A brown, immigrant woman’s fears, insecurities, and musings on the eve of an election that will decide the future of not just the United States of America but the entire world.
It is an evening like any other in our suburban U.S. home. Yet it is different. The Fall wind screeches through the trees, Halloween cobwebs lie in the yard crumpled by the rain, and the front door-path is buried in leaves and overgrown plants.
“It looks like a haunted house,” my son notes at dinner. I am irritable, third day into writers’ block, and snap a reply. The children are startled, my husband tactfully suggests, “Why not go to Bela’s house? Take a break, have a drink, sleep there if you want.”
My friend Bela, Indian-born and raised like me, lives down the street. An UN economist who travels all the time, she still manages to keep an immaculate house while raising two lovely children. I could show up at her place, unannounced, demanding a drink and a bed.
I am tempted to go but I don’t and, instead, go to my own bed and dream I go over to Bela’s house that night.
When I wake up in the morning I am not in my house or Bela’s. The walls of the spacious room I am in are whitewashed. The windows are open letting in the morning October sun and the sound of twittering sparrows. The teak door and window frames are elaborately carved. I know I am in an upper-class Indian home. Panicking, I run downstairs towards the kitchen where I hear voices. I see Bela there but she isn’t the Bela I know. This woman is dressed in an orange silk sari, diamonds flash in her ears and nose, her neat bun is decorated with jasmine flowers. She is supervising breakfast for her husband, children, and in-laws. I call to her but she doesn’t hear. Neither does anyone else in the kitchen. It occurs to me, then, that I have become invisible, a ghost from the future – I have landed in 1920s India.
Desperate to get home I run out the open front door almost knocking over a servant girl coming in. She looks down angrily at the high wood threshold.
Outside, I expect to see Indians in saris, dhotis and turbans but the streets are crowded with white people in coats walking under a cold, steady drizzle. It is dark though the steeple clock reads only four in the afternoon. I recognize this place, too. It is 1920’s London and I have no idea how I have traveled, within a few hours, from a 21st century U.S. suburb to a 1920s India and England. I need to get home to my children, I despair. I spot a young Indian man, dressed in a smart dark suit, hurrying along the pavement and I follow him through an unlocked door into a modest two-storied house.
“Any hot curry for dinner,” he calls and a man’s voice from the living room, in Indian-accented English, replies, “Yes, Miss Patterson has made us potato curry. Not as good as home, I assure you, but it is vegetarian.”
“It had better be,” the man I have followed says as he walks into the living room. “We are in one of the few “Vegetarian Boarding Houses” in London that will have Indians.”
He sits down on a sofa opposite the man he’s been talking to and, for the first time, I look at them both closely. Chills run up my spine when I recognize them. They are my two grandfathers-in-law who have traveled by ship from India to come to England to study. They will die before I meet their grandson and marry him, but I already know their future. One will return to India with degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. The other will become a chartered accountant and set up successful practices in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India. They will get married, father happy, worldly, smart children.
Now, I am excited to be here and live my version of, “Back Into The Future,” even if it might all be a dream. So I stay and watch the two men with curiosity and grateful love.
They both work hard ignoring prejudices, subtle and obvious. Britain’s humanity, then, stank in its ranks. People look at them from afar often with disdain. They think my grandfathers-in-law smell of coconut oil and curry powder (curry powder, incidentally, is a British invention https://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/food-dining/2014/07/08/once-hard-find-curries-are-now-menus-everywhere/8CsBnAkvlefjQfM6KWAyZL/story.html). Few British know that Indians bathe every day and smell of sandalwood and incense. Or that their teeth, because of their vegetarian diet, are sparkling white.
One day I see my grandfathers-in-law walking down the street with another young Indian friend, his new bride by his side. A drunk sailor leers at the young woman and I notice her lowering her eyes, holding her husband’s arm tight. It doesn’t matter that she is married, she is brown and it is acceptable to ogle her. I rush towards the sailor but a whisper in my ear stops me.
“But wait and see what we will do, my darling,” a familiar, tender woman’s voice says. Is it my great grandmother, a widow in the 1920s, who ruled a small kingdom in India? I’ve seen her holding court, passing sentences on men, keeping her authority intact in a male-dominated society until she died (I was five then). Or is it the voice one of my grandmothers (one is still alive)? They always told me it was irrelevant whether I married, had kids, made money. It is important to swim upstream, they always said, and change things that are wrong.
