Courting the big city

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I grew up in a big city. Bangalore, set atop a plateau with a moderate climate in Southern India, was a city of about six million people, and it wasn’t even the largest in India. I’ve always felt that big cities across the globe, regardless of which country they’re in, have an underlying spirit threading through all of them. The places where dreams are made and shattered, where you work crappy jobs to live in shitty rat-holes only to have a chance to reach for the stars, where multiple worlds collide in cacophonic harmony, where the designated “other” of the land doesn’t have to always be the odd one out, where anything and nothing is possible, where thought becomes a touch more free and people become a touch more open to difference, where diversity doesn’t have to be engineered.

Those are just some of the things I love about the big city and New York epitomized them in every way possible, indeed, in ways that I’d never experienced in Bangalore. It was love at first sight, love at first smell, love at first mingle.

It was the big city. My 2003 Spring Break road trip while enduring self-righteous Christian students from Gannon University became infinitely more tolerable the moment I drank in the great city. After dropping our luggage in the Brooklyn church we were staying in, we took a subway to Manhattan. As we stepped out from the underground station, I was rendered speechless.

Towering skyscrapers that seemed to reach for the clouds and claim the heavens as prime real estate. People of every race and ethnicity, often beautifully ambiguous, sometimes ambiguously beautiful. Hustle and bustle, the real kind that will sweep away the inattentive tourist like a pesky insect trying to wade through a mudslide. Aromas and stenches of every kind, with little to differentiate one from the other. Cars with horns that honked for no reason other than to merely signify their presence – “I’m here, you know,” they seemed to say, “don’t think I’ll sit idly by as long as I have this awesome noise-producer that works with nary a push of a button.” Taxi drivers who spewed expletives in a veritable cornucopia of multilingual profanity, as if they were acknowledging the diversity of humanity while celebrating our inherent oneness with the universal language of road rage.

We walked around Manhattan taking everything in and I felt something I hadn’t felt since I began my immigrant journey – I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. People of every hue and color abounded in New York, and no one gave me a second look, a relief after a road trip with all-white travelling buddies. It was marvelous. For a moment I lost my self-consciousness, something that had clung on to me like a leach for the entire trip. I had noticed how popular culture often showcased the lights and sounds of Times Square as epitomizing the beauty of the city, and they were indeed a spectacle to behold. It didn’t do much for me though. In fact seeing that unabashed testament to capitalism on steroids even repulsed me a little. I fell in love with the people.

Beautiful, teeming masses of emotion and chaos.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay very long as we had to get back to the church for an early night since we had to be at the soup kitchen early in the morning.

It was a pity. I would have spent all night on the streets of New York that evening given the chance. Maybe befriended some of the homeless folk in Central Park, who probably had more interesting things to talk about than abortion and piety. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Large & Shrill, our sanctimonious trip leader, was not going to allow that on her watch.

“Ok everyone,” she commanded, like she was talking to kindergartners, “let’s head back to the church now. This way we will still have time for a prayer circle before bed.”

I gently whispered to the great city:

Well, thank you New York for the brief respite. I’ll head back into my shell of self-consciousness now but I’ll be back to court you again.

The church basement that was to be our home for the next few days was carpeted and cozy. We proceeded to lay out our sleeping bags before prayer time. Large & Shrill had brought a childhood friend of hers to lead us at prayer time, who was larger and shriller. From the get-go, Larger & Shriller displayed a coldhearted hostility towards me that I couldn’t quite place. I don’t know whether it was because I looked like the caricaturized, post-9/11 villain that the US media had sketched out for the average American, or whether it was because I said that I didn’t follow any organized religion when we had a go-around at prayer asking each of us what church we went to.

Regardless, it was palpable and confirmed when I noticed how warmly she behaved with others after prayer time while failing to even acknowledge my exaggerated “Thank you” to her for taking the time to talk to us. I did this primarily to ensure that I wasn’t being paranoid about the obvious contempt I felt emerging from her towards me. But I wasn’t in a place where I felt I could challenge it without feeling completely unsupported, so let it pass.

Thankfully she left, and I was able to have a lovely conversation before bed with Peter about his relationship to god. We discovered a mutual love for Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, especially the version sung by Jeff Buckley.

“I love the part of the chorus where he sings of it being a broken hallelujah with such pain.” he said, emotion tinged in his voice. “It’s how I’ve always viewed my relationship with god.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

He thought about it for a moment.

“Well…it’s because that relationship is not easy…it’s a struggle.” he said.

“Is it when you’re reconciling your politics with the relationship?” I probed.

“Partly. And it’s not helped by the conservative traditions of the church. Yet at the same time my faith means a lot to me…I don’t want to leave it because of my politics.”

There was a pause in the conversations as we both thought about what he said.

He then asked, “How do you view god, Sri?”

I smiled. It was nice to be posed the question in the non-judgmental way he did.

“To be honest, I don’t know.” I said. “I prefer to think in terms of humanity, the fundamental spirit of humanity, deriving something from all bodies of thought and religion rather than only one. It’s one of the reasons I don’t follow any organized religion per se.”

He smiled warmly.

“I’m really in awe of that, Sri.” he said. “It’s a tougher path but one that will be much more enriching I feel. I think it’s amazing that you’re here with us…it can’t be easy for you.”

I smiled back. He was the only one who had acknowledged my disquiet as an outsider, and that one gesture washed away all the negativity of other interactions. We soon said our goodnights to each other and fell asleep.

***

The next morning we proceeded to begin our stint at the soup kitchen. Before we left for the Bronx, Large & Shrill got us together to ensure we knew “how to be safe” in that neighborhood.

“Always stay in a group as we walk to the soup kitchen, don’t talk to anyone on the streets, and keep your wallets or bags close to you at all times.” she instructed in a warning tone. “Remember…stay alert for any problems.”

