Imagine going through life feeling like a foreigner among your own people. Imagine being called, “weird, abnormal, strange.” Imagine locking yourself in your room crying because you feel like nobody understands you. Imagine hating yourself because desperately want to change and conform, yet you just can’t….
A lot of people identify that as how it feels like to be a teenager.
They understand the period will pass and things would be fine.
Unless you grow up in a society where conforming is the rule of the game, and you live your life in line with what people expect of you. So when you grow up different, you hear so many words, a lot of them hurtful…
A friend of a friend is single at 30 in a South Asian community, and she’s really fed up with people pressuring her to settle down and get married.
Another one refused a proposal?—?or rishta?—?and had her aunties call so much she broke down.
Another one gets compared with a cousin her own age who has three kids. It doesn’t matter that she has three degrees.
Every time I hear such a story, I wish I can ask those aunties,
Why are you saying this? What’s the purpose? You want the girl to be happy? Then she is happy without your comments…Like, seriously…why? Do you feed off other’s misery? Are you dementors?
But they say those things out of habit, because it was what society told them before, and so they got pressured into settling. Half the time, their own lives are actually miserable, and I feel that alone needs to discredit the next marriage advice that comes out of their mouth.
Yet there are many 30 and 40-year-old females who are made inadequate today just because they’re nobody’s wives and nobody’s mothers. They’re not just in South Asia, but the Middle East and Africa and China. And today I would like to take a minute to say this,
Be proud of who you are and what you’ve achieved. You’re worthy as you are, and don’t need society to love you to love yourself. You’re wonder woman.
It’s really hard to build the fortitude to overcome these comments. Especially in our societies. They just keep on coming and coming and coming. No matter how many times you hit them, they keep on coming, like tennis balls out of a machine. At some point, you just want to throw your racket away and run.
I personally try to remind myself.
The world is a place.
The world is a place.
I first saw the comment in Obama’s book, Dreams From My Father. The context in which the phrase appears is not important, because it’s such a simple statement and yet can be powerful and profound if you interpret it that way. Whenever someone says something hurtful and judgmental to me, I just remind myself that the world is a place. It’s a huge place that houses seven billion human beings other than the one who was hurting me at the moment. The world is a place; an expansive and abundant place, and this person is making judgments based on their very limited view of it.
Because the world is a beautiful place and instead of engaging with all its beautiful glory, this person chooses to waste time picking on people, bullying them, judging them and hurting them. So, yeah, instead of getting angry or hurt, all I do is end up pitying them.
Because the world is a place, and they’re missing out on it.
Growing up in suburban Connecticut, being the only brown face in a room has never fazed me. I was always the little brown girl in the corner with waist-length hair and a name that made every teacher pause, but the feeling of “otherness” captured in this line was something I knew all too well.
This feeling isn’t unique. It’s the same experience of many immigrants and first-generation South Asian Americans, and that of the main character of “The East Indian”as well.
While a work of fiction set in the 1630s, the novel paints a very real picture of immigration and race in the United States today and the human need to belong.
It is the story of Tony East Indian, inspired by a real person documented in the country’s archives as the first known East Indian in the American colonies, but who is otherwise a work of the author’s imagination and research.
The son of a courtesan from the Coromandel coast of India, Tony unwittingly finds himself as an indentured servant in the plantations of Jamestown, Virginia at just 11 years old.
He accepts “Tony” as his first name — though he doesn’t care for it — because a fellow Tamil once suggested others in the world would find his real name “too hard to utter.” Then he adopts the surname “East Indian” simply because it is thrust upon him when he arrived in Jamestown. The protagonist can no longer even recall his birth name, but soon, he accepts it as a thing of his past.
Over the course of the novel, Tony lands at the center of scandal as he works to establish a new identity as a physician. All the while, he also struggles with isolation, prejudice and the challenges of trying to maintain pieces of the culture he carried with him from abroad.
He is confused as to why Native Americans are also called “Indians” and many colonists simply label him a “moor,” a term used for North Africans or anyone with darker skin, with no context for India or its people in this new world.
He, feeling disloyal to his “many Gods,” converts from Hinduism to Christianity, believing it will give him more credibility and a sense of connection to his peers. He begins to eat meat and spend time at taverns, all in hopes of belonging, and assimilating with colonist ways.
As he comes of age and furthers his physician’s apprenticeship, Tony also begins to ponder questions of race and social class to no avail. He reflects:
“I would talk to Doctor Herman and try to understand the reason behind white skin and black and brown and, more important, what greater distinctions of wit, sensibility, and soul the differences in hue signified. I read and was taught by my master the new ideas put forth by men of learning in England and Europe on the workings of the bowels, the brain, the blood; the causes of migraines, melancholy, and madness, but I never got closer to understanding the real meaning behind what they called different races of men, and if such difference exists in any profound sense that really matters.”
Overall, in “The East Indian,” Tony becomes a man. He learns of the world’s cruelty and its kindness. He learns to work, play, love, hate, scheme, grieve and care for himself and others. But, like most immigrants, he still longs for home.
“For home is singular and unique. Everywhere else is but a stopping place, a bed in a stranger’s house, eating off plates not one’s own, an unfamiliar view from a casement,” Tony said.
When attempts to head West and find an ocean back to India fail, Tony accepts that returning to his motherland is unlikely and resolves that he must learn to adapt.
He worries his love interest, born in the colonies, will not relate to him, for “her heart did not ache for another place beyond the sea” and also wonders what the future of his children will be. Nevertheless, he is never defeated.
