Monday, December 31, 2007

Phlegmatic Unease

Word of Derision - I am not a very 'New Year' person. But certain conventions are better respected than ridiculed. We might sometimes also need to change the way conventions are understood. For not even history is rigid. It's a matter of perception. I hope this post helps some of us do just that. Change the way we look at something that has been passed down to us. Unlearn the preconditioning that has been mechanically drilled into us. For that's what New Year is all about. Probably just that. For the record - Wish you a 'Happy' New Year.

Dear D,

It was really odd, on my first evening here, there was get-together of the local Indian gang, and they were all talking about the Teen Murti Library and the University Coffee House and the M.Phil Department, wallowing in nostalgia. One girl called Mrinalini said she knew you, or had once met you once at some pompous Foreign Service party where you’d told her, “The US and the Soviets are in this nuclear arms race primarily to distract the rest of the world. It’s all a game, they want to keep all our minds away from the real issue, which is the throttling of what they call the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Worlds by Soviet Necessity and the American Dream.” I hope you are squirming with shame? Mrinalini thought I wouldn’t believe her. She said you were fat, pompous and very drunk, like the rest of the party.

I have been trying to write as few letters as possible because writing letters is the supreme indulgence for me nowadays. Communicating with people is difficult here and it’s such a temptation to make up for that through letters. At least with letters you don’t have to deal with immediate reactions – you can imagine that whoever you’re writing to is interested and understands exactly what you mean. Writing letters is a wonderful way of copping out of everything – the lectures that go so badly, all the people in this place whom I can’t talk to. It’s so tempting to take the easy way out, to go on about how the people here are so dull, ignorant, smug and provincial. They are all that, but there’s also something wrong about my attitude to them. Because of my color, accent, etc, I feel wary and strained talking to Americans – the moment I face one of them, I can feel the shutters going down on me, and I know my face looks blank, bored and closed.

In just a few weeks here I’ve managed to establish a ‘circle of silence’ around myself which nobody would want to break into. To appear quite and disinterested is the greatest defense, to convince yourself that nothing matters. And the ‘stay away from me’ expression gets quite out of hand sometimes – the only American who’s made heroic efforts to make me comfortable just asked me if I wanted a poster. Without thinking or even looking up, I said, “No, you can keep it.” His warmth feels like a terrific obligation and s responsibility - it takes me such an effort to respond that I sometimes actually run away when I know he’s around. I don’t know why the hell I’m writing all this.

There was a real low last week – I have to make my class do an exercise called freewriting – they have to write nonstop for ten minutes about whatever is on their minds. Last week one student wrote, “I am not paying big bucks to listen to Indian telling me how to write English. And her fucking accent is giving me a migraine.” I really wonder what I am doing here, especially because academically this place really ‘sucks’, the one American expression which covers all possible negatives. Some other time I’ll write you a bright bitchy letter about the kind of absurdities one hears at lectures here. The worse is not having anyone to share the absurdity with. It’s hard getting to know people. Everyone seems friendly at first, everyone stops and asks, “Hi, how ya doing?” But after a while you realize that that’s it, nothing ever follows up that, “Hi How ya doing?” And to answer that with anything less exuberant than, “Pretty good”, is a social outrage. The creed is to be bright, brisk and busy. You can imagine what a disadvantage my face is, and my voice – dull, gloomy and lazy as can be.

I share my room with a Mexican. She is OK. At times I hysterically wonder why people ever leave their own countries and go abroad. Why don’t we ever learn that all changes of place are for the worse? It’s not love for the place; it’s the familiarity, like old winter clothes. Didn’t you feel something of this at Yale? You were always so closed about your American experience. Yesterday another American asked me where I was from in India. I said, “Bombay.” He thought for a while and asked me seriously whether I rode to college on an elephant. I said, “Yes, but I had to hire one, since we were too poor to own our own.” That’s entirely my fault, for not being where I ought to be, back home.

I can’t transfer to another university within this PhD program unless I am willing to lose credits. My only experience of the US before this was of NY and I ought to have known that being in the heart of the corn country will be very different from NY.

What I really didn’t bargain for was the nostalgia – I have such a bad memory that the past usually becomes mere past for me with great ease. But here I take nostalgia to absurd extremes – watching Hindi movies, Guddi, Barood etc, I don’t think it works, to run away from a place when your relationships there get messy. For the first time now I feel I need some continuities. But then I don’t know if anything lasts, except that I am the same person wherever I go – and that certainly is no cause for joy! In the first few days I thought I’d get friendly with my Mexican roomie and ask her about subtle racist attitudes here.

I don’t know why I am writing all this but now that I’ve missed a class already, I might as well fill up the page. Of course I’m being defensive again. I can’t say anything to anyone without leaving an escape route for myself, prefacing everything with, “Don’t take this too seriously” or “I don’t know why I am saying this.” The only way to cope with this is to pretend nothing matters.

Oh, there are some lovely things here too – the varieties of ham, books for ten cents each, Mrinalini, the underground radio station which plays hours and hours of old blues, bars – but they are not nearly enough.

I can see you perfectly sometimes – perfectly composed in your tie behind your Citibank desk, drowning some client in bank jargon. I keep asking myself, why were you so cold and curt at the end. ‘At the end’ sounds terribly dramatic but you know what I mean. It feels absurd to even mention it because that was in another country, and besides. For the last line you could consult your English literature friend who, if that letter of his you showed me is anything to go by, is enjoying going insane, in some backwater somewhere, what was it, Madna?

Please write back. With my love, R.

PS - This is an extract from the book English, August - the debut novel by Upamanyu Chatterjee.

1 comment:

  1. just one question...did you copy the entire extract from the book or were you lucky enough to get hold of an e-book to Ctrl-CV from ?