In India, when you are leaving, you know it is happening.
On your day of departure, everyone visits. Everyone comes to your house, sits, has a glass of water, and patiently waits whilst you flap about ensuring you’ve packed everything. The saris, the bangles, the dried fish, the bags and bags of chana, and whatever other potentially illegal items your auntie has insisted you take back home.
They sit patiently, and when you’re ready for them, they begin.
You (and whoever else is leaving) stand in a line, and they put a garland of flowers around your neck. Each person puts a red tikka on your forehead, and some grains of rice (uncooked) on top. The rice always falls down your face and in your hair and you end up finding it for ages afterwards, like glitter. They will take a blessing from you, and you from them, and they’ll give you a rose, freshly picked, complete with thorns. Bright pink, or orange, or red, whatever is growing nearby. Eventually you’ll have enough to start a small florists, and they’ll give you a coconut too. Someone takes photos. Photos that you’ll never so much look back on, but it feels important that they are taken.
Before long, your driver will arrive, and it’s time to go. Suitcase upon suitcase will be moved from the dusty sidewalk, and will be stuffed into the van, arranged and re-arranged and always ending up precariously balanced on the back seats. And you’ll climb into the car, ready to go. Everyone will crowd around the car, children clambering at the windows… they’re not really too sure what’s going on, but it looks kind of exciting. The grown-ups will hug you again, and again, and again, and squeeze your hand through the window, because they know that another hello is uncertain. Will it be two, four, or even eleven years again this time? We don’t know.
And then, you are gone.
Along the way, you’ll come across a river, and the garlands, the roses, and the coconut will be flung out of the window of the moving car into the river. Throw hard, otherwise you’ll miss, and no-one wants coconuts on the dual carriageway.
And there it is. It is done. Leaving has happened, and you know it’s over, for now.
Leaving felt difficult. Saying goodbye was hard. I guess when it matters, when you don’t know when your next hello will arrive, it is bound to be tough. But this ritual, this set of rites, at least gives weight, and significance to the thing that has happened, the thing that is so very hard to put into words.
I wonder about our ways here in England, and how in saying nothing and in doing nothing, not having rites and ritual to turn to, do we leave a greater void when the inevitable time comes – and it always comes – to say goodbye?
Our suitcases, my backpacks, were piled up in the dust on the side of the road, and I thought of Jack Kerouac:
“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”