I have been a long time in a strange country.
The natives have been kind, in their weird climate,
Receiving me among them as one of themselves.
Already I defend hotly
Certain of our indefensible faults,
Resent being reminded; already in my mind
Our language becomes freighted with a richness
No common tongue could offer, while the mountains
Are like nowhere on earth, and the wide rivers.
W.S. Merwin: “After Some Years”
“Your ride is three minutes away,” chimes your phone: “be ready at your location with a mask!” Danielle, the Uber driver, is talkative. She drives past the Russian restaurant and then past the Ukrainian restaurant. Past the Japanese-American church. Past the hollered offers of psychic readings and the flowers advertised for weddings and funerals. Past Buffalo Exchange and the curated Goodwill. A few hours in, when you say you need to use the bathroom, she stops her lumpy Toyota Corolla outside a chess forum. You sidle through the crowd inside to the little bathroom at the back corner. Once you’re done and on the road again, Danielle tells you about her daughter, a graduate student studying math at UT Austin. You nod distractedly.
Danielle’s pince-nez glasses glance at you in the rearview as she asks, “How much further do you want to go?” You nod again. Moving your attention would be like moving heavyweight furniture across shrieking hardwood, because right now you are thinking of the jangle and bustle of Dilli Haat. It was the little wooden pawns at the chess forum, their careful craftwork, that reminded you…
So, here you are. Too foreign for home, too foreign for here. April is the cruelest month, and this year it pooled in New York. From our matchbox room on Bergen Street, we looked for evidence of Basquiat, rummaging around Boerum Hill like raindrops wriggling down trees. The subway fare hurt a bit. But that’s fine — we knew our way downtown and walking was deluxe. The streets looked really good to us. They looked like art. At Second Avenue, the salty sidewalks crumbled under your pinched chest and drooling eyes — this city is so different from that suburban edge of this continent you now call home. Here there are building tops; back there are odd low-hanging clouds and the plasticky greenery of nightmares bright.
I am Danielle. The person in my car today bothers me. He has asked me to drive away from somewhere instead of towards somewhere. I keep checking with him to ask when we’ve driven far enough away, but no distance is good enough for him so we have kept driving and driving and driving and driving. Now we are back besides Southern California’s great platefuls of water. He talks to himself. “I don’t hate it,” he says, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; “I don’t. I don’t! I don’t hate it! I don’t hate it!”
You have nightmares in the back of Danielle’s Uber. The faces of little children — their skin thick and brittle, the glitter of sunlight winking in their irises; they reached towards you without moving. You turn and run. You open your eyes and your thighs are pressed against the firm Delta aeroplane seat, your feet dangling. You get up to stumble to the bathroom, but the door opens into Arrillaga gym, painted exciting by colorful strobe lights. You negotiate with the rowing machine while your grandparents watch from the cross trainers, moving in slow-mo. You open your eyes and you are in a wrestling ring at the fight club in the forest in Santa Cruz. You close your eyes and you’re in a crowd, “that huge crowd of a country, that vast, metamorphic, continent-sized culture that feels, to Indians and visitors alike, like a non-stop assault on the senses, the emotions, the imagination and the spirit.”
(In his introduction to “Mirrorwork,” an anthology of Indian authors writing in English, Salman Rushdie green-lights the language in which you’ve started to think and be — Oriya and Hindi now dribble out of your mouth during WhatsApp calls home. The criticisms, he dismisses, “do not deal with language, voice, psychological or social insight, imagination or talent. Rather, they are about class, power and belief.” When you read Siddhartha Deb’s “The Beautiful and the Damned,” you’re like, isn’t class, power and belief the whole point? “This is also,” Rushdie reassures you,” a young literature. It is still pushing out the frontiers of the possible.”)
So, this is how you will get to know this country: Ubers and trains, the Megabus to Philadelphia, 10-hour layovers in Los Angeles. Memorize the way the bookstore on Bleecker Street is arranged. Today you will take the Caltrain and BART to Berkeley. You’ll walk past the scowling suburban homes on your way to Durant street and pick up the donations at their doorsteps — lilac tins of Harney & Sons so good that you’ll stop procrastinating calling the Social Security Number office. On the Caltrain, your wrists are comfortably folded into the ceiling-mounted straps for keeping balance on the train. You sway every time the train screeches to a brake and grip the strap tighter. That’s how you get to know this country.
