Friendship of convenience

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During those first few immigrant steps I took in the small town I found myself in, the people I befriended were almost all American, and all because of the fringe antiwar activism on campus. With my housemates Slovenly Misogynist and Fiefdom King being my primary source of Indian social interaction, and American imperialism getting a steroid boost in 2003, it was easier for me to find a sense of succor with outcast peaceniks.

But I did find one Indian friend to hang out with.

He seemed sane enough and, unlike my housemates, wasn’t revolting. Murali and I were in the same environmental science class that Professor Richards taught. We hit it off immediately following a handshake and coffee after class. He was very affable, offering to help me navigate the city to find the cheapest places to eat at and what seemed to be the one “ethnic” grocery store in town when I needed a spicy fix. Upon his suggestion we formed a study group for the classes we attended, and soon started spending a lot of time together. Apart from my white hippie buddies in Peace Now, Murali was the only other friend I found in Erie. Unlike my white hippie buddies though, he was someone I could talk to about home; an actual personified connection to India who didn’t drive me insane.

It was nice to be around him. He was quiet and generally reserved but had a latent sense of humor, the vernacular kind that worked only with folks from one’s own neck of the woods. After our study sessions, we would often head to his house or mine to have dinner, where we could continue the conversation. He too was extremely irritated with his housemates, so we bonded over that little bit of shared misery. We also found a common love for old Hindi movies that had more substance and content than the latest gaudy, commercial trash that came out of Bollywood. He marveled at my book collection, which he would dig into on occasion to read in his spare time. Overall, he was a good friend from the motherland to have.

There was only one problem though.

He was a fascist.

And I don’t mean this in a loose, polemical way.

You know how we progressives sometimes call every conservative person a fascist in moments of angry angst? One can argue the merits of that kind of hyperbole, but there’s no doubt that the word fascist is often used in a rhetorical way, and not necessarily to indicate a specific, far-right political persuasion.

I’m not deploying the term as mere invective to describe Murali. He was an actual fascist. He was a member of a right-wing Hindu nationalist group in India that wanted India to become, for the most part, a Hindu supremacist society and religious state rather than the secular republic it was. They had failed miserably so far, primarily because India was far too insanely chaotic and diverse to fit into one homogenous ideology. But they did exist, and in large numbers at that.

(Indeed, who would have thought that the same folks who chanted “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama” in benign orange robes and took dips in muddy Indian rivers as a form of, admittedly counterintuitive, holy cleansing could have their spiritual philosophy worked into a fascist program? Then again, fascist movements had emerged from corruptions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. A fascist Hindu movement was actually quite consistent with the ever-present potential for organized religion to pander to humanity’s basest instincts.

But I digress, do pardon my rant…)

I was already well into my friendship with Murali when I found out about his ideological leanings.

“So, Murali, where did you go to school?” I asked one day, as we were sitting in the library study room.

“I went to a Hindu RSS school.” he replied, adjusting his geeky glasses.

RSS stood for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It was the largest Hindu nationalist group in India, running thousands of groups that served up a daily dose of Fascism For Dummies with martial chants, military-style cadre, and uniforms that were a major fashion faux pas. (Frilly khaki shorts and white shirts, I kid you not.)

“Wait.” I said, getting worried. “Are you a member of the RSS then?”

I had known a few others in India who had gone to RSS schools, but never really bought into the philosophy. Kind of like someone going to a hardcore, Bible-thumping school, where students take a vow of chastity but don’t really get with the program. I was hoping he was one of those kids.

“Yes man! The RSS gave me everything I know…schooling, education, the values on how to live my life.” he said.

“So, um, you’re an actual member of the RSS…even after you left school?” I asked, hoping against hope now.

“Yes, yes…I attended the weekly exercises, prayers, meetings, and everything very regularly until I came here for my higher studies.” he said, now wondering why it was such a big deal.

I was crestfallen. Was there nothing beautiful in my life anymore?

It probably need not have been that big a deal. It was a temporary friendship after all, and I was going to leave town shortly. It could have been like the friendships we sometimes strike up with fellow nationals during a holiday. One doesn’t get as bothered by their potential craziness simply because there’s a common cultural tongue to work with and – more importantly – the time spent together is limited.

I could have treated it like that, but for one small thing. My last experience in India before coming to the States was as an aid worker in a human rights movement at a place that was fighting fascist violence led by the RSS and their cohorts against minority communities. It was quite possibly the most politically gut wrenching and vicariously traumatic event in my life; resulting in a monumentally life-altering experience for me, forcing me to come to terms with my own privilege. It was an experience that pretty much laid the foundation for my developing a philosophical framework that was anti-oppressive and anti-authoritarian.

I asked him, now a little more angry, “So, you think that India should be a Hindu state?”

We stopped focusing on our textbooks now.

“Well, it is a Hindu state…the majority of the people there are Hindus.” he replied, a little taken aback that I would challenge him.

“What I mean is – do you think India should not have a secular government and state, as it has now?” I reiterated.

“I think that the government should be based on Hindu principles.” he replied.

“Oh really?” I said sarcastically. “And what about all the Muslims and Christians and Sikhs and Buddhists and other non-Hindu folk? What happens to them?”

“They are still there, and can live there happily…they should just follow Hindu principles, that’s all.” he said nonchalantly, as if he was asking people to change their brand of milk.

“Anyway,” he continued, now a little more agitated, “it’s really the Muslims that are the biggest problem. They have to behave like true Indians, otherwise they should go to Pakistan.”

“What crap are you talking about Murali? Muslims are just as much a part of India as anyone else, and Islam is just as much a part of India as any other religion!”

“No it is not…Hinduism is the only true religion of India.” he replied assuredly.

Oh dear god, I thought to myself. I’ve befriended a dyed-in-the-wool fascist.

“And these Muslims,” he continued, venomously, “wherever they go they cause problems. Just look at what they’ve done to America. Our fight against Muslims in India is the same as what the Americans are doing.”

And there it was. The bastion of people like him the world over. Whenever challenged, all they had to do was side with the cultural paradigm of bigotry and imperialist othering that existed in the centers of power at that time in history. Game, set, match: fascist.

We argued for some more time to no avail. Both of us were firmly embedded in our respective political positions. It didn’t seem to affect his friendship for me though. It didn’t have to. As far as he was concerned, I was a Hindu, albeit a rather misinformed one. So he still continued being very friendly with me. But it certainly affected my camaraderie with him.

I still hung out with him when I had to, but didn’t seek out his friendship any more. Normally I would have cut ties right then and there, since being around him was a constant reminder of the type of ignorance in the world that led to the things I saw and experienced as a human rights worker. He now repulsed me. And saddened me.

But I was also lonely, and rationalized to myself that continuing to be around him occasionally was ok because I wasn’t spending a whole lot more time in Erie. I was already preparing to move to a university in Baltimore. No sense in rocking the boat and making my last few weeks of the semester in this small town university particularly painful. I think I still wanted his friendship because it was the one connection I had to India at that time. So I decided to live with the contradiction for a few more weeks.

I wish I hadn’t though.

