On Trust and Anxiety

I’m not sure what it is exactly, but between my fb newsfeed, CNN coverage of Trump’s tweets, and the general mayhem of the day (I’ll trade you pee soaked reporters in Charlottesville and raise you N. Korean missiles possibly reaching Guam) – being in America is giving me a never ending anxiety attack. I caution not to say PTSD, because I don’t want to be clinically inaccurate or to exaggerate the low-grade, persistence of the bullsh*t onslaught I’m experiencing at the moment. But, seriously, what the absolute fck is going on and why is mass hysteria the norm?

I am an expat who came home because I wanted to see things for myself. I also came home because I was getting too deeply invested in the problems of a place that I wasn’t really attached to. I wanted to be in solidarity, in mind and body, with the struggles closest to my heart and closest to my identity. Empathy and philanthropy can only take you so far, eventually you have to identify. And I knew that what hurt my heart most were police brutality against the Black community, the infringement on the civil rights of people who look and live like me, and the repeated silencing of their efforts at redress.

I recall sitting in Jo’burg with a Zimbabwean acquaintance a few months back as he taught me about how much Black people all over the world see African-Americans as an ideal example for civic engagement. He proceeded to tell me with admiration in his eyes that eventually us African-Americans would kick ass in America against those racists. (We) African-Americans were making noise with Black Lives Matter. (We) had done it with the civil rights movement and inspired liberation movements throughout Africa. (We) African-Americans were disrupting the ideal American dream narrative everyday. Those cracks & fissures would lead to social rupture, legal breakdown, and political break throughs. He was as hopeful as a negro spiritual sung over an organ in a Baptist church on MLK, Jr. day.

I dashed those hopes. I proceeded to tell him he was wrong. We had reached a dead end. We had run out of convincing ideas. And better yet, whatever ideas we presented were batted down in word and deed. Everything we tried was proving ineffective. We could march. We could televise our revolution. We could name & shame (police killings of unarmed Black people). We could find a White ally to speak for us. I mean, we could do everything that once worked and this time it could very well not work. And I said, that’s what we’re experiencing here, because this shit ain’t working.

I could ask why. But I won’t. I’ll just hypothesize that it’s simply that we are only being heard by people who already care. The others, the Bull Connors of the world, have made a choice to ignore our presence and to undermine our existence.  Oh and they are crawling out from their thinly veiled hovels to let us know which side of the political spectrum, racial divide, and socio-economic gap they stand on.

So, this low grade anxiety I’m suffering from is simply the persistent reality that I am  experiencing a “trust no-one” frost on everything I touch. I can’t trust the police to keep me safe. Or trust that my husband will come home from a run in the neighborhood. Can’t trust that a young woman going to pray in a local mosque will come home safely. I can’t trust that compelling images of now unhooded racists will de-stabilize the American public. And, what’s worse is that I frankly don’t trust that anything will change.

The only thing I can trust, at this moment, is that I am not crazy.

This crude state of affairs is very real.

Too Close for Kenya

Flor da Kangra, Dharmsala, India 2013The terror attacks in Kenya have weighed heavy on my heart. So much so that it’s taken til  now and with great deliberation to even discuss my disdain for the entire affair. My peripheral intersection with the events in Nairobi’s Westgate Mall have left me grieving — perhaps for a sense of youthful immortality that has, apparently, died a quiet death.

Like 9/11, Nairobi’s attacks affected me around the edges in a way that some might say have shaped me. When those four planes headed West ward they departed from both a town I’m from and a town I was residing in at the time. Only years later when I moved to New York for almost 7 years would I associate those events with those towers. My fears, at the time, weren’t for people in the WTC, but for people possibly on those planes. Had my aunt Trudy traveled for work that week? Wasn’t a friend’s parent traveling from Logan? Such were my thoughts then and thankfully my people weren’t on those planes. I wasn’t touched – some might say – because they weren’t touched. Yet, sealed in that close call somewhere was the feeling that if it could happen so close to home and spare me and mine, perhaps this would always be the case.

