“The Greatest City in America”

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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.

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Cat Lady and Ailing Man of Little Thought

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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. ”

“Meow”

“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.”

“Meow”

“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?”

“Meow”

“Do my babies want something to eat? Do my babies need some cuddle time?”

“Meow”

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?

Why Beyoncé could become our generation’s Muhammad Ali

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As an immigrant who has faced his fair share of racism, stereotyping, and imperialist rhetoric in America and Canada, it is but a natural predilection for me to ally with those who have been struggling for generations and generations for greater rights and restorative justice in those countries.

This has meant that black history, in America in particular but across the planet in general, along with black cultural icons, sports figures, and freedom fighters have been a source of great inspiration for me over many years. This has been especially true since I landed on American shores as a rabble-rousing, albeit legally compliant, immigrant over a dozen years ago.

Indeed, it’s quite remarkable to think about the deep political, cultural, social, and spiritual influence so many stalwarts of the black community have had and continue to have on me; to the point of identifying with the community in a number of ways – deeply problematic though the sentiment might be for a member of a more privileged section among people of color and one who has no roots in America’s racist past. But like it or not, during the many times when I myself get mistaken for black in the Western world, I don’t really care to correct them.

Please don’t think that I’m ashamed of where I come from or who I am. I’m a proud warrior Tamil from the Southern lands of the Indian subcontinent, increasingly rooted in divine feminine spirituality emerging from my Dravidian roots – but very importantly, influenced and alloyed with a whole host of other liberating influences in my life.

Such as a whole spectrum of black history, liberation, icons, and culture.

Indeed, such is the strength of this particularly liberating influence that, if I were asked today to name my three favorite poets, thinkers, freedom fighters, musicians, and cultural icons in that order (you know, by some metaphysical spirit with way too much time on their hands), here’s what I would say  – bearing in mind that I’m defining all these categories however I deem fit:

Poets – Maya Angelou, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and Pablo Neruda

Thinkers – bell hooks, Arundhati Roy, and Frantz Fanon.

Freedom fighters – Nelson Mandela, Laila Khaled, and Bhagat Singh

Musicians – AR Rahman, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Asian Dub Foundation

and

Cultural icons – Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali, and Muhammad Ali.

Thus it would be fair to say that I am quite the student of Ali’s life and career.

Few can match his heady combination of powerful charisma, cultural superstardom, and political courage – all coming together at a particularly potent time in America’s recent history to render an iconic story for the ages.

Many have one or the other, maybe even two out of the three, but rarely have we found anyone with all three. It’s not an easy combination to have, with the political courage often being the toughest of the three to find.

Take other great sportspeople. You find many with great cultural stardom because of their talented abilities, alongside their achievements, fame etc. Some of those stars might even be wonderfully charismatic with engaging personalities, but they tend to not want to blow it all by displaying too much political courage. Those who display amazing political courage, even the really charismatic ones, tend to not have the kind of cultural stardom that comes anywhere close to someone like Ali, bless their brilliant souls.

The same tends to be the case with other fields usually churning out cultural icons with generational regularity – media, pop culture, music, and film.

The rocking, cultural superstars tend to lack political courage with tragic regularity, while those who do have more freedom-fighting public faces tend to, at best, have loyal cult followings.

But I believe we have someone who might just be our next Ali. And I don’t say this lightly (because, I mean, it’s Muhammad freaking Ali we’re talking about here). However, I daresay we have our next, great, black liberation, mass cultural icon.

All three boxes are ticked.

She has that powerful charisma.

She sure as hell has the cultural superstardom (not to mention some killer singing and dancing chops).

And it seems like somewhere along the way, as she multi-octaved her way to fame and fortune, at a time when Black Lives Matter is leading us into a new pan-American struggle for social justice and political freedom, she has decided to fight the good fight publicly.

All the pieces are in place.

Beyoncé could well become this generation’s Muhammad Ali.

(And I don’t even particularly care for her music.)

Race, caste, and friendship

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When I was in grad school in Baltimore finishing up an M.S. in the 2003-2004 academic year, I had quite a few Indian friends around the Baltimore-DC area. Apart from spending time with some distant relatives, I followed the scent of quasi-cultural safety and found my way to an organized group of Indian students who raised money for charities in India. Notwithstanding the somewhat tepid, middle-of-the-road politics in the group, it did give me a few Indian friends who provided a connection to the homeland and the painlessness of not having to culturally translate everything that was said. They were, thankfully, substantially better to interact with than the feudal morons in my previous port-of-call.

Speaking in a mixture of English and whatever Indian tongue suited our fancy, cracking cross-cultural jokes, whipping out puns that required an innate understanding of pop-culture in different parts of South Asia – being with South Asian friends is (and always will be) comforting no matter where I am outside the subcontinent.

At Hopkins, the fact that I briefly fell in love with one of them, while cultivating a nice, albeit very temporary, friendship with another only served to consolidate that bond. In addition, included in the group was a cousin of mine, who had come to the university the year before.

Something happened when I was with my Indian friends. Instantly I was no longer a walking poster-boy for the entire Indian or South Asian community. I didn’t need to step out of my comfort zone in order to interact. I could be myself; the stares and second looks from white folk didn’t pierce me as they did when I was alone. My accent could seamlessly shift from neutral to desi. I didn’t have to constantly watch myself to ensure I wasn’t garnering too much attention. There were no awkward, plastic smiles that one received from folks uncomfortable with who you were and not knowing how to engage with you.

