Trouble in anti-paradise

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One of the beautiful things about humanity is that once in a while, some of the more disagreeable elements of our species, while making life miserable for the rest of us, eventually get to each other as well.

Four months into my immigrant journey, things started to unravel quite rapidly between the two main irritants in my home life at that time. My housemates from hell, Slovenly Misogynist and Fiefdom King, were not really feeling the love for each other anymore. I was a little surprised, as they seemed to get along famously in the initial few days. Nonetheless, I will shame-facedly admit to watching the proceedings with a devilish pleasure.

By that time I had taken it upon myself to stay as far away from them as possible, coming home only to sleep, leaving early in the morning, and ignoring them or giving a non-descript acknowledgement when I did see them. I was in this neutral space of not giving the proverbial vermin’s gluteus about them. I paid my rent and monthly grocery bill on time, so they didn’t complain. As a result, I wasn’t really aware of the trouble that had started brewing between them. I gathered from my other two, slightly more tolerable, housemates that tensions boiled over because of one of the original grouses we had with the place – we were all paying rent equally but Fiefdom King had his own room with every amenity possible, while the rest of us slummed it out in crummy, shared rooms.

It didn’t bother me anymore because I was leaving Erie and Gannon University by the end of the Spring 2003 semester. But it clearly got to the rest of them, with Slovenly Misogynist leading the pack. Apparently this was a tension that had been simmering for a while, but the way it boiled over was delightfully insane to witness. The classic Indian trait of conflict-avoidance had once again paved the way for the equally classic Indian trait of melodramatic eruption.

It’s what happens when suppressed emotions reach a boiling point.

I was napping on the torn couch one evening after pulling yet another all-nighter for a crucial exam I had taken that morning. My nap was rudely interrupted when Fiefdom King and Slovenly Misogynist barged into the house shouting, what I assumed were crass expletives, at each other in Telugu. Since I didn’t know the language, I merely rubbed my eyes and sat back to enjoy the entertainment as I would a badly made foreign movie without subtitles, adding them instead in my head. The argument continued rising in volume to the point where they were screaming at the top of their lungs, frothing at the mouth, red-eyed and quivering with rage. The battle theatre was in front of Fiefdom King’s room which was adjacent to the living room where I was napping, so I got a perfect view of the scene playing out without having to move from my comfy supine position.

Like I said, I’m not proud of having taken a malicious pleasure out of watching it, but I did nevertheless. It was like two painful warts on my ass canceling each other out in one sordid, tumorous potboiler. My two other housemates, who seemed opposed to Fiefdom King on principle, chose to also merely watch from the sidelines, glad that they didn’t have to step out of conflict-avoidance mode.

The argument quickly escalated to the point where I thought it was going to turn into a physical fight. Fiefdom King opened the door to his room and made to get in when Slovenly Misogynist, keeping with his disposition I suppose, told him in broken English to fuck his mother, to which Fiefdom King responded by insulting the town that Slovenly Misogynist came from. The insults increased in geographic and familial intensity to the point where Slovenly Misogynist kicked Fiefdom King’s desk-chair down, bringing a pile of unlaundered clothes placed on it tumbling down in a heap.

Yes, I thought in pre-teen glee. Fight, fight, fight! But Fiefdom King seemed to be more of a manipulator than a fighter. And, boy did he send an eerie vibe. His tone got much quieter after Slovenly Misogynist had dared to kick his chair. He gave an ominous-sounding warning, which included words in English.

“You’ll be sorry for this.”

And so saying, he went inside his room and slammed the door, seemingly ending the fight.

Thinking he had won, Slovenly Misogynist shouted through the door and laughed mockingly. I didn’t think this was a particularly good idea. Fiefdom King seemed to have a couple of tricks up his sleeve that my dim-witted bunkmate was unable to discern.

He then turned to me and said, “I’m staying with some friends man and will collect my things later. I’m not paying any more rent to this BASTARD!” shouting the last few words loud enough for Fiefdom King to hear.

Big mistake.

If you’re going to cross a manipulator, you better think a couple of steps ahead, cover all your bases first, and not do it in a rush of anger.

The next night, while I was out smoking on the front porch, my bunkmate returned with his friend and a borrowed car.

“Is that idiot at home right now?” he asked, as he lumbered up the stairs to the front door.

I shook my head, exhaling smoke, and said, “No…I think you can grab your things now.”

The guy smirked.

“Fucking coward doesn’t want to face me.” he said with bravado.

I shrugged, preferring to be a curious bystander rather than active instigator. He and his friend went into the house. I had barely finished my cigarette when he came bounding back to the porch, ashen-faced and visibly scared.

“Hey Sri…have you seen my passport and visa documents?” he asked in desperation. “I normally always keep them in the nightstand drawer by the bed…and now I can’t find them!”

I shook my head again, this time with a little concern, and said, “No boss. Why would I have seen them? I keep mine…”

I then realized what had happened.

