“The Greatest City in America”

Standard

Not many people other than folks who have lived in Baltimore would know this, but this is a frequent sighting on many a public bench in the city, as part of a public project following the city adopting it as it’s new motto in 2001, reading:

“Baltimore | The Greatest City in America”

When I started grad school there in the fall of 2003, I thought it rather nice to be living in a city that fancied itself thus.

I kid you not. Those engraved benches actually made me kinda proud to be living in Baltimore – even if it was barely 10 months.

I was there for the time it took to complete a Masters degree and find a job, any job, that was relatively close to my field of study in public health and environmental studies. But I was determined to find out as much as possible about the city that was going to be my home for that brief period of my life.

With the many places that I had lived in, I only realized the beauty inherent in those places upon leaving and looking back at the time I spent there. In writing this essay, as I revisited my memories of Baltimore I realized that it gave me a glimpse of urban America that was to stick for the rest of my life (and I use the term “urban” the way I grew up using the term, i.e. to indicate a city, rather than as an often offensive euphemism for black people).

The university I was studying in did give me a partial glimpse, inasmuch as the homes of settlers can give a partial glimpse into the lands and lives of the colonized.

Hopkins was not Baltimore and Baltimore was not Hopkins. Never the twain met while I was there. Yet, so too did the internecine spaces overlap just enough.

I had to necessarily leave one in order to truly see the other. But I had to be intentional about it since I was studying or working all the time and realized that I wasn’t actually seeing the city if I was cooped up in my department all day.

So I decided to chart out a few walking paths, each several miles long, using the Homewood campus as the radial center, in order to explore a little bit of Baltimore. It was a city that was so much and more. Looking back, I realize Baltimore was more honest than many other parts of America I had seen, prior to and following that time. It didn’t hide from the truth, didn’t try to shove it under the rug. It was simultaneously beautiful and painful in its uninhibited ways.

(I feel compelled to add that I had this assessment of Baltimore many, many years before finally coming round to watching The Wire. I continue to have it now after watching that brutally well-made show.)

I think it helped for me to come from India to try and make sense of whatever parts of Baltimore I was able to witness. The only assessment of Baltimore from folks talking about the city, especially those in Hopkins and folks from outside the city, seemed to be poverty and crime.

India too has crime, not to mention a lot of poverty. It has a lot of everything and poverty is surely one of them. Thus, the poverty I saw in Baltimore wasn’t anywhere near the same level of material harshness as that of the poorer neighborhoods and slums I observed during my childhood from within the car my family drove in and out of our middle-class neighborhoods in Bangalore.

But the poverty felt the same in both places.

And that is why I felt it helped for me to witness it as an immigrant from India. What I saw in Baltimore would be not unlike much of the rest of America I would witness. Like in India, the poverty in America felt structurally and historically induced. Like in India, it was deeply segregated along race, class, and caste lines. Like in India, and I suppose anywhere else, it reeked of injustice.

The houses and neighborhoods I was seeing were socially as far away from Hopkins as Bangalore was from Hopkins. The difference was stark. Houses were boarded up or crumbling. Roads were filled with potholes, as if the city had forgotten that this part of Baltimore, the much larger part, did in fact exist. Garbage left unpicked and overflowing in giant bins on sidewalks with large cracks in them. Panhandlers dotted every street corner, while numerous small businesses, legal and extra-legal, attempted to valiantly eke out a living. Not everywhere in Baltimore of course, but in enough neighborhoods with majority black communities to make one feel like something was off in a big way.

Ultimately though it was Hopkins itself that reminded me of the difference between Baltimore and Hopkins.

A brief sociological observation I conducted, out of sheer boredom, of privileged white grad students and their Indian hangers-on exemplified this.

My cousin had invited me for an evening of beer and burgers with some of his acquaintances. He was studying at a different campus, and asked if I wanted to join his colleagues and him for an outing. I agreed but soon regretted my decision as it turned out to be rather trite and deeply offensive to the soul.