Intriguingly, I had less in common with my Indian buddies in Hopkins than I would have normally needed for lasting friendships. It made me think twice about the power of being with folks who had superficially similar cultural moorings when navigating another world. It was the anxiety of assimilation in a new society that made one assimilate only partially while concurrently seeking a bubble of manufactured comfort. In India, I would have thought they were nice enough to have as acquaintances but probably not as friends, since I had the privilege to be able to cultivate bonds with those whom I was closer to politically and philosophically. In Baltimore, for those nine months, they were my entire world.

Sometimes you needed to travel thousands of miles to learn a little something about the place you just left.

Socially my Indian friends in Hopkins and I came from similar backgrounds. Middle to upper-middle class families, educated in English-medium school and colleges, armed with sufficient privilege to be able to pursue graduate studies in the West. With the class stratification of Indian society, this essentially meant that barring one or two exceptions, we all came from the so-called upper caste Hindu communities.

In short, we were the privileged white people of India.

And, interestingly enough, it was these somewhat similar social roots that brought about some of the sharpest political divisions between me and my friends.

In order to better explain this and highlight what for me was one of the most acute manifestations of this division, I will have to briefly shift to a little primer on one particular, longstanding policy of the Indian government.

It’s called Reservation.

You see, India has its own Affirmative Action program. From a purely legislative angle it is, in my humble opinion, even stronger than what one might see in the States. Most people around the world have heard of the abhorrent caste system. It performs a similar function in India to what race might perform in the Western world with respect to dividing the haves and have-nots. Indeed, I have found many white folk in America and Europe talk about caste with, dare I suggest, a hint of satisfaction that their own class stratification systems seem less intolerant in comparison – a bit of a pass I imagine from dealing with their own shit. But scale of oppression apart, most Indians would be hard-pressed to argue against the viciousness of the caste system, unless they choose to adopt the ostrich technique of sticking their heads in the proverbial sand, or up their not-so-proverbial asses. Those doing so, as is easily guessable, consist almost entirely of upper-caste Hindus. I should know, because it was the community I grew up in.

But somewhere along the line, through a combination of parents who encouraged me to question and learn, as well as some very eye-opening activism in India via participation in an anti-fascist movement that gave me inspiring comrades across caste, religious, and class divides, I was thankfully brought to a better understanding. As I journeyed into more progressive political frameworks, I soon had to face up to my own privilege, the way the system in India worked in my favor from the get-go, and how it was built on the bleeding backs of those who had historically been most brutalized by the caste system. One of the results of that (still ongoing) journey of reflection was that I became one of the most ardent believers in the Reservation system quite early on in my youth (my father, being a bit of a self-identified Nehruvian socialist, inculcated in me the importance of “correcting longstanding injustices with government policies that benefit the historically oppressed”).

Now, everyone knew that Reservation as a policy needed to be honed and bettered. But it was also one that was desperately needed as a minuscule, hardly-sufficient, state policy that attempted to undo centuries of brutal caste-based oppression – something which continues in full force in India to this day, regardless of legislation.

It was in discussing Reservation that I realized how wide the gulf was between me and my Indian friends in Hopkins (and frankly, the overwhelming majority of upper caste Hindus in India and around the world). They were all manifestly against it, many offensively so. And because they had the advantage of numbers, the arguments that we had on the topic often played out under the paradigm of the lone, shrill, lefty weirdo arguing against those of apparently reasonable tongue and mind. There’s a way in which numbers help in lending a façade of authenticity to unjust frameworks.

I couldn’t really blame them (though I did want to occasionally beat the ever loving crap out of them). Were I to have missed the kinds of providential political experiences I was lucky enough to have, I would have joined them in their thinking.

Occasionally I ventured a couple of similar  conversations with American friends in the university community, white ones that is, who joined us for get-togethers or hangouts. Sometimes I had conversations with white folk in my classes. It was during those brief times that I understood the sterile stencil with which privilege etched itself on humanity. There was a deeply disturbing correlation with their disavowal of Affirmative Action programs in the States and my Indian buddies’ disdain for Reservation in India.

We were in Johns Hopkins after all. This was the place where an overwhelmingly black janitorial staff cleaned the halls and restrooms used by a student/teacher population consisting of white people, East Asians, and South Asians. Reservation and Affirmative Action were both the same – programs to haughtily dismiss while casting aspersions that they diluted merit or unfairly discriminated against deserving candidates. It was a place where centuries of racism in America and centuries of caste oppression in India could be blotted out from living memory in one fell self-congratulatory swoop. It was a place where those benefiting from different structures of oppression, thousands of miles apart, mostly unrelated, with different histories and local conditions, could find congruence in a false meritocracy. Had I gone to Spellman College or Howard University, my guess (or hope) is that it would have been a little different.

