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?”
“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]