When I was a lonelier, more wretched person – i.e. a fair chunk of the time prior to meeting my divine partner and soulmate, Sus – I generally went on outings with irritating, often bigoted and/or sexist men and their equally irritating/bigoted/sexist friends. In grad school, this meant that I tended to go bar-hopping with assholish, privileged, male grad students (I should know, I was likely one of them for many an outing).

This was one of those times.

The conversation was banal and superficial. It didn’t help that the entire evening took place in a loud sports bar patronized primarily by jocks and frat boys. The beer was insipid and the burgers were mediocre. My cousin, as was his wont when interacting with white folk, turned into a bit of a pandering clown.

As more beers got downed, one of the guys in the crowd, heartily egged on by my cousin, cracked a joke about black panhandlers in the city. I don’t quite remember the joke. It was told without the usage of the n-word or any other racial slur, which irritated me even more because that somehow gave it a pass with everyone at the table (though anything that gets a pass from that sorry crowd should always be viewed with suspicion).

The joke did however include the white-as -freshly-driven-snow joke teller’s attempt at pronouncing the word “fifty cents” a la the famous rapper, you know, without pronouncing the “f” and all – because, and this was supposed to be the funny part, that’s how black panhandlers pronounced it.

(Snobbish, racist assholes are one of the few subgroups of humanity who seem to derive great glee from being snobbish, racist assholes.)

I really didn’t understand the joke. It was’t particularly funny. It was extremely offensive, yet all of them guffawed loudly.

I didn’t say anything to counter it or challenge it. I just smiled my plastic smile, stress-ate my greasy burger, and got back to wishing for the evening to end quickly so I could go back to the solitude of my basement room.

There was something revolting about the entire optics of the episode. All the folks who laughed at the joke were studying at a rich private university. It was an all-white crowd, barring my cousin and myself, two middle-class Indian internationals who were temporarily let into the club for one evening. Some might say that shouldn’t matter, but at the time I felt like it did and still do. The chap cracking the joke wouldn’t have done so if there was a black person in the group. The farcical norms of political correctness would have held sway (although evidently they could be bent a little to accommodate a couple of wannabe coconuts).

It did not sit well. Something was deeply unsettling about it, and it made my stomach turn. To say that it was a manifestation of deep racism, socially instilled and structurally induced, is of course true, but still doesn’t capture the visceral revulsion I felt at that time.

I was equally repulsed by my cowardice because I failed quite breathtakingly. I failed my black brothers and sisters. I didn’t do right by them and I didn’t do right by me. I went with the flow, satisfied with the discovery, but not particularly interested in making any intervention.

The joke those guys were laughing at was about people and neighborhoods they had probably never visited despite literally being around the corner from where they worked and studied.

I realized then that if I were a black person, I would be more than a little angry. I would have been angry because of the way my history was airbrushed out of significance and the struggles my community faced were nonchalantly dismissed as pettiness. I would have been angry because of the way my community was being painted with such a broad brush by institutions that had a significant and sinister role to play in the subjugation of my people.

But I would have also felt angry because the handlers of that brush were so fucking blind to beauty.

On one of my walking trips, I chanced upon a small watering hole that I ventured into. Raw music emanated from the dimly lit stage, the sharp lilt of the guitar accompanied by the deep, raspy voice of an old black man in a suit, accompanied by two other, equally weathered musicians, a drummer and a harmonica player who also provided backing vocals. The audience consisted of couples and small groupings of friends, mostly middle-aged black folk, with beers and shots, either chatting with one another or mesmerized by the music. A few of them stared at me, at first with a little suspicion but then with an indifferent acceptance the moment I smiled at them. Smoke covered the room.

I sat by the bar, ordered a Colt 45 since it looked like the cheapest drink on offer, and listened.

I don’t know how long I sat there. I lost track of time because the music didn’t seem to be playing by the same rules as pop or rock concerts played by. More mellowed out and organically attuned to the crowd, not dominating the scene, but rather just providing mild dopamine-inducing comfort.

“Little taste?” the bartender asked me.

“Um…I’m sorry?” I said.

