I have wanted to write this down since a long time. Every now and then, when I count my blessings, I feel the urge to write about them. But right now, when it is two years since I moved to an altogether different country, thousands of miles away from home in every sense of the word, I think it is the perfect time to pause and put into words, my reflections on how each member of my family has coped with the reality of my absence in their immediate vicinity.
Mom : Don’t forget, your residence permit appointment is on Feb 7
During those final weeks before I left, Mom was the only one who was able to clearly articulate what it was that worried her. The others all had vague apprehensions about the whole concept. Mom knew I am not the most put-together person yet. She knew I was lazy and slacked off over chores, let routine things rot till the last moment before I took action. She knew I misplaced important things. She knew I was absent minded about crucial elements related to daily existence, because work took up most of my mental space. So, she had developed meticulous theories, rich with intricate details, of different ways in which my course of life in a foreign country could break down. I might not get the paperwork done, because I was a champion in procrastinating on the boring tasks. I might not go grocery shopping if the supermarket was far away, or if I had to climb too many flights of stairs to get to my home with heavy shopping bags. Or maybe, I would realise too late that I have to go grocery shopping and end up hungry.
So, a couple of months into my arrival here, when I told her that the International Office at my institute had procured for me, an appointment on February 7th (2019) with the foreign office here, to submit my papers for a Residence Permit in Germany, she noted the date carefully. I received prompt reminders nearing the date, from several thousand miles away, to prepare the documents and turn up in the foreign office with all of them intact.
Life took off. Soon I was the adult who had to pay bills in order to exist! I was receiving letters from all the boring places in the world : my bank, my Internet service provider, the “Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlichrechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland” a.k.a ARD, the heating and electricity provider, sometimes the University etc etc. They were all in German, and after spending the initial months painfully translating each letter, I cracked open the case. Not all of them need my attention, not all of them solicited an action from me. Often the bank just sent me letters because it cares for me. Or something like that. So I began to open a letter that arrived, and quickly scan for the Euro (€) symbol. If the letter contained one, it meant I would either be required to pay some money or I will be receiving some. Then I would fetch the Translator app on my phone. In a nutshell, I had posts coming to me all the time, and once when I was opening my letter box, I commented to Mom who was on the phone, “there are only bills and such in my post box these days.” She noted this carefully too. Few weeks later, when I opened my post box with the indifference which had become a part of the process, I was pleasantly surprised to find a cover, addressed to me in Mom’s handwriting. Apparently, in an attempt to brighten up my letter box, Mom had returned to the habit of writing letters, something she once upon a time did very often, and from several thousand miles away, in the year Twenty Thousand Nineteen, had sent an actual handwritten letter to me! Two pages, front and back filled with anecdotes from back home. A beautiful act of love from a beautiful woman.
Dad: By the way, do you need money?
Dad has been the one who took me places, to get things done. To exam centres that happened to be Kochi, Bangalore or even his favourite Bhopal, to college at the beginning of new semesters, to Research Institutes in Kolkata or Pune where I would work on Summer Projects, to Interviews in Trivandrum. He would sit across me and quietly have his Masala Dosa and Coffee in the Restaurant for breakfast while I fretted over an upcoming test, nibbling on mine. Later that day we would enjoy a Biriyani for lunch to celebrate the conclusion of the affair, regardless of whether it went great or down the drain. He would pat his shirt pocket once, before taking out the money, when, in the railway station book store, I chose the book I want to indulge in on my train journey back home (Stories of Anton Chekhov from Kochi to Calicut, Five Point Someone from Bhopal to Calicut, to name a few). He always brought along his current read. He mingled and made friends with the other Dads who waited outside the exam halls as their fellow wards gave the exam inside. He walked with me in Cubbon Park and had omelette and tea in the Laurie Baker Indian Coffee House in Trivandrum. He rid with me in the Yellow Taxis of Kolkata and the KSRTC bus from Angamaly to CUSAT, or the AKM bus from Mangalore to Surathkal. The deal with internships was different; after tucking me into a new city, when the time came for him to leave, I would wrench with a very specific variety of heartache as I pulled myself away from the gate into my new room. Every time.
Never before had he listened to me when I said, ‘I’ll handle it.’ It isn’t because he deems me incapable of doing things on my own, it is his fun to come along. When I put myself in his shoes, I can distinctly visualize what he must be seeing; a three or four year old version of me, with chubby cheeks, in tiny blue jeans and a white T-shirt with ‘No.10’ written across it in yellow, tagging along a huge red American Tourister that can very well accommodate me if it wanted to. There is no second thought to it, the tickets were always booked for Ashok. S and Anjana Ashok. Except to Germany.
Not that he didn’t want to. Not that he didn’t consider the idea. This time around though, it was not decided in ‘Suo Moto’ style. He put the plan to discussion. Clearly he saw this as an altogether different ordeal. Was it the distance that distinguished this one? Was it the fact that his accompanying me would call for a whole other bunch of paperwork to take care of, apart from what I was already drowning in? Whatever the reason, he listened to me when I convinced him that it would be better if I took care of this on my own.
Dad’s primary curiosity about my life here is regarding the cold. Obviously not during the summer. But the minute in Autumn, the temperatures dip below twenty degree Celsius, he begins to obsess about how am keeping myself warm. It’s as if, when several thousand miles away, the harsh Winter of North Germany begins to tantalise me, he senses it as if on his own skin.
Initially, for several months, at the end of every phone call, he would ask me if I needed money. My Ph.D stipend supports me, and I can afford to give myself a pretty decent life here. This was always known, to everyone. No one else asks me if I need money. Except Dad. Every time, in a bid to accentuate my new found adulthood, I proudly mention a bill I paid on time, or, to show off my having successfully infused into the system, I complain about the angry letters in German because of some deadline I had missed, Dad promptly asks, ‘Do you need money?’, instantly reducing me to the four year old in the tiny Jeans and White T-shirt with ‘No.10’ written across it. All over again. 🙂
(… to continue)