It was shortly after my 8th birthday that I got on a plane for the first time. I distinctly remember clutching my teddy bear with one hand and clinging to my mother with the other. I was about to fly alone. I couldn’t understand why she wanted to put me through that. I remember both of us crying as I went up the escalator, frightfully holding on to the air hostess for dear life. This is my first memory of an airport. High ceilings, giant people, deafening commotion, chaos and people gliding around with their fancy, wheeled suitcases (I was carrying an old duffel bag). I was simultaneously fascinated and scared.
Fast forward 18 years and I love airports. I love the thrill of boarding a flight and eagerly waiting for the wheels to lift off the ground. But I’m still fascinated and I’m still a little scared. Fascinated, by this building that’s brimming with emotion. Frantic phone calls followed by sprints to the check-in counter, joyous reunions with more PDA than you’ll ever see in India, little children talking to their own reflections on shiny surfaces below the check-in counters, and the heart-wrenching, teary-eyed goodbyes. I’ve been all of these people (yes, I speak to my reflection sometimes), except until now, I’d never had to say a tearful goodbye.
It’s a disconcerting feeling, having to stand on one side of the glass with your life squeezed into 3 bags, while everyone you love is on the other. Suddenly, the airport is that scary place again. Suddenly, I’m the 8 year old who doesn’t want to let go. I have more than half a mind to turn back and run into my mother’s arms… but I don’t. I move along and turn back to see little blurry little blobs still frantically waving, trying to catch a glimpse of me. When I’m finally in my seat, and those wheels are off the ground, in my heart I am frantically waving at the city I called home for 25 years and surprisingly, for the first time, I marvel at how beautiful it looks from above. I recognise the hill that I rode up to at 3 AM one morning and got chased away by priests, the stadium where I ran my first and only race, and the mazy Chennai roads that I know like the back of my hand. The smaller the city gets below me, the larger the reality gets. I carry the essence of home with me now, in the small map of Chennai above my bed, in the masalas and podis, in the one Sari that I own and in the big nose stud that screams ‘Chennai Ponnu’.
I try hard to fight back tears every time I think of the ones waving at me in the airport and the life that’s moving on without me there. Sitting over a 7000 miles away, I can’t wait for the time I fly back into that same airport to join them on the other side of the glass, with smiles, gifts and films to my name. It’s only a matter of time.