The Dark Outsiders

Of the Subalternate Universe

The desert smelled salty. It may have been the stench of the sweating people in the unusually humid part of Saudi Arabia where I lived. You will be surprised by how far the stench of sweat travels.

When I was five, I would sit on the balcony of the fourth-floor apartment my parents had chosen for us in the suburbs of Jeddah or I would lean against the railings, daring the heat of the afternoon sun.

Across the street was what I assumed was a middle school because the students there were almost twice my height. Not a bit of noise escaped its tall concrete walls that went around the compound. Where one of the buildings inside was taller than the wall, I could see the upper half of the windows grilled and covered. I was always suspicious that someone in there could see me, even though I could not see them. A green board on the wall had something written on it in Arabic, which I could not read.

At 3 o’clock, a bell would ring that reverberated across the blocks around the school. A tall metallic door facing my apartment would open, releasing a throng of excited children clad in dark green, chattering and shouting in unfamiliar tongues. Minutes after they were outside, their faces glistened in the sun with perspiration. They huddled under the shadow of the wall or the lone tree on the block, waiting for their turn to buy French fries from the carts that appear by the road around the time of the school bell, pushed by skinny men in kurtas.

I waited on the balcony until the last one of them had disappeared, on foot, confabulating with their friends until they reached their homes.

They looked the colour of the people who, for some reason, I had always imagined living in the desert, the ones who kept their heads uncovered under the sun. The dark outsiders. I would ask my mother why I did not go to the same school as them, why I had to travel an hour on a bus packed tight with children, with the desert air blowing on my face. “We do not associate with those people,” she would say. “You go to a school with better, more well-behaved children.”

The children I went to school with were also children of immigrants, but the colours of their skin were fairer on average than the children I saw from the balcony. That was the only difference I saw.

But one afternoon, when my school bus left me at the steps of my apartment, my mother, who had not returned home, did not come to let me in. I stood there perplexed for what felt like many hours. The gold embossed ornate entrance door was as tall as the ceiling. The heat outside was debilitating. I stood there weeping; my back turned against the children flooding into the street now that their bell dismissed them. Even with all the effort to hide my distress, two girls knew that I was crying. They skipped over to me, smiling. They probably asked me what was wrong, and as I somehow conveyed that I was locked out, they started kicking the door as if punishing it for stalling me. They shouted and slammed against the door until someone came to let me in and shooed them away for making a ruckus. Their smiles were forever etched in my head as they looked back at me while running away.

EXISTENTIAL SPICES

OF THE SUBALTERNATE UNIVERSE

CULTURAL CONVERSATIONS

For all those who know a bit of history, the fact that the Pakistani by the name Ali Hassan is one of the closest things I have to India right now would sound like supreme irony. He is a fantastic musician with a forthright and daring sense of humour and sarcasm, yet he is upliftingly respectful at the same time.

I will have to admit that I find it very taxing to interact with any new people from the Indian Subcontinent these days. A socio-cultural rejection from the people from the Subcontinent would be too painful for me to handle, and I simply refuse to give consideration to the subtle and complicated political structures and cultural constructs that dictate the social interactions of Southeast Asians whose cultures are paradoxically as different as they are similar. Manoeuvering American culture is more, let’s say, black and white. It is a simpler and less monolithic entity, and I can always be detached from them if the need be. In simple terms, it is about choosing an oppressor that looks like you versus the one that doesn’t. Also, the inscrutable, often superficial politeness of the people here can be comforting sometimes, at least in the short run.

Given these circumstances, the 34-year-old Ali could be considered an unlikely friend for me. Still, our camaraderie developed over strong critical views and understanding of our own past circumstances in relation to the new one. He is a person capable of deeply understanding and expressing criticism of one’s own community and culture, which is a trait that I most admire in people because such people are not easy to come by. And needless to say, we are self-declared outcasts from several societies.

It is usual for us to talk loudly and in detail about the spectres of religious bigotry, the rising nationalism, and the histories of the places we come from, and profusely express our scepticism and dismay about the state of things back home and around the world- featuring everything from the Hindu nationalist R.S.S. to Radical Islam. However, these are also times that provide me with a clearer sense of how much of a product of my own culture I am, and, in a way, these merciless deconstructions bring me closer to my own cultural origins.

THE PHYSICALITY OF CULTURAL CODING

The culinary arts and cuisine is cultural coding at its most physical dimension. The substances that your body derives its building blocks from originate in food. The stuff that one puts in one’s mouth and consumes becomes all that is one’s physical self. And food, in turn, is culture. And cuisine is the art by which your culture shapes and crafts your very physicality, all that you are in a physiological sense.

The loss of one’s food culture strikes you like a physical affliction; I feel like every time my stomach growls, it is a plea for red rice, bitter gourds, the unity in diversity of Sambhar, or the verdant burning freshness of coconut chutney. My body misses the sensation of vegetables that do not come in plastic wrappers, condiments, and flavouring substances that are not processed like it’s a war on nature, and desserts that are not condensed sugar. The fact that the cultural habits of my host nation are diametrically opposed to my own does not help at all.

The capitalist system is very quick to take advantage of this desperation and wastes no time in selling mediocre look-alikes of the Subcontinental cuisine all over the US. I have had to depend on these sources as well, for what they are (not) worth. This is where Ali came in like a saviour. After having to get to know each other over the summer, he invited me to one of his cookouts on a Sunday last Fall in Kettering residence hall. The rice and qorma he had made for us that day felt like the healing of a wound that was open for an unusually long time. I imagined my blood flowing through my veins uncluttered from the residues of a fat dominant diet. My tongue strived to rediscover its past self after having had unnaturally mild repasts forced on it. I felt like Marcel with his madeleine when my primal memories were reactivated.

It is also not surprising that I am not the only person who was captivated by Ali’s cooking, albeit for vastly different reasons. Visiting Ali on the third floor of Kettering is a Sunday evening ritual for a group of around ten to fifteen students of all colours and backgrounds who know about his culinary talents. I would always go there a few hours in advance with a couple of friends to keep Ali company as he cooks and would try to help him as much as we could, even though he seeks no help until the time we clean things up. On the way to his floor, the elevator shaft of the residence hall would be perfumed with the scent of Karachi’s spices, from cardamom and turmeric to black peppers and Garam Masala that is sautéed in olive oil, as its therapeutic aroma pervades multiple floors. Ali would take particular care to make sure that not a single pellet of rice sticks to another one as he crafts a Pulao that melts in your mouth. After everybody was done, I would scrape at the bottom of the pan of Dal Makhni with my hands to get a taste of the slightly burned lentils that could be a delicacy of their own. Needless to say, my gratitude to its maker is never-ending.

An Indian reading this back home might mentally smirk at my poverty. But the battles one has to go through to find one’s place in a multicultural setting is an essential truth of living in countries like America. The many grappling, the pushing and pulling of socio-cultural considerations are as visceral as they are intellectual, and sometimes one cannot help but submit to the physicality of things. However, for the sake of my own sanity, I would like to think of this situation as having the luxury of negotiating with my own culture, and combining elements of a variety of cultures to choose the best for myself.


Also written by me:

Death smells like an excess of incense.

Some part of my mind retains the memory of the cloying aroma of incense they burn at funerals, and I felt like I could smell it in the plane, triggered perhaps, by the floral perfume of some fellow passenger, chrysanthemums probably.

Since very young, I have associated the smell of incense with funerals; I remember it lingering in my mind as I commuted to them……