“America is nothing like my friends think,” Kumar said from the table beside me.
We sat with our respective tacos in front of us at a restaurant called Tortas Frontera in Chicago International Airport. The server had spotted me hovering uncertainly around the seating area and waved me over to take a seat next to the Indian man.
“Are these tacos spicy?” the Indian asked the waiter as I approached. His belly bulged against the side of the table. His skin was charcoal gray—darker than your usual Indian brown. He stared up at the server with a wide, white-eyed intensity, which was made even more so intense by the contrast of his skin and his eyes.
“We have three different types of spicy salsa to choose from, all very hot,” the waiter said.
“I like spicy food,” the Indian reiterated.
I perused the menu, but listened closely. Often during times like this, when I witness two cultures different than my own interact, I hypothesize to myself what might have happened if the history of the world had turned out differently. If history had been scrambled—Russia colonizes India, rather than the British; India settles the New World and makes peace with the Native Americans, rather than conquering them, like the U.S.
Once, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I met a Nepalese woman who worked at a prayer-shop named Namaste. She was a Hindu, who said that her beliefs aligned more closely with the animism of Native American myth than the monotheism of Christianity.
Observing the exchange now between the Mexican waiter and the Indian now, I day dreamed: what would have happened if, once upon a time, the peoples of India and Mexico had met and mutually bonded over their love of spicy food and family?
“You are going to India?” the Indian said, pointing his finger at my passport. My ticket to New Delhi jutted out from its pages. “I’m Kumar,” he said, extending his hand.
Kumar hailed from Hyderabad. He had migrated to the United States ten years earlier after his family had summoned him to live with them in North Carolina. He said he was lucky he already had family already here; otherwise he would not have been able to come. It reminded me briefly in a scene of a story by the novelist and short story writer, Bharti Mukerjee, in which a felon escapes and hides in a hotel along the highway. Fleeing potential capture, he barges into a room to find an entire Indian family squatting in front of dinner, which has been arranged on newspapers on the floor.
Kumar said his first ever job in America was with La Quizno’s subs.
“I didn’t like it much,” he admitted.
The rest of his family worked in the medical profession. They of course pressured him to become a doctor. But Kumar had a heart for business—the subject he’d studied back in India. A friend offered him a job at a gas station. When another gas station position opened in Huntsville, Alabama, he seized the opportunity, and after a subsequent eight years of hard work and determination, he became the station’s manager.
“I stand at the register all the time,” he said. “But whenever I get the chance, I travel back to India.”
“And where are you traveling to?”
Hyderabad is the sixth largest city in India, located in South India’s largest state, Andhra Pradesh. Hyderabad was once-upon-a-time India’s most prized and opulent city. Home to the Nizams, a dynasty of princely rulers, the city became a vibrant trading hub from the sale of horses, pearls, and diamonds. Under the enlightened administration of the Nizams, the architecture, food, customs, and language of the city acquired Hindu, Arab, Persian, and Turkish influences. Although today home to the high-tech estate, “Cyderabad,” the city seemed a far cry from the forests of Alabama.
“What are you doing there?”
“Visiting friends,” he said. Then, after pressing him further: “Getting married,” he admitted.
“It will not be a big wedding,” he assured, lifting the palm of his hand at me to indicate a pause, as if a large marriage was something to be ashamed of. “That was my engagement party. My fiancé comes from a less wealthy background, you see—her family is very simple. We will marry in a temple. Only family and friends will come.”
I asked him who arranged the marriage and how long he had been engaged. When I asked about the arranged marriage I hesitated slightly. Our politically correct American culture teaches us to avoid generalizations—one stereotype, of course, being that all Indians get arranged marriages. In these matters, I never know quite where to stick my foot.
“My father arranged everything,” Kumar said. “We have been engaged for five months.” His eyes assumed a distant, glazed-over expression. His shoulder rose slightly. He smiled at some invisible object behind me—like a love-stricken girl might after telling her seheli (girlfriend) about her cute guy crush, resting her chin in her palm, and releasing a sigh.
“So you guys are getting along well?”
“Our five months have passed very happily.”
I wondered how much time they had actually spent together during those five months—how much of their communication had been through email, facebook, or skype. Based on my own experience, I couldn’t help but speculate on how much of this happiness had been the result of not meaningful exchange, but rather restless anticipation—the sort of anticipation a high school boy gets after asking a girl to the movies.
“Is your fiancé nervous about going to America?”
“One out of every five people in India has some family who live in America,” he said. “They hear how it is from them. She is not nervous.” He paused, thinking. “All Indians have the dream of going to America. There are two sorts of Indians who go to America.” He lifted two fingers. “The poor and the rich.” He wiped the dripping salsa off of his chin with his napkin. Still chewing—green shards of lettuce and black beans flashing occasionally through his teeth—he went on, “When the poor get here, they think everything is going to be easy-street. Compared with India. But then it is very hard. You do not immediately become rich. You have to work all the time. It can be very lonely.”
