Falling Behind - Durgapur, New York

A year has now gone by since my daughter was born. It is as good an excuse as any to take stock, since she is growing up in a place that I cannot stop regarding with extreme ambivalence. It is a place where strangers become familiar and family, inevitably, is a little strange. So this will be a little essay about immigration and procreation, and about children and parents in provincial towns and the world city.

Of the various cities where I have lived, New York is not the ugliest. It comes close, but there are saving graces like Prospect Park and the view of the sunset from my rooftop. The climate is miserable for half the year, and the nearest wilderness is the state of New Jersey: there is no desert, no mountains. But fall is wonderful and even the summer has its sweaty pleasures, like endless evenings of ice clinking in a glass while a breeze comes in off the Hudson. The people suck very badly. Not only do they resemble an assortment of raccoons and possums, they are sullen, abrasive and unintelligent. (The check-out girls in the grocery stores are the best examples. Every encounter leaves me awestruck.) The native accents – by which I mean the Bugs Bunny speech of old Brooklynites, and the many variations on Rosie Perez that one hears in Queens – are particularly grating. Traffic is horrible; I can think of no silver lining there. New Yorkers are not only the worst drivers in America, it has never occurred to them that gridlock, rampant double-parking and lanes with no shoulders call for small vehicles, not SUVs. I would not willingly own a car in this city, and have long since fallen behind in my knowledge of cars. Cars are another life that doesn’t matter anymore. (It amazes me that at one point in my life, back when I was a Californian, I knew the number of g-forces that any new car could sustain when cornering, and planned life accordingly.)

But my corner of Brooklyn – Greenwood Heights, now rapidly being absorbed into Park Slope – is also the closest thing to a neighborhood that I have known in thirty years. On the ten-minute walk from my home to the gym, I can count on being greeted by at least five neighbors: first, the motorcycle enthusiast sitting in his garage fondling his latest acquisition, then the legless man on his porch just around the corner, then the Algerian brothers hanging out in the doorway of their shop, then the homeless guy in the park (who has survived, against all odds, through winter after winter), then the old lady with the sweet-faced beagle at the corner of 7th and Windsor. If I walk in the other direction towards the bars on 5th Avenue or the cafes on 6th, I walk past two friendly off-duty bartenders before I have gone three blocks. (Alas, I know their names, and they know me.)

Coming to New York was the climax of a long expansion. Durgapur, the city where I lived until I was fourteen, was in some ways an Indian version of Mayberry (or an Americanized Malgudi), albeit with three hundred thousand people. People knew each other, it was impossible to get lost without being quickly found and returned to your owner, and children lived in cocoons of total safety and familiarity. Neighborhoods – a series of orderly company townships – were absolutely stable: nobody moved away unless somebody died, nobody thought seriously about changing jobs. Our mothers had known our friends since the latter were babies and continued to be feared by the ex-babies. To misappropriate a German word, our world was relentlessly gemütlich: cozy. The fathers all worked for the organizations that went into the alphabet soup of Indian industry: DSP, ASP, DVC, AVB, CMERI, DPL, DTPS, FCI, PCBL, MAMC. They came from similar middle-class, engineering backgrounds. There was no great wealth or poverty. Within a limited range of variations, their salaries were similar: enough for comfortable lives of modest desires in an economy that prioritized steel plants and research laboratories over TV sets. We had a car, but it was twenty years old. Nobody that I knew had a new one. It was all distinctly Indian and quite novel. Our parents came from all over the India and spoke many different languages, but the children all spoke a relaxed mix of English, Hindi and Bengali. The older ones knew some Punjabi obscenities, and it left us with the idea that Punjabi is fundamentally obscene.