I wish I had told him off at that moment and asked him to never call me again, instead of ignoring his emails and phone calls after I left until they stopped. I think it would have made the message sink in better. He didn’t really buy into what I was saying, but he might have thought about it a little more had I been less amenable to compromise.

Misery sometimes makes it difficult to let go of convenience.

[Next up: The Purge of Prudishness]

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21st Century Imperialism and Peaceniking

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My first steps as an immigrant in America coincided with the 21st century’s first major imperialist military action, broadcast live for a salivating consumer class.

The invasion of Iraq occurred under the most ludicrous of justifications, led by some of worst demagoguery America (and the world) had known. Indeed it was baffling to me just how many people didn’t realize that it was about saving a nickel or two on their gas bill while adding a billion or two to the assets of the capitalists.

The batshit insanity hit home for me when I was asked to wear a yellow ribbon by my new boss soon after the invasion began in early 2003. Having failed in my attempts to land a research assistantship with my graduate advisor, Dr. Richards, the only jobs available to me were minimum-wage ones. I landed one as an office assistant, working for a man who enthusiastically followed and supported the invasion the day it began like it was his solemn duty, a sentiment he assumed I would share.

“Um…why do you want me to wear this ribbon?” I asked, out of genuine incredulity.

“To support the troops that are giving us our freedoms Sri.” my boss replied, a touch indignantly.

“Really? Uh, ok…but how does this yellow ribbon do anything to help?” I ventured.

“Listen, I’m not going to force you to wear it, but I feel compelled to say that you are in this country, and have a duty to support the troops.” he said indignantly, his annoyance rising with every syllable.

There was a pause before he sighed valiantly.

“And for me personally too,” he continued, now in a martyr-like tone, “my brother is in the US Coast Guard just off the coast of Hawaii and with this war, it means that he is in danger of being attacked at any time.”

I didn’t have the courage to critique his assessment of American altruism when hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were getting slaughtered and having their oil stolen from underneath their noses. Nor did I feel like pointing out that Hawaii was quite some distance from Iraq. In the short time I had been in America, it seemed like many American patriots, mostly white and not unlike nationalists elsewhere, were very proud of their military heroes. I could understand pride in some World War II campaigns (at least in that case it was imperialist powers butting heads with each other) or Civil War battles that were truly heroic, but was not sure how they reconciled that pride with more recent victories over countries like Panama, Grenada, Somalia, and Afghanistan, as well as a well-fought draw against Vietnam.

Crushing already impoverished countries under the jackboot of imperial conquest didn’t exactly constitute martial heroism in my book. I felt deeply for the lives lost on all sides, but couldn’t bring myself to celebrate it. I imagine many Americans thought Iraq was going to be the next theatre of war to result in a star spangled thumbs-up. These victories happened supposedly to liberate the people there, yet were always curiously followed with takeovers by the Halliburtons and Shells of the world, riding in under the golden arches of McDonalds. I wondered whether my boss would have cared about the death-for-profit games that were currently underway. The yellow ribbon seemed to be far too sanitizing a symbol for such militaristic expansion.

Nevertheless, and for the same reasons that I decided not to engage in a potentially uncomfortable conversation with my boss, I also decided to wear the yellow ribbon – I needed the job.

But I promptly removed it when I left work that day and went to the library to peruse the university website for any anti-war group that I could get involved with. I was unequivocally against the invasion of Iraq, but my reason for contacting the group was not so pristine. It felt like I would find a measure of rationality there that had until now escaped pretty much every person-to-person engagement I had been subjected to in that town.

And find it, thank heavens, I did.

Within days of meeting with the organizers of Peace Now, I was already getting ready to attend my first big antiwar rally in America. There were quite a few lovely people in the organization, but four of them stood out in terms of the wonderful friendship they offered me – Jane, a feminist nun who worked for the university’s Center for Social Service and had been having a long-running fight with the Catholic church on ordaining women as priests, Mary-Rose and Anna, two pot-smoking girls who befriended me with an ocean of affection, and Peter, a devout Catholic boy whose life purpose was to rid the Catholic church of all its homophobic, sexist moorings. All of us were involved in planning a trip alongside a larger group of old-school hippies to, what was building up to be, a gargantuan anti-war demonstration in DC. The folks I met at Peace Now were a political bunch and, I suspected, a rather fringe group in the town we were in. Barring a few irritating assholes (to be expected in any group of humans), they were rather nice to hang out with.

The very first conversation I was privy to was what made me feel like I had found a safe group of people to be around. It was about racism, and I was relieved to find out that there were indeed many white Americans who were concerned about it in egalitarian and heartfelt ways. In the office of the Center for Social Service where we had gathered to make posters, Jane spoke about the racial stereotyping done by the police in town with black kids getting arrested all the time.

“The cops chased down this young black kid, who is no bigger than me.” she exclaimed in righteous anger, pointing at her tiny, petite frame.

“When in reality,” she continued in the same tone, “they were looking for someone who was supposed to be 6’3″ and weighed 240 pounds. Just goes to show…any black kid is a suspect in this town!”

Mary-Rose and Anna shook their heads in anger.

Anna, a large girl with a small voice, softly uttered, “It’s sad that after all this time, there is still so much of this shit going around. My dad always makes ‘corn bread and watermelon’ jokes whenever I date a black guy.”

Mary-Rose, a tiny girl with a diametrically contrary voice, bellowed, “It’s terrible! To top it, my classmates are always complaining about Black History Month. ‘Well, why shouldn’t there be White History Month?’ they’re always asking me!”

“Well, gee…every month is White History Month in this country.” Jane said sardonically.

I had just found my new best friends in this place.

I suppose it was natural that I should find solace among outcasts. I realized I was one without even trying. Jane had been in battle with the very institution from which she derived her spiritual core, Anna and Mary-Rose were angry at a callous and racist socio-political system. And our other friend was just in perpetual angst about the evils of the world.

Peter sauntered into the room, head down, visibly depressed. Anna got up to hug him, almost bear-like, with her large frame.

“You ok, Peter?” she chirped with concern.

“No, not really.” he moaned, shaking his mop of straw-colored hair. “I’ve been following the war from day one, and it looks like now many children have been killed by US missiles. It’s gut-wrenching.”

“Can I give you another hug?” Anna asked.

“Please.”

Anna hugged him again, and Peter buried his face in her shoulder.

“I feel so helpless. Gods children are being killed in front of our eyes, and the entire nation is celebrating it, like as if it’s something heroic that is happening.”

Anna and the rest nodded. Peter joined us on the floor, and squatted next to me.

He continued in the same tone, “And to make it worse…our president acts as if he got some message from God to conduct this war…how can he reconcile his faith with this abomination?”

There was not a trace of false empathy in his voice or demeanor, which I had often seen in people expressing sadness about the Iraqi invasion. His sadness stemmed from his moorings in the Catholic faith, which made it more visceral for him.