It made me realize that those who acted as the white folk of India where ultimately not a whole lot different, save a few nuances, than white folk elsewhere. It also made me realize that the institution I was in attracted, for the most part, people of a similar ilk regardless of skin color or ethnicity. All of us Indians who came here to study – we assimilated well. We were the acceptable people of color, who kept our heads down and didn’t assert ourselves too much. We filled the color quota of universities without shaking up the system. We didn’t have the history in America that our black and latino brethren had, so we came with a clean slate. We would be supplicant and grateful for having been let into the country to pursue our so-called potential. We didn’t cause trouble with pesky demands for reparations or restorative justice, because we didn’t like those demands when they were made in our own neck of the woods. We didn’t express anything other than pure and unadulterated willingness to integrate, while making sure our cuisine and movies provided non-intrusive pleasure to the society we were integrating into. We were the immigrants whom xenophobic bigots could tout as the kind of immigrants America wanted, unlike those “illegals” from south of the border. We could be the exotic friends of the white folk, without scaring them. We could give them the pass they needed from their history and, in turn, they gave us the pass we needed from ours. We would willingly play second fiddle, and not even dare to seek the lead. Be offended? Pfft…we would oh-so gladly be the Tonto to their Lone Ranger, the Kato to their Green Hornet, the Apu to their Homer Simpson (hell, we wouldn’t even give a crap that America’s most beloved Indian is voiced in breathtakingly racist fashion by Hank Azaria).

And if they declined our offers of compliant companionship, we would thank them nevertheless for their consideration, revert back to our own little bubbles, not cause trouble, and work hard in exactly the way they would like us to.

Wait…

Did I hear someone say model minority?

Pariah feet in elite academia

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I should begin with the preamble that I have been a rather mediocre student my entire life, hovering at or just above average, especially as far as grades are concerned.

Yet I had this innate ability to do really well in standardized tests like the GRE (and prior to that, the Common Admissions Test or CAT, for admissions into ranked engineering and medical colleges with different levels of state-provided funding in Karnataka).

This resulted in me somehow falling through the cracks into a killer graduate program. Cobbling together a tuition scholarship, financial help from my father, and a generous gift from an uncle on my mother’s side, I started an M.S. at the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering at Johns Hopkins University in the Fall of 2003. A few months into my journey as an international student in the States, I was relieved that I was heading to a more cosmopolitan city and university than Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania.

The graduate stream I signed up for was essentially a free for all in partnership with other departments in the health, environmental, and social sciences. I decided to do my degree with course majors in public health and human geography because, why the hell not?

I hated what I studied as an undergrad (mechanical engineering); both the university environment and the lack of stimulation irritated me no end. Plus, ever since I could remember I knew I had an inclination towards public health and the social sciences. Thus I was excited at the possibility of some engaged graduate studies.

Following my departure from Erie in the Summer of 2003 I stayed with an older family friend, Ash and his wife Sapana, near DC. Family networks like that were invaluable in getting a small leg up in the game, like being able to stay with them for those three months without paying rent. I soon found an on-campus summer job. And because I was living rent-free, I was able to save enough money to pay first and last for a basement room in Baltimore. Those were small manifestations of the middle class privilege I came with that weren’t present for all immigrants.

Thus buffered, I made my way to Baltimore, and soon set myself up in a small room before the fall semester began.

I was eager to get started. Having grown up in a family that valued university education to a fault (my father studied utilizing kerosene lamps and street light to get into college in Tamil Nadu), I grew up with the bias that an elite educational institute automatically meant it was also a bastion of critical thought. I figured that I would find a more progressive, egalitarian place in general.

That preconception would soon crumble rather rapidly before my eyes.

For starters, the location of the room I found would be my first step in coming to terms with one of the richest universities in America squatting, nay, shamefacedly lounging right in the middle of one of the country’s poorest cities. I found a basement room in a slightly rundown neighborhood barely a few blocks from the neatly manicured lawns and polished buildings of the Homewood Campus.

The neighborhood that surrounded my place had more marginalized people than I had ever seen on any American TV show. I noticed just as many panhandlers as one would be able to see at any major intersection in Bangalore. Maybe the shock manifested in hyperbole but I had to remind myself right about then that India was a significantly poorer country than America. I heard four police sirens during my first night there. And, not more than eight blocks from my new abode was a university with an endowment of around two billion dollars – greater than the entire operating budget of the city of Baltimore.

And what of my initial interaction with the university itself?

On my very first day at the Department of Geography and Environmental Engineering, I walked with hope and eagerness into the office of Professor Barry, who had been assigned as my temporary advisor.

“Dr. Barry?” I tentatively queried as I knocked on his half open door.

“Yes, come in.” said a friendly voice.

I entered his office, which was, like any other academic’s office, stacked with books on wall-to-wall shelves. I’ve always wondered how many of the books were actually read from cover to cover, and how many were just bought to fill up those gargantuan book shelves and/or placate fellow academics.

“Hi, Dr. Barry…my name is Sri.”

I had by now stopped bothering with my full first name, as a way of preventing an awkward introductory clarification on how it wasn’t “Siniam” or “Sirilam” or “Shareefam”, but “Sriram…though you can call me Sri, as in Sri Lanka”

“Sri, did you say…as in Sri Lanka?” Dr. Barry asked, offering me a round pink hand.

I nearly jumped and applauded.

“Yes!” I said, possibly a little too joyfully. “Sri, as in Sri Lanka.”

“And, um…” he started asking

Oh no, don’t say it, please don’t say it.

“…are you from Sri Lanka?”

