In the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh hearing for the Supreme Court Justice appointment and the onslaught of sexual assault allegations, these words keep me up at night. Like many Americans, I was glued to the hearings and the moving statements from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford accounting her sexual assault with Brett Kavanaugh 36 years ago. The fear of rape, death, and revictimization that she has endured in her desire to do her civic duty to shed light on a possible predator entering the highest court of the land – these moved many of us and triggered many more. This courage under fire was more than many victims can endure and she has suffered a great deal in order to do the right thing for our justice system.
I was moved by the bravery after reading Padma Lakshmi’s brave account of her rape as a 16-year-old girl. Rape culture and vilification of the victims are endemic throughout most Eastern and Western societies but as brown girls, we face it to a greater extent, arising from a culture that shames anything to do with a women’s sexuality or reproduction; a culture that extols virginity and places men on pedestals while placing the burden to be safe on women, not men, is something we have all dealt with in some capacity. While this is something that is probably not new to our readers, I wanted to take this time to discuss some of the consequences these women suffer as a result of deeply rooted patriarchy.
I am a Pakistani-American gynecologist who grew up in the south and has a solo practice in downtown Chicago. I have worked with survivors of sexual assault and abuse right after the assault occurred in the emergency department and years later dealing with the medical sequelae in my office. Their stories, ailments, and issues have stayed with me as well. More than 30 to 40 percent of my patients are brown girls. Whether they are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, atheist, they come to me. Whether they are “fresh off the boat” from India or Pakistan or ABCD women like myself, who grew up confused about their identity and how to navigate clashes of Eastern and Western cultures, I serve them. They come to me, not only for birth control or routine gynecology problems but a large majority see me for reasons that have never been addressed with them: sexual pain, menstrual pain, and pelvic pain.
We all know, have heard, or read about the consequences of sexual assault and intimate partner violence when it comes to illnesses such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or a variety of phobias. Yet, how many of us realize that many women that suffer from sexual pain and aversion to sex have a history of sexual assault? Often times, when I am evaluating women who have been found to have dyspareunia or pain with intercourse, I naturally screen them for sexual assault, sexual violence, or forms of intimate partner violence as a routine. Our lifelong struggles with our sexuality and identity and shaming have led many of them us to suffer from unconsummated relationships secondary to dysfunction of the pelvic floor muscles that support the vagina and anxiety of being penetrated. This is common, across the board, for women I see who have been raised in a fundamentally conservative manner where reproductive shame, the shame of menses and lack of communication about sex are prevalent. This compounds as some of my desi patients have also suffered from unwanted advances from strangers or family members at an early age.
Sexual pain is not normal and this myth should not be perpetuated. It should be evaluated if it is a persistent occurrence causing distress in your life or your relationship. Sometimes there are reasons related to infections, dysfunction of the pelvic floor muscles, other times it is related to endometriosis, or a condition called provoked vestibulodynia which is a pain at the entry point of the vulvar opening. Another consultation I often see in my office from my Indo-Pak or Arab patients is that for hymenoplasty or surgical reconstruction of the hymen. The hymen is a congenital membrane that is found covering the opening of the vagina. It has been inappropriately been linked to virginity for centuries and is the reason many women in our societies do not ride bikes, see a gynecologist, are told not to use tampons, or go horseback riding, and thus referred to as “the membrane of honor.” Many times women are pressured into seeking this surgery. A girl’s chastity is often linked to family honor and reputation in our cultures and this has resulted in some women being threatened and killed for the sake of honor, the so-called, “honor killings.” Though this is a barbaric crime, it is still prevalent in the developing world, and we have also seen it in North America.
We have seen with the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, we still have a long way to go before victims are believed and women are able to come forward without fear of being revictimized. There are many other health-related sequelae I have seen with my patients who are victims of sexual assault or violence but wanted to bring light to a few that are rarely discussed because they are more taboo than others. There are systemic problems among all societies that contribute to sexual harassment and violence across all cultures but within the culture of conservative desi societies, we see different manifestations and equally troubling sequelae. Until we raise our children with more egalitarian views on gender roles and open lines of communication about sexual and reproductive issues, we will continue to contribute to the underlying patriarchy that contributes to sexual harassment and assault.
July 7, 2023September 10, 2023 11min readBy Ushma Shah
BGM literary editor Nimarta Narang is honored to work with author Ushma Shah in this utterly creative and novel, pun not intended, story about a young woman who has just moved to the United States with her husband, and her trusted diary. Ushma is a short story writer and an aspiring novelist. She has her short stories published in a few anthologies and online literary magazines like Kitaab and The Chakkar. She was born in Mumbai and raised in Mumbai and Cochin. She has an MBA and works in the corporate world. Work and life have given her the opportunity to live in multiple cities in India. She currently resides in Seattle and goes by the handle @penthythoughts on Instagram.
