In transit

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 10, 2018 Published on September 15, 2017

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Then it’s time to pack and leave. Rocky, who arrived in India with no luggage at all, now has more than me and Bins combined. “You can’t take a suitcase full of laddoos!” I assure him. “Yes, I can,” he says. “I looked it up online. They’re packed tight in leak-proof containers. No seepage. No seeds, no meat. I’m cool.”

“All right, then what about this second suitcase?” He’s already locked it, so I can’t look inside. “It’s my memories of my stay here,” he says, “I can’t leave any of it behind.” But I can tell from the way he’s scratching behind his ears that he’s anxious about something. When we finally get him to open the case, we find it’s filled with leaves and flowers and muck. “Oo-la-la!” says Bins, tugging on his moustache. “You KNOW they’ll confiscate this, my friend! Organic material is for customs-wallahs the same as live grenades for security-wallahs.”

Shrieks, howls. “Humans take selfies! Animals take organic materials!” wails Rocky. “It’s all priceless! The scent, the taste, the texture of all the places I’ve visited — how else will I describe what I’ve done, where I’ve been, to all my friends back home?” Eventually, we work out a compromise: he preserves the leaves and flowers between the pages of books in my library here and I promise to bring the dried results back to the US with me, some day.

The mud and earth, however, have to be discarded altogether. “Sand from Mahabalipuram!” sobs Rocky, as he buries each bit of memory in the front yard of the house. “Soil from your aunt’s garden in Chennai! And here’s a little piece of leopard dung from the hills...” Bins and I agree that it’s very sad. “We humans have no idea how to appreciate this stuff,” says Bins. “Our noses are not finely tuned.” On the final night before departure, he and Rocky go out on a nostalgia tour of the colony’s stinky back-lanes.

Now that Rocky has travel papers, the return journey is somewhat tension-free. He finds the artificial ambience of the airport so hateful that he enters a type of wakeful hibernation, curling up to sleep whenever he can, not even bothering to drink or eat. In Germany, during the transit break, he finds a live potted plant that he insists on using as a toilet. “Human rest-rooms smell like horror-movies!” he whines. And who can disagree?

All the way from Frankfurt to Boston, the three of us fret about what might happen at US Immigration. “The wildlife authorities won’t be happy to see a raccoon,” I say. “I hope they don’t quarantine you,” says Bins. “I’ll bite anyone who tries,” says Rocky. We deplane without fuss in the US and Rocky joins the immigration line with us. When we reach the counter, the big tough officer takes one look at Rocky’s furry face and melts into smiles. “Oh hey, little buddy!” he says, stamping the passport. “Welcome home!”

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on September 15, 2017
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