The phone vibrated, while Subhash gazed at the menu above the counter.
“The usual,” he said, and after receiving the order, sat in the corner, hunched over his box of Boston Crème. He chewed and glared. His phone continued to glow.
Subhash finally answered.
“Where the heck are you?” Liang exclaimed. “You’re an hour late!”
Subhash flicked the crumbs off his pants, and mumbled, “On my way” and before Liang could respond, he hung up.
. . .
The conference room at the Princeton library ran out of chairs. There was a mix of students and local residents, carrying Subhash’ book, Challenging Whiteness, in their hands.
“The U.S. offers dignity to those who accept its Anglo values,” Subhash read aloud excerpts, “If you accept its whiteness, such as property, you are afforded an increased chance to survive under its oppressive eye.”
Applause. For a moment, Subhash felt like he used to, with his pulse quickening, and his heart pounding like a bass drum. But once he looked up from the podium, and saw the crowd, the drumming stopped.
He signed autographs and posed for pictures. As the voices began to drain, a young girl emerged, the only other brown face in the room. Her name was Indrani, and she was a reporter for the student paper.
“Professor Ganguly,” she asked, wasting no time, “I read that you were once a community activist. What made you become one?”
“My parents were Bangladeshi immigrants, and worked hard but earned little pay,” Subhash explained in a monotone, “Since then, I never liked seeing people being pushed around. So I decided to do something and joined non-profit work after undergrad.”
“Does the activist work you did relate to what you’re writing about currently?”
“Before academia, I was trying to increase the visibility of working-class people and that’s what I hope to be doing with my pen.”
“Do you feel that your work is relevant?”
Subhash paused. “How long have you been at the paper?” he asked.
“Since last week. But my goal is to be editor.”
“That’s a big challenge.”
“I want to change the direction of the newspaper to focus on people of color. To speak up like you do.”
Subhash smiled. He told the girl to let him know when the article would be published and excused himself. Once in his car, he finished eating his donuts. The next day, at the political science department, he downloaded lists of libraries. Liang helped organize, although she asked, “Should I notify the dean about these changes?”
“No,” he said. “Just sprinkle them in and it should be alright.”
Liang found him spots in neighborhoods like Edison and Trenton. But no matter the time or the weather, usually it was only in places similar to Princeton that there was even a sizable audience. A librarian at Trenton explained as they cleaned up, “The last thing people want to do after work is hear someone tell them that whiteness rules their lives. So don’t take it personal.” Subhash thanked him, and didn’t say another word, as the microphone was unplugged and chairs stacked.
One evening, while popping in a new hole on his belt, he saw an update on Facebook, with him tagged. It was the article posted on the campus website. He leaned into the screen. Friends commented on how wonderful his book was, but Subhash focused on his answers. He called Liang.
“Add one more to the list.”
. . .
The Jersey City library was in a quieter part of the neighborhood, and at first, the event was like the ones in Trenton and Edison, with more empty seats than people. Still, Subhash was prepared to accept the experience as a positive one, and go home to his pizza and soda.
“Hash?” a voice said.
Subhash had been gathering his things but he instantly turned around.
“HOLY SHIT!” the man said, causing the librarians to shush him. “Sorry, sorry,” the man apologized, and chuckled.
Subhash was frozen.
Eventually, he was able to move his lips. “Kanu…?” he murmured.
The man laughed. “Let’s go somewhere less stuffy,” the man responded, and they went to a nearby coffeehouse.
“Dude, even when I saw the flyers I thought it was another person. No way could he come back, I thought, no fucking way.”
Subhash, by then, was more cognizant of his surroundings, taking timely sips of his coffee.
“So, are you some sort of cult leader now?” Kanu smirked.
Subhash laughed, and explained, prompting Kanu to ask, “Does this mean you know about what’s happening?”
Subhash arched an eyebrow. Kanu instructed him to meet in the front. “Gotta run to the bathroom and take a shit first,” he said, before rushing off. Subhash waited on the sidewalk, and soon, Kanu rolled up in his car. Subhash got in, and Kanu drove them deeper into the city.