Kenya undid all of that. For the reality is that as the events unfolded, I quickly thought “Of course, I don’t know anyone in Nairobi.” The same way I’d thought, “I don’t know anyone in Libya,” “in Syria,” “in Afghanistan”… But I did know someone in Kenya. I knew someone in Nairobi. I knew someone in Westgate Mall. In fact, I knew two someones – one who lived and one who died.

The irony that these two people would be my two people, in the same place at the same terrible time, is haunting. They’ve been part of an interwoven story in my life that’s left me speechless and afflicted with writer’s block since the realization dawned on me.

She hosted me at Barnard on prospective weekend. In deciding if I’d chose Barnard over Hopkins, over UNC, over… I’d slept on her floor and tried to live her life and be one of her friends. In deciding to choose the college, I chose her shadow – taking courses she had taken, being similarly disappointed with the administration’s ‘color blind’ shenanigans, sharing a suite with her my junior year. The cake may have been that, but the icing and the irony is that she went to Ghana in 2004. On an otherwise unprecedented trip led by British novelist Caryl Phillips, she and a cohort of Barnard women made the reverse transatlantic journey. From what I hear it was chocked full of white girl guilt trips and Black girl breakdowns. Soon after, she graduated and headed for Harvard Law, as she’d always planned. And I headed into my final year.

I, too, joined Caryl’s course and I also went to Ghana. In 2005. Similar tales resulted, except that my cohort upped the ante with multiracial girl ambivalence. I, too, met with Ghanaian students, had an amazing Ghanaian tour guide, and spoke with Ghanaian intellectuals – one of whom was Kofi Awoonor.

He met our group throughout the ten day trip. He introduced us to the students of University of Ghana’s Cape Coast campus. He dined with us and entertained us with diplomatic war stories at an Ivorian restaurant in Accra. And he even took us out to a resto-bar overlooking the Atlantic. Or maybe I’m mixing up my boys born on Friday and he only went to the dinner with us.  Or maybe there are other punctuations I should remember, but don’t now. Nevertheless, he was a figure and remains a phantom – tireless and effervescent – in my Ghanaian memories and my West African dreams.

Just shy of 7 years have passed since that trip. And in those 7 years of separation, I’m sure he’d long since forgotten us – she from ’04, me from ’05.

Some twist of fate made these two individuals, my people, show up in Westgate Mall that day.  One could say it was no coincidence. Neither are Kenyan. Months earlier, maybe even weeks earlier, neither was even in the country – much less in the mall!  I bet they didn’t even know that the other was there. I suspect that even if they’d passed one another, they wouldn’t even have recognized each other by name or face. But there they were, fighting for their lives.

Unfortunately, he lost.

There are requiems that must be written for the loss of such lives like his. But you could google such memorials and they’d be more intimate than anything I could produce.  Yet her shattered serenity I know more dearly and could argue that it too deserves commemoration of its own. I could pity these two people and praise their bravery or simply honor their greatness – tragedy not withstanding.

What these events have raised in me is the nagging knock of mortality at my own door, followed by – not the fear that life is too short – but the fear that the world is frighteningly small.

I know people in Libya. I know people in Nigeria. In Afghanistan. In Iraq. And in Washington, DC. Safety has become its own mirage, now more than ever. It’s trigger finger, though, remains brilliantly, divinely, randomized.

Perhaps if it weren’t these two people, these uniquely separate individuals, whose lives intersected almost a decade ago for just ten days…

If they could find themselves deeply entangled in danger in a foreign country, far from, distant from, their own…

Were it not them, were it not now, maybe I’d still feel spared the disruption of the world’s violent explosions so closely to home…

Ifs and buts get us nowhere…

So it was them. So it is now. So far, but so close.

