endings

Salim was a comedian.

Comedy was what Salim wanted to do ever since he saw a Chris Rock performance on VHS (Salim was a nineties baby, hence when the world wasn’t so big just yet).

Salim was amazed at how one man could control hundreds of peoples’ emotions with words.

Salim himself started out by telling jokes to family and friends and became addicted to the the joy filling his bones whenever they would laugh.

Salim began to gather steam in his comedy career at around age 29, being asked to perform at clubs all around New Jersey. One of his favorite spots to perform at was at a club in downtown New Brunswick, which was just a few miles away from where he was born and raised.

“So, I lived in Jersey City right after graduating from Rutgers, and it probably wasn’t the most glamorous spot for a 22-year old to find himself in,” Salim told the crowd on a late May night, when the air was saturated with sweat and cologne. Still, the club overall smelled like the food it served, paste and even crepes. And people seated in the dim light chuckled at what he’d say.

“Just the other week, though, I went back to the same block I used to live at, along JFK, and wow, when did that place turn into a poor man’s version of Williamsburg?” he said, causing more people to chuckle, and for a brief moment, Salim himself was able to smile.

However, as he went deeper into his set, and right before the red light would blink from the ceiling, alerting him that his time was over, what he described to his friends as “emotional contractions” took hold.

Sweat formed on his brow while on stage. He stayed smiling, but he caught sight of the couples in the crowd. The heaviness in his heart returned. He tried to focus on a person’s face but suddenly, he looked to the very back of the room, and he saw her: standing against the wall, her curly black hair barely reaching her shoulders but still shining, and her lips curled into a smile, for him. His voice cracked and he closed his eyes. But it was too late. All he could think of was her. The way she would watch him when he’d be telling his stories. The sound of her voice when she would laugh at his jokes.

.  .  .

“What happened up there?”

“I don’t know…”

“Bullshit. Admitting it is the first step toward recovery.”

“Ashok. I’m not an alcoholic…”

“Well, you’re acting like one.”

Salim sighed, and his shoulders slumped.

He stared at the smoke salmon on his plate.

“You have to learn to forget her,” Ashok told him, as they sat in the restaurant portion of the club. The waiters and bar tenders were cleaning up and muttering over the mess people had left behind.

“If I knew how, I would…”

“Listen. I know she meant a lot to you, but how long will you keep this up? We have a tour coming up this month and I’m counting on you to be my opening act.”

Salim scoffed. “It’s always about some show.”

This time, Ashok narrowed his eyebrows and stopped eating. And Salim noticed and looked across the table.

“Who was there when you first bombed on stage? When you started out with your tail between your legs?”

Salim rolled his eyes. “You,” he murmured.

“And who was there when you needed someone to open up for you, when no one else knew who you were. Hmm?”

Salim went back to peering down at the salmon.

“What happened with you and Arundhati is in the past now. There’s nothing you can do about that.”

“Maybe I can still convince her.”

“Convince her? Are you serious? And do what? Tell her that she should forget her parent’s wishes and continue dating a Muslim? Her parents have known her for 30 years. You were only with her for a month. A month, dude.”

“But we had fun.”

“Doesn’t matter. If they want a Hindu for a husband and she agrees with them, then you’re no longer in control. Stuff like this takes generations to change, and hopefully, you’re not going to wait an entire millennia.”

Salim didn’t respond.

Ashok shook his head, and went back to stabbing his chick peas with his fork.

“I warned you bro, not to mess with Indian women in the first place,” Ashok said. “They’re all insane. Trust me. I’ve been to temple plenty of times and every one of them is busy smiling at whoever their fathers want them to.”

“Now, you’re the one sounding bitter,” Salim said.

Ashok shrugged, and continued to eat.

“Just stay away from them dating sites for a while and write more material,” Ashok said.

Salim nodded and leaned over his own plate, touching the salmon with his fork, and already knowing it was cold before taking a single bite.

.  .  .

Salim did try to get back into writing new jokes. Every day, after work, he would drive someplace around where he lived in Union, sometimes to a diner, or to a restaurant he liked, or even to random shopping malls where he’d park in the front lot and take out his notepad and try to fill each line with new ideas.

But the pages would remain blank. Every time, he’d try to think of something funny, or insightful, the heaviness in his chest would return, weighing him down, making each breath feel like his last.

He would chuckle at the dramatic feelings that were lumped inside him. But no matter his perspective, the heaviness would grow.

At the end of the week, Salim signed back onto OkCupid, the dating app on his phone. He’d sit up in bed, scrolling down the list of pictures and names, clicking on those that seemed interesting.

Most of the profiles were the same, however. The summaries were typically long, almost like essays in academic journals, describing themselves in every minute detail, like what makes them upset or happy, saying they were looking for their “partner in crime” and making a joke about how the crime would obviously be legal, like going to a cafe for espresso. Some even listed the places they’d visited, from India to “Africa.” Salim would still message, but ask, “What do you mean by Africa? It’s a big continent. Anywhere specific?” Those women would never respond.

Salim also still performed, mostly at clubs where Ashok would go, in places across northern New Jersey. He’d re-hash old material, although every second he’d be on stage, he’d be thinking of Arundhati. After a while, he didn’t care if the audience was laughing and just wanted to get paid. Instead of doing jokes, every time he grabbed the mike, he’d just try to make it to the end of the set, somehow.

.  .  .

Salim worked at an office in Bridgewater, one of New Jersey’s many towns known for its corporate headquarters and random trucks parked in random places. The grass was always green though, of course cut up in the shape of company logos. Salim would often stare out his building window, at the grass, wondering if he should have any more coffee from the breakroom which often gave him the runs anyway. Between coffee and staring, he would also check up on messages on OkCupid. Sometimes, there were some, but most were either short or the conversation would halt in a matter of minutes.

One night, Salim received a message from a person whose username read: wretched61.

Salim put down the bucket of ice cream he was eating onto the kitchen counter and squinted at the glowing screen.

Her name was Supriya. According to the profile, she lived close to Freehold, and worked as a lawyer. Her self-summary was just one paragraph and she included the Autobiography of Malcolm X as a favorite book.

What got you into doing comedy? Sounds fascinating, was her message to him.

He checked more of her profile.

She was five foot one. She didn’t drink or do drugs. And she was Hindu.

He wiped his face with a paper towel and cleaned his hands.

Just the usual. Horrible childhood. Mixed in with self-esteem issues.

Haha! Cool. I like guys with problems. Always worked out for me.

Lol. Are you referencing The Wretched of the Earth in your username?

OMG! Yesh! I think you’re the first one to get that!

Haha. It was either that or you also have low self-esteem, which is what I like too.

LOL!

Salim spent the entire night messaging on the app. He debated with her the top-five MC’s in hip-hop. He even mentioned Octavia Butler and Supriya began recommending stories by Butler he never heard of before.

As light crept into his room, they traded numbers, and Salim promised he would text her as soon as he could.

BYE. You broken, broken man.

Ttys on the other side.

Salim went to bed and woke up an hour later to get ready to go to work, but he took a shower and felt refreshed.

.  .  .

Salim met Arundhati after three months of being on OkCupid. Salim had spoken to other girls before, even on the phone, but never felt compelled to meet any of them in person. But when he saw Arundhati’s profile, he was completely and utterly fascinated. Her profile was to the point. She had James Baldwin as a favorite author. Her pictures weren’t selfies or taken in a public restroom. They messaged for two straight days, and then texted for another three, until finally talking on the phone for the first time, discussing everything from the increasing likelihood that Lena Dunham’s vagina smelled awful to why Men’s Rights Activists were in love with their dads. They met at Penn Station since Arundhati lived in the city. On their first date, after spending five hours just walking and talking, Arundhati admitted her parents were encouraging her to find someone with the same religion. But she agreed with Salim that they clicked and waited with him for his train back to New Jersey. They had a second date, lasting seven hours. On the third date, she even came down to New Jersey, something she had never done before for anyone. He visited her back in the city on their fourth date but she introduced him to friends of hers and they spent close to ten hours together, grabbing dinner, and checking out her neighborhood in Hell’s Kitchen. They even began compiling a pro and con list for one another, such as Salim not having “stacks” and Arundhati having a weird obsession with the movie Pitch Perfect. She always made him laugh.