I wondered where the hell we were going that required this kind of fear mongering. What was this anguished place they spoke of in such hushed tones? How was it eliciting such fearful awe? The Bronx. I whispered it quietly to myself. Was it a war zone? A post-apocalyptic land of doom? A place where death and despair stalked you at all hours of the day? I wondered why some members of the group were behaving like we were heading to Sarajevo under siege. It certainly wasn’t helped by the fact that Large & Shrill spoke like we needed flak jackets and armed U.N. peacekeepers to accompany us.

It was only when we stepped out of the subway station onto the streets of the Bronx that I realized why she got so paranoid and scared the crap out of the others too. It was filled with poor black people. There it was, so crystal clear that a boneheaded moron could have deciphered it. The fear that the media had generated about poor black folk had trickled down to the instructions that Large & Shrill gave to all of us. It was another profound learning moment for me. I silently wondered how many other ways the trickle-down happened across the country, day after day, and how it affected the lives of everyday people.

As we walked to the soup kitchen, a few school kids waved and shouted at us happily. I waved back and shouted a greeting, when Large & Shrill immediately came by my side and sternly said, “Sri! Don’t wave back at them! Remember what I told you all about being safe.”

I laughed, somewhat disdainfully, and replied, “They’re just kids on their way to school, saying hello. What are they going to do? Beat us to death with their lunch boxes?”

This pissed her off even more.

“Listen…I’m in charge of our group and safety, so please just listen to me and stop encouraging those kids!” she reprimanded.

I shook my head and snorted sarcastically, making sure she knew what I thought of her instructions, but decided not to say anything. There was no way that anything even mildly resembling rationality and reason would have worked with her at that moment, so I dropped it.

We soon got to the soup kitchen where we were introduced to Bea, a lovely middle-aged black woman who called me “baby” whenever she instructed me with any tasks. I took an immature glee in the fact that she didn’t call anyone else by that term of endearment. It was like an untold, invisible bond of affection that sometimes occurred between people of color.

To my utter chagrin though, I saw that Larger & Shriller was volunteering with us for the day, apparently at the behest of Large & Shrill. I didn’t feel any lessening of her hostility towards me, and to make things worse, our group split up into two teams and I was stuck with her as the lead, while Large & Shrill led the other. For the rest of the morning Larger & Shriller proceeded to order me around using the monikers “you” or “hey” and not once referring to me by name despite hearing others use it multiple times. She certainly didn’t deign to ask me what it was. The work itself was interesting and busy so I was able to let it fly. But by lunch time her bigotry was getting to me and I could feel the anger well up. I wasn’t keen on a confrontation this early in the trip though, especially as she seemed to be so highly regarded by Large & Shrill and everyone else, none of whom seemed to notice her hostility towards me.

I tried something different.

During our afternoon break, I went out to smoke a cigarette where I found Bea also having her nicotine fix. We got to chatting immediately and as we were stubbing out our cigarettes, I opened up to her.

“Listen Bea…” I ventured, a little nervously, “um…could I work with you in the kitchen for the rest of the day?”

“Sure thing baby…we could always use an extra hand.” she said affectionately.

I smiled and said, “Cool…thanks.”

There was a pause as she knowingly smiled and adjusted her apron.

Eyes still focused on her apron as she tied the string, she quietly asked, “White bitch ordering you around like you a piece of meat huh?”

I didn’t say anything and instead just chuckled in affirmation. She looked at me and smiled cheekily.

“No problem baby…you just stick with me in the kitchen while you’re here. Ain’t no one gonna fuck with you while I’m around.”

Sometimes beauty comes with just a touch of crassness that makes it shine a wee bit more.

“Thanks, Bea.” I said, trying to prevent my eyes from welling up.

“You got it baby…now come on, we got work to do.” she said with a wink.

For the rest of the time we volunteered at the soup kitchen, I made it a point to avoid both Large & Shrill and Larger & Shriller like the plague. I stuck with Bea, who was a taskmaster and maternal shield to me, an amazing woman, tough as nails on the outside with a heart of pure gold on the inside. This piece of New York was even better than the pomp of Manhattan I had been salivating over the previous day.

Thanks again New York, for your wonderful, resplendently diverse people. It’s safe to say that I have a full blown crush on you.

Our volunteer stint at the soup kitchen went by quickly. Every day, we would go there in the morning and then on the way back to the church which housed us, we would stop by some other church or visit a priest who spoke to us about grace and service.  Peter and I were particularly taken in by a gay priest who spoke rather graphically about his sexuality and the ensuing struggles with his own faith. This made some of the others a little queasy. But it was a learning experience for me. Some of the cut-and-dry assumptions I was beginning to develop about the faithful, mainly due to the majority of my traveling partners, was thankfully being de-centered.

These post-volunteering, evening trips were a little more agreeable because Larger & Shriller stopped showing up, while Large & Shrill could be effectively ignored by playing The Lord of the Rings in my head when she talked. The constant focus on faith and the incessant discussions on morality were getting to me a little though. I had nothing against anyone’s choice of spirituality or the fact that they wanted to explore it through values of their choosing as long as they didn’t force them upon me. But there were other things one could do in New York besides going to churches and talking to spiritual leaders.

Alas, it was not to be. Barring the walks to our different destinations, I wasn’t able to experience New York the way I would have liked to. But I couldn’t complain. The trip gave me a little bit of a preview, which I would have to follow up with a main viewing later on in life.

On our last day, which happened to be a Sunday, we were to go to this huge church for an evening service. It was announced the evening before. Everyone was excited.

Peter, having noticed my increasing frustration, asked in front of everyone, “Sri, you know, if you’d rather do something else while we’re at church, I’m sure it wouldn’t be a problem.”

Everyone, to their enormous credit, nodded supportively to this. Everyone, that is, except Large & Shrill.

Before she could say anything, I said, “Yeah…I think I might. It would be great to go to church with all of you, but it would give me a chance to explore a little bit of New York on my own. I’ve never been here so it would be nice.”

