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Four years ago, in Madrid, an elderly Spanish aristocrat invited me to her house in the countryside to spend a weekend—we were social acquaintances. On the way up, she drove on the wrong side of the freeway. Huge trucks and lorries, as they hurtled in our direction, began to honk in panic. I wondered if I had drawn out my will. I looked at the aristocrat: beady-eyed, rail-thin, hunched, clutching the steering wheel, cursing in Spanish. An exit in the freeway led to a fuel stop, where she looked at me and said, “I really like you.” I thought she said this to calm me down after the freeway incident, the sort of reassurance one gives to a child after a scolding. Then she repeated the words, this time making intentions clear. She was well kept for 78.
I was 38. I wanted to say: You’re old enough to be my grandmother. The hipster in my head wagged a woke- signalling finger at my face: Don’t be ageist! The weather forecast for our destination, when I looked at my phone to avoid her gaze, was “cloudy with a stray t-storm”. The country house was located two hours outside of Madrid, where I was based that summer. As we drove into the driveway of her wooden, two-story abode, the sun was clean and fierce, the heat of Rajasthan in May. A neighing of horses from the farmhouse next door made me aware of other lives in the remote, barren landscape. I thought: I’ll get on a horse and ride back to Madrid. My escape plan was the inverse image of a groom arriving at his wedding… As one ages, life turns every single romantic notion on its head. The weather had gone from cloudy to sweltering hot.
In the evening, the aristocrat took me for a round of her grounds—there was a small outhouse where she stored timber. The boughs of old eucalyptus trees made a sonorous creaking. A dog yowled in the distance. “If you like,” she said, “you could make a house for yourself near the outhouse—it might be a great hit with rich Indians who visit Spain!” I didn’t have the nerve to tell her rich Indians wanted a boat, not an isolated farmhouse in an area where the last murder was over a card game.
In the evening, the aristocrat’s three friends came to see me. They had read my books in Spanish and arrived with copies of the paperback of The Last Song of Dusk. My heart jumped—I had never seen this cover! These were pirated editions of my books that I would have to sign in the company of a woman who had turned my weekend into a hostage situation. It was only Saturday evening.
“We never have food in the house,” she said to me after her guests had left. “I hope you brought some of the bread and cheese.” In a white bag over which was emblazoned El Corte Inglés, I had also carried a bottle of wine; I downed a bottle of Rioja in my room. Twice, I heard the aristocrat call for me after dinner—she had a voice made for summoning. I pretended to have passed out.
I wish I had happier travel stories, with picnics in the park, with friends at brunch. My father had a remarkable gift of cutting short our summer holidays to Matheran or Mahabaleshwar, claiming the food was not as good as at home. My sisters and I would look at him and think: but then why did we come here at all? When I grew older, I went on solo travels, where the question I asked myself was: how do I get home? I thought of that question a lot on that weekend outside of Madrid. But now, years later, it is the pandemic, I am at home in a village in Goa, I am wondering: when will I leave home?
Perhaps the true nature of the beast is discontentment. In actual fact, the trip to Spain was one of my best. I wandered alone in Prado Museum; I took lazy walks in Retiro Park; in the evenings near the palace, swallows wheeled through the sky. The best thing about my trip was how wrong I had been: I had felt captive, and only now do I truly understand what captivity means.