I land in Mumbai on February 15th.
The immigration officer looks at my passport, glances up at me, looks down again then fixes me with a stare
A pause. Is my Visa legible? I really need to get my PIO card sorted.
‘Why you no have hair?’
And while it’s tempting to lean forward and whisper, ‘Shampoo- very expensive’ I’m travel weary and mindful of my special cargo. World’s best and possibly freshest stem cells. My yellow babies are crying out for a nap.
‘Because I just had a stem cell transplant’
One can never look sincere enough for an official.
‘For the Cancer’ I offer helpfully.
Officer Shirodkar nods knowingly.
‘Yes, yes. Medical tourist.’
And with that, I have no choice but to surrender to this place.
India is my most complex lover. And I’ve had complicated relationships. Believe me.
With this infuriatingly endearing exchange behind me, I touch the soil of the most infuriatingly endearing land I have ever known.
Who am I showing up as?
A courtesan, a wounded child, a seeker, a poser, a believer?
Or just a medical tourist.
‘Alighting Point’ it says in the Chennai airport. And its a good place to begin. I cannot comprehend the whole. Not yet. But the narrative needs a place to begin.
And India moves quicker than my eye.
I’ve packed wigs for my Rado store appearances in Bangalore and Chennai. Not to pretend. Not for approval’s sake. But because it occurs to me that my scalp may be shiny. Don’t want to blind any photographers during our store promotions.
Ok maybe I am a little apprehensive. It’s my first public appearance.
So I trot out my ‘First Lady’ hair helmets for Aarti and Ujjala’s approval. Will it be the flirty bob or the heavy, long mane? I’m just going for less Nancy Reagan and more Michelle Obama.
At some point the ‘Nancy Reagan’ lands up on Aarti’s head.
‘When one is fat, there are certain things you should not do in public…you should not eat chicken legs- or wear a short hairpiece’
Aarti’s delivery rivals Ricky Gervais. Or any other comic of the moment.
And she’s beautiful. Even without working to be less weighty.
Which brings me back to my own pilgrimmage. I’ve got the shrinks. I’ve shed my steroid induced wetsuit, my immunity is no longer making jokes at my expense. I’ve shrugged off my fat brush moonface like a heavy winter coat.
But I am not what I was before.
Now I can discern the difference between an image that communicates and one that manipulates.
Mostly I see India moving towards the second of the options.
So I feel expansive in new ways. I will not beat my flesh back into size zero submission. It has to be enough just to radiate health. Which in my case, is as hard won and precarious as any Bollywood starlet’s latest role.
At the store opening, I will be interviewed by Barkha Dutt. The ‘First Lady’ of Indian television journalism. I find myself tugging self-consciously at my First Lady hair. One of the PR girls expresses concern over the impending interview.
‘She makes people cry. She makes them reveal things they never have before’
Another yellow warrior.
Bring it on.
Afterwards, someone brings me the India Today. On the cover is an image from my blog. I’m thrilled- and puzzled. This is a surprise. I’ve always wanted to be featured on this cover but somehow the Indian version of Time neglected to let me know. Kinda like your friends organising your Birthday party, in your neighbour’s house. You hear the commotion next door and wonder why you weren’t invited- and isn’t it weird no one’s shown up to wish you on your big day?
Because mostly it strikes me:
This is an image that doesn’t manipulate. At least I hope not.
Thank you India Today for urging people to see and feel.
Illness is alchemy.