Ram could barely see the gate on his ticket. He attempted to read the words but could not. A tightness in his chest began to spread all over his body, slowly stiffening his muscles, collapsing the walls of his chest. He stumbled through the Pearson Airport, past the families that surrounded him, oblivious to the disgruntled man whose suitcase he had knocked over.
At last he found himself outside of Gate D, the neon lights on the sign above spelling “Chennai, India.” From a distance he heard the nasally voice of the airhostess announce that boarding would take place in 20 minutes. He collapsed on the cushioned chair in the waiting area, feeling the air in his body slowly leak out, as if he were one of the deflated helium balloons that used to float around at his daughter’s birthday parties. He had brought nothing but a backpack and his passport. And so Ram sat, with his eyes cast downwards, unable to swallow.
Nineteen years ago, he had walked out of this very terminal, newly married with his wife, ready to start a new life in Toronto. He remembered the cold wind mercilessly slapping his face the moment he stepped out of the airport, a sharp contrast to the mix of warm air tinged with jasmine and petrol that had embraced him in Chennai as he waved goodbye to his mother and father, Krishnan, who had gripped him tightly. As he leaned forward for a rare hug, Ram caught a whiff of his father’s familiar scent of tobacco and paan. His mother Janaki wiped tears from her eyes, smudging her carefully outlined kajal. She handed him a box of soft cloudy idlies smeared with hand ground chilis to add just the right amount of spice to her dish. Her tired eyes hinted that she had not slept much to ensure that her son and her daughter-in-law were well fed during their long journey.
He had no such food with him now, nor did he feel like he could eat at all. As the passengers began to board, he absentmindedly held out his boarding pass for the air hostess to scan. He was too immersed in his own thoughts to notice the look of concern she gave him, too preoccupied to wipe away the viscous snot that had now reached his lips. His phone vibrated in his back pocket, and he trembled as he pressed the home screen, unsure of the news he would hear.
“On the flight? He’s still critical. Will text you more news. Amma is there.”
He felt the invisible hand pressing upon his chest again.
He boarded the plane, blindly walking down the aisle until he mechanically pulled himself into the window seat, gazing at the runway before him. As the plane took off, he watched as skyscrapers became figurines in the distance. The cars on the 401 resembled the small beetles he used to pull out of his daughter’s hair during their picnics at Hyde Park.
When he had first arrived in the late ‘80s, there had been fewer cars, less traffic, larger expanses of empty land. His apartment was much smaller than it had been in India. There was no watchman, no help around the house, and the kitchen smelt stale. Gone were the delectable scents wafting from the hot tomato rasam his mother made, garnished with cilantro and cumin. There was no sound in the apartment, no clattering of dishes, no shouting matches between neighbors, no guests arriving unannounced at the doorstep. It was clean, sanitized, silent–this land of ice and snow.
And he had been aware of himself in a way he had not been before; he had never felt his skin suffocating him in this way. He could feel the gaze of his neighbors on him when he walked out of the building each day. It was a feeling that clung to him, damp and unspoken. On some days he scrubbed his skin extra hard, hoping that the intensity of its color would fade. That somehow, the water would turn a soapy brown and trickle down the drain, out of sight.
Even now it was painful to recall the past. He felt his face contort as he remembered the day his wife had come home, her cheeks sunken, eyes empty. Shree had earned a degree in mathematics from the Indian Institute of Technology, one of the most rigorous schools in the world. Yet at dinner, she did not touch the rice she had carefully boiled.
“What’s wrong?” he asked her.
She turned away and began to shake.
“A man from work, followed me out of the parking lot and spit on me. He spit–“
Her strong, warm voice broke off, revealing a fragility he had never before heard. Her cries had seeped under his skin, making him shiver and wonder if it had all been a mistake. For the first time in 23 years, he felt unsure.
“Any juice or water?” the air hostess asked, interrupting his thoughts. He could barely speak in response, managing to shake his head. She looked at him in concern. He could not meet her eyes. She briefly left and came back down the aisle with a box of tissues.
“It’s going to be okay,” she said.
The tears fell down more freely, now that he had given up pretense. They were flying over the Atlantic now, had almost reached England. And yet, there were still thousands of miles left. His leg had been tapping the floor of the plane like clockwork, and with a jolt, Ram realized he had not gone to the washroom in hours. He slowly got up from his seat and made his way down the aisle. The plane was immensely long and wide, seating over 300 people. He reached the left wing where there was a long line for the bathroom. In front him was a small and slender woman carrying a tiny baby. “Kutti kanna,” crooned her husband, as he attempted to cajole the same baby. Ram smiled to himself. It was a Tamil term of endearment that his mother used to call him and then his daughter.
It was the birth of Ananya, two years after they had arrived in Toronto, that had begun to make the city feel more like home. Perhaps it was the firmness with which she claimed being Canadian. This land, and no other land, was her home. Every morning he would leave his apartment at Queen’s Quay, with Ananya and Krishnan, who would visit every summer. They would walk her along the narrow shores of the Harbourfront, staring at the boats in the distance. He would watch as his father and Ananya threw bread crumbs to the geese, her gleeful smile revealing the only two teeth she had. His father had loved these morning walks, their grocery shopping escapades at the Rabba. Every weekend, his family would head to Gerrard Street to enjoy Indian food, admiring the row of shops that reminded them of home. They became friends with Gurmeet, a man who had just immigrated from Punjab and made naans that melted in their mouths. Today, he owned one of the largest restaurants in the city and would never let them pay.
He heard the clatter of a trolley coming down the aisle. “Vegetarian meal?” the air hostess asked. He nodded, as a hot steaming tray of dosas and chutney were presented in front of him. In a few hours, they landed in Europe—a brief layover. Ram leapt out of his seat, impatiently watching the people in front of him slowly file out of the flight. The minute he stepped into the airport, his phone buzzed, with a new text from Shree.
“Picked up Ananya from tennis practice. We are doing okay. It doesn’t look too good for Appa. Waiting for more news. I will text you.”
There was salt everywhere. It stung his face, prickled his tongue, burned until he could not keep his eyes open any longer. He thought of his father, his sharp, large spectacles and throaty laugh. The graceful and proud way in which he walked. His extraordinarily large ears and long slender legs. The thought of him alone, in a sterile hospital bed. Away from his grandchildren, his sons, his daughter.
A few hours later, back in the plane, he sat strapped within his seat. They had crossed Yemen and Oman, then Afghanistan. He felt a pulsing pain from the seat cover digging into his knee and realized he had been immobile for the past three hours. He was in limbo—caught between continents and cities, oceans and land, while his father lay on a hospital bed caught between life and death.
“Good evening, everyone, we are making our descent into Chennai, India. We hope you had a pleasant journey.” The plane landed, its wheels colliding with Chennai soil.
As he sprinted out of Chennai International Airport, he felt the warm breeze envelop him, the familiar flowery scent intermingled with gasoline, the noise and the chatter. And deep within him, a large knot that had grown tighter as the years had gone by, untangled. His lungs expanded, breathing the salty air blowing from the Bay of Bengal.
“Auto!” he yelled.
A rickshaw driver pulled up in front of him.
“எங்கே” the driver asked.
“Apollo Hospital,” he said, then hesitated.
Eight hours had passed since he had last checked his phone. Ram took a deep breath. The screen lit up, and there was a text from his wife.
A soft voice could be heard from the back of the Auto, so soft that the Rickshaw driver almost missed it.
I changed my mind. Luz, Mylapore. Take me home.