I wish we were close enough to hug, but weren’t not. We’re just close enough for tragedy, but not enough for comfort. I’d like to hug her to let her know that I love her and that I’ve always appreciated her shadow. I haven’t the words to express both condolences and respectful distance. I haven’t the vocabulary to say that I’m happy she walked away, bruised but breathing. That these events aren’t hers alone to suffer. For, we are all utterly too close, too shamefully close to a Kenyan mall near you.

And I am so sorry, so deeply sorry, for her loss and for the loss of Kofi.

…We’ll always have Ghana.

Girl Trippin

sisterhood-1

“Get outta town” was a household expression that I’ve grown to know and love.  It was my mother’s child friendly way of saying “Get the [insert four letter expletive] out of here with that [insert eight letter expletive].” That expression that expressed so much in disbelief, in torment of reality, in sheer shock, has been one I have heard myself say so many times here in India – not just in the way that my mother once used it, but also in its literal meaning.  Ditching Delhi and seeking new sights has become as powerful in my adult life as any expletive ever was in my childhood.

My childhood was encased in a YaYa Sisterhood-like circle of my mother’s friends.  My aunts by blood and/or by bond were everywhere, all the time.  They were at awards ceremonies.  They were at my house.  They were at my grandmother’s house.  They were at their houses with my brother and me (their kids, nieces and nephews too).  They were at the supermarket.  They were at birthdays and holidays and funerals and hospital rooms.  And while it never seemed that these 40-something mothers and sisters and businesswomen, my aunts, actually ever got outta town (literally), I remember them saying it quite a bit to each other.

“Ohhh girl, get outta town” was usually followed by throat gurgling laughter.  There was always a kitchen or dining room table that they were gathered around like the Knights of King Arthur’s court.  There was always food on the table and, more recently as my cousins and I have grown older, there has been more and more liquor on it too.

Just last week I went to a performance of a Durga Puja.  In this dance rendition, Durga, the goddess of destruction, grows her 10 hands by combining the bodies of five women in to one.  I’m not so much into the fiction of her having slain evil Mahishasura with her combined woman powers.  The story doesn’t make much logical sense in my cursory understanding.  But, I was fascinated by the idea of female partnership, by our power to be stronger together than apart.  It’s the fraternity of females that shows in the pantheon, but not in the reality.

What I noticed most when I arrived in Delhi was the lack of female-to-female relationships.  There’s never just a bunch of young women hanging out at a restaurant or bar or a coffee shop or a bookstore together, just them, no male escort in tow.  It has remained difficult for me to understand the need for women to be surrounded by men and to call that protection.  I missed the lack of girl talk, the silliness and the goofiness that gals are permitted when not around men they hope to impress or have to appear proper in front of.  I recognized that the circle of women that I had known and loved as a child was an anomaly in this space, and it pushed me more than ever to “get outta town.”

Beneath this layer of mythological female power, there is a very real Sita complex.  The tortured wife whose identity is based on her long suffering with her [insert seven letter expletive] husband who treats her like [insert four letter expletive] and really doesn’t much give a [four letter expletive] about her as person, so much as her as reproductive capabilities.  I digress.

There are huge absences of women in Delhi places where they could be, should be – on the streets, in the nightclubs, in the art galleries, in the professional work places.  It seems as if the women of Delhi have learned to simply get out of these places, minimize themselves in these spaces, be un-present as much as possible, so as not to threaten (what? I’m not sure) or be threatened.

As time has passed, my mother and my aunts have seen their children grow older, their parents pass on, relationships resolve themselves and now more than ever they are taking their girl gang on the road.  They’ve been to Spain, Italy, Saint Lucia and Germany, and while I’m sure I could beg, borrow, and steal their sympathies to bring them to Delhi I just can’t bring myself to do it.  How can it be that being a woman, enjoying a woman’s friendship is more foreign than being a foreigner?  These women who have had men in their lives, not as handlers, but as partners, wouldn’t understand how what has come so natural to them would appear so strange to these people of Delhi.

