Many-Splendoured Love/Two Flags

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Two Flags

The flight returning to New York City was not very full. Sohan was lucky to get three seats together. Generally he liked to sit on the aisle, so that he could get up and stretch when he wanted. He always got such a seat reserved. Today, after sitting like that on the aisle for a while, he slipped down to the seat by the window. “See, when it is not cramped on the plane, flying can be such fun,” he told himself. He called the stewardess and asked for one more beer. While opening the can he thought of Ritu. If she was here she would have said, “Give it to me, I will open it. You are bound to hurt yourself.”

Ritu always talked like that. At times it would seem affectionate and he would like it, and many times it would annoy Sohan : “She behaves with me like I am her little Milan. Arre, If she was in India she would find out.”

Of course, Sohan did not clearly know, nor could he explain what it was that she would find out, and what it would be like if she was in India. Ritu never said anything to him directly, but to herself she would murmur, “Whenever and wherever - he goes on mentioning India, so let him go, and stay there, and see for himself how he likes it, and how he adjusts there. Only then would he really find out the Reality.”

Sohan had come to America by his own wish. His and Ritu’s was a love-marriage, and his life with his family in India was certainly very nice. But unexpectedly an opportunity came up from the office, and he got tempted. Perhaps he looked forward to a new kind of life, or may be he was restless for some new challenge.

It was clear that Ritu had no desire to come to America at all. She had quarreled many times with Sohan. Once she even said, that if she had thought such a thing would happen, she would not have married him. Then Sohan had assured her, “Look, Lets live there for a few years, enjoy ourselves, and then we will come back, all right?”

A city like New York. No end to possibilities. Sohan had joined work right away, and Ritu had started further studies. Even before she finished the courses, she had a good job offer. Then, when the office offered Sohan a permanent position, he did postpone the thought of returning to India for a bit. Their life in America was like “a success story”.

After about three years when Ritu became pregnant, Sohan started saying, “Darling, As I promised you, chaal, lets now go back to India. After all it is better to raise a child there, isn’t it?”

Ritu had been stunned to hear this. Not that she had forgotten this assurance from Sohan, but because that was the first time when she realized that now she was not keen to go back. Yes, it was a little difficult here - one had to do everything oneself, managing all the household work, running to the job. But on the other hand, it was so easy also. One could do exactly as one liked, the apartment would not get dusty every day, and in the office Ritu’s brain worked so brilliantly that at times it surprised herself.

Sohan’s insistence on going back seemed to be increasing, and mulling about it in her mind, Ritu came up with a very good argument. She told Sohan, “Darling, what you are saying is right, but don’t you feel that it is better for the child to be born here, for a better future? As an American citizen, the choice to come here to study, or even to live here, will be always there, don’t you think so?”

After the child was born, Ritu had said, “Who stops us from going back after the boy grows up a little?” Now Sohan was somewhat stunned by such arguments from Ritu, but there definitely was logic in them. “Yaar, This Ritu really is clever”, he would say to himself. Ritu was also quite pleased with her own cleverness. “We will see when the time comes”, she was telling herself quietly.

Milan started growing up. Before Sohan brought up the idea of going back again, it happened that the son of his elder brother wanted to come to America for studies. The nephew got the admission, and that too, in New York University. “Your home is also in New York City, so we are relieved, Bhai,” Motabhai and Bhabhi (elder brother and his wife) had said repeatedly. Sohan had not been able to tell them that, on his part, he was thinking of returning.

Then of course, Sohan and Ritu let the nephew stay at home with them. For a year or so, they also bore all his expenses. That was Ritu’s insistence. She said, “Can’t take money from Motabhai.”

After this, in a short while, the occasion of the wedding of Sohan’s Motiben’s (elder sister’s) daughter came up. Sohan and Ritu must come for it, they insisted. Ritu had recently got a big promotion, and she was not able to leave. Upon hearing this Motiben got very angry. She started saying, “What kind of service is that which stops you from attending a family occasion? Or is it an excuse? Here you can’t get all the American luxury, is that the real reason?”

Sohan had not argued or explained anything on the phone. Even he was not getting leave from his office, but if he didn’t go, the sister was bound to be offended. Not saying a word, taking a few days’ leave without pay, he had left for India, to be present at the wedding. Ritu had bought all the things the niece had asked for. “She wanted so many things?”, Sohan had blurted out.

The day he was leaving for India, Ritu put an envelope in his hand. Asking, “What is it?”, Sohan opened it. There was a stack of dollars in it. Replying to the question in his widened eyes, Ritu had said simply, “Give it in Motiben’s hands personally. She can use the money the way she wants.”

Seeing so many dollars the sister’s disposition had changed. Now the younger brother’s wife appeared to be very nice and very good. Seeing many more cosmetics and perfumes than asked for, the niece started saying to Mama (uncle), “Oh, Mami (Aunti) is just terrific. Give her my special thanks.”

“Why don’t you call her? Ritu will be very happy to talk to you.”

“Oh, just now it is night there.”

“Yes, it is true. So send her an E-mail. I will give you her ID.”

“Arre, Mama, Where is the time? You are too much. Can’t you see there is so much I have to do? When you go back you can tell her.”

Then she left with friends to go out for coffee.

Ritu has a generous heart, and she really is wise, Sohan was thinking. He felt deep affection for Ritu, and missed Milan a lot. He started counting days to go home. And then he was startled. Home? He was at home. Right here. Here in India. Wasn’t he?

Then one night he told everybody in the family that soon he was coming back here with Ritu and Milan. “I have been saying since I left for America that in a few years I will come back, you all remember, right?”

