As is normal by now, there was a lot of noise on social media about Periyar and his legacy—what we have achieved as a society, and failed to achieve, 140 years after he was born. I can’t really tell you; the first time I brought home a book written by Periyar, I was asked why. The second time, I hid it in my bag.
A few months ago, I got into an argument with a relative. Since then, we have been working hard to maintain normalcy. We realise our pretense is brittle, and we scramble to work harder, so the veneer doesn’t break to reveal the souring underneath. Our argument was about caste, which many people believe does not exist anymore. These people are happy to discuss India’s regressive approach to homosexuality and the cruel way Africans are treated, they are visibly excited to talk about the perils of being brown in the Western world. It turns unpleasant when you introduce caste, much like an unwanted dinner guest with dietary restrictions. But don’t you know, caste is culture and tradition, it is the indicator of intellect. Their notions are validated by the people they surround themselves with, and this can get bizarre—like the idea that upper caste people are so much more open minded; their progressive outlook helps them enjoy good food, wine, and travel.
My relative observes me and comes to conclusions in privacy, as I do, in the guest bedroom given to me. In the morning, everything is clean and shiny, sanitized like the rest of America, where even the beaches don’t smell of salt and sand and fish and urine.
My partner and I are finishing our dinner at a restaurant I seem to have taken a liking to, for the way its employees fight with one another, and how everyone is always running around confused. I enjoy the noise and I like that the customer is almost an afterthought.
We receive a call from our neighbour, an old lady I sometimes try to avoid. This is because I tend to be prickly about my time and routine, and while she is friendly and warm, a conversation with her would cost me twenty minutes, at least. I admit I take the stairs if I spot her by the lift, preferring to climb eight floors and feel smug about my exercise.
She is a bit incoherent over the phone, we understand it’s something to do with a persistent back pain. So we hurry back and submit ourselves to her complaints. She likes my partner more than me, she senses his kindness, his patience that isn’t a mask, and she wants his reassurance. She makes him promise he will help her with an Uber if she must rush to the hospital. She asks him if he can fix her phone, she tells him it’s Rosh Hashanah but her pain doesn’t allow her to celebrate.
I stand there thinking about her, living by herself in the same apartment for over two decades now, filled with brochures for events she can’t make it to, numerous souvenirs and prescriptions. I think about her visits to the doctor (“He’s Indian too”), her physical therapy, the friends she meets on occasion, the history class she’s taking at the university nearby, her independence and her loneliness.
She stops by the next morning. She wanted to let us know she was still alive.
I always find myself hovering in that crevice between sympathy and awe. Mostly, I do not know what to think. On some days, I think of my father’s parents, with their incessant demands and bad temperaments, the unrealistic expectations they place on their son and daughter-in-law, their general ill-will. I begrudge them their health and think about their deaths more than I should. I know I will not cry, and I feel perverse thinking this way. But I wait for reports from home, about their deteriorating bodies. I imagine the peace they will leave behind.
There is an exercise I perform, not infrequently. I hypothesize a situation in which someone dear to me has died, and I wait for the hot flash in my eyes. I also think about myself; I might like to live until I’m sixty five. A die-able age. Long enough to know none of this matters, though not too long that each day is a nightmare of tubes and pills. I expect to have burnt all my bridges by then.
One day last week, I spent a significant part of my afternoon waiting to get an ID renewed. I am expired in this country, a person still sitting on the shelf past the sell-by date, in between visas. While I wait, my identity must be issued again, to reflect this limbo. The man at the counter is friendly, it’s 4 PM and he wants to leave. He types in my information and his face changes; for reasons unknown to him, and me, the visa status on my ID doesn’t match with the result on the computer. It repeatedly shows up a status that existed four years ago. He makes calls to his supervisor, they try a number of things, and eventually decide on a way to work around this glitch.
I have been validated again, by a country I don’t hold in high regard, but a country to which I return by various means, in different roles. I wonder if life in India might be less exhausting, as a married person. This is an experience I have no reference for, and then I fear I’m just getting nostalgic.