My brother Sanjay graduated from high school in 1991. That same year, my grandfather, or Bada Papa as we called him, was visiting from India. Bada Papa spoke to us in Hindi, which we understood but did not speak. We responded to him in English, which he understood but did not speak. So, it all worked out.
Once, at the supermarket, Bada Papa stood in the soup aisle and said,
“So many varieties of soup, yet they are still throwing some away. America!”
He had an uncanny sense of observation.
Maybe that’s why at Sanjay’s graduation, Bada Papa shook his head at me. I was 16, and Bada Papa knew that I was about to eclipse my brother’s moment.
At Sanjay’s commencement ceremony, I was beaming. Because I was Junior Class President, I was selected to give a farewell speech to the departing senior class. I could not see my brother’s reaction to my speech amid the sea of aqua commencement gowns from the podium. But when I stepped off the stage, Sanjay glared at me. Bada Papa said to Sanjay, “You are a bright boy. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.”
My brother graduated with marks — not high marks or low marks — just marks. My dad — who had passed away a few years earlier — never recognized Sanjay for his strengths: sports, drawing and singing. He even insulted Sanjay for being a “beatnik artist.” I don’t know where my father learned the word beatnik. Maybe when he came to the States in the early sixties.
To my father, and to my mother later, Sanjay’s strengths were not Indian strengths.
I, on the other hand, had become accustomed to praise for my strengths: great grades, speech and debate team trophies, student government offices, and voracious consumption of non-required reading.
Since our father had died, Bada Papa would often visit for several months at a time. Like a quiet watchman, he guarded over us. His warm smile could dissipate the rivalry between Sanjay and me. When he left the States after Sanjay’s graduation, my brother and I returned to our usual insult-matches.
During the summers, Sanjay and I worked full-time at Mom’s Indian grocery in Indianapolis.
We started working there when we were just in junior high school. Yeah, Mom broke child labor laws, but she needed our help.
During that summer after Sanjay graduated, the summer of 1991, Spike Lee had just released Jungle Fever. And, Mira Nair had made Mississippi Masala. I was enthralled by these films’ examinations of race. It was like I wanted to know what a diverse world would look like.
All the white kids in our Indiana town drove around blasting Public Enemy. Everything that was out of place, was shaping places in me.
Even at our small Indian grocery, my brother was playing “Don’t Believe the Hype” by the cash register while I hid in the backroom to read.
I sat sandwiched between the three-pound bags of flour and ten-pound bags of rice.
Sanjay rolled in crates of mango pulp and said, “Why are you reading a kid’s book?”
My reply, “It’s because smart people read for fun.”
He snatched the paperback from my hands and said, “Parrot in the Oven. What the hell is that?”
I turned to the page in the book I had earmarked and read aloud a passage I had highlighted.
“‘It’s from a Mexican saying about a parrot that complains how hot it is in the shade while all along he’s sitting in an oven. People usually say this when they are talking about ignorant people who don’t know where they are in the world.’ Ha! ‘Ignorant people’ — that’s like you!”
“Really?” Sanjay smirked as he stacked cans of mango pulp on a nearby shelf. “Sounds more like you?”
I poked him in the ribs. “How so? You’re the ignorant one.”
He grabbed the book from my hand and flipped to the earmarked page, and read it again, “‘ignorant people who don’t know where they are in the world.’ Ha! By ignorant of the world, it means naïve, and that’s what you are.”
I was surprised he even knew the word naïve. He summed me up, grabbed the empty crates of mango pulp, and strutted off. I was dumbfounded: How could my brother think I was naïve?
I dwelled on his insult. Sanjay knew more about my college hopes than my mom did.
As I said, Dad was gone. He died of a heart attack when I was 12 and Sanjay was 13. I sometimes wished Dad was still around.
Dad had always taught me to work toward getting a scholarship so I could attend a top university. He had me learn the names of all the Ivy League schools when I was just 10.
I missed Dad, but I didn’t miss how he used to hit my mom.
The house was quieter now, and Bada Papa had sent Mom money to start her own business soon after Dad’s passing.
When Mom first opened the Indian grocery store, my brother and I felt like we were part of some rich family dynasty, like the McDonald’s or Wendy’s family.
Soon, we realized we were just kids of a struggling widowed, immigrant mother. “The Indian Store” is what everyone called our family business. It was actually named “Spice Palace.” In that plaza where Spice Palace resided is where I was exposed to the world.
