We were ten years old, and Hannah Montana was still our idol. We were singing into hairbrushes, wearing tank tops that fit our barely-there curves in a way that made people stare. Do I look fat? I would ask, and they would always assure me no, no, not at all, or at least not that much.
“Being cruel was fun. We did it to each other a lot. Those were the days when words meant more and less than they do now, when calling someone a bitch was the most daring thing you could do, and calling someone fat the most hateful. If you really, really despised a bitch, you would call them fat. “
My hair was a problem, in this world of cruelty and words. The Hannah Montana tank tops clung to my stomach, bigger, at the time, than my breasts, and I thought that was the problem but I was wrong. My hair was a bigger problem.
Can I braid your hair? This was the ultimate gesture of friendship. My thin blonde friend—thin like a reed, blonde like the sun; I was a poet even back then—would sink her hands into another friend’s hair—this one thin and brunette, thin like a willow, brunette like chocolate—and her hands would move up and down, in and out, stitching and sewing, massaging and weaving. It was an intricate game to play, this teasing and holding and caressing. Waterfall braids, fishtail braids. Whatever was in vogue back then.
But me with my curls and my frizz, no one wanted to touch my hair. My Indian hair. No, no, don’t worry, you’re not that fat and you don’t look that Indian. That was their compliment to me. That I didn’t look that different from them. That, if you squinted in the right light, maybe I wouldn’t be Indian at all.
Color is visible. Color is visceral. There’s no way to get around that. It’s the most primitive way of categorizing, segregating, and ultimately dehumanizing humans. You can never wear a white person’s skin and parade around in it, the way you could with many other markers of difference—class, for example, like in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro when Susanna can simple change clothes with the Countess and adopt her life and privilege.
We can try to be white, and we do. But we never will be. That’s why we hate them and we worship them in equal measures. We want to be them. They colonized us, looted us, contaminated our culture and our land and our economy. They cost us our bodies and our lives. And yet.
And yet we slather our faces with Fair and Lovely. And yet we mentally take notes on the way friends talk in “Friends.” And yet we force our coarse curls into flat irons, breaking our spirits and our ends, trying to imitate the glossy glass sheets of blonde we lust after.
But being white is not the end goal. No. The end goal is this: we want to be better than them. That’s why. That’s why we push our kids to do more and more: to memorize words for the spelling bee until 2 AM, and practice roundhouse kicks until their limbs are sore. It’s so that we can beat them at their own game by being so good they can’t dismiss us anymore. Even if that means working until our eyes are red and watering and our necks cramp as we hunch over our textbooks and our hands jerk from the pressure of the pencils we grip tightly, so tightly.
I am supposed to be honest. I am supposed to speak up, tell the truth, tell my truth. It’s difficult to do when, clinging to the culture that is mine and not mine, I feel like a fraud.
The first time I remember going to India, I am eight and small, but in the too-small seat in the too-small plane on the way to the land of my almond eyes, frizzy curls, and brownness, I feel large and cumbersome. The trip is cool, dry, pleasant; I spend it watching Hindi movies starring actresses that looked like white, beautiful versions of what I could be, and eating plane food that isn’t as bad as people make it out to be. From my window, I can see the Statue of Liberty, and privately—not publically, never publically, because I am not a terrorist—I can think that she is not as impressive as people make her out to be.
We land, and I anticipate a homecoming, or a lack thereof. But when my family meets us in India, they look at me and I know that they are surprised, because they expected me to be beautiful. I am American, after all. I should not be chubby or have a complexion destined for acne. I should have straight, shiny brown-black hair all the way down my back; my skin should glow white in the suffocating sun, like the skin I saw in the plane movies, the closest Indians can come to whiteness. But I don’t, and they’re mystified. What’s the whole point of going to America, then?
My cousins are clad in clothes that try to be what they thought mine would be. Bellbottom jeans, fake Hollister shirts. Bright hellos perfected by years of studying American sitcoms. I stutter a greeting to them with unfamiliar words that feel clunky in my mouth. My inflections aren’t right, but they stifle their giggles.
We are all trying. We are all trying so hard.
This is a blueprint for dating as an Indian girl in America. This will tell you everything you need to know to secure a husband who likes his rotis perfectly round and his wife perfectly thin.
These dates. Oh, these dates.
They will begin with his ginger gaze crawling from my split-ends to my callused toes, so I will immediately start rehearsing my coffee order and my getaway speech. Of course, when I finally make my way to the counter, after practicing saying one tall caramel macchiato, please approximately infinity times in my head, what stumbles out of my mouth will be, “Um … ah …. Can I have the caramel one, please? The hot one? Yes, that … no, the small one, please. Tall, that’s right. Yes, that’ll be all, thank you,” and the look on the barista’s face will be two pumps pity, one pump disdain.