Salim texted Supriya during his lunch break, and after eating, he went back to his desk, where placed his phone to the side, and focused on the work at hand, some files that needed to be re-written, others that were filled with typos even after the manager had looked over them. He’d glance at his phone and see the screen still blank. He eventually turned it over but after an hour, then another, he begun to listen and wait for it to at least vibrate. And when it finally did, he grabbed it quickly like Golum and the ring, and realized that it was just another message from a club promoter. Salim hid the phone in his desk drawer and continued typing, like everyone else in the office.

It was dark out and still, there was no response. He ate cereal for dinner and lay in bed, counting the brown damp spots on the ceiling. His roommate was out and Ashok was busy performing. Every time Salim’s phone vibrated, which was beside him, he’d glance and take a breath.

He fell asleep. He saw Arundhati waiting for him on the train platform at Penn, which was not possible, but then again, it was a dream, so anything goes, especially when the subconscious bleeds. Salim was the first to get off the train. He smiled. She smiled too. He reached for her hand, but his fingers went through hers, like a hologram. She kept smiling though, until finally, another man stepped off, and kissed her on the cheek. Salim simply watched them walk away, hand-in-hand, heading up the escalator and disappearing into the crowd.

A sharp blue glow entered the scene, like rays of sunlight. He blinked. He awoke in bed, sheets all crumpled. He rubbed his eyes and saw his phone’s screen lighting up the room.

It was from Supriya.

OOPS! Just saw this! Guess what?! I’m heading to NYC this Saturday. Want to meet up then?

Salim immediately stood up, and walked over to the window, the light from the neighboring buildings draped over him. He bit his lip, and waited for about seventeen minutes before typing back:

Awesome. Let’s meet at Penn.

.  .  .

It was supposed to rain but it didn’t. Instead, the sun was out and there was a cool breeze that floated in between the buildings.

“You’re late,” Supriya said to Salim when they met outside MSG, with advertisements for upcoming Billy Joel concerts flashing on the big screen.

She was grinning. She had long but curly hair.

Salim knew what to say, how to be.

“So are you already making a pro and con list, cause I already started mine,” he said.

She smiled. She laughed.

They walked around the city, and ended up in Central Park, making fun of the tourists with their large backpacks and dollar-store sunglasses.

“But we’re from Jersey,” Salim said, as they stood on a rock overlooking the park.

“Ssshhh,” she said, placing a finger to her lips.

Salim laughed till his sides hurt.

They talked more about their favorite genre of music (debating whether Thieves in the Night was better than H.E.R or whether K-Dot had already achieved legendary status), and picked apart the other profiles on OkCupid.

“So annoying,” Supriya said as they sat and finished their coffee on a bench, surrounded by more tourists, bikers, runners, and anyone and everyone who felt alive.

“Do guys do the same thing?”

“Oh definitely. They say they loooove to travel, forgetting that doesn’t mean much apart from them having the money and too much time.”

“But are their profiles detailed?”

“No, no. I mean, honestly, I don’t even have time to check their profiles. When I log in, I already have a hundred messages waiting for me, from dudes either saying, ‘hey’, ‘hi,’ or ‘you have nice breasts.’”

“Wow! Really?”

“Yep. Really classy dudes all around.”

Salim smiled.

Supriya tucked her hair over her ear and took a sip.

“You know, my first inclination was to send you a dick pic,” he told her.

Supriya scoffed and looked into the distance.

“Oh yea? I was thinking of sending you a picture of my clit.”

Salim’s eyes went wide.

Supriya took another sip and looked back at him.

He shook his head but chuckled.

They had to take different trains when heading back home, but they waited in the same terminal. Their sides were sore, as they made plans to meet the following weekend in New Brunswick.

“I’m already looking forward to it,” Salim said. “Gonna add more to my pro and con list, ya know?”

She smiled.

“You should start one too,” he continued, and grinned.

“Maybe,” she said and the train schedules popped up on the screen and the crowd of people surged like a flood.

Salim waved from across the hall, and Supriya did the same, as the crowds pushed them ahead.

.  .  .

Salim told Ashok about Supriya, and Ashok told Salim to keep working on more jokes.

Salim did.

He’d go to work, and write new material between assignments. He’d eat lunch at his desk and jot down ideas on his notepad. But always, after a few minutes, he’d glance at his phone, and start thinking about the weekend.

When Arundhati came down to Metropark in Iselin, Salim picked her up in his car and drove around, showing her the park near the main mall in the area, and taking her to eat Pho in New Brunswick. They even took a drive through Rahway, and since she had grown up right outside the city, seeing run down car shops and small homes was new to her and even exciting.  They talked about exploring Jersey City together, even parts of Camden County. But it was just two weeks later that she called him and explained that they could only be friends. It happened so fast and so sudden that all Salim could do was listen since he had no words worthy of a reply.

That week before meeting Supriya, Salim tried out his new jokes but none of them were yet landing the way he wanted them to. Ashok reminded him to focus and to get more sleep. Salim agreed, although every night he’d lie in bed, and watch the lights outside his window, hoping he’d pass out soon.

The heaviness took hold again when he got a text from Supriya on Thursday night, informing him that she would be unable to meet in New Brunswick.

Why? Did something happen?

Ok. Tbh I live with my older sister and her son.

So?

They don’t  want me driving so late at night.

Salim paused. He looked over at the window. He could hear the cars driving along the road.

I can pick you up.

He stopped, and waited. And waited. And held onto the phone, staring into it like a portal.

Should I call? he added.

She immediately responded: It’s ok. I’ll text you my address.

Salim exhaled and went back to bed.

But still, he couldn’t sleep. The heaviness grew.

.  .  .

On Friday night, Salim shaved whatever little hair he had, washed up, wore a new shirt and left a note on the fridge telling his roommate he could have the roasted turkey he was saving.

Salim took the turnpike but eventually ended up on the local roads. The large apartment complexes and shopping malls he was used to gave way to box-shaped homes and lots and lots of trees. Some roads he recognized, but others reminded him why left the central parts of New Jersey for the north. Yes, at least central Jersey had the diversity in places like Union and Jersey City but towns were separated by lonely roads stuck between miles and miles of open space. Salim would try and focus on the destination ahead, ignoring the trees looming and the random sheds off in the distance.

Fortunately, Freehold was much busier than other places nearby. Freehold did have a large shopping mall and an avenue lined with chain stores and other restaurants. However, the road that Supriya lived on was tucked inside a suburban enclave with houses that all looked the same, even down to the patches of dirt on the front porch.

The house that Supriya lived in was on a cul-de-sac. The house had two floors, and the lights on the first were on. Salim parked, and immediately, the front door swung open, and Supriya rushed down the steps, her black dress sticking to her form.

She didn’t even look at Salim when she hopped in, and simply said that they should go.

Salim asked if everything was alright, but Supriya took out her phone and grimaced at the screen instead.

She eventually noticed that they weren’t moving so she turned to Salim, and flashed a smile.

“Or we can just stay here and stare into the abyss,” she said.

Salim smiled. He put the car in gear and drove them back onto the main roads.

Supriya connected her IPOD to his radio and played songs from her playlist, including Thieves in the Night.

They talked over the music and made it to the Pho Vietnamese place in downtown New Brunswick.

At dinner, they continued their conversation, talking about what happened to Freddie Gray.

“Have you ever been frisked?” she asked.

“I have. Once during college and another time at a book store.”

“A book store? Really?”

“Yep. It’s an embarrassing place to have that happen. Something you don’t want to tell friends.”

She giggled, and they ordered dessert.

Every few minutes, however, there would be a buzzing sound.

Salim asked what that sound was after he kept hearing it.

Supriya showed him her phone.

“It’s my sister,” she said.

“Oh. Uh, is everything okay?”

“Seriously, you’ve got to stop asking me that,” she said and smiled.

Salim nodded, as Supriya placed her phone back into her purse and they continued their meal.

They talked more about Gray, and about how anti-black certain South Asians could be.

They were the last customers before closing time, and afterward, they strolled through the neighborhood, through the parts that had been under construction for a decade and revamped for the yuppies sweeping in. Salim told her about what was going on in Jersey City as well.

“A part of me is glad,” he said. “But also, I’m thinking, why can’t the people who lived in these neighborhoods also benefit? Why does it always have to be new groups of people who push them out?”

“It’s typical white bourgeoisie politics,” she explained, and opened her mouth to say more, but her phone buzzed again while inside her purse. She took a breath and continued on with her point.

Salim listened, but he still couldn’t help but hear the buzzing. They ordered bubble tea at a Chinese place closer to campus. They found a table by the window.