. . .
Subhash and Kanu were the first ones working full-time as community organizers for a group dedicated to uniting working-class people of color. At the time, Subhash was living with cousins a town over, but he spent every waking hour on the streets of Newark Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive, trying to spread the word. Long-time residents were especially receptive. But lack of funding was always an issue.
“I was the last let go, but it still stung,” Kanu explained, as he drove past the supermarkets and convenience stores along Journal Square, and into the residential areas, with apartments and rows of homes owned by black Americans and Desis, including Indo-Guyanese.
Subhash was mostly silent as Kanu narrated.
“Companies are buying up abandoned buildings that the city could’ve converted to affordable housing but nope, money is more important than human lives. These developers are now turning them into condos. Dude, we’re becoming Brooklyn.”
Subhash wasn’t yet certain what Kanu was referring to but once they headed downtown, Subhash noticed the Jamaican and Pakistani restaurants disappear and more Asian fusion cuisine and steakhouses on every block. They stopped at the waterfront, with a clear view of the Manhattan skyline shrouded in fog. But Kanu pointed to the buildings surrounding them, each extending into the sky like giant crystals.
“See that one there? Dyer Industries?” Kanu said. “That was started by a hedge-fund.”
Subhash watched the people nearby taking pictures of the skyscrapers across the bay. Most were faces he’d been accustomed to seeing in Jersey City. However, there were others too, such as white and Asian, who clutched their bags when maneuvering through the crowd.
Subhash realized Kanu had stopped talking. He glanced and after waiting, thanked Kanu for the tour.
“But I need to get back to work,” Subhash added.
Kanu still didn’t turn away from the buildings around the waterfront. “I started something a year ago,” Kanu said. “It’s a group trying to help residents gain their voices back. Since you seem interested in all that, I was wondering if you’d like to help?”
Kanu looked at Subhash.
“Us versus the bad guys. Like old times?” Kanu smiled.
Subhash tried to think clearly. The drumming drowned out the city.
. . .
Subhash immediately did research on Dyer Industries, and discovered that the company had donated vast sums to every conservative politician in New Jersey, even Democrats who leaned right. Their current CEO was Rajesh Modi, an investor from London.
On the first day of canvassing, Kanu gathered everyone on the corner and told them to knock on as many doors as possible.
“Make sure to get their emails,” he told the two dozen volunteers present, who were mostly black, brown, and white undergrads.
Subhash picked the avenue that was the quietest, with no outside their homes. Occasionally, a person would sneak a glance through the curtains in the window when he’d knock. As he went down the row, a few would open their doors, including an elderly Sikh man who mistook Subhash for a Jehovah’s Witness.
“I don’t need your salvation,” the man said.
Subhash quickly explained who he was, and showed him a pamphlet.
“We are trying to make the city care for all its residents.”
“Nothing will change.”
“Sir, I know I t looks that way. But unless people try – – -”
“Are you from here?”
“No. But – – -”
The man slammed the door.
At the end of the afternoon, Subhash got one email. The rest of the week was similar. He’d teach his classes, attend meetings, and canvass in the evening.
As they finished up most of the area on Broadman, where houses had loose-railings and broken steps, but the walls and grass were kept short and clean, Subhash met one woman he instantly recognized.
“Thank God!” the woman who Subhash knew as Miss Singh cheered and invited him inside for tea.
Subhash was getting used to encountering fragments of the past, but felt especially fortunate to see Miss Singh still in her home. They shared memories, especially of Miss Singh at City Hall, waving petitions.
She shook her head at the table between them, covered with copies of The Nation and Women, Race and Class.
“I’ve heard you’re doing big things now. Are you speaking at NJCU?” she asked.
“No. I’ve actually been working with Kanu,” he said.
Miss Singh narrowed her eyebrows, and Subhash chuckled and told her not to worry.
“We’re building a coalition, us against the bad guys,” he said. “We could use your help on training the volunteers.”
“I just turned 60…”
“So? I never pictured you the type to slow down.”
Miss Singh hesitated. Her hands were on her lap.
“The people need you,” Subhash said.
