Cotton Candy Palace
On January 31st I was called into the police station in Ooty and handed 3 leave India notices, one for Morgan my 16-year-old son, Abbi (our 3rd daughter, just turned 18 last week), and me. There was a notice for Greg as well, but since he has been out of India since mid-November, they were unable to officially deliver it. After attending a conference in Nepal, Greg was passing through immigration on the Nepal/ India border when officials seized his OCI (Overseas of India) card and denied him entrance to India (see the story here).
An excerpt from our Leave India Notice below:
“Through the inquiry conducted and the reports received, by the Superintendent of Police, it is confirmed that Mr. Gregory Omar Malstead, Mrs. Rebecca Ann Malstead, and their two children Mr. Morgan Roger David Malstead and Ms. Abigail Mala Malstead are actively involved in missionary and proselytizing activities which are detrimental to national interest and in violation of PIO/OCI norms.”
The notice gave us just 2 weeks to leave India before we would be deported by February 15th.
A few days later I took the overnight bus to Chennai and filed a writ petition in the Madras high court in the hopes that the judge would rule against the government of India and cancel the “Leave India Notice.”
Hidden in the midst of the urgency, anxiety, and crisis, an unexpected moment of calm and beauty was awaiting me. I had randomly booked a cheap hotel I had never heard of before boarding the bus. After arriving in Chennai I handed the address to the taxi driver who drove me to a dilapidated doorway, in a crowded and shabby area in the heart of the city. From the outside, the entrance looked just like all the other doors that led to small apartments lining the street. Yet just inside past the dingy reception room, were corridors and courtyards, spiral staircases, porches and porticoes layered in labyrinths behind the busy street and modest front door. This hotel was a former palace.
An old elegance, decayed and dusty but still palpable and faintly breathing washed over me, fabulously romantic. Chipped lacquered paint in pastel shades covered the intricately carved rotting woodwork. The lines, and symmetry, the plants reaching upwards in the courtyards toward the blue sky, sky the same color as the blue balustrades, and the fascia and the paneled walls. I was transported to another world and another time.
The charm was so complete, so captivating, that I overlooked the cobwebs and the dust lying in inches along the blades of resting ceiling fans. There was a hush, a hot, dry calm in this crumbling aged beauty, reminding me of CS Lewis’ “Wood between the worlds,” in The Magician’s Nephew. This place was a hiatus, an otherworldly pause in the otherwise relentless, inexorable march of the Indian government to force us to leave India against our will.
The palace suddenly felt like the pause between my past and my future, a link, a memory of a forgotten time rudely pressed against the windowpane of a modern landscape. Our seventeen years in India stretched out behind me. The unknown chasm of our future years yawned in front. In the middle, centered, was this cotton candy, baby-blue palace, like long-forgotten icing on a gingerbread house.
The gorgeous clay tiles that once covered the roofs are now coated with cement in an effort to keep them from disappearing altogether, but none of the clay is visible anymore.
What will remain of our old life? What of the new? If this palace was no more... much would be irrevocably lost. This relic makes me want to press on. Its tranquility gives me a second to breathe deeply of permanence and move forward again and out into a South Indian sun, into my advocate’s office on to fighting our case to stay in this beautiful land.