“I bet that guy picks his nose and eats it,” she said, looking at a man wearing a backward baseball cap and standing on the street corner with a cell phone to his ear. His beard was bright yellow.

“Ew, gross,” Salim said. “Takes one to know one,” he added.

She laughed, and snorted.

But as they took sips and smiled, the buzz filled the space between them.

Supriya, at one point, excused herself to go to the restroom.

Salim gazed out the window and when she returned, she asked if he wanted to explore some more.

Salim stood up, and they went back to the car.

He drove through East Brunswick first. Like a tour guide, he pointed out the spots he used to hang out at when younger, like the mall, and the IHOP.

But as the minutes passed, Supriya’s laughter eroded. Even when they returned to places more crowded, in Edison and Piscataway, she was silent. She would occasionally smile and look out the window whenever Sailm mentioned something. He even realized it was well after midnight and suggested Supriya text her sister to tell her where they were.

“She’s probably worried,” he said.

But Supriya shrugged while she gazed through the window.

They stopped at a red light at an intersection.

He tried not to dwell but the silence grew, so he added, “Why aren’t you at least telling her where we are?”

Supriya glared at the people outside.

“Okay. What is going on? What happened?”

“Stop pretending to care.”

“What?”

“Just stop. We’re having a good time. Just focus on that, okay?”

“Um, I was, until you stopped talking. You haven’t said a word for an hour.”

“Well, what do you want? For me to tell you jokes? To be the manic pixie girl of your dreams?”

“Manic what? I’m just telling you to let your sister know.”

“I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I threw out my phone.”

Salim stared. The light turned green.

“What the fuck you do that for?”

Supriya crossed her arms, and kept glaring outside.

“Fuck it,” Salim said. “I’m taking you home.”

“Whatever,” Supriya muttered.

Salim ignored her and drove back to Freehold. He parked outside the house, but Supriya didn’t move.

“Fine, have fun,” he said and headed up on the steps and knocked on the door.

A tall woman wearing glasses answered.

She instantly narrowed her eyebrows at Salim, who suddenly became silent since his emotions were already beginning to ebb.

She didn’t say anything either, as she looked over at the car and saw Supriya still inside. The woman sighed, and her face softened.

“Subhash,” she called out and a young man emerged from the hallway. “Go and speak with your aunt outside,” she told him, and he nodded and headed past Salim in the doorway.

The woman instructed Salim to follow her inside.

“We need to talk,” she said, and Salim, who glanced and saw Supriya still inside his car, hung his head and stepped into the house.

The woman, of course, was Supriya’s older sister. She led Salim to their kitchen, where Salim was told to sit down at the table as she warmed up some tea on the stove.

“When Supriya told us she’s meeting someone, we thought she meant a friend,” Supriya’s sister said, as she stood by the stove, occasionally glancing at the steam pouring out from the spout.

“None of us were aware she was even on a dating website.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” Salim said. “She told me about you and your son but that was all.”

The woman smiled at him.

“You seem like a nice guy,” she said. “Usually, they don’t even come in. They just leave.”

“To be honest,” Salim said, “I’m very confused. One moment, we’re having a good time and in another, she throws away her phone. I’m sorry if I caused any issue, but I just don’t know what’s going on.”

Supriya’s sister switched off the stove, and sat down at the table as well. She clasped her hands and leaned in.

“What did Supriya tell you about herself?” she asked.

Salim told her.

She leaned back in her seat.

“Some parts were left out,” she said.

“What parts?”

“Are you sure you want to know?”

“I do.”

“Alright. But you can head out that door and I wouldn’t blame you.”

“No. I’ll be thinking about this all night.”

She took a deep breath, but smiled again.

“Supriya had a mental breakdown right after law school,” she explained to Salim, whose well of words instantly dried up.

Supriya, according to her sister, left her firm months ago and was unable to keep up with rent, so she moved back in. Supriya kept trying to live the life she had, such as going out on dates, or driving for long distances by herself.

“She’s just not ready,” Supriya’s sister said.

She paused. They were both silent.

The son entered the room.

“Auntie is on the deck,” he said.

Supriya’s sister told him to go back to bed, which he did, after glaring at Salim.

After a while of just sitting and staring at the linoleum floor, Salim said, “She’s still a smart and funny person.”

“I know that. She’s always been our bright star. But she’s still too fragile.”

“I understand…but…” Salim stopped and kept his head lowered.

“Like I said, you can leave,” the sister told him. “After all, we both know this is not going to work out and when it does fall apart later, it’ll hurt much more for her.”

Salim stared at the checkered tiles.

“Just go home.”

He stared and stared.

He eventually took a deep breath and thanked Supriya’s sister for her time and headed outside. The door slowly shut behind him, as he walked down the stairs. He even got to his car and unlocked it, but turned back around. He spotted Supriya perched on a giant swing on the side of the house. She was simply looking straight ahead and slightly rocking back and forth.

Salim tried to look away, but he gripped his keys in his fist. He sighed, and headed back up around the house to where Supriya was.

He sat down on a chair slightly facing her.

“I had a talk with your sister,” he said.

Supriya didn’t react.

Salim looked at her face. The same face that was smiling and laughing with him just a few hours ago. The same face that made his days go faster, and made the sun seem so much brighter.

“I guess I have more to add to my con list,” he said.

This time, a tiny grin started to form on Supriya’s face. She still didn’t look at him and managed to hold it back from becoming a smile, but Salim beamed and continued.

“How bad do you think Lena Dunham’s vagina smells?” he said.

Supriya covered her mouth and shook her head.

Salim pointed. “I saw it! I saw it!” he exclaimed, and Supriya pushed him away and laughed.

The death of Rohith Vemula and our Reckoning

Hinduism image
(Image from Google)

I’m a Brahmin. Which according to the caste system means I’m at the very top of traditional Indian society. Basically, if I were to live in India, I’d be that country’s white elite. And to be honest, there are days I wonder what that would be like. Usually, I’m steeped in this nation’s own sordid past of structured racism and injustice, that I’d rather not think about it. Then again, I’m privileged enough to care about my caste when I choose to. For others, that’s not a reality whatsoever.

This brings to mind, Rohith Vemula, the PhD student who committed suicide after feeling he’d been mistreated because he was Dalit.

In his suicide letter, Vemula wrote:

“My birth is my fatal accident… I always was rushing. Desperate to start a life… I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself. That’s pathetic. And that’s why I am doing this.”

A young man was driven to his end, based on an inane system conceived thousands of years ago.

 

My own relationship with Hinduism has been a complex one to begin with. I do identify as Hindu, especially depending on the context. For example, if I were in a room with mostly white non-Hindus, I will try my best to describe the faith in the best possible way just because I understand that to outsiders, any faith from the “East” can be seen as strange, even though those feelings are based on prejudice and Orientalist views, as the late great Edward Said would’ve put it.

Growing up, the first representation of Hinduism I saw was in the movie The Temple of Doom by Steven Spielberg. I didn’t watch it entirely since my family and I couldn’t get past the scenes of Indian men eating monkey brains but essentially, the plot goes as follows: Crazed Hindu man pulls out hearts from peoples’ chests, and strong white man (Indiana Jones) tries to stop him.

Hinduism is more than just one movie’s interpretation. When I often think of it, I picture my mother praying in the early morning, or of my best friend basing his principles of doing the right thing on what he learned in the Mahabharata. I too wear a pendent of Ma Kali. Even though I believe in the Big Bang, evolution, LGBTQ rights, and basically everything that would make a dogmatic person’s head turn, I also feel safer and more whole when I wear the pendent around my neck. In fact, my belief in justice stem from my faith in Kali and what she symbolizes: a figure who looks evil square in the eye, and fights.

Yet, that’s also the same faith that led Vemula to end his life. That still holds up one group of people over another. No one should believe that caste is only an Indian or Indian-American issue. As mentioned, within white European-American communities in the U.S., we have racism, which affects us today. That being said, as upper-caste Desis, such a comparison often is used to insulate ourselves from criticism.

There has been a resurgence of conservative right-wing Hindu belief and thought on the subcontinent and abroad.

In a piece last year in The New York Times, Sonia Faleiro wrote of this increasing intolerance:

“In August, 77-year-old scholar M. M. Kalburgi, an outspoken critic of Hindu idol worship, was gunned down on his own doorstep. In February, the communist leader Govind Pansare was killed near Mumbai. And in 2013, the activist Narendra Dabholkar was murdered for campaigning against religious superstitions.”