I ran into the house to make sure the slimy bastard hadn’t taken my passport and visa documents. I hadn’t taken visible sides in the argument, but there was no telling what someone like Fiefdom King would do to make his point. I hurriedly opened the suitcase that had all of my most important stuff and heaved a sigh of relief when I saw the leather folio with my passport and visa documents inside it, along with other important papers. I could not afford to let anything happen to them on account of some fight between two idiots I didn’t give a shit about. I was transferring to a new school and city in a couple of weeks, and realized that the safest place I could keep them was on my person. If the guy wanted my old clothes, he could have them, but my passport, papers, wallet, and cell phone were my lifeblood in that order of importance. I tucked the folio into my backpack and resolved to hold on to it at all times, night and day, until I was out of that crummy place.

I was so worried about my own documents that I temporarily forgot about the dolt standing next to me. I actually felt a little sorry for him. It was one thing to exchange heated words, but to actually jeopardize the immigration status of someone was going too far. Fiefdom King wasn’t kidding when he uttered his ominous warning.

“I know he’s taken it man!” Slovenly Misogynist frantically said. “And I can’t even prove it. Fuck!”

He was right. What the hell could the cops do? Fiefdom King must have hidden it well.

I helped the guy do a thorough search of the entire house, except for the most obvious location of Fiefdom King’s locked bedroom. Not surprisingly, it was nowhere to be found.

“Are you sure it was there? Maybe you took it to school or something.” I said, more out of a sympathetic feeling that took me by surprise than actual enquiry.

“Yes man!” he replied, now visibly quivering. “I know it was there. I saw it the other day before the fight and I didn’t take it anywhere.”

I didn’t have any words of comfort for him. For an international student, a new immigrant to the States, one’s passport and papers were everything. If they were lost then one had to jump through all kinds of bureaucratic hoops to get replacements from consulates and government bodies spanning different continents. This resulted in not being able to travel until those replacements came, and potentially having to return to one’s home country to go through the painstaking visa process again. There was always the risk that some shitty immigration agent would refuse it, forcing one to go through it again. And the time-consuming process would also put one’s studies on hold. It was not a good place to be in.

“Listen,” I said, trying to calm him down, “do whatever it is you need to do to get your passport and papers back. Put your stupid ego aside and ask him…nicely if needed. Who knows, maybe you will have to go to the police as a last ditch option. It might scare him to giving it back to you.”

The guy nodded, still agitated, and said, “Ok…I’ll wait for him and try to get it back.”

When Fiefdom King came home a couple of hours later, what transpired was the most discernible turnaround in attitude I had ever seen. The laughing braggadocio of my bunkmate was transformed into a sad, sorry groveling that was nothing short of pathetic, if highly practical given the circumstances. He bent down, almost genuflecting in front of the King.

Holding his hands in visible supplication, he pleaded, “Listen, please, please give them back to me. I’m sorry…you’re right, I am an asshole and I come from a stupid town and I fuck my mother and whatever else you called me is true. Just give them back to me, and I won’t complain about rent or anything else. Please, I beg of you.”

Fiefdom King was pleased. I thought I even saw the faintest of smirks. The filthy maggot didn’t hide it well enough though.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” he replied in a smooth, all-knowing tone, soaking in the temporary power he had procured for himself.

“But,” he added, a little too quickly, “I promise I’ll look for it, and if I see it, I’ll make sure to keep it safely and give it to you.”

That Fiefdom King had taken the documents was as clear as day.

Sure enough, the next day my staggeringly slow bunkmate came running to me in the computer lab after seeing me.

“I got it Sri!” Slovenly Misogynist said, delirious with joy. “He called me and told me that he found it in the house somewhere near our room. I am so relieved! God, I don’t know what I would have done without my passport.”

He was so giddy that he was practically bouncing, his fatty tissue jiggling in different directions. The guy didn’t feel even a smidgen of anger, and if he did, he was certainly suppressing it well. All he felt was relief. I guess that’s what cold fear could do to you.

It had ceased becoming funny though. Fiefdom King was a conniving weasel. He actually stooped to harming someone only to reassert his feeling of control. I told myself that he had to pay for his hubris, no matter how small. Just a tiny little hit to the little fiefdom he had created for himself, even if merely symbolic and, for the most part, only in my head. It was what he did that made me angry. I didn’t really care about my bunkmate. It was the gumption of Fiefdom King to rationalize his action that got my goat. I think I was even more pissed that he made me fear him stealing my own passport and papers. The fact that I had to walk around carrying them with me 24/7 was not a nice feeling.

I figured, possibly short-sightedly, that the easiest way to make him pay was for him to mysteriously lose one of his prized earthly possessions that he kept under lock and key in his room. The only problem was that, well, he kept them under lock and key in his room. He kept his room open only when he was home. How could I distract him long enough during that time? I realized that he would first need to see me as someone firmly on his side, a friend of sorts. I still had to pay my share of the last month’s utilities and grocery bill, which was due in another week, so I thought I’d give him the check early and endear myself to him.

