“Please put up your backrest, miss”
I was in the last row of seats before the washrooms with nobody sitting behind me. My seat was reclined by about two inches.
Nevertheless, I silently brought up my backrest to it’s original, leaning slightly forward position while the non-English speaking man next to me pretended to not understand as if he’d never flown on a plane before. His seat remained reclined the full five inches with his tray table down.
The South Korean steward moved forward through the rows of seats and Ravi Shankar started to play on the speakers. Korean Air knows how to introduce you to India gently, and it works well with the dark, musty red carpets leading you to the baggage claim of BOM (Mumbai’s international airport).
But as the plane started to tilt downward, I suddenly felt a big wad of anxiety forming around my solar plexus. I chastised myself. “Why are you so nervous all-of-a-sudden? You have been dying to come back to Mumbai since you left 6 months ago.”
Within my sparsely packed suitcase, there was a bag of gifts for my friends from my first and most recent trip to India who had really left an impact on me. I had met so many great people, especially because my friend Sara and I were on a networking mission to learn more about the Indian film industry. However, there were a few who really went out of their way to help us on our trip and these people became good friends. Because I have an innate guilt that nothing in this world should come free, I have brought payment for their friendship in the form of maple syrup, Canadian flags, and handcrafted dream catchers.
I let my mind rest on this bag of Canadian kitsch and I tried to remember what I had bought for whom. I hoped I hadn’t forgotten anybody important. Still, the anxiety wouldn’t go away and I didn’t know what was causing it. As someone who analyzes themselves as a hobby, I felt I should think about it a bit.
Three months previously, I had started this blog and online portfolio so I could have a more visible presence on the web. Fake it ‘till you make it became my new motto. WordPress has a great dashboard for your blog so you can see how many people visited your page, how many clicks, what links are most popular, etc. However, I get the most entertainment from seeing the Google searches that have led people to my website. Some of the most recent favorites are: “awkward look gif”, “shaved my eyebrows off”, and “don’t worry bus, we all make mistakes”.
Ironically (I think) the day I get on my flight to Mumbai somebody has searched “mcglynn died on plane”. In order to counteract this scary prediction I post about it on twitter. If I acknowledge it, it’s way less likely to happen… and if it does, then it can go down in history that I predicted my own death. So I get on my plane anyway and don’t tell my poor mother and father about it.
Final Destination: Mumbai.
However, I know that this anxiety isn’t caused by fear of flying. The last year I probably spent around 70-80 hours in flight, not including airport time and layovers. I actually love flying, because it gives me a very good excuse to watch 6 movies back to back and not feel like I should be doing something more productive like working on my screenplay. Surprisingly, the trip was great because I had a moment of inspiration after watching “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and rewrote the whole structure of my current script (based in Mumbai of course).
I had travelled so much because the last year included 5 months of travelling from May to November. Vancouver – Chennai, Chennai – Vancouver, Vancouver – Toronto, Toronto – Johannesburg, Johannesburg – Cape Town, Cape Town – Johannesburg, Johannesburg – London, London – Vancouver, and now Vancouver – Mumbai.
I fell for Mumbai in a big way. I fell in love with its chaotic energy; it’s people, and its buzzing potential. I was told many times before I first planned my trip to India, “You either love it, or you hate it”. For Mumbai it became “you either love it, or you hate it, or you become obsessed with it.”
I’m not ashamed to say that when I left Mumbai, I shed a tear. I was intoxicated with whiskey and Mumbai, but mostly whiskey… or was it Mumbai? I got back to Vancouver later and was buzzing with unbridled energy. I could feel the twinkle in my eyes, and I had made a resolution to return to Mumbai in the New Year by any means possible.
So there I was. The plane hit the tarmac smoothly and we all coasted toward the baggage terminal at 2:45 am on the dot. The anxiety dulled as I stepped into the spiced air, then revved itself up again while I got stuck between a family of six taking up the whole corridor rolling their bags and dragging their children. I realized that this was a new frontier for me and I was feeling so anxious because I had reached uncharted territory in my life. While I had lived in Mumbai for a month and a half, never before had I returned to a foreign country with the intentions of living and working. I was going into the unknown.