Large & Shrill wasn’t too happy about it, but couldn’t protest, probably because the others were quite supportive of it.

So I took the opportunity that Sunday afternoon to roam around New York. On my own. And I loved it. I told my fellow travelers that I would wait for them outside the church as their service neared an end. I didn’t have much money, so had to be content with a cheap hotdog and various street performers, many of whom seemed far more talented than the garbage the entertainment industry spat out. I took the time to look at the people. So many different personalities. So many different ways of dressing oneself. So many different mental states of being. The chaotic richness was lovely.

It would have been nice had it just ended there. It would have been nice if I could have just caught up with my group and headed back to Erie to dream of the future when I would ultimately leave for the big city, any big city.

But everything that goes up must, as they say in truistic fashion, come down.

After roaming around the city, I waited for my group by the side of the church a few minutes before their service ended. As I stood by the corner of the building, my backpack slung over my shoulders, brown winter jacket zipped up to the neck, a couple of NYPD police officers walked up to me, thumbs dug into their belts, trying their best to look rather macho.

One of them asked, “Everything ok here sir?”

“Um…yes.” I replied, a little nervously.

“What are you doing here sir?” the other asked, a little more menacingly.

“I’m…uh…I’m waiting for my friends who are in church right now.”

“Really?” he said. “Are you sure about that sir?”

“Are you actually asking if I’m sure about what I just told you I was doing here?” I asked incredulously.

This angered him a little.

“Well, why aren’t you in with them then?”

“Because I didn’t want to be in there with them.”

“Really?” he said again, like I had insulted his intelligence. “Would you mind stepping to the side of the street by the squad car sir?”

Now I got more nervous.

“What for?” I said, a little more nervously. “I haven’t done anything.”

“Just come with us sir, and don’t make it harder for yourself.” the man said, unsheathing his baton slowly.

I didn’t know if it was because I fitted the target profile for security forces in a post-9/11 environment or whether this was just par for the course with the NYPD. Regardless, I thought it better to not protest. I put up my hands in a show of compliance and nodded. He still tucked his baton under my arm and led me to the police car with the other guy in tow. They then opened my backpack, checked all my things, asked me for an ID card, patted me down after requesting me to lean against the police car, all of which I did without complaining. The nervousness didn’t go away though. It was joined by a profound sense of humiliation, particularly since the episode transpired in broad daylight with what felt like half of New York watching a large brown man in worn out clothes being searched by two equally large white men in crisp, police uniforms.

It must have been the ultimate visual cliché.

Thankfully it didn’t last long. They asked me what I was doing there again.

I repeated, “I told you officer,” trying desperately to tone down the natural sarcasm in my tone, “I’m waiting for my friends who are in church right now.”

I then added for good measure, “We’re all part of the same university, Gannon University, and we’ve come here to volunteer in a soup kitchen for a week. We’re leaving today. They decided to go to the Sunday service, while I roamed around the city for a bit.”

This calmed them down, especially once they spotted my student ID in my wallet. After rummaging through my backpack some more, and checking my wallet thoroughly, they handed them both back to me.

“Well, ok then…have a good day sir.” they then said, as they gave my stuff back to me.

The two officers watched me as I walked away from them. They then got back in their police car and drove off. I went back to the church, though now I decided to sit on the steps and light up a cigarette to calm my nerves. The rest of my group came out soon, joyful and happy. I got up and joined them.

Peter, upon seeing the slightly distressed look on my face asked me what happened as we walked towards the subway station.

“Nothing much.” I said softly, not wanting to broadcast it to everyone else for fear of embarrassment. “I just got searched by a couple of police officers a few minutes back. All I was doing was standing by the church waiting for your guys.”

“What?” he exclaimed loudly, at which point everyone else turned to us. “That’s ridiculous, they can’t search you for just standing there! That’s fucking profiling!”

Others immediately started asking what happened. I repeated the story, minimizing my hurt and trying my level best to not expect any support from them. They didn’t know what to say, other than some apologetic mumbles. There was a pause and an uncomfortable silence as we waited for our train. Large & Shrill then broke the silence.

“Sorry this happened to you Sri. You should have just come to church with us…none of this would have happened then.”

Classy.

It’s ok New York. It’s not your fault. I don’t bear any ill will. I still have a crush on you and hope to hang out with you again. Only this time I’m going to try and stay away from your men in blue. Please don’t mistake me. They are fellow human beings for sure, but they make me a little nervous. The next time I court you I’m just going to keep walking until I’m indoors.

[Next up: Trouble in anti-paradise]

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“Bring your Bible with you”

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I was about to discover for the first time that most curious of phenomena that occurs midway through each Spring semester in US universities. Hollywood had suggested to me that hormones and adrenalin ran riot during this mid-season, weeklong holiday known bountifully as Spring Break. For most students, various regions well south of the 39th parallel beckoned – parties overflowing with tequila in a Cancun poolside for the slightly better-heeled; the august dwellings of a distant cousin who sold weed in Tampa for others.

In Gannon University, I was soon to learn that some even utilized this break from undergraduate scholarly activities and dorm-room angst to embark on Bible-thumping retreats. (You know, the scary kind, on a ranch and everything.)

The break however took me by surprise and not in a good way. I had to quickly come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t just bury myself in the library or computer lab to escape my living quarters. The prospect of spending an entire week cooped up with my housemates, Fiefdom King and Slovenly Misogynist, for company sent a cold shudder down my spine. I also realized that the Hollywood representations of said holiday break didn’t exactly work for struggling, international grad students from India. I didn’t see too many brown folk in those representations save for the wait staff and entertainers. In any case, I didn’t have the friends or the money for anything resembling raunchy hedonism, and even if I did, my in-built cultural gene of prudishness would have kicked in.