The next morning, I knocked on the door to his office where he worked as an administrative assistant. He opened the door and was a little surprised to see me.

“Hey man,” I cheerfully said, “I just came by to drop of a check for the last month’s utilities and groceries. I’m going to be super busy for the next couple of weeks since I’m leaving, so I wanted to make sure I got this to you early.”

He seemed a little defeated and lonely, his earlier arrogance having disappeared since there wasn’t a perceived affront he had to pose for.

“Thanks Sri.” he said with a sigh. “At least you’re not against me.”

“No worries man.” I said, while awkwardly patting his shoulder.

He smiled a little, but only enough to further accentuate his pathetic disposition.

I then hesitatingly asked, “Listen, um…you, uh, you wanna grab a few beers and hang out on the porch tonight? It’s supposed to be a lovely spring evening.”

Clearly he didn’t have any friends because he was nodding his head in excitement before I could even finish my sentence. I felt a twinge of guilt seeing him in such a sorry state, but I wasn’t keen on backing down now from my plan. For one thing, I was also miserably bored.

Later that evening, he and I sat down on the porch with a six-pack. I made sure we bought Steel Reserve, a beer that tasted rather like gasoline but had an alcohol content of 8.8%. Knowing his tolerance for liquor was approximately that of an eight-year old boy, I knew that by the time he got to his second beer he would be quite smashed. Sure enough, as we started swigging down the potent beer, he was soon tipsy while I was still able to function quite well, having watched my intake.

And then, the ridiculously simple finale to my plan was about to be enacted.

“Hey man,” I told him, while he was in his happy place, “I’m just going to get a cigarette from my room. I’ll be right back, ok?”

“Of course…in fact, I think I’m going to have a smoke with you.” he said, partially slurring his words now.

I nodded and stepped into the house. I knew I needed to be quick. Looking back to make sure I could see the back of his head through the screen door, I darted into his unlocked room. One of the first things I spotted was a shiny, very expensive, Minolta camera that I had heard him brag about on a previous occasion. Apparently it was worth around a thousand dollars. That would have to do. Without a moment’s hesitation, I took it and hurried into my room, checking again to make sure I could still see him seated on the porch. I stuffed it into my backpack and, picking up my cigarettes, darted back to the porch. My breathing was hurried, and I could vaguely sense the Mission Impossible theme song playing in my head. It was quite the rush and one of the only times during my brief stint in that town that I realized I actually had this hormone called adrenaline.

I joined him back on the porch.

“What took you so long man? I’ve been dying for a smoke.” he slurred when I sat back in my chair. I could see two empty cans beside him now and he was already starting to work on his third. The guy was piss drunk.

“I forgot where I put my cigs boss. I finally found it in my backpack.”

The rest of the evening went by with me having to endure the insufferable worm whine on drunkenly about how no one appreciated him, what with all he had done for us newbies and the way he had welcomed us into the house. The ordeal finally ended and we called it a night. I went to bed with a splitting headache.

The next morning, I woke up a little earlier than usual and left for the university campus. I knew there was a Catholic charity nearby that helped families in need, runaway teens, folks with addictions issues, homeless people, and other marginalized communities. Jane had spoken quite highly of them, saying that they were a little more progressive than some other Christian charities, and not very dogmatic. I stood outside the door to the church where it was housed. I fished out the camera and took a good look at it. It was brand new and I could have easily sold it for about eight hundred bucks. The money would have been supremely useful to me. But it wasn’t part of the plan, I told myself rather weakly. Shaking myself out of my reverie, I stuck the camera back into my backpack and went inside. I introduced myself to the sweet old woman sitting behind the desk of the organization’s one-room office. She was a little surprised to see me, but extremely polite.

“Please sit down my child.” she said, her smile radiating through her voice. “How can I help you?”

“Well ma’am, I’d like to make an in-kind donation to your organization.” I said, still unsure as to whether I actually wanted to.

“Why, that’s very kind of you. What is it that you’d like to donate?”

I realized that I needed to come up with a convincing story to rationalize parting with an expensive, brand new digital camera, when I didn’t exactly look like I was made of money.

“So, um, I recently purchased a very good camera, but, uh…” I stuttered, “I…I got an even better one for my birthday from my parents, who didn’t realize that I’d purchased this one. So um…I thought I’d give this one to your organization.”

“God bless you my child.” she said with a truly blessed tone. “Our organization could certainly use such generous donations.”

I think she would have been that sweet had I come to donate a Snickers bar, but I got the sense that my fake story of altruistic redistribution made her particularly warm.

“Um…ok…cool.” was all I managed to say, in a voice that was anything but sure about parting with the camera in exchange for some amorphous blessing from a god I didn’t even believe in.