I stop the car because I need to use the washroom. We visit a bar where everyone whips their limbs around to the gag of music. Later, it begins to rain, so I roll up the windows in my car. The man behind me is asleep.
It begins to pour — just like it was the first week you moved to California. (It turns out everywhere you go, you take yourself.) Things had better work here, you thought, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky is where we run out of continent. In New Delhi, it rained when summer was sputtering out. The windshield wipers tried to show you Shantipath as you drove down Chanakyapuri’s wide roads, to Nyaya Marg, where you ran up the stairs to a room with a piano.
You reread “White Noise” by Don Delillo. Shopping malls, meanwhile, are the same everywhere — Valley Fair or Vasant Kunj. “People swarm through the boutiques and gourmet shops. We smell chocolate, popcorn, cologne; we smell rugs and furs, hanging salamis and deathly vinyl. We cross from furniture to men’s wear, walking through cosmetics.” Some things are exactly the same everywhere. “Our images appear on mirrored columns, in glassware and chrome, on TV monitors in security rooms. Voices rise ten stories from the gardens and promenades, a roar that echoes and swirls through the vast gallery, mixing with noises from the tiers, with shuffling feet and chiming bells, the hum of escalators, the sound of people eating, the human buzz of some vivid and happy transaction.”
The second time you flew into California, it was summer — so hot that August came on not like a month but like an affliction. Still, nothing like the gruesome salty summers of New Delhi. There, the highway is hard and steaming. I wonder how the polite Palo Alto traffic would like to make its way towards Gurgaon. The thunder flutters and sweats. Grass peels out of the oddest cracks in the ground, out of our heads even, glistening from the soft warm rain which drizzles down. Your memories are starting to feel like post-tourist season.
You have dreams of the veterinary clinic in Delhi Cantt. Its horses. How their hay smelt when it rained. How everyone lifts their feet to escape from the place on which they stand. Your grandparent’s feet. The rain dangles and so do my mother’s jhumkas. You think of the jackals near your home; you want to kiss the foam on their snouts. You want to memorize their wheezing giggles, how they sound like damp, stepped-on firecrackers left out on the pavement in the dewy morning after Diwali.
We cry at a diner on Spruce Street, then chat about how we prefer dhabas. The Christmas decorations at Williston Avenue were terrifying. This is really America. We are really here. You manage to steal two rolls of toilet paper from the bathroom when we’re leaving. The third time you fly into California, you feel a sublime look-forwardness, the seismic plates of your psyche shifting and shuffling — California is also home now. You grin stupidly out the Uber window in the ride from San Francisco International Airport to campus.
So this is how you will get to know this country. Movie theaters. Knots of people scuttle into the hall holding hands. The movie screening today is “Eternals.” The characters in it miss their home. They do the math on how many lives to save. The film is concerned with “the aesthetics of destruction, with the peculiar beauties to be found in wreaking havoc, making a mess,” all with the “sensuous elaboration” of a nightmare. “There is a sense in which all these movies are in complicity with the abhorrent,” Sontag tells you. You shift uncomfortably in your seat and think of New Delhi, how you’ve been swiping away The Times of India notification banners on your phone. “How far away does something have to be before you have the right to not really know about it?”
You are jolted awake. Peter, today’s Uber driver, apologizes about the abrupt brake. He has been talking about Chicago (his home) and his ridiculously rich sister and her lake house in upper Sacramento. You nod distractedly. You are thinking of New Delhi. You wake up to a dream of Delhi University, the red brick walls, the Madhumalti flowers. The girl who snuck you out to protests. The girl who told you your eyes made more sense with kajal on than with eyeliner. The stray dogs and the lazy wag of their tails when they spot you from afar. You wake up and you are kneading gluten-free dough in Fremont. You blink and you, seated in your mom’s Maruti Suzuki, are levitating down Marine Drive, tongue still heavy from the freezing squish of kulfi, brain teased asleep by Lata Mangeshkar lilting from the radio, brain yellow from the speeding orbs of streetlights, nose filled with the smell of the Arabian Sea. Only the huddle inside of a blanket is the exact same as home.