The Umricans

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The UmricansA month before you move to America, your aunt is admitted to a small hospital in your small northeast Indian city for an eye operation. That year, your mother buys a new Hyundai i10 car. She hires a driver who doesn’t like to be introduced as the “Driver of the Car,” but prefers to go by “The Pilot of the Car.” He thinks the word “driver” is ignominious and the word “pilot” designatory. He drives both of you to the hospital. Your father is away on an official tour in Delhi. He phones regularly. In the hospital, where the nurses are extra courteous and ward boys more eager to help than regular ward boys, your brother-in-law expresses disbelief at the news that you’re moving to America with a scholarship. He is the kind of person who went to attend a three-week refresher course at Delhi University and tells everyone that he has degrees from Delhi University. He is like the Driver who thinks he is a Pilot.

“We have not haard of this place Minnesota,” he says in English with a shrug, as if Minnesota is a bad smell, as if speaking in English makes him sound more authoritative about American geography. “We have haard of New Yok and Los Angles and Sicagoo, but not this place called Minnesota. Are you acsually going to Amerika?”

You want to correct his pronunciations, but you don’t. Your mother isn’t pleased. She starts to say something, but you gently press her hand and she remains silent. On the way home, she says you should have let her speak. You laugh. “Oh Ma, leave it.” Then both of you laugh at your “Delhi-educated” brother-in-law.

A month later, your parents see you off at the Guwahati International Airport. It is a small airport. It is an international airport only because occasionally a flight departs for Bhutan. You have traveled to Delhi so many times during the past year for the American visa interview that the guards recognize you. They don’t read your passport and visa. They don’t examine your ticket. They wave at you and request that you not forget them when you reach “Aameyrika.” You watch your parents’ faces and figure that they are trying hard not to cry. Later, on the flight, you wonder if they figured that you too were trying hard not to cry. You go to the lavatory and bawl. When the air hostess serves wine, you ask for whiskey.

***

At the International Students’ Orientation, the staff teaches you how to say “sorry” and “thank you.” They say, when someone says they are sick, you should say, “I am sorry.” The students you sit next to are North Indians. They are the kind of loud and patriotic North Indians you normally wouldn’t be caught dead with. You are ashamed that you are laughing with them.

“What other funny things these Umricans are going to teach us?” the handsome Punjabi guy with a beard asks you before switching to Hindi, and you like the North Indian way he pronounces “The Americans.” Hindi is not your language. But you don’t mind that he assumes you speak and understand Hindi just because you are from India. You laugh with the Punjabi guy.

A few days later, you are surprised that you are drawn too towards the Bangladeshi students, the Bangladeshis whom you grew up slightly hating for migrating in thousands to your already over-populated Indian state in Northeastern India. You talk about rice and fish-curry and Durga Puja festival and Bhupen Hazarika’s songs and feel guilty. You hang out with Shaheed, the student from Dhaka, who challenges you to eat a burger without making a mess on your plate. He borrows his friend’s car and drives you to Minneapolis where both of you eat at a restaurant called “The Taste of India” run by Punjabi-speaking Pakistanis on Wayzata Boulevard. Garlic-naan and butter-chicken; gulabjamuns for dessert. You both almost weep with joy. When you offer him money for gas, he scolds you, “Don’t be so money-minded like the Umricans.”

A month later, Shubham (the Punjabi guy) and Shahed (the Bangladeshi guy) are your closest friends. When you fall sick in October, they turn up at your apartment instead of sending texts such as “xoxo,” “get well soon,” and “I am so sorry you are sick.” They make you spicy soup, sleep on your couches, and make lists of girls they want to fuck. A week later, you don’t tell your mother about those lists, your bad health, about the winter that is coming too soon. Instead you tell her that there are two seasons in Minnesota: Winter and Preparing to Fight Through Winter. She laughs. You think about how she was silent at the eye hospital when you pressed her hand. You are suddenly surprised that she understood your touch. You wonder if she cried as soon as you turned your back at the airport to X-ray your duffel bag. You hide in the bathroom and cry. You don’t tell Shahed. You don’t tell Shubham. But they look at your reddish eyes, slap your back and buy you a beer. They don’t leave you alone because you are sad. They force their presence on you, and you like that and you joke that the Umricans would never do something like that because they are a bit too respectful of individual spaces.

***

Your roommate Brad tells you that he is dating a Mexican girl. He tells you that this year has been amazing to him since he never shared an apartment before with a non-white person and now he is thrilled to have more International Experience with a Mexican Girlfriend. With your permission, Brad changes the WIFI user-name of the apartment to “Diverse Club.” You are amused and annoyed.

