The Repatriation Saga of a Guwahatian
What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it. - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
21 June, 2020: The Taj, Dhaula Kuan. My ‘quarantine hotel’. In other words, my ‘jail’ for seven days. The price of being caught in the USA during the COVID-19 pandemic, and returning to the motherland in the middle of a spike in positive cases.
It is noon on the second day of my quarantine (or is this my first??). Quarantine is a strange word. It has entered my vocabulary quite recently, and already I’m struggling to pronounce the last syllable as ‘tye-in’. For some, the word translates into “a forced (and mostly annoying) experience of endless chores and close proximity with family”. That definition is waiting for me. But this week, the word means “jailed in luxury”. It also translates into “the time required to realign body and mind to one’s native country and culture after a considerable time abroad”.
22 June, 2020: Day 2. Or is it Day 3?? One day seems to melt into the other without preamble. But this is just the first phase of my adventure, an outcome of my arrival in India from the USA on a patriotically coined ‘Vande Bharat Mission repatriation’ flight on 20th June. I love the ring of that phrase. It conjures images of exciting and classified rescue missions drawn up on mysterious undercover maps and surreptitious plan. I wish the actual experience was as exciting, but I should be grateful that none of the horror stories shared by some other repatriated Indians on social media came true for me. San Francisco airport, my port of departure, was quietly efficient; the Indian Embassy and Air India staff courteous and quick.
At Delhi’s IGI Airport Terminal 3, things were surprisingly organized and structured too. The only exception was the desperate whine in the arrival officer’s voice as every new group of passengers half-walked, half-ran to her, jostling anxiously to grab the forms. Most of the other procedures happened quietly, and it was an eerie walk through Terminal 3, with no snaking queues at the immigration counters, and through plastic-shrouded Duty-Free liquor aisles and desolate fragrance counters.
Patience is not one of my virtues, but I tried to look as un-anxious as I could under the mask and Harley-Davidson-inspired visor that I had been wearing for the last 18 hours. My patience was severely tested in the smog-covered Delhi side-street when we were herded into non-airconditioned DTDC buses and I had to lift my two bulging suitcases into the bus, where sixty-odd pieces of luggage already choked its length and breadth. It was a miracle that we managed to get standing space.
Once our bus dropped us off at our hotel driveway and the bus conductor handed over our passports to the hotel staff, we half-pushed, half-pulled our motley collection of suitcases to the front porch of the hotel. And there waited an astronaut-type creature in a space suit, jet pump and container in hand, ready to douse our bags generously in sanitizing spray, leaving not an inch untouched. It took us a moment to realise that there was no concierge service. We rotated the bags to sanitize each inch, feeling like outcasts caught in some unreal drama.
On the porch of a desolate Taj, we signed a plain looking guest sheet on a plain looking table. Two masked executives handed over the room key with directions to carry our suitcases into the lobby, the elevator and the room. We dragged our bewilderment and our suitcases into the deserted corridors and quiet elevators and into our rooms. The elevators locked after us, and an astronaut-suited server appeared, whooshing and swishing nosily past, knocking on doors and leaving food trays on the chair outside every room.
23 June, 2020: Day 3, I think. I have stopped counting. The days as well as the number of phone calls from concerned and curious family and friends, checking in, relieved that I have returned after all, having spent more than ten months in California. I have spent the last two days updating them on my adventures as a repatriated and ‘rescued’ Indian national. I have eaten three large meals and binge-watched my Netflix series. The medical team arrives once a day to take our vitals. They check our temperature, our blood pressure, pulse and heart rate. If we test ‘normal’ at the end of the seven days, the District Magistrate will sign our departure form, our passports will be returned to us, and we will be ‘released’ from our palace tower. I’m trying hard not to catch a cold from the air-conditioned air. One cough or sneeze, and my immediate future will be sealed. I have decided I am going to stick to warm water and a stylish neck scarf. I can’t arouse suspicions by wearing a muffler when the medical team comes.
Today I requested two meals a day instead of three. I have to train my body for the 14-day home quarantine that awaits me at Guwahati, the second phase of my exciting repatriation journey. It will not be an easy transition from liveried luxury to ghor-xaara-musa-kapur-bason-randha-barha. Already I can feel the calories make themselves comfortable in the nooks and corners of my expanding waistline, and it doesn’t help to have no chores to burn them.
Four more days. And then I’ll be home. It’s been almost a year since I saw my boys. I’ve been warned in advance to avoid death by shock. I’ve been warned of ponytailed hair and unkempt beards and curling moustaches and lockdown-rounded cheeks and middles. I have issued my own set of warnings too. I have warned them of the inevitable “You know, in the US, we used to…” preface to every utterance that will escape my mouth.
As of now, I am counting my blessings. I have got a seven-day lease on my reorientation. An insulated space from which to look out at the India I adore while reminiscing about the America I miss. A time to reset my body clock and adjust to a post COVID-19 India. A time to prepare for teaching in virtual spaces in a land not fully equipped with the technology and pedagogy of online education. To walk the familiar krishnasura strewn streets of a beautiful university campus. To learn and relearn life and living.
I know, like King Solomon, “hoc quoque transibit”. This too shall pass. It always does.