L is for LAX to TRV, Economy Class
Whiteness first arrived in a Samsonite suitcase traveling from Sacramento to Trivandrum in 1987, when my Indian-American family had come to visit my Family-family. Whiteness arrived in Baby Auntie’s copy of Glamour with Cindy Crawford on the cover. Her eyebrows were the brushed out wingspan of a pet eagle, its talons grasping an olive branch and arrows; her earrings were drizzled yellow mustard against a dewy hotdog. Whiteness arrived tucked into the silky puckered compartment where Baby Auntie had kept her silky puckered things and the sour hard boiled sweets that made my mouth into a silky puckered thing as I sat on a parapet swinging my legs in skirts the way one is allowed to until one’s skirts start filling up with blood. Whiteness arrived as a woman’s leg in a red stiletto. It began at a pale, dog-eared knee and ended at a glossy toe and it was wrapped in a champagne colored nylon stocking. I borrowed the magazine and pressed it to my chest. Later, lying on the terracotta terrace, I placed the cool magazine page on my right leg and closed my eyes. The sun’s spangles lifted each eyelash like a curtain that would never again fall on my darkness.
Whiteness wasn’t smuggled in— it was given the red carpet. The American dollar arrived that same year. It levitated, scented like cinnamon gum and leather, hot from my Baby Auntie’s purse. The budding baby-slumdog-millionaire in me pressed its creased, greasy flatness between its hands in a fawning namaste that still turns my toes numb in shame. In 1987, one US dollar was worth 13 Indian rupees. One of theirs was worth thirteen of ours. Today, one of theirs (of mine) is worth sixty-eight of ours (of theirs).
When my aunt arrived in India, she was a new brand of Indian— a hyphenated American, as compared to us Standard Edition Indians— the mere Indians of Kipling, of Tagore, of Merchant-Ivory films, of Ben Kingsley wrapped in kadhi being photographed by a Candice Bergen relaxed in khakis, of National Geographic’s sympathetic coverage of our asses hanging low over all the gutters of your jungle books.
In family photographs, Baby Auntie’s hair is an autumnal bonfire whipped by the wind and her waistline is crimped by a bright slash of a galaxy I could never reach. Her madras-checked shift grids her curves— 75% cotton, 25% linen. I squint around the sparks of her halo and see the other women standing in dark silhouettes around her—their black hair parted down the middle, curtly tucked behind the ears, and pulled into demure braids leading the eye to hips wrapped in four layers of chiffon or cotton, straddled by my cousins’ scabby and ashy leg, proudly dangling a worn rubber chappal.
The front cover of the Glamour magazine that Baby Auntie had purchased for $1.95 at LAX was advertising “Great Fashion Buys under $57.” In 1987, $57 was ₹741, which would have paid a month’s rent and my school fees. The “rupee” derives from the Sanskrit rūpya, which means “stamped” or “impressed” in a rūpam— a likeness or image of something else. The rupee was stamped in the image of something else. The word for money was drawn up, feet first, from its Dravidian root uruppu, which means “from the body” – the body politic in which flesh is a kind of currency we can use to pay our way into each others’ dreams: first spun from 75% cotton and 25% linen and then folded in two and placed a hot purse scented with cinnamon gum.
M is for Michael Jackson and Malcolm X
In the epilogue to The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Alex Haley recounts meeting a pensive Malcolm at the Kennedy airport, watching newly immigrated children “romping and playing” in their sudden home. “By tomorrow night,” Malcolm says to Alex, “they’ll know how to say their first English word— nigger”
Before cable television arrived in India, America was a white nation. I imagined New England snows dusting California and Miami’s beaches stretched across Appalachia. America was a papier-mâché parody patched together by a cheaply hired props maker. Geographic accuracy was sacrificed to the interpersonal dramas of Betty and Veronica, and the American banquet was limited to the malted and fried offerings in Pop’s Choc’lit Shoppe, where the Riverdale gang solved the real geopolitical problems of how to get Reggie off Moose’s back with the help of Archie’s fumbling charms. Here, class warfare came with a side of fries. There were rumors of distant family members “settling” in “North Dakota” or “Oklahoma”—names that put themselves together like Lego castles: hard-edged and jutting out with an abrupt L or a particularly pokey K.
Blackness was just a rumor too. Blackness flickered in the background of photographs they sent back from these mysterious locations: here’s an uncle waving at us from a glittering Times Square (Los Angeles); here’s an aunt waving at us mid-way through the soft-focus neon breakfasts with Aunt Jemima’s maple syrup (made from maple leaves); here’s a nephew waving at us next to the poster of a red and white Michael Jordan in a quilted bedroom, his rotund brown body snuggled in tie-dye and tucked into tartan flannel sheets. Blackness was a rumor, that is, until Michael Jackson’s Bad ripped into our consciousness and suddenly, knobby kneed pre-teens found a way to make stringy curls with coconut oil stolen from their mothers’ kitchen and started moonwalking backwards into my Social Studies classrooms, all snappy crotch and jaunty limbs. We girls rolled our eyes but we kept on watching.