So while I long to hear their laughter and banter around my dining room table, to host them here and hear their stories washed down with high-end liquers, I can’t help but encourage them to go to a different destination from their next girls’ trip out of town.  What they see here might shock them.  They might be tormented by the realities of this place, and I am sure they won’t believe some of the ways that women are treated and some of the ways that women behave.  I’ve spent so much time trying to ‘get outta town’ myself, I’m not sure I’d have the capacity to make believable some of the absurdities and to make bearable some of the oddities.

How would my mom and aunts get along here? We may never know.

Inception

There are days when Asa wakes up and feels the sun on her face and the dusty breeze through her braids and forgets – for just a moment – that she’s living in Mumbai.  It’s not an easy thing for me to forget.  Living in Mumbai always means that there is a taste of sea salt and street grit in every bite of life.  Waking up with a craving for puri or a frankie from Colaba is often a reminder that gently nudges me awake in the morning.  Today, for a minute though, she was in that place of half sleep where she could see a vision of her brother and her cousin Trey on the steps of the house on Eastern Parkway.  It was just a glimpse of their profiles, from an odd, non-existent angle.  She swept by on her way to first Fridays and only glanced back at their faces before beginning her spritely stroll to her fictitious evening of acculturated fun.  It was balmy that night in her dream, like any other real summer night in Brooklyn.  Balmy is the perfect way to describe every day in Bombay.  The resemblance clings.

She is here working at an NGO that helps women from battered and abused situations.  Battered and abused often is a synonym for sexually abused and devastated.  Yet for the sake of propriety, some semblance of dignity in not knowing what everybody knows, we’ll say battered.  Some were married off to boys who took the dowry, banged the bride, and auctioned her off in Kamathipura on his way out of dodge.  These things happen, people say, and Asa thinks she could help.  Working at Safe Horizon had given her some sense of this purpose when she was home.  She has always longed to fulfill this feeling of actually helping someone become someone.  Not a new someone, not like the witness protection program, but someone actually worth a second chance at life.  “Someone who was genuinely a victim,” she’d justify to herself on those lonely sleepless nights in Khar West.

It’s a credo that expats like us understand.  Picking up and moving to the other side of the world to be someone new is something we understand.  Asa has a gift for explaining this to the Sangeetas and the Shivalis of the interiors of Maharastra and Bihar who somehow find themselves washed out on a filthy mattress on the floor of a hovel.  It’s like a nightmare out of Shantaram until Asa (and Kavita, the translator) comes along to go door to door asking if there are underage women there – working – who don’t want to be there – working.  She does the grunt work.  Her black conveys trust to their brown, when my white seems to convey pity.  Both are unintentional.

This started as an internship.  Actually, she was hoping to score something full-time at home, but the economy just isn’t booming like it used to.  Being a social worker at a community based organization really isn’t the best come up for a Binghamton grad, but native New Yorkers do have that on the rest of us.  They can afford to wait out the city, see what comes up, see if something sparks.  They have no fear of late rental fees and peanut butter sandwiches for dinner.  She worked at Safe Horizon for about 4 years and had only recently learned about the safe houses in the Bronx.  But nothing really came together for her as well as it did for the women she considered clients.  It felt so incongruent to see them rebuild their lives and for her to feel so stuck – financially, sure.  There’s also the fact that at 27 she couldn’t pretend that living at home was just a temporary state. I’m not sure how she came to find the job, but she came to town with just one bag and that was a year ago.

When I left the apartment this morning, she was just blinking awake and the sunlight was peaking through the curtains on the sea-facing window near her bed.  The fan was on low and her hair blocked only half her face from the sun.  She rubbed her exposed eyelid with the back of her hand like an infant whose immature vision only allowed the sight of fuzzy shapes.  She looked a bit lost in time and space, for just an instant, but she’ll soon be herself again.  She’s got to renew the lease with the Gangulis and buy a new lamp at Fab India today.  She’ll wake up soon and snap back into the Bombay she’s made for herself.  She’ll see the Sealink and remember that she’s got a big day ahead, and she’ll be glad she came – just for an instant.

