Discover more from Chai Masala
Repost from the archives
Administrative note: I disappeared for two months and feel slightly guilty but I am going to follow the great advice here and 1. largely ignore said disappearance and 2. repeat to myself under my breath that writing for fun shouldn’t follow a schedule. I had been working on two posts on suffering and figuring how to spend our time on earth when life got a little too real over the last two months and this Substack fell far off my list of priorities. It’s back on for now as I engage in some summer-time reflections.
As a chronically online person who has been shouting into the void of the internet for the last decade, I often wonder what all this content creation leads to. Given I don’t foresee a viral future for anything I create, what is the point? Is anyone reading / watching / listening? For how long can or should one create for themselves? If it’s for myself, what’s the point of putting it out in public?
I don’t have an answer to these questions but every now and then, kind emails from strangers motivate me to largely stay on this path. One piece in particular seems to have resonated recurrently with a narrow slice of privileged but poor-by-American-standards international students who came here from India for undergrad. I wrote “Diaspora Blues” in a creative writing class in my junior year, posted it on Medium, and largely forgot about it. It seems to have found its way through this (admittedly small) community and I am quite grateful for the nice words students send me now and then.
I received another email about Diaspora Blues recently and it prompted me to revisit the piece as I navigate the start of another chapter in my own diaspora life. There are many things I’d change about the essay today – the tense structure is confusing, my descriptions overly romantic (but perhaps accurately reflect the angst of a 21-year-old) – but I am intrigued by how much it continues to resonate four years after it was written, during which time I graduated from college during a pandemic, started and quit two full-time jobs, became an aunt, and built a life in a new city.
I wanted to share the essay here while I continue working on new posts (including one on my relationship with The Reluctant Fundamentalist today, as I finally grow older than the protagonist). The following words are from 2019 Surbhi, completely unedited. I hope you enjoy :)
A steaming cup of chai appears at my desk as the sun sets over the squalid, smog-coated winter skies of Delhi. The chirping of birds as they make their way home punctuates the dull drum of traffic and high-pitched honking in the distance. The acrid smell of evening smog, along with my cup of tea and the melody of the birds is endearing, a far cry from the clear, deathly silence of winter in New Haven. Delhi’s pollution may get a bad rap but at least the birds don’t flee from it.
I visit home twice a year, a sad contract I signed with the universe when I decided to go to college seven thousand miles from the city I grew up in. I average five to seven months between these journeys. Each visit home demarcates a chapter in the story of my time at Yale. When abroad I experience people, cultures and ideas. In Delhi, I internalize those events to understand the previous chapter and prepare for the next one. Against the steady background of home, the changes in my own personality are accentuated. I notice the American lilt in my accent, my liberal use of “excuse me’s” and “thank you’s,” my trouble in comprehending lakhs and crores, and how I employ “how are you doing” more as a greeting and less as a question. I am more critical about Indian politics and more aware of the quirks of Delhi’s sarkari culture. I notice the ubiquity of white sedans topped with red lights and the sprawling economy of stenographers, chaiwallas, drivers and assistants that exists to service the self-important bureaucrats of the world’s largest democracy.
My chai has developed a coating of coagulated cream and is lukewarm as I swallow it in three big gulps. The moment is reminiscent of my days of cramming for the Indian school-leaving exams. I wouldn’t leave my desk for hours on end and forget to eat till my exhausted mother walked in holding a plate of roti and bhindi. As I stare at the remnants of duct tape that held together the periodic table and differential equations which clung to the wall above my desk, I become wistful. I viscerally feel the passage of time — my brother’s wedding and grandfather’s funeral happening in my absence or only token presence, my parents growing older, and the dreadful sense that my country is moving on while my mind’s image of it remains static.
When I first came to America, I remember being flummoxed by the regressive notions of India that remain alive in parts of the Indian-American community — no sir, women can walk around Delhi, and yes, people do marry outside of their caste without being kicked out of their families. And yet, I find myself falling into similar patterns of thinking. The India I grew up in was at least superficially more secular than it is today, though when American friends comment on majoritarian tendencies in the country’s politics, I end up taking personal offence on behalf of and vociferously defending each of my 1.25 billion countrymen. My feeling of foreignness at home extends to my relationship with the land I have willingly — almost lovingly — adopted. Yale has opened its arms, giving me opportunities I never could have imagined. And yet, here too, I end up second-guessing myself at every turn.