He smiled.

“Can I get you another drink son?” he asked, this time pronouncing the words more carefully, still smiling.

“Oh, yeah…sure…I’ll have the same please” I replied, awkwardly returning the smile.

“You’re not from around here, are you brother?” he asked me warmly, handing me the can.

“No…I’m not.” I replied. “I’m uh…I’m from India.”

“India! Damn…with elephants and shit…you a long way from home. What brings you here?”

“Um…I’m doing my Masters at uh…at Hopkins.” I said, a little hesitatingly.

“That’s great! Education’s so important…and you guys really study a lot, don’t ya?” he said, chuckling a bit.

“Well…” I replied, relaxing a little bit but not knowing what to say. His warmth was difficult to be nervous around.

“I got a nephew in college.” he said, without missing a beat. “Out here studying criminal justice.”

“Oh yeah? Where?” I asked

“University of Maryland, Baltimore Couny.”

“Where’s that?” I probed further.

“Not too far from here my man! The place where some of us black folk have a chance to get into college.” he said.

I smiled a little wryly. I was a little ashamed of where I was studying. I had been able to leverage my privilege from thousands of miles away to a university that most folks living in the same city as that institution couldn’t even dream of going to.

He was gracious about it though. Didn’t show me anything but warmth and a good-natured spirit.

“We gotta try though, you know what I mean?” he continued. “Can’t let the white man keep us down.”

I nodded.

He kept going, happy at the affirmation I was giving him.

“Yep…he sure do like his money. Man, I got no beef against white folk – water under the bridge – but, damn, why they gotta love that green so much man? Why they got to love them dead presidents so much? Sheesh…”

I was beginning to really, really like this wise handler of spirits and alcoholic beverages.

His short rant over, he tried lightening up the conversation.

“So…you a blues man huh?” he asked me, giving a quick wipe down to the weathered bar.

“Oh, yes…love the blues…and jazz too. Really great forms of music. This is the first live band I’ve ever been to though.” I replied.

“You shittin’ me! Man…this is one of the best live bars in the country. People say you gotta go to Chicago or down to New Orleans, but we got some of the best music in the country right here in Baltimore son! Tell you what my young Indian brother…you come here any time you want, and I’ll be sure that you won’t ever have to pay the cover, a’right? This drink’s on me.”

And so saying, he refused payment for the drink I ordered. The musicians got back on stage for another session, and everyone settled back down in their seats.

I smiled, grateful for the experience.

I think it was about then that I realized that Baltimore far richer than a place like Johns Hopkins University could ever fit within its sterile framework.

Advertisements

I don’t have the time or patience for men who fear love, liberation, and struggle

Standard

This is among the longer titles I have for an essay. But I’ve had a three week break from this blog, so I wonder if I’m maybe trying to make up for the break by just throwing it all out there in the title. (Did you also notice the shameful nod to the name of the blog itself.)

Long titles are actually one of those cardinal sins I commit far too frequently as a blogger.

But then again, these long titles are useful for me because they kind of summarize what I’m trying to say. People will also be better informed to see if this essay might be worth the time it would take to read it. And it’s a more democratic and egalitarian way of presenting an essay – catering even to the reader with the patience levels of a fussy infant who has just gained enough sentience to realize how glorious she is and how much she needs to constantly and very loudly exclaim that fact to her parents.

(I love my awesome daughter so damn much now, that she does occasionally frustrate me with how incessantly illustrative she is of my own incompetence as a bumbling father.)

I wrote quite a while back about men who fear love – and today I want to add that I also don’t have the time or patience for them. I just don’t want to put in the energy into maintaining relationships with these men, because they always also fear equality and joy and real happiness and true gender liberation. The pyrrhic benefits of patriarchy and sexism are just too much to let go off because of that fear.