Following the poster-making session, I trudged reluctantly back to my housemates, wondering why I didn’t take up Anna’s and Mary-Rose’s invitation to smoke a joint in their apartment. That feeling was accentuated when the only entertainment waiting for me in my so-called home was an exercise in mental endurance as I listened to a two-hour description from my bunkmate, Slovenly Misogynist, about the visit to a local strip joint he was able to finally make with his friends.

Apparently the dancer’s breasts came within inches of his slobbering face, and he could see the skin tone around her nipples. Vivid descriptions of her every anatomical detail, which resulted in a sharp migraine for me, left me amazed at his ability to de-eroticize every part of a woman’s body while simultaneously put a spanner in the works of my own rapidly evolving sexuality.

A joint with Anna and Mary-Rose sounded heavenly right about then.

***

The anti-war group I joined ended up being my only source of solace and sanity for the one semester I spent in Erie, Pennsylvania. Anna and Mary-Rose generously shared their friendship and weed with me once I took them up on their initial offer. The two of them were the best of friends and they invited me into their fold with open arms, which I gratefully accepted. Jane was like an aunt, caring and kind; the familial presence I missed so much. And Peter was the one male presence at that time, in a world of sexist housemates and narrow-minded authority figures, who didn’t make me feel like castrating myself.

But it was within a bubble. The moment I stepped out of the bubble, the reality of the environment I was in gnawed at me.

Like this one time when Mary-Rose and I attempted to solicit the endorsement of Students For Life for an anti-war petition we had drafted. We rationalized that this was a petition valuing the lives of all children, especially those in war, and that since they valued the sanctity of unborn lives, they might consider endorsing it.

“Well, we at Students For Life are completely in favor of the war.” said the beatific red-haired girl.

“Um…why is that?” Mary-Rose asked, barely able to hide her incredulity at what the chair of a group that had Life in its title was saying.

“We support our troops of course, who are bringing real freedom to Iraqi children!” she replied assuredly while tucking into a Caesar salad.

Mary-Rose was speechless, as was I.

“Plus,” the girl continued while masticating purposefully on some iceberg lettuce, “Saddam Hussein has, like, all these nuclear weapons and stuff. So, you know, we have to bring him down to make the world a safer place.”

“Well…uh…what about your goals to protect children’s lives?” Mary-Rose attempted again, in vain.

“Our troops are after the terrorists!” she replied, a little more indignantly now. “We’re saving Iraqis, not trying to kill them!”

Needless to say, Students For Life didn’t endorse our petition and, on hindsight, it was probably pretty foolish to have even approached them. I later rationalized it as wanting to make them uncomfortable.

In another attempt at garnering support, Jane forwarded my name for a students’ panel on the war. Of the five panelists, I was the only anti-war speaker.

After making my impassioned presentation on militarism, imperial conquest, and the façade of freedom for Iraqis when oil was the real determining factor, the next speaker took his place at the podium. He cleared his throat, adjusted his spectacles, and straightened his immaculately pressed ROTC uniform with poise.

“While my esteemed colleague’s presentation was of the highest caliber in delivery,” he said commandingly, “what he fails to realize is that the Almighty Lord has given us, the United States of America, the technology to deliver missiles and mortars that will only kill terrorists and not harm civilians in any way.”

He received a standing ovation even before he started his presentation while I smiled through the insanity of it all.

Ultimately, it was in DC, with a massive anti-war march that I found the hope in numbers I so desperately craved.

The antiwar movement might not have stopped the invasion of Iraq, or do anything really to stem the onward march of imperialist thuggery – but it gave me the reassurance I so desperately needed that humanity was still thriving in America. What an experience it was.

Anna, Mary-Rose, and I were high as kites in the backseat of Jane’s car during the road trip to DC. Peter would look back occasionally from the front passenger seat, and knowingly smile as we giggled at each other. Jane drove the entire six hours to DC and, thankfully, chattered away excitedly about the potential influence this antiwar rally could have on government foreign policy.

The high wore off as we neared DC, and we got ready to join the demonstration. For the first time since landing in America, I saw the rich diversity of the land in its people and politics.

I saw flags of every hue and color. Red, green, blue, rainbow colored, ones with large peace signs on them, patterns that represented different nationalities, including the Stars & Stripes, held sometimes upside down. I noticed with joy a number of Palestinian flags being held by men and women wearing Palestine-solidarity t-shirts. I saw banners with slogans ranging from specific interest groups like Veterans Against The War to stated ideologies like Down With Imperialism and Capitalist Exploitation. I even saw a couple of succinct ones that showcased personal opinions like Bush Is A Thug and Cheney = Satan. The banners were held proudly as the teeming masses marched and demonstrated in the streets of downtown DC.

Every once in a while the scent of weed wafted through the air, prompting knowing grunts and smiles from those smelling it. There were groups of older hippies who dressed in flower-power getup, while younger anarchist and socialist radicals often had shades of prominent black and red on their clothing. I noticed many young, presumably Arab, folk wearing their politics of liberation on their sleeves and keffiyehs, something I would never have seen in the small town I just came from. Drum teams kept the tempo and rhythm of the march going with high energy percussion, while creative chants emanated from different corners of the march.

In the midst of all this beauty, I developed the overwhelming urge to pee. I had drunk too much coffee that morning and not had much to eat. I told the rest of the gang that I was going to slip into one of the nearby coffee shops to answer the call to nature.

“No problem….we’ll wait for you in the corner right opposite.” Jane said pointing to a prominent looking street corner.

I nodded and worked my way through the jam-packed crowds towards the jam-packed coffee shop. Forty minutes later, I caught up with my friends at the corner.

“We thought you had decided to take a nap in there!” Mary-Rose jokingly exclaimed, while slapping me on the shoulder.

“You should have seen the queue in the coffee shop for the loo.” I tried explaining.

“Crazy Indian boy with your British lingo! You mean the line in the coffee shop for the restroom!” she joked, poking my abdomen affectionately.

I laughed. For whatever reason, I didn’t take offense to it. I guess that’s because she was my friend. It wasn’t demeaning like many of my earlier interactions with Americans had been, with the random stereotyping and racism. It was a moment where I felt a bond, however temporary, that undid those previous interactions. I think the fact that I was in a liberated space with antiwar demonstrators and an atmosphere that negated bigotry added to it. It was nice. For the first time since I landed in America, I felt like I was in a place I could maybe call home. Maybe.

[Next up: Friendship of convenience]

Slovenly Misogynist and Fiefdom King

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Most immigrant journeys have their fair share of crappy housemates.

My journey, tragicomically, was no different.

If there was any hope of finding a nice haven in my new home as an international student in America, it was summarily dashed within no time at all. I had four housemates. Two of them were relatively harmless, albeit eminently forgettable for their palpable lack of anything interesting to talk about apart from Telugu movies and impending arranged marriages. The other two stood out significantly however in terms of the levels of angst they inflicted upon me – my bunkmate whom I nicknamed Slovenly Misogynist, and the head of the lot who occupied his own room with all the amenities possible, whom I nicknamed Fiefdom King.

They are deserving of a few words of description here because their abominable lack of dignity is seared in my memory.