“Great.” she replied, getting up to fetch something from the shelf. “Let me get our donations registry, so I can give you a receipt.”

I nodded, a little nervously.

“What’s the value of the camera?” she asked, while reaching for the register. “We need to keep track of the approximate dollar-values of our in-kind donations”

“I believe it is worth about a thousand dollars.” I said, before quickly adding. “I’ve lost the receipt, so can’t give you an exact figure.”

She was visibly surprised at the cost.

“Oh my…that’s so generous of you.” she gushed. “And an approximate value is all we need. It’s primarily for our records with the church.”

She wrote out a donation receipt for the amount and handed it to me, thanking me again profusely.

“You’re very welcome ma’am. It’s a great cause.” I said, trying to sound gracious.

I got up to leave after saying goodbye to her.

“Um…my child…” she said, as she shook my hand.

“Yes ma’am?”

“The…um…the camera…you haven’t given it yet.”

There was a pause, one that lingered for far too long, as I looked at her and semi-wondered if I should maybe make a bolt for the door. But I rapidly coming back to my senses.

“Of course! How stupid of me.” I replied, slapping my forehead, now a little embarrassed at my Freudian forgetfulness.

I took it out of my bag and handed it to her, looking at it again; my grip tightening as I realized how much it was worth. My reluctance was manifesting itself physically. The camera inched forward at the pace of molasses to the nice old lady across the table. And then when it did finally reach her, my hand refused to let go until she almost wrenched it away from me in a surprising show of strength, while valiantly maintaining her sweet demeanor the entire time.

“Thank you my child.” she said. “May the grace of Christ always reside in you.”

“Yeah…um…you as well ma’am.” I said, still looking covetously at the camera and wondering if I could trade in the grace of Christ for a couple of months rent at my next port of call.

There was another pause as I then looked at her glowing face, still smiling ever so gracefully.

Let it go Sri, I scolded myself, let it go.

“I’ll, uh…I’ll take my leave now.” I finally said with a sheepish smile, and walked out.

And thus, the cosmic payback that I had randomly determined by fiat to be meted out to Fiefdom King was done. With the benefit of hindsight, I realized there was a lot that wasn’t particularly pristine with the way things transpired. Apart from taking such a devilish pleasure in the painful conflict between two of my housemates, infuriating as they were, I think the biggest flaw with my hastily executed payback plan was that the King didn’t hear directly what a rat bastard he was. It was cosmic payback in my head, but I doubt it achieved much by way of changing him for the better or even making him vaguely aware of his manipulative ways. It was done to make me feel better. Not to mention also providing me a smidgen of excitement in that miserable place. The fact that I stole something bothered me lesser than the fact that the plan really didn’t live up to even the stretched vigilante-esque morality I used to justify its implementation.

For months after, I still remained in two minds as to whether I should have sold the camera and used the money for myself. It would have made life so much easier at that time. So much for that shaky morality, I suppose.

[Next up: The heart grows fonder and whinier]

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Courting the big city

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful, teeming masses of emotion and chaos.

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

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

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

I gently whispered to the great city:

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

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

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

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

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

“Why is that?” I asked.

He thought about it for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled warmly.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

This pissed her off even more.

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

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

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

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

I tried something different.

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

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

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

I smiled and said, “Cool…thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This angered him a little.

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

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

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

Now I got more nervous.

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

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

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

It must have been the ultimate visual cliché.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Classy.

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

[Next up: Trouble in anti-paradise]

“Bring your Bible with you”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It sounded better than doing nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next posting please.

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

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

Next.

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

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

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

But there was still one more to go…

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then she looked at me.

Boy, did the light drain out of her eyes.

Others followed her gaze.

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

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

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

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

But I digress…)

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

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

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

They almost always over-packed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Next up: Courting the big city ]

Mandatory Shoestring Budgeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not necessarily.

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

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

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

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

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

But travel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Purge of Prudishness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A sexual revolution.

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

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

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

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

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

[Next up: Mandatory Shoestring Budgeting]

Friendship of convenience

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During those first few immigrant steps I took in the small town I found myself in, the people I befriended were almost all American, and all because of the fringe antiwar activism on campus. With my housemates Slovenly Misogynist and Fiefdom King being my primary source of Indian social interaction, and American imperialism getting a steroid boost in 2003, it was easier for me to find a sense of succor with outcast peaceniks.

But I did find one Indian friend to hang out with.

He seemed sane enough and, unlike my housemates, wasn’t revolting. Murali and I were in the same environmental science class that Professor Richards taught. We hit it off immediately following a handshake and coffee after class. He was very affable, offering to help me navigate the city to find the cheapest places to eat at and what seemed to be the one “ethnic” grocery store in town when I needed a spicy fix. Upon his suggestion we formed a study group for the classes we attended, and soon started spending a lot of time together. Apart from my white hippie buddies in Peace Now, Murali was the only other friend I found in Erie. Unlike my white hippie buddies though, he was someone I could talk to about home; an actual personified connection to India who didn’t drive me insane.

