Saturday, April 25, 2009

The slippery sense of self

I just started reading Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates a most depressing beginning for a weekend (the theme of the book is marital stress due to sheer boredom) for I promptly began to detest having to do laundry, dust make beds and such mundane house tasks. What is the friggin' point, my mind keeps saying to me nastily. Useless, suburban curses, these tasks.

How easy it is to question I then begin to think, one's sense of self. What a waste of an intelligent mind to do these foolish tasks. So is it these tasks that define you, your job that defines you? Your partner, your kids? Your work, your hobbies, the meals you churn out, your ideas? What?

It was a funny moment but sort of thought provoking too. My son who is four plays a lot of pretend games. In it he casts himself in a role and me in another, even if I am not actively participating, I have a role to play in his game. You be superman, I'll be spiderman he'll say and take off across the room making sounds that in his opinion spiderman might make. Then suddenly since last month he started saying, I'll be Batman, you be Batman's mom. Or I am Lightening McQueen, you be McQueen's mom. I used to be Mater, Doc or Sally even but now I am the mom! I have become Nirupa Roy! The (suffering) mom in all the seventies Hindi movies. I can't remember a scene in a film where she wasn't crying. Of course I am taking a small incident and making a mountain out of it but like I said it was just a funny moment at best, thought provoking at worst, I suppose in my low moments.

The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation, Thoreau said. I am not for the most part one of that mass, I like to think, or am I? Are we all just one sliver, one slip one firing, one paycheck, one failure away from being part of this desperate group? What a gloomy thought if we are.

I thank my father's genes for giving me resilience and tenacity as qualities I cherish most in myself, a sense of humor in seeing something funny in failure. But sometimes those have been overused, shredded and raw and my sense of self comes to question. Who am I? What purpose life? Why anything? All that wonderfully painful stuff.

Back to Revolutionary Road. I am now at the place the hero is contemplating having an affair with a voluptuous office colleague. Now the writer in me makes me roll my eyes. Not that again. Of course I must go on and see what makes this novel a classic in the words of some. But I also begin to think is it just that all of us are so similar that we keep making the same mistakes, the same cliched foolish acts over and over, never learning from our fellow human beings mistakes. And the answer is a quiet yes. That is what makes us human, no? We make new mistakes, for sure but in the end, every story is either Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet or the Mahabharata. Over and over and over again. It is a relief and yet its also kinda a let down. Like a poor end to an otherwise good movie.

I have put down Revolutionary Road as well as my dust pan to collect myself. Housework maybe a pain but it must not affect one's sense of self. That would be idiotic.

The best among us do one thing and one thing well. They do not accept defeat. If things are going wrong or life has become one endless chore, they stop, or get up from a fall, dust themselves and go on. Create a new sense of self, a new beginning to make life interesting again.

This maybe a low brow source for inspiration but its a good one anyway. One of my favorite TV detectives says this in an episode of Remington Steele. 'His friend is standing on the sea shore awaiting the arrival of a ship he owns and has worked to own for maybe a decade or more. As the ship comes to shore and applause from his friends rings loud, the ship bursts into flames. The crowd becoms silent. The man, however, bursts out laughing. An honest full bellied laugh and says. "Forget it. Its all right." Why? "Why because its all new again!" Time to make a new beginning.

And why am I thinking of new beginnings, mulling on my sense of self? Well, to put things in mundane perspective, I am getting ready to send my novel out for its last shot at publication and must understand that this time too, despite all the work, all the tears and sleepless nights, it might not sell. And I too must then, a few months from now surrunded by rejections from publishers let out a belly of laughs and say "Well, no worries for its all new again now isn't it?"

And I always have the role of Nirupa Roy waiting for me in my son's games. ;-)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Indo American relations

I have lived in America since 1996. It has been the usual roller coaster ride that life tends to be. Ups, crashing downs, and thrown in to make it interesting, lots of in between lulls. And although this is an oft discussed issue especially among immigrants of color, race hasn't yet been an issue I have had to address as in racial tension unless one counts the single occasion when a nasty car wash guy called me an f!@#ing Indian. He has since come to a bad end, of this I am sure.

Other than that even post 9/11 we never felt racially vulnerable. Well a few eggs were thrown at our home following that attack. But the bozos were probably stupid teenagers who don't know any better.

However there is one thing that is in my opinion a source of pressure being a person of a different color and speaking with a non-yankee accent. If one is black or white and speaks American, one blends in for the most part. However being brown and obviously "foreign", there is the pressure to be a stellar representative of one's country.

I mean I feel like I have to act a certain way, especially with strangers to represent what a stellar Indian is and sometimes it is wearisome. People are always asking me what the situation is like in Bombay and Kashmir. How about those religious riots, are there really slums like in Slumdog Millionaire, what about the bomb blasts? And I find I need to be something of an expert, a diplomat even, to answer everything to their satisfaction.

Its the sort of constant pressure that one doesn't know one is under, sort of like an ambient noise that isn't apparent until its gone. I spoke to someone at a party one day, a charming man, well read man who said that he was an accepting man but the only problem he had was with Muslims. Naturally, I asked him why? He went on to tell me how a few Muslims had been cold to him when he wanted to casually socialize with them at the grocery store or someplace. Now this is what I think. Either those few individuals were rude jerks or just in a bad mood. Would he have said the same thing if they'd just been the more blendable type of people? I wonder. But you see how he made an all encompassing generalization despite being such an "open" man about the entire religion! Indians do the same thing. One grocery clerk is rude to them and they are convinced its a racial attack. The grocery clerk probably had PMS, did you think of that, I want to retort.

Perhaps I am a more sensitive individual, a sort of people pleaser, but I worry about these things. What if I am the first or third Indian someone encounters? Lets say the first two were sweet and I am in a bad mood. That colors the opinion this individual has of Indians by 33%! Or if the previous two encounters were with Indians who were jerks then the impression I make has suddenly reached paramount importance.

There is another side to this issue, a lighter side, at least since I find it amusing. I am often told I am not like other Indians in that I have somewhat mastered the art of bantering. Bantering is an art that only Americans are such experts at. Bantering and self deprecation. Try that with an average Indian and you'll be greeted with glassy stares or quick re-assurances, 'don't worry, you're not so bad.' Un-self conscious humor doesn't come easily or indeed at all to people of Indian, make that Asian origin. Now throw in an American who has taken that casual breeziness to an art form and unleashes it upon a stodgy Indian, disaster is all one can hope to expect.

I took my parents to visit an older American couple for dinner some years ago. I have known this couple for ages. They are like a second set of parents to me and a moment of cultural clash of gargantuan proportions arose when our hosts showed my parents around their house and stopped outside their bedroom when the hostess remarked, "And there in that room, the most passionate love in the world is made." Now it is important to note here that Indians do not talk about sex. Oh no. And older Indians, it is as if such a thing doesn't exist. And yet here in the room filled with people of an average age of sixty five, a salty remark had been made. Naturally, my parents froze. I wanted to giggle and in any other circumstance would have been glad to provide an equally saucy rejoinder but in front of my dad? Are you kidding me? My husband and I looked at each other's toes. My father's stare was fixed on a wall somewhere. My mother began to rearrange her sari. My friends were obviously wondering what the hell was wrong!

Luckily, that most awkward of silences lasted only one interminable minute after which my father un-glassified his stare, turned to the hostess and asked in a most formal, voice, "and this here, is it the bathroom?"