I enter the melee at Terminal 4, Heathrow, merging into the crowd heading to various corners of the world. As I head home to Chennai, I’m Indian again. At the desk, a middle-aged Punjabi woman checks in my luggage, asking me kindly to empty a couple of excess items from my suitcase. I pull out the organic apricots, the dried plums and the shoes packed inside a cloth bag. These cannot be three kilograms that I need to shed. But she allows the bags to go through, almost saying, “chalo, aap ke liye,” (just for you). I tell her in my still western voice, “it’s those Indian clothes – I take them each time and bring them back, unused.” I pull out a sequinned salwar-kameez set that might help in load-shedding. She advises me to stuff it in my handbag.
At the coffee shop, I queue up to be served by a South Indian lad, possibly a Tamil from Sri Lanka. He’s short, dark and heavily tattooed. He makes my latte and hands it to me, pleasant and vague, making no eye contact. I take my coffee behind the counter and sit down next to a big Sikh family. I’m comforted by their familiar gestures and mannerisms. Two grumpy women and daughter with an older Sikh man, having a desultory conversation as they head back to Delhi, after escaping the hot weeks of May to London. They polish off their paninis, relishing the cream scooped off the hot chocolate ahead of their arduous journey in cramped seats on a plane. Ahead of me I can see an older white English man facing his wife and long-haired daughter. His expression is one of bewildered affection as he looks at his free-spirited adult daughter. The mother, sitting beside her, raises her hand to tuck the girl’s long blonde hair behind her ear. In that tender gesture, the whole world becomes one.
By the time I reach Abu Dhabi, I’m groggy and even more tired and I sit in the lounge next to the perfume shop, beneath the lapis lazuli and green mosaic central pillar. I seem to want to sleep and it is fitful and uncomfortable as I rest my head on my backpack. I hear strains of conversation from the neigbouring travellers. They are speaking Hindi/Urdu, a husband and wife with a young boy en route to Mecca, on pilgrimage. It wakes me up and wife, dressed in black, speaks in English, to her husband: “I don’t want you taking selfies in the kabah, ok? It’s a really sacred place, really sacred.” The boy, who’s playing on his phone, nods obediently and asks about the wifi as the mother walks away. When she’s out of earshot, Father says to his son: “Don’t you wish we could get on the plane and go back to Canada?” The little boy maintains a diplomatic silence as the reluctant pilgrim fidgets about a bit more.