It was nice to be around him. He was quiet and generally reserved but had a latent sense of humor, the vernacular kind that worked only with folks from one’s own neck of the woods. After our study sessions, we would often head to his house or mine to have dinner, where we could continue the conversation. He too was extremely irritated with his housemates, so we bonded over that little bit of shared misery. We also found a common love for old Hindi movies that had more substance and content than the latest gaudy, commercial trash that came out of Bollywood. He marveled at my book collection, which he would dig into on occasion to read in his spare time. Overall, he was a good friend from the motherland to have.

There was only one problem though.

He was a fascist.

And I don’t mean this in a loose, polemical way.

You know how we progressives sometimes call every conservative person a fascist in moments of angry angst? One can argue the merits of that kind of hyperbole, but there’s no doubt that the word fascist is often used in a rhetorical way, and not necessarily to indicate a specific, far-right political persuasion.

I’m not deploying the term as mere invective to describe Murali. He was an actual fascist. He was a member of a right-wing Hindu nationalist group in India that wanted India to become, for the most part, a Hindu supremacist society and religious state rather than the secular republic it was. They had failed miserably so far, primarily because India was far too insanely chaotic and diverse to fit into one homogenous ideology. But they did exist, and in large numbers at that.

(Indeed, who would have thought that the same folks who chanted “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama” in benign orange robes and took dips in muddy Indian rivers as a form of, admittedly counterintuitive, holy cleansing could have their spiritual philosophy worked into a fascist program? Then again, fascist movements had emerged from corruptions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. A fascist Hindu movement was actually quite consistent with the ever-present potential for organized religion to pander to humanity’s basest instincts.

But I digress, do pardon my rant…)

I was already well into my friendship with Murali when I found out about his ideological leanings.

“So, Murali, where did you go to school?” I asked one day, as we were sitting in the library study room.

“I went to a Hindu RSS school.” he replied, adjusting his geeky glasses.

RSS stood for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. It was the largest Hindu nationalist group in India, running thousands of groups that served up a daily dose of Fascism For Dummies with martial chants, military-style cadre, and uniforms that were a major fashion faux pas. (Frilly khaki shorts and white shirts, I kid you not.)

“Wait.” I said, getting worried. “Are you a member of the RSS then?”

I had known a few others in India who had gone to RSS schools, but never really bought into the philosophy. Kind of like someone going to a hardcore, Bible-thumping school, where students take a vow of chastity but don’t really get with the program. I was hoping he was one of those kids.

“Yes man! The RSS gave me everything I know…schooling, education, the values on how to live my life.” he said.

“So, um, you’re an actual member of the RSS…even after you left school?” I asked, hoping against hope now.

“Yes, yes…I attended the weekly exercises, prayers, meetings, and everything very regularly until I came here for my higher studies.” he said, now wondering why it was such a big deal.

I was crestfallen. Was there nothing beautiful in my life anymore?

It probably need not have been that big a deal. It was a temporary friendship after all, and I was going to leave town shortly. It could have been like the friendships we sometimes strike up with fellow nationals during a holiday. One doesn’t get as bothered by their potential craziness simply because there’s a common cultural tongue to work with and – more importantly – the time spent together is limited.

I could have treated it like that, but for one small thing. My last experience in India before coming to the States was as an aid worker in a human rights movement at a place that was fighting fascist violence led by the RSS and their cohorts against minority communities. It was quite possibly the most politically gut wrenching and vicariously traumatic event in my life; resulting in a monumentally life-altering experience for me, forcing me to come to terms with my own privilege. It was an experience that pretty much laid the foundation for my developing a philosophical framework that was anti-oppressive and anti-authoritarian.

I asked him, now a little more angry, “So, you think that India should be a Hindu state?”

We stopped focusing on our textbooks now.

“Well, it is a Hindu state…the majority of the people there are Hindus.” he replied, a little taken aback that I would challenge him.

“What I mean is – do you think India should not have a secular government and state, as it has now?” I reiterated.

“I think that the government should be based on Hindu principles.” he replied.

“Oh really?” I said sarcastically. “And what about all the Muslims and Christians and Sikhs and Buddhists and other non-Hindu folk? What happens to them?”

“They are still there, and can live there happily…they should just follow Hindu principles, that’s all.” he said nonchalantly, as if he was asking people to change their brand of milk.

“Anyway,” he continued, now a little more agitated, “it’s really the Muslims that are the biggest problem. They have to behave like true Indians, otherwise they should go to Pakistan.”

“What crap are you talking about Murali? Muslims are just as much a part of India as anyone else, and Islam is just as much a part of India as any other religion!”

“No it is not…Hinduism is the only true religion of India.” he replied assuredly.

Oh dear god, I thought to myself. I’ve befriended a dyed-in-the-wool fascist.