I’ll be honest. I am a Lefty, as some would describe. My version of a just society is one based on democratic socialist values. So when Narender Modi was running for PM of India, it frustrated me to see so many Indian-Americans also support his cause. Modi and his party, the BJP, represents a version of Hinduism I can never ascribe to. What really made me upset was seeing all the Desis going to see him speak at MSG in Manhattan, or to watch on TV, the legions of fans cheering for him when he visited the U.K. All I witnessed were middle-class bourgeoisie Indians and Indian-Americans falling in love with an illiberal politician.

I understand that I can be interpreted as a snobby American imposing his ideas. But this is directed toward those of us who see the writing on the wall, and can connect what happened to Vemula as part of a bigger and more ominous picture. If we are concerned about human rights and social justice, we must also confront what we see among ourselves.

This means, honoring the life of people like Vemula, and sharing his story. This means taking part in activism, such as holding rallies outside the Indian embassy and demanding that actions be taken to preserve every life. Most of all, this means challenging those closest to us as well, such as our family members about their prejudices.

The sad reality is Vemula isn’t the first person to have been discriminated because of his caste and he won’t be the last.

But will we be the generation to pretend the problem will somehow be eliminated on its own? Or will we look evil in the eye and fight?

The reality of Trump’s America and Critical Race Theory

Like you,  I haven’t been able to escape Donald Trump. Much like Starbucks and gentrification, he’s pretty much everywhere by now.

I’ve done my best to avoid watching him on TV, or even discussing him among friends and colleagues since I don’t want to humor even the thought of someone like him running the country, let alone being Republican nominee. But as mentioned, easier said than done. Despite not buying into his circus-act, I too have seen the videos passed around through social media, such as the one where three young girls are singing some sort of Nazi-esque anthem about America’s greatness at a rally, to the ones where Trump just rambles on and on about nothing and everything at the same time (a feat only him can somehow achieve). And just recently, I was forced to learn from posts on Facebook and our 24-hour news cycle that Trump landed the “coveted” Sarah Palin endorsement. Of course, to me, Palin means nothing more than a crazy person standing on a street corner, preaching a mix of Armageddon and a brand of Christianity that’d make Jesus tilt his head and ask, “Wait, I said that…was I high?” Regardless, she does matter to certain folks, especially the ones hunkered down in their mental bunkers (see what I did there), finding solace in a 1950s America that fortunately, doesn’t exist any longer.

Many of us know how insane this all is. The fact that a billionaire is roaming around the country, calling people losers, and terrorists and able to attract thousands of people to his campaign. It’s almost unthinkable.

But that is why  we’re sooooooooooo wrong.

I understand why you must be watching all this and equating all of it to some dystopia you never thought imaginable, and seeing the similarity between a Trump crowd and a Hitler Youth convention. I agree. It’s jingoism at its finest. White supremacy like white wine, refined and cultured. Yet, the mistake is this: We’re acting surprised.

Honestly, I was also bemused when Trump chose to run, and imagined him to fade out. I didn’t think he’d be successful not because I thought the American people are divine people who would realize the craziness, but instead, I felt that maybe our society has evolved, especially since President Obama’s two-terms in office. I should’ve known then what I know now, and what I had known all along, especially during the Bush years, that beneath the framing of democracy, and liberalism, and justice, is American fascism. This type of rhetoric, like we on the Trump campaign trail isn’t new. If it is to you, then frankly, you’re either ignorant or privileged to the point that you think Ta-Neihisi Coates invented journalism about race (and if you don’t who that is, god save you). Basically, Trump reflects the real America that’s been functioning since the day of its modern birth. Trump is not the aberration. We are.

If you don’t believe me, let’s take a cursory view of American social and political history. When did the U.S. become a democracy? Your answer shouldn’t certainly be 1776. Because I thought having people as slaves and not being able to vote is anti-democratic? Right? I mean, in case you forgot, black Americans were turned into property and made to work in the fields, creating the wealth that many white elites built their success on. So, that’s one part of the American ethos that seems like b.s. already.

How about what happened to the American Indian? Again, it wasn’t the European who came over who suddenly created this new land by stepping foot on its shores. There were already indigenous peoples living here, who created their own societies. They helped the Europeans master the elements in this foreign space, and in turn, the Europeans massacred them and took their ancestral birthplace. That doesn’t seem democratic either.

This process repeated. From the internment of Japanese-Americans to the lynching of Mexican-Americans. To be fascistic and crude is as American as apple and Jim Crow. I’m not the only one who’s basically said Trump is a product of the U.S., not a mere radical on the fringe. Brittney Cooper, a respected professor at Rutgers University and way more awesome than I am, explained in a piece written for Salon “But the GOP should understand Trump’s popularity as a case of their chickens coming home to roost. The modern Republican Party has secured its base by pandering to the worst impulses of white male, working class, and white Christian fundamentalist rage. Only Trump doesn’t use a dog whistle. He barks. And every time he does the GOP base responds by replenishing his poll numbers.”

Ronald Reagan, the one true god for conservatives and arbiter of their wet dreams, used similar tactics to gin up support among white working-class voters. By the time he was running for his first term, already many white Americans had left the Democratic party, upset at the increase in civil rights for people of color. They believed in the zero-sum narrative, that if the black or brown Americans gets more rights and better pay, somehow, the white man loses everything. Reagan, aware of this reality, utilized dog-whistles to let them know he understood their grievances. For example, Reagan spoke of the “welfare queen”, painting this image of a person on welfare cheating the system and living the high-life. Although more white Americans rely on government help, for many white voters, the imagery was obvious to them, and they picked up the racial cues. Reagan even went to places like Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists had been murdered, and spoke of “states’ rights” to a white crowd. Ian Haney Lopez explains this messaging perfectly in his work  Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class, where he also includes a quote from Reagan’s adviser, who understood the power of race and how to manipulate it for their advantage:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut taxes and we want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’ So anyway you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.”

One could argue that’s changed. But even today, many white Americans continue to believe that their country is no longer theirs, and that it needs to be returned to them. In a study published last year by the Public Religion Research Institute,  “half (50%) of white Americans—including 60% of white working-class Americans—agree that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities, while fewer than three in ten Hispanic (29%) and black Americans (25%) agree.”

It’s evident also in the hate crimes perpetrated against Muslim and Sikh-Americans, and the rhetoric brandished toward Mexican-Americans that such rhetoric of Us v. Them has worked.

Now, even I still don’t believe Trump will win the GOP nomination. But that would still be missing the point. What’s the difference anyway between a Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush or a Trump? One “barks” as Cooper says, while the others “whistle.” Ultimately, we’re left to face a center-right that’s xenophobic, racist, homophobic, and anti-working class as ever. What we should be doing, however, is making sure we show up at the polls, and spreading the word that Whiteness will not go unchallenged any longer.

Most importantly, any sort of attempt at changing the system as is, especially the racism that infects American politics should be based on the truth that this country was created to oppress POC, not to include them, which is an idea explained in Faces at the Bottom of the Well by Derrick Bell.

Bell, although a slight and professorial man, embodied what he wrote. One of the few who truly cared about extending social justice into all walks of life rather than remain complacent with the comforts of academia. He resigned twice to protest the lack of diversity in the higher-ed. In both cases, he did so for women of color (one Asian-American and the other black American). Bell himself was black American and had been a lawyer for the NAACP. Basically, he was a bad-ass, despite again, his glasses and nerdy veneer (gives hope for all of us I guess). Some would argue he was also a critical influence for the young Barack Obama who was attending Harvard at the time when Bell was there.

Bell was a major figure in critical race theory. If you don’t know what that is, it’s okay. That’s why I’m writing this. Critical race theory is pretty much what it sounds like: studying race in the social sciences and law. In essence, making race a key piece of our discussion of politics and society in the U.S. What Bell believed in, as did others in his line of work, that race was socially and politically constructed. Which shouldn’t be too surprising. Through laws passed, such as Jim Crow and decisions made by the Supreme Court, who was considered “black” or “white” was conceived. The “one-drop” rule is an example. Basically, even though you may not “look” black. You can still be considered such just cause someone in your family, even if it was found to be a great-great-great-grandaunt that was African-American. And under the auspices of the system that was functioning in the Deep South, you are, in the words of the Dalai Llama, “fucked.” This last part needs no explanation as to why. Read a history book, if you don’t know. But speaking of race as a political project, I do recommend checking out Whiteness of a Different Color by Jacobson.

In Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Bell uses short stories (yes, short stories) as a brilliant way of explaining what he means with his theories and how he views race in America. At the time, it was the early 90s and we just survived a decade of Ronald Wilson Reagan (666). Right-wing conservatism was on the rise, and white folks acting crazy was in effect once more. Bell argued that racism would never be completely expunged from the American body politic, that in many ways, white America always needed black America as its underclass as to alleviate their own issues around class and gender. So, the way white America was kept together (despite their ethnic differences i.e. Italian v. Irish, religious i.e. Protestant v. Catholic, and class i.e. blue-collar v. white-collar) was through hating their black neighbors and blackness in general. It was what unified them.

Bell called this realization of how things really were in the U.S. as being a “race realist.” Instead of what he probably would’ve described an optimistic and naive sense that somehow, all whites would just learn to love black people and stop being dicks, Bell adopted the “race realist” view and pushed for this perspective as any starting-point for anyone interested in finding solutions. Now, I know this may sound pessimistic, but just remember the decade he was in, and the experiences he had as well. A proper analogy would be the feminist theorist,Simone de Beauvoir, as having survived the horrors of Vichy occupation in France and expressing her somewhat dim view of female and human solidarity post-WWII. You can still criticize the perceptive but be mindful of where it’s coming from.

Groups like BLM and Dream Defenders do comprehend the big picture. That it is not about being tolerated or Trump losing the primary. Real change takes place when the system is forced to change, not accept what it may. To look boldly into the abyss.

Or as the great Bell would’ve put it: “We simply cannot prepare realistically for our future without assessing honestly our past.”

Knowledge is Power series: The Ecstatic by Mos Def

Mos Def the ecstatic image
(Image from Google)

In light of recent events concerning Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) being arrested and then calling it quits, I decided to focus for this week on what I consider his best work yet: The Ecstatic.

I’ve been a hippity-hop (as the kids would call it) fan since leaving Queens, ironically. To be honest, I was surrounded by the music when living in the borough but never paid much attention to it since at home, my parents usually played classical Bengali songs or Whitney Houston (The Bodyguard soundtrack was on repeat until it just sounded like background noise to me). Regardless, hip-hop was a part of my world and at the same time, it wasn’t. When I moved to New Jersey, I began to associated the genre with whiteness since all around me I literally saw white kids using the N-word when repeating the lyrics and Asian-Americans wearing band-aids under their eyes to be like Nelly. It was a sad time to say the least.

Fortunately, I got into what was good music by Nas and others. That will be for another blog post though. Fast-forward to 2009 when The Ecstatic dropped. I was about done with college, just one more semester to go. I was spending my time off riding around with friends, making fun of people we saw on the sidewalk cause we’re classy, and pretending we had interesting lives. Finally, I remembered to grab Mos Def’s latest work. I was still buying CDs back then, but I hadn’t kept attention on any artists for sometime since I was so consumed by classes and being a dick. But when I did get The Ecstatic and popped it in the CD player in my car, I was still. Frozen.

From the beginning track “Supermagic” which starts off with a speech by Malcolm X on the potential for revolution, to the end “Casa Bey” in which Mos Def is just spitting to show you why he’s one of the best, I. Wouldn’t. Move.

The Ecstatic stayed in my CD player for the rest of the year. And whenever a friend would hop in, I’d definitely play it for them, and every time, they’d fall silent too, just trying to keep up with the brilliance.

The reason why I love this album is because unlike Mos Def’s previous solo albums, the production was layered and able to enjoy on its own even. Honestly, a major issue I find with “socially-conscious” rap is that while the lyrics are usually, in-depth and important to hear, the music behind it is typically boring and sounds like what your Dad would listen to, a.k.a. jazzy beats that repeat, or just a simple boom-bap that sounds like it was culled from the 80s. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy that type of music as opposed to Wacka Flocka and others, but sometimes, I’ll be listening to something by Talib Kweli and think, “Wow…this sounds so boring…” and try not to fall asleep.

Actually, I want to add here: I am a fan of Black Star, the group formed by Talbi Kweli and Mos Def. Their one album that they did together is a classic, no doubt. But, the reason why I think Mos Def is way better than Talib even though Talib might be a better lyricist, is because Mos Def understands good song-writing too. And it was evident in The Ecstatic.

Mos Def combined his skills with great production, AND an appreciation for the listener. SO while someone else like Talb might go crazy and start lecturing you on the Nigerian oil crisis in one song, stuffing the bars with references you will never understand unless you literally was in Lagos, Mos Def does his best to paint a picture and provide you an accessible way to like the material.

Mos Def, on The Ecstatic, basically taught me how to be a better writer.

I understood the balancing act one must always be aware of, between description and flow.

A perfect example of this would be the following lines from the song on the album, “Life in Marvelous Times”:

“Bright moments, bright moments always come back vivid
The fifth grade was epic city-wide test pressure
The pre-crack era
Mr. Schumer, what a prick
Attitude match his wardrobe, uglier than sin
This is Bed-Stuy eighty-two
Ninth floor, three tiny rooms, one view
Bucktown, Roosevelt House
Their green grass is green; our green grass is brown
Shots rang, my phone wasn’t touch tone
Were heavy beef in the street, E.T. had to flee
Great heavens, good grief
Hungry bellies, bright gold on their teeth”

Do you see how Mos Def manages to show you an entire neighborhood as if opening the palm of his hand, and you’re peering down at this orb of light? Do you see how he gives you a taste of what it was like living in that specific area in Brooklyn at that specific time, without going overboard with it? Again, it’s usually very little he offers up in terms of verbosity. The line “their green grass is green; our green grass is brown” is enough for someone to get an idea of the area that Mos Def is trying to convey and the themes of disparity and still surviving.

Of course, a lot of the material is political and socially aware. Yet, Mos Def’s genius lies in his ability to also touch on love, romance, heartbreak, while discussing big-world issues. Usually, songs that stay political are simple that. And songs about love are just songs about love, as if the two worlds are separate. What Mos Def does is include both in a song, which is how people live their lives anyway. Heck, even when I’m being “political” I’m still motivated by love. There is no political moment versus moment of friendship. Our lives are interwoven, as he describes in “Roses”:

“Power and grace
Yellow for friendship, red for love
Black for the universal stars above
Pink buds that I bought her on Valentine
She said it was forever then she changed her mind
I said a little prayer then I cleared my eyes
Cause I feel the draw on my heartstrings, drawing the line…”

There’s a lot more I can say about this, but I’ll just tell you that this album changed my life. Truly. And if you give it a chance, it might do the same for you.

I’m leaving a link here so you can order it for yourself, although I’d encourage you to find a local record store instead. I’m guessing that’s what Yasiin Bey (a.k.a. Mos Def) and his major influence would want you to do:

“You’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution
A time where there’s got to be a change. People in power have misused it
And now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built
And the only way is going to be built is with extreme methods
And I for one will join with anyone, don’t care what color you are
As long as you want change this miserable condition that exists on this earth
Thank you.”

The World As Is

At the end of this story, you will find two things:
The first will be someone pleading for help.
The second will be of someone having uncontrollable gas.
The order is not so important. Not yet at least. For now, let’s roll back the clock to the beginning scene:
Of me, impressionable Irfan, aged 16, somehow avoiding the devastation that is known as acne, but still trying to grow that awful moustache or whatever you want to call that dead caterpillar fuzz that was festering right above the upper lip.
It’s November in the early 2000s (post 9/11) and I was sitting in class at my school in Queens, and as the teacher did her best to show us the reason for why sine and cosine even exist (which was admittedly something I never thought about), all I really felt like doing was smiling and grinning and making faces with Fareena, who sat right across from me.
Fareena and I met at our parent’s mosque, where I eventually got the courage to ask her if she wanted to hang out. She told me to ask her again when I had a definite idea of where to go, what to do, and how much it would cost, and so, after a week of thinking, I told her we could meet at the movie theater, and a month after that, I had my first kiss, and a year later, I was making faces with her in the middle of class, and she was smiling back, and the world as I knew it was perfect.

.  .  .