To be sure, I’m not suggesting that these benefits magically disappear when you start fighting for real love and happiness from the standpoint of equality, social justice, and liberation. Men across the world, regardless of the “isms” they identify with, are swaddled in patriarchal privilege, even if some benefits for some men are tempered by colonialism or racism or poverty. Those benefits nevertheless remain in various forms and will remain until we realize the folly of the last few thousand years and return to living in truly gender-liberated matriarchal societies, led and guided by women and gender non-conforming people, especially women and trans people of color.

Now, that will take a while because patriarchy is kinda stubborn and stupid and assholish (not to mention mind-numbingly evil), but letting go of that fear of love and happiness grounded in equality and liberation will reveal the soullessness and diseased nature of those patriarchal benefits to us men.

At least I’m betting it will.

But then again, what the fuck do I know?

So, let me bring in the power of someone who is a far superior soul and human being than I am.

Nowadays,  as is quite apparent from my recent writings, I can’t stop from bringing my little warrior goddess of a daughter into my essays, occasionally using appalling attempts at subtlety. But Daya invokes so much awe in me that I must bow before her strength and wisdom every day (apparently utilizing the power of a blog that gets a dozen views or more on a good day).

Because she teaches me so much about myself, about the people around me, about the world in general. Equally importantly, she helps me unlearn and relearn. She and Sus give me so much happiness, love, and outright freedom of the spirit – that it becomes easy to do that difficult unlearning and relearning. One feels strong enough to deal with any consequences, such as sadness and hurt. What’s a little sadness or hurt (not to mention anger and depression) when you have two powerful goddesses in your family?

Now, I have had to unlearn and relearn a lot about myself and the world, and equally so about my family, friends, and community – both in South Asia and North America. This most recent family visit to Bangalore I made alongside the afore mentioned two greatest human beings on earth – so that one of them could meet her grandparents and family in India – was yet another chapter of unlearning and relearning for me.

For starters, I think I need to finally come out as a survivor of many years of sibling abuse that I faced at the hands of my older brother during my childhood – physical violence in the form of punches, shoves and slaps, in addition to regular emotional abuse and verbal humiliation.

I realize that, while I forgive him because he didn’t know better (he seems to be a loyal, caring husband and a good, hard-working father), I would like to simultaneously formalize my non-relationship with him and declare that there never was and never will be any brotherly love between us.

(To be honest, I’m kinda happy that I don’t have to continue the facade of a relationship with bullshit politeness and banal conversations.)

It also just confirms to me how little actual blood or bloodlines matter when it comes to real, caring, and nurturing love for a fellow soul.

I also know that his abusive behavior towards me (which was usually followed by an apology of sorts, in keeping with the cyclical nature of abuse in most family or interpersonal relationships) was pretty much a direct result of being the firstborn in a shitty, socially conservative, and patriarchal marriage between my parents, which was arranged by their own patriarchal, socially conservative parents. The marriage itself had a shitty, socially conservative, and patriarchal relationship with my father’s side of the family, which made things way, way worse.

My parents seem to be doing much better now. As is the wont of the patriarchy from some generations, marriages are for freaking life no matter what, so eventually some of these couples realize that there’s nowhere to go but up, and thus might as well try to get a better marriage since they’re fucking stuck in it anyway, with only their own shittily-married parents as the norm to break free from (it’s no wonder that the bar for loving, long term relationships is set so low across the world).

 

I truly do believe that a major part of it is also fear in men – fear of perhaps losing those pyrrhic benefits and power that comes from patriarchal social norms, fear of the work and self-reflection needed for true equality and liberation that has to be the foundation for love and happiness, and indeed, fear of that love and liberation itself. Some might call it cowardice, others might say that men around the world are in reality, adult children, immature little bratty boys – infantile humans who have been handed a variety of powers and privileges due to thousands of years of patriarchy that molly-coddle the ever-loving crap out of them.

But what do I know…

And that is why, I’m going to stick to the personal (while surreptitiously getting onto a mighty giant pile of soap boxes) and in a nod to both my past and my future relationships with men, however they may or may not end up, indeed to the men in my life across time and space – I make this declaration:

I have no time or patience for men who fear true love, happiness, and liberation as well as the hard work, the struggles, the learning, unlearning and relearning that it takes to build a foundation of real equality, justice and liberation.

