Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Not leaving in style

I am convinced my mother has been praying in the village Catholic church every week since I moved to Mumbai, asking God to get me to come home.
Not that she has anything against India, but she is my mother, and wanted me back.

When I left England, I kind of anticipated I would stay three years, with a back-up plan to stay longer, if I really fell in love with the place (or with any person), or less if I hated it. So, I did stay three years. My British friends had all placed various bets on how long I would stay at my London leaving party, so I guess one of them has, err won.

After umming and ahhing and changing my mind about whether to come back, or not, I finally decided to in July, against the advice of everyone in India, but matching the advice of my mother and several friends in England. The ousting of Labour, and David Cameron coming into power with the Lib Dems, kind of influenced my decision, as I was pretty sure England would get back on its feet with a new Government in place. That combined with missing my favourite supermarkets in England (read: Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury's) and the vast array of food products I can get here, as well as missing the advanced infrastructure in England, the NHS, ambulances, more comfortable trains, higher quality accommodation, drinkable tap water, more polite taxi drivers, more efficient police and overall  better quality of life, kind of spurred the decision on, with some divine intervention too, it seems.

I also felt I had given India what I could, at this stage of my life, written all the stories I wanted to, and India too had given me back what I had wanted - allowed me to experience its vast diverse self (read: cuisines, languge, tribes, religions, races), and taught me that the country has a rich culture and history that takes years to unravel, but that will always be unique and steadfast and from which the West can learn a lot.

The end of an era
I will miss the fantastic nightlife in Mumbai, the year-round T-shirt weather, my Indian friends, the great social life, endless parties, vast array of soft drinks, Indian dress, Indian food, the fantastic cinema-culture, Indian theatre, the cafe culture, the work-place culture (read: daily cakes) the beaches, the roof-top bars and so on..

But for me, it was time to move on to the next phase. There are hardened British expats in Mumbai, who will never leave...they often retain very negative impressions of England...I was not one of those...I feel as though it is more the Mumbai expats from London that feel they have 'little to return to' in England, whereas people from outside London, like me, tend to have better quality lives here and so there is ''a lot to return for."
However, when I had dreamt of leaving, I had imagined I would have several huge parties, and spend my last few days meeting friends, and going for walks in my favourite places, like Juhu beach. But it was not to be. I have noticed that every expat that leaves India  leaves disastrously and I kind of did too.

I had a few days off work before my final departure, and managed to come down with fever, vomiting and  diarrhoea. This seriously curtailed my ability to pack, or rather clear out my flat and I was reluctant to see a doctor, as I had had a few bad experiences, being ripped off. One Mumbai doctor, who is recommended by the British High Commission, had on a previous occasion, made me pay Rs 800 for an appointment, when every Indian who went to him paid Rs 300, and he did not diagnose me, or offer any medicine, and was plain rude. Another at a private hospital had told me to have Rs 10,000 of blood tests, which I did not do, as I felt it was unneccessary...(This is one good thing about the NHS as they are reluctant to make you have blood tests unless you really need them..In Mumbai it seems to be what every doctor wants you to do..they have lost the ability to diagnose you from your symptoms or using their gut instinct. This is prevalent in the US too where healthcare is privatised).

Anyway, luckily an Indian friend's dad who is a top notch doctor, diagnosed me on the phone without charge and I got the Orni-O drug that slowly cleared up the infection, but it heavily delayed my packing. While friends did not stop calling me, asking me to "meet them"I was faced with the prospect of clearing out my flat. Stupidly, I had not sent anything by freight. Bin liners piled up outside my flat and every day the recycling man came to collect them.  He paid me Rs100 to Rs 150 each time and took 10 to 20 bin liners of everything from newspapers to old clothes. I quite liked this system. In the UK you would have to pay for a skip to come to your house, or you would have to pay an extortionate fee to dump it at a landfill site. There in Mumbai, someone was paying me to take away my rubbish.

A world apart - that was Mumbai

I gave most kitchen items to my maid, as well as my TV. Other valuable items I gave to friends that wanted them. I cannot understand why expats hold sales of their items, when there are so many people you can give them to...Seems really selfish, especially after living in India, when watchmen and maids could make use of these items. I felt really glad that eveyrthing was going to a good use. The only problem was I had more items than even I realised..

I lost all in interest in having a leaving party, as I had bank accounts to close, bills to pay and kgs of stuff to sort through. Luckily a friend agreed to host a leaving party for me for close friends, which was very generous. Luckily none gave me a leaving present, as it would have ended up with the recycling man.

As D-Day grew close and I realised I had more items than even I realised and so on the day I was meant to be leaving my flat, I was surrounded by boxes and bin liners. My friend dropped round and nearly fainted. She tried to help me, but most of the work (sifting through stuff and working out what to throw, what to give away, and what to keep), only I could do. My landlord gave me an extra night to sort it all out...I stayed up all night...and just met the 8am deadline of handing over the keys, then shifted 100kgs to a hotel...