Even though I knew it was quite a natural follow-up question, the sheer predictability of my interactions with older white dudes was getting a little tiresome.

“Um…no, I’m from India actually.” I said, a little exasperated.

“Oh, really!” he replied excitedly. “We have another Indian guy who’s just joined us this semester…the guy with the turban.”

“Oh, yeah…I saw him very briefly today morning. I hope to introduce myself to him later on today.” I replied.

The other student I had seen was a Sikh man from Punjab.

“He always looks like he’s meditating or something, you know…with that turban on.” Dr. Barry elucidated. “I almost feel like he’s gonna levitate or something, you know…like one of those Hindu holy men?”

He guffawed loudly, like he had unleashed the most scintillating of wit.

I forced a smile, hoping he would realize that I wanted to get some answers regarding my coursework and not his take on all the resident brown people he believed to be ethnically linked to me. The half smile only seemed to egg him on.

“So,” he asked, “you guys, like, talk to each other and stuff, right? You don’t have any problems with each other’s religions or anything?”

The hope I walked in with was swiftly disintegrating in a matter of seconds. Did he not hear me say that I was hoping to introduce myself to the guy later on?

“Um, yeah…I don’t see why we would have a problem at all, Dr. Barry.” I said, trying not to sound sardonic.

He nodded, “Of course, of course…it’s just that, we never know how internationals will behave with each other, you know, in a new culture and all. Especially, India being such a crazy place and all.”

“Uh huh.” was all I could manage.

“So…right now in India…” he started.

Oh, come on. Not again. Please, no. Ask me about India’s nuclear weapons or cricket team or the political system, even the fucking snake charmers for crying out loud, please, anything but…

“Um…what’s the population like now?” he asked.

What was with these people and India’s population? Why was it such a potent source of voyeurism for them? Did they fantasize about teeming crowds of brown people while they masturbated? Did it titillate them to imagine swathes of thin South Asians standing shoulder to shoulder with each other? Was I simply unaware of a fetish for masses of Third World natives in this part of the earth?

My meeting with Professor Barry at Johns fucking Hopkins University was instructive on how unilaterally brilliant minds were just as capable of jaw-dropping ignorance as anyone else. It certainly made me feel better about myself.

I realized then that the “temporary” in “temporary advisor” was the primary operative in that title as far as I was concerned with Dr. Barry. I was not there for long, but I was determined to find someone whom I could actually learn from. There simply had to be a professor in a supposedly elite academic department who didn’t showcase a fascinating lack of common sense.

And, thank heavens, there was.

I was about to head into a class called Political Ecology that I was advised to take in a rare moment of clarity that Dr. Barry had during that ill-fated first conversation. He probably realized that with the kind of politics I was espousing, a progressive, quasi-pariah professor would be just the thing I needed.

How right he was.

I walked into the graduate lounge just before class to get some coffee, when I spotted a middle-aged black and white sheep dog that hadn’t seen sheep in a long time. It was panting invitingly while lying on the floor with the kind of carefree innocence that only non-human species could muster. I knelt down and started petting him immediately. The more I petted him the happier he got. I was so involved in trying to get him to lick me that I didn’t notice the three students standing over me looking at me incredulously, while an older middle-aged women with whitening blonde hair and a glowing face stood by the doorway smiling widely.

“You know, you can come into my office any time and hang out with him.” she said sweetly.

“Oh…yeah, that would be great.” I said with a smile, glad that I hadn’t offended her by cuddle-torturing her dog.

I walked into my Political Ecology class, waiting for the professor, while the other students chattered away. In walked Professor Erica Schoenberger with Sasha, both recognizing me immediately.

And thus began the first real learning experience for me in my academic career. I was on a double course-load at Hopkins so that I could finish my masters in one year since my scholarship was only for a year and I didn’t fancy taking a loan for a second year of graduate studies.

I think more than half my courses were under Erica. I was told that it wasn’t a good idea to load all my coursework under one professor, but I didn’t care. I had finally found a professor who didn’t make me want to stick a pencil in my eye each time we met, who actually listened, and who taught me with remarkable distinction. I was more than willing to risk loading the majority of my courses with her than having to endure the Dr. Barrys of the world.

The classes were one aspect of my interactions with her. She brought forward critical thinking on issues surrounding environmental justice, colonialism, capitalist exploitation, health rights, and social justice in a way that I could understand, especially when the density of the reading material got the better of me. She did this without being condescending, always making me believe that I had as much to offer as she did. At the time I thought that all progressive professors did this, so didn’t think much about it. But years later when I returned to the world of academia for my doctorate, I would realize how unique it was.

However, it wasn’t only via the classroom that I found an enriching learning experience. Erica also helped me get a measure of rationality in the midst of the giant irrationality that was Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. I knew that personal therapy was not what she was there for, but it helped to sense some very real existential angst she had in being a radical progressive in the middle of academic sterility. It helped me struggle with my own internal contradictions with the place.

The experience taught me that learning could be liberating, indeed had to be liberating, first and foremost from the institutions of learning themselves.

Most importantly though, she made me feel like I didn’t have to hide my politics. I felt like I had the freedom to, for instance, come into her office for an appointment on my coursework and instead launch into a discussion on how the overwhelming majority of the janitorial employees were black while the overwhelming majority of the students were white or Asian.