If I see this fear in any man in my life – and I now really seek it out because it irritates me no end – I might need to cool off from the relationship, or just not have one, you know, might not really want to be around the guy and talk or be all chill and polite. I might tell the guy, I might not, based on what I need for my own emotional and mental health. Because I need to dedicate my time and energy to people who truly don’t fear love or happiness or liberation – and the necessary struggles against patriarchy and self-reflection around oppression it takes to keep nurturing those life forces.

I have enough awesome love in my life, human and non-human, so I can afford to make this choice.

(NB: I have never paid adequate credit to my awesome, glorious partner, Sus, for all the critique, support and editing help she provides for every essay I produce. I hope to change that from this post onwards and show how truly grateful I am for it.)

Why I believe all Indians should support Kashmir’s liberation

Standard

An opinion piece published in the June, 2016 Issue of The Kashmirwalla:

Why I believe all Indians should support Kashmir’s liberation

(here’s the url in case the link doesn’t work: http://thekashmirwalla.com/2016/06/all-indians-should-support-kashmirs-liberation/)

 

Dear daughter, this world we’ve brought you into…

Standard

What can I say about this world we’ve brought you into my love?

What can I say about the privileged misogynistic scumbags, and their fathers, who populate the elite hallways of this world?

What can I say about a world that is built for the benefit of men and white people (and the few privileged women and people of color that the colonial structures let into the club)?

What can I say about the hostility we as a family face from white men everyday we step outside the bubble of our home?

What can I say about the evil inherent to the male of the species that evidently the majority of men are blind to?

What can I say about the soullessness inherent to colonial society that evidently the majority of white people are blind to?

What can I say about the fact that there are times when I daydream about gutting the life out of any man who dares cast an evil eye on you (empty and horribly masculine though those flights of fancy might be)?

What can I say about the harsh sadness I’m trying to mask with that anger – a sadness stemming from the fact that, try as we might, your mother and I cannot protect you from all the evils of the world?

What can I say about this all-consuming fear that I will fail in providing you the tools and weapons you need to fight the evil blanketing this world?

What can I say about a world of nation states and borders, where patriarchy, privilege and profit take us ever closer to a likely violent resolution?

What can I say about a world where people in the dominant colonial power are choosing between a demagogue and a plutocrat  to be their “elected” leader (both as white as freshly driven snow in a wealthy suburb)?

What can I say about a world where nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and misogyny seem to be the go-to bastions for the fearful majority of people, privileged and vulnerable alike?

What can I say about a world where I truly believe humanity and the earth would be better off if 80% of the world’s men would simply drop dead  – proportionately across all countries and communities (I am extremely egalitarian when it comes to hating men)?

What can I say about a world where I often up that figure to 90%?

Well…

When I’m at a loss to say or do anything about the oppression and evil in this world we’ve brought you into…

When I feel depressed and weak in the knowledge that this oppression and evil is so vast and deep…

When I feel the urge to build an impermeable, self-sustaining life pod for our family to live in forever…

When I feel the need to embark on a multi-generational, quantum physics research project to transport us to an alternate universe where matriarchy, freedom and egalitarianism prevail…

I look at you and I see the power of your soul…

And the warmth of your heart…

And the depth of your mind…

Only matched by your mother’s (in all three departments, mind you)…

I then rest a little easier…

For I know the evil flourishing in the world today is ultimately no match for your divine strength.

Dear daughter – I’m sorry for my failures (but know that I won’t fail you)

Standard

Hi love,

As I hold you in my arms and see those rascally, angelic eyes slip into a deep sleep following a majestic poop explosion, I often reflect on yet another parenting cycle – a cycle usually consisting of three very regular stages:

Stage 1: a general failure to address your immediate needs with my efforts, followed by…

Stage 2: a blundering,  occasionally teary, attempt at redeeming myself, usually by adhering to the grace and wisdom of your mother, followed by…

Stage 3: simultaneously amusing and irritating the crap out of you with energetic, puppy-like adoration – a manifestation of this fascinating new spiritual feeling I have; I think it could be paraphrased as the deep, singularly unique, and mind-boggling love a parent has for their daughter or something.