So I needed something to do. Something where I could connect with a few more people and maybe make a couple of friends in the process.  I decided to ask Jane, the feminist, anti-racist Catholic nun, who was now an elder-sister-type friend of mine, for some advice.

“Why don’t you go on one of the trips that the Center for Social Service organizes during Spring Break for students to do volunteer work?”Jane suggested.

“What are they like, these trips?” I asked.

“Well, basically students get together and go on an organized trip to a city and volunteer in soup kitchens or homeless shelters,” she explained, “but more than anything it’s a learning experience.”

It sounded better than doing nothing.

“And it’s not expensive at all as students drive together in a van, and living arrangements for the week are taken care of by churches we partner with. I can help allay some of the costs too…” she caringly added, knowing that money was super tight for me.

It was like the beauty of her soul guided her every waking moment. I took her up on her generous offer.

“Thanks Jane, I think I’ll definitely look into it.” I said, nodding my head.

The next day I went to the center that Jane worked in to see the trip listings. I scanned the list pinned on the notice board. The first one to catch my eye went something like…

Montana: Come take part in building a home for an impoverished family with Habitat For Humanity. Experience the Land Of Shining Mountains with your hard hats on!

Building a home sounded like fun. But Montana? I was looking to get away from semi-rurality, not dive headlong into it. No offense to the good people of Montana, great folks I’m sure, but I just wasn’t in the mindset right then to go to a state that prided itself on being Big Sky Country – primarily because I knew it meant a lot of white people staring my very brown ass off. I was looking for something more urban right about then – tall buildings, crowded city streets, and ethnic smorgasbords.

Next posting please.

Washington DC: Find grace and service in the name of our Lord by volunteering with an inner city mission. Experience our nation’s great capital while serving God’s children.

DC was a big city for sure, and from what I had heard, it was a great place. It was the capital of the country too with all those museums and monuments. I would have loved to see DC but I wasn’t super keen on any uber-moralizing religious stuff. The whole finding grace thing was not exactly my cup of tea. Plus, I was moving soon to a school in Baltimore anyway, so figured that I’d be seeing a lot of DC during that time.

Next.

Louisville, Kentucky: Work to rejuvenate a city block in Louisville by planting trees, painting signs, cleaning the area, and having fun while doing it! Sample some famous Southern hospitality while volunteering for a good cause.

The work sounded like my kind of thing. Outdoors and physical. Also, Blues and Jazz were some of my all-time favorite genres of music. I had always wanted to experience them in the South. And I loved fried chicken. Without a doubt, the South had the best comfort food America had to offer. Mouth-watering cholesterol and future anginas. The only problem was that I had a stereotype of the South as a particularly racist part of America that I was unwilling to challenge right about then. Mississippi Burning was one of my favorite movies growing up and it left an indelible cultural impression on me.

It was still the best option from what I had seen so far.

But there was still one more to go…

New York City: Travel to the Big Apple and volunteer in a soup kitchen in the Bronx. Experience the world’s greatest city while volunteering to end poverty and hunger. 

And there we had it. As clear a winner as any. I had always wanted to visit the world’s most famous city and see what it was like. I was a big city person. And it didn’t get any bigger than New York. This was the trip I would sign up for.

I took a registration form and promptly went to see Jane about signing up for the trip.

***

On the day of the orientation for our trip, I was pleasantly surprised to see Peter sitting in the classroom with others who had signed up. Earlier, I had found out that Mary-Rose and Anna were heading to Kentucky. I think that if I’d known that beforehand, it would have swung the pendulum firmly in favor of Kentucky for me. I would have loved to join them on the Spring Break trip, but it was nice that Peter was there on this one.

“Dude! I didn’t know you were on the New York trip…that’s awesome!” he exclaimed in joy when he saw me.

“Of course man, who wouldn’t want to go to the Big Apple?”

He smiled at my pathetic attempt at acculturation and gestured warmly for me to sit next to him, which I proceeded to do. As with most endeavors I partook in outside of the cesspool I called my house, I was the only person of color in a group of white people. A big-ass chocolate chip in a sea of vanilla.

A large girl with big glasses and a shrill voice conducted the orientation. It was, for the most part, a rather dry presentation of the trip ahead and our living arrangements.

“So, that’s what we need to do for our sleeping arrangements.” Large & Shrill said as she finished elaborating on the sleeping bags we had to bring.

She continued, “Regarding prayer time. We suggest that you bring your Bible with you, since we will be attending prayer services in various churches in New York. We will also be having daily spirituality time in the evenings with one of us reading a passage from the Bible and discussing it.”

I realized that I couldn’t escape this stuff no matter what, so just had to make do. Peter looked at me and smiled sympathetically. It was sweet. The kind of smile that suggested he was looking forward to the church visits and Bible readings, but that he also cared about me.

“So, do think about verses that you would like to share as your favorites.” Large & Shrill continued excitedly, the light in her eyes shimmering through her steel-rimmed glasses.

Then she looked at me.

Boy, did the light drain out of her eyes.

Others followed her gaze.

“And…um, well….uh, if you’re not, uh…not Christian and follow some other faith, you know…you can maybe bring the book of that tradition.”

She could not have looked more uncomfortable had she tried. And the rest of the group felt it too. I merely smiled back at them sheepishly, not really knowing what to say or do.

I was probably the first brown guy they had seen in their lives, other than maybe Disney’s Jafar.

(For the uninformed, Jafar is the hook-nosed, brown-skinned nemesis of the very Caucasianly drawn hero, Aladdin, who’s technically of the same ethnicity as Jafar yet curiously enough managed to procure the facial features of a natty tennis instructor from Maine plying his trade in a Danielle Steele novel.

But I digress…)

There were so many things that were comically inept about the situation. She didn’t know my religion, because I had not divulged anything about it. But what really struck me with what was, for the most part, a really harmless interaction was that she wasn’t open and honest about the fact that she didn’t know how to deal with the oddity in the group that was me (something I would experience countless times with white folk in the years to come).