He asks you questions that you don’t like. He asks whether your hair grows straight up like the African-Americans and whether you straighten your hair. He is astonished that you can speak English “so well.” Since he is an English major at the university, he corrects your “fortnightly” to “every two weeks” and your “out of station” to “out of town” and is completely horrified when you use the word “preponed.” You say, it is Indian English. He asks, “Does that even exist?” He tells you about the new Pakistani student in his class who doesn’t wear a skullcap and expects you to be surprised. He is surprised when you are not surprised.

But you open your mouth in surprise when he brings his ”Mexican girlfriend” home one day.

“Hi, I am Nibedita; you can call me Nivi.”

You ask her if she is from Nepal.

“How did you know?”

“Your accent.”

She says that for almost one whole week Brad thought she was Mexican. He even addressed her in Spanish once: Hola! After that, you talk about the films of Salman Khan and Priyanka Chopra and Amir Khan.

Brad changes the WIFI username to “South Asian Station.” You pretend to find it funny, but you think that he can be insufferable.

In December, when his grandmother visits, she asks if you are a Muslim. She is happy to know that you aren’t a Muslim. She gives you a piece of lemon cake and confides in you that Muslims are going to take over America soon. You nod your head. You don’t get annoyed. But you are annoyed when everyone wishes you Merry Christmas on the last working day before Christmas. You rant about it to Shubham and Shahed. It doesn’t bother them. You regret you aren’t a Muslim.

***

Nivi moves into the apartment. The good thing about that is the three of you split the rent and power bills. The bad thing is that they have noisy sex at least four times a week. You are woken up by their moans and gasps, the sounds of their bodies slapping, the creaking bed, and a lot of ”yes-yess-yess”’ and ”you-like-that-right?“ You are not sure how to broach the matter. You decide you hate American houses. You complain that there is no privacy. Shubham and Shaheed find the situation hilarious and ask if the lovemaking sounds give you a hard-on. One morning, you find Brad sleeping on the couch on top of Nivi, without his boxers. Later, Shubham says you should have drawn a smiley face on his bum with a black permanent marker.

When you call your mother, you don’t tell her that you are annoyed with your roommate. You tell her that Brad is good and takes care of you. You make her talk to Shubham and Shaheed. She speaks to them in broken Hindi and fluent Bengali. You proudly say that a lot of people from Assam know Bengali—something you would never admit to in India, even though it is a fact.

In April, your mother falls sick. She has hypertension and your father rushes her to the hospital. She is moved to the Intensive Care Unit. Her blood pressure is unstable for twelve hours. The doctors pierce a pill and place it under her tongue every three hours. You spend a lot of time on the phone with your father. You feel guilty that your father has to manage alone. You are the only son. You look at flights online though you know you can’t afford them. Your father asks you not to come because he knows you can’t afford the cost of a flight and after the medical bills, he will not be able to either. The Pilot of the Car helps your father. The Pilot’s wife cooks meals for your parents. He stays in the hospital day and night so that your father can use the car when he needs. You are the first person your mother wants to talk to when she is out of the ICU. “I won’t die without seeing you.” She chuckles.

You smile. You wonder if her eyes are welling up like yours.

You remain sad for a long time. You share your anxieties with Nivi and Brad and Shaheed and Shubham. Brad asks if the driver would charge your parents overtime, and you want to slap him hard. You snap, “It is called goodwill. Everything is not about money like here in America.”

“But you are exploiting the driver, you should pay him overtime!” Brad raises his voice.

Nivi does a bit of contextualizing. “Why must every act of kindness be returned with money? You can return it instead with kindness.”

Brad is not pleased. He says he doesn’t get South Asian Culture. Nivi says something funny. She has acquired a risible American accent. She throws her R-s and rolls her tongue a lot. The rumor among the Nepali community in the university is that Nivi is seducing Brad because she wants an American passport.

Back in India, your mother is brought home. People say such horrible things, she complains to you on the phone. “Your brother-in-law says that he knows an old couple who lives near the airport. They have four children and all of them have moved to Aameyrika. When the man died, there was no one to cremate him.”

You sense your anger rising quickly. “Well, Ma, If Delhi-educated people don’t know what to say when a person is sick, who will?”

“Don’t become Aameyrikan like other Indians, please come home when you can. We will arrange the money. Okay?”

You laugh, but you know that your mother is expressing her deepest fears.

***

In May, Brad sends you an email in bullet points. When a Minnesotan sends an email in bullet points, you should know that they are very mad at you, your friend Amy tells you and laughs so much that she almost chokes on her bottle of sparkling water. You decide not to write back but talk. At the apartment, Brad looks through you. When you say, “We need to talk” you feel as if you are his boyfriend and you are broaching a break-up. He turns around and says in a calm voice that he would prefer to be emailed. You say that you would prefer to talk because you have no time to respond to his slanderous allegations by email; you have papers to write. Nivi assumes the role of the mediator to save the situation from becoming worse. You debate with her in Hindi and English. Your voice rises many times as Brad hovers. You tell Nivi that it is not possible for you to spray anti-bacterial chemicals every time you use the kitchen and that you will get your own dishes because Brad uses most of the dishes and expects Nivi and you to wash them.