“Oh my god, does this mean I’m no longer a student? Am I finally all-grown up and making big life decisions?” Sure I hadn’t technically graduated from University yet, but I hadn’t been taking classes for 6 months and planned to finish my degree via correspondence (only 5 classes to go!)
It was an exciting and daunting thought that carried me through to the baggage carousel. My bag arrived at the same time as me, and I could feel jealous stares as I cruised in and picked up my bag like it happens all the time (it never happens to me). With that little sign from the universe, I started to feel like my cocky-self again and as I went through customs I critiqued the outfits other white people had chosen to fly in. Are your pajamas really going to make your seat any more comfortable? Classic internal monologue of a person so aware of their own insecurities they have to criticize others privately because they know how ridiculous they’re being.
So why was reaching a new point in my life more scary than exciting?
I thought of one of my gifts, a Canadian spearmint breath spray with a lumberjack on the package, the sort of thing you pick up in a joke store. I was planning on giving it to a very special friend who probably had no idea of my name. During my first stay in Mumbai I was living in Colaba, a beautiful part of town with equal parts beggars and tourists, taxi drivers and merchants. That was where I met my little chocolate-boy Rahul, and keep on reading before you jump to conclusions about my British heritage and how racist I must be.
I first met Rahul when I was walking around the Colaba causeway, a street lined with shops and merchants selling their wares (Same shit, different block). Children often target white elephants like me and ask for money, rice, or milk and play up on their cuteness to get what they want. I was getting accustomed to saying no when Rahul came up to me and asked me for chocolate.
“Sorry, I don’t have any chocolate on me”
“I don’t have any chocolate”
“I told you I don’t have any chocolate!”
I started walking faster to try and lose him, but he kept on following me.
“What do you want?”
I stopped, and took a moment to look at him. He was not dirty like the other kids of the street, and had an adorable smile with white teeth and big brown eyes.
“Do you live around here?”
“School” he said, pointing down the street and looking up at me with his sweet smiling face.
I realized he just lived around here and he spent his time after school playing with the other kids in the area and getting free candy from tourists. However, it was off-season and there weren’t many tourists around so I found I was getting quite a bit of concentrated attention whenever I went out for a walk. This monosyllabic boy was somehow making an impression on me.
“Sorry, no chocolate today. Maybe tomorrow”
“Ok” he shrugged, and he let me walk away.
I kept of seeing him every day and each time I didn’t have any chocolate. After a week of this, I decided to buy a chocolate bar and keep it in my bag for a surprise. Of course I couldn’t find him anywhere after that. I would scour the street every time I went out, and I even started making special trips to walk around and look for him.
After a couple of weeks of this chocolate bar melting and re-melting in my bag, he turned up again.
“Hello” he said. He started walking next to me.
“Hey chocolate boy! I have been looking for you”
He kept smiling as we walked together. He doesn’t ask for chocolate.
“Is there anything you want?” I asked.
Was this kid mocking me?
“I thought you liked chocolate”
“Yes” he said.
“So would you like rice or chocolate?”
“Rice” he answers with a smile.
“Well, too bad. I only have chocolate for you today.”
I reached into my bag and give him the semi-melted bar of chocolate. A group of kids saw this and they got up and came over.
“Thank you” he said. He took off just a scraggly-haired little girl came up to me with her palms out.
I dodged the rest of the kids and got back to my friends house where I was staying, and was dying to fill them in after weeks of my search for chocolate boy. That Sunday we visited the slum kids a few blocks away and brought a soccer ball and a big bag of candy to give every little chocolate boy and girl a fun day.
As we made our way into the slum, chocolate-boy joined us and I finally learned his real name. Rahul the chocolate boy led us through the slum and helped give out candy to the children and told them in Hindi that they could come play soccer. He was our guide and middleman who made sure the big kids weren’t stealing candy from the little ones, and that it was evenly distributed. We found a good patch for the soccer match and it rained, which only made the whole thing more fun.
