Short Story: The Part-Time Indian by Namrata Shailendra Singh
She stares idly into the distance, an empty ceramic tumbler in front of her.
“The beach there is different…in my country.” She says lost in the reverie of the waves.
Did she say bitch to me? No, No, it’s the beach, the beach of Mexico. I remind myself of the Mexican Spanish accent. People’s vowels and consonants, my own diction is my Achilles heel even after years of mac and cheese. Why would she call her life-coach a bitch? Calming my heart, I try to concentrate. Usually, I am the focussed type, I can come to the point easily. A seasoned counselor, I can anticipate in the first five minutes the story which has got the weary heart to my doorsteps.
Listening is my profession, my bread and peanut butter and what they call in Japan- the Ikigai. Okay, close to Ikigai. Occasionally I get jolted, dismayed by a story, as and when a 15-year-old girl talked about being drugged at a party at a friend’s house and later found herself in the morning without clothes on her body. She was suffering from herpes apart from the guilt that she was responsible for being sexually assaulted. I was worried for my teenage daughter.
It is not new for counselors and coaches to find semblance in the stories their clients narrate, after all, are not all life stories similar, some way or the other? The horrors and heartaches do not differentiate between an Indian, a Caucasian, a Hispanic or an Alaska Native. Undoubtedly, it helps the coach understand better and offer better. Then, there is an ugly part, uncomely and frightening, when the distance between the counselee and the counselor blurs, the despair of the former sinks the latter. The latter covers it with cosmetics and smiles, wine and dollars. I stay clear of this latter.
As an empowerment coach, my job revolves around coaching teens step into confidence and worthiness so that they can lead an empowered life. It was a deliberate attempt to move from counselling to coaching. I was done fixing what is broken. So, I choose to work on strengths and empowering teenagers to shine despite the obstacles they face.
I am fairly successful, a bunch of published articles on ICF, half a dozen advanced degrees, the circle of distinction awards and flourishing private practice. I ask a few open-ended questions, reflect and hold space for the client’s greatness.
Valeria, this woman with me in the dimly lit cafe with the round paper lanterns is a friendly favour. The newly elected government of the United States is coming down heavily on illegal immigrants and refugees and this domestic helper of my friend in the catering business is facing the heat. She needed ‘ hope’ plus having stayed here for a long time, I have some contacts. Her words, though, make me feel out of control…for the first time…no the second, after my father’s suicide. She keeps bringing-my country, my country and I am not comfortable. I can see muddy water.
“Uh-huh,” I offer an interjection.
“The water there is friendly, more like family!”
“Cabo San Lucas,” I chirp remembering the summer trip with my family to a beachside resort.
“Yes! The resort city. I worked for a few years as a janitor in one of the cheap hotels there. They paid me 250 pesos at the start . It was a small amount, but we needed the money. You know how much is 250 pesos?”
My father was laid off when he was forty-five and his withdrawal symptoms led him to suicide. My mother raised her three children alone working in a government school as a primary teacher. Jamshedpur being a small town, we survived…though I would steal sketch pens and pencil boxes, the fancy ones when kids would go for assembly at school. Once I even stole fifty rupees which I found in the pencil box of a third-grade student. I was in eighth grade. The most precious 50 rupees of my life. I ate golgappas and chaat each day at school for the entire week. Stealing!Huh! First I did not know how to do it, later I did not know how not to do it. This continued till my own therapy years back with my college professor Dr. Vajrapati.
Stay out of muddy water, I remind myself.
I twitch in my chair while nodding my head.
“It is close to 15$ here in America. Later, they made it 500 pesos after I lost my husband and my older daughter while fleeing our native El Salvador. The muscular current of swirling Rio Grande at Matamoros swept them away. When the swollen bodies were found, Lissandriaa was clinging to her father’s neck. I slid through a bucket-sized hole under a border fence and squeezed into the United States. It was a difficult decision to leave my country but then there was only ‘safety’ on my mind. Escape was inevitable. The strongest crumble in the face of poverty, war, and political turbulence.
“Yes! I understand.” Her quiet voice and patient demeanour impress me as also her diction. Fifteen-years in the United States has taught her well. Plus she also worked as a janitor for some employers who hired undocumented workers. I think I am coming to the point now and know what to tell. Life Coaching helps people get from point A to point B in their life. Real-life, I must say, is harder than the fictional portrayals. I muse, remembering ‘Orange Is the New Black’ series I watched. Before I could pose my well-thought questions, she broke from her trance which trapped her for a few seconds.