In any case, awkward discomfort apart, the rest of the orientation provided useful information on the trip. I was still looking forward to it, though I wasn’t super keen on the self-conscious interactions that I now realized were going to follow me during the trip. A few days later, we all gathered in front of the college campus to begin our road trip to New York. The main organizers had rented a large van to take us there.

Back in India, I noted something about travelling Westerners, or even my own American or European relatives when they visited us.

They almost always over-packed.

Items for every conceivable occurrence on the trip were stuffed into gargantuan backpacks that seemed to have pockets in the oddest places. The sleek noise of zippers against synthetic fiber and the crisp sound of velcro abounded as folks tried to smash half their lives into their backpacks in Tetris-like fashion. I always wondered why one needed three pairs of footwear. Indoor, outdoor, and that post-modern, surreal space in between?  Or why travelers had more sets of clothing than the actual days of the trip. Or why they carried enough medication to deal with every known symptom on earth twice over, and have a little left over to donate to a local village medical dispensary while regaling the wonder-eyed apothecary there on the benefits of Western medicine.

(My wonderful partner and soul mate, a white queer woman from Iowa with remarkably simple tastes and uncomplicated joys, continues to fascinate me with how much she believes she needs for a weekend trip while I throw in a toothbrush and a change of underwear into the side pocket of her duffel bag.)

Once we managed to stuff everyone’s voluminous luggage and bodies into the van, we were off. The trip was as eventful as a trip with religious, small-town kids from America could be. Any stereotypes I had about raucous American college-goers were torn apart as the conversation ranged from ways to strengthen the anti-abortion movement (and judging from the conversation, I’m sure I was the only pro-choice person in the van) to moralistic pity at those kids in the university who didn’t go to church. It felt like I was privy to a world I would never have otherwise willingly entered. They treated me with admirable politeness but, apart from Peter, didn’t know how to interact with me or draw me into their world. So I took the opportunity to be a bit of a fly on the wall and listened instead of participating. It worked for everyone as they didn’t have to really step out of their world.

“It’s not like I’m being forced to go to church.” one skinny guy squeaked on the topic of kids who didn’t go to church. “I want to go. Every Sunday morning, it’s what I look forward to.”

“I know what you mean.” Large & Shrill chimed in. “I want to tell them ‘if you want to live your lives without any values, it’s your funeral, but don’t blame me for being close to God.’”

Large & Shrill was already beginning to irritate me with her tone of permanent judgment. As the topic soon shifted to abortion, the same unity of ideological belief was coupled with a particularly strong vehemence against the actual act of abortion. The trip was an eye-opener to see just how central the issue of abortion was to most American Christians, especially the flocks outside the big cities.

“It is crystal clear that life begins at conception!” one of the girls cried out as the conversation heated up, all of them agreeing with each other but still trying to out-passion one another.

“Absolutely,” Large & Shrill chimed in again with the same tone, “and there’s a simple solution for unwanted pregnancies. Don’t have sex! But if you choose to indulge in it before marriage, then you must have the baby if you get pregnant.”

“Yeah…don’t commit the crime if you can’t do the time.” squeaked the skinny church-going boy in clichéd triumph.

Every once in a while though, there was a voice of partial reason.

One of the more reasonable-sounding members of the group, her dark brown hair tied in a ponytail, said in a feisty manner, “Well, our work against abortion will be of no use without also working to promote the spread of adoption. I could be fighting abortion till my grave, but it will be of little value unless I also fight for widespread adoption.”

The interesting thing was that she was the most ardent anti-abortion activist in the group but still displayed a modicum of rationality. Made me wonder just how much someone like Large & Shrill actually knew of the complexities surrounding the issue in real life.

I did get a few words in edgeways, mostly by way of a couple of questions, and they made for a brief but interesting conversation.

“What about folks who can’t afford to have children and get pregnant?” I ventured, while the abortion conversation was going on. “Should they be forced to stay away from abortion?”

The van went pretty silent. I had not said anything, so a new voice in the mix stopped the rest, but I don’t think they expected even such a minor challenge in what they probably perceived to be a very friendly space for anti-abortionists.

“It’s definitely a problem.” said the dark-haired, rational girl. “Without addressing poverty, it’s difficult to address abortion.”

The little church-going boy then said, “Well, I mean if you’re talking about inner-city families, they need to get educated first and learn good life practices and values.”

Before anyone could respond, Large & Shrill piped in, the irritability distinctly noticeable in her tone, “When you think about it, this country fought a war to end horrible things like slavery. It’s done the most to alleviate people everywhere, so to give that issue as an excuse for abortion is not cool.”

That was enough to silence me. I told myself that I would have to pick and choose the topics I broached based on the company I was in. But it was the start of another learning moment for me. As I continued on my immigrant journey, I would find many white folk getting touchy about issues surrounding race and poverty, and even when they did engage with it, it was often via an awkward, feet-shuffling disavowal of personal privilege, followed by a suppressed indignation at the discomfort they were subjected to.

I also realized that I had a very interesting vantage point. As far as they were concerned, I was an outsider, so much so that my brown skin didn’t matter because it didn’t have an American history attached to it. If I were Black or Latino, I think my all-white traveling buddies would have been a little more averse to speaking their minds. I had been gifted a bystander view into a section of white America. And akin to what had transpired in the van, interesting viewpoints sans political correctness would be shown to me from time to time for years to come.

[Next up: Courting the big city ]

Mandatory Shoestring Budgeting

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I have generally always been good with money. From an early age, my parents instilled in me a moderately healthy relationship to that symbol of fiat, that all-encompassing mode of exchange, that emblem of enumeration utilized in a two-way relationship with labor and goods. It was a relationship that acknowledged the need for money in this current day and age for food, shelter, and clothing while also being wary of its potential for evil, its ability to influence power in horrible ways, and its capacity to dehumanize.

