ONE NIGHT IN YUZHNO-SAKHALINSK
As we walk to the locker room, I am faced with my first cultural shock. We’re supposed to enter the steam room in our birthday suits! “It’s totally normal here, and it’s all men,” quips Victor, who will remain, 18 years later, one of my closest friends. Just outside the steam room, I see a group in their early 20s and 30s, each one looking like they live in a gym. They sit by a table with beer, squid rings, chips, sausages and most importantly, dried korushka or smelt (fish), an integral part of the Sakhalin experience. Some were expecting to see an Indian man, so there is no surprise, but a prepared welcome with practiced Englishlanguage phrases. Others are fascinated to see such a visible foreigner, in a place that was closed to outsiders from 1945 till the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Either way, I feel welcome, and the more generous of the lot even make it a point to teach me the worst swear words in the language, adding a discretionary note to use them cautiously outside the building. Between rounds of beer, steam sessions and dips in a cold pool, I make friends with a group of people who are as excited to talk to me as I am about engaging with them, even with my for-now limited Russian skills. “Don’t worry about the language, after a few rounds; we’ll all understand each other better,” a new acquaintance assures me.
Indeed, between rapidly disappearing bottles of Russkiy Standart vodka and Korsakovskoye light beer, our conversations swing wildly from old Hindi films to life in India—another land destined to star stupendously in my strange immigrant life. Adding fume to my post-sauna, happy liquor daze is the realisation that here, 8,000 kilometres away from the country, my inheritance of Indianness actually excited people! It’s a far cry from what I was used to.
A DESI KID IN NEW YORK
Jump back 16 years. It is the mid ’80s in New York. As an Indian kid whose father found a job as a banker in Park Avenue, for years I found myself lonely in the mean streets of NYC—the only pop culture reference of my Indianness relegated to the questionably-accented character of Apu from The Simpsons. India, not having sided with United States during the Cold War, was neither perceived nor showcased in a positive light in America at that time. From initially having to explain the difference between ‘feather Indians’ (an old street slur for Native Americans) and ‘dot Indians,’ (that’s me right there) I was promptly othered as ‘Hindoo’ (some still spell it like that) and ‘Ghandi’. The racism also came from other minorities in New York, each person trying desperately to find his or her place in that monster puzzle called the American Dream.
Children adjust, and soon enough, I internalised the racism. I would morph into a proper young Republican when I was around White kids, and a die-hard basketball player among my African-American peers. An hour with my Black friends— one of whom, Randy, I’d befriended as my protector on the streets—and I’d become a miniature version of Heavy D, a rap sensation of the ’90s. Between the jacket-and-tie facade of my Queens education, and the relatively safe space of colour with the ‘Brothers of the Hood,’ my life felt more parallel than Walter Mitty’s.
BOMBAY BLUES, COLD MOVES
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