I was nauseous the bleak January day I landed in America. Nauseous, not because America had a smell to it the way India or Hong Kong or Paris or Dar-es-Salaam has when you first get off the plane. For someone flying in from India–which always smells of a bottled-up mix of powdered sandalwood and phenyl, and curried potato and curdling milk, and jasmine garlands and human feces–America is appallingly sterile.
A lack of smell can also make you nauseous in the way that eating mud can make you gag. But the root of my nausea lay in Singapore Airlines lying about its food on economy class. The Hindu Vegetarian menu card that my attendant waved at me promised a mildly spiced lentil patty dusted with cumin powder and fresh coriander. It read like a menu announcement at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, missing only details such as the corkage fee for wine. What I got, instead, at thirty-three thousand feet above sea-level where I had no way to walk out on my meal, was a concrete cannon ball deep fried in aviation fuel which I couldn’t cut with a steel fork or shove past my epiglottis.
Then I soaked in the stale cabin air of Hindu Vegetarian-ness and Western Chicken-ness amid the echoes of wailing babies and the rattle of old parents who opened their pungent packets of homemade Indian food just when I was about to drift off to sleep. When the cabin stopped reeking of food, it trembled with the odor of pee, the way long-haul airplanes smell vaguely of pee almost all the time, because they carry so much of it in their underbellies, just like toddlers with succulent diapers.
“Just where are all the people of this country?” I wondered, wobbling out of customs at San Francisco International with two mammoth suitcases. Seconds later, my eyes were blinded by a flash of white light. My husband had arrived to meet me at the airport as expected, camera in hand.
After twenty-six years of life with him–during which time he has lost many cameras, one of which is probably still waiting for him on a rusting bench in Paris–I’ve come to terms with how he doesn’t even go to the bathroom without a camera dangling from his neck. He spends his leisure cataloguing photographs of the pre-digital era. The subjects of the photographs are, in many cases, now gone into the afterlife. Still, he diligently tags them on Facebook as if our reincarnating Hindu gods really care about our Internet avatars as they prepare us for rebirth.
My jetlagged self was sucked into a vortex of hugs and kisses. My husband recovered speedily, however, reminding himself that he had to record the moment on his camera, and making sure I posed for him a couple more times at the airport lounge. I looked around us, for the first time, anesthetized by the clinical environs of an American airport. A whole jumbo jet had landed. But I could count the people at San Francisco’s arrival lounge with my fingers and my toes.
In contrast, when you land at any airport in India, the whole town comes out to greet you. People line every inch of the exit space and gawk at you without blinking an eyelid, taking you in from head to toe and whispering to their neighbors about you. Young men might say “Welcome, sishtar!” or “Nice lady, like Frieda Pinto!” as you walk past. But the day I landed in America, nobody, nobody but my husband, looked my way.
I felt neglected. I was, like my father might say in Tamil, a mootapoochi, a minor, measly bed bug that left no stain on the world. If people did see my puny brown self, they seemed to dust me off with a flick of their fingers. This was my first shocking impression of what would signify my future in the United States of America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where no one would genuinely care about who or what I was or what I did as long as I carried my driver’s license, renewed my automobile registration, paid my taxes, didn’t kill anyone and didn’t line-dry my clothes in my front yard.