In June, you move to a different three-bedroom apartment on Warren Street. You share the apartment with Shubham and Shaheed. The three of you are poor students, but you like it that way. You have a nice portico that overlooks a lake. Loons swim on the lake. Their screams wake you up from your rare siestas and the regular power naps. The three of you have gained a lot of weight because your dinners are mostly cheesy pizza at the on-campus cafe where you wait tables. Bad cheese. Bad bread. But they are not bad to eat. The three of you join the gym and run for hours on the treadmills because the three of you worry that no girl will sleep with you. But you don’t date. You don’t even hook-up. You want to do well in your academics. You want to get a good job and that’s why you are working towards a degree on Information Technology. You want to bring your parents to America and buy them meals at Olive Garden and your favorite, Chipotle Grill.

Soon, you learn how to drive. Every Friday you borrow a car from a friend and drive to Minneapolis. You have also learnt the bus routes. You don’t get lost in the city. Sometimes you go to Dinkytown alone and sip coffee, enjoying the weather and the youthful vibe of the location. You are surprised that you yearn for the sun. Amy says that you have now become a Minnesotan.

During your sophomore year, you visit the website of the Indian-American community in Minneapolis. You attend one of their gatherings. They screen a movie called Pardes where the actor Amrish Puri sings the line,  ‘I love my India’ and you can’t stop weeping. You notice that others are weeping too and you stop feeling like a fool. You want to buy a dinner coupon. It is thirty dollars, much higher than you expected but you still pay. While having dessert, you meet a family from your state Assam who introduce you to other families from Assam and the other families from Assam invite you home. You find a Small Assam in Shakopee, where several families from Assam have settled. They are from small and big towns. Most of them are married. At their parties, women cook food and hang out separately. They are all in their early thirties and the women are all light-skinned and slim. The men are overweight, nice and friendly. You suspect they are all monogamous and boring. You drink whiskey with them and they tell you about relatives they have lost in bomb blasts and skirmishes. They tell you that they hope the militancy in Assam will end one day. They share their first experiences in America and you are startled at how similar their twenty-year-old stories are with yours. When they get a little drunk, they sing Bollywood songs. They are terrible. Even you sing better and you are quite bad. And yet, you like hanging out with them, even though in India, you wouldn’t be caught dead with such people who sing so badly.

***

In your fourth year in America, Nivi and Brad get engaged. They invite you to their engagement party. Your old apartment on James Avenue is now their home. You ask Nivi what you could bring. She teases that you have turned into an Umrican and scolds you for asking what you could bring. At the party, Nivi, Shubham and Shaheed have to explain repeatedly to Brad’s American friends why in South Asia it is almost offensive to bring food when someone invites you for a meal at their house. Brad says the WIFI username of the house is still South Asian Station and Shaheed gives you such a look that you want to hide under the table for approving it at a certain point of your life. Shubham is worried that if Brad’s American friends fall sick after eating the spicy chicken curry, they will sue Nivi. He says she should send an email listing all the ingredients used so that they know what they are consuming beforehand. Brad laughs, asks him not to worry and laughs more. He is so happy.

You meet Roshan at Nivi’s party. He is her friend from Nepal. Roshan is a college dropout and has been living illegally for a few years now. He works at the local Korean restaurant for three dollars less an hour than his coworkers. After the party, he gives you a ride back to your apartment on Warren Street. He wants to discuss how Nivi has seduced Brad for an American passport. You avoid the discussion. You are put off by the disdain on his face. Surprised by the jealousy in his eyes because you know that he too wants an American passport, because he too wants to become an American. “Nivi sucked his dick for the passport.” You want to scream TMI like the Americans do.

You thank him when he halts the car near the Atwood Apartments, where you live. “Why don’t you suck an American dick as well? Don’t you want an American passport too?” You slam the door.

Every day, you call your mother. You have saved some money, you tell her. And you could come down that winter. But she asks you to come in summer after your graduation because that will be a longer visit and more worthwhile. You want to go home but you see wisdom in your mother’s cautionary voice. Your mother will tell everyone in the neighborhood that you wanted to come but she forbid you. She will show off that you wanted to come, that you have saved money by working. She won’t tell them that you wait tables. She will tell them that you assist one of your professors.