Now, it’s easy for me to get caught up in stages 2 and 3 of the cycle – it’s generally more pleasant to focus primarily on the redemption and love.

But truly if I want to ensure that, despite my failures, I’m still being the best parent I can be, then I absolutely must focus on the failures themselves.

And I think the first step is to name them and apologize for them. But don’t worry, I won’t stop just at this perma-sorry for my myriad failures. I will actually try to learn from them. I just need to retrain my hitherto dense and regressive brain, swaddled as it has been in patriarchy for so many centuries. You are way too awesome for anything less.

Plus, your mother and I are hell-fucking-bent on ensuring that we as a family (cats included) fight for the freedom and happiness of all souls on earth. Thus, as your parents, we especially want to fight for that kind of life for you, and it takes some honest reflection to keep fighting well.

So, let me begin by first apologizing for the times I get frustrated, irritated, even angry when nothing I do seems to meet your needs. For the most part I’m frustrated, irritated, and angry at myself, but let’s face it, the feelings inevitably home in on you. When I step back to think about it, I feel shame, my darling. I – your adult father with over three and a half goddamn decades of life experience – actually get frustrated and irritated at a 2-month old kid whom I love beyond life itself. All because you, divine soul, try very patiently (and in the only way you know how) to communicate to your father, guiding him to hold up his responsibilities properly. I know I keep the frustrations “inside” or at least try to, but I also know that I cannot ever fool the spiritual bond between us.

Because I know it upsets you.

For that (and all the other fuck ups, just to be on the safe side) – I am so very sorry my love.

Please don’t mistake this for false humility or something. I can’t stand that shit. I have a galactic sized ego, and really have no real issues with self-confidence or thinking I’m the coolest (i.e. luckiest) guy on earth. I get the big picture. As your parents, I know that your divine mother with me as her pet lout and loyal sidekick, will strive with every sinew of our beings to engulf you in love, joy, health and happiness. We also have an awesome transnational community of family and friends who will provide a very privileged safety net for all of us. So life will likely be more good than bad for the most part.

However, having plied my trade as a trauma therapist and community health worker across three countries for many years now, I am well aware of the numerous forms of abuse and violence that parents and adults in general can impart on children. No doubt, all violence exists on a spectrum – with the horrendous sexual, physical, emotional, and mental abuse existing on a particularly traumatic side of the spectrum. We as a society have this dangerous tendency to think that abusive parenting solely consists of those egregious acts of violence – and we forget that patriarchy is not just egregiously violent but also insidiously covert.

I know that, no matter how sincere and loving and caring, I will make mistakes that will hurt you. It is violent when my frustrations are directed at you. How can it not be? Your capacity to harm me is pretty much non-existent. You didn’t choose to grace our lives with your glorious presence. You’re not the one with decades of human experience. Most importantly though, patriarchy has made our relationship unjust from day one, with you getting a really shitty deal.

But while patriarchy is indeed guided by power and oppression, you, your mother, and my mother, among others, have taught me that patriarchy can be challenged, undone, and eventually dismantled with love, liberation, and a veritable fuck ton of struggle.

So I make this simple, and hopefully ever-evolving, promise to you (very much extended to our larger family and community and, oh what the hell, the world in general):

  • I promise to spare no effort in being the best parent I can be and ensure that our relationship is always egalitarian and just.
  • I promise to love you, nurture you, and fight behind or alongside but never ahead of you for your inviolable rights to freedom and happiness.
  • I promise to dismantle internalized patriarchy and oppression from within me, no matter how many lifetimes it may take.

Ok, so I might have been a little hasty to classify this as a “simple” promise but whatever. I assure you, I will keep this promise even if it kills me because it’s neither political revolution nor mass social change that motivates me, but love. And without love, my soul would cease to exist. So, please feel free to whip my ass into shape whenever your powerful self desires, because you already know more about winning this fight than I ever will – and I would never say no to being guided by your wisdom, your spirit, and your courage.