“And these Muslims,” he continued, venomously, “wherever they go they cause problems. Just look at what they’ve done to America. Our fight against Muslims in India is the same as what the Americans are doing.”

And there it was. The bastion of people like him the world over. Whenever challenged, all they had to do was side with the cultural paradigm of bigotry and imperialist othering that existed in the centers of power at that time in history. Game, set, match: fascist.

We argued for some more time to no avail. Both of us were firmly embedded in our respective political positions. It didn’t seem to affect his friendship for me though. It didn’t have to. As far as he was concerned, I was a Hindu, albeit a rather misinformed one. So he still continued being very friendly with me. But it certainly affected my camaraderie with him.

I still hung out with him when I had to, but didn’t seek out his friendship any more. Normally I would have cut ties right then and there, since being around him was a constant reminder of the type of ignorance in the world that led to the things I saw and experienced as a human rights worker. He now repulsed me. And saddened me.

But I was also lonely, and rationalized to myself that continuing to be around him occasionally was ok because I wasn’t spending a whole lot more time in Erie. I was already preparing to move to a university in Baltimore. No sense in rocking the boat and making my last few weeks of the semester in this small town university particularly painful. I think I still wanted his friendship because it was the one connection I had to India at that time. So I decided to live with the contradiction for a few more weeks.

I wish I hadn’t though.

I wish I had told him off at that moment and asked him to never call me again, instead of ignoring his emails and phone calls after I left until they stopped. I think it would have made the message sink in better. He didn’t really buy into what I was saying, but he might have thought about it a little more had I been less amenable to compromise.

Misery sometimes makes it difficult to let go of convenience.

[Next up: The Purge of Prudishness]

21st Century Imperialism and Peaceniking

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My first steps as an immigrant in America coincided with the 21st century’s first major imperialist military action, broadcast live for a salivating consumer class.

The invasion of Iraq occurred under the most ludicrous of justifications, led by some of worst demagoguery America (and the world) had known. Indeed it was baffling to me just how many people didn’t realize that it was about saving a nickel or two on their gas bill while adding a billion or two to the assets of the capitalists.

The batshit insanity hit home for me when I was asked to wear a yellow ribbon by my new boss soon after the invasion began in early 2003. Having failed in my attempts to land a research assistantship with my graduate advisor, Dr. Richards, the only jobs available to me were minimum-wage ones. I landed one as an office assistant, working for a man who enthusiastically followed and supported the invasion the day it began like it was his solemn duty, a sentiment he assumed I would share.

“Um…why do you want me to wear this ribbon?” I asked, out of genuine incredulity.

“To support the troops that are giving us our freedoms Sri.” my boss replied, a touch indignantly.

“Really? Uh, ok…but how does this yellow ribbon do anything to help?” I ventured.

“Listen, I’m not going to force you to wear it, but I feel compelled to say that you are in this country, and have a duty to support the troops.” he said indignantly, his annoyance rising with every syllable.

There was a pause before he sighed valiantly.

“And for me personally too,” he continued, now in a martyr-like tone, “my brother is in the US Coast Guard just off the coast of Hawaii and with this war, it means that he is in danger of being attacked at any time.”

I didn’t have the courage to critique his assessment of American altruism when hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians were getting slaughtered and having their oil stolen from underneath their noses. Nor did I feel like pointing out that Hawaii was quite some distance from Iraq. In the short time I had been in America, it seemed like many American patriots, mostly white and not unlike nationalists elsewhere, were very proud of their military heroes. I could understand pride in some World War II campaigns (at least in that case it was imperialist powers butting heads with each other) or Civil War battles that were truly heroic, but was not sure how they reconciled that pride with more recent victories over countries like Panama, Grenada, Somalia, and Afghanistan, as well as a well-fought draw against Vietnam.

Crushing already impoverished countries under the jackboot of imperial conquest didn’t exactly constitute martial heroism in my book. I felt deeply for the lives lost on all sides, but couldn’t bring myself to celebrate it. I imagine many Americans thought Iraq was going to be the next theatre of war to result in a star spangled thumbs-up. These victories happened supposedly to liberate the people there, yet were always curiously followed with takeovers by the Halliburtons and Shells of the world, riding in under the golden arches of McDonalds. I wondered whether my boss would have cared about the death-for-profit games that were currently underway. The yellow ribbon seemed to be far too sanitizing a symbol for such militaristic expansion.

Nevertheless, and for the same reasons that I decided not to engage in a potentially uncomfortable conversation with my boss, I also decided to wear the yellow ribbon – I needed the job.

But I promptly removed it when I left work that day and went to the library to peruse the university website for any anti-war group that I could get involved with. I was unequivocally against the invasion of Iraq, but my reason for contacting the group was not so pristine. It felt like I would find a measure of rationality there that had until now escaped pretty much every person-to-person engagement I had been subjected to in that town.

And find it, thank heavens, I did.

