I have observed that I often do not know how to talk to Indian Americans, or Indians who have lived in America for long. It is not that I am not interested in them, or their stories; I am. But they misread my interest as an opportunity for them to indulge in narcissism, in parading the injustices they have been subjected to, in projecting themselves as Brown, a term that is forced to sit comfortably with their worldview and privilege. They revel in their high average income, blind to the system that helped them get there. They look for sympathy even as they regard other races as inferior, or dangerous. Or worse, they preach against racism, while espousing casteism, skilled in doublethink even if they haven’t read Orwell.
This is a bit like the Padma Lakshmi conundrum. A successful person who identifies as Brown, she is the voice for grievances like chai tea and the crusader for makeup that is more representative of skin tones. I do not deny that these are problems, but their relevance becomes minuscule when one takes into consideration Padma Lakshmi’s privilege, and her refusal to admit it. All this to say I liked her more before I read her book. As aesthetics and aggravation battle it out, I look at pictures of her in a bikini.
There is an Indian restaurant near where I live, and I go there rarely. The reason is simple really, I believe I am a better cook. But sometimes, my partner and I end up going, because our friend, who is a waiter there, tells us we must show our faces at least thrice a year. He also gives us food to take back with us, dishes not on the menu, specialities that smell of Madurai and Karur and smaller towns. He doesn’t hear us when we ask him not to do this. He is uncomfortable talking to me, a woman not related to him. He looks everywhere except at me, but I like to think I have worn him down, for he told me a story.
A long time ago, he worked in a ship, a cruise that went to the Bahamas. A job worse than waiting tables, worse than running around with stacks of plates, days that passed without the sun and in sickness. But then his face changed, it expanded with excitement, with the joy of recalling of cherished memory. When we docked, he said, we would go to the water and fish, we would cook with whatever fish we caught, small fish that dissolved in the gravy, large meaty fish we didn’t know the names of.
I tell him about a video I watched recently, about Chef Paulraj who runs a dosai restaurant in Santa Fe. Apparently he worked on a cruise in the Bahamas too, I say. He thinks about this and regrets to inform me he doesn’t know Paulraj. Don’t buy tilapia, he advises us as we leave, buy cod. And come back more often, he admonishes us. Yes, okay.
I used to wonder why Indians were so averse to labour that demanded their physicality, why Indians abroad seemed better disposed to this, though only when outside India. It was a naive and silly thought exercise, for the answer is too obvious, we associate caste and work.
Moving on to conversations that didn’t happen, I attended a reading by Sandra Cisneros, an author I imagined I quite liked. I was disappointed to find that I couldn’t connect to anything that she read: two poems—both of which I didn’t understand, a chapter from a book I had actually read, a short story about the imagined domesticity of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The author was charming and warm, lively on stage. I sat unmoved. Was it the poetry that threw me off? Poems take on lives of their own, a poem writes itself, she said.
This comment made me think, because nothing I write feels urgent, and the words certainly don’t write themselves. I could probably carry on without committing to words these thoughts and opinions, and I can assure you nothing would be lost. The world will carry on too, of this I am confident. Some members of the audience said they’d read her work when they were very young, and it had changed them profoundly. They decided they wanted to be a writer because of her. So they signed up for MFAs in writing. A dubious statement.
And then I wondered if I was writing to remember. This is false as well, I remember everything I want to. I wish I had a pithy sentence, a witty remark to conclude this with, but I must admit that all my writing is probably mental masturbation, an exercise in narcissism that is hopefully not too dreary.
I stood in line to get The House on Mango Street signed by Cisneros, one of the few books that travelled with me from India, I suspect because it was slim enough to be stuffed in a suitcase. I write my name in books, and the date on which I bought them. I had bought this book more than two years ago, and at the time, I had willed these purchases into providing me with happiness, with distractions.
When it was my turn, I told the author, “I actually don’t know what to say.”
“That’s okay. You don’t have to say anything. Let me sign your book.”
She wrote a short message in Spanish.
“It means to go forward with passion.”
Everything I have written about today, I will remember even I hadn’t written.