Miss Singh joked. “I can’t escape them, can I?”
After tea, she went out with Subhash, laughing with the neighbors. Everyone they met scribbled down their emails, and addresses. Subhash even received pats on the back, and Miss Singh explained how proud she was of him. Subhash skipped his meetings at the university, and continued knocking on doors.
. . .
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
Liang snapped her fingers, jolting Subhash from a daydream.
“What? What happened?”
“Your 2 o’clock with the Dean. That’s what.”
Subhash rolled his eyes, and picked up the plate of salad on his desk.
Liang, however, stood with her arms crossed.
“So, are you going to save the world now? Solve all their problems?”
“Won’t hurt to try.”
“You’re being unrealistic.”
“Maybe I am. But at least I’m being real…”
Liang stopped, and Subhash looked at her. “If I’m fired, I’ll make sure you land on your feet at another Ivory Tower.”
Liang glared. “I care about my family,” she said. “People who need me.”
She stormed out.
Subhash muttered, and tried to work. Yet, he packed up after a few minutes, and left campus, heading to Jersey City.
. . .
After a month of gathering signatures, Kanu wanted to speak with Subhash, one-on-one. They met at Kanu’s apartment, overlooking a row of abandoned homes. The elevator in the building was cordoned off with police tape so Subhash plodded up the stairs and when he got to the seventh floor, gasping, Kanu was beaming down.
There was one bed and one chair at Kanu’s place. There were also cables sticking out of the wall, and newspaper scattered on the floor. Kanu handed Subhash a bottle of sparkling water and discussed their strategy.
“A protest?” Subhash reacted.
“All we’re gonna do is go down to Dyer Industries, hold up some signs, and move along. This is just step one anyway.”
Kanu glared. He got up from the bed and walked over to the lone window in the room.
Subhash sighed, and stood up as well.
“I’m sorry,” Subhash said. “This is still fresh to me…”
“Either you’re all in or you’re not,” Kanu snapped. “Tell Miss Singh the plan. Understood?”
Subhash lowly nodded, and finished his water.
At the end of the week, Subhash attended a community teach-in organized by Miss Singh. It was her and a whiteboard in front of the volunteers, all gathered in the living room. Subhash watched as Miss Singh wrote down terms like “agency” and “power” with her red marker. A young man sitting on the carpet, interrupted the session at one point, exclaiming, “How do you know all this?” Everyone giggled, and Miss Singh explained that it was just a matter of “keeping oneself engaged.” Kanu smiled as he saw the expression on the young man’s face, something Kanu hadn’t seen in any of his classes.
Once everyone was trying the jerk chicken Miss Singh made, she approached Subhash, asking why he wasn’t eating. Kanu was texting Liang but stopped, and answered, “Just been looking after myself, that’s all.”
She didn’t reply, and kept peering into his eyes, as if searching.
Subhash chuckled nervously.
Miss Singh, without looking away, sighed, and smiled. She told him to pack something for later, and he murmured he would.
On the day of the protest, Subhash taught morning classes, answered phone calls, and skipped lunch. Since it was the weekend, the highway was empty, and Subhash turned up on the volume on his radio.
. . .
“Put this in the trunk,” Kanu said, handing Subhash a sign.
After doing so, Subhash sat in the passenger seat as Kanu was behind the wheel, neither uttering another word.
At first, Subhash watched the sights pass by, including the smokestacks in Secaucus. The stench of burned gasoline snuck inside and stung his eyes. The drumming was getting louder. At an intersection, however, as they waited for the light, Subhash arched an eyebrow at the traffic signs. He read them over once more before addressing Kanu.
“Why are we going the opposite way?”
Kanu gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles were red.
Subhash asked what was going on. Kanu drove into a McDonald parking lot, and pulled out a phone.
“It’s me,” Kanu said into the receiver, “I’d like to report a demonstration being planned outside your headquarters.”
Subhash eyes widened.
Back on the road and focused ahead, Kanu explained, “We all got debt to pay.”
“All that work…” Subhash murmured.