Let’s start with Slovenly Misogynist. For some inexplicable reason he thought that merely because we had been stuck together as bunkmates, we also needed to be bosom friends. I wouldn’t have minded that if it weren’t for the fact that he repulsed me in a particularly acute manner. It wasn’t the fact that he wore his jeans loose with a belt that tried valiantly to hold them up against the globules of fatty midriff seeking to sag ever downwards. It wasn’t the fact that each time he bent down even slightly, an inch or two of his hairy ass crack gaped at the sorry soul behind him. It wasn’t the fact that he sometimes lifted his shirt and contorted his belly fat with his hands to accompanying grunt-like sounds in an attempt at humor. It wasn’t even the fact that when he slept he snored like a water buffalo with bronchitis.

I could have put up with all of that if he were actually a moderately likeable human being. But he wasn’t. For starters, in unavoidable night-time conversations I quickly found out that his reason for getting a Masters degree revolved singularly around getting a higher dowry for his impending arranged marriage back in Hyderabad.

“I know that my parents will be able to get a higher amount if I get a Masters degree from Amreeka,” he chortled, while lying in bed, his voluminous belly straining out of his pajamas, “and it will be really useful…I can use the money from the dowry to start my own business and everything.”

“You don’t think it’s wrong to demand money from your future wife’s family?” I asked, in a desperate attempt at finding a latent conscience in him.

“Not at all.” he replied with surety. “In fact I think it’s useful for her, considering she is coming over to my house and family. I am after all taking care of her…this way she makes sure she is taken care of properly.”

“Is that right?” I replied, the sarcasm in my voice flying over his head.

“Well…” he contemplated, failing to notice my disgust towards him, “if she were really beautiful…and I mean she would have to be really pretty…then I could consider taking lesser dowry, but otherwise, I would expect a big dowry, especially as I’m getting a Masters now from Amreeka.”

There were still sections of Indian society who deemed it fit to indulge in the repugnant practice of dowry, despite its unequivocal illegality. I had cultivated an inherent disgust towards them. Growing up, my mother and father, as well as my aunts and uncles, made it amply clear just how despicable they thought dowry-mongers were.

When I wrote to my parents whining about my new bunkmate, my dad gave a succinct reply by email, “Just forget about such cretins…there is no point debasing yourself to engage with the likes of them.”

I agreed with my dad on principle. The problem was that said cretin could not just be wished away. I shared a room with him, and try as I might, I couldn’t avoid him. Slovenly Misogynist also felt a sordid need to bond with me over the objectification of women, something he believed would be a natural thing to do. I might have been able to tolerate it if there were other, more agreeable, aspects to his persona. Try as I might, I couldn’t find even one.

“So, what are some of your hobbies and interests?” I asked one day, trying to steer the conversation away from his gratuitous carnal desires.

“Nothing much.” he replied. “I went to college every day, and then after classes, my friends and I used to roam around the city to look at girls. There were some real bombshells near the theatres and we would go and check out which ones we would like to sleep with, you know, who we wanted to have sex with…and we would rate them out of ten.”

“Ok…” I said, desperately trying to find some other thread of conversation to embark on, “were there things you did other than ogle at girls with your friends?”

“Well…when I could, I would try and watch porn movies at home when my parents were away.”

And then commenced a vivid description of the porn movies he saw, thereby providing a sexual framework of what he would like to do and the kind of women he would like to do it with.

Now, I tried desperately to not be overly judgmental. Growing up in a sexually repressed culture under a shroud of patriarchy, I ogled at girls and watched porn too. But somewhere along the line, something fascinatingly benign known as coming out of puberty happened to my friends and I at various stages in our lives. We actually moved beyond the stunted sexuality of our teenage years to valorously attempting to deal with the growing pains of adulthood and the multi-faceted nature of a life that didn’t center solely on masturbating.

This guy clearly had not done any of that. His potentially forgivable objectification of girls as a teenager had grown into a rather unforgivable misogyny in young adulthood. I am of the opinion that all men, to some degree or the other, are dogs, at least until they know better. Some men figure out how to deal with their internalized sexism, others do not and indeed even revel in it. This guy was manifestly in the latter category. In fact he was the flag bearer of that side – the ass-crack-showing, belly-fat-jiggling, open-mouth-slobbering, flag bearer of that side.

Soon after the first few interactions, I started sleeping on the raggedy couch in the living room as a way of avoiding night-time conversation with him. I made the excuse that it was because I was studying late into the night and didn’t want to keep the light on in our room, but I think he knew I wanted to avoid him. He tried convincing me to sleep in the room a couple of times.

“We can just chat with each other and fall asleep like we normally do.” he said, trying to revive what he perceived was a break in our non-existent friendship. “When you’re out in the living room, we can’t really talk to each other at all.”

That was the point, I wanted to tell him. But I repeated my earlier excuse and soon he dropped asking me. I think he felt a little hurt by my move to the living room but I couldn’t have cared less.

Thus, I managed to extricate myself from the clutches of Slovenly Misogynist and his night-time ramblings, the discomfort of the torn couch significantly outweighed by the peace of mind received in the process.

Fiefdom King however was another matter. He didn’t irritate me in the crude way my bunkmate did. The King was slicker. Outwardly, he was the antithesis of Slovenly Misogynist. Trim and always dressed nattily, he spoke properly and respectfully about everyone. He was the only one among all of us in the house with a proper full-time job, which was like gold for us new immigrants. I had heard from the grapevine that he had fought with his earlier housemates the year before, which resulted in him desperately trying to recruit gullible newcomers like me. Apparently he and his former housemates had rented this place together, buying all kinds of amenities to make their stay more luxurious, including a DVD player, flat-screen TV, music system, and other electronic items worth a good amount of money. Soon though, his housemates got sick of him and decided to leave the house. Problem was that they had bought all those goods together, so reasoned that they ought to sell them and divide the money equally. Fiefdom King decided that since he was the one staying back in the house, the goods were his and his alone. I don’t know how he managed it, but somehow he moved all the goods into his room when they left and, in order to prevent them from being re-possessed by his disgruntled former housemates, padlocked his room whenever he left the house.

This I found out after moving in. The thing that irritated me the most (and my other housemates for that matter) was that we all paid the same in rent. I figured that if he was occupying one full room with luxurious amenities that he was loathe to share with the rest of us, then he ought to have paid a bit more of the rent. I wasn’t in a position to complain though as I didn’t know anyone nor did I have the means to search for a new place in the dead of winter, something I’m sure featured in his calculations when he suggested I move in with him. Ultimately though I was only there for a semester, so went with the flow, sans protest.

Fiefdom King was an ace manipulator. Before coming to town, I had emailed the international students office at the university with a request to pick me up from the bus station, something that was part of their mandate and included in the student fees covered by my scholarship. I learnt that Fiefdom King, upon knowing that I was an Indian student, offered to pick me up instead of having one of the advisors from the office do it. He played the magnanimity card as we drove to his house in a borrowed car.

“It’s always important to help out our fellow countrymen, you know?” he said, as we wound our way through the icy streets. “This is why I wanted to come pick you up. I knew that you were new here so wanted to ensure that your first steps are comfortable.”