In India, I live in a clean, crime-free neighbourhood (albeit in an average sized apartment — a full-size home in Delhi remains unattainable for us), went to a private high school, have parents with graduate degrees and respectable jobs in the Indian civil services. At Yale, however, I cannot help but feel a slight disdain for my counterparts who’ve had analogous experiences — college preparatory school, an upbringing in manicured Washington suburbs, and a well-off, well-connected family. When I find myself holding down three jobs in addition to a full course load, all to fulfil the student income contribution (SIC) that came bundled with my financial aid as a “gift,” I feel a sense of cognitive dissonance. How can I be so socially privileged in one country and so financially bankrupt in another? In economics we spend much time talking about purchasing power parities, but while inhabiting these two worlds, I bear the real burden of our nominal learning. Before my privileged American friends, I, the child of Indian government representatives, enthusiastically speak of growing up as a third culture kid (TCK). However, I leave out the details about going to local schools in each adopted country because we couldn’t bear to flesh out the fees for international schools. On the other hand, conversations with friends also plagued with the curse of the SIC focus on topics of credit limits, bank balances, and student wages. In The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid writes, “status, as in any traditional, class-conscious society, declines more slowly than wealth.” Yale has helped me attain this position through elite talks, secret societies and acquaintance with scions of billion-dollar empires, albeit at the cost of unfailingly reminding me of the unbridgeable, gaping gap between my societal status and material wealth in this country.
As I put my cup down on the wooden study table, which once belonged to my brother and is chipped from years of use, my grandmother walks into the room. She is visiting us for my winter break and begins nagging me for reading in bad light. Hamid’s rendition of the Pakistani and American flags flashes on the screen of my Kindle. I feel irritated by her interruption, and then immediately agitated at myself for feeling that way. During the semester, I romanticise the idea of coming home — Indian food being cooked for me and people speaking in a known tongue with familiar mannerisms. I think of asking my grandmother about our family history and cataloguing it somehow, before it is irretrievably lost with her generation. And yet, when I am actually home I sequester myself behind piles of books and don’t exchange more than pleasantries with my family, returning to familiar forms of escapism I practiced while growing up. During school, I had the hackneyed dream children tend to cherish — to leave, travel the world, meet new people, learn fascinating things. And I was lucky enough to do all of these things in brilliant circumstances. Yet I was disappointed to find a life that met every expectation I had, but fell short of all that I had not thought of before.
I first read Hamid’s book in sophomore year of high school. I have since returned to it again and again, as an anxious pre-frosh, an angsty rising sophomore, and now a jaded junior. The book’s protagonist, Changez, is the closest I have ever come to seeing myself in print. He captures the lives of a small subset of South Asian international students attending elite schools in America. Changez is bestowed with the American Dream — a high-paying job on Wall Street and a white girlfriend called Erica. With the backdrop of 9/11, he is seemingly radicalised as tensions simmering below the surface boil over (though the book never gives this away). Like Changez, who attended Princeton, I have been changed by America and by the distance from home. I am more watchful (from “feeling out of place”), adaptable (my closest family is two days away), and skeptical (to the point of being cynical). I am also lonely in a fundamental way — b̵e̵l̵i̵e̵v̵i̵n̵g̵ knowing that few people at home share my circumstances, and the rare times I can relate to a life story, the resonance is dulled by giant gulfs in personality. I know that I will never be Indian or American. Like a cypress tree infected by a strangling banyan, my past self will eventually become mere support for my permanent, thriving foreignness.
Upon starting college, I began a photography project to catalogue my experience. I found the project’s home on Instagram. My first post from August 21, 2016, is captioned, “Day 1: I MET SASHA PUP THIRTY MINUTES INTO REACHING CAMPUS. OMG THERE IS A GOD #LIFEGOALSACCOMPLISHED.” These posts, numbered by days away from home, capture the changes in my personality as a function of the experiences I photograph. Now at Day 886 of the project, my obsession with this cataloguing signals something I think I always knew, but have only now started to realise. I am deeply afraid of the passage of time, especially the passage of time away from home as I become increasingly alien and my surroundings decreasingly familiar. A post from January 30, 2017, the start of my second semester of college, reads,
‘Day 162: “so here you are
too foreign for home
too foreign for here
never enough for both”’
I return my empty cup to the kitchen, eyeing my burgundy suitcase on the way. It is packed to my airline’s twenty-three kilogram limit with CTC tea, a sieve to go with it, Maggi, two-minute paneer makhani meals, neem face wash, and incense sticks. Twenty-three kilograms of home that I can carry on with me, a few more times till I will have to carry twenty-three kilograms back from Yale to a home now foreign.
Here is one note I received in 2021: I discovered your piece Diaspora Blues somewhere after my first quarter at university and I don't think anything has made me break down so quickly: the perfection with how you captured how I was literally living my dream life and so fundamentally unhappy and out of place in it was just perfect. I'm a third year now and I keep coming back to it every now and then to remember that this experience and feeling might not be common but at least it isn't only me going through it. I come home and hear my friends who stayed here for uni feel so different and realize it's me who's changed, not them.
Inspired by poem by Ijeoma Umebinyuo which first appeared in her compilation, Questions for Ada, 2015.