“That’s the system of elite academic production for you in the middle of one of the most gentrified cities in the country.” she replied indignantly, suppressing a slightly nervous tick. “The poorest of the poor clean the hallways and toilets for the children of the wealthy.”

“Isn’t this just further polarizing communities to the point where there might be an explosion…you know, a revolution?” I asked.

“That’s true, but this country has also constantly found remarkable ways of either smashing militant movements that fight for greater change or subsuming them into the system through non-profits.” she said with resignation.

Even though I knew she had that sense of anger against the systems of elitism that surrounded her, I never did broach the topic of how she herself was fighting the good fight while teaching in an elite university. I think I didn’t want to hear her engagement with the kinds of contradictions any progressive within an elite setting engaged with (or at least should engage with). I don’t think it would have been good for me to hear that right then.

I liked having her on the pedestal because she was a source of sanity for me. I was on a double course load, while working a shitty part-time gig to pay the rent, soon to navigate the all-important job market in order to get a work visa and save some money while staying involved in as much political activism as I could. I didn’t want that pedestal to disappear because it temporarily made the effort worthwhile.

Thus did my pariah feet find their way in elite academia.

That inexplicable quirk about leaving

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I have never quite understood this element of the human condition that often has the city or town you live in viewed in a kinder light the closer you get to leaving it. Barring places of great violence and danger that you escape from, non-traumatic departures generally have this going for them. Or at least they do for me. Nothing’s different, save the departure of my sorry behind. What then gives? There is this vague sense of sigh-inducing finality, usually accompanied by moderately maudlin memories of good times, whenever I leave a place, especially if I know I’m leaving it forever. There is the feeling, to some degree or the other, that a chapter in one’s life is over, and a feeling of sadness (albeit usually accompanied by exciting anticipation of the next destination) simply because of that closing.

Now, when I left Erie, Pennsylvania after a brief semester in that lakeside town in 2003, all I felt was pure unadulterated joy during my last few days there. The thought of leaving the place made me happy as fuck. Which was hardly surprising considering I had spent the semester dealing with irritating housemates, weird forms of American chauvinism, and tiresome Bible thumping, while making sure I got decent grades, sustained myself on part-time minimum wages, and did what I had to do to get the hell out of there to my next port-of-call. There were many days where I coasted on nothing more than coffee, cigarettes, and the odd banana or bag of peanuts.

Being a middle class kid from Bangalore, I really wasn’t too happy about roughing it out to the point of messing up my health. I was keen on pulling myself up by my bootstraps or whatever (you know, with sizeable help from my parents, a gift from my rich uncle, and plenty of family networks in the States), but was also keen on being moderately happy and healthy while doing so.

So I was pretty chuffed that I was heading to my next destination.

But that curious element of the human condition when leaving places for good came to the fore again. It was manifesting in the way I was seeing the place. The happiness stemming from my impending departure was tinting the glasses with which I was viewing the town of Erie, some of the people I had met in Gannon University, and, hell, even my god-awful housemates, Fiefdom King and Slovenly Misogynists. People who irritated me ceased to do so temporarily because I knew I didn’t have to deal with them anymore. And with that change in attitude, came the ability to see some of the nicer qualities in that person.

Dr. Richards complimented me with genuine warmth when he found out that I was transferring to Hopkins.

“One of the finest universities in the world.” he said, shaking my hand vigorously. “And I’m sure you’ll do very well there. After all, you Indians have a long legacy of hard working people, so you should have no problems.”

(With the headspace I was in at the time, I was happier dealing with positive stereotypes rather than negative ones.)

Even Large & Shrill, that giant pile of holier-than-thou pomposity who irritated the crap out of me during our Spring Break volunteer trip, was visibly happy for me when we met during a reunion of all the travellers.

Though I secretly wondered if her joy was more at the thought of seeing one less heathen in her town.

My elation at leaving had also opened my eyes to hitherto unknown little delights in Erie – things that I had not noticed before when I was feeling miserable. I saw that it had some gorgeous water bodies. Beautiful creeks and lakes, including the town’s eponymous one among the Five Greats, provided breathtaking scenery. As winter melted away, I also noticed that it was in fact a really stunning place in the sunshine. It had lovely hiking trails that I had never traversed before.

So I decided to traverse one with my fascist friend.

A couple of days before I had to leave, Murali and I took a walk along one of the more beautiful trails on the outskirts of town. He was visibly upset that I was leaving. Despite my inability to look beyond his beliefs, he still thought of me as his best friend in that place. He said that he had never connected with anyone there the way he did with me. It was a little unnerving, but for a moment I decided to forget about his political beliefs and just let him be in our friendship.

“You’re the only one I could talk to about India and politics Sri…all the rest of the Indian crowd here are only interested in materialistic things.” he said as we walked along the rocky path.

“I understand man.” I said.

He nodded with a forlorn look on his face.

It was an interesting moment for me. The fact that we had polarizing political views was not the issue for him. It was for me. I could never be friends with a fascist. He viewed it differently. The very fact that we had political views was what made him feel sad about my departure. We were on opposite sides of the spectrum, but I was the only person he could speak to about the spectrum itself. Maybe at that moment my differing political views didn’t matter as much to him. Most of the other Indian grad students he interacted with didn’t relate to him at that level, and were primarily focused on getting a job after grad school. I was the only one he could talk to about anything other than the material sustenance that consumes the thoughts of all new immigrants.