She is the kind of person who doesn’t like to go into stores without a purpose. But she sometimes does. And that’s how she becomes a hoarder. She also prefers only tried and tested places. The kind where she doesn’t have to go out empty-handed. The urge to not disappoint people is strong. So she ends up buying useless things. Like a snow globe with a turnkey. Or 12. She loves the tiny magical people and animals in it. Rotating. Glowing. Musical. But I am deviating from the point. Who am I, you ask? I am her. A piece of her. She takes me everywhere. Writes down her thoughts in me. Writes how her day was. That’s why I know her so well. Why am I telling you all this? Because she hasn’t written for a week now. Longest she has gone in half a decade. I don’t understand it. She won’t tell me anything anymore and I am just so curious. No, curious is the wrong word. The intensity is just not right. I am impatient. Restless. Maybe even hurt, too? I see what she does. How she looks. But that’s just not enough. Not for me. Her confidante for five years and suddenly it’s all poof.
Human addiction is a true addiction. I was superior for those glorious thoughts that nobody knew about her. She doesn’t look happy. She opens and shuts me, picks me up and then back down. In her new Michael Kors bag she bought recently at a premium outlet mall. She always wanted to see a new country. 32-years-old and she had never visited any country other than the one she was born in — India. She should be happy she is finally here. She couldn’t stop chirping about it when they got their visas approved. She and her husband. She has been here for three months now. Initially, she was happy. But then the euphoria died down and anxiety kicked in. The last thing she wrote was: “I haven’t had a bath for a week now.” Her husband is too busy with work to notice. The new project takes up most of his time. Plus navigating life in a new country is a project in itself. I hear him not understanding why an appointment is required for a self-guided tour of the apartments. And that they have appointments only till 5 p.m. which means they have to go house hunting during his office hours. Downtown Bellevue mostly has apartments for rent that are managed by corporations rather than individuals. But at least he is okay with the cold, having survived Delhi weather all throughout his life. It also doesn’t help that she is not used to the cold, having lived in Mumbai all her life. It only needed to turn 22 degrees Celsius in Mumbai when she used to set off; removing her sweaters and jackets from the untouched-for-a-year cupboard. So house hunting is a major bummer, painstaking process even for her. In a place where it always drizzles but doesn’t bring the smell of wet mud. Everything around her is concrete. Asphalt. Sterile.
One day on their way back, they visited the Meydenbauer Beach Park along Lake Washington. I saw a hint of a smile. The first one in a week. The pine trees are a solace. They stand strong, holding their ground at maybe a 100 feet. She cranes her neck back and tries to catch a look at the tip. Making her feel dizzy. She feels like she is falling back. Tilting her five feet frame. She removes her feet from the shoes. She looks at the rounded stones. Big stones. The size of an ottoman big enough to comfortably sit on but hard enough to not sit for long.
But by the end of the visit, she looked worse. That night she wrote and I was thankful for the visit. The first sentence read: I feel claustrophobic. She has lived in Mumbai all her life and never knew that subconsciously the sea made such a big impact on her psyche. The sea, unending in its view. Its waves crashing and rebelling against the rocks gave her a sense of space even though she lived in a one-room kitchen apartment. The warmth. She missed the warmth, although sometimes too stifling. The sweat, and the saltwater smell. There was much to be thankful for here in Bellevue, even though there were no crashing waves and it was 45 degrees Fahrenheit today. The sand, too cold. But there was peace, there was calm. But what about the sounds that she craved, the feeling that stimulated her senses? That accompanied her every morning: the ‘tring tring’ of the cycles, the ‘tip tip’ of the water overflowing from the tank after it was filled. The daily TV news her Ma watched. The smell of her morning chai with grated ginger. The ting ting of her small bell during pooja. These are the things that she does not write but I know her. I know how to read between the lines.
But somewhere I have failed her. I must have. If she did not find comfort in writing. For how could she have gone on without it for a week? How could she? She is as used to me as I am to her. Or at least I thought that.
But now is not the time to feel irritated. She has started writing again. I was overjoyed; I thought everything would be back to normal now. How naive was I? A few lines in, and I am worried. I am also worried that my annoyance will seep through the pages and into her hands. She writes: I miss my place where the duration of the days and nights are almost the same throughout the year. A place where I don’t have to see a 4:30 pm sunset. Or a sunrise after 7:30 am. Nobody prepared me for less than 10 hours of daytime. I feel like I took the sun for granted. When I first came here in October, the sun set at around 7 p.m. Every day, the sun set a little early from then on. 6:50, 6:43, 6:22, 6 p.m., 5:54 p.m. And then on November 6 came the thing I was least prepared for. The Daylight Savings. I would gain an hour, they said! What I gained was a sense of doom. Because the clocks were set back by an hour, the sun set before 5 p.m. every day from then on.