This has meant that while I’ve always been pragmatic about the need for money in order to garner the basic material necessities I need in my life – a house, decent food, passable clothes, as well as other less essential (or more essential depending on how you look at it) things like beer and a computer with internet – I have neither craved obscene wealth nor do I find anything romantic about poverty or extreme austerity.

This early philosophical outlook on money however didn’t really prepare me for making ends meet on a shoestring budget. With my folks, I just took the food, shelter, and clothing (not to mention education and entertainment) they provided for granted. I never had to worry about shoestring budgeting as long as I stayed in Bangalore with my parents. That little life lesson happened for me in the cold and lonely environs of Erie, Pennsylvania as a clueless international grad student bumbling his way through America. For one inglorious semester in the spring of 2003, in Erie’s Gannon University, my middle-class moorings and take-for-granted attitude was dealt a solid life lesson as I had to find a way to live on $400 a month.

Later, when I left Erie in the summer of that year and moved to Baltimore, I got a job as a curriculum developer at Johns Hopkins University that paid me a monthly wage of $800. I was happy. I knew that I could live on such a paycheck easily, and maybe have a little something left over to go out for a meal with friends.

Following that sojourn, when I left Hopkins after completing my Masters in 2004 to work at a non-profit in Boston, my contract stipulated a yearly salary of $32,000 with benefits. I was over the moon at what I perceived to be a mini fortune. I was able to save a sizeable chunk of the money every year for the three years I worked there, having resolved to continue living like a grad student.

My mental adaptability to what some, though certainly not everyone, might consider mediocre wages was not by accident. I believe one of the reasons for it was because in Erie I was earning said princely sum of $400 a month for rent, food, books, travel, and any other miscellaneous expenses.

Gannon University must have realized that international students were desperate. We could legally work only twenty hours on campus, and there was no union to speak of that could fight for better working conditions. All of us desperately needed those shitty-ass jobs to eat and pay rent. So they figured that they could get away with paying us the least that they legally could – the hourly minimum wage, which according to the 2003 federal standard was $5.15.

One of the consequences of having to live only on $400 a month was that I couldn’t escape my gratingly irritating housemates, Fiefdom King and Slovenly Misogynist. I couldn’t afford to. There were, in total, five of us living in a three bedroom house that cost approximately $800 total for rent and a little over $100 for utilities. Fiefdom King occupied a room, Slovenly Misogynist and I shared one, and two others shared the other. As I’ve mentioned before, within the micro-feudal system that desperate immigrants often find themselves in, there was little we could say or do about it, so Fiefdom King had his own abode for an equal share of the rent.

It was still cheap though, which was the only reason I went with it, as we each had to pay only about $200 a month for rent and utilities. We also managed to keep our groceries and household items down to about $125 a month per person by shopping in the cheapest stores we could find. After having grown up in Bangalore on whole grains, lentils, beans, fresh vegetables and yogurt provided in a variety of delectable permutations by my wonderful mum, I made the painful discovery that the cheapest food in America was the most processed garbage one could find on a store shelf.

This left me with about $75 a month for books, travel, stationary supplies, coffee, entertainment, and miscellaneous expenses like cigarettes (that I considered at the time to be a necessity for my own sanity). With a dash of ingenuity and micro-economic strategizing, I figured out how to make that money stretch.

One of the challenges I faced was with getting enough to eat while on campus.

I tried to ensure that I ate at least one meal at home or packed my lunch before I left for campus, in addition to ensuring that I had my caffeine fix so as to not have to buy coffee in school. But I often had to be on campus for the whole day, both for my studies and to avoid my housemates. I would leave early in the morning and return late at night, so I tended to buy at least one meal in the cafeteria. I would then calculate it based on a simple inverse equation of minimal cost for the highest calorific intake that provided a full stomach. A bagel cost around $1. Quite cheap even for someone of meager means. However a bagel tastes bland by itself, it is merely a carbohydrate vehicle for the fatty flavor of cream cheese, which meant that one had to spend another $1.50 to buy said spread.

Not necessarily.

I discovered that condiments such as mayo, ketchup, mustard, and ranch dressing were offered for free in the cafeteria. Large plastic containers resembling over-sized moisturizer bottles squirted these flavor-pastes into small cups meant for people carrying hefty salads or hamburgers. I couldn’t afford the salads or burgers, but I could have my bagel taste quite a bit better without spending that extra $1.50 by squeezing out copious amounts of said condiments in lieu of cream cheese. I would even mix and match to provide new flavors. Two memorable combos were ranch dressing mixed with some mustard to give it a little kick, and mayo mixed with a dash of ketchup to provide me with future perspective whenever I complained about food in later years. I ate a lot of bagels that semester. Not exactly the pinnacle of healthy eating of course. But tight budgets have a way of preventing, say, a desire to go full-on paleo or Atkins in one’s diet.

(’tis the reason why I believe the overwhelming majority of dieters seem to be quite white and socially well-placed, though still quite grouchy. Carbs, while providing calories for those with lesser means, can still be devilishly satisfying.)

I also discovered that American universities often had events with free food in them, even if the events were not necessarily of one’s ideological persuasion. If it got me a meal, I was willing to listen to whatever religious sermonizing or right-wing political discourse on display.

They were not always painful however, and sometimes caught me by surprise in offering me new knowledge without my even seeking it out. I once attended a talk entitled “Sand and Salt” organized by a student group called The Ark. Not getting the group’s obvious reference to Noah, the mythical floods, and his acute obsession with zoology and maritime engineering, I decided to attend. I thought it might be a geological presentation. Not my exact area of study, but of interest to me nevertheless. I was happy to be partaking in a meal while gaining some knowledge in a discipline that fascinated Einstein himself as a child. Following a ninety minute talk and discussion however, I left with a full stomach and a pronounced take on a specific passage from the King James Bible on foolishness, wickedness, and lack of sense. Specifically, I gathered that “sand, salt, and a mass of iron were easier to bear than a man with no understanding” (Ecclesiasticus 22:15), which I took to be Bible-speak for “don’t be an ignorant dumbass.”