There was never any question in anybody’s mind that the shape of our lives was temporary. Durgapur was a place of transience, where one grew up and then left:  a cocoon for Nehru’s fantastic awake-at-midnight butterflies, dusted with industrial pollution. The Mayberry-ness of it was deceptive, but it was romantic all the same. Nehru aside, our cultural-historical parents were the American New Dealers: the men who dreamed up the Tennessee Valley Authority (that inspired the Damodar Valley Corporation, which, along with steel, was the bedrock of Durgapur), and Joseph Allen Stein, the socialist architect who fell in love with Nehru and became an improvised Indian. Stein was a Midwesterner, a San Franciscan and a New Yorker who went east in 1952, looking for a frontier. How can I not be fond of him? His footprints are not famous buildings in New York City, but the Steel Township in Durgapur, and subsequently, the India International Centre and Habitat Centre in New Delhi. We walked in those footprints. Our parents were not fanatics but they were not cynics either: they took nation-building seriously. It was the same in the other sooty cities that came up in twentieth-century India: Rourkela, Bhilai, Bokaro, Jamshedpur, Chittaranjan, Chandigarh. Emblems of the nation of science and socialism, we were simultaneously cosmopolitan and insular: startling novelty, sleepily going nowhere. One would have to look at the Soviet Union to find another example of this kind of urbanity.

It is, of course, possible and even likely that these places never existed. There can be no doubt that the classless world of engineers was an elaborate fantasy, in which the underclass was only better hidden, more effectively tucked away, than in older Indian cities. And no doubt our parents lived with anxieties and terrors that belied their modest-but-comfortable salaries, and of which the children were only dimly aware, if at all. Later on, in the final stages, there were whispers of broken marriages and drug addiction. Whenever I have returned to Durgapur, I have wanted to run away as fast as possible: appalled by the sprawl, depressed by the overwhelming shabbiness, disconcerted by the gap – and also the proximity – between what I remembered and what I was seeing. Yet, objectively, the place is bigger, richer, more thriving now than ever before. There are shopping malls and multiplexes. I have never been able to decide whether the apparent shabbiness is a real consequence of congestion and decay, the eating away of the city’s remaining open spaces, or merely in my head: the shock of confronting childhood retrospectively. A bit of both, probably.

When people who begin in such places end up in New York, it is the closing of a circle. It surprises me to realize that some of the kids I had known in kindergarten, or in the fifth grade, in that dusty nowhereland are now on the other side of the planet but still on the same side as me, a short subway ride away. We can face each other over a beer in lower Manhattan, almost overwhelmed by this circle-closing business. ‘I remember this banker from when we were nine years old in a town where our parents were pioneers. Almost everyone that I knew, he knew also.’ But more than that there is a sense of inevitability about it. The expanded world – the process of growing up cosmopolitan – has collapsed back upon itself. Once again, I am a non-driver. Once again, the comfort zone of everyday life is an intimate circle of neighborhood parks and rooftops, living-room sofa and local pub, uncles and aunties who never seem to move a yard. But that restless old desire to get out, to find someplace bigger, to seek out strangers, has more or less gone away. There is no place to live that is bigger and more filled with strangers than New York City. If Durgapur was a place to grow up, New York is a place where one can die, more or less content.

For that reason, parallels between growing up in a Nehruvian backwater and growing up in New York can only be metaphorical: the bad poetry of middle-aged nostalgia. Falling behind is what is real, but so is the impossibility of going back. Here at the center of the world, Mira will acquire a kind of provinciality, barely suspecting the existence of margins – which are also lost centers – where children saw letters like CMERI and DVC as the natural building blocks of cities and lives. It will be very hard for her to imagine Stein standing on a dimly lit railway platform in the middle of the jungle, dreaming of socialist traffic circles.

And then there is the matter of language. What languages will Mira speak? English, of course, and perhaps some Spanish or French. Some German, if I can swing it. She will probably avoid the fate of talking like Bugs Bunny and, with a bit of luck, Rosie Perez. But it is unlikely that she will have more than a smattering of Bengali or Hindi. She will almost certainly never be proficient in literary Bengali, or appreciate the humor of the minefield where the literary meets the colloquial, or be able to tell the difference between ghoti and bangal. Nor will she have that marvelous ability to improvise continuously and switch in mid-sentence, without effort or deliberation, between Bengali, English and Urdu.

Who has fallen behind here? Who will have lost something? Not Mira – just the father. The children of immigrants ‘lose’ their parents’ languages, but because the languages are not their own, they miss nothing. There is, at most, a mild regret that can be made good in college. Even parents don’t feel the loss equally or predictably. There is no shortage of middle-class Indian immigrants in America who speak to their children only in English, as if the little buggers might not learn English otherwise. This is understandable when the parents come from different Indian states and English is their shared language, but when we are talking about two Bengali parents, or two Hindi-speaking parents, I find it almost inexplicable, and I must admit, perverse. The only explanation that comes to mind is that language, as a source of self-hood, is not especially important to these people.