My brother and I dubbed it the “Do the Right Thing” strip mall. It had an African-American-owned barbeque joint and an African-American-owned clothing store. It had an Armenian-owned Subway Sandwich shop. It had a Korean-owned hair salon and a Russian-owned bakery. This was the most diversity I had ever been exposed to.
Our family lived in Carmel — a sleepy, all-white suburb just north of Indianapolis, or as it had often been dubbed: Indiana-No-Place.
When Dad was alive, we lived somewhat comfortably on the outskirts of Carmel. In the inner parts of the suburb were where all the richest folks of the whole state of Indiana lived.
Some joked that Carmel was the Beverly Hills of Indiana. More like Beverly Hillbillies. All my classmates at school didn’t know anything about our second lives at the Indian grocery — that clunky store with its white linoleum streaked with shopping cart wheel marks and its mixed assortment of Indian fare.
Here I was: this sixteen-year-old girl, sorting the rotten from the ripe karela, stocking the Gluco biscuits on the shelf, and weighing and refrigerating my mom’s special prepared paneer packets for customers, thinking that I was somehow in a place that remotely resembled the world of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”
It was a mere fantasy. Not racial and ethnic conflict and such, but diversity, and people of different cultures living in one area. I dreamt of this because Carmel was seafoam white.
Sanjay probably thought I was naïve because I told him that I longed for city life.
I said I was going to apply to Tisch School for the Arts in New York when I was ready to go to college. Sanjay knew of my obsession with the films of Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and Spike Lee. He laughed at this obsession. He and I would watch films together, and I said to him,
“Just wait. I’ll make movies like these one day.”
He got a kick out of that one. “Where are you going to come up with stories of gangsters or stories about race? From your time as President of the Junior Class of Carmel High School? Or from your time as head dork of the touring debate team?”
I got so mad that I kicked a bag of flour at him and called him a first-class loser. He grabbed me by my flailing arms and told me to calm down. I don’t know why I lost my temper like that. Sometimes it would just happen.
And mostly I was mad because I worried Sanjay was right. I was naïve. A kid from Indiana thinking that I could go to New York and live out my dreams. I wiped the tears and snot from my face as Sanjay swept up the flour from the floor.
By the end of the summer of 1992, it was my turn to graduate.
I disciplined myself throughout the year to do my college essays and apply for scholarships, but ultimately, my decision for college came down to tuition. NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts was insanely expensive and did not have much scholarship money to offer me. Instead, I told Mom that would go to Indiana University in Bloomington.
A few weeks later, my brother quit working for my mom at her small Indian grocery. He decided to work at Best Buy to make more money, with hopes of becoming a manager so he could afford to live with his friends. That meant Mom didn’t have enough help at the store.
Mom begged me to go to the University of Indianapolis, close to home. She wanted me to continue working for her through college. But I wanted to attend the larger university, an hour away, in Bloomington, Indiana.
I passed on Tisch but won on going to Bloomington. I begged Mom to let me live on my own in a dorm on campus. I promised Mom I’d take the Greyhound bus home every weekend to help with the store. Plus, I explained, the college in Indianapolis didn’t offer film studies as a major. Mom didn’t really know what it all meant — film studies. Yet, she agreed to let me live on campus in Bloomington, an hour away from Indy.
Sanjay and Mom dropped me off at the Bloomington campus together.
I set up my dorm room with my favorite books and posters from Do the Right Thing and Annie Hall. After Sanjay carried the last of my boxes up the dorm stairs, I emptied my debate trophies on the shelves. When some upperclassmen walked by the open door to my room and snickered, I decided to hide my debate trophies under the bed.
Sanjay was right. I was naïve.
My roommate showed up a day after me. Her name was Claire. She was blond and skinny and didn’t know anything about Annie Hall. However, she claimed she did like Spike Lee. I asked her if she’d seen She’s Gotta Have It. She just laughed. It wasn’t a nervous laugh like she was embarrassed that she hadn’t seen Spike Lee movies; it was a laugh of mockery — like how or why would she care about movies that a dork like me liked?
That night was my first night away from home. I felt shaky.
I repeatedly studied my class schedule and slept for about three hours. The next morning was Sunday. To prepare for the first week of classes, I decided to walk through campus with my map and find my classrooms. But I got lost, and I got scared, and I couldn’t stop crying.
Surprisingly, Claire helped me and asked me if I had remembered to eat that day. She invited me to sit next to her in the dorm cafeteria, and we silently indulged in macaroni and broccoli.