As we hugged goodbye, for the briefest of moments I actually felt like I was going to miss him. I was going to miss the temporary friendship of convenience I had cultivated with a fascist. This departure was opening my eyes to more things than just the landscape of the place I was leaving.

I packed my bags the day before I was scheduled to leave. I didn’t have to. I was only taking the late afternoon bus the next day, but packing made me feel even better. Slovenly Misogynist came to bid me farewell. I was so happy that I actually hugged him goodbye, somehow managing to get my arms around his pudgy midriff.

“Where are you staying now?” I asked. I had completely forgotten about him soon after he had left the house in a huff following his blowup with Fiefdom King.

“With a couple of Indian guys from class.” he replied with resignation. “It’s not great…they keep asking when I’m going to move, but where do I move to in the middle of the semester? I won’t find any roomies and all the other places are too expensive.”

I nodded awkwardly, not knowing what to say.

There was a pause as we looked at each other uneasily.

“So, um…have you been to any more strip clubs?” I asked, trying to shift the conversation to a subject that interested him.

“A couple of times…but I don’t have the money to go all the time.” he replied a little crestfallen.

I actually felt a touch of sympathy for the lout. It was like somewhere deep inside him, covered in all those layers, was a little boy; a moronic, sexually stunted, little boy who deserved a touch of sympathy.

Later on in the morning I finished packing and moved my suitcase and duffle bag to the living room. Fiefdom King was cooking in the kitchen.

“Best of luck Sri.” he said with a slight smile that exposed a dash of envy. “It’s really cool that you’re transferring to a better school.”

“Thanks man.” I said, wiping a drop of sweat from my brow. “I hope everything goes well for you here.”

“Yeah, I hope so too.” he said. “Eventually I too hope to move to a bigger city. It’s much better in the bigger cities.”

It was an insecure side to him I had never chosen to witness before.

I nodded with a smile.

“By the way,” he then ventured, “you…uh, you haven’t seen my camera anywhere have you? I’ve looked everywhere for it, and can’t seem to find it.”

“No idea man.” I said, putting on the most innocent face I could muster. “I didn’t know you had misplaced it. It’s pretty expensive isn’t it?”

“Yeah, it is, which is why I’m worried that I can’t find it.” he replied. “Anyway…don’t mean to be bothering you with it. I know you’re busy packing, just thought I’d ask.”

“No problem.” I said with a smile (in the process realizing that there was a tiny little sociopath in me when it came to dealing with assholes). “I have to get going now. Am meeting a couple of friends for lunch and dinner.”

We said our goodbyes and I left to hang out with my closest friends in that town.

Earlier in the day I had dropped by Jane’s office to see her one last time. She shook my hand and smiled, wrinkling her brilliantly weathered face.

“It was a real blessing to have known you Sri.” she said with warmth.

“You too Jane. Thanks for everything…you have no idea how much I appreciate the support and friendship I received from you.”

“There’s no need to thank me…the pleasure was all mine.”

Above all though, there were three people that I wanted to spend quality time with before I left. And I wanted to ensure that they were the last people I would be hanging out with before I went to the Greyhound station. Peaceniks and general rabble rousers, Peter, Mary-Rose, and Anna, had been the biggest reasons for whatever sanity I had been able to cling onto during that semester. It was only fitting that they were the people I hung out with as I reveled in the joy of leaving, so that I could share that happiness with them.

Peter and I met for lunch to say good bye to each other. We spoke about the trip to New York, and his continuing anti-war activism with his church.

“It’s tough in this town, but it has to start somewhere.” he added, wistfully. “Which is why I’m going to miss you Sri…it’s rare to find fellow peace activists like you here. I feel like quite an outcast some times.”

I had never thought about Peter as an outcast. He seemed like the poster-child for the good, pious, small-town, God-fearing Christian. It was a moment when I felt like I should have maybe opened up a little more about my predicament. I might have found a kindred soul.

He hugged me long and tight as we said our goodbyes. It was touching.

“I had a wonderful time with you Sri.” he said, eyes welling up. “I’ll always remember some of the wonderful conversations we had.”

“It was a real pleasure to have known you Peter.” I replied. “And thanks for being my friend.”

Finally, Mary-Rose, Anna and I gathered in their apartment for one last vodka and pot-filled evening of laughter. Anna presented me a book on Martin Luther King Jr. with a lovely note inside it about how much our friendship meant to her and how much she would miss our conversations on political struggles. Mary-Rose gave me a small framed photograph of the iconic Imagine mosaic in Central Park, as a testament to my love for John Lennon’s music.

Drunk and high, we chatted through the night.

“We’re going to miss you, you bastard.” Mary-Rose said loudly in a drunken slur.

“I’m going to miss you guys too.” I said, now inebriated enough to let my inhibitions fall.

“Yeah, right!” she exclaimed in false sarcasm. “The moment you head to Baltimore, you’re going to forget all about this little town.”

I wanted to tell her that it’s what I thought would happen, and indeed was hoping would happen, but wasn’t so sure now.

Anna said softly, “You’ll be really happy in a bigger city I think Sri…I know I will. It’s tough for folks like us here. We stick out too much.”