The seasons are what make me. Why then, am I afraid of the seasons? No matter what the weather, the weather is constant. It is constantly too hot, or too cold or just not warm enough or just not cool enough. Every day in itself brings a new season.
“Oh, there is a heavy rain forecast for the whole day today.”
“Do you know it’s going to snow today?”
“Amazing weather! Isn’t it a perfect day to travel?”
Seasons are a universal language, everyone understands it. It transcends manmade boundaries. Just as I am feeling the cold under the layers of clothes I wear. A breeze rippling through the surface of the lake water makes me shiver. If the seasons are what make me, why do I feel cold and sad. Maybe because I long for a different weather. Having grown up in a tropical city, my body is not used to the cold. But is that all? The great reason for the hollow? It can’t be. And I am restless because I can’t figure it out. If not this, then what else? What else could it possibly be?
When she writes this I figure it out. I am always able to figure her out. Her mind does not want to go there. Because after all, this is the life she chose. Of course, how could I have been so blind?
Around two weeks ago I observed her. Observed and observed for a few hours. A few days. Even then I knew something was amiss. She was writing but her heart wasn’t in it. It was dwindling. She doodled and dawdled. A sentence here. A sentence there. Then I was discarded on the coffee table in front of her. My observations, you ask? She scrolls through LinkedIn, going through a series of posts about the looming recession. She searches and applies obsessively to 50 job openings every day. And day after day, her laptop or phone chimes in with a rejection email. She refreshes. Refreshes. Refreshes. Every 10 minutes. Whatever she is doing. No matter if she is in the kitchen or the washroom or the living room. She is glued to her phone checking for a new email. A new job opening. She set her filters to relevant job openings… And then goes on to the painstaking process of filling her details out on different company portals. When she reached the USA, she was hopeful. Of finding a new job. Was very optimistic. She had worked with global companies in India after all. Surely that had to account for something. But with each passing day, the light within her dimmed just a little. Bit by bit. I hate to admit it but I didn’t come to this conclusion when I observed her. It struck me when I stopped and she wrote again. Sometimes I need a macro perspective after micro is too much. She is so inside her head and not on paper that she cannot understand. But I also don’t think it is as easy to pinpoint. It’s a combination of things in her life, culminating in a single point of paralysis. Even now, who knows? It’s just my opinion of a subject I don’t understand completely. She is talented enough to fool everyone around her. Her friends and family also do not know this about her. They think she is enjoying her break from work. They think she is immensely enjoying the exploration of a new country without a worry in the world. She hates admitting that she is miserable. She wants them to feel that she has got it all together. That her life is perfect. When they go through her social media profile, they find her happy pictures. Ecstatic even.
A couple of months ago when she was leaving for the USA, her office colleagues had warned her: “One of my sisters lives in the States. She is miserable there. Wants to come back but her husband doesn’t.”
“He has a high-paying tech job and all so he is okay. But he is on an H1-B visa without an I-140.”
“So? What does that mean?”
“Which means the spouse can’t work. So she can’t work.”
“I am surprised you didn’t know this.”
“I haven’t started my research yet on the visa types and job search. But I intend to.”
“It is very important to understand your options. It is not always as picture-perfect as it seems. My sister is busy doing all the household chores. And she is not happy. Her social life was here. She has no friends there. Only his work friends they mingle with.”
“I know about my visa type though. I can still work there.”
“Oh, honey,” she gives a sympathetic smile, “but everyone wants to convert into an H1-B once they go there. So there could be a brief period where you might have to be unemployed.”
“But that doesn’t matter. Because we intend to come back in a few years. We just want to experience a different work environment and culture and to have that thrill of living in a new country. But only for a few years.”
“Honey, they all say that. As I said, consider your options once you are there before you decide anything. Okay?”
“I will, thanks. I am sure my husband would also check about these things. It is a major decision after all.”
“Oh, I am sure he would.”
She was very emotional on the last day of her job. She had worked there straight out of B-school. She had met some people who would become close friends and some who were toxic. But on the last day, she knew she would miss them all. She didn’t think that saying goodbye would be this difficult. Her name on the desk and chair in bright white letters with a black background came alive with memories. Memories of birthdays celebrated, lunches ordered, huddles and meetings, apprehension of deadlines, the adrenaline rush of getting it done just in time, the accolades. It felt empty by itself if not for the people she surrounded herself with. Her friends.
Her colleagues. They motivated her and pushed her to give her best. Her manager was always an inspiration. Solving problems and giving solutions in a way she herself didn’t think was possible. She learned a lot from each of them. But she was excited to begin a new chapter. But the isolation in a new country was what she hadn’t counted on.
Her husband noticed when she hadn’t had a bath for a couple of days. He thought it could be laziness. When he asked her about it, she said she would. Her reply was curt, and tone grumpy, so he left it at that. After a week of the whole no-bath scenario, her husband thought it was time to have a talk. This wasn’t one of those phases she would overcome on her own. A little push. A little nudge would maybe do her some good. When he saw her refreshing her Gmail inbox for the umpteenth time that day, he said,
“You know, we came to this country to experience a new place, a new city.”
