During the two semesters I spent in Baltimore as an international student in the ’03-’04 academic year, I rented an inexpensive and dingy basement room to live in. I figured that, with a double course load at one of the toughest schools in the country, a part-time job, and no small amount of rabble-rousing, all I needed was a place to sleep. Armed with nothing more than a tuition scholarship and legally allowed to work no more than 20 hours a week on crap campus wages, my rationale further helped in ensuring I didn’t incur any debt.
Nevertheless, compared to the space I had in my previous port-of-call, it was like the Beverly Hills bachelor pad of a rising film star who had just graduated from being an extra on the set of a Lifetime movie to landing a major role in a Tarantino potboiler. For starters, I had my own room(!), furnished with a bed, desk, chair, and closet – more than enough for my meager belongings. The fact that I didn’t have to share it with a misogynistic asshole did wonders for my sanity. The landlady seemed nice enough, and she was happy doing a month-to-month lease, which suited me fine since I was hoping to be done with school in a couple of semesters and get a job. I didn’t need a one-year lease hanging over my head. I imagine this must have been good for her too since she could kick me out at any moment. But for a nine month stay, I was willing to take that chance.
Things seemed to be going ok, save for one issue. It seemed I couldn’t quite shake off the bugbear of annoying housemates. They were unrelated to one another. But like my previous housemates, Fiefdom King and Slovenly Misogynist, the irritation they imparted on me seemed twofold in nature. They were not as maddening as the King and Misogynist, in part because I was working like someone whose life depended on it and spending very little time at home. Also, these new housemates of mine were American and so, at least initially, they were more interesting than annoying since it was my first time living with Americans, not to mention my first time living with white people.
From the little that I was able to deduce during my time in America until then, I realized that American housemates, while capable of imparting great frustration, by and large kept to themselves and didn’t pry into one’s personal life or require constant social interaction. This is so very unlike many Indian housemates who will suffocate you till you are left breathless and gasping for personal space. Maybe it was the high value that American society, most parts of it at least, placed on individuality and privacy. Regardless, it was useful to be able to go through my day with nothing more than cordial greetings, especially considering the workload I had.
But I couldn’t fully ignore them. Both of them were characters in their own right and merit a brief mention, in part because they gave me an introductory primer to a couple of issues that sometimes took on bizarre forms in America: social alienation and healthy eating.
I’ll start with Cat Lady.
Now, I feel compelled to add here that I did not know of such a stereotype prevalent in American popular culture when I first moved into my new place. However, without any embellishment I will say that the first reaction I had upon being introduced to my new housemate when I moved in was, “Wow, she is a crazy lady with cats” – a sexist, ableist reaction for sure, but one that I must admit to having.
Cat Lady was a longstanding tenant of the house my landlady owned. She was a sprightly sixty-something pensioner, whose lack of adherence to reality and reason was acutely matched by her obsessively co-dependent relationship with her cats. One conversation with her stood out for its sheer surrealism. It was a couple of weeks after I had moved in. I was getting ready for my on-campus job and shoving some books into my backpack in the living room, as she descended down the stairs in a rather determined manner. She was, of course, accompanied by her two cats revolving around her like two furry moons solemnly orbiting a lonely planet.
“Sri, I just wanted to have a discussion with you about how to be around my babies.” she said, her weathered face forcing a passive-aggressive smile, the kind I dreaded seeing in white folk wanting to talk to me.
“Ok…” I ventured, a little hesitatingly.
“You see,” she prefaced, “it’s not that you’re not a really lovely man. I’m sure you are…but it’s just that, my babies don’t seem to have taken to you.”
“I see…but I haven’t even been around them much…and, uh, how does this concern me?” I asked.
“Well, they’re your housemates, and they mean the world to me. I would really appreciate it if you could make the time to treat them with respect and love, you know, really understand their moods and ways of being.”
I stared back at her, somewhat dumbfounded.
Possibly interpreting my reaction as genuine interest in her request, she continued, “They don’t take very well to strangers coming in and out of the house. You see, they need consistency, otherwise they get very upset.”
“But, um…I haven’t had any friends over since I moved in here.”
“Oh, of course – I would expect you not to – but you see, you are a stranger to them, and they don’t take well to strangers.”
“Um…you do know that there’s not much I can do about that, right? I kinda live here…you know the whole renting the room below in the basement of this house.”
She sighed valiantly.
“Well…I suppose.” she said in martyr-like fashion. “You’re just going to have to try harder to be good to them and make them feel comfortable around you.”