Within days of meeting with the organizers of Peace Now, I was already getting ready to attend my first big antiwar rally in America. There were quite a few lovely people in the organization, but four of them stood out in terms of the wonderful friendship they offered me – Jane, a feminist nun who worked for the university’s Center for Social Service and had been having a long-running fight with the Catholic church on ordaining women as priests, Mary-Rose and Anna, two pot-smoking girls who befriended me with an ocean of affection, and Peter, a devout Catholic boy whose life purpose was to rid the Catholic church of all its homophobic, sexist moorings. All of us were involved in planning a trip alongside a larger group of old-school hippies to, what was building up to be, a gargantuan anti-war demonstration in DC. The folks I met at Peace Now were a political bunch and, I suspected, a rather fringe group in the town we were in. Barring a few irritating assholes (to be expected in any group of humans), they were rather nice to hang out with.

The very first conversation I was privy to was what made me feel like I had found a safe group of people to be around. It was about racism, and I was relieved to find out that there were indeed many white Americans who were concerned about it in egalitarian and heartfelt ways. In the office of the Center for Social Service where we had gathered to make posters, Jane spoke about the racial stereotyping done by the police in town with black kids getting arrested all the time.

“The cops chased down this young black kid, who is no bigger than me.” she exclaimed in righteous anger, pointing at her tiny, petite frame.

“When in reality,” she continued in the same tone, “they were looking for someone who was supposed to be 6’3″ and weighed 240 pounds. Just goes to show…any black kid is a suspect in this town!”

Mary-Rose and Anna shook their heads in anger.

Anna, a large girl with a small voice, softly uttered, “It’s sad that after all this time, there is still so much of this shit going around. My dad always makes ‘corn bread and watermelon’ jokes whenever I date a black guy.”

Mary-Rose, a tiny girl with a diametrically contrary voice, bellowed, “It’s terrible! To top it, my classmates are always complaining about Black History Month. ‘Well, why shouldn’t there be White History Month?’ they’re always asking me!”

“Well, gee…every month is White History Month in this country.” Jane said sardonically.

I had just found my new best friends in this place.

I suppose it was natural that I should find solace among outcasts. I realized I was one without even trying. Jane had been in battle with the very institution from which she derived her spiritual core, Anna and Mary-Rose were angry at a callous and racist socio-political system. And our other friend was just in perpetual angst about the evils of the world.

Peter sauntered into the room, head down, visibly depressed. Anna got up to hug him, almost bear-like, with her large frame.

“You ok, Peter?” she chirped with concern.

“No, not really.” he moaned, shaking his mop of straw-colored hair. “I’ve been following the war from day one, and it looks like now many children have been killed by US missiles. It’s gut-wrenching.”

“Can I give you another hug?” Anna asked.

“Please.”

Anna hugged him again, and Peter buried his face in her shoulder.

“I feel so helpless. Gods children are being killed in front of our eyes, and the entire nation is celebrating it, like as if it’s something heroic that is happening.”

Anna and the rest nodded. Peter joined us on the floor, and squatted next to me.

He continued in the same tone, “And to make it worse…our president acts as if he got some message from God to conduct this war…how can he reconcile his faith with this abomination?”

There was not a trace of false empathy in his voice or demeanor, which I had often seen in people expressing sadness about the Iraqi invasion. His sadness stemmed from his moorings in the Catholic faith, which made it more visceral for him.

Following the poster-making session, I trudged reluctantly back to my housemates, wondering why I didn’t take up Anna’s and Mary-Rose’s invitation to smoke a joint in their apartment. That feeling was accentuated when the only entertainment waiting for me in my so-called home was an exercise in mental endurance as I listened to a two-hour description from my bunkmate, Slovenly Misogynist, about the visit to a local strip joint he was able to finally make with his friends.

Apparently the dancer’s breasts came within inches of his slobbering face, and he could see the skin tone around her nipples. Vivid descriptions of her every anatomical detail, which resulted in a sharp migraine for me, left me amazed at his ability to de-eroticize every part of a woman’s body while simultaneously put a spanner in the works of my own rapidly evolving sexuality.

A joint with Anna and Mary-Rose sounded heavenly right about then.

***

The anti-war group I joined ended up being my only source of solace and sanity for the one semester I spent in Erie, Pennsylvania. Anna and Mary-Rose generously shared their friendship and weed with me once I took them up on their initial offer. The two of them were the best of friends and they invited me into their fold with open arms, which I gratefully accepted. Jane was like an aunt, caring and kind; the familial presence I missed so much. And Peter was the one male presence at that time, in a world of sexist housemates and narrow-minded authority figures, who didn’t make me feel like castrating myself.

But it was within a bubble. The moment I stepped out of the bubble, the reality of the environment I was in gnawed at me.

Like this one time when Mary-Rose and I attempted to solicit the endorsement of Students For Life for an anti-war petition we had drafted. We rationalized that this was a petition valuing the lives of all children, especially those in war, and that since they valued the sanctity of unborn lives, they might consider endorsing it.