Kanu grinned. “Come on dude, don’t be like that. Let’s just grab some lunch, chill, and you can get back to your real friends. You got what you wanted anyway.”
Subhash pictured himself at the podium. The drumming began to fade.
Subhash popped open the door. He could hear Kanu yelling but maneuvered through traffic, and made it to the nearest gas station where he called for a taxi. He was dropped off at his own car, which he drove to the waterfront. He coasted by Dyer Industries, and spotted signs scattered on the sidewalk, and a security guard collecting them. At Miss Singh’s, Subhash peered into the main window. In the living room the tables and chairs were overturned. Subhash ran to the bushes and threw up.
Subhash didn’t tell anyone at work where he’d been. He slept at his desk, woke up, and taught. He went to faculty meetings, attended dissertation defenses, and had lunch with colleagues. Liang was still not speaking to him, and sometimes, it was difficult to focus on his research without thinking of his parents, who’d plod through the living room after work, their nametags dangling and their eyes sunken. But day by day, bit by bit, he’d be in his routine, spending hours in his office and returning home in the evening to eat and sleep.
. . .
He bit into a donut. It tasted like sandpaper. He scribbled comments on students’ essays, the red ink staining his fingers. The phone glowed. He rolled his eyes, and bumped past customers waiting in line.
At the library, people stood and blocked the entrance. Others opened their books to an empty page with a pen in their hand.
He entered, and they clapped. He did his best to smile as he took his place and opened his own copy, to the page he’d been reading to audiences for the past year.
He stared. The room fell silent.
He looked up.
“You’re the ones holding society back,” he said, causing the crowd to gasp.
The drumming returned. He grinned.
“And what did you expect? To be accepted into a struggle that you helped perpetuate? To shed a tear and go to bed? What – – -”
Security grabbed him, and wrestled him to the floor. They dragged him through the aisle.
“You’re doomed!” he laughed, “You’re all doomed!”
. . .
Starbucks and Chipotle. Craft brewery and a comedy club. Indrani took pictures of the new condos.
“Excuse me?” she asked a man working as a valet outside a restaurant, “Do you live in the neighborhood?”
The man hesitated. “Who wants to know?”
Indrani explained she was a reporter for The Middlesex Times, and writing a story on the recent changes in New Brunswick.
The man smirked. “I grew up here,” he answered. “So far, I’ve seen outsiders moving in and nicer places for them. For the rest of us, rent keeps going up.”
Indrani opened her mouth to ask more but her phone interrupted. It was her editor.
“Where are you?” he bellowed.
“I’m – – -”
“Get to your assignment!”
Indrani gritted her teeth. She apologized to the man and rushed to her car.
. . .
The local community college was surrounded by traffic. A group of professors were holding up a banner, reading STOP THE CUTS! Indrani saw them, and bit her lip. The light flipped. A car honked. She held up a middle finger, and took a wide left into the community college parking lot.
The professors explained to Indrani that they were protesting against cuts in state funding. She wrote down their every word, and they thanked her for showing up.
“We must’ve sent a dozen requests to the local papers but no one responded,” their spokeswoman said.
“Not surprised,” Indrani chuckled, “I’m actually supposed to be reporting on some new yoga studio that opened.”
Eventually, the professors returned to their classes, and Indrani could feel her fingers cramping up. She did notice one professor, who remained in the parking lot, hands in his pockets, and watching the cars.
Indrani kept her head buried in her notes. But she couldn’t help glance. The man was incredibly thin. She squinted. She stopped writing.
“Professor?” she said.
The man turned and after seeing her, laughed.
“I didn’t realize it was you,” he said. “I’m assuming you’re still an enterprising reporter?”
“Yes…I graduated a year ago…” she answered, in a daze.
“Good!” he exclaimed, and went back to watching the road.
Indrani didn’t move. She cleared her throat.
“I’m sorry for what happened….”
“Why? I’m still teaching. And the students are good here. The faculty also appreciates my activism.”
Indrani narrowed her eyebrows.
She waited for more, but he smiled at the traffic instead.
She got back in her car, and drove onto the road, her editor calling, and her heart beating against her chest.