“It hasn’t been easy settling here with a small child. I had few relatives in Fresno who helped me find a job in the farms. Then I moved to Santa Ana. Bit by bit I built this little something for myself, my girl is in college now and here we are back to where we started from. My cousin has been asked to litigate his asylum in immigration court after spending nearly a year in detention for refusing to get on a plane to be deported. Who am I now? A refugee? An asylum seeker? An undocumented worker? An illegal immigrant? I do not understand all this. Am I just draining public coffers? Does my child merely take up classroom slots, or does she stand a chance to grow up to obtain careers that enhance society and improve communities? Haven’t I paid my taxes? Don’t I dirty my hands at places where these Americans would not dare to look? Yes, the southern border is dangerous, and that is why we had to flee. It wasn’t easy for us either. We know there is no homecoming, and now when you start building one on this land, they are forcing you back. Where am I supposed to go? Is there any place I can call home? ”
The last few lines look more like a political speech than the agony of a distressed whoever- asylum seekers, illegal immigrant or a refugee? She also reads the newspaper, I can make out.
“Valeria, this confusion, the foreboding you are going through, is understandable. You are right in feeling the way you are feeling.” I try affirmation. Within, my mind drifts. I came on H1b Visa…the advantage of getting married to an IT professional, falling for his approved visa than his charms. Sometimes, you plan your freedom from becoming your mother. What’s more important is that I’m not a refugee. I am an immigrant. A LEGAL ONE. THANK GOD.
I feel out of control. Why? I gulp some saliva. This is taking a hell lot of time, more than a favour requires. I have some paperwork to finish for the Citizenship/Naturalization that my family is now applying for. We are Green Card holders. Thank God!
The sparkling autumn sun does little to enhance the dimness inside the cafe. I imagine the soft susurration of scarlet leaves and pacific dogwood and white alder waltzing in the breeze. Hiding my temptation to wrap up, I bend forward asking for the assistance she is seeking from me apart from words. That’s when it comes.
“ You look like an Indian, a beautiful Indian. I love your skin color.”
She straightens her cotton work pants, I finger comb my honey blond locks. She squeezes her hands, wrinkled and dry, more like skin over bones, edges of her fingers chapped. I see fervent pleas and prayers written on them. Her wedding ring hangs from a neck chain. She reaches for the empty tumbler, shaking gently, and sips, I am not sure what.
Jolting me, she blurts, “Do you miss home? Will you ever go back? Why will you? You must be an American citizen already. Lucky you! You have nothing to fear. ”
I am startled at her own question-answer session without me even saying a word. I am the Coach, isn’t it? But they can ask if they want to. I nod over my Indianness.
“We all have our fears. It is about accepting first and then facing…” I am reminded of an Indian T.V ad where this Bollywood actor gushes holding a Mountain Dew- ‘Darr ke aage jeet hai!’ (Loose translation: Ahead of fear, lies victory) I find it cheesy plus she does not know Hindi. I love Hindi, though back in my country there is greater allegiance to the English Language than Hindi. Who cares about Maithili, my mother tongue.
“I have heard your country is safe and the Prime Minister is very responsible. He even does yoga.”
We don’t need to talk about Mr.Narendra Modi here. It’s been eighteen years since I left India. Though, I watch NDTV more than CNN. Weekends are consumed by Kapil Sharma and Indian Idol. I ensure pre-booked tickets for Bollywood releases, religiously follow the 15th August parade on television and my daughter has attended Bal-vihar classes at Chinmaya since the age of three. Why? I mean, why why?
“Yes, it is. But every country has challenges. Coming back to you…”
“Is it bad? “ she interrupts. This cafe talk is for you Valeria. I am the one who is supposed to ask you questions. You cannot ask me questions about my life. We all have issues resolved, unresolved but I am in control. Gosh, this ‘My country’ thingie! It’s all so big with immigrants. Why the hell leave your motherland if you wish to remain close to her even after losing her citizenship, which in my case would be a few weeks or a month or so. We need to belong somewhere, completely and not lead half-lives, half identities, half existence. And the USA is so much better for a good life.Why does your own soil matter so much? I mean, look at technology, we do video calls every day with our parents, our ailing parents, lonely ones, who look forward to every summer vacation when they will see their grandchildren, who are too feeble and frail to fly and come over where they do not have a social circle and all that they are reduced to is being a caretaker of younger ones while their own offspring chases the big American dream. The big American dream, I wonder at the statement. One day they die and you reach late. It’s been four years since you last saw them in person. They were old, they were in pain, you rationalize.
“Not really.” Just brutal rape and violence against women, some dowry death, and discrimination based on everything possible -religion, caste, color, creed, gender, age, marital status, educational status, disability and many more.
“Why did you move?”
“ Umm, my husband had a great job opportunity and I moved with him.”
“Legal immigrant. I knew. Are you going back?
“Going back to where?”
“To your own country?”
“Valeria, let’s figure out how best to support your case and help you.” I try not to digress.
“Do you visit frequently?”
“Yeah, I do, every two years, sometimes three…four, ever since my daughter started high school.
“You like it here?”