“I would thrive wherever the wind laid me,” says Tony. “[I] will be my own shelter, my landing place. Like a snail, I will carry home on my back, find it where I happen to be, make it from what I bear inside me.”
Leaving or even kidnapped from their homes with little to no hope of return, thousands of Indians faced journeys fraught with violence, condemnation and injustice trying to create new lives and identities away from their homeland in places like Mauritius, Fiji, Guyana, and Jamaica. However, like Tony, they also found the strength and courage to survive and establish their own cultures and communities.
While no details are known about the real Tony East Indian, Charry weaves a compelling coming-of-age tale that takes him as well as readers across three continents.
The novel, like life itself, has fast and slow moments, but it is filled with vivid, historically accurate depictions of the colonial world and moving moments that keep you rooting for the main character’s triumph.
It is this authenticity and compassion that makes “The East Indian” an invaluable modern work. There are no known first-hand accounts of the indentured or South Asian colonists in America. The only proof of the mere existence of many are the generations that have come after them.
With several years of research put into it, Charry’s “The East Indian” serves as a rare realistic portrayal of what life may have been for these individuals; the hardships they endured, and the strength they embodied. South Asian or not, it is a rich history not only worth reading but sharing and celebrating.
To learn more about Brinda Charry and her professional work visit her website. The East Indian is now available in print and audiobooks from all major book retailers.
Featured Image: Author Brinda Charry was born and raised in India before moving to the United States for graduate school two decades ago. She considers herself “a novelist-turned-academic-returned-novelist | Photo Credit: Lisa Arnold Photography
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.
The feedback from the microphone gratingly penetrated the vacant bubble I had fallen into after watching yet another performance by the youth, educating us on the benefits of Jainism. I had been daydreaming of the skits I had put on as a child, remembering the diligence with which I memorized my lines. “Why did I?” I wondered. I never truly knew what these skits were about. I knew the plot, but they all felt a little too neat to me.
Every problem had an answer; every story ended triumphantly. Victory over evil. Good deeds are rewarded. Back on stage, I saw an auntie wrapped in a sparkly red sari walking to the center of the stage, her hands folded together graciously. “Let’s put another hand together for these children!” she said, gesturing behind her. Some children sheepishly peeked out from behind the curtain. “And let’s thank their parents. Parents, it is your responsibility to bring your children to the temple. Without your involvement, our children will not know the correct way to live. It is your duty, your dharam.”
Glancing over at my mom, I could see her eyes clouding as she clapped. The weight of that word was not lost on me, and it certainly wasn’t lost on my mother. Dharam felt like a heavy word. To me, it felt like it somehow encompassed morality, duty, and culture all into one. Many religions have a version of dharam, they all define it differently, but it always seems to boil down to the same idea: a guide on how to live one’s life. I felt like it was interpreted in a much more rigid and arbitrary manner. The skit highlighted waking up early, not spending too long on your phone, and doing your homework as dharam. Growing up, some of the whims of my parents: not staying out after dark, spending too much time with our friends versus our work, and being obedient, also fell under the umbrella of dharam. Dharam was being diluted.
Dharam, when broken down into its roots, means ‘to support’. But often it would feel like the opposite of this, suffocating with heavy expectations that seemed to grow with each year. What did it mean to be a good daughter, good sister, or good person? How had a guide on how to live life turned into the only correct way to live at all?
I remember telling my mother I wasn’t sure I believed in religion anymore. My mom was driving me back from the temple, and it no longer felt peaceful to me; no longer felt right. Walking around after the pooja, speaking to all of the aunties and uncles…I felt out of place. All of them told me how lucky I was that my parents were such pillars of our faith. They forced me to promise that I would come to the temple every time I was in town when I knew deep down that I wouldn’t. It felt wrong lying; it felt wrong to pretend that I was religious when I wasn’t anymore.
My mother’s nostrils flared, but she kept her eyes on the road. She increased the speed of the windshield wipers even though it was only drizzling slightly.
“How can you say that? How can you reject a god that has given you so much?” she fumed. “You know nothing about Jainism. You know nothing about what you are just throwing away. You don’t know how lucky you are to be born into this religion.” I let her fume. My change of heart hadn’t come out of thin air. I hadn’t prayed in years. I only went to the temple for my mother’s sake. Deep down, I think my mom knew I didn’t have a strong attachment to my religion anymore, but she didn’t want to admit it. Maybe she thought dragging me to the temple would somehow make it habitual for me; a part of my routine. But religion cannot be forced, and no matter how hard I tried, it didn’t work for me.
Maybe part of the shock of my disbelief was the fact that secularism feels non-existent in India. Indian soap operas emphasized the proper actions of a good daughter-in-law, wife, and mother, and villainized those who deviated from traditional roles and values. Even progressive shows such as “Anupamaa,“ which shows a housewife divorcing her husband, entering the workforce, and creating her own dance studio, showed that divorce is only acceptable in extreme circumstances. Failing to impart these values to your children is viewed as a failure in your role of a good parent.
But my mother is an amazing mother. She raised me to learn to question the world around me. She fostered the importance of working hard and being humble. She taught me to be a good person and care for others, not because I was obligated to by my faith or karma, but because it was what I should do. She supported me and taught me to support others, which I believe is the meaning of dharam. She did not fail her dharam as a mother, but because of how dharam was presented to her, she will never know that.