 So, my ideal leaving scenario of sipping cocktails on my last night overlooking Mumbai beach were dashed. I again stayed up all night, and ended up leaving tonnes of stuff in my room for the hotel staff.
Then utterly sleep-deprived with a friend, I shifted 60kgs to the airport. My plan? Hoping they wouldn't notice. But dressed in a raincoat and a fleece to  "lessen the luggage,"  they did.

Looking rather ridiculous, I was singled out straight away as someone over the luggage allowance before anyone weighed it. The airlines man even grabbed my hand luggage, which weighed 15kgs. "It's bad enough you have 60 kgs of check-in luggage but 15 gs of hand luggage when you are meant to have 7kgs takes the biscuit. Go and get rid of some," he said.

The line about leaving India after living here three years didn't wash; in fact it seemed to exacerbate his desire to charge me extra..So,.I shoved all my cat's toys into my raincoat pockets, handed a load of stuff to a friend outside the airport, then got stung with Rs 8,000 excess baggage (= £117)...

Feeling like shit, exhausted and drained, and upset to have left half my life in Mumbai, I ran to security as I was about to miss my flight..

As I boarded the aircraft, looking ridiculous in a raincaoat stuffed with toy catnip mice, and feeling very depressed, the airline official suddenly said: "You have been upgraded, máam." He then took a biro and changed my seat number. My final flight home was business class.
"I would have dressed differently, had I known, " I said, wiping the sweat off my face.
"What would you like to drink," I was asked after sitting down on my horizontal bed. "Dom Perignon,"I replied...I guess in the same way weddings never go as you fantasised, nor does leaving India.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Getting ready to leave India

Noone has ever written a book on when to stop being an expat and when to repatriate home. There is nothing documented on it anywhere (apart from one chat forum on one website - more later), but plenty has been written about how to 'become' an expat in the first place and leave the shores of rainy England for some hot aspirational land, such as Spain or Dubai. You can read up on how to pack your stuff, and adapt to a new culture, how to dress conservatively and fit in to your new work place, but nobody tells you when to leave or how to leave.....
So, when the idea entered my head of 'returning' to England after three years working as a journalist at Hindustan Times, I had noone to turn to, noone to discuss it with. I felt very isolated. My Indian friends all sounded horrified at the mere mention I might leave, and my expat friends rebuffed the idea, telling me I was crazy , citing statistics about the recession in the UK, reminding me how much I loved India, pointing out what a fascinating job I had, how many Mumbai friends I had, and so on...and informing me I would never find a job in the UK.But a seed of desire to return to England had been planted in me and it just grew and grew....I couldn't quite explain to anyone why I wanted to go back.
"You are going back to get married?" my Indian colleagues would say. Knowing that that would be a valid reason why they might repatriate home to India, I said "Yes" just to appease them. But it couldn't be further from the truth. If anything, I have ex's I am still very fond of here in Mumbai.
So, I surfed the Net, as I do for every dilemma in my life, in the hope the answeres would be found, but nothing on how and when to return to England came up, apart from one forum on one website, that I stumbled across that was dedicated to expats 'leaving' their respective countries. My eyes scanned it with hunger looking for a clue, any clue as to when is the right time to leave, does one set up a job in England before leaving, how easy is it to find a job from a foreign country in England, do employers like returned expats? How easy will it be to readjust to England now that I speak a semi Indian dialect of English, and street Hindi? The answers were barely there...Most people on this Forum were whinging Brits in Australia, who, it seemed, hated Australia and were fantasising about aspects of English society, of grocery items, or shops, that they missed, but were too scared to return as they had sold homes/emigrated to Oz 15 years ago, and so were using the forum to vent their frustrations and share their dilemmas. I was surprised as I have several friends who have emigrated to Oz from England, who love it...Anyway, the discovery that I wasn't the only expat in the world thinking of going home with no particular reason to, at least made me feel better....I have seen many expats come and go to India...Many leave suddenly, without any leaving party, some fall ill, others have problems in their job...I didn't want to be one of those..I wanted to leave in style. I wasn't sure if I should leave...In fact, everyone was telling me to stay....but destiny had its own plans....

Getting my cats out

I found her in a cardboard box in my Society building a week after I moved into my flat in Bandra. She
was a newly-born black and white kitten with two black and white siblings. There was no sign of a mother.