He will be a chai tea man. More so, he’ll be a chai tea man who says, “One chai tea, please and thank you,” with a smug I’m-better-than-you look that only the happily ignorant—who don’t understand the inherent redundancy in their “chai tea” order and don’t care to learn—can wear with impunity. I will have known it even before I’d met him, by instinct and his online profile, the same way I’d known him to be a photogenic but very ugly lawyer-to-be whose arrogance and insecurity went hand-in-hand.
There will not be a second date.
I am fat. There is a narrative I’m trying to create here; I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I know a big part of it is that I am fat. I am fat like I am smart, fat like I am kind, fat like I am brown. I have spent my whole life trying to fold myself into smaller and smaller pieces to be the tiniest version of myself I can possibly be, but I am fat.
I am fat when I sit and fill the whole chair. I am fat when my hips knock over chairs. I am fat when jeans tear at my thighs. I am fat when people pity me and tell me I’m not. I am fat when people are concerned and tell me I am. I am fat and I am Indian, and that’s two strikes, but I’m still out.
I am in art class, and I’m tracing my face in graphite. My eyelashes curl up, my nose curls down. I have a hand propping up my cheek, pushing up the adipose to meet my eye. I am a physical presence. My face is large and I am large, and regardless of what the judges will say about my pencil lines or my shading, they cannot deny that I am large.
And then there is the name.
If I have a daughter, I will name her Tara.
Tara is an easy name, a name to appease the East and the West, a name to harmoniously integrate to very different cultures. It’s rooted in India—Tara for star, Tara for precious star, Tara for my star—but palatable for America.
Tara is a name that won’t cause teachers to stumble and stutter during roll-call. It’s a name that will help my daughter introduce herself confidently, to speak out in class unhesitatingly, to shake an interviewer’s hand and not worry about correcting his pronunciation. She will be able to hear her name in a way I have not: her friends will say it to her face instead of avoiding it, her partner will whisper it to her in between kisses, her professors won’t hesitate to call on it during discussions.
It’s a cop-out name.
Finally. Let me tell you a story. I am four years old, and we’re still living in India. My grandfather smells of smoke and earth, and he’s telling me about the mango tree in the backyard. Me, I’m curled up by his knees, my back pressed hard against iron railings on the humid porch. I’m listening physically, listening with my body and with my eyes and with my heart, because we are moving far away and I will not hear this story again. Some part of me knows this.
When my grandfather was young, he had acres of trees in his garden, but his favorite was his mother’s homegrown mango. Every summer, when the fruit grew golden, he and his brothers would climb up the trees like the monkeys that imitated them, sometimes eating the mangoes while still tangled up in its branches. His mother could do amazing things with mango: fry it and serve it as fritters, cook it into curry, pickle it, juice it, chop it up and serve it cold. Mango, to him, was magic. He was a small boy in a small village, but the only dream back then was to grow up and have mango trees in his backyard. That’s why, he tells me, he loves mangoes so much. When he smells mangoes, he knows he’s home.
He asks me if I understand and I nod, up and down, up and down. Yes, I understand. Yes, I do. I analyze the mango blossom he hands me—the creamy white petals ornamented with yellow dashes of color, the browning edges crushed by my overeager grip. I bring it to my nose, inhale deeply, committing it to memory. The smell of mangoes. The smell of home.
We sit out there, my grandfather and I, until the white light of noon melts into gold, until the sky looks like pink lips stained with the juice of pomegranate seeds. Chirping insects permeate the moist air heavy with rain as I lean on my grandfather’s knees and watch the sun die. My childhood: Crayola skies and humid nights.
Ten years later, my grandfather is dead. The stories had faded from his mind, replaced by a vast nothingness that engulfed names, faces, and memories.
I visit the old house with my parents after the funeral, and I find almost nothing left. A heap of wood and brick, home to a few stray cats and dogs undoubtedly infected with all sorts of unspeakable diseases. My chest constricts.
I pick up the soil of my childhood, rub it between my fingers as those quiet evenings filled with my grandfather’s steady voice and the fragrance of mango blossoms wash over me. My hands run over something hard and bumpy in the earth, and I realize I’ve unearthed the mango tree.
Because I have promised that I will never forget, I know that my grandfather said planting the roots of a mango tree will grow a new one. So I pack the earthy mess in my suitcase, desperate to see his magic grow in my home.
The roots get confiscated, because this is an American customs rule: “No foreign invasive species.”