I have been in India for more than 3 weeks now, and what I like to say is that for these brief weeks here, I am living my parallel life. It’s as if my life is proceeding along two parallel tracks, like those people movers at the airport, each moving along at the same speed, simultaneously and 10,000 miles apart from each other. Most of the time, I’m in the US, with house and cats and job, with Alex and gardens and friends. But every year or two, when I can, I travel the 10,000 miles to India and it’s as if I’ve stepped sideways onto the other people mover, stepped into my parallel life.
This is true in Delhi, where the streets are familiar to me in some kind of fundamental way. When I lived in Delhi on my Fulbright, I carried a map around with me for months. The day I realized that I’d forgotten my map—and that I didn’t really need it anymore—was a joyful one. That knowledge has stayed with me, mostly. If I were plunked somewhere in north or east Delhi, I might have a problem, but in south and central Delhi, I know my way. I can give directions with confidence. I don't hesitate. Sunil actually called me in Benares to ask me about how to get somewhere on the metro. I told him, of course, but only after a certain amount of gloating.
I stayed for a few nights in Sunil's friend’s apartment in Green Park. The friend was an academic, off to Toronto to teach for a semester. Her apartment was small but comfortable, and the rent was reasonable. “I could live someplace like this,” I found myself thinking. Not that I have any plan to move back to Delhi anytime soon. But it was comforting to know that there might be possibilities, that even though the price of Delhi real estate now trends toward the astronomical (the rent on the much nicer apartment I visited was more than five times that of the first), there are still places in Delhi where I could see myself living, see myself happy.
This sense of a parallel life is even more striking in Benares. It’s been more than 8 years since I lived in Benares, and still I have a social life here. This is, in part, because of the people who live here, who I have known all these years—the family whose house I lived in, Rakesh at Harmony Books and Govindababa the western sadhu, Ramuji. All I need to do, it seems, is show up, and I am sitting in Harmony, drinking chai and chatting, eating lunches and dinners out and in, falling into a fluid group of people, some who come and go and some who stay. I've made new friends this week, and I've reconnected with old ones. This happens whenever I come here, without exception.
I've been having breakfast every morning at the Aum cafe, partly to take advantage of the wireless and partly because they make nice porridge. Because it is a cafe run by a spiritually-oriented American named Shivani, it attracts many people here on some kind of spiritual quest. I've met a number of people who are in India for the first time. When I tell them that I've been coming for 20 years, that I've lived in Varanasi and Delhi and Jaipur, several of them have paused and then said, "Sweet." And, of course, it is sweet. I am so happy not to be in India for the first time. But there is no question that I earned my contentment here. I put the time in, I stuck with it, and this is my reward.
I've also discovered that I'm not actually envious of westerners who have lived here longer than me, or those who basically live here permanently. I'm happy for them, that they've been able to do it, but it's not actually what I want.
Which brings me back to my parallel life, which is a blessing and a curse at the same time. The blessings are obvious. My life is infinitely richer because part of it has been lived in India, because my life here continues. I can't imagine my adult life without it. But the problem with a parallel life is that you can't be on both sides at the same time. Wherever you are, there is always something missing, and there is nothing, really, that you can do to change that.