But, sweetheart, I think this piece needs to be ended because you have just had another poop explosion.

And a fresh diaper – maybe even that gorgeous smile of yours – beckons.

The diary of a fairly privileged immigrant

Standard

 

[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]

Building community and family one relationship at a time

Standard

If there’s one thing I have learnt in building a transnational community of loved ones in partnership with my awesome soul mate, Sus, across three different cities and colonial states – it is this:

Community and family is best built one relationship at a time.

Not in large gatherings.

Not in giant parties (though they do help).

Not even in the fun community or family dinner hangouts (awesome and integral though they may be.)

Community – a family of our choosing – comprising blood and other blood members alike, truly is built one relationship at a time.

At least that’s how it seems to have worked best for Sus and I.

That relationship could be with a person who is either a good friend or family member or otherwise generic loved one to either of us, eventually becoming a friend and loved one to both of us. I think about the people in our lives; those whom we call our friends and loved ones; those whom we would fight for through thick and thin.

And they all happened, and continue to happen, one relationship at a time.

But it’s more than just the particular closeness that such a friendship can bring.

It’s about the person as well.

The relationship is likely always going to be a caring and nurturing one because we only develop close relationships with caring, nurturing people. It would also be primarily with people who would care for our non-human loved ones (in our case, the Brothers Cuteness, Faiz and Rumi – our two feline bffs/confidantes) with as much tenderness and gratitude as we do, because we can’t even imagine being in a relationship with people who have cruelty or callousness in their hearts.

Of course, with all these requirements of care and nurturing spirits in our loved ones, our community has tended to have a slightly higher proportion of women at any given point in time than men – though we do have some gentle spirited and kindhearted men whom we count among our loved ones.

(I apologize profusely for any problematic stereotypes I might be perpetuating here. I don’t know why, but the world over I have generally always felt safer in communities and families where women outnumber men, and the men that are there tend to be of the gentler, more caring type rather than the harder, masculine kind. From a very young age, this has been a core value of sorts and it seems to have followed me as Sus and I organically build our own family and community.)

The biggest reason why this community building works best one relationship at a time, as this musing has been harping on, is because it helps us really know a person, their life experiences, what makes them happy, and find ways to figure out love and friendship together.

(Indeed, there’s one big relationship coming our way, even already begun, with our soon-to-be little one currently growing in Sus’ belly.)

Building our community and family in this organic way affords us the ability to get to know one another in a deeper way, hold space for each other’s failings and peccadilloes, as well as each other’s pain and suffering. All, to the best of our ability. Nothing more and nothing less.

It also helps us celebrate the beauty  and richness in one another. It gives us the time to truly understand one another, support one another, have each other’s backs when the going gets tough – but also be honest with one another, realize each other’s limitations and strengths, and help one another find a liberated sense of self.

We know it’s not perfect and it never will be. But we also know there’s a certain beauty to that imperfection.

The relationships that constitute the core of our community are likely to emerge from anywhere, aided by our openness to friendship and comradeship, but also guided by our sense of safety for one another.

We know we are far more likely to build these community relationships with people who fight against oppression within themselves and society as a whole – beautiful souls who see racism, sexism, gender violence, colonialism, and patriarchy as dehumanizing and evil at an organic level.

Soulfully.

Not just intellectually or rationally or conveniently.

We also understand that there can be a variety of ways in which these relationships are sustained. Perhaps we see each other on a regular basis or it’s merely a weekly text, a monthly phone call, even a bi-annual hang out.

We don’t sweat the small stuff.

Who needs a rule book on how a loving relationship is to be sustained over the long term?

All in all, I’d say it’s a good practice to build community one relationship at a time.

It makes for a more liberated and healthy family.

‘Tis the fucking season after all.

In the midst of all the patriarchal religious dogma and glitzy commerce we have been and will continue enduring, here’s wishing you and your loved ones much joy and health.