My cat as a newly born kitten living in the compound

At that time, I did not realise kittens were born to strays on every street corner of Mumbai, and thought it was unusual. I tried to call the SPCA (equiv of RSPCA) hoping they would send someone to rescue the kittens, but they only spoke Hindi and slammed the phone down; I told my watchmen - gesticulating in broken Hindi - but they just looked through me; I told the poor cleaning lady who collects rubbish and occasionally throws water over the communal floors - she spat on the ground. No one seemed interested. Finally an ugly brown cat that looked like it was full of worms turned up and the commnal cleaner told me this was the mother. I shoved her in the box, and rather disinterestedly she licked the kittens.

The mother cat fed her when she was a stray in the society

After I started feeding this worm-ridden hardened stray, she took more interest in the kittens, as she smartly linked food with hanging out with her offspring. This meant the kittens were at least getting breast milk. After two of the kittens died (one from worms, the other from being paralysed by a child in the Society who threw it in the air like a tennis ball when I made a short trip to London), I rescued the final one, and she moved into my apartment. I kept the door open to see if she wanted to go back to her mother. She didn't. That night the mother left the Society and never returned. In fact initially I thought I had rescued the kitten, but it soon became clear, as the loneliness of living by myself in a city like Mumbai, and having to navigate my way through the rather terrifying P 3 party scene, as well as make friends, took hold, that she had indeed rescued me. After some time she became my best friend, and was the thing/animal I would think of all day long and who I could not wait to see after work. In fact I used to phone my maid three times a day and ask her how my kitten was. (Had Sunday lunch with some family friends at the weekend, one of whom is a counsellor. He told me that it was common for people to 'project' feelings and value on to objects (eg photos and paintings) or animals, that to others had no value at all...and this reflected íssues the person was grappling with. So maybe, I projected a 'roommate' onto her, as that is what she became. Maybe, I should not have lived alone...)

My kitten plays with random items discarded in the compound

Anyway, she soon went on heat and got a boyfriend. The stray worm-ridden black tom cat would come up every night to see her. I fed him as well, afer all I had to be was her boyfriend after all. I planned to get her sterilised, but the vet went on holiday. I waited till he got back, but by that time she was pregnant. I had caught her having sex with the black stray on numerous occasions so it came as no surprise. After growing incredibly fat, and looking like she would never pop, she finally gave birth to three kittens one Easter Saturday. I found a home for one with an American expat, one died a few weeks after being paralaysed following a fall from the 6th floor, and one was left, so I kept the remaining kitten and mother, as they were able to keep each other company.

A year ago, I started thinking about what to do with the cats if I were to leave India...My vet said to me: "If you had two children and had to leave India, would you consider leaving them behind? No. Well, these cats are your children."

I was pretty sure anyway that, had I put up a poster saying: "Adult cats available for adoption", I would have had no response. In fact, once I sent an email to all the animal charities, saying "Cat wanted for adoption", (this was before the mother gave birth,  at a time that I wanted to get her a companion) and my phone did not stop ringing for three days, some people even turned up outside my apartment block with kittens in hand without an appointment. I did not take any as I was so freaked out by the overwhleming response .

From my various involvements with animal charities, and the animal hospital in Mumbai, I soon realised that they were all inundated with 'dumped unwanted pets.' I did not want to become another like that. If the cat I rescued and her daughter were to stay in India, they would have to have a good home. But there clearly is and was no demand for domestic shorthaired Indian cats (read: stray or as my Dad says feral cats) in Mumbai. The only pet people seemed to have in Maximum City were pedigree dogs. Cats were not kept as pets. So, I had to take on the vet's view, which was, regardless of the cost, I had to fly the cats to England, and then pay for them to go in quarantine for 6 months...if I ever left India

I had absolutely no idea what was required, but knew, that being India, it would be complex, and possibly impossible to fathom. And it was.

With no idea where to start, I took a cab to the air cargo complex at Mumbai airport a year ago, with a plan of visiting the airline offices inside who dealt with cargo. I wandered inside and was promptly jumped on by security and walked to a room, where I was searched. Then , since noone spoke English I was marched to the office of the head of cargo, or similar. An Indian bureacrat who staff referrred to rather over-politely as 'Sir' was inside. Papers were stacked everywhere and timid men queued outside to see him. I was taken straight inside. I explained to him that I had two Indian cats I may want to take out of the country. "These are Indian cats!" he bellowed. "You are not allowed to take India cats out of India." That seemed like an absurd statement to make, since if I did not take them with me, where would they go? Be put back on the streets? I made a mental note that, if anyone ever asked me I would not say the cats were Indian. After all, who was to know!

He then muttered on about how complex it was and apart from a million other things, that I would need to get clearance from a single doctor, based most conveninetly in Navi Mumbai, who didn't have a phone or address and was only open three days a week, and I couldn't make appointments with and who would only issue a certificate six days before the flight...without which the cats couldn't fly..It was more complex than getting a work permit or a passport it seemed... And that was only the beginning of the labyrinth awaiting me..

The stray kitten I rescued as an adult cat