“Well, we at Students For Life are completely in favor of the war.” said the beatific red-haired girl.

“Um…why is that?” Mary-Rose asked, barely able to hide her incredulity at what the chair of a group that had Life in its title was saying.

“We support our troops of course, who are bringing real freedom to Iraqi children!” she replied assuredly while tucking into a Caesar salad.

Mary-Rose was speechless, as was I.

“Plus,” the girl continued while masticating purposefully on some iceberg lettuce, “Saddam Hussein has, like, all these nuclear weapons and stuff. So, you know, we have to bring him down to make the world a safer place.”

“Well…uh…what about your goals to protect children’s lives?” Mary-Rose attempted again, in vain.

“Our troops are after the terrorists!” she replied, a little more indignantly now. “We’re saving Iraqis, not trying to kill them!”

Needless to say, Students For Life didn’t endorse our petition and, on hindsight, it was probably pretty foolish to have even approached them. I later rationalized it as wanting to make them uncomfortable.

In another attempt at garnering support, Jane forwarded my name for a students’ panel on the war. Of the five panelists, I was the only anti-war speaker.

After making my impassioned presentation on militarism, imperial conquest, and the façade of freedom for Iraqis when oil was the real determining factor, the next speaker took his place at the podium. He cleared his throat, adjusted his spectacles, and straightened his immaculately pressed ROTC uniform with poise.

“While my esteemed colleague’s presentation was of the highest caliber in delivery,” he said commandingly, “what he fails to realize is that the Almighty Lord has given us, the United States of America, the technology to deliver missiles and mortars that will only kill terrorists and not harm civilians in any way.”

He received a standing ovation even before he started his presentation while I smiled through the insanity of it all.

Ultimately, it was in DC, with a massive anti-war march that I found the hope in numbers I so desperately craved.

The antiwar movement might not have stopped the invasion of Iraq, or do anything really to stem the onward march of imperialist thuggery – but it gave me the reassurance I so desperately needed that humanity was still thriving in America. What an experience it was.

Anna, Mary-Rose, and I were high as kites in the backseat of Jane’s car during the road trip to DC. Peter would look back occasionally from the front passenger seat, and knowingly smile as we giggled at each other. Jane drove the entire six hours to DC and, thankfully, chattered away excitedly about the potential influence this antiwar rally could have on government foreign policy.

The high wore off as we neared DC, and we got ready to join the demonstration. For the first time since landing in America, I saw the rich diversity of the land in its people and politics.

I saw flags of every hue and color. Red, green, blue, rainbow colored, ones with large peace signs on them, patterns that represented different nationalities, including the Stars & Stripes, held sometimes upside down. I noticed with joy a number of Palestinian flags being held by men and women wearing Palestine-solidarity t-shirts. I saw banners with slogans ranging from specific interest groups like Veterans Against The War to stated ideologies like Down With Imperialism and Capitalist Exploitation. I even saw a couple of succinct ones that showcased personal opinions like Bush Is A Thug and Cheney = Satan. The banners were held proudly as the teeming masses marched and demonstrated in the streets of downtown DC.

Every once in a while the scent of weed wafted through the air, prompting knowing grunts and smiles from those smelling it. There were groups of older hippies who dressed in flower-power getup, while younger anarchist and socialist radicals often had shades of prominent black and red on their clothing. I noticed many young, presumably Arab, folk wearing their politics of liberation on their sleeves and keffiyehs, something I would never have seen in the small town I just came from. Drum teams kept the tempo and rhythm of the march going with high energy percussion, while creative chants emanated from different corners of the march.

In the midst of all this beauty, I developed the overwhelming urge to pee. I had drunk too much coffee that morning and not had much to eat. I told the rest of the gang that I was going to slip into one of the nearby coffee shops to answer the call to nature.

“No problem….we’ll wait for you in the corner right opposite.” Jane said pointing to a prominent looking street corner.

I nodded and worked my way through the jam-packed crowds towards the jam-packed coffee shop. Forty minutes later, I caught up with my friends at the corner.

“We thought you had decided to take a nap in there!” Mary-Rose jokingly exclaimed, while slapping me on the shoulder.

“You should have seen the queue in the coffee shop for the loo.” I tried explaining.

“Crazy Indian boy with your British lingo! You mean the line in the coffee shop for the restroom!” she joked, poking my abdomen affectionately.

I laughed. For whatever reason, I didn’t take offense to it. I guess that’s because she was my friend. It wasn’t demeaning like many of my earlier interactions with Americans had been, with the random stereotyping and racism. It was a moment where I felt a bond, however temporary, that undid those previous interactions. I think the fact that I was in a liberated space with antiwar demonstrators and an atmosphere that negated bigotry added to it. It was nice. For the first time since I landed in America, I felt like I was in a place I could maybe call home. Maybe.

[Next up: Friendship of convenience]