“Hmm.” Eyes glued to the screen.
“Don’t you think it’s time to do that?”
He places his hand in front of her phone.
“What are you so worried about?”
She looked at him for a moment before answering. “That I won’t find another job. Every day on LinkedIn, there is a new company that’s laying off or announcing a hiring freeze and I am worried that my career break will just go on longer.”
“But weren’t you always saying that you needed some time off to pursue your passion of writing?”
“All that’s good to talk about. But I need to focus on my career too.”
“I understand that, but the recession is not your fault. You are doing everything you can.”
“I need to do more.”
“You need to get the bigger picture. Zoom out. You have a glorious opportunity to work on your writings. You have notebooks filled with stories. Don’t you think it is time you polished the pieces and submitted them somewhere?”
“What I need to do is get a job.”
“You will get it but the time that you have right now, in between jobs, is hard to come by. Think about it. You can try to do what you always talked about doing. Or was all that just big talk?” I could see, she took the bait.
She considered. “Hmm,” was all she said.
“I also found something for you.”
He had searched for a public library nearby. A magnificent three-storied red brick building standing beside a park. Just a mile away from their home. She could get herself a membership there. I thought this was an amazing idea. She had always wanted a house near a library. I could tell that this piqued her interest even if she feigned indifference to her husband. She wanted to see it first. I could see it in her eyes. And here I thought that the husband was too busy to notice her worries. I guess he was letting her be. Well, I couldn’t have guessed it. I can’t read his thoughts.
The next morning, she woke up to her alarm at 7:30 a.m. and had a shower. She was ready by 8:30 a.m., in time for the library to be open by 9 a.m. She was armed with her warmest winter jacket and a beanie. Wandered around the streets on her way to the Bellevue library. Taking in the strollers with their prams and pets. Warm coffees in their hands. In 10 minutes, she was standing in front of the library and was not disappointed. Covered with floor-to-ceiling glass panes, she could peer inside as she walked to the front door. She was also pleasantly surprised at a life-sized bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi just outside the library; in the midst of now barren trees. There was ample seating space inside. Aisles and aisles of books: classics, romance, historical fiction, new interesting fiction and non-fiction sections, choice reads, monthly picks, and a dedicated holds section for reserved books.
Her husband was right. Isn’t this what she always wanted to explore? Read and write. Write and read. Surround herself with books and pages. She had found her place. She touched her fingers in reverence to the cracked paperbacks, reminding her of the piles of books she left behind at her place in India. She borrowed a few novels and set off with them and me in her backpack. Couldn’t resist a warm cup of coffee from a cafe she spotted. Picked a window-facing table overlooking a park. She read as she finished her coffee. A good girl’s guide to murder was a page-turner. It was the first time in months that she had ventured out on her own. She felt at ease. At peace. Her breath, a little lighter. A little deeper. She saw two dogs playing outside. Free and wild. She picked up her phone and googled bookstores and art galleries around. She found that a couple of independent bookstores nearby also host monthly book clubs and writing clubs. She signed up for them and started off in the direction of the art gallery.
I was happy. She was bouncing back. One step at a time.
The Covid-19 pandemic and feelings of uncertainty, which have been prevalent across the globe, had lasting effects on all of us. One of the more positive impacts has been on the mental health industry, particularly the normalization of mental health challenges and a more open dialogue about mental health. There have been discussions in the workplace, in schools, and even on Hinge profiles, but what about in South Asian communities? Though some progress has been made, mental health stigma is still widely prevalent among South Asians, impacting individuals’ desire and comfort in seeking help. As a result, the South Asian community reports lower rates of seeking mental health services. And of the individuals who do seek out mental health services, many face challenges in finding therapists who are equipped with a multiculturally competent skill set to understand the South Asian client’s concerns. This is why it’s important to recognize and become aware of the intersections of mental health and South Asian communities.
Although there is an overlap between the mental health concerns of South Asians and other communities of color, there are also unique intersections between culture and mental healththat I want to bring to the forefront of this conversation. As a South Asian psychologist, who is both a researcher and clinician, I have firsthand experience examining how our individual cultural context impacts our emotional experience. If we can understand, or at least consider, how the cultural context impacts us, we can better understand ourselves and feel seen by others too. We, South Asians, are a diverse group in terms of ethnicity, language, food, religion, traditions, and so much more. So, while learning about the “state of mental health in South Asian communities” is much more complex and nuanced than what I can cover in just one editorial, I believe starting the conversation about issues that don’t get talked about nearly enough is an important first step towards destigmatization.
What is the state of mental health in the South Asian community?