So that’s how I handled daily sustenance and uber-Christian morality for cheap.

But travel?

Fiscal responsibility in that regard was undertaken by walking to campus and back. I figured that it probably saved me a couple of bucks each day, which added up to a substantial portion of my monthly wages. The only problem was that my one semester at Gannon University was in the dead of winter in a town that was literally named after one of the Great Lakes, the shores upon which said town sat and doggedly faced the brisk cold fronts that wafted over icy waters. But I was fit. I was an athlete in high school and college. I still did pushups and crunches to stay strong. I figured the walking would counter the daily cigarettes providing me the nicotine-laced relaxation I craved. I had a reasonably good pair of boots and a decent winter jacket, thanks to the foresight of my parents, which held me in good stead during those winter trudges. Walking also helped my mind get greater focus, a practice I have imbibed to this day. Despite the cold, walking was the most agreeable of the cost-saving measures I undertook that semester, and the only one I persisted with even when financial pressures weren’t as pronounced.

Books were a different issue altogether. I needed course-related books in order to study and get good grades, but they were astoundingly expensive and I couldn’t afford them. In India, one had informal networks to get books photocopied for cheap. In America, those networks were not available to me. This was when I discovered the library, and a particularly pedantic way of navigating the limited duration for which I could keep borrowed books. I copied by hand, word-for-word, excerpts from the chapters that I would need to peruse at a later time, along with detailed notes on the rest. I carried a modified version of this practice into the university I transferred to and much later on for my doctoral work. It proved invaluable as a treasure trove of notes to refer to when blasting out term papers. All I had to invest in was a box of felt-tip pens as the ball-point ones I used gave me a sharp pain in my wrist at the end of the day.

Finally came the one expense that was most definitely a luxury and an unhealthy one at that, but one that I rationalized was a tool for sanity-maintenance. When I flew into America, I bought a $15 carton of Pall Malls duty-free during my layover in Frankfurt. This carton of two hundred cigarettes lasted me for some time. But with the increasing isolation and craziness, I was down to my last pack sooner than I had anticipated. I found that the cheapest cigarettes were around $5 a pack, which would have been a big hit on such a meager budget, considering I was up to smoking five or six cigarettes a day. It was then that I realized I was paying a good amount specifically to have cigarettes pre-rolled for me by Messrs. Phillip and Morris. Instead I found that buying a bag of smoking tobacco and rolling paper considerably cut costs for me, gave me a stronger high, and kept my noxious habit to a fairly low expenditure.

The initial attempts at rolling my own cancer-sticks were comically inept. I slathered the rolling paper with voluminous amounts of saliva, causing the paper to rip apart as I tried to roll them. Preventing the tobacco I had carefully placed in the centre of the paper from falling out was like trying to get the bubble in a spirit-level perfectly in the centre. Rolling cigarettes, I painfully found out, were exercises in balance and poise. I’m sure that during those frustrating first days at rolling cigarettes, I must have looked vaguely like an angry pantomime. The necessary tact required for this was hindered by moisture overcoming the thin coat of glue on the edge of the paper. The few sorry looking cigarettes that I managed to roll together would fall apart after a few puffs, and I would restart the painful exercise from scratch. But I soon became quite skillful at it, and the joy of having the stress-busting nicotine at a significantly lower price ensured I continued this practice till I could afford regular cigarettes again.

Thus panned out a semester of survival and several life lessons of varying importance for yours truly – all for just $400 a month.

[Next up: “Bring your Bible with you”]

The Purge of Prudishness

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I’d like to shift to a slightly lighter topic for this essay. I feel compelled to write about a mental disposition I discovered about myself (and the society I hailed from) as I navigated those first few steps of my immigrant journey. I had a latent understanding of this mental disposition while growing up in India, but I had to really step out of that space to see how entrenched it was.

Now, I am of the opinion that most Indians, indeed most South Asians, have a genetic predisposition towards prudishness – not a physiological gene, mind you, but a cultural one. For the uninformed, the principle function of this gene is to induce steady amounts of caution to sterilize any thoughts of fun that the average South Asian brain might dare to consider. In and of itself the average South Asian brain is not particularly capable of envisioning what the rest of the world would consider fun, but even when it does (potentially through the resuscitation of dormant thoughts hitherto crushed by social moors), the prudishness gene will immediately kick in like a counterintuitive adrenaline gland.

This is possibly the reason why our most famous piece of erotica, the Kama Sutra, is a couple of thousand years old, probably took the same amount of time to write, and just as much time to hesitatingly plod its way into the homes and hearts of the denizens of the land. The illustrious authors would have had to wage monumental battles with the prudishness gene in order to just get a first draft going. Those ancient scholars of sexology, their minds wracked with contradictory voices, must have wondered, “But…we’re Indian. How on earth can we show ourselves having fun when making love?” It’s possibly also the reason why all the figures in the memorable book, making love in every position imaginable, look like they’re bored out of their fucking minds (pun, very sadly, intended).  Subsequently, those who were interested in reading it must have had to wage further monumental battles with this repressive gene in order to summon up the courage to ask ancient book-sellers for a little look-see, while simultaneously dealing with the stern, judgmental stares that they would have received from the person next to them buying the latest version (circa 200 BC) of the best selling palm-leaf manuscript, 3000 Gods and You: Navigating the confusion to find inner peace and do away with joy.

Thus, the prudishness gene has been passed down the ages. In India, I just took it as a given. A mind-numbingly oppressive given. It was only when I came to America did I realize just how irritatingly ingrained it was. Couples in America kissed in public, sometimes slobbered all over each other in full view of passersby who barely gave them a second look, while I could barely hold hands with my partner in public. And I had heard that America was prudish compared to parts of Europe.

