The Unbearable Familiarity of Strangeness

first_imgI am convinced that I must be the only person in New Jersey who would invite a friend from the Caribbean to visit me in January when I could be on Saint Lucia soaking in the sun, far away from freezing rain and slippery sidewalks. But there may be a method to my madness. New Jersey has been home for the past year and a half, but come June chances are I’ll be winging my way back to New Delhi – for good. Perhaps my reluctance to holiday in warmer climes is recognition that a more permanent departure from sub-zero winters is not far off. It seems a shame to have to leave America less than four years after I arrived here. In some was this country has only recently acquired the qualities of home. I realize this as I sit in an airport shuttle headed toward JFK to receive my visitor. The driver cranks up the radio and it occurs to me that I would not hesitate to ask him to turn it back down. It is a trivial observation, but it says something all the same. One of the first things you surrender when you come to a foreign country is a sense of authority. When you have regained it, you know that the land you live in is no longer entirely alien. The other way you know this is when you can walk into Starbucks and order a Tall Arabian Mocha Java with skimmed milk without spending 10 minutes confused by the sheer choice before you. (The trick here is to order the same thing over and over.)My sense of America has changed in so many ways since I touched down at JFK on a humid August day in 1995. For one, I take non-Indian women a lot more seriously. They have lost their otherworldly quality, their sense of being magical yet somewhat unreal. The intimacy I can feel with someone who has never eaten a golgappa is alarming. I have lost something in the process of rearranging my mind to accommodate the unfamiliar. But at the same time the very act of rearrangement has been enriching in countless untellable ways.As the airport shuttle approaches the New Jersey turnpike, it occurs to me that despite all that has been written on the pains of immigration, in some ways it can be terribly easy. Take, for example, music. I was counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike long before I set foot in the Garden State. I did not grow up in Buffalo or Santa Monica or Detroit, yet this afternoon I recognize almost every song on the radio. I got to know Abba, Pink Floyd and Dire Straits in India. Only after coming to America did I discover Kishore Kumar and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and that thanks only to a Pakistani classmate at Princeton with a missionary zeal for sharing his music. This is not typical of every Indian immigrant to this country. But neither is it entirely uncommon.To grow up middle-class in urban India is to have your tastes shaped by the West. To me, and countless others who went to college in Delhi or Bombay, Pink Floyd is as Indian as Aloo Mutter. In Delhi University, you knew the words to “Dark Side of the Moon.” Everyone you knew knew the words to “Dark Side of the Moon.” I remember walking into the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time and marveling at the Picassos, Van Goghs and Monets scattered like loose change. I was awed, but it was awe born of familiarity, not strangeness.A part of my mind is unable to wholly wrap itself around the idea of returning to India for good. It isn’t the thought of living in New Delhi that is worrisome, but the sound of the door slamming shut on New York. The enormity makes it seem almost impossible.One thing the Indian middle class understands perfectly well is the importance of options. You study engineering or physics not because you have any desire to become an engineer or a physicist, but because it keeps your options open. An engineer can always be a civil servant, but a historian can never be an engineer. It is an attitude born partly of stark necessity; in a scarcity driven economy you can’t be picky. And middle class parents are always aware that what has been achieved by one generation can easily by lost by the next. A part of me can not help but panic at the thought of closing the option of living in New York. It’s hard to shake-off culture and upbringing.There are other reasons to look upon return to India for good with a degree of dread. Glancing out the window, I notice something that Americans take for granted: the mastery of man over nature. Every stripe painted down the middle of a road, every telegraph pole, every inch of asphalt and steel that makes New Jersey so singularly ugly also says something uplifting about the human spirit. The road will be built. It will stay built. It will not wash away in the first rain because the contractor the government paid to build the road siphoned half the money earmarked for cement and used it to invite 450 people to his eldest son’s wedding reception.Well paved roads, a regular supply of electricity, phones that work and air that is breathable. It’s hardly a list that captures the drama of exile or the shades of longing and loathing that mark the immigrant experience. Yet, I am convinced that most Indians who choose not to return to India do so for reasons that when put on paper can appear mind-numbingly banal. We all know the pretentious Bombayite who declares that he is only here for the jazz in Harlem or the taste of a toasted bagel. But scratch the surface and you find that every bagel ever toasted and all the jazz in New Orleans won’t send our friend back to Andheri East or Malad or Dadar. What he really craves is a city where nobody shits on the roadside.As JFK airport draws closer, I try and fast forward to the picture of my boarding the Air India flight for Delhi, homeward bound with no more cars to count on the New Jersey turnpike. My mind is filled with images of steaming paranthas and sizzling seekh kebabs. And, of course, endless cups of sickeningly sweet tea. It dawns on me that there is much comfort in the trivial and the day to day. Fortunately, it is not confined to America.Originally published in Little India, Feb. 1999  Related Itemslast_img