I, on the other hand, will be glad all day long – until I come home for lunch to see her breeze past me to hustle out the door.  Braids in a bun, jeans under a kurti, she’s ready to face the hardest, oldest, baddest, whores, sluts, and prostitutes of Asia.  When she turns to look back at me over her left shoulder, she’s got a kulcha hanging between her teeth and her keys in her left hand.  The bread muzzles her words, so she speaks more with her chestnut eyes than her mouth. “See you later. Dinner, ok?” I nod, “sure,” but I’m lost in thought.

I’m struck by how busy she’s become being Bombay’s Michelle Pfeiffer or, better yet, the red light district’s Mother Theresa.  A year ago, she was just Asa James, a girl from Brooklyn, running away from Brooklyn.  Today, she isn’t that same person.  I couldn’t tell you who she is exactly, but she’s not that.  Come to think of it, she couldn’t tell you either. That much I know for sure.  She has no clue anymore.

This can’t be life: A Free Writing

Kindergarteners and teachers are dead and a 23 year old med student has lost her intestines.

If India and the U.S. have anything in common, it would be a whole slew of ‘isms and schisms’ and an inability to stop violence.  They are inherently linked, some might say – the crime and the cure.  In our multi-ethnic societies class saves.  Or so we thought until working parents in Connecticut dropped off their 6 year olds in Newton for a day no one would forget.  “How could this happen here?” is the question heard on both continents, struggling to figure out just what the fuck is going on and what the hell we do now.

See, she is like me, except I’m sure she’s smarter.  She was in med school for goodness sakes.  And she did what everyone says to do in this town, ‘never go out alone. Always go with a man.’  ‘A man’ (actually I was with 2 men) didn’t stop that guy on the motorbike from grabbing my breast in the middle of Vasant Vihar, and it clearly didn’t stop a penis parade and a bus driver from raping the life out of her.  And we live in the good part of town.

There’s something about class that makes you feel safe.  Like you bought out of petty violence.  Sure, someone could kidnap your dog for a bribe or steal your car – but that’s because you have something and they don’t.  It’s about stuff in these areas, not life.  Life is what gets taken in ghettos and poor neighborhoods and slums and villages, where people get stabbed for cheating, women get acid poured on their faces for reasons unknown, where Black people sell drugs to each other for kicks.  Cash saves you from crack pipes and crackpots.  It is the bubble that insulates your life from ignorant bloodshed.

But nothing can save you from deranged men.  It is always men, isn’t it?  Men get bored too easily.  They are simple-minded creatures that always need something to keep their fingers busy so that they don’t get it into their heads to use their hands for more destructive purposes.  Don’t dare give them knitting needles though – they’ll stab your eyes out!  White men with mommy problems.  Brown men who’ve only seen naked women on web sitesBlack men who get paid to play football.  You know, I’m noticing a trend.

We ask, ‘How do we keep our kids safe if we can’t take them to school?’ Ban guns! ‘How did we keep our girls safe if they can’t take a bus?’ Ban tinted windows!

Is anybody asking that we ban men?  It is a question worth asking.  I don’t recall the last time a group of women got together and rammed a man with a metal rod that just so happened to be within arm’s reach.  Women with daddy problems become activists or prostitutes – they don’t shoot up an elementary school for fuck’s sake.  What is wrong with half of the world’s population that the rest of us have to be victims to their whims?

Do you sit down with your sons, your uncles, your brothers, your dads, your nephews and ask them who they hurt today?  Ask them if they think it’s their right to hit or harm?  Have they had desires to do things that would make someone else cry?  Well, maybe you should ask.