“Um…thanks…I really appreciate it, I guess.” I said, not altogether convinced of his altruistic patriotism.

He continued in his chivalrous tone, “No problem man. I’ve been here a really long time, so I really like to help out my fellow Indians…especially because I know how tough it can be for newcomers and it’s always good to have support. I’m here to support you.”

I nodded and faked a smile. Skeptical of his tone, I was anticipating another reason to come through.

We soon reached his house.

“So…” he ventured.

And there it was.

“…have you found a place to stay as yet?” he asked in fake innocence.

I shook my head.

“No…I just got here, so I’ll probably look around soon and find a room somewhere close to the campus,” I replied.

“Well…you can just stay in my house. The rent is pretty cheap.” he said.

“Would I get my own room?” I asked.

“Of course you would.” he replied with the kind of confident tone that one must always be wary of.

I agreed at that point in time due to the convenience of it all.

“Ok…I guess that will be fine then…at least I won’t have to search for a place now.” I said, nodding my head.

“Great…well, the thing is that we have to pay rent right away since it’s due soon…so…” he stuttered.

I reluctantly fished into my backpack for my travelers checks and paid him a month’s rent. I moved my things into the crummy room he showed me, only to find out a couple of days later that what he meant by “my own room” was a room to share with my afore mentioned bunkmate, Slovenly Misogynist.

When I confronted him about this, he played dumb.

“I didn’t realize you wanted your own room to sleep in. I mean with five of us, the rent and utilities become very cheap.” he said, again with his infuriatingly fake-innocent tone.

“But you have your own room, don’t you?”

“Well…yes…”

“And you still pay the same amount of rent as the rest of us, who share rooms?”

“Um…well…I have been here the longest.”

“Why didn’t you mention all of these details in the beginning?” I asked him, now more directly.

“Listen…I wanted to ensure that you had a place to stay…otherwise where would you have gone in the middle of the winter with no friends here?” he asked patronizingly.

At that, I dropped it. In my head, the fact that I was leaving in a semester made me grit my teeth and bear the situation. I honestly wouldn’t have minded any of his slimy behavior had he been up front about the situation, in which case I could have taken a decision based on all the facts. What made me particularly mad was that he took advantage of my unsure situation as a newcomer and weaseled his way into making me stay in that dump with a disgusting bunkmate. He had the mind of a slumlord or feudal aristocrat, the kind who took advantage of desperate people, and then claimed to be doing them a favor. Fiefdom King to a tee.

To top it all, he seemed to have hit it off supremely with Slovenly Misogynist, who proceeded to regale the King with crude jokes in Telugu the day he moved in. I stepped out onto the icy porch that night as the rest of my housemates were enjoying the bawdy standup comedy routine in the kitchen. There was a lukewarm cup of coffee in my hand, which I was savoring as if it were nectar to prolong my stay on the porch. I lit up a cigarette and smoked it, blowing thick white smoke in the winter air. I looked at the red glowing ember with tenderness.

You’re a good friend. You’ll fuck me up from the inside, but at least with you I know what I’m getting into; you’re honest and you’re not disgustingly crude. You just are.

[Next up: 21st century imperialism and peaceniking]

Erie, Pennsylvania and the shakiest of starts

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[This is a series of weekly essays entitled Essays from an Immigrant Diary published every weekend for the length of the series in a chronological, memoir-style timeline.]

The scrawny, twenty-something Indian kid looked ill-at-ease heaving his hefty case to the door of the Greyhound that was taking me to my first major port-of-call in America. His discomfiture wasn’t aided by the scowl on the bespectacled, pink face of the pudgy bus driver.

“Is this bus going to Erie, Pennsylvania?” the kid asked, with a thick Delhi accent, heavily enunciating each letter, and speaking with a distinctly South Asian lilt.

“What?” came back the irritable response of the driver, who didn’t look like he had much patience for accented, brown-skinned foreigners even at the best of times.

“Um…” the kid stuttered, now a little fearful.

“Where the fuck are you going?” bellowed the driver.

The kid, like me, was new to this part of the world. But unlike me, it didn’t seem like he had grown up on a steady diet of American cultural exports. So he wasn’t able to get the driver’s accent right away.

“I’m sorry sir, could you repeat the question?” the kid asked, with a politeness and demeanor that screamed – I will do anything to assimilate into your society and make you like me!

“Oh, Christ…another one!” The driver muttered, angrily shaking his head to himself.

He then turned to face the kid, eyeballing him, and almost shouted, “Ok Apu. Where. You. Go. Huh? Where. You. Go.” presumably reasoning that raising the tone of his voice and making do without grammatical syntax would help the kid understand him better.

“Erie sir. Erie, Pennsylvania.” The kid replied hesitatingly, not realizing that his inability to drop his Indian accent and adopt an American one at a moment’s notice was infuriating the driver.

“Christ…just get in!” the driver deigned.

“But sir…my cases? I can’t bring them inside the bus. They’re too big.” The kid pleaded.

“I don’t care!” the driver shouted. “Just get in, I have a schedule to keep!”

“But,” the kid softly asserted, “the website said the driver would open the compartment at the bottom of the bus for the cases to be placed there.”

“Fuck!” exclaimed the driver, clearly upset at this timely reminder of his on-the-job duties.

He then huffed and puffed his way out of his seat, stepped out and opened the luggage compartment so the kid could heave his cases in. They both then entered the bus. The kid, now really flustered, took his seat and weakly looked around, hoping to find a sympathetic face but only getting scornful looks instead.

As the driver strapped himself in, he muttered to himself, but loud enough to elicit soft chuckles from some passengers, “This isn’t a fucking 7-11, you know.”

I wish I had said something to defend my ill-at-ease Indian brother. But I kept mum and weakly told myself that I didn’t really know what was going on. The fact that most of the passengers seemed to be angry at the kid didn’t help in undoing my cowardice.

We were soon on our way and the rest of the journey was uneventful enough, but I remained fitfully awake throughout the ride. I don’t know if I was bothered more by seeing such a racially-charged outburst this early on in my journey as an immigrant or by the fact that I did nothing to challenge it. Regardless, any hopes of getting some sleep were completely dashed.

I was on my way to grad school. My journey was to commence in the Spring of 2003 at a small Catholic university called Gannon University in the American heartland of Erie, PA. Till date I have never fully understood the rationale behind this decision of mine because I was planning on transferring to a much larger, well-known grad school in the fall anyway. I must have thought I’d get a taste of what small-town America had to offer.

And sure enough, I did.

I had flown in to DC, stayed with some Indian friends for a couple of days before taking the Greyhound to Erie, which still happened to be the largest town in its county. Thankfully my friends helped me find the bus and by the time it was ready to leave, I was able to stick my cases in the luggage compartment of the bus and find a window seat, without having to face the bile of the driver.