I stared back, dumbfounded again.
I was having a hard time believing that this conversation was actually taking place. They are cats, I wanted to scream. Love them, feed them, rub their belly once in a while, give them a crumpled piece of aluminum foil to play with, and call it a day.
She wasn’t done.
“You see, the other issue is that my babies don’t like it when you come in at different times of the day, opening and closing the door, walking around the house with your shoes on. They really need a fixed schedule. You sometimes take showers early in the morning, and the sound of running water really upsets them, you know.”
“Well…” I ventured, in what was now a monumental effort to not burst out laughing, “there’s really not much I can do about that. I have classes early in the morning, which I would like to shower for, in part so that I don’t stink up the place and further add to the stereotypes faced by immigrants from Third World countries. I have to then work to pay the bills, followed by more studying in the library…so, while I appreciate your concerns, I think they’re kind of stuck with me coming and going at different times while I’m here.”
I paused to see if she would respond. She didn’t, and instead gave me a look like I had just asked her to remember the last time she felt truly loved by another human being.
I continued, trying to inject a little lightness in the process, “I really don’t spend much time here anyway, apart from a few hours at night when I come to sleep, for which I have to open the door and walk in, following which the door has to be closed…you know, it’s how one traditionally gets into a house one lives in.”
She sighed valiantly again, clearly unaffected by my sarcasm, but at least getting the point.
“This is going to be hell for them, poor babies.” she said, shaking her head. “Well…if you could be as quiet as possible, maybe remove your shoes before you come into the house, and walk quietly straight to your room without using the kitchen or bathroom at odd hours…I suppose we can manage.”
There was a long pause. We stared at each other, me incredulously, she expectantly, with that artificial smile still plastered on her face, and the two cats looking up at us, possibly wondering where their ball of string went.
“Okaaay then.” I finally said. “Um…it was nice talking to you but, I really have to head to work now, so I’ll see you around.”
The conversation didn’t anger me. She clearly needed support and care. But it did make me a little more observant of her ways whenever I was in the house and our paths crossed, however briefly. I noticed that she talked to her cats. And not in the non-conversational, mono-syllabic directives of “Sit!” or “Down!” or even cutesy, barf-inducing platitudes said in baby voices (the kind I now smother my own cats with).
Cat Lady had running conversations with her cats, like they were people. Conversations about how her day went, society, life in general, even moderately philosophical ones.
“Oh, sweethearts…I have had an absolutely crazy day. I went shopping, and the lines were simply packed. I don’t know if people think it’s Thanksgiving or something. Hahaha. Of course, my sister had to call as soon as I got back from the store…and that just interrupted my entire day. ”
“Oh, I know darling…this country is going to the dogs. Good grief! The people at the store…lord knows what sorts of people are coming and going! I don’t what things are coming to these days.”
“It was a tough day indeed my love. Like I said…oh my, I think I need a nice bath. But I’m glad that I’m back home with my two babies. And mommy loves her babies. Yes she does. She loves them soooo much. Isn’t that right, my two beauties?”
“Do my babies want something to eat? Do my babies need some cuddle time?”
And so the conversations went on and on, every single cringe-inducing day of the week.
I want to mention here that I have long since discarded my anthropocentric view of life. Indeed, now I’m of the rather firm belief that non-humans are inherently superior to humans simply because the concept of evil doesn’t exist for them. (That, and the cuddlier non-humans are, well, just so damn fucking cuddly.) However, I’m not under any misconception that one can communicate with animals in exactly the same way one does with humans. I’m not making a judgment call on those who choose to do so, nor does this observation mar the soulful beauty of animals. I’m merely highlighting the fact that inter-species communication does not take place with monologues.
Eventually the humanity behind the supposed craziness got through to me. Cat Lady was the personification of the kind of social alienation that affected quite a lot of people in America. It was sad. The richest, most powerful country in the world couldn’t prevent people from losing their minds simply because they were alone.
In India, she probably would have been living with one of her kids, irritating the fuck out of her kid’s spouse, scaring the crap out of her grandkids, and eventually doing everyone a favor and dying. And of course, during the funeral, all her family members would politely forget what a pain in the butt she was with unnecessarily melodramatic displays of grief that ensured appropriately sanitized parting memories of her.
But she would not have been alone.
Not in America.
Hence co-dependency with felines.
From then on, whenever I came home late at night, I took a piss before I left the library so that I wouldn’t have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night at home and removed my shoes before I walked into the house.