Elder brother and his wife nodded their heads. Elder sister seemed to be feeling confusion. Hearing these words, the niece, until then distractedly painting her toe-nails, started saying loudly, “What are you saying? You can not come back here soon, OK? We still have to see America. We still have to visit there, don’t we?”

She had continued saying, without looking up, “And uncle, Don’t forget. Tell Aunti to send such expensive cosmetics and perfumes every six months - no, every four months to me. You remember, OK? And tell Aunti also to remember my list.”

It was as if Sohan’s blood had gone cold. That someone can say such a thing so casually, he never knew. If it was Ritu, she would never speak like this. Besides, Sohan had believed that everyone at home will be happy to hear that he was coming back. It did not seem that way. With some sadness, he started wondering how responsible should he be for any relationship which is interested in just taking, and can not even think of offering thanks for it.

Sohan was starting to understand something. Ritu had never given Sohan any reasons for not returning to India, nor did she discuss any kind of questions about reality; but he now felt that she did understand all that. He suddenly felt relieved that he had not dragged his wife and son to India in a hurry. Frankly, he felt at peace that in New York City was his own home.

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After helping to wind up all the wedding chores Sohan was returning to New York City. He was looking out intently while lost in thoughts. From the small window near the seat he could see the long wing of the plane. He saw that at its end the American flag was painted. He recalled how his little Milan would salute any time he saw the flag. Sohan smiled with love for his child.

As he saw the stewardess approaching with the dinner-cart, he suddenly remembered that he had ordered non-veg plate for dinner. Ritu did not like it that he ate non-veg. In Ritu’s presence he never ate it, and that is why, because he was travelling by himself that he had thought of using this opportunity to eat non-veg.

But his mind was somewhat laden with all these thoughts, and he felt as if Ritu was very near by. Instantly he changed his selection, and requested a vegetarian plate, in case there was one extra. “I will bring you one if there is any left at the end”, the stewardess said and continued down the aisle.

Sohan sat there waiting. Again his eyes went out of the window. He kept looking at the twinkling tiny red light on the corner of the wing. Fluffy white clouds would cover up the wing and the American flag when they floated by, but that tiny light, like a red gem, which remained twinkling, was becoming a hypnotic spot for him.

Then it was as if he was riding pinion on some enormous bird. Two wide-spread wings were ripping through the layers of white clouds. Light breeze was touching his mind, his body. He saw that on one wing of the bird the American flag was fluttering. He turned his head on the other side. He saw the Indian flag flying on the other wing. With this, now he saw clearly that the enormous bird he was riding on, was none other than Garud.ji himself - Lord Vishnu’s divine carrier; and like some young modern God, Sohan was roaming in the vast sky, way above the earth.

He felt very very happy. His heart filled over with the feeling of double pride. As if he was going towards Heaven, with two flags fluttering gloriously in the sky. Just like Milan, who always ran excitedly with colourful paper-windmills in both hands. As he remembered Milan, just like him, Sohan looked at the American flag and saluted it.

To the Indian flag, naturally one must offer pranam. Sohan joined both his hands to bow respectfully to the Indian flag. And with that, his hold on Garud.ji was lost completely. He was toppling down. From the high skies, down down, all the way to hell. He was panicked. He desperately tried to call out for help. No words came out from his mouth. Loud blasts seemed to be occurring from all directions. The whole firmament seemed to be shaking with force.

He was falling. He was sure to fall hard. He was just about to fall ....

“Sir, Sir, the Vegetarian dinner for you”, the stewardess was saying, shaking him lightly.

She had placed the plate on the tray at the end-seat. Sohan moved away from the window with great difficulty. After a while when he became steady, the scare he had experienced from the day-dream transformed into some kind of exultation. Some experience it was. The whole scene was clear in his mind. The two flags, clouds, sky, the bird - no, no, Garud.ji.

He felt that he understood the meaningfulness of the whole experience. Two flags - of America and India, both tri-coloured. Yes, the representative colours are surely different, but still, stars in one, and a chakra (circle) in the other. Besides, that bird is also a venerable symbol in both the countries. Eagle is the official symbol of America, and Garud is a divine context for India. Glory be. What great similarity.

Sohan felt the emotion deep inside. He remembered something that Ritu had said once. During one discussion, Ritu had emphatically said that if a person takes the Green Card from America, he or she does not really lose one’s own Indianness. On the contrary, it is likely that Americanness gets added on into the person. This addition, this assimilation - the importance of all this Ritu had understood, much ahead of him, and ahead of many others.

She believed that it is possible to gain more from this life. This is the age of electronics. One can get all sorts of information within minutes. From the tips of the fingers so much knowledge can reach into the mind and the brain. What Ritu meant was, Expand and Bloom wherever you live.

Until then talks like this from Ritu seemed too coy, and ‘overwise’ to Sohan, but now, remembering this, he felt ashamed in his mind. Really very sensible was his Ritu. She had gained double in life so long ago. She understood that one can preserve Values wherever one was living, and obviously, she also had the perception that, “If we lived here in America, we can also be helpful to the family in India.

“She has been so patient with me. I will have to be better to deserve her now”, Sohan thought seriously.

“One more beer, Sir”, the stewardess was asking politely.

He thanked her, saying “no”. Now Sohan had no need for any outward intoxication any more. He looked out. That tiny red light went on twinkling. The clouds had dispersed, and the American flag, painted on the plane’s wing could be seen clearly. He saluted it again. The other wing he could not see from his own seat, but as if the Indian flag was painted on it he looked in that direction and joining both palms, offered his pranam to it again. This time he did not get toppled. By now he had found his balance.