“Yessss.” It takes longer than a ‘yes’ should. Muddy waters.
She smiles, I smile back. She fakes, I try to be real.
“Do you miss your country? Isn’t it always special, the place where you are born? There is something different about that soil. Have you felt?
“Valeria, I know you are suffering. I understand your pain and hence, the next thing I want you to do is….”
“But you can go back, you have a choice. I wonder if my life is safe back in my country. I dread dying without the reassuring feeling that I belonged somewhere and a piece of this earth belonged to me.” She interrupts again much to my chagrin. This rising indignation makes me want to stand and stomp away.
You can’t be answering for me. This is about you. No, I don’t have a choice either. I cannot go back. I don’t want to. Maybe I want to. I don’t know. I have been asking this question for the past eighteen years and each time I let it dissolve in Chardonnay Sauvignon and pee it away two hours later. Then it comes back again at some other time, another place. What is this homeland love? I am yet to figure out. I mean, look at the roads of the US, neat and tidy. People are cultured, life is easy and there are beautiful recreational parks. Not to forget the breeze in long grasses, blooms and beaches, there is so much to do. The water comes from the tap, the showers run warm water even if it is -20 C outside. My mother caught pneumonia from washing hands in cold water and passed away last year. I had not seen her for four years. Not everybody has access to warm water, central heating and dishwashers in India. Maids are such a nuisance.
Look at the traffic, the noise, the pollution, the litter, the poverty and the immigrants from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Like sardines in a can, unwashed masses, bodies crammed against each other, the population makes you claustrophobic. You tilt your head to the sky and find it not blue. The bureaucracy kills you as much as the social norms laid out for existence. In the name of the collective, an individual is sacrificed. I hear it from my brother and sister each day, I can feel their envy rise when I mention the Pacific Ocean cruise trip. Back during school days, while mapping the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean on the map in Geography class, who would have imagined that one day its magical waves would be part of my regular life! For many, these lessons start and end in geography classes never to become a reality. The economics of Lajpat Nagar leaves one depleted. Life there is a relentless race to survive for middle-class people like us. You can murder somebody for a few rupees. Human life is a trifling, dignity of labour is non-existent and all one cares about is degrees, marks, scores, naukri, chaakri and chokri.
The amygdala switches to gun violence in the US, school shootings, drugs and broken families, loneliness, materialism which seems to gobble and discrimination and alienation of a kind that even after eighteen years for the most of us, our primary social circle still comprises of Indians. Isn’t it true? Why do you think Valeria that I have a choice? Then what is it that’s making my husband prolong the process of naturalization? He feels restless and so do I. Why do I seek a thousand faces just like mine? I am so done being a Part-Time Indian. Phew!
Isn’t it true that my country and its crowd has a life of its own? The vibrant clothes shine in the morning light and the people move like enchanting shoals of fish. For every clutter there is chatter, the hustle and bustle brings life to the country I wouldn’t want to be without. The forlorn faces and broken eyes that many of us walk around with have hearts of pure light within them just waiting for the right circumstances to break loose.
However, don’t people migrate for better lives? Why does it all look so wrong then? And hasn’t India changed? Its landscape, people, the air and the Ganga? There is hardly anything of ‘what it once was’ but the heart is entangled in the game of kabaddi you played with friends at school. This farcical romance with one’s motherland is mystifying and despite all this, your homeland continues to be your holy grail, your sanctuary; so what if the country has moved on in your absence. Your family awaits there and here we have friends forced to behave like families. My biggest fear is to die without establishing who was I- An American or an Indian. Though my WILL says I desire my body to be buried in my homeland, the noisy and the dirty… Who am I then? A refugee? An immigrant? Looks more like an asylum seeker. Haha! I feel something rise in me, cold sweat rushes down my temples. I need a drink, chardonnay sauvignon. Exhaling the turbulence within, I try to take control of the situation.
“Valeria, I hear you. I will talk to the City Council chairperson and see what can be done. We will push your request letter. Things should move fast( I miss the ah vowel in fast. It sounds like the Indian ‘fast’ aa vowel.) Let’s wait and watch. Call me. I hope you feel better soon. It is not easy but it is what it is- the reality, however uncomfortable.” I twist myself out of my suffocating thoughts.
“Sure Ms. Naina. I will. Such is life. “ She stands and slowly starts to walk, a resigned look on her face.
I thank her and head off to a bar looking for red wine.
With EXISTENTIALISM on one hand and MINIMALISM on the other, her vagrant mind weaves stories every moment. Coupled with this, Namrata has an insanely bad habit of binge reading and collecting books. Kindle is nonexistent for her unless her need to read overpowers her need to hold pages in her hand. An ardent lover of plants and sunsets, she also specializes in reading people’s minds without their permission. All this she makes possible by a regular dose of lemon grass and Basil tea.