wouldn’t sleep with Jason even though they’d been together for four months. She explained, “I will sleep with the man who’s The One.” They looked back with a mixture of wonder and disapproval.
Ira went home that summer. She dreaded the idea of spending three months doing nothing, so her father spoke to a friend and organised an internship for her. Ira spent time with her mother when she wasn’t at her internship. “Why aren’t you meeting your school friends,” her father asked. “Baba, I live far away now. They live here. We have nothing in common.” Her father looked like he didn’t understand.
When Ira went back to Princeton, Jason acted like they had never been dating. He was friendly, but that’s all. Ira couldn’t believe that this was the same guy she had been spending all day with and making out with a few months ago. “Is something wrong?” she asked him with tears in her eyes. He told her that he had been dating somebody else during the summer and was now “serious” about her. “Weren’t we serious,” Ira shouted. Jason and Ira never spoke after that. Ira had to find new friends. The old ones drove her away with their constant rebuke that Ira should have slept with Jason. They blamed her.
The next three years saw Ira change drastically. The experience with Jason had scarred her for life. She threw herself into her text books and lectures. If she had any free time, it would be spent watching second hand DVDs bought online. She even found a job in the campus computer centre, managing the front desk for a few hours every week. Whenever she ran into Jason, she would walk by as if she didn’t even know him. He had tried to say hi a few times as if nothing had happened.
When Ira graduated from Princeton, her parents couldn’t come. It was expensive and her grandmother fell ill that year. She just wanted to get out of Princeton and build a new life away from Jason and his friends. She needed to get away from where it all happened.
After a month in Kolkata when she stayed home and contemplated about life, Ira returned to America. She stayed with a distant cousin in New York City and landed a job with a magazine. Her relative helped her find a tiny closet called an apartment. Ira cried as she signed the lease. It was as small as her bathroom in Kolkata. The only plus was a very sweet, very good looking Indian guy next door. He helped her shove her furniture (read: bed) inside on moving day.
The sweet guy’s name was Vinod. He was from California. Suddenly, Ira loved talking to this Indian guy with an American accent. She had shunned men and human beings really after the Jason episode, but Vinod seemed different. The romance bloomed rapidly, thanks to them living on the same floor. Every evening after work, Ira would take a shower and call him to say she was home. He would come over and help her cook dinner. Then they would eat and talk about their day just like married couples. Ira was in love. In three weeks she decided that Vinod was The One.
Five months flew by and Ira had to take her first work-related trip to the other side of the continent. She wasn’t excited about an all expenses paid conference trip to Southern California. Vinod would be far away for four long days! “I’ll tell them I can’t go,” she told him, hoping he would say yes. “You can’t do that, Ira. It’s just four days,” he replied matter-of-factly. He didn’t say he would miss her. She told him she would miss him. He touched her hair lightly and smiled.
Ira did go to California for the conference. She spent every free moment thinking about Vinod. When she tried to call him in the evening, he didn’t pick up. When he didn’t pick up or call back on the second night, Ira went crazy with worry. Had somebody mugged him and beaten him up badly? Was he ill? She left the conference a day before it ended, paying a few hundred extra for last-minute plane tickets.
When she reached New York, she took a cab to her apartment, still calling him all the way home. One hour later, she was home. She entered the flat and found her bed in a mess and the bathroom dirty. “This isn’t like Vinod,” she thought. She heard the key in the lock. It was Vinod. He was carrying cleaning supplies for the bathroom. “Oh, I thought I’d clean the…”, he stuttered. He didn’t ask Ira why she was back early. She saw Jason and Vinod floating in front of her eyes. “Why aren’t you picking up my calls!” she shouted, tears dropping down to her pretty pink blouse. He said he was bored. He said he thought that they should see other people for a while.
That night, Ira was back at the airport again. This time, she had the two suitcases she had brought to America when she first came. She had called her landlord and given up the flat. Tickets to Kolkata were booked from her BlackBerry. She was finally going home.
Ira continued walking. She stopped at the Café Coffee Day. She ordered a strawberry iced tea and a paneer tikka sandwich. Fusion food in Kolkata made her smile today. A few months ago, she would have turned up her nose at it. Ira started to type the article that she would be sending to a woman’s magazine. It was about winter skin care, something that she had never given much thought to until her cousin asked her to write this.
Sipping on her tea, she realised that she was enjoying the laidback Kolkata culture. The café guys were watching the cricket match. The rickshawwallahs nearby were snoring away. She was sitting with no worries about deadlines, paying rent or men. Life was good.
“Hi, Ira?” Her thoughts were interrupted by a voice that she hadn’t heard in five years. It was Ashok, her first major childhood crush. Her mother had mentioned that Ashok still lived in Kolkata and near their house. If it had been weeks ago, Ashok’s local accent would have put her off. Today, she only saw what she hadn’t seen before of her hometown.
Ira and Ashok spent an hour chatting about their childhood. He even remembered the time that she had played the Raja in a play during Durga Puja! After they finished chatting, Ashok smiled warmly and said it was nice talking to her. He didn’t give her his phone number or ask for her’s. He didn’t say they should meet again. It was all so simple. Ira walked home feeling like she had never left Kolkata for even a day.