We finally made it to Erie and I was picked up at the bus station by another Indian grad student. His sole purpose for doing so seemed to be to rope me into staying in the three-bedroom house, which I agreed to under the assumption that there were likely to be very few options for me. He rented the house with three other Indian students, all from the same province in southern India, and speaking to each other in Telugu, the one south Indian language I didn’t know. He had been around the place for a while, so occupied one room, which he padlocked before leaving the house in the morning. The rest of us had to share the remaining two rooms, something I learnt of only after he had extracted a month’s rent out of me. I was stuck with a guy who personified sexism in its most ribald form and assumed that I would partake in it merely because I was a man.

This was one of the moments in my life when nicotine started becoming my best friend.

Thus ensconced in these trying dwellings, I made my way the next day to the Environmental Science Department of my school. I figured that even if I were to transfer to a better university, it still made sense to schmooze my professor. In the few days I had been in the States, I had only really interacted with Indians – my friends in DC, and my new housemates. I wondered if my interactions with white folk would result in sitcomesque scenarios like the ones I had seen in Friends or Seinfeld. I could have used a laugh track in my life right about then.

I walked past the giant Jesus statue in front of the main building of the campus, and entered through the revolving doors. The very first sight that greeted me in my quest for higher education in the land of milk and honey was a gargantuan, nausea-inducing poster with drawings showing a human fetus being ripped apart and extricated out of a womb, limb from bloody limb. Thankfully my breakfast that morning had consisted of nothing more than coffee and a cigarette.

As I stood for a second staring at the poster, trying to prevent my gag-reflex, I was handed a brochure for a group called Students For Life by a fresh-faced, blond-haired boy who flashed a beautiful smile, no doubt happy that the poster had piqued my interest.

While handing me the brochure, he asked me, “Do you believe in killing babies?”

“Um…I, uh…do I what?” I stuttered, wondering if this was a trick question of sorts.

“Do you know that babies across the world are killed?”

“You mean, like, from war and famine?”

“That too…but I’m talking about abortion.” he clarified. “Do you know how many babies are killed because of abortion?”

“Um…not sure.”

He turned his head and called to one of his friends at the Students For Life booth.

“Candice, can you get me the stats flyer?”

A fresh-faced, red-haired girl with an equally beatific smile walked over and stood next to the fresh-faced, blond-haired boy, handing me a flyer.

“You see,” she started without so much as a moment’s hesitation, “more babies are killed due to abortion, then all the wars and famines and violence across the world.”

“I…uh, I find that hard to believe.” I weakly stammered.

“It’s right here in the flyer.” she replied with a little indignation, stabbing at the flyer with a delicately manicured fingernail.

“Ok…well, thanks…but I…”

“Everyone has their doubts at the beginning, but the facts speak for themselves.” the girl said commandingly.

“Are you a follower of Him?” the boy then asked without batting an eyelid.

“Um…who?” I hesitatingly asked.

“Him…who else? Our lord Jesus Christ.” he stated, as if I was missing out on the nectar of life itself.

“Uh…no, not really.” I uttered hesitatingly.

“Well…see, that’s the problem.” the boy said with emphatic realization. “I think you should become a Christian…it’s the only way.”

“Ok, uh…I’ll think about it…but I have to run now to meet my professor.”

They both flashed beautiful smiles, and nodded, letting me know that they’re open to talking with me at any time.

“Just come by the Students For Life office on the third floor…we love having newcomers.” the boy said, shaking my hand cheerfully.

I was very confused. Did they just insult me and somehow make me still like them?

I shook myself out of my reverie and made my way to the Environmental Sciences department where I was scheduled to meet with my professor. I received a few more smiles from other Students For Life volunteers as I walked through the main hallway. I smiled back at them, hesitantly wondering how those kids were able to project such piety while creeping me the fuck out at the same time.

I sauntered into Professor Richards’ office where I found him perusing my mediocre grade sheets from Bangalore University. I was an average student during my Bachelors degree, but had done surprisingly well in the GRE which made a couple of decent graduate schools accept my candidacy for a Masters – but all for the Fall 2003 semester. This university was the only one that I got into for the Spring semester so I thought I’d sample it before moving on to one of the other schools. Professor Richards didn’t know that of course.

“Dr. Richards,” I said, cheerfully extending my hand, “I’m Sriram, your new student.”

He smiled broadly and stood up.

“Well, it is a real pleasure to meet you.” he warmly said, shaking my hand rigorously. “I look forward to a great year with you.”

“Thank you. I really appreciate you meeting with me.”

“I was just taking a look at your file here.” he said, pointing to an off-white file on the table. “It looks like your degree is in mechanical engineering. What prompted you to come into environmental science?”

For the briefest of moments, I contemplated telling him the truth, which was that it seemed to be the area where I had the best chance of maybe shifting over to a more social-sciences-oriented field of study, while still standing a decent chance of landing a good job. But I decided against it in the hope that feigning interest in the field would endear me to him.

“Well, I just have a longstanding interest in environmental issues,” I bullshitted, “so I wanted to make the shift in grad school.”

“And what prompted these interests?”

“Um, well…I checked out a local chemical engineering plant near Bangalore, the city where I grew up, and found that the effluents were running into the local water bodies and polluting it.” I replied. “Did a little activism around it. It prompted me to think about how to work in engineering from an environmentalist’s point of view.”

I had done no such thing, but I figured I’d play up the eager-beaver card to score some brownie points. I only had a scholarship and no job. My student visa limited me to working twenty hours on campus while forbidding any off-campus work, so rather than cleaning toilets for crappy pay, I thought I would ass-kiss my way into a research assistantship for a semester.

“That’s quite something!” Dr. Richards said. “I’m glad to see such a passion for the subject. Most international students who come here just want to get a job.”

I continued the charade, my lips still vacuum-sealed on his rear end, “You’re absolutely right Dr. Richards. It is unfortunate that more students don’t study for the sake of learning rather than just integration in the job market. I’ve always found it incredulous considering how rich the subject is.”

“That’s a great attitude you have there, um, uh…how do you pronounce your name again?”

“Oh, you can just call me Sri…Sri as in Sri Lanka.”

“Oh, are you from Sri Lanka? I thought you were from India.”

“I am…uh, it just helps for folks to pronounce my nickname right.”

There was a pause in the conversation where he gave a sagely nod, following which I tried my hand again at weaseling my way into a part-time gig with him.

“Yeah, so anyway, I’m just really excited to try and contribute to the department…you know, help with research…anything.” I ventured.

“Hmm? Oh, yeah, that’s great, that’s great…” he said absent-mindedly, his mind now elsewhere.

“I’m great with literature reviews and am comfortable with statistical analysis. Also I should have no problem with learning any new software…” I continued eagerly.

“Hmm, hmm, good to know…yes.” he said, completely unaware of my enthusiasm.

I dropped a few more hints, to which he replied with similar disinterest, alternating between staring at the wall in deep thought and glancing at my file. There was another pause as I waited with a little anticipation at the possibility of working with him.

He then asked, breaking out of his temporary daydream, “So, tell me…what’s the population like out there in India?”

I was looking at him expectantly until then and was a little crestfallen now. I also had a tough time not rolling my eyes. Not again with the population thing. What was it with Westerners and their Malthusian fascination for India’s population?

“It’s about a billion now.” I replied, waiting for the inevitable.