There are things they aren’t telling you about themselves.  And you should not permit them to lie to you or else you’ll have no explanation for the questions the reporters will ask.  They will surely come probing, ‘What was going on at home?’  How many hot chappatis were you making while he was driving a bus around town to the soundtrack of a young girl’s screams?  How many times did you let him believe that he deserved an education more so than his sister?  Or that you would arrange his marriage with a fair, homely girl, after he was 25 and had done something with himself?  Why would you even think this is a good idea? Well, because he deserves the best.  This is what he is entitled to: a woman.  A prize on the backs of so many other female sacrifices.

Who would want to be the mother of a rapist?  The father of a baby killer?  Do you think they ever thought that it would be their kid that would go out at night – or in the middle of the day, for that matter – and dash the life out of somebody else’s baby?  Oh, and she’s not dead yet – for the record.  But what kind of life is there to live after that?

She was your Emilie once.  She liked glitter and pink too.  But she made it past the age of 6, past the age when many Indian children die of preventable diseases like dysentery.  She made it past infanticide and the abandonment of girl children.  She made it to medical school.  She made it to the movie theatre.  She made it to the bus stop.  But she never made it home.

I’d like to blame the NRA, and Sheila Dixit, and the private bus companies.  I’d like to blame Satan, the manufacturer of metal products, and those who took chastity belts off the market.  I’d like to blame people who told us we didn’t need metal detectors in kindergarten, and those of you who don’t send your children to school with Kevlar vests.  I’d like to blame you all, in addition to the perpetraters.  And I’d also like to note that proposing that religion in schools is a way to fix things is just about the fucking dumbest idea I heard since someone blamed rape on blue jeans.

Give me a damn break.

There are protesters in New Delhi.  And there are mourners in Newton.  There are dead hopes and dreams, and there is resignation.  We do not have answers.  The investigations will be a farce.  We will debate the future of two nations – but we don’t know what we want.  India wants to be modern, but can’t handle having women going outside after 7pm.  And America wants to be inclusive, but it hasn’t yet found a place for all the mentally insane people walking around.  All the things we want to be, all that we aspire to become, are illusions.  We are what we are.  We are what we have always been: a violent, murderous, deceitful bunch.  A people with no sense of the future, and a predatory present.  You don’t survive this hell to make it to heaven, quite the contrary.  You must die here – really die here.  Quit fighting, be an innocent 6 year old and let the Lord Shiva take you.  Be a brilliant young woman with your whole life ahead of you, and let them pull the umbilical chord of the children you can no longer have.

We are a world of martyrs and executioners, and you can’t buy that off.  Who do you bribe – or in the case of my countrymen, pay your taxes to – in order to afford protection from your neighbors in your safe neighborhoods?  So, we need militias in Munirka is it?  People in Newton ought to give their teachers nines, huh?  There is no police force.  There is no army.  There is no people’s coalition strange enough and strong enough to protect us from the will of the deranged – a guy with an idea.

A guy with an idea has no price.  He can’t be deterred, only momentarily distracted.  He can’t be told how much your dad makes in lakh rupees.  He can’t be concerned that you are only 6 years old.  He is the unmoveable.  He is unshakeable.  He is the God of small things, just as you are if you consider the ant under your foot as a small, very small thing.  A woman is a small thing.  A child is a small thing.  Ants and insects and people who only count for target practice for those feverish for feigned power.

Please have some Kool-Aid, my friends of two far away continents.  What brings us together in tragedy, is the end of something that was worthy of this place.  When even survivors are victims, who make a mockery of the tragedy and become assailants in their own right, what do we do next?  Should we party in Mumbai for New Year’s Eve?

What exactly do we have to celebrate?

The Mayans were right.  Something died this year.  Humanity died this year.  Something that we used to have that made us creatures worthy of this earth is no more.  We have lost our redeeming qualities.  We have reached the pinnacle and the shit is going down hill, folks.

On an abandoned dingy in the middle of the ocean, we are supposed to drown.  You are not Richard Parker.  You are the French cook – and you eat people! YOU EAT PEOPLE!  We are not meant to survive.

(I love you mom & dad!)