Here are some numbers to set the stage, based on research done on South Asian communities. One in 5 South Asians currently reports experiencing mood or anxiety disorders. South Asian youth and young women, in particular, are at greater risk of having suicidal thoughts and behaviors compared to other groups. Only 24 percent of South Asians diagnosed with a substance abuse problem sought treatment. And South Asian Americans express greater stigma toward mental illness than other ethnic groups. How often are facts like these discussed? Not often. Since South Asians are often mixed in with the larger Asian American population, these issues and their nuances are rarely discussed within mental health communities. This underrepresentation can make the reality of our emotional experiences easily misunderstood and make our needs feel invisible. Relatedly, concepts like “model minority” lead outsiders to often assume that South Asians are well-adjusted. And even within the South Asian community, stigma and beliefs about the causes of mental health issues (e.g., mental illness indicates problems within the family, a sign of weakness, etc.) lead all these facts to continue being ignored.
How do mental health concerns intersect with South Asian culture?
While mental health concerns are prevalent among my clients from all backgrounds, these common concerns intersect with culture to create an individualized version of the issue that requires specialized attention and care.
Within the South Asian community, there are cultural differences in alcohol and drug use and the discussion of these topics. Alcohol is prohibited in Muslim and Jain faiths which makes open dialogue about substance abuse and its prevalence even more of a challenge within these communities. Admitting you have a problem can be hard and adding the cultural taboo can make it more difficult.
There is a tendency in the South Asian community to highlight that only linear careers in financially stable or ‘reputable’ fields — such as medicine, engineering or finance — will lead to success. This expectation not only impacts career decisions but also mental health, self-esteem, and self-confidence. Even if we think we are not influenced by outside factors in our career choices, how do we know that subconscious messaging is not impacting our decisions? I personally was pre-med for as long as I can remember and was apprehensive if my parents were going to accept my desire to go into psychology and mental health instead of medicine.
Caring for loved ones, who are aging or ill, is emotionally challenging for most people. What makes this stress unique for the South Asian community? South Asian communities are collectivistic and therefore rely strongly on interdependence well into adulthood. Therefore, caretaking and providing for elders is an integrated part of our lifestyles. Pursuing personal goals can sometimes be seen as selfish and therefore South Asians feel the need to sacrifice personal desires. This can make setting boundaries in relationships or making decisions focused on one’s own needs especially difficult and not as straightforward as may be suggested by Western psychotherapy interventions.
Romantic relationships can be especially stressful for South Asians because of the need to navigate between one’s own desires and family expectations. Older generations pass down messages that people should focus on their careers instead of dating, which can lead to not dating or secret dating and youth navigating romantic relationships on their own. Then, suddenly, the conversation shifts to the need to get married by a certain age, which seems especially difficult when you have not been allowed to date or when it is not something you want in your 20s. South Asians may also experience family expectations about their partner being from the same ethnic/religious background, working in a specific industry, or having a specific family background. These family or cultural expectations and issues also impact the LGBTQI+ South Asian community and South Asians often feel the need to sacrifice personal desires for the expectations that their families or deep-rooted social norms have set for them.
Being able to communicate the complexity of our emotional experience is especially challenging when being emotional is considered a weakness. This cultural sentiment further perpetuates emotional suppression and increases the barrier to seeking support. Also, South Asian languages have limited vocabulary to describe mental health and the emotions involved. It is not only challenging to identify our emotions, but it is difficult to communicate the complexity due to the lack of words in South Asian languages to describe those emotions. Let’s take the word, “gussa,” which means “angry” in Hindi. The only way to explain the level of anger you are feeling is to describe the full situation. While in English, you can use variations of the word “anger,” such as “annoyed” or “furious” to describe the emotions with more nuance.
Culture is integrated in small and big ways into how South Asians experience their body. It can be common for family members, especially older women or “aunties,” to comment on one’s body weight in direct ways like telling someone they have gotten fat or thin. There are also unspoken rules about food that impact one’s relationship with food and potentially overeating, including “it is rude to not finish all the food on your plate,” or if you don’t go up for seconds that means you didn’t like the food. Research has also found South Asian women in particular often struggle with the pressure to conform to Western beauty norms (e.g. removing dark hair, and lightening skin color).
We all are constantly evolving and understanding who we are and what we value. What makes this unique for South Asians? Culture intersects with other parts of our identity, including generational status (1st, 2nd, or 3+ generation), religious beliefs, gender identity, and age which impact the way we make sense of who we are. Being born in the US makes one American, but are you still American if you primarily connect with your South Asian ethnic identity or maybe your religious identity? Or what messages does culture pass down about what it means to be female? Are you supposed to do all the cooking and cleaning? Do you have to have children? Culture intersects with identity development in complex ways.
How can you get support with what you may be feeling and experiencing?