I imagined him standing at the register of his gas station late at night with the gnats circling, outside, beneath the flickering store lights and a single car out in the parking lot. He opens the store at five in the morning and closes late at night. At two or three a.m., he finally relinquishes his post. With a mountain dew in hand, the doorbell dings, the rusted car door slams, and the repetitive cry of cicadas is interrupted only by the splat of bugs against the window shield as he drives back to his apartment.
Plenty of Indian fiction focuses on the loneliness of the Indian immigrant in America. These authors came to mind as I wondered how lonely Kumar’s life must be, living half the world away from his home and in Alabama, away from his parents. There was little wonder he was so excited to go to India and pick up an Indian wife to take back with him.
In The Namesake, a novel by Jumpa Lahiri later adapted into a movie, a husband travels to Benares to meet the family of his newly arranged wife. The Indian wife returns to America with her husband, and adjusts to life in Manhattan. While her husband is off at work, she wanders like a ghost between the empty rooms of her apartment, crying at the memory of the family, friends, and the bright colors, sights, and smells of the Indian streets. Unable to stand the silence of her apartment, she one morning decides to brave the Laundromat instead of washing the clothes in a bucket by hand. She sets off into the brisk winter morning air. In the laundramat, lights flicker on and off—the color tones of the movie scene grays, whites, blacks, and blues—as she sits in front of the washing machine in her vibrant red and gold sari. Adolescents in backwards NY baseball caps fight and customers stare at her.
Or, at least, that’s how I remember it. It was this impression, fabricated by fiction, that now settled over my imagination of the life of the real man sitting in front of me now.
“And the rich?”
“The rich come here,” he said, “And party for two or three months. Then they go back home and stay in India. Why would they leave?” The tone of his voice spiked. “When they come to America, they have to do everything for themselves. At home, they have servants, cooks, people to drive them places…If one has enough money, one can enjoy the same standard of living in India as one enjoys here in America.”
Only a few crumbles of taco shell remained on his plate. He had drained half of the fruity tequila drink he had ordered with his breakfast. Hyderabad is one of the few cities left in India where Urdu is still spoken, so I thought I would endear myself to him by speaking in Urdu. I felt ashamed that I’d been hiding behind my American English for so long.
“I am from the other side of town,” he said, upon hearing me shift language. “Not Muslim,” he clarified. To placate him, I then switched to Hindi. “No Hindi,” he said, shaking his head. “My Hindi is not so good, after ten years.” Along with Hindi, he said other skills had deteriorated as well—like his driving. Kumar had been brought up to drive in messy, congested, undisciplined Indian traffic. “Now, when I am back at home, I have my friends take me places. Otherwise I am too scared to even walk outside!”
We talked of other things. Politics. The health care bill, in America. The food subsidy bill, in India. How much he didn’t like Republicans. How much he hated the corruption in the Indian government. The waiter had already refilled our water glasses twice. Black check books told us to leave.
“The salsa was spicy, sir?” the Mexican waiter asked.
“Yes,” Kumar said.
Kumar said if I should ever visit Hyderabad, I should contact him. He gave me his information. He asked for my seat number, disappointed to discover that we’d be sitting nine rows away.
“You know,” he said, as we grabbed the carry on bags crammed beneath our tables, “If it was up to me, I would move back to India. India is my home. But it is like that for everyone, no? No place is quite as good as where they are brought up. But my family is here,” he said, referring to North Carolina. “So what can I do?”
He bought me a Coke. We sat next to one another at our gate, waiting for our flight. We didn’t say much after that. We retreated instead behind the screens of our cell phones.
At the beginning of our conversation, I had day dreamed about scrambled histories. But I suppose it isn’t too much of a fantasy: we are all scrambled up nowadays. Indians travel to America, and Americans travel to India. Mexican waiters take orders in American airports. When Britain colonized India, history determined that India and Britain should make a cultural pair. Indians now call their cookies biscuits, and the British national dish is chicken tikka masala. But now, perhaps, a different marriage was being arranged by the invisible match-maker on high between India and America. Who was this matchmaker? Capital flight, supply and demand, emerging markets, geopolitics, media, individual aspirations, mutual cultural fascination, etc.
On this day, it should happen that a Mexican waiter and an Indian gas station manager would not talk to one another about spicy food or their common love of family. Rather, a conversation would happen between an Indian gas station manager and a twenty-three year old American flying to India to live in Jaipur and New Delhi for a year. Sitting there beside the Indian man in the airline terminal, the question hovered around the young traveler’s mind: if I should have to choose between ambition, which might whisk me away to some far off distant land, or proximity to my family, which one would I choose? And if I chose one over the other, would that make me American?