There was something happening in those last few moments with the temporary friends I had made in Erie. I couldn’t quite understand it, but I was actually feeling a little lucky. I had a path out of this place, albeit a tough one, but one that still got me out. They didn’t have that as yet. Suddenly things weren’t so cut and dry. I had never thought that maybe they too were just as marginalized as I was in that place, that they might have wanted to leave as well. I just assumed that it would be easier for them. This was their home town after all.

I had traveled all the way from India to the realization that I had a ticket out of conservative, small-town America that some of my friends in those very spaces didn’t.

Anna and Mary-Rose came with me to the Greyhound station next day to see me off. They had packed a lunch for me, and hugged me good bye. I saw a tear drop well up in Anna’s eye.

I boarded the bus, and as it trundled off onto the highway, I saw them for one last time through my window and waved at them. And for the first time, I felt a twinge of sadness at the thought of leaving.

I never saw any of them ever again.

An immigrant heart is one that always grows fonder and whinier

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Back home in Bangalore, when people talked about their family, or about the weekend holiday they took to see their grandparents, or the time their cousins came to visit, or any other kinship-exposing monologue, I had a rather normal reaction of mind-numbing boredom.

In fact, often I was so bored that I had to invent techniques to keep myself from dozing off while still evincing interest through periodic head nods and affirming grunts. Like imagining myself with divine but awesomely cool superhero powers that I would only use for the good of the world, furthermore remaining ever so humble about, while simultaneously not begrudging the appropriate amount of adoration from my grateful fans.

Said person regaling me with tales of their family or friends probably wondered about the curious reactions I must have displayed – the mini chuckles, the jaw-jutting confidence, a kiss blown here, a wave of the hand there – while they were talking about their grandfather’s arthritis. But I did develop the reputation of being an earnest, albeit scatter-brained, listener.

When I made my way to the States way back in 2003 as an international student, my reaction to folks talking about their families caught me by surprise. Rather than boredom, I felt a deep anger – an anger that I couldn’t quite understand because it wasn’t directed at the person talking to me. It was mixed with a complete aloofness to hide it from them. This anger stayed with me for many years. It was only with Americans that I felt this angry detachment with, and I wasn’t sure why. The only Americans who spoke to me about their families were good friends. I really liked them and they seemed to trust me enough to open up to me, often about very personal family issues they had.

In hindsight it was so bloody obvious of course. It wasn’t just the actual physical distance from my own family that caused this reaction to others talking about theirs, but the unknown distance in time. When I made my way out of my hometown for good, I didn’t know when I would see my family again, what with having to complete my studies on a tight budget and then find a job to get a work visa that enabled travel. It was gut-wrenching and my reaction reflected that.

I never had this reaction when Indian friends or other transnationals talked about their families. In fact, I instinctively went back to feeling mind-numbing boredom again and proceeded to imagine myself as a superhero. The whole misery-loving-company thing played out in interesting ways. I went back to the same reaction that I used to have in India because they were in the same predicament I was in. But with my American friends it was different. Their families were a road trip away at the most. Maybe the anger was actually envy, but it was palpable.

The funny thing is that my family irritated the crap out of me when I was with them. There’s a great deal of love and all, but there is no getting away from the fact that they often bugged me. After moving to the States however, I pined for that irritable feeling, painfully longed for that sense of exasperation when my folks got on my nerves, because the lack of it only confirmed that they weren’t around in this new world I had stepped into. It was the same irritation that caused me to feel harmless boredom when others talked about their irritating families. Now that I didn’t have my family around me anymore, hearing about the families of Americans who did have them close at hand only made me angry.

It was my parents who were the primary receivers of my bellyaching. They were the symbolic marker of the spatial and temporal distance I felt at the time; the sweet, hard-working, conservatively rooted, yet refreshingly open minded people in my life who were an indicator of just how far away from home I was. A sign board that read:

Amma and Appa, with love and big hearts – 8,431 Miles and 2 years away (take the exit after the Atlantic Ocean and the H1B visa).

It wasn’t easy. I had been honest with them about the angst I was feeling in this new place right from the very beginning of my immigrant journey.

My first email to them, barely a month into beginning grad school, went something like this:

 

Dear Amma and Appa, 

I hate it here. I’m lonely and miserable. I miss you, I miss Bangalore, I miss India, and I miss everything about my former life before I came to this horrible place. I want to leave and return home. I’m sure I could find a decent job in Bangalore and live there. It would be great and I wouldn’t have to leave India ever again. 

Lots of love, 

Sriram

 

Deep down however, I knew that I couldn’t make rash decisions like that, not after all they had done for me. I imagined the panic mode that they would have gone into the moment they read that email, and the worry it would have caused them. That recurring thought kept me awake all night after I sent it. So the next day, before my parents could respond, I sent another email:

 

Dear Amma and Appa, 

Sorry about my earlier email. I know the worry it must have caused you. Please don’t worry. Things will get better and I’m sure I can handle things here. It’s just a matter of time before I start making some friends and things start to feel a little better. I hope you two are doing well. Please don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine. 