I believe the first step in breaking the barriers, is shifting your mindset about seeking mental health support from something that means you have a “character flaw” to something that you do for your overall well-being. Taking care of your emotions and processing your emotional experiences is as important as your weekly workouts, annual physicals, or that apple a day. One way to start this process on your own is to spend 10 minutes a day engaging in mental hygiene practices (meditation, gratitude journal, positive experience journaling, writing a thought log, prayer, or deliberate time in nature).
If any of the concerns I discussed earlier resonated with you, consider signing up for Anise Health by filling out this short intake form; you’ll get matched to a culturally-responsive clinician within two business days. I’ve also listed a few additional resources below that aim to address mental health needs in South Asian communities.
I hope we can continue to bring the ways our South Asian culture impacts our well-being into the forefront of the conversation around mental health. By highlighting the South Asian community’s experiences,we can feel more seen and create a more accepting environment that allows us to get the help that we all deserve.
If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.
BGM literary editor Nimarta Narang is honored to publish this short story by the brilliant writer Ria Mazumdar. This story delves into very deeply important and timely themes of assimilation, family, mental health, and familial obligations.
Trigger warning: Self-harm and suicide.
America just didn’t have the right supply of spices, Neel thought as he scanned the towering aisles of the grocery store for the third time. White fluorescent overhead lights illuminated the vast shelves, which contained over three different brands of ground black pepper. While cardamom, let alone coriander powder, was nowhere to be found. On a daring day, Americans would venture to purchase paprika, which was about as seasoned as their cuisine would get. Although he had spent years in this country, the aroma of his home — an exquisite blend of turmeric, cumin, and freshly monsoon-drenched earth — still haunted Neel’s memory as he sighed into the dry, stale, air-conditioned atmosphere of the American supermarket. The same land that was supposed to grant him more constitutional rights had also robbed him of his sensory joys.
Resigned, he loaded up the metal shopping cart with ground pepper and paprika, wheeling it toward the cash register. A foreboding premonition rose to the front of his mind: without the right spices, his cooking just wouldn’t turn out right, and his wife Rana would break into tears, launching into her routine tirade. Paprika was one of many triggers of homesickness. She would rage against the frigid winters of Massachusetts and lament the absence of her family, telling him how much she regretted ever meeting him. Neel mentally prepared himself for this reaction as he braced himself to exit the store, walking headfirst into the harsh New England chill.
The pristine plains outside the supermarket stretched endlessly, as silent flakes cascaded down like sunbeams in the moonlight. As he clenched the thin plastic bags with his gloved hands, Neel proceeded toward his used Toyota Camry. The wind snarled mercilessly, tearing through the night like a whip, bearing no consideration for Neel’s circumstances. It did not recognize that he was a foreigner who had not seen snow until the age of 30, when he was tossed headlong into this abrasive climate, greeted by raging frost on a frigid December dusk. Though the walk was short, Neel trembled to the bone, pulling the diaphanous fabric of his navy blue Big Lots jacket closer to his skin. He was well aware that the flimsy, six-dollar garment was completely inadequate protection, but every penny he earned had to go toward a soft, down jacket for his small daughter.
The thought of his daughter gave him the adrenaline he needed to prevail against the hissing wind. One foot in front of another, he trudged cautiously along the snowy path, seeing nothing but a flat expanse of white before him. In the distance, a streetlamp cast a bluish glow. Finally, he reached the car and opened the door hastily, leaping inside to preserve every drop of heat. Arranging the groceries carefully on the seat beside him, he put the key in the ignition, immediately turning on the cassette player.
Barely any cars had cassette players these days, but Neel had gone out of his way to install one specifically so that he could listen to his old tapes from home. Familiar melodies were his only company on these long, solitary drives, providing stolen moments of tranquility. He emptied his mind, following the undulating roads from muscle memory, erasing any obligations to the outside world. The lyrics of his mother tongue washed over him like lukewarm water.
Sinking into a familiar tune lined with the rising drone of a harmonium, Neel came to a stoplight, drifting in this rare state of mental peace. Suddenly, two loud knocks rammed on the car’s rear window. Neel rolled down the window, seeing two men in the shadows. They were pale-skinned, dressed in extra-large gray hoodies and baggy black sweatpants, rapping at the car rambunctiously — the vapor of their breath emerging in wispy, smoke-like clouds. “Hey, sand n****r!” one yelled. “We don’t need another 9/11, go back to where you came from!”
The light turned green, as though it wanted to let Neel escape, and he stepped firmly on the gas, leaving the men’s laughter trailing in the distance. A small American flag ruffled halfheartedly on the dashboard, just above Neel’s brand new U.S. passport stowed in between the seats.
Neel drove on, feeling more resignation than anger. Such incidents were nothing short of expected for someone coming into this great country, where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were granted to all, as long as they read the fine print. Racism and liberty — it was a package deal. Neel internalized each of these encounters as an exam, an opportunity to prove his stoic nature. He had adapted to his new life. Anyway, with whom could he share such experiences? The last real conversation he had with Rana occurred even before their wedding when he still lived under the euphoric illusion that his parents had discovered the right girl for him. Now, he dreaded seeing his daughter if he knew Rana would be around as well. Maybe someday the little girl could help shoulder some of this burden. Until then, he kept his chin up and moved along, expressionless.
