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October 29, 1999

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Battling Bulging Suitcases

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Shoba Narayan in New York

I am going to India next month and this time I have sworn to myself that I will not succumb to the bulging-box syndrome. You know the symptoms. Just stand at the baggage claim section at Kennedy airport when an Air India plane comes in.

Ancient battered VIP suitcases (the largest models of course) brimming to the rim with powders, pickles, incense, and what-not. Cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes that are barely contained by heavy-gauge yellow bungee cords through which ooze the odd pressure-cooker handle or Sumeet Ultra grinder.

Elegant duffel bags that have long lost their shape by the determined insertion of portable puja stands and dismantled Indian handicrafts. Hardy Delsey suitcases which the advertisements tout as being able to withstand the battery of a BMW looking like sorry replicas of themselves with multi-colored streaks of turmeric, red pickle oil and torn paper on which 'To' and 'From' addresses are written in streaky red Crayola.

I wonder whether Samsonite will launch a Hindustan line built to the external maximum dimensions allowed by the airlines with a spandex middle.

Officials at Kennedy airport tell me that their baggage-handlers demand overtime whenever they process an Air India flight. The only other country that comes close is Ireland, they say. The Irish, apparently stuff their suitcase with cases of Irish malt whisky, and use their carry-on bags for all their other worldly goods.

I don't know what it is with us Indians. I mean, it's not as if we travel back to the homeland once in 10 years and have to carry gifts for long-lost kith and kin. What with free award travel, companion two-for-one deals, and a booming stock market, the average Indian goes back home every couple of years, if not every year. Still, we are determined to carry everything from perfumes to pizza on the long pilgrimage back.

Or maybe it's just my family. I have an uncle who comes to America every year to visit his daughter and son. When he returns to India, he carries with him a veritable American supermarket. Gone are the days when cordless phones, American clothes and gifts were the objects of his fancy. No, nowadays, as becoming an aging baby-boomer he has graduated to battery-operated cardiac monitors, Centrum multi-vitamin tablets, fat-free salad dressing of various flavors, energy boosting granola bars bought in bulk from Price Club and as much cholesterol-reducing oat cereals as he can stuff into his suitcases.

My mother-in-law, with her love for plants and fresh fauna always tries to slip jasmine and tulsi plants from India past the customs inspector. She succeeded once and an ancient tulsi plant is languishing at my cousin's house in Long Island trying to die but unable to succeed due to the determined efforts of my cousin aided admirably by spoonfuls of Miracle-Gro.

This cousin, incidentally, just joined a whole group of aging baby boomers that has traded in their mini-vans for Chevy Tahoes or Ford Broncos to help with their airport trips even though their teenagers have left for university.

With the arrival of kids come additional baggage, of course. When I was pregnant with my first child, a good friend earnestly advised me to 'stockpile' formula and diapers in India. "Send cases of formula with anyone visiting India," he said. "Believe me, you'll go through them fast once the baby is born."

For my first trip back after the baby, I had the mother of all suitcases (no pun intended) to carry my breast pump, replacement bulb for the 1962 Kodak slide projector that my Dad had bought during his trip to the States, bottles of Tylenol, baby medicines, and the inevitable cases of formula and diapers.

Eight suitcases and 20 hours later, I realized too late that my father owned a dinky Maruti 800 that was only just bigger than one of my suitcases.

Then, of course, there is the great package-exchange. Nowadays, I have even stopped telling friends that I am going to India. In years past, I used to announce to all and sundry once I got my tickets confirmed. As soon as I mentioned my trip, I could see their eyes gleam with anticipation. At first, I was too na´ve to figure out why. Then the phone calls started coming and slowly I became all the wiser.

It started with my ex-college room-mate, Malini, a girl I cordially disliked. I had bumped into her on the street and casually mentioned an impending trip to India.

An hour later, she telephoned me at home. This smart-talking lawyer, who always claimed to be too busy to call me, suddenly was oozing bonhomie and cheer through my telephone wire. After about 10 minutes of shooting masala, she sprung it on me.

"I have a small packet that I would like to send to my folks in India. Could you carry it for me and mail it once you reach Bombay?" she asked.

"Sure," I replied without thinking.

The 'small' packet turned out to be a gargantuan cardboard box weighing like a baby elephant. It contained medical textbooks Malini was sending to her kid sister. As my departure date neared, I got re-acquainted with many people who began calling themselves my 'friends' and leaving packages with my doorman. When I landed in India, I found that most of my suitcases contained things to be mailed to other people.

Now, that wasn't the end of the story. All the relatives who received packages from me pleaded with me to carry packages back to their relatives in the States. Mailing it wasn't the problem but I found that I was spending $ 30 to UPS boxes containing pappads, powders and pickles that cost about $ 3 to buy at the local Indian store.

Not any more. Nowadays, Mum's the word as far as trips to India go. Nowadays, I carefully choose who I reveal information about trips to India. There are a few select friends who go often enough to India that they don't need to send things through me. They are my A-list and find out first about my trips. Then there are the groups of people who are nice enough to carry packages for me. The law of quid pro quo compels me to reveal my travel plans to them. After that, no more, nada, naheen...

My trips are carefully choreographed secrets that are known only to me, Air-India and the cosmic universe above.

( Shoba, who has been published in The New York Times, may change her plans to go India if she gets `friendly' telephone calls from those who have read this story.)

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