Coming home to a ghost town

I was quite restless with excitement. I was going home with my parents. My bags were packed, I was clutching my boarding pass tightly, and was unable to sit still. I was all ready to go home and spend a month relaxing, away from all the stress and rush of the big city Bengaluru, where I had built an almost comfortable life for myself painfully over the last three years.

Home was in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, where people are generally, mostly, born rich, and the weather is always hot. Summers are a punishment. Due to the harsh summers, I made it a point to visit home twice a year after I left. I would go once right before the summer season set in, and once after monsoons, to check if my house was still standing in a good condition and prepare it for the nearly non-existent winters (although, times are a-changing, thanks to global warming).

However, in 2018, I had visited my hometown four times, making a flying visit each time of about 1–2 days to see a friend moving to Canada, to attend a best friend’s birthday, and for a wedding. But this time around, I had quit my job in Bengaluru and aimed to relax in Ahmedabad for a good few weeks, catching up with few old friends who were still left in the city (almost all my school mates who did not have a family business to run, moved out of the city of dhandhaa to find good jobs) and enjoying lots of Gujarati food every day.

So when I landed in Ahmedabad late one night in March, 2019, I was excited to live the laid-back energy of my smallish city — full of rich people living in gigantic bungalows or faraway farmhouses, complete with several house-helps and a fleet of luxury cars. Yes, Gujaratis are primarily businessmen, who make a lot of money selling things and ideas, food and jewellery, homes and other luxuries. Come summer vacations (April-May, when the heat becomes unbearable), half of the state vanishes on foreign trips (as Facebook overflows with group selfies clicked in front of snow-clad mountains of Switzerland, Russia and some not-so-fancy places in America).

It was late at night, but there was an unusual lull in the city as I made my way home from the airport. Usually, the city’s youngsters are out on the roads until late at night, riding their scooters, slurping an ice-lolly, and doing what we Gujaratis do best — eat.

As soon as I reached home, I noticed that the house on my left had been torn down. A new bungalow was being constructed in its place whose ground floor was nearly complete. That seemed like the end of the chapter of one of my neighbors. But nobody was around — there was no sign of the new owners, or the laborers. It was Holi and since this is the festival where all labor-class of Gujarat (including all construction laborers and house helps) go back to their villages for a long leave, I presumed there would be no more construction activity for the next few days, at least.

I woke up the next day, expecting a flurry of early-morning activity in my residential area — the loud calls of milkmen and vegetable vendors selling fresh local produce on carts, the sound of newspapers being thrown inside the large courtyards of every house, the honking of school vans and the loud chatter of kids on their way to schools. Instead, there was a soft, pleasant wind and no sound. The milkmen who gives milk to the house opposite to mine, who has the loudest call of them all, and used to be my alarm clock for many years, didn’t come today.

I got up to look outside the window, when I saw a huge lock on the front door and the gate of the house opposite. When I inquired with the security guard, he told me they had “gone back to the US.” The house to my right had been empty for about 6 months now. The parents had gone to visit their son, who was a student in the US of A. I stood in the middle of the road and looked at all the empty houses around me.

I walked back inside, collecting my newspaper and mail, feeling slightly uneasy about the silence around me. I read the news, which once again, spoke about how The White House had formally received the proposed changes in the existing regulations to end the work authorization for spouses of the holders of H-1B visas, which would, obviously affect thousands of Indian professionals, hitting the IT sector the most. Trump was adamant about cutting down foreign workforce in his country and tightening the leash around immigrants, throwing out the illegal immigrants from his country.

The empty houses around me said otherwise. It didn’t seem that Trump’s newfound love for indigenous workforce was affecting any Gujaratis, at least. Anyway, I got dressed to go to the market and buy some groceries for the next few days. I reached my regular General Store to stock up, and uncle told me how he was going to shut down his shop soon. His son had got a Green Card in the USA. His “achche din” (a phrase meaning ‘Good Days’ coined by the current Prime Minister of India to promote his party’s good work) were about to begin soon.

I walked back home, carrying bags of rice, lentils, vegetables, and other essentials, with my mind clouded with confusion. The excitement I had felt about meeting the people I had grown up around — my neighbors, old friends, my sabziwale bhaiya and parlor wali auntie — had drained completely from my body. All I could think was why people were still crazy about settling in the US, leaving their rich comforts behind; why people wanted to let go of the luxury of owning a palatial 3/4 storey-bungalow among other large plots of land, luxury cars, an army of servants and a lot of money to make an international trip every few months…just to go an settle in some corner of a country saddled with mass shootings and political turmoil; to leave their homegrown food and go to a country where people lived on packaged food on other days, where they would have to do all the household chores themselves, while also managing a salaried job to pay their hefty bills. What was it about the rustle of a dollar bill that still attracted so many Indians, especially Gujaratis, to move to that country and slave it out?

With this disturbing thought in mind, I stared at my neighbor’s house, with dried plants and dead leaves mixed with a lot of dust and rubble adorning the empty lawn, whose luscious trees and bright hibiscus flowers had once been the envy of every woman on the street. I had come home to a ghost town, and America, was taking all my people away.

Eternal escapist, in love with books, football, and long drives. Follow me on IG @ komorebi5