All through airport security, I juggled my bags, my passport, boarding tickets, and a crumpled paper flower. Its orange crepe paper petals were jostled in my backpack but I couldn’t let them tear. The dark wire that held them together bent as my bags were tossed about by careless airline employees who just wanted to get some sleep before the sun came up. After three hours of security checks and crowded gates, I boarded the plane that would carry me away from this unforgettable chapter in my life. As the stewardess held up the sample life jacket and began her routine safety speech, I gently twirled my orange paper flower.
Today was my last day. As I walked up to the school, Shivam appears from out of nowhere. He hasn’t been coming the past week or so except to say hi so I was surprised he was here. Immediately he and Rajn greet me and ask, “Didi, last day?” Yes I answer. “Ok, come.” They lead me into the small dark classroom and Shivam pulls his drawing folder out of his backpack. All the kids gather round as we flip through his tracings of Disney movie characters. I mention something about Good Friday and Shivam looks up, interested. “Christian Holy Day?” Again, I answer yes. He pulls out a blank page and begins to draw. Slowly the figure on paper becomes recognizable: Santa Claus. When I ask, he eagerly replies “yes, Santa- your god!” Somehow I’m not at all surprised by the effects of commercial Christmas and capitalism, though I had to laugh.
Soon I realize I haven’t given the teachers the photo album I made for them yet so I walk over to the head teacher and hand it to her, hoping she won’t steal it and hide it away somewhere. Luckily she hands it back to me, giving me the opportunity to show the kids and other teachers their photos. Soon class begins and the kids all settle down to write their numbers. Afshar asked me for his pen. He had entrusted it to me for safe keeping the day before while the school was under siege from a troop of baboons. Not surprisingly, my Hindi vocabulary had no way sufficient way of explaining that in the midst of the baboon attack, I had lost his one and only pen. All I could do was offer him my favorite pen from home. Afshar scribbled something and Shivam joked that it looked like Urdu (the language spoken in Pakistan). Afshar then writes out something in Urdu at the kids’ request. I asked him to write my name and he did. Then Dinesh must have made some comment about Pakistan because Afshar reached for his throat and looked furious. The other kids called Sir-ji who started yelling at Dinesh. I didn’t know what he said but he was definitely defending Afshar and made gestures of a group inspiring unity, not prejudice. Dinesh was told to sit in a corner after that.
With Sir-ji nearby, the kids were pretty calm. We talked and played the paper game and drew helicopters, airplanes, and crocodiles. At 11:50 I asked if the kids would write me letters when I was back in the States. I gave them my address and phone number but I don’t know if they will ever contact me. Rishi gave me his phone number. When the car arrived, I went to say goodbye to the teachers. I signed the visitor’s log and as I stood up to go, Afshar and the other teachers appeared holding an orange paper flower. I felt like crying, all I could do was smile and say thank you. Driving back to Hauz Khas, I held back tears with a smile. Though I was looking out the window watching Delhi pass by, I saw nothing yet felt everything.
Suddenly I can’t remember what it’s like to be home, to drive down wide empty paved streets passing manicured lawns. I’ll miss the motorbikes, the rickshaws, the honking, the diseased cows, the dusty signs stacked on top of each other. I’ll miss the food that I never thought I’d like. Malai Kofta, Aloo Gohbi, Paneer Tikka, Tandoori, Fried toast in sugar syrup. I’ll miss the Nokia ringtone that is everywhere. I’ll miss the people and the life. I’ll miss India. But only for a while… I know I’ll come back to this chaotic, colorful, complex, and incredible place soon.