Every day, we would find time to hang out after school, and at least once or twice a month we would go and watch a movie, something that we could laugh at together.
“Oh my god, Bruce Willis looks a giant penis!” she squealed, as others simply turned in their seats and stared at us.
I laughed, and as we left the movie theater, I stuck out my tongue at whoever was still glaring.
We bought hot chocolate at our favorite deli and explored the neighborhood, while also of course making fart noises for people walking ahead of us. It was the Bloomberg years I think. Honestly, I don’t really keep track of which white guy happens to be in power when, but it definitely was a unique time to be growing up in the city, especially in the outer boroughs, when it felt like every day there was another building being left abandoned and another liquor store opening up right across the street from it.
“Did you read this yet?” Fareena asked as we were at the library, in the back corner, rifling through a mix of graphic novels and books that we wouldn’t find on our summer reading lists.
“What is it?” I asked, as I just finished reading some pages of an encyclopedia on nature, which included the infamous Dodo bird. The pictures of it looked funny to me.
Fareena passed me the novel she was talking about, which was titled Giovanni’s Room. “Woah, check this guy out,” she said, holding up another book, this one with the title The Savage Detectives emblazoned across. “Honestly, it’s a little confusing,” she said, but looked down at the page, smiling wide. “But I like how the characters are all writers and poets and trying to find adventure.”
I didn’t say anything right then. But after a few moments, when it became too quiet, I showed her the picture of the bird. She read the paragraph and shook her head and kept smiling.

.  .  .

Rajeev asked me where Fareena was.
I shrugged and made sure not make any eye contact. Another school day had ended, and we were all in the main lot, either ready to go home or like Rajeev and his group of followers, to head toward the main avenue again, probably find people they could tease and easily tear apart. Fareena had run off to the principal’s office seconds before the bell rang, and so I waited and waited, and ignored Rajeev, who was the top student in school, but also knew way too much about how to jumpstart a car without the key. Rajeev said that he learned that trick from his father, but wherever it came from, I didn’t want to know.
“See you later buddy,” he said, as him and his group finally left. “Don’t forget to wear your tampon.”
I rolled my eyes. Soon after, Fareena stepped outside, with her eyebrows narrowed. I asked her what was wrong.
“Nothing really,” she said. “I asked the principal if I could take some of my tests early.”
“What? Why?”
“My family needs me at our restaurant more often now,” she explained. “Plus, I do need to save money for college.”
I didn’t say anything as we kept walking down the sloped streets. We watched a movie and laughed. We went to the deli afterwards, but Fareena told me she needed to go home and start studying. We kissed, and I finished my hot chocolate, and decided to go back too.

.  .  .

At first, not much was different. We would still hang out. We would still find ways to be ourselves and have fun. But one afternoon, she again met with the principal. I waited like before as Rajeev discussed plans with his group. He again looked over at me and smirked, but I would look away as casually as I could.
Fareena rushed back outside minutes later. I asked her what happened, and tried to keep up.
“I just needed to take more tests again,” she said.
“Wait, where are you going?” I asked.
“I have to go home,” she told me. “I have a shift later tonight.”
“But what about the movies?”
“Babe, I can’t…”
“But – – -”
Before I could finish, she turned to me and smiled and said, “Why don’t you study with me?”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “What?” I said. “Why?”
“Why not? It’s good.”
“But I’m already doing well,” I said. “What’s the reason for doing more? I don’t even like math.”
“That’s not the point though,” she said. “Don’t you want to go to college?”
“Yea, but that’s later,” I said. “You can’t be so serious about this.”
She sighed. “I have to go,” she said.
“Wait, you do realize this is way too much right now,” I told her.
She shook her head and continued walking.
I should’ve said something, but I didn’t.

.  .  .

I would still talk with Fareena at school and we would continue to eat our lunch together and walk to class side-by-side, but she was always too tired to do much afterwards. I would sometimes try to spark an actual conversation with her but I would quickly give up, and go to the main avenue by myself.
It was a few weeks before winter break when I decided to watch a movie without her. It was another Bruce Willis film and he still looked like a giant penis. But I watched the entire movie, understood the plot, memorized some lines, and once it was over, I made up my mind to just go back home. But as I exited the theater, I heard a voice.
“Hey man, found any tampons in there?” it said to me.
I sighed. Rajeev was by himself next to a payphone. He asked me where Fareena was.
I again ignored him and kept walking, but he followed. “Yo, guess what?” he said. “I have the answers to next week’s test.”
I didn’t reply. He chuckled. “Come on, man, I’m just trying to help a Desi out,” he said. “Don’t you want your girl to have it easy?”
I stopped. I turned to him, and looked him in the eye.

.  .  .

Rajeev was in his final year at high-school, and all of the school’s main officials, from the principal to his assistant’s assistant, would praise Rajeev and offer him chance after chance to speak before the entire student body. He was great at math. He was great at science. He even knew how to dunk. I once played soccer with him but never kept much in touch, never really knew where he lived or what he did once our games were over. When I entered his apartment, it was for the first time, and it was completely quiet, except for the muffled sounds of traffic that would seep in from the window. I asked him where his parents were. He said simply that his mom was working and his dad was out-of-town.
Rajeev took me to his room, where he sat down at his desk and immediately began rummaging through the drawers.
I, on the other hand, stood in one place and looked around, at the walls, at the floor even, at the stack of CDs he had. At first glance, it was like any other room, with posters of movie heroes and sports stars, of empty CD casings left on the carpet. But I soon realized that he not only had movie posters, but actual DVDs, and even a TV. Plus, his stack of CDs was probably the highest I’d ever seen.
“Here you go,” he said, and handed me a sheet of paper. I read it over, and recognized that the answers were different than what I expected.
“Wait a minute,” I said. ‘This is for the wrong test.”
He shrugged. “Dude, whatever, just take them. I don’t need them anymore,” he said, as he continued to look through his drawer.
I clenched my right fist, but I couldn’t stop myself from looking back at the movie posters and at the TV. I didn’t say anything for a while, as I tried to read the titles of each and every DVD.
“It’s from a business venture,” Rajeev said. He explained, with his hands still in the drawer, that he sold alcohol and cigarettes to students. “It costs a lot more for someone to get a fake I.D.” he said. “So I just hire some older guys, desperate ones especially, to buy the items for me.” He paused. “I’m always looking for friends to help out,” he said.
I looked at him.
He was smiling.
I glared, and I left. Fareena called me later that night, so we could work on our extra credit assignments over the phone. I was glad to hear her voice again, although as we went through answer after answer, I would also look through my bedroom window, at our backyard filled with weeds and the one next door and the one after that, as we went through answer, after answer, after answer.

.  .  .

“Gary Oldman is a walrus trying to be a man!”
I nervously chuckled.
“Gary Oldman looks like a fucking faggot!”
I held my breath, as the rest of the theater shifted in their seats and started murmuring to each other.
But that didn’t matter to Rajeev, who kept yelling at the screen, till we were asked to leave.
“That movie didn’t make any sense,” he said, as I led him to the corner deli where we bought hot chocolate, and sat and drank by the window since he didn’t want to go back outside just yet.
I sipped and sipped as neither of us said a word. I eventually decided to ask about his parents again.
“Mom works and works and works, not much else to say about her,” he said.
“And your dad?” I asked.
“Like I said, he’s out-of-town,” Rajeev answered, and took a sip from his own cup, as he looked out the window.
I wanted to go to the library afterwards although I probably should’ve guessed that wouldn’t be an option.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be quick,” he said, as he waited by the payphone at the corner.
When it rang, he picked up and whispered.
I stood a few steps away from him. I should leave, I thought. I was worried what Rajeev would do if I did however. Before I could make up my mind, he placed the phone back into the booth and smiled at me.
My stomach gurgled.

.  .  .

“Don’t worry,” he told me. “Nothing will happen.”
I didn’t say a word as he walked block after block, past the abandoned buildings and finally ending up at a street where there were no Stop signs or functioning traffic lights. At an empty staircase of a building were two large paper bags.
Rajeev looked through them, and I glanced, and noticed that there were bottles of beer and alcohol inside.
“No…” I said, and immediately turned around.
But Rajeev was quick to tell me that if I left, he would just tell the school it was all mine.
“Let’s be real here,” he said. “We might have had the same classes. But who has the brighter future. Who would the school want to protect?”
My stomach continued to gurgle and churn, as I took a deep breath and picked up one of the bags.
“I’ll give you 10 percent man,” he said.
“I don’t want it…” I murmured.
He laughed. “You’re crazy,” he said, as we retraced our steps and headed back to his block.
I dropped the bags off at the apartment, and left. Rajeev tried calling my name, but I just walked down the stairs as fast as I could without falling. It was cold that evening, but I walked all the way back home without my hood on, without my gloves. I didn’t even notice that my hands were turning red until I had to quickly crouch down and tie my shoelaces.

