Now, as I scribble these lines in a café in Palmerston North, I can picture that sublime landscape; I can see it vividly in my mind, and I know I have to go back. So much feels unfinished; so many things I intended to do I've left undone. When I got out of hospital I brought my flights forward; I chose to leave India early because I didn't want to risk another run-in with bad food or poisonous water so soon after a serious gut infection. I wanted to return to a place where I could recover easily, and although India captivated me, it can wear a body down. I needed time to focus what little energy I had on rebuilding my strength and regaining lost weight so I'd have at least a little in reserve if I had a relapse or suffered some other illness. I tell myself this, but now I'd gladly have run that risk for the sake of an extra three weeks in India. I can't believe I willingly chose to leave early.
But, as I recover in Green Park, I don't have the benefit of hindsight, and I bring the flights forward as far as I can afford. I leave Leh early in the morning and fly to Delhi and later in the day catch up with a friend, too briefly and for the last time. When the time finally comes, though, at least this last journey in India must be the most appropriate of all: sitting in the back seat of an ancient Ambassador that keeps stalling at the worst possible moments in the mad traffic of late night Delhi. But the driver, with his short-cropped, orange tinted hair and confident smile, has the car's temperamental engine under control and I relax, trusting his competence.
He delivers me safely to the terminal. I smile and thank him, then turn and enter the limbo of the airport.
One of the things I've learned to expect about travelling in India is not to expect anything. Expecting a bus to leave on time, for example, is laughable; expecting it to leave late might be more reasonable but still not guaranteed. But the most unreliable expectations, I've learned, are expectations about emotions, and I don't know how I'll feel as I leave India.
So I've prepared myself for almost anything: loss, relief, grief, any emotion at all — or so I think. What I haven't expected and haven't prepared for is this emptiness, this near-complete lack of emotion. When the Airbus 330 rises into the Delhi night at almost 3 a.m., I feel numb. Perhaps I'm emotionally as well as physically exhausted, or maybe the enormity of leaving has overwhelmed my ability to deal with that knowledge. Maybe both. Maybe this is one of the stages of grief — the stage of disbelief and denial. I look out the window at the orange and yellow lights of Delhi as they shrink into the past, and I think of all the things happening down there, all the people I've met, all those lives carrying on; I think of everything that's happened over these last months, and for an instant the shock of leaving hits me hard, like a blow.
Then the numbness returns and mostly I feel empty, with just those glimpses of all I’m leaving behind — India’s chaotic energy and immediacy and rawness; its sophistication and subtlety, too; its otherness; its ability to delight and appal, sometimes simultaneously, as when I saw from the train to Bharatpur a family apparently living on the railway siding — despite their apparent lack of almost everything we’d consider essential, they sat talking and laughing, able to find at least a few moments of joy in the simple act of being together as a family. So much else, too — the abundance and diversity of birds, so many of which seem so comfortable and at home right in the thick of the human mêlée and noise and filth; the irresistibly cute palm squirrels; the gentleness and kindness that, while by no means universal, was common enough to be distinctly noticeable; above all, my friends, most of whom just a few months ago I’d never even known existed; all these things and more. These moments, when I truly comprehend, hit me like a punch to the heart.
A couple of weeks after returning, I visit friends for dinner. They’ve travelled overseas while I was on my journey, so talking with them lets us compare impressions, lessons, ideas. All evening the conversation centres on travelling and I’m struck by the way we don’t bore each other with this talk. I’m conscious of how travellers’ tales can be not merely uninteresting for one’s friends but can be actively off-putting. A friend whose travels make mine look like a stroll to the gate pointed this out; you visit friends after a significant journey, she said, and they’re not interested in hearing about it.
At first I wasn’t sure whether to agree or not, but this was her experience and her travels have been exceptional. Maybe mine have been more ordinary, or maybe I’ve been blessed with more tolerant friends, but this lack of interest hasn’t been as noticeable for me. Also, I’ve long been aware of the risk of annoying my friends with too much talk about my own travelling and have tried to suppress the urge to talk constantly about it. However, my friends naturally want to hear something about my journey; the difficulty, I find, isn’t avoiding the topic, it’s being aware of when I’ve talked too long and letting the subject drop.
The problem is that these kinds of conversations need some common ground, some shared experience, preferably recent, if they’re not to falter. Talking about marvellous experiences to someone who’s just spent the last four months slogging away at work risks leaving them feeling as if they have nothing to contribute, and can even make them envious. Fortunately for me, my friends not only have a great capacity for putting up with hearing me talk, but have also travelled extensively themselves — some in India — so they do share similar experiences.