He pulled into the garage, grabbed the groceries and steadied himself before stepping into the doorway. Old photos of his parents greeted him; the only fixtures on the white walls. His daughter, darting through the simply-furnished living room, ran up to hug his calf. He smiled and picked her up, twirling her around a couple of times.
“Want to help me unpack the groceries?” he asked. She nodded and skipped into the kitchen, her fluffy pink slippers thudding solidly with each landing.
As Neel followed her into the kitchen, he caught sight of Rana watching television, slouched on a couch, wearing her stained purple bathrobe as though she hadn’t moved since the morning.
“Ey,” she called out by way of greeting, her eyes still transfixed on the screen. “Did you bring the fish?”
Neel scanned the items laid out on the kitchen table. “No,” he said with a sigh. “Just chicken — I thought fish was for you to buy next week.”
“I wrote it on your list,” she retorted, her eyes still unmoving. “Why do you never listen to me?” Neel remained silent. As Rana’s tone grew icy, the daughter continued to prance around in the kitchen, unperturbed. Not oblivious, merely accustomed.
Neel poured the paprika onto a plate with some salt and prepared to turn on the stove. Suddenly, Rana got up from the couch and ambled into the kitchen.
“I want to take her to India next month,” she said, gesturing at her daughter. “We haven’t been back in over two years, it’s time.”
“We barely have enough saved up to get her a proper jacket,” Neel said, continuing to prepare his cooking.
“If she had been brought up in India, she wouldn’t need this ‘down jacket.’”
Ignoring this counterfactual, Neel smiled dejectedly. “Well, maybe you could bring back some cumin. God knows this house is missing some.” He regretted these words as soon as they left his mouth. His half-hearted jokes these days simply hung suspended in the air, dissipating and leaving quiet trails of resentment lingering in their wake.
“So, you’re saying we can go? You need cumin. I need my family.”
“No,” Neel said firmly. “We have to wait some more.”
His words seemed to flip a switch in Rana’s eyes. Previously drooping and groggy, her pupils alighted with sparkling embers.
“I always wait for you!” she shouted. “I don’t want to live in this godforsaken place. We don’t even have a proper store nearby. We can’t even eat proper food. You dragged me here!”
His ensuing silence only served as an additional provocation. Rana raised both hands to her head, grabbing her hair in tufts. “I HATE you!” she screamed, yanking out hair in chunks while wincing at the pain she was inflicting upon herself. Neel, all too familiar with this show, silently continued to chop tomatoes. Right down the seam in the middle, a clean slice, taking great care not to let them burst and lose juice to the cutting board. He clicked his tongue in exasperation as one lone seed came away from the whole, breaking the fruit’s pristine symmetry.
Neel’s lack of attention infuriated Rana further, while the daughter continued to sit serenely near her father’s calf. Glancing around the kitchen, Rana seized a small white ceramic plate from the Corelle set her parents had given them for their wedding. Scrunching up her face, she hurled it at the wall in a sudden burst of energy.
“I wish I were dead!” she yelled, her voice breaking and her breathing quickening, growing shallow. Neel kept his gaze on the tomato before him. He mustn’t lose any more seeds. Dice the half down the center, turn and dice again. Rana turned, running out of the kitchen, while her daughter stared confusedly at the shattered ceramic.
Indian cooking is a methodical process. In some cuisines, people throw everything in a pot and let their concoctions simmer. Not so here. One must first sauté the onions, and then gently lower the heat. Only then can the spices be added, coating the onions in a thin layer. After hitting a certain level of fragrance, the remaining ingredients are added, one by one. These steps are like a formula, nothing short of mathematical. Neel approached the stove, following these motions, seeking solace in his own muscle memory as he did during those peaceful, solo drives. The daughter skipped happily out of the kitchen.
Once everything had been added to the pot, Neel bent down to pick up the shards of ceramic Rana had left on the floor, sweeping them as far away from his daughter as he could. He felt a distinct lack of loss looking down at the broken pieces, remembering the day her father had presented them with the Corelle set and a pack of gleaming silverware. He really did like his father-in-law. He recalled smiling and laughing, putting his arm around Rana and envisioning the setup of the Americanhome they would call their very own. Although he could replay these memories in sharp focus, he now felt a strange emptiness in his chest. The knifelike pangs of the past seemed to have left him, just as his fury abandoned him when those two men tapped on his rear window. Part of him wished he could muster up that rage. Rage at the men, rage at himself for allowing the societal taboo of divorce to keep him trapped in his crumbling marriage. But instead, numbness enveloped his heart like a thin sheen of ice, simultaneously sheltering him from the polarity of emotion and inhibiting him from release.