It wasn’t long before Jackson’s unsparing gaze, draped in slick black leather, began replacing the glowing pastel Ganeshes and Saraswatis hanging above study desks. But replacing an elephantine god’s soft paunch with lean, mean celebrity did not save us from our own ignorance of how blackness and brownness were connected through a struggle for economic self-realization and human rights. While kids in Chennai were rehearsing Michael Peter’s signature choreography for “Thriller” and pretending to be zombies— little exemplary half dead spectacles—Union Carbide was industriously shirking responsibility for the Bhopal Tragedy, which choked thousands of Indians to death, and black mortality was spiking in violent, homicidal protest of the US DEA’s drug buys and cocaine busts.
In other words, Tamilians blinked away Michael Jackson’s blackness. We kept the heat and thunder of his fat synth bass, which found its way into Ilayaraaja’s electric disco in films of the late 1980s like Vetri Vizha and Agni Natchathiram. We kept the ebullient automation of his moves, which became a muscular theme in Prabhu Deva’s blend of baggy breakdance and whimsical terukoothu folk dancing in the 1990s. But we forgot his blackness. In time, the lightning of his presence was replaced by the grey hum of CNN, Cops, Law and Order, and the dull horror of handcuffs on dark wrists. Posters yellowed, cassettes spooled out, and my moonwalking classmates found their scientific calculators and study guides again.
But the rumors of racial difference in George Bush Sr.’s America continued to bloom and wilt in morose cycles in my childhood homes into the 1990s. In damp clusters, it grew like moss under rocks. Rootless, it stretched its stringy arms and held us by the ankles; it grew like mold between bathroom tiles; it spun itself fine and strong, webbing into corners where our brooms couldn’t reach. In time, the mossy rocks lined our after-dinner walks past the hibiscus bushes. In time, a grandmother slipped on the bathroom tiles and stayed in bed, fed conjee by a fatherless girl brought in from the village and the moss grew between her toes and drew her into the earth where they buried the nameless pets and tossed the chicken feathers. In time, the spiders hung so low they fell into pickle jars every time a child fished for a gooseberry or a slice of stony green mango from the brine. And from this brine, in time, we learned to believe that it existed. And as Tamilian families began drifting from the flashy monsoons of India to the June gloom of the California bay or to the sharp wet summers of the Keys, they carried the damp and stench in suitcases and buried it in hushed conversations. They made a poultice of moss and spider web and lodged it in the prayer books, hung it around the children’s necks like a talisman, and they said—as long as she doesn’t marry a black man.
N is for (The Making of) New Americans
White sateen bodice. Sequined shrug. Ruffled beige bellbottoms. Cream leather vest over a silver chiffon blouson. Feather-edged angel cape. A soft shag. A tight curl. Penciled brows. Pointed lapels. This was the soft-focus dreamlife brought to us by Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Anni-Frid. ABBA spun gold from flax from heartbreak: the genius of pairing a Napoleon jacket with snake-skin thigh-high boots; of pairing silver epaulettes with heart-shaped medallions. Military-Disco-Love-Songs.
In 1975, when ABBA’s superhit “Fernando” squirrels its way into the mulled-wine scented plum-cake roofed Anglo-Indian households of Royapuram, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has declared a state of emergency— personal rights are suspended, properties annexed, the press is censored, thousands of dissenting civilians and politicians are jailed, a mass-sterilization campaign is introduced to control a nation jolted into Gandhi’s rule by decree.
But, also in 1975, my father at 19—tapping his feet in Royapuram’s skinny alleys bordered by narrow gutters, in his skinnier bellbottomed pipes, the massive belt-buckle pressing through his polyester shirt, carrying a Triple-E textbook bought secondhand on scholarship— is eavesdropping into ABBA’s dreams spinning on a borrowed LP and wafting from a neighbor’s window, while his mother folded one rupee into a week’s dinners like an origami artist and his father bicycled back from his post at the post office in a pair of frayed grey pants patched so it made it till Christmas. And all the cardboard stars swung from electric lines in the alleys. “They were shining there for you and me, for liberty, Fernando.”
And that same year, the United States allowed 15,000 Indians to migrate as guest-workers.
In San Francisco, forty years later, my father cracks open a bottle of 20 year old scotch and “Fernando” comes on and my mother and I can hear him tapping his feet in a backyard further away from an alley in Madras than the cardboard stars of Royapuram’s sky were from the Milky Way, keeping time with a dream he lives but can’t return to. And I understand, finally, that for him and the millions of men who left kith behind in pursuit of a dream, America is just like ABBA asked: “And how could I ever refuse? I feel like I win when I lose.”