My friend also pointed out something else about returning from travels: that your friends expect you to be the same person you were when you left. This is understandable. What's harder is to recognise the changes in yourself, and after three and a half months of travel, mostly in India, I wonder how I’ve changed. Maybe I need to ask my friends, although most haven’t yet seen enough of me to be able to comment accurately.
My guess is that I’m now much less certain of many things; I think I understand much less than I thought when I started the journey. Often I realise I don’t know what to think, and when someone asks me something, particularly about India, I’m unable to answer satisfactorily — I simply don’t know whether I believe my reply. I’m still trying to pin down my intuitions and feelings. Will I ever be able to manage that? I doubt it, but I did realise recently that a lot of people now seem to think I have some kind of intimate knowledge of India, or at least that I’m able to speak with some authority on what life’s like there. In truth, I don’t have that authority or expertise. I can relate what I saw; I can reflect on my short time in India; but those few months and my highly selective, narrow view count for very little. How long would I need to live in India before I began to acquire some authority? I don’t know, but I suspect it would be years, not mere months.
pipiwharauroa calls from the trees at the front of the terrace and the sound lifts my spirits, but even that call, which every spring delights me by turning my thoughts towards warmth and longer days, doesn't induce the intensity of feeling I experienced so often in India, and I begin to wonder whether one of India's primary gifts is the way it encourages — and sometimes forces — you to feel things, deeply and intensely. For me, the answer must be yes; emotions so often felt so close to the surface even long before I fell ill, and those feelings, usually wonderful and often evoked by even apparently insignificant encounters with people, animals, and places, seemed to arise from more than mere novelty. Here, though, back in Aotearoa, I feel terribly unmoved by things that should move me. I am numb, unable to respond.
But time, the saying goes, heals all wounds. While I don't consider myself wounded, I do trust time will heal whatever afflicts me.
So I wait for it to pass. I go for walks in the sun and wind and try to distract my thoughts by prowling for pictures, but I’ve lost the ability to see. My photographs stare back at me from the monitor, dull and dead and flawed beyond salvation.
I drive into town to be among other people; I write in cafés, spending too much on coffee, and read in the library, and buy more groceries than I need. None of the waitresses and checkout staff and others who knew me by sight notices I’ve been gone. Everything carries on the way it used to, but no one knows I’ve changed. No one says haven’t seen you in a while. I have not been missed.
I distract myself with work, and I realise my contract starts exactly one month after I left India. This seems significant, but I know it isn’t — it’s just a date. But everything has some kind of significance if I look for it — everything, that is, except me. I feel as if I no longer matter. I feel forgotten.
This confirms what I've finally realised — that the hardest aspect of returning has been the feeling of being forgotten. Someone returns from a place they loved and they say how much they miss it. I miss India, although it nearly killed me and despite the horrors and the pain of what I couldn't help but see, but I know I can return some day and that knowledge lets me come to terms with missing India.
No, missing India isn't what's hardest — what I struggle with most is the thought I'm not being missed by India.
So I wait for it to pass. Days turn to weeks; a month goes by. The starlings in the paddock carry on with their restless rapid foraging and I wonder how they manage to focus on just one thing, which is the raising of their young who squeal for food whenever I walk past. One day the nest stays silent but the spring wind still roars in the old poplars.
I wait for it to pass, trusting my resilience, and knowing time heals even the unwounded.
1. 'Talking about marvellous experiences...': In a stroke of synchronicity, I'd only been back a few days when I came across a recent paper that confirmed exactly this point. See: Cooney, G., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2014). The unforeseen costs of extraordinary experience. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797614551372 [Paywalled; abstract here]
2. 'Love is most nearly itself...': T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets: East Coker.
3. '...the thought I'm not being missed by India...': Apparently, being forgotten is worse than being ostracised. See: King, L. A., & Geise, A. C. (2011). Being forgotten: Implications for the experience of meaning in life. Journal of Social Psychology, 151(6), 696–709.
1. Main bazaar, Pahar Ganj, New Delhi.
2. The Indus valley from above Leh.
3. Palm squirrel at the Hauz Khas complex in South Delhi.
4. These young guys at the Golden Temple in Amritsar saw me photographing and asked if I might photograph them. I obliged, they thanked me and immediately walked off.
5. In the old town, Leh.
6. Magpie, Rumbak valley, Ladakh.
7. Evening street, Dharamsala.
8. Dusk in the Pohangina valley, Aotearoa. The view from the back of my place, looking towards the southern Ruahine Range.