Suddenly, he heard a loud thud outside the kitchen. Alarmed, he stepped out, running to the bathroom. The long glass mirror, stained with the debris of the past few weeks, interrupted his reflection as he stood at the door. Three glass dolls that were also once wedding gifts guarded the basin, once pearly white, now discolored in splotchy, uneven patches, grime lining their foreheads in faded streaks. Inside the basin lay twenty sleeping pills, clumped together, just fallen from reach. The open pill bottle lay sideways by the faucet. On top of the toilet lay a razor stained with fresh blood, the scarlet liquid slowly trickling onto the porcelain. Rana lay weeping on the floor, a lone pill in her hand and three long gashes tearing open her shin. The daughter watched.
“I couldn’t do it,” Rana sobbed. “I have to live, for her.”
Rana knew, but could only admit in her own mind, that she did not want to die. She did not believe in a life after death, only in blankness. But what she wanted was the opposite of blankness. She wanted a release from life as an immigrant. No fresh start can numb the pain of a tree that becomes uprooted from the place it has always stood. Suddenly, it is commanded, not merely to adapt, but assimilate. To shed old leaves and camouflage amid a new, foreign forest. To survive in sub-zero temperatures after being kissed by humid tropics its whole life. To withstand a snowstorm with nothing but a six-dollar Big Lots jacket.
So Rana did not want death. She wanted her hometown, the vibrant island of joy that lay on the opposite end of the planet. She wanted the fragrant monsoon rains that pelted the soil with scent, the same soil from which her own roots sprouted for years before being cut. She wanted a place where English was subservient to her mother tongue, the latter emblazoned everywhere from street signs to soap bottles. She wanted the spices, those long-lost aromas that the “ethnic” food aisle could only dream of capturing. Her body ached to take a dip in the Ganga River. What some, to this day, call the “Third World,” was always her first and only. This place she had landed in was not home. Regardless of what animal inhabited the cover of her passport, it would never be her home. While her body had crossed the circumference of a planet, her heart had stayed back. She knew that her family was a casualty of her pain. Yet it consumed her in clutches so tight, she felt like a puppet of her own longing. Her actions were no longer her own, driven by an unquenchable thirst, the desire for return. So she lay helplessly on the bathroom floor, rocking silently to the rhythm of her sadness.
The daughter looked on, hips akimbo, her head slightly tilted to one side. She was ignorant of her future as a sacrificial hybrid tree, one that grows uncertainly, unsure of its own existence between two lives, two anthems, two tongues, two allegiances, and even two parents.
As the daughter observed the scene — the glaze of innocence veiling her sight — Neel watched her with a dull sense of regret. He approached the bathroom sink without looking down at Rana, who remained curled up at his feet. He reached in with those hands, worn beyond their years, and picked up the pills one by one. This was one routine he hoped he would never have to teach his daughter.
Taking the little girl by the hand, Neel guided her to his own room, handing her some toys and turning on the DVD player.
“Just wait for me to finish making dinner, okay?”
She plopped down on the bed, already distracted.
Rana stayed on the floor, bearing the distance of an ocean in her empty chest. The daughter, playing with a Barbie doll in the other room while watching a Bengali cartoon, was already bearing the duality of a world she could not yet understand. And Neel, impassive, carried the weight of a thousand retorts buried deep within his heart. He and Rana had crossed a sea together but failed to cross the impasse that lay impenetrably between them. Neel stood at one end, unwavering, while Rana lay at the other end, drifting amid her own salty tears.
Neel finished cleaning the sink and set the pill bottle back inside the medicine cabinet. He returned to the kitchen, as though the entire incident had been just another task on his to-do list. As he sprinkled more paprika onto the food and resumed his work at the cutting board, his vision clouded. Onions had always made his eyes water.
When you grow up seeing blood stains on your shampoo bottles, your sense of normalcy shifts as mine did. You don’t cry when you trip and fall on the playground, because you had just seen blood the night before when your mother took a clothespin to her forearms. You watched the blood leak slowly down her clothes and onto the floor, where it left a dark brown shadow for you to see the next day too. You are unfazed when your classmates roughhouse and toss pencils across the room because a pressure cooker was hurled right past your head on your fourth birthday. You rip out pieces of your hair when you get stuck on a math problem because you are following the example of the biological role model that the world assigned to you. You hate this biologyfor making you what you are: a living reminder of your parent’s suffering, of the hurting of immigrants worldwide. You have escaped that pain simply because of the soil you were born on. And so the burden on your shoulders is inexplicable, as you carry the weight of a parent’s mental health, her suicide threats, the weight of her entire life, day in, day out. Your heart slowly starts to contort inward, its once fiery heat chilling over time like that cold Massachusetts night, for the only love you have ever known is wrapped in tears, sleeping pills, and razor blades.