But I avoided her like the plague.
(Among other things, she also happened to be a right-wing Zionist. Upon seeing a Students for Justice in Palestine brochure of mine one evening, she felt the need to pull me aside as I was making my dinner and remark indignantly that “Palestinians were in reality being treated far too generously by Israelis.” Charming old racist she was.)
So, enough of that.
My second housemate moved in a couple of months into the semester. He was, to put it mildly, generously layered in terms of body mass, and it wasn’t muscle from what I could observe. One could hear a light wheeze whenever he was around, made shriller during moments of even the slightest physical application. It was kind of like a really understated asthmatic sound, though I imagine for him it was due to the exertion of daily life. He also would push his thick-rimmed glasses up his nose every 10 seconds with a pudgy finger, while uttering mind-numbingly boring remarks as he waddled his way through the day.
In other words, Ailing Man of Little Thought was harmless and didn’t really bother to engage with me barring the odd greeting when we saw each other. This suited me just fine. However, one brief conversation with him did stand out, because it was a bit of a learning experience into some of the more mainstream societal attitudes towards food and health in the country.
It occurred during a time when I fell sick. The maniacal hours, lack of regular meals, and constant intake of cigarettes and coffee had taken its toll. The fact that I couldn’t really take a break from either work or study didn’t help in facilitating a speedy recovery. I walked into the kitchen one evening, hacking and sniffling, to make myself some tea before going to bed.
Ailing Man of Little Thought was in there as well, cooking his dinner. As I got the kettle boiling and sniffled, he asked me how I was doing.
“Ok.” I replied. “Just trying to fight off a cold, which is tough with the crazy hours. Thanks for asking.”
“Whenever I fall sick, I always try chicken soup. It helps a lot.” he said.
“I might try that…thanks.”
“Sri,” he then ventured, “do you think that maybe the reason you’ve fallen sick is because of your diet?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, fishing out a tea bag from the shelf.
“Well, you know,” he said, “don’t vegetarians fall sick a lot because of their diet? Growing up in India, you must have been a vegetarian, right? A vegetarian diet couldn’t have given you enough nutrition to help in building up a strong immune system.”
I paused and thought for the briefest of moments about what he had just said.
I was a little taken aback, but wasn’t offended in the slightest because his concern seemed genuine. It wasn’t his lack of information either. He couldn’t be blamed for not knowing that, while I did indeed grow up vegetarian, my diet back home consisted of a variety of dishes made with brown rice, lentils, vegetables, whole wheat, beans, fresh fruit, yogurt, and no small amount of motherly love. Hardly the kind of fare that depleted ones immune system. Nor did I feel like informing him that by the time I made it to the States, I had turned into a bonafide carnivore, tucking into every form of processed animal flesh America had to offer whenever I had the chance.
What really made me stop in my tracks with that statement had to do with the stove in our kitchen.
Because on that stove was his dinner.
It consisted of two gargantuan beef patties, taken straight out of the freezer, getting fried in a pool of butter, fat oozing out of the sides, sputtering on the cast iron pan. Bubbling with drippy excitement on each hunk of industrially minced meat were two slabs of yellow Velveeta cheese. And on a plate beside the stove were four slices of white bread slathered with mayo and mustard. All that, along with two frosty cans of Coke and a Klondike bar, was to soon enter him via a particularly under-achieving orifice (and eventually exit via some valiantly over-achieving ones).
It was another learning moment for me.
Here was an unhealthy, rotund man with a ghastly, all-American diet wondering if my vegetarian diet in India was the reason for my falling sick. And it wasn’t until much later that I learnt just what a strong sentiment this was among many Americans – that to grow up with little or no meat was to grow up without nutrition.
Now, during the times in my life that I’ve been a meat-eater, I have loved every bite of it. And good meat in moderate portions every few days is indeed good for you. But there’s no doubt in my mind that the vegetarian diet in my home in India was far superior to the overwhelming number of meat-filled offerings I found in the States. And it was only with copious amounts of that south Indian diet did I continue to feel healthy – despite partaking in the odd tuna melt or fried chicken.
“I don’t think so,” I replied, after a short pause, “but I imagine diet does indeed play a huge role in one’s overall health.”
He nodded wistfully before bringing his plate to the stove, carefully flipping the burgers onto the bread, grabbing the Coke cans, and slowly waddling his way to the living room.
Whatever was I going to learn next from these inscrutable Americans?