Growing up watching older cousins go to the US to pursue graduate studies, I never doubted that I would do the same. Despite my conservative tam brahm upbringing (never slept at a friend’s house, never stayed out past 6 pm unless someone accompanied me back home, never went on overnight “excursion” trips in school), I had no second thoughts about what traveling thousands of miles away from everything I knew and living in a foreign land would entail. If my parents had any qualms, they kept it to themselves and focused on helping their daughter follow her academic dreams. I pooh-poohed older relatives who suggested that I wait a few years, get married and accompany the husband abroad, and insisted that I intended to make it on my own.
And so, on September 2, 1994, armed with two suitcases filled with what I imagined were essentials, I boarded the Air India flight to Newfoundland, Canada – a mere stone’s throw away from the North Pole. Or so it felt during most months of the year. The “essentials” in the suitcases were a story of their own – several bulky sweaters and thermal pants from Joonus Sait (in those days, you couldn’t leave Chennai to live abroad without a trip to JS first), a Prestige pressure cooker (with the whistle, of course), kilos of white rice, all types of paruppu, molaga podi, thenga podi, paruppu podi, assorted batchanams made by Amma and Patti, and my favorite stuffed animal, Butterscotch. What was a 21 year old doing with a stuffed animal, you ask? Hmmm… what can I say? Those were simpler times. 🙂
Watching Amma, Appa, and V (my sis) wave goodbye at the airport, it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks. A sinking feeling started in the pit of my stomach, and stayed with me for several days, if not weeks after. I sat teary-eyed in that crowded plane waiting for it to take off and felt more lonely than ever before in my entire life. When the plane briefly stopped in New Delhi, it was all I could do to keep myself from jumping off the plane and running back home (dramatically, like in the climax scene in hindi movies).
I reached St. John’s, Newfoundland more than 24 hours later and was glad to see the friendly faces from the Students’ Association that came to receive me at the airport. I was amazed and impressed that they readily found me amidst all the people getting off the plane. Not realizing then that it was not every day that single Indian women made their way to that far corner of the world for higher studies – so, in fact, I would have been as easy to spot as a polar bear at Miami Beach.
I stayed for a week with Mr. and Mrs. P and their children. Mr. P was a researcher in the Engineering Department of the University, and they very kindly offered to host me for as long as it took me to get settled in. It was the first time that I encountered the kindness and generosity of strangers in a very personal way. Not that I thought about it in those terms back then (hey, I told you they were simpler times!).
Trying to find my preferred type of room-mates (why, Indian women, of course!), I learnt that all the women in my program had in fact taken the advice of my older relatives, and had arrived at the Arctic Circle married. In sheer despair, I considering asking Mr. and Mrs. P if I could stay on with them as a “paying guest”. Mrs. P’s puliyodharai was considerable temptation as well (but, thank goodness, I didn’t act on such ideas!). I finally moved into an on-campus apartment with three Canadian undergraduate students, who I am sure collected enough stories about their quirky Indian room-mate to entertain their friends for years with.
To be continued…