“A billion!” he exclaimed. “Wow, so you guys must be, like, standing shoulder to shoulder huh? Like, literally pushing each other into the ocean.”

I wondered whether I ought to tell my, allegedly PhD-holding, Environmental Studies Professor that we did none of that, that it was the seventh largest country in the world, and that India had more arable land than any other country, actually producing way more food for the population than needed, but that income inequality, corruption, and distribution were the real problems. Things that I learnt in high school.

I thought better of it though.

“You’re right Dr. Richards, a growing population is a really huge problem.” I said, now in a more metronomic voice, any hopes of a research assistantship fast disappearing. I resigned myself mentally to flipping burgers or maintaining the lawn, which would have been probably half the wages.

“Yeah,” he said, happy at being validated, “in fact the bible talks about how the harbinger of mankind’s death will be war, plague, and famine. Countries with huge populations really exemplify that.”

“No doubt.” I said, nodding unenthusiastically, and making to get up.

He continued, “And I’m an atheist for crying out loud…no religion for me, thank you very much…but it’s amazing how some of those prophecies can be eerily true.”

And thus having heard his enthusiastic and strangely theological take on the subject of over-population, I politely took my leave of Dr. Richards after shaking his hand again. I think he felt like we bonded.

My next stop was the International Students Orientation that afternoon. By now, I was a little jaded, so was hesitant at the prospect of having yet another weird experience. But I figured that it would be a simple orientation so decided to go anyway to get the logistical details of being an international student at Gannon University.

And it was indeed a simple orientation. Ms. Christy, the international student advisor, and Professor Senturk, the professorial chair of the International Students Centre, oriented us from the podium as the rest of us, numbering over a hundred, sat in one of the auditoriums of the students’ union building. Ms. Christy went through the motions of telling us, via PowerPoint, the paperwork we needed to complete, the visa regulations, how to navigate the internal employment system since we could only work 20 hours a week on campus (which was repeated multiple times), how to enroll in classes, and the culture of the campus town we were in, as well as a couple of slides on American Culture (which I thought to be rather condensed to fit in two slides, and included a bullet-point on American foods, graphically supported by cartoon drawings of, I kid you not, a pizza slice, a greasy burger, and a side of fries). Professor Senturk would chime in with his thick Turkish accent every now and then.

This all seemed normal enough, albeit a little tedious. But just as we were getting ready to leave, Professor Senturk whispered something into Ms. Christy’s ear, whereupon she asked us to be seated for just a few more minutes.

“There are just a couple more things I would like to remind everyone here about.” she explained, in a tone that now curiously shifted to the false-politeness of a prison warden addressing her inmates for the first time.

“It’s not much,” she assured us with a smile that would have frozen the Sahara, “but it’s just that in order to ensure we don’t receive complaints from other students, we ask that you please try to speak in English as much as possible, especially when you’re in public places. Um…really, it’s for your own good, you know.”

There were some annoyed murmurs that went around, but no one really had the courage to challenge an authority figure in a new land.

“No real biggie,” she continued nonchalantly, “it’s just that our American students sometimes feel like you all are talking about them when they hear strange languages being spoken.”

Apparently the office for international students was just as much for American students to complain about perceived behavioral problems of the internationals, as it was for supporting international students.

I briefly considered walking up to the podium and shouting some choice expletives in Hindi or Tamil at her and the stoic Professor Senturk. But there was no point getting all riled up and likely kicked out and deported.

“Oh, and one more thing.” she chirped.

What now?

“It’s a good idea to take showers regularly, in fact on a daily basis, to ensure that there aren’t any…um…body odor problems.” she continued in the same grating tone.

There was another pause in the auditorium, with a few more irritated mumblings, but nothing said out loud in protest.

This statement by her was a profound learning moment for me, one that I will never forget. It took me a second, but I realized that there was much to be gleaned from her brief instructions on daily ablutions. Not with regards to hygiene, but rather with the way stereotypes were fashioned.

Now, I’m sure that there was a percentage of the international student population in the US that had issues with body odor. I’m equally certain that a similar percentage of Americans dealt with those issues as well. The difference was that we were being lectured on hygiene en masse. The specific issue of body odor was actually immaterial, I realized. It could have been replaced with any other perceived flaw in an individual from a minority community, which would have been extrapolated to represent that community at large.

I also realized that I was now a member of such a community, and that I best get used to a variety of stereotypes as travelling buddies.

I nevertheless instinctively sniffed my armpits in the hope that my Old Spice deodorant was still working its magic.

Then with a little titter and wave of her hand, she continued, “We think nothing of it here, we take it for granted in fact, because water supply is not a problem in America. So you should avail of that opportunity.”

She ended with a flashing smile and a cheery tone.

Thank you all sooo much for coming here. I’m sure you all will have a wonderful time in our fine establishment.”

This couldn’t be it, I said to myself as I sauntered out of the auditorium. This simply could not be all that America had to offer. Friends and Seinfeld had told me otherwise. Where were the lovable rogues, quirky charmers, and merry pranksters that populated those representations of American society? Where were the funny plotlines, punchy dialogues, and ultimately happy endings that characterized those stories?

I suppose I deserved it for allowing myself to be lulled into a sense of comfort by the polished storylines of prime time sitcoms.

I trudged back home after a day where I’d seen a giant poster of a torn fetus, was asked to convert to Christianity, got a short primer on the population-explosion of India from someone who’d never been there, and was advised to take regular showers while speaking English, only to ironically find the rest of my evening occupied by the raucous conversations of my four Telugu housemates speaking to each other incessantly in the one south Indian language I didn’t understand. This was followed by an hour before bed where my bunkmate eagerly expounded on his desire to visit a bonafide American strip club.

If there was karmic justice for any past misdeeds I had committed, this seemed to be it.

[Next up: Slovenly Misogynist and Fiefdom King]

The diary of a fairly privileged immigrant

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[This is a new series of weekly essays entitled Essays from an Immigrant Diary published every weekend for the length of the series in a chronological, memoir-style timeline.]

Essay 1 – The diary of a fairly privileged immigrant

I think it’s best if I start this immigrant diary with my name.

Sriram Ananth.

I realize it might be a pain to pronounce, what with simultaneous consonant-laden syllables in a non-Christian name and the inherent nature of the letter “r” being one of those letters that so marks out accents – from the South Asian rough-roll to the American twang. All things considered, it might not be the easiest name to pronounce for the Western tongue.

And that’s just the shortened version.

My passport has my full name: Sriram Ananthanarayanan.

Take a wee look at that honker of a surname again – it’s an eye-popping sixteen letters long.

In order to de-exoticize my name a tad and prevent infuriatingly predictable reactions during daily-life activities like working, writing, and bar-hopping, I tend to use the shortened version, lopping off a hefty ten letters from the back. It’s completely phonetic mind you, but my guess is that unless you’re from the land of my birth, you’re not going to be able to pronounce it any time soon. So you can call me Sri, a perfectly manageable single-syllable hypocorism that all my loved ones in the Western world use to address me. Sri as in Sri Lanka. It doesn’t matter if you roll the r or not. And no, I’m not from Sri Lanka in case you were wondering. More on that soon.