I lost my virginity to my then girlfriend in India when I was nineteen years old. It was a lovely twist of fate that I was dating a wonderful woman, a few years older and more experienced than I, with the ability to successfully suppress that infernal prudishness gene. Back home I was the youngest to lose it by many, many years. Most of my friends, male and female, lost their virginity when they married their college sweethearts, with flower-loss usually only confirmed when a baby popped out. I was a sensational exception to the astoundingly puritan norm. In Indian terms I was a spring chicken as far as forbidden-fruit-tasting was concerned.

I never accounted for just how average that was in my new home.

One evening, as I was hanging out with my new best friends from the campus antiwar movement, the topic eventually veered towards sex. Aided by the weed we were smoking, Mary-Rose and Anna almost burst out laughing when I told them that nineteen was ridiculously young to be losing one’s virginity. They had lost theirs at sixteen and seventeen respectively, which was apparently par for the course.

“What an old stick-in-the-mud you are Sri!” Mary-Rose jokingly said. “Do you really consider nineteen to be too young for sex?”

“Well, nineteen is super young in India.” I replied.

They giggled at what must have been a rather perplexed look on my face.

The contrast was stark. Here I was, the youngest by a mile among my group of friends in India to have lost their virginity, now relatively old in these new circles I was in. And I wasn’t exactly in a San Francisco commune or some other part of the world where free love was imagined to be the norm.

The prudishness however was not just regarding sex, though lord knows that desperately needed to be smashed. I could sense it weighing me down in general social relations too. The easy, free-flowing banter covering topics that would sometimes make me blush, the clothing styles (especially in the summer) that would make me blush even more, the open displays of physical affection, all had my prudishness gene working overtime.

I couldn’t just step out of it and go with the flow either. It wasn’t that simple. When you move from an environment where “love marriages” (you know, ones where you fall in love and then get married as opposed to having it arranged by your parents) or hugging your female friends in public are considered radical acts, the prudishness enmeshed in that thinking is not easy to let go off. To this day I still get squeamish when my partner kisses me in public.

This made me realize that there was something missing in the recent history of Indian society after independence from the (equally prudish) Brits.

A sexual revolution.

India needed something akin to the Roaring Twenties with free-flowing parties and the discarding of old Victorianesque norms, as well as the Swinging Sixties with flower power, one love, and the breaking down of social taboos, preferably with both eras rolled into one intense revolution that, many generations later, will ultimately be referred to as The Purge of Prudishness.

Many people would opine that what India needed was America’s industrial development, economic progress, and capitalist growth. I respectfully call bullshit on that. I saw that stuff and no one needed a system predicated on cold profit. But there was an openness in American culture I saw, though heavily commercialized, that was enormously appealing to me. Indeed, history informs us that cultural revolutions at different times – from the glorious Emma Goldman proudly proclaiming that a revolution without dancing was not a revolution worth having to the Flower Children’s countercultural empowerment during the Summer of Love – all played a huge role in that development. That was an American export that India could have really used.

And as I further reflected on it, I realized that it wasn’t necessary to get it as an export; Indian society didn’t have to go very far to get that. Being abroad made me dig deeper into the history of where I came from. I realized that there was a time, many, many years back, when India was one of the most sexually liberated societies in the world. Yes, India. Way before capitalism and colonialism. Carvings and stories of every permutation of sexual desire abounded everywhere. Sexuality was discussed in intimate detail in scriptures and studies. I’m sure it wasn’t perfect by any stretch of imagination. Some would have had it way better than others. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but what is clear is that sexuality wasn’t taboo. Some might call it hedonism or immorality. I realized it was a part of the human condition, to be engaged with and pursued in as healthy and liberating a way as possible. How I wish I had come to America from a land that could boast of a grand sexual liberation. How I wish I could have puffed my chest out with pride at having emerged from a society that possessed a vibrant and variegated sexuality. How I wish I could have done away with the awful prudishness gene.

Unfortunately some things are hard to get rid of, especially if one was socialized in my neck of the woods. I came from a place where my grandmother reprimanded me once for having hugged a female friend goodbye in my house. I had seen my father and mother hug – hug ­– once in my entire life. I have never ever seen them kiss and I doubt I ever will. The school I attended once punished a boy and girl in my 10th grade class for having started “an affair” instead of treating each other like “brother and sister” – an event precipitated by one of the school teachers spotting them at a nearby juice stand after school hours…holding hands. Most members of my family looked at marriage as a bond between two families as opposed to two individuals, and consequently proceeded to arrange them as such. Women who had gone through divorces were seen as not having worked hard enough on their marriages and further faced the advances of guys who thought they would sleep with anybody. Single women beyond the age of thirty were seen as having gone past their “sell-by date.” Older folk in my and my friends’ families looked at women who dated or hung out with guys on their own as having loose morals. Taking on an even more sinister turn, a woman’s “moral character” was still seen as important in cases of sexual assault, and wearing western clothing was one such marker of bad character. Despite not having to endure patriarchy and sexism, I was still seen as a lascivious philanderer because I had dated a grand total of three women before the age of twenty two (and no one knew that I lost my virginity at nineteen). As a teenager, my father sat with me while I watched Trading Places, an old Eddie Murphy movie, in order to fast-forward scenes with scantily clad women or crass-language in the dialogue. To this day I still get uncomfortable when there is anything mildly erotic, even heavy kissing, in a movie that I watch with my parents. My friends and I were so sexually repressed in high school that once, when my parents left on a trip, we spent the entire day in my house watching porn.

How far the dial had turned in India. How I wished it could turn again. Damn this repressed sexuality. Damn these conservative social moors. Damn this infernal prudishness gene. Away with them I say. A liberated sexuality, free from censure and exploitation, was a human right and I was made acutely aware of that as I journeyed through America. India indeed needed The Purge of Prudishness.

[Next up: Mandatory Shoestring Budgeting]