.  .  .

I tried to forget. I would call Fareena and try to find time to hang out. I would also go to the library and read snippets from books that Fareena had recommended, including parts of Giovanni’s Room.
Rajeev called me again, however, while I was supposed to be studying for a final exam but instead was staring through the window.
Our phone was in the kitchen but my mom was working an extra shift and so were my aunts and cousins.
“Hey man, I have a new job,” he said after I picked up. “Quick like last time. But I’ll even give you a free bottle if you’d like.”
“No,” I said.
He laughed, but after I didn’t respond, he stopped. “Are you serious?” he said. “Are you sure about this?”
“Yes,” I told him, and hung up, and went back to my room.
For days, I ignored phone calls at night, when no one else was home. Fareena and I would hang out when she could. Once, we skipped a movie and went straight to the deli. She couldn’t keep her eyelids open though.
“How can you do well on a test if you don’t get some sleep?” I told her.
She shrugged and yawned.
I rolled my eyes and finished my hot chocolate.

.  .  .

I was lying in bed, with my eyes closed, when the phone rang. I grumbled, rolled over to my side, but a few minutes later, the phone rang again. I still didn’t move, but every half-hour, it would ring, until finally, I rushed over, and snatched it up.
“Dude, I’m not hanging out with you anymore,” I yelled.
No one answered.
“I’m hanging up,” I said. “Don’t bother me again.”
Suddenly, a voice responded. It was a man’s voice. It wasn’t Rajeev’s.
“Who do you think you are?” the man said, and judging from his voice, I could tell he was older than me. “Who the fuck do you think you are?” he kept repeating.
“Who-who is this?” I managed to ask.
“You think you can fuck me over like that?” he said. “You think you can fuck me over like that and get away with it.”
I hung up and stared at the phone as if somehow it would explode. My shirt stuck to my skin, and even though I went back to my room, I sat up in bed, shivering.

.  .  .

The calls and threats continued, but I didn’t tell anyone, not even Fareena. I thought they would stop but then, the man started leaving me voicemails, telling me he would find me. I would delete the messages seconds after he would leave them behind.
“This sandwich tastes weird,” Fareena said, as we sat at the cafeteria.
I nodded, as I took tiny bites and looked out the window.
“Mr. Dyer said we can only use a certain amount of extra credit points for our next test,” she said, and again I nodded.
It was cloudy that day, and everyone was more subdued, even though it was a Friday afternoon and freedom was ticking closer and closer.
I was looking out the window and chewing slowly, not really thinking of much or trying not to. But just as I took another bite of whatever sandwich the school had given us, I saw a figure in the school lot. I squinted. It was a tall man standing right outside the gate.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” Fareena said. “I mean, we worked hard for those points. If we have hundred points, shouldn’t we be able to use all of them at one time? The semester is almost over anyway.”
I stopped chewing.
There was a pause.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I snapped back to reality. I looked at her and told her “Nothing” and kept eating the sandwich, even though I wasn’t hungry but honestly, was just trying to keep myself preoccupied.
Fareena left school early, and Rajeev was nowhere in sight. As I walked home by myself, I would keep looking over my shoulder. At one point, I felt as if someone was following me. I decided to not walk home but to head straight to the theater instead, which I did, and still, I felt as if someone was right behind me. I glanced at the rearview mirrors of the parked cars, and again, saw the same tall man I had seen earlier, just a few yards away. I increased my pace but knew that wouldn’t work, so I headed for the shopping mall at the end of the block, and walked behind the crowd. I walked around and around the mall for an hour, as I pretended to look at the new video games on display, at whatever I could focus on. There were also kids I recognized from school, and so I walked in the opposite direction and finally went back outside.
“If you scream, I’m going to rip your fucking head off.” The voice echoed in my head, as hands grabbed me by the collar, and all I could do was look up at the man’s face, with his bangs and his furrowed brow.
He took me to the empty streets about a mile away, where the abandoned buildings looked like they would crumble at any moment.
He grabbed my collar and lifted me off the ground. My legs flailed as he pulled me close and glared.
“Where’s the money?” he said, his breath reeking of smoke.
“I-I-dunno,” I stammered.
“Don’t play dumb with me,” he said.
I was barely able to breathe and all I could manage to say was “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” over and over again, as a rotten stench began to engulf us.
He covered his nose, and I dropped. I coughed and I coughed as I quickly tried to recover.
He looked at me, with his eyebrow raised, as I looked back at him, with my own face full of confusion.
He kept his hand over his nose, but I could tell tears were welling up in his eyes.
“Are you okay…?” I asked him.
“I needed that money,” he said. “My dad…my dad is going to throw me out…I needed that money…”
The tears ran down his cheeks.
I asked him who he was looking for. He told me he was looking for Rajeev.
“I keep buying him the alcohol and he pays me sometimes, but these past few weeks, man, I really need the money,” he said. “Rajeev told me you were the new guy. I didn’t know how that was possible since you looked so young, but what could I do? I just got thrown out of college, you know. I don’t know what to do.”
I did feel sorry for him. I really did. But as I watched him try and wipe the tears from his eyes, an idea had crept inside my head.
“I can help you” I told him.
He dabbed his eyes with his sleeve and looked at me.
“Here,” I handed him the answer sheet that I kept in my backpack. I told him to go to the school, tell them he was related to one of the students, and that his cousin or whomever got the sheet from Rajeev.
The man held it in his hands, and was smiling and beaming with joy. He thanked me over and over again. I told him no problem, and smiled too.

.  .  .

The winter holidays had arrived, and lights were strung up all over the neighborhood, even peeking through apartment windows.
I hadn’t seen Rajeev in weeks, and I didn’t know it then, but I would never see him again. His mother did come to school once. I saw her in the hallway talking with the principal. She was crying and pleading with him.
On the last day of school before winter break, I decided to surprise Fareena at her family’s restaurant. Before I left however, the phone rang, and I picked it up without thinking of who it might be.
It turned out to be the man who once worked for Rajeev.
“I still didn’t get my money…” he said. “You could’ve told me where he lived. Why didn’t you tell me where he lives?”
I waited till he stopped crying and I told him to get some rest and I hung up.
It was getting late and I wanted to see Fareena, with the sun still up. When I reached her at the restaurant, she was outside drinking some coffee.
“What are you doing here?” she said, smiling.
I gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, and asked her if she ate anything yet. She replied no, and so, we went to the theater, and I bought a huge bucket of popcorn. We sat down in our usual seats, all the way in the back.
During the trailers, she told me she also had some time to hang out tomorrow. “I need to study and be ready for next semester but I do think I need a break once in a while,” she said.
I smiled. ‘Well, we can study at the library if you want,” I replied.
She laughed, and rested her head on my shoulder.
I put my hand in hers.
The movie started.

Side piece/ Main piece

Ring on her finger

Frost on the apartment windows

A lingering smile, a warm touch

We talk, then migrate through the hall

. . .

I knew her when we were freshmen and our world was our town,

where we had visions of ourselves while in the shopping mall,

or, finding  moments worth laughing about, till all others were drowned out.

She returned years later, about the same time I too realized that money and power were the same.

. . .

Microwavable pizza.

Instant coffee.

Netflix.

Movie trailers, all day after work.

Friday nights spent at happy hour, considering the fall of ancient Rome.

. . .

The hall. The bed. The sheets soft and red.

“What are you looking at?” she giggled in the dark.

I saw the contours of the frames, and asked, “Could you put them away first?”

They looked so ideal within. She giggled again, and hid them in the drawers, and soon,

our world was in that moment, the night sky engulfing.

. . .

The rules: don’t text at work, don’t message too late, and definitely do not call on the weekends.

They were made simple on purpose, like TV dinners, and ordering fast food.

“I’ll have the number 4,” I said.

She held my hand, and ordered the one above mine, mostly bread and chicken and a side.

“So, what’s the plan?” I asked once we sat at our table.

“For what?” she said.

I paused.

She smirked.

“Let’s just focus on the here and now,” she told me. “Everything is going great.”

I nodded, took a bite from her sandwich, and we went back to the apartment, where the sheets were still soft.

. . .