I don’t know but I am, by now, used to being shuttled from country to country, century to century and hardly surprised when I end up in 1970s India.
Grim games have overtaken India. The British left in 1947 “uniting” all of the subcontinent’s kingdoms, each with its own language and culture, into one country forcing people to live together as “India.” (Would Britain ever dare to unite all the countries of Europe, I wonder?).
India’s kingdoms, its “states,” are at odds with each other. Hindu-majority India is at odds with Muslim-majority Pakistan (also created by the colonists). Within India, liberalists are trying to abolish the caste system by reserving seats for the lower castes in schools and universities and helping them monetarily. The upper-caste Brahmins responsible for keeping the caste system alive begin leaving the country but that doesn’t really change anything. The next highest caste comes into power and the caste system is simply re-established on different terms.
I am born then, when India’s politics and policies are changing furiously. My life is sheltered, filled with high ideals and thoughts. But I am not happy because I want to experience the world and go to England in the 1990s. How different England is then! Seventy years ago, a sailor felt free to ogle a woman because she was brown. Now, an Indian woman is revered as something exotic, a remnant of the British Raj. Men want to be seen with Indian girls on their arms and I get asked out often. At first I am flattered and wondrous – men are asking me out? The scrawny, flat-chested, short-haired ME? Then anger and indignation set in. I don’t want to be asked out because of my race or culture. I want to blend in, not be suppressed nor revered.
England’s classism disillusions me and I pack my bags, once again, to come to the United States. I am told it is a land of “equal opportunity.” I discover, however, that things are equal only superficially. There is an underlying xenophobia that prevents most people from embracing foreign things – culture, food, ideas. I am glad I am in the Boston-area which has many world-traveled, intellectual people and I become friends with them.
I meet my future husband, an Indian-American, whose parents imigrated here in the 1960s. I discover that my husband’s aunts, uncles, cousins when they first came here were allowed to only use restrooms for “colored” people. Certain jobs were out of their reach – finance, law, real estate – because that required relentless networking and people-pleasing and they found it hard to do that with their perfect, Indian-accented English smelling of sandalwood and incense. (With their sparkling teeth, don’t forget). They were all highly qualified – engineers, doctors, scientists, and academicians and it was those professions they pushed their children towards. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racism_in_the_United_States)
While you, the immigrants who were “settled” here by then, felt it right to create separate restrooms and public places for us, maintain your all-white clubs, my lot struggled to succeed in a prejudiced society. While you, my friends, were taking vacations, doing and watching sports, my lot were pushing their children academically because they understood that only education would make them indispensable to society. They were done being slaves and underlings.
So we excelled as researchers, doctors, entrepreneurs and thinkers. It gave us some ownership of our future. Often Indians are criticized for pushing their children, making them work hard. But we do it because we know that knowledge is power and a sound knowledge of the world will give us an advantage. (I also want to point out that the Indians who came here in the 1960s were from affluent, highly-educated families and were simply getting away from India that was ruined by 150 years of British rule and plunder).
At that point, even in my surreal dream, I began to appreciate all the work it has taken for generations so I can now have a comfortable life in an U.S. suburb. My children can attend the same school as the white kids, use the same restrooms, eat at the same table (though there have been incidents where my brown children have been racially discriminated against. My first reaction was anger; my second was to arm with enough knowledge so they could talk their abuser down). I begin feeling ashamed at having been irritable in my cozy, happy life.
Even as regret overtakes me, I find I am back on my street. I run towards my house, throw the door open and find a family gathering underway – siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews gathered in my living room. Most of the children in that room are mixed race. I hug my beautiful, smart, mongrel nieces and nephews knowing they are the future, a testimony of people evolved enough to cross color and culture boundaries and intermarry. The future is one race.
“You forgot the ice,” my husband accuses me.
“Yes, I did, didn’t I?” I say cheerfully. “But I am home.”
These elections, though, have shaken my faith in the United States. Trump may lose but he has still given voice and validation to racism and prejudice and that isn’t going away in a hurry. I don’t know where we will go from here but we have worked very hard, all of us, to make this an equal country. This isn’t just my story; it is the story of all those people who came here and succeeded, especially political refugees. Please don’t forget that most countries in turmoil now are those colonized and manipulated by the west. The future lies with us – immigrants who have crossed racial boundaries, adopted Christmas and July 4th, and created mongrel children who will own the future.
I hope you all find it in your hearts to forget your race and culture and vote for a peaceful future.