If that is granted, then a certain logic becomes discernible. Among Indians who become NRIs (the fabled Non-Resident Indian, which is not just a signifier of ethnicity-in-emigration but a middle- and upper-class condition to be found exclusively in high-value destinations like North America, Britain and Australia), language comes loose from identity even without emigration. It is quite common to find children in India who call their parents ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ (or even ‘Pop’). The phenomenon is particularly widespread in the Hindi belt of northern India, where words like ‘Pitaji,’ ‘Abba’ and even ‘Ma’ have been consigned to obsolescence. This is not entirely new: two generations ago there was ‘Mummy' and 'Daddy.’ But it is not entirely old either. Mummy and Daddy have seeped downwards from the elites of society to the aspirational middle class, i.e., to people who used to say ‘Amma’ and ‘Abba.’ Our parents spoke to us in Bengali, or Tamil, or Kannada, albeit sprinkled with English words and phrases.  Yet on every trip to India, in shops and restaurants, I encounter perfectly ordinary families in which parents routinely speak to their young children in English. When these classes reproduce in North America, they see no reason to do things differently. My point is that they are simply continuing to be Indian, not being overly American. And since this is an Indian norm, I cannot deny that I have fallen behind.

Why this Mom-and-Pop nonsense should be more prevalent in the Hindi belt than, say, in Bengal or Tamil Nadu, I do not know. It could be that in spite of years of huffing and puffing on the part of the chauvinists of the rashtrabhasha, Hindi never made the grade as a source of cultural prestige. But it is probably true that for people who grow up at ‘home,’ so to speak, identity is assured in so many ways that particular ways – like the notion of a mother-tongue – become dispensable.

For people who leave ‘home’ in the formative moment of adolescence – children whose sense of home is disrupted by emigration – language is absolutely and obsessively vital. In North America and Britain, it is an escape, an armor and a weapon in a daily race war. And like houses and cities that were abandoned before they were fully discovered, language becomes both dreamlike and very real: something to revisit constantly, to re-explore, to reinvent. These explorations produce the stuff of who we are: neither quite like the children with whom we went to kindergarten, nor exactly like the grown-ups amongst whom we live.

Mira will not be entirely free of these concerns. Already the color of her skin is a topic of conversation: my relatives mutter about how light she is, people on her mother’s side mutter about how dark. But in New York City, where light brown is the norm, nobody will bat an eye. Departure and arrival – something as mundane as a walk through an airport – will not be fraught with issues of loss, acquisition, and the suspect nature of memory and reality. Nobody – except I – will care whether she speaks Bengali or not, whether she has access to the houses and cities of her father’s youth. And it is my caring that gives the game away: I am slightly behind the times, and the lag gets longer with every passing year. Introducing Indian movies at the ongoing film festival at my college, I am less sure of myself, more out of my depth, the closer the films get to the present time. (Not a good predicament for a historian, I admit.) I find A.R. Rehman’s music highly overrated. I am bored by the present generation of Indian cricketers, and the prevalence of corporate-speak in Indian culture – the casual use of words like ‘brand’ and ‘equity’ – makes my skin crawl.

Let me summon up some literary support for what I am trying to say. In The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie outlined a distinction between immigrants and exiles. Immigrants are both transformational and transformed by movement, Rushdie suggested. Exiles are fossils and madmen, clinging – often violently – to what they imagine to be the changeless universe of the homes they have left but not abandoned. Rushdie left little doubt about which type he preferred, and I agree with him. But what makes The Satanic Verses a great novel, I think, is the implication that immigrants are transformed in ways that are misaligned with where they are, as well as with where they once were. Their destinations are always slippery and insufficiently acquired, they fall behind the cities that may never have existed, they fall behind their own children, and the struggle to keep up is exhausting and futile. My daughter will be not be ‘like’ me any more than I am ‘like’ my former or present countrymen. As soon as we are past the baby-talk, language will prove to be as much a chasm as it can be a bridge, unable to communicate the essential melancholy of the half-remembered smell of burning leaves on an autumn afternoon, or the echoing sound of a playing field in the twilight. But she has begun to call me Baba, and that is something.

October 20, 2012