Westward Bound by Kavitha

Blog post by Kavitha Narayan

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 tambrahm 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 traveling thousands of miles away from everything I knew (go figure!).  If Amma and Appa had any qualms, they kept it to themselves and focused on helping me follow my 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, ribbon pakodas, mullu thengozhal, pulikaachal, assorted batchanams made by Amma and Patti (can you tell that I am a foodie?).

Watching Amma, Appa, and my sister V 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 at the Delhi airport, 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 our tamil padams).

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 in Marina 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.   Trying to find my preferred type of room-mates (why, Indian girls, of course, preferably tamil ponnus), I learnt that all the women there (alas, none of them tamil-speaking) had in fact taken the advice of my older relatives, and arrived at the Arctic Circle married.  In sheer despair, I briefly considered begging Mr. and Mrs. P to stay on with them as a “paying guest”.  Mrs. P’s super yummy Andhra puliyodharai was considerable temptation as well.  But, held on to my dignity, and thankfully did not make a bid to take over their guestroom.

Finally, moved into an on-campus apartment with three Canadian undergraduate students.  Paavam, they did not know what they were signing up for.  Suffice to say that they did not need an alarm clock for the rest of the year, the trusted Prestige pressure cooker whistle woke them up every morning at 7 am sharp! 😉

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