On a dusty road in Chennai, India, I am being jostled around in an Uber when I noticed twinkle lights decorating a large building. The sight immediately transports me to chilly fall nights in the Blue Ridge Mountains with the promise of the holidays just around the corner. I breath clean air for a moment and have a cup of hot cider in my hands. Somewhere in the distance is Christmas music and the rip rip of wrapping paper. Smells of ham and cranberry chutney waft in from elsewhere and there is a sense that the world outside is snuggled under a thick blanket of snow. A soft light from the Christmas tree casts a warm glow on the faces of my mom, dad, and three brothers. It is as though my heart has just settled next to a crackling fire.
“Madam? Drop location. We are here.” I am disoriented for a moment. “Thank you, Anna” I say. Anna is Tamil for “brother”.
I open the car door to loud honking and oven-like heat. A thin elderly woman, whose smell precedes her, approaches me eagerly and signals for money by putting her hand to her mouth repeatedly. Sometimes I give. Sometimes I don’t. This time, I don’t even have the right cash so I shake my head and say sorry. The smell of food from a nearby vendor signals my stomach to growl. Maybe I’ll grab a dosa or samosas as an afternoon snack. Tonight I will have dinner at Auntie’s house so I needn’t eat too much. (Auntie is an affectionate, Indian salutation for an older lady who is a friend or relative.) Anyway, Auntie will want to pile food on my plate so I decide to pass on the snack. She says I’m too skinny.
Sweat begins push its way through my pores as I walk through the gate to my apartment. India is a land of contradictions. While one may gag at the smells that drift from the stagnant bodies of water buried under city bridges, he or she will be equally intoxicated by the spices and simmering food found in an Indian kitchen. A heart may break at the sight of children sleeping alone on sidewalks, but it will soar under the love and care of an Indian friend. And the sound of honking horns, calls to prayer, and clanging temple music may drive some mad, but such annoyances will never drown out the chorus of easy laughter and jovial conversation that can be found at Indian tea carts and during the course of any meal.
A smile emerges as I dodge a ball thrown by one of the boys playing in the courtyard. India is home; so is North Carolina. Both places seem familiar, but also delightfully divergent.
As I open the front door, one of my roommates shouts a “Hi!” and I hear the beginning to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” just starting through our bluetooth speaker. With a chuckle, I wonder how I could reconcile those lyrics. You can’t be in two places at once.