The town of E.B., surrounded the city of New Brunswick, homes with lawns, roads splitting off into shopping mall entrances, billboards over the avenues filled with traffic, and over time, I’ve seen more vape shops opening up too, a White Castle as well, and even a hookah store for mostly white suburban kids to pretend they’re in a different place. My folks worked in the towns nearby, as clerks, and hers had retired and moved back to India. Mine thought of doing the same, but they decided to just go and live with relatives in Queens, while I lived with my older cousins. I found work as a store clerk soon, just a few blocks from the Dunkin Donuts where she was promoted to the person in-charge of the drive-thru. Customers usually would make fun of her, when they realized who it was. Once, a person spat in her face, and drove away, smoke trails like fog.

“Do you like it when I touch you here?”

I kissed her.

“How about this?”

I kissed her.

“And here?”

I kissed her.

On the cheek.

On each eyelid.

On her mouth, and on her neck.

. . .

Spent an entire afternoon cleaning vomit from an aisle, smelling of detergent and stew,

and I imagined instant coffee and Netflix, and,

while the store emptied, I called.

It rang, and rang, and rang,

Suddenly, she picked up.

“We had a fight,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” I told her, “I’m on my way.”

I traded shifts with a co-worker,

and moments later, I was where I wanted to be.

 

Master of None, Boycott Oscar, and the limits and benefits of representation

Aziz image
(Image from Google)

Master of None, on paper, is a simple premise.

It’s a show about a guy who is is an actor (mostly known for commercials), and him coming to terms with what he actually wants his life. Like many of us in the twilight of our twenties, the story is familiar. After all, who hasn’t wondered, while standing in line at CVS for a prescription for painkillers for your suddenly aching back, “Wait, what am I doing with my life?” It’s universal.

What set the show apart was the fact that it starred Aziz Ansari, a South Asian American, and surprise, the jokes weren’t based on solely his ethnicity or quirky accents. Instead, what the viewer experienced, episode after episode, was a diverse cast of people, black, brown, and Asian, who were all young Americans living in NYC, trying out relationships, and figuring what to eat next. And because of this, the show was awarded a Critics’ Choice Award for best comedy this past weekend, cementing the rather obvious fact: white people aren’t the only ones with narratives to tell.

Ironically, this message hasn’t really spread as far as we’d like. Despite TV representing better how the U.S. is really like, with programming that includes Black-Ish and Fresh off The Boat, there is a lot left undone, especially in terms of the big-screen. Once again, not a single person of color has been nominated for any of the major awards on Oscar night. Major figures like Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith have said they’d boycott the Oscars, in an attempt to highlight Hollywood’s lack of diversity, to put it lightly. Others have joined and the problem has become a major point of discussion in the mainstream press, especially the fact that those who do vote for the nominations are overwhelming white, male, and old, and consequently, out of touch with the current generation and the modern era of art.

Yet, what boycott Oscars and show like Master of None have also done is provide a jumping-off point for the larger discussion to be had by POC, which is: does representation matter when we’re still living in an age of police brutality, and institutionalized racism. Basically, it is a debate of substantive versus what some would describe as symbolic, and certainly, it’s a discussion worth having and necessary moving forward.

By now, you should know what’s happened in Flint, Michigan. If not, here’s a quick summary: The city of Flint is suffering from a man-made crisis. There is no drinking water available for the residents. Most importantly, the drinking water they once relied had been contaminated due to decisions made by a “state-appointed emergency manager.” To save money, the way that water was delivered had been changed, and now, those living in Flint are left with water that’s “highly corrosive.” Again, it’s tragedy created by those in power, removed from the daily life of ordinary people in that area.

Furthermore, Flint itself would be described as a place hard-hit by de-industrialization (a.k.a. factories up and went). Most folks are working-class, and the majority are African-American. Because of these factors, some might say that there hasn’t been a huge enough outcry up until recently. That since the people are without political power and already living on the margins economically, that they have been ignored, and the crisis hasn’t been taken seriously.

With these facts in mind, it can be intuitive to say, “Who gives a crap about the Oscars while POC are dying?” After all, will Michael B. Jordan getting nominated for Creed cure the water in Flint? Will Aziz Ansari showing up on a late-night talk show to discuss diversity in entertainment stop the attacks on Sikh and Muslim Americans? Will any of this attention truly take into account those outside the lens?

The simple answer is, “It won’t,” and it’d be naive to think so.

But maybe the debate itself hasn’t been framed in the correct way.

Maybe, there is no binary we need to uphold.

I grew up in Queens, unfortunately during the era of Giuliani. Fortunately, I was too young and dumb to care and all I wanted to do was write stories and watch movies. My favorites then were Jurassic Park and anything Disney. I began to write my own material, inserting names like Arjun for the lead characters. This was subconscious by the way. I wasn’t  some angry-ass radical just yet. I still had a life. But I did realize as I grew up and we moved into the suburbs of New Jersey that many of the books I were reading and the shows I saw were dominated by white faces. There was never an Eureka moment. The truth simply settled into me, like smoke, and I was annoyed. And when I did find out material with people who looked like me, it was usually, someone playing a terrorist and yelling Allahu Akbar, or a taxi driver. Add to the fact that I was surrounded by other Desis, born and raised in the U.S., who wanted to become doctors, or engineers, made truly feel like I was the weird one. Funny thing is, it was a movie like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle that made me understand that no, the problem wasn’t me. It was the society I inhabited. The limits had been set by the invisible hand.

I’m not going to lie though and pretend that Harold and Kumar rescued me from oblivion. I was already becoming aware of race, class, and gender through experiences I and my friends had. But, to see Kal Penn play someone who was funny, aimless, and also, confident about himself (not to mention standing up to the racist cop), became a point-of-reference, a face I could sorta remember whenever I did feel out of place. Along with the tv show, Everybody Hates Chris, and the countless other artists I considered as influences, I felt anchored to the world, and to who I am: a nerdy ass South Asian-American who likes to speak out at protests, and make fart-jokes in his spare time (back in the day, I’d like to add).

Art and politics shouldn’t be placed on opposite ends. The best writers were the best thinkers. The best thinkers were the best advocates for social change. Case in point: James Baldwin.

Baldwin was a novelist, an essayist, and a bad-ass. He did produce a lot of stories, and one could’ve described him as just someone who liked to shed words like leaves. But that person would be an idiot. Baldwin, to me, represents the obviousness that solutions cannot be based on what a person writes down on paper, but surely, words on paper, or on a blog, or just words in general, can elicit emotions and sharp new ideas for perhaps, others to take a hold of and use.

As mentioned, Baldwin was prolific. His best work, in my eyes, is The Fire Next Time, which starts with a letter to his nephew, telling him about what it can mean to be a black man and contains perspectives on race in America. It wasn’t fictional, but yes, it was still sentences strewn together. But to this day, it is remembered as a quintessential work, that broke new ground for other writers of color. Most importantly, Baldwin is considered a hero for young people who believe in social justice and expressing yourself. He may not have been a Huey Newton in terms of actively standing up against the police, but he has influenced a generation in the same way. It was reading his work and hearing his speeches on YouTube that got me more involved in activism as well. That to me is a direct link.

Those who’d criticize the fact of boycotting Oscars while people of color suffer in the real world still have a valid point in terms of who we, as POC, want to impress with our work and art. What we must avoid, at all costs, is the White Gaze. The White Gaze is when people create work for white eyes to see. Which is a reality for many. As mentioned, I grew up feeling different, even from South Asian Americans. I was a Bengali-Indian-American, surrounded by what I knew was a distinctly Gujarati-American influenced version of a Desi identity produced for white audiences. I could joke about it but until the movie version of Namesake (centered around a Bengali-American family) was helpful to me.

So far, people of color have been rewarded in movies for playing butlers, and maids, and corrupt cops. It’s still important to honor those who broke through and gained recognition but we must remembered that the ultimate goal is not only have more access to the seats of power within entertainment but to be able to change the narratives entirely, to finally include stories that tell the whole breadth and nuance of who we are. This can only change if we demand that more POC are included in the nomination process. No one can deny that Hollywood has a name and influence behind it. We need those levers of power if we are to disseminate images of ourselves than are different from those in the past. In a capitalistic country, money sings, and so, us not going to the movies that only star white lead actors and actresses can and should make a difference. The demographics have changed and most of America, I believe, want to see POC and women up on the big screen, from all walks of life. So long as we keep ourselves in check and that we want to own the power, and not borrow it, art can advocate for change and make an impact in folks’ lives.

“Know whence you came,” Baldwin wrote, “If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear.”