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How To Pack Up A Neighborhood, Cumin Included

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There are almost 700,000 foreign students attending universities in the U.S., more than ever before. One of them is the niece of Morning Edition commentator Sandip Roy, who recently returned home to India to spend time with his family.

Over 20 years ago, my niece, then a little baby, came to the Calcutta airport as I was leaving for America. This year, she left for the U.S. and I went to see her off.

As the American in the family, I got lots of questions: How many dollars should she take with her? Should she pack turmeric and cumin? I wanted to tell her, don't worry about what spices to stash between your sweaters and jeans. Don't fret about mobiles and laptops.

Remember instead the sound of your grandmother calling the fishmonger every day for last-minute orders of your favorites. As your departure loomed, she tagged each day to a meal: ilish fish on Monday, koi on Tuesday, prawns on Wednesday.

Don't forget the hubbub of the marketplace where the button man doesn't just sell buttons but also asks about your grandmother's knee. Don't forget the patter of the monsoon on tin roofs, the first thunderstorms turning the hot blazing summer afternoons so dark we have to turn on the lights.

Remember the call of the street peddlers — the twang of the old man who fluffs quilts before they are stored away for another winter, the daily cry of the recycle-wallah with his little handcart looking for old newspapers and pots.

Some of this might still be here when you come back. But much of it will not.

I know you packed your life carefully into big red suitcases: the family photo collage your mother gave you, your grandmother's old song book, even your favorite instant noodles.

But how do you wrap a neighborhood? Its potholes and cracks; the saris drying on rooftops; the lurching buses, stuffed to the brim, the conductor shouting out all the places you will go. They are marking the map of your city as it looks today. But it will grow and change without you, adding new neighborhoods whose names you won't recognize when you come back ... just as I did not.

Hold all of this close now, so one day you can find the way back. Just as I did.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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