***

Six months before your graduation, your mother has her first mild heart attack. Your father and the Pilot rush her to the hospital. Later, your father tells you that on the way, she kept pleading him not to inform you. That upsets you. You want to ask her about it, but can’t, because you aren’t supposed to know. You start keeping your phone in your pocket all the time. At night, you place your phone in loud mode and leave it next to the pillow because you are worried your father won’t be able to reach you. You are not able to sleep well. Wake up at night to check messages on Whatsapp or missed calls. When you cook or when you read in the library, you check your phone screen repeatedly. You start to hear false rings and feel false vibrations. You know you are imagining things but you don’t tell anyone. You don’t talk to anyone. You don’t visit the free counseling service on campus because only Americans go to therapists, not Indians; because you have friends who don’t write “I am sorry you are sick” but who come to your house to take care of you without worrying about germs. And yet, one day, you visit the therapist. You wear a hoodie and cover your face with a scarf because you are so ashamed. “How does it make you feel?” the therapist asks you, looking calmly at you through her thick-rimmed glasses. You are amazed that you call them “glasses” in your mind and not “spectacles.” You tell that to the therapist.

That night your father tells you that Pilot’s family has been very helpful, like a son and a daughter-in-law. They clean and cook for your parents. You feel that they are doing things you should have done. You weep at night. When it is dawn in India, you pick up the phone and call your mother and ask her why didn’t she tell you that she had a heart attack. She laughs and says that she won’t die without seeing you because you will have to touch her temple with a flame to set her soul fee from the world if she dies. You shout at her for speaking rubbish but she keeps laughing.

It is March and you browse Make My Trip. You book a round trip for a date in May with all your savings. You tell her that you are coming home soon. That you found a good deal. How much, she asks. You tell her the amount in rupees instead of dollars. After the conversation, you walk out of your room. Shaheed offers you a cup of tea. You tell him that your worst fear is that you won’t be home if something happens. He doesn’t ask what do you mean by ‘if something happens.’ He understands. He understands because he is not an American. He understands because that is also his worst fear and when your worst fear comes true just a week before your trip to India, it takes a very long time to sink into you.

You receive the news during your finals week—two weeks before your graduation. You have exams to write. You have worked hard for this for the last four years. You have waited tables till late at night and stayed awake drinking cups of coffee till dawn, completing class assignments. When you received a B minus, you went to the Writing Center several times to rework your drafts because you wanted good grades, you wanted to make the best of everything. Your parents are cutting corners to educate you in America so that your mother and father can one day come and see snow, see the Statue of Liberty, eat burritos with a lot of sour cream and guacamole.

At first, when you hear the news, you walk out of the library, where you were writing a take-home exam. You clutch your bag hard against your body as if someone would snatch it from you. You are surprised that you are not able to cry and that you are worrying more about graduation, about how you don’t have enough money in your Wells Fargo account to book a ticket immediately. You regret that you bought the expensive gown and hat and the tassel so that you could walk on Graduation Day, send your mother photos from that event.

Someone calls you from home. You will never remember who it was. Maybe a relative who has taken charge of things. The person talks about preserving the body in a morgue. She will feel cold, you whisper. You feel choked. You can’t breathe. It is early May. It is still cold in Minnesota. You sit at the cafeteria where people are too busy and noisy. You call your father and ask him what is the meaning of these rituals. What is the point of freezing the body for several days just so that you can touch her temple with a flame on the cremation ground. She will feel so cold in the morgue. She hated being cold. Your father weeps. You wonder how he must feel because you are not able to feel anything. You walk out into the cold and sit on a blue plastic chair, shivering. He is still on the phone with you. You tell him you will not come, because there is no point now, and when he hangs up, tears stream down your cheeks and you mourn for the young boy inside that has died along with your mother. You mourn because like a snake changing skin to get a new one, you have become someone you have always dreaded. Shubham and Shaheed try to take you to the apartment. But you say, like they do here in America, I am fine, can I please have a moment?

They notice your steely resolve and say, I am so sorry, I am so sorry, Rahul, and leave you alone.


Photo used under CC.

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About Author

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Aruni Kashyap is an Assamese writer from India. He is the author of the novel The House With a Thousand Stories (Viking/ Penguin, June 2013) : set against a series of widespread extra-judicial killings conducted by the Indian government during the late nineties to curb an armed insurgency. He has also translated from Assamese and introduced celebrated Indian writer Indira Goswami's last work of fiction, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar, for Zubaan Books (January, 2013) and is editing an anthology of short stories called How To Tell A Story About an Insurgency (HarperCollins, 2018) by writers from Assam set against the Assam Conflict. He won the Charles Wallace India Trust Scholarship for Creative Writing to the University of Edinburgh in 2009. From 2018, he will work as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Georgia, Athens.

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