Now, while these essays are brought to you under the rather broad umbrella term of an “immigrant diary” I hasten to add that I consider myself a fairly privileged immigrant.

For starters, I didn’t have to brave the Rio Grande with nothing more than some tepid water in a jerry can and a wishful prayer in order to cross into American borders. Nor am I one of those fresh-of-the-boat stories from the 19th century, evident from the fact that I’m writing this on a laptop, sitting in a small but cozy Toronto condo my partner and I recently bought. I’m a 21st century immigrant from India, and as far as I can tell I was just as happy when I was there. I didn’t escape war or famine or political oppression and my path to America (and Canada later on) was rather benign and remarkably shorn of danger.

I grew up with plenty of food on the table, a rather nice roof over my head and all my needs paid for by a very loving, nurturing family. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I realize that my “privilege” is really about having a wonderful family and community. My family was not filthy rich, but we did well enough for ourselves, and most importantly, there was a lot of love to go around.

All this provided me the ability to enter the US “legally.” Under this dehumanizing paradigm of conferring legality on human beings, I was able to follow the letter of the law because of my relative privilege in contrast to several of my fellow-immigrant brothers and sisters who couldn’t do so. I am, or at least could be, the poster boy for the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, respect-the-American-way, follow-the-law, hard working immigrant who can seek to be (but, let’s face it, ultimately never fully become) a part of North American society.

It’s an interesting space to be in. I’m more privileged than immigrants who crossed the border without documents, enduring belligerent guards and chauvinistic abuse in order to produce American food, feed American mouths, and clean American shit – a full cycle of daily sustenance that undocumented immigrants make happen for American society. I definitely didn’t have to work as hard or for as crappy pay as they had to. But I’ve also faced a good amount of racism and xenophobia in my journey as a fairly privileged immigrant. I’m not white, and certainly not that privileged as to have my non-whiteness be washed away so to speak.

I’ve seen America, and a variety of people in America, through this interestingly multi-colored lens. And it’s been one hell of a ride so far.

Ok, now that the privilege part is out of the way, I think it’s only fair to state that I’m also a progressive, one of those bleeding heart lefty-types (sans any political affiliation mind you). I feel it’s important to state that outright because my anti-oppressive philosophical framework guides the way I engage with the world and reproduce my memories on paper.

You see, my reasons for coming to North America were not too different than many other immigrants. I too came to this part of the world because it was, at least when I came over, the driving economic centre of the world. I was fascinated by American pop culture that influenced me in a variety of ways as a child and young adult. I wanted a Masters degree that would be recognized all over the world simply because it came from a top university in America. I wanted to earn a salary, however modest, in American dollars because the conversion rate to Indian Rupees would have worked well for me when I saved up and sent money back home.

Thus I came to America knowing that I would be opposing a lot of what the American government did around the world. I came with a full bag of criticisms aimed at American imperialism and war-mongering. I came knowing that the capitalist exploitation I saw as a result of American excess was resulting in disaster for vast swathes of humanity. I came unwilling to let the assimilation anxiety as a new immigrant take over my thinking. I came with the understanding that I wasn’t going to smile and acquiesce to everything that was thrown at me.

But through that I found astounding beauty in America. Like every other part of the world I had been in, I found gorgeous humanity.

And I found love in America.

Needless to say, it’s a journey that’s had its ups and downs. So I thought I’d write about it and I hope you’ll find it interesting.

This time in America can be considered the quasi-fieldwork that informs my empirical observations. This series comprises a bunch of stand-alone essays, but with an overarching sense of continuity. The essays are anecdotal narratives derived from accessing and processing my memories. I will be reproducing personal accounts and experiences, while changing the names and/or markers of certain events and people (especially folks who made life difficult for me), and have occasionally refrained from specific details because I’m not rich and cannot afford a lawsuit. The conversations and experiences I reproduce will be as true as I can remember. I hope I do this without losing the essence of those life-events. In terms of tone, I bounce around a bit, sometimes serious, often silly, hopefully reflective, every once in a while sarcastic with a visible streak of anger and pain, but ultimately bending ever so slightly towards happy and maybe even thankful.

Finally, it’s important for me to acknowledge the inherent narcissism in this exercise. It is equally important to understand it as a fallibility I’m unable to escape as a writer, especially when penning a memoir of sorts. I can only trust that I’ve been true to the experience in the most sincere way I can think of and that it will strike a chord with you.

It is a socio-political travelogue of sorts, often in the form of acerbic critique. It is highly unlikely that there’s even a single person on this earth who’s going to agree with everything written in these essays. And while the more conservative reader is likely to be rather irritated with the narratives, getting readers to agree or even sympathize with my perspective is decidedly not the aim of these essays. The only aim is to challenge, provoke, and engage the reader in as critical a way as possible. The subsequent essays will show that I bring with me a whole bucketful of viewpoints and ways of thinking that influenced what I experienced, and more importantly how I processed those experiences as a privileged, pinko immigrant journeying through the United States of America. I make no attempts at distancing myself from those biases, nor do I believe it is possible to do so. It is a journey traversing different experiences that span the entire spectrum of emotions, ultimately shining a light on the beauty of the human condition, flaws and all.

American nationalists and patriots might ask me what right I have to critique “their” country, and I feel compelled to write a brief response to this hypothetical but, I’m certain, rather likely strain of criticism. It might sound like defensiveness, but I prefer to think of it as a preemptive strike against insularity and nationalism. I would ask people to juxtapose my writing about the US against the many Europeans and Americans who have written copious volumes about the non-Western world often piggy-backing their explorations on the coattails of colonial exploitation, resulting in racist notions of Third World savagery and the so-called burdens that colonizing societies had to bear as they reveled in their manifest destiny of stealing land, resources, and cultures. They might then realize that it’s ok for me to critique a land I came to as an immigrant, and am equally a part of. I will also ask people to consider the fact that what most people know now as the United States of America was indeed someone else’s land before it got settled upon with much cruelty. So it might be morally prudent for the more jingoistic reader to take the stars-and-stripes-chest-thumping down a notch or two before reacting in disgust. (I apologize in advance for any passive-aggression in my tone. Part of my journey was a good chunk of time spent in the Midwest and that stuff tends to rub off on you.)

Most importantly however, I would invoke my right as a human being, a citizen of the world like anyone else, and humbly suggest that maybe we can look at this as an exercise in humanity. I’ve found just as much to be happy about (did I mention love?) as I have to be angry about in America, a dialectic space of troubled joy similar to the one I occupied in the land of my birth. Trust me when I say that any occasional moments of harshness in my critique of North American society is also present in spades whenever I critique various strands of Indian society.

Besides, at some point in time countries and nation-states will become a thing of the past, and we will have to struggle with nurturing communities of human beings rather than artificial borders. I am one of you and you are one of me whether we like it or not; always have been, always will be. The sooner we all realize that, the better.

I do hope you enjoy these essays from an immigrant diary.

[Next up: Essay 2 – Erie, Pennsylvania and the shakiest of starts]