The night before the first day of classes of my college career, I did not sleep at all. My brain buzzed. I saw images of my mom alone in the store, scenes of Woody Allen courting Mia Farrow, and visions of myself lost on campus earlier that same day.
I never did make it to my first class. I tried.
I roamed around campus with my crumpled map and schedule of classes. When I cried and said I was lost, other students stared at me but they didn’t help.
Somehow, I made it back to the dorm. When Claire got back to our room, I talked to her super-fast — all about the cafeteria and movies that I think she should see. She slipped out of the room and brought in Lisa, the Resident Assistant.
Lisa tried to calm me down and insisted we go to the student health center. I accused Lisa of trying to get me kicked out of college, but I went with her anyway. I knew I wasn’t feeling right, but I didn’t know why.
At the student health center, they asked me if I knew my name, which I did. They asked me if I knew what day it was; I said Wednesday though it was Monday. I felt like I hadn’t slept in a week. They asked me the date, and I had no idea.
Soon, my mom was called, and I was admitted into a local psychiatric ward to get what they called stabilized.
Mom was worried and scared, and she had to come alone because Sanjay was working at Best Buy. She didn’t believe a word the doctors told her: how I was bipolar. She said she’d never heard of such a thing.
Though I know from memory, she always described my dad’s mother as crazy — staying up all hours of the night and talking endlessly. I was like her: my father’s mother whom I never met. It was in the family. I was bipolar, and I wasn’t up for my first semester of college.
What followed was a battle with the school’s dean to get me out of classes and to reschedule for the spring semester, with only a small loss of tuition costs — all of which were coming out of the student loans I was racking up.
When I returned home, I was nauseous and dizzy from the Depakote and couldn’t work in Mom’s store.
She hired a couple of ladies from temple to help, but neither of those ladies read English too well. “They’re no help with inventory or at the register,” my mother complained.
“When would I get better?”, Mother nagged. She didn’t see me as ill. She saw me as overwhelmed with leaving home, and as she told me, it would be best if I went to the commuter college near home and worked at her store.
I agreed with her. Not because I thought I was overwhelmed, but because I was scared.
If I had this thing, this bipolar disorder, how would I ever function normally in the world?
Sanjay, who was still living at home, got it. Having been told by teachers he must be ADD, he understood. He knew I wasn’t faking it, or just freaking out. He actually read the pamphlets on the illness and said to me that he would help any way he could.
I thanked him and told him to shave. He said shut up and rubbed his scruff. I was like, “Not your cheeks, but your eyebrows.”
He poked my stomach fat and said, “Now I know you’re okay. So, stop faking it.”
I almost cried until he quickly added, “Just kidding.” He knew I wasn’t faking it, but he didn’t quite know how to help either.
When the spring semester of college began in January, I took my mom’s advice and went to the commuter campus near home.
I had to borrow Mom’s car. My life became dropping Mom at work before class, going to class, studying at the library, and then heading to the store to help out and close the register for the night.
This was not how I imagined college at all. This was Indianapolis, Indiana, and not New York City or even Bloomington, Indiana. I was never going to make it out of this town, and neither was Sanjay.
In March of that year, Sanjay got arrested for attempting to steal from Best Buy.
Mom and I went to the local jail to pick him up. Mom was all alone — with one crazy loon of a daughter and one criminal of a son. She walked into the room with the officers and my brother, where I guess they explained the next steps. When Mom walked out, she looked defeated. I couldn’t imagine what she would have done if Bada Papa had been visiting. Probably faint from shame.
During the ride home from the police station, Sanjay and I didn’t talk. Mom drove, and I sat shotgun. Sanjay became tight-lipped from that moment on.
Once the semester ended, he returned to work at Mom’s store. By this time, the news of my brother’s arrest had ignited rumors in the Indian community. Luckily, not too many people had heard of what happened to me. Just that I was a Mama’s girl who couldn’t leave home, not that I was and am clinically nuts.
Mom greeted her customers with her usual kindness, and conversed with them in Hindi, or Punjabi, or Sindhi, since she knew all three.
And we just listened in, afraid to speak the language of our roots but with it embedded deep inside of us.
This was the language of tradition and family and bloodlines and strength. My brother carried the crates from the backroom to the shelves. I priced turmeric, cardamom, and cumin bottles.
Mom distracted the South Asian customers with stories of her favorite Bollywood films so they wouldn’t notice us — her children — struggling not to be seen as failures — in this store — surrounded by this culture that would not approve.