The day I left Mumbai, my sandal broke and Rahul found me limping my way back to the house. He took me to a cobbler on the corner and we talked as my shoe was being fixed. I told him I would be back, and that I would find him again. He asked about Canada and when we should meet and I said I didn’t know what day I would be back but I would look for him.
So I found myself back there, 6 months later with some joke breath-spray, a Canadian flag, and 500 rupees ($10 CAD) wrapped up in a plastic bag so the other kids wouldn’t see his gift and try to take it from him. The anxiety from the plane ride had abated because I realized the cause. I am afraid of big changes because generally my life is pretty good, and although I don’t have much to lose I know that things can stop going my way and get a lot worse. This new stage of my life had a lot of potential to go wrong regardless of how much I wanted it to go right, and I am scared of the unknown whether or not it’s failure or success that takes me there.
I made a special hour and a half trip to Colaba from my hostel in Andheri near the airport in order to track down Rahul and give him his gift. I had a night out planned with my old troublemaker friends in the area as well, but I came early in the afternoon to find my chocolate boy. I know that the gift would probably be a little underwhelming for your average kid, but I know from experience that a lot of Indians are cautious of getting close with foreigners because they come to India, say they’re coming back, and disappear. It is the same reason why I used to never go out of my way for a tourist besides giving directions. But when someone goes out into the unknown and invites a stranger in transit to be their friend, it really makes a huge difference to their trip. My best memories from travelling are all because of my experiences with locals, and my top activity for every country is to have a home-cooked meal at someone’s house.
Again, it is fear of the unknown that we avoid making new connections. The fear of losing time we invest into a new friendship, or the money we spend on their drinks at the bar, or the energy we put into making them happy. Nobody wants to be taken advantage of, so it meant a lot to me when my friends in India took the risk and gave me their time and friendship, and I know part of the gift was the mere fact that I came back.
I walked through Colaba… the usual streets I would find Rahul and couldn’t find him. Very conscious of how much I looked like a lost tourist, I tried not to wander around in circles too much (again trying to avoid confrontation and potentially meeting new people). As I walked through a back road fairly close to the slum, I passed a large group of young boys with a cricket bat. I peered closely at the shorter ones and saw one I thought looked like Rahul. One of the older boys spotted me, and asked if I wanted to join the game. Surprised at the invite, I looked up and saw they were all watching me. I said no, only because I was tired and it was very hot but I appreciated the invite. I asked if they knew a boy called Rahul who hung out in the area. I gestured his height by placing my hand, palm down at my belly button.
“Rahul?” the tallest one repeated.
The boys looked at each other. I could hear the name Rahul being repeated amongst them. Nobody said they knew him.
“Sorry, he’s not here” the tall boy said.
I thanked them and walked away disappointed I hadn’t found him.
I sat down for a fresh lime soda at a hotel near the Gateway of India and paused in the middle of the book I was reading to analyze their response. “Sorry, he’s not here”. Did that mean that they did or didn’t know him? Did it mean he was there earlier? Did that mean he moved away? Was he dead?
I stopped myself there. I didn’t want to over-analyze it anymore; another unknown area that can only be discovered if it’s explored. I gave up the search for the day, but I knew I would be back.
Chocolate-boy has disappeared again, but I know he will turn up when I least expect it. I will go back with his photograph and ask around if I have to, because I promised Rahul that I would be back and find him and I can’t bear to give the lumberjack breath spray to anybody but him. My mission to find Rahul has become a small-scale and more palpable version of my life right now. I will only know when I find him whether or not he trusted me to come back. I am still scared of the new path I’m on, but if I have learned one thing this year it’s that fear is no reason to hold yourself back. Fear of finding out that I’ll never see Rahul again is mixed with fear of some strange new life that awaits me. And so I venture forth into the unknown, with my fear tucked away and wrapped in plastic with the rest of my baggage.
P.S. If anybody knows Rahul, please let me know.