Lots of love, 

Sriram

 

However, the pain and acute loneliness continued, and at the time my parents were the only people I could communicate to in an honest way, without seeming like a whiny brat. So lo and behold, a few days later, in another moment of deep anguish I sent one more email. As I remember, it went something like:

 

Amma/Appa, 

This place is awful! I have shitty housemates who remind me vaguely of maggots, and others whom I talk to outside are either fanatically Christian or very offensive to any culture other than their own. I hate it here, and I change my mind…I want to leave immediately. Do you think you could send me money for a flight ticket back home? It would only be a one-way ticket, so it would be much cheaper. I know I would be leaving this place mid-semester, but it’s better to leave now than waste time being miserable here, right? I know I could get a good job back home and build my career there. The Indian economy is roaring anyway, so there’s no point in me continuing to be so miserable here. I can’t wait to see you back in Bangalore. I checked in on flights and I could easily take a bus to Newark or New York and board a flight from there. You can buy the ticket online and send me the email confirming it. I’m getting ready to pack my bags. I can’t wait to see you both and be back in Bangalore. 

Much love, 

Sriram

 

But then of course, the reality of my parents worrying kicked in again, and the sense of leaving without even getting my degree made me rethink my email in yet another sleepless night. So I trudged back through the snow in the middle of the night to the computer lab on campus and, again before they could reply to my email, wrote a follow-up one:

 

Ok…once again, sorry for causing you more worry. I’m just struggling through this initial painful phase here. Come, what, may, it obviously makes sense for me to at least finish my degree before coming back home. I’ll make it through here, so don’t worry about it and forget I asked about sending me money for a flight ticket back home. I’ll be fine. I just need to make some friends to get me through the semester. Hopefully when I transfer to a better university in a bigger city, things will be better. 

Love and affection, 

Sriram

 

And so the scatterbrained double-emails continued for a while. I can only imagine my parents feeling like their second-born was slowly but surely making his way down the rabbit hole of maladjusted adulthood and shattered dreams. They responded in the only way they knew how – by trying to valiantly recreate, in however tiny a way, some element of the life I enjoyed back home in Bangalore.

In Bangalore, one of the things I enjoyed doing with my family and friends was eating out in one of the umpteen restaurants in the city. I was a food lover, more glutton than gourmet. I would always order more than I needed to in any restaurant – my appetite considerably whetted the moment I walked in – and proceed to consume it all despite not really needing to. I became famous amongst family and friends for my gargantuan appetite, aided by the fact that I was a serious athlete in school and college who needed constant refueling. They would always order an extra dish knowing that I was there to polish it off in the end.

So they sent me this birthday card with a crisp $100 bill placed inside and a note in it that read:

 

Dear Sriram, 

Many happy returns to you on this wonderful day. We know money is tight right now for you, and that you are struggling through your initial few steps in a new environment. Please use this birthday gift to go out a few times to some nice nearby restaurants and enjoy a couple of good meals with your friends. 

Love, 

Amma and Appa

 

It was touching. It didn’t help in alleviating my mood because it just further highlighted how far away from home I was. But it was touching nevertheless. I imagined eating out at one of the few restaurants in Erie, Pennsylvania – my inexplicable home for four months when I began my immigrant journey in 2003. It didn’t feel like fun at all. I hated going out to eat alone. I didn’t enjoy the food anywhere near as much as I did when I was with people I loved. I decided against following their suggestion. I kept the $100 bill safely in my wallet. I also felt a twinge of pain at the thought of parting with it. It was like a direct connection with my parents back in Bangalore, so I resolved to keep it forever. (My angst at the time might have made me a touch sappy.)

The sign board now read:

Amma and Appa, with love and big hearts – 8,431 Miles and 2 years away (take the exit after the Atlantic Ocean and H1B Visa…but don’t worry, there are ways to grit it out so don’t despair)

All the mush in the world however often loses out to cold hard economics. I held on for a reasonable amount of time, considering how tight money was, but eventually I had to part with it. In doing so however, I realized that the distance between them and I was not as gut-wrenchingly far as I imagined.

I actually forgot about the gift, possibly in a subconscious effort to ensure I didn’t part with it. Weeks went by and I dug my heels in to not let the misery get the better of me. For the semester I was in Erie, I studied hard and volunteered with the anti-war group I had befriended. All the while I counted the days before I left for Baltimore, my next port-of-call with a significantly larger university that I was transferring to for grad school. During the last couple of weeks of my stay, I had cleaned out my bank account of the approximately $125 I had managed to save up during the semester, and received a banker’s check for the amount. The only problem was that I hadn’t bought my Greyhound bus ticket to Baltimore yet.

I did have other safety nets in an emergency. I could have asked my parents again for money, but it would have taken time to transfer it to the States, and the worry I would have put them through was not worth it. I contemplated contacting the family friend I had in DC and asking him to buy it for me. But I was staying rent-free with him and his wife for the summer before starting school at Hopkins, so felt loath to ask him for another favor. I could have asked a distant uncle of mine who lived in a giant mansion yet still counted pennies, but then I would have felt like shit. I thought of cashing the bankers check, but the credit union at Hopkins said that I needed at least $100 to open an account with them.

And that’s when I used the $100 bill my parents had given to me for my birthday – it was eventually disposed off in getting me to Baltimore.

Distance, every once in a while I realized, was relative. I just had to read the signs properly.

Amma and Appa, with love, big hearts and just the right amount of intervention to lift your spirits – Next Exit…always the Next Exit (so stop your bellyaching)