Hyphenated Identities: Niharika Chibber Joe

Niharika Chibber Joe is a reluctant short story writer and poet. Her parents are published poets and writers. When she is not writing, Niharika is an international relations specialist, working in the field of public diplomacy. She is also somewhat of a fitness fanatic. Niharika speaks several languages, but writes in English, and sometimes in Japanese or in Hindi. She was born and raised in India, and lives in the United States with her husband and son. She is a proud graduate of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies




The Land of the Free and the Home of the Lucky

Arrey Beta, you can’t put small girl in jail”, Raj’s beleaguered voice cut through the chaos. “Sure we can!” squeaked eight-year-old Bittu. “Unless she rolls a six!” confirmed my son.  Four-year-old Dimple burst into dramatic wails, wet with tears.
“Raj, take care of her, pleeeease?” Rekha pleaded. The corner of my eye caught her fixing herself a discreet drink and sinking into a chair. Raj and Rekha were raised in conservative small-town India.  But here, a world away in the sweltering two-bedroom apartment in Virginia, alcohol was liberating. The pursuit of freedom is an unequivocal tenet of the immigrant experience, and Rekha intended to be free.  
Raj plonked his drink down in exasperation. “No bloody peace in this house!”
The single malt left behind an aggressive ring of condensation on the latest Craig’s List coffee table. The table procured after aggressive haggling with Tim, a disinterested Millennial jettisoning his recently former girlfriend’s belongings. The girlfriend had scooped up the Chihuahua and the car keys and walked out in blinding fury after discovering Tim’s penchant for Internet pornography. He’d thought it best to immediately sell all her furniture to finance his porn habit.
Monty, born Maninder Singh Ahluwalia in faraway India, had arrived promptly at eight to drive Raj to West Virginia for only this table.  Rekha was pissed. She was not a morning person. Complicated rituals had to be accomplished before she was willing to face the world. These non-negotiables began with a carefully prepared masala tea to ignite the bowel. Much to Rekha’s chagrin, Monty, a short, balding, mustachioed, pot-bellied Punjabi man who spoke in non-sequiturs, had arrived just as the tea had initiated ignition.  
“Sorry, Monty-bhaiyya, I have got pressure. I must go to loo,” Rekha announced. “Take some Hajmola pills for the digestion, bhabhi.” Monty assured her jovially. He spoke learned English - translated directly from his native language.  He had come to America in 1985 to work at his uncle’s gas station in Sacramento, and he now owned five of his own. Monty had arrived, but he was pushing 50 far more quickly than 50 could push back. He would mark his 51st birthday with a heart attack if he didn’t “shape up”, Dr. Arora had admonished.
 “Open roads yaar! Open roads!” Monty sang in his distinctly Delhi-American accent. The non-sequiturs flew with gay abandon, as ‘Bollywood Oldies’ blared in surround sound. “Old is gold, you know? I love this car! Arrey, buckle your seatbelt! Safety first! I can’t complain. Big house, good business, money in the bank. I tell my kids; you are so lucky to live in this country. They have no clue. I miss India yaar.  I miss chicken tikka!” They had stopped for tikka on the way.
A Korean-owned hypermarket sold chicken tikka with pickled onions that tasted almost like those back home. Almost.
Tim had not taken kindly to the two brown men reeking offensively of kimchi, onions and Drakkar Noir, showing up at his door, telling him how this table could be had for ten rupees at any roadside bazaar in India. They had arrived an unapologetic hour late and balked at the price. “Two hundred dollars?!” If Tim wanted to sell, they scoffed, he’d have to do better, or they’d walk. Tim had offered ideas of where they could stick their ten rupees before taking their brown asses back to India.
Two hours later, the brown asses had smugly sauntered out of Tim’s apartment with the table. “Thirty dollars is too much,” Raj had lamented. “Happy wife. Happy life”, Monty had reasoned. 
The table now occupied pride of place in the Kumars’ eclectically appointed apartment. Its Ethan Allen East Hampton persona in a silent tussle with a former tenant’s Ikea Ektorp couch and shag rug. Calendar portraits of Hindu deities beamed benignly down on elaborately framed photographs of the last Kumar family vacation; and a massive television only somewhat legally streamed Star Wars - dubbed in Hindi, sub-titled in English.
“Raj! Use coaster! You want to get another table for me, kya? And why Dimple is still crying?” Rekha scolded Yoda-like. Raj gingerly unfolded his gangly frame, hastily stuck a magazine under his glass. “Boys!” What is problem? Why you cannot play this game together? Why she is crying? Beta, why you are STILL crying? I will take iPad away for one week!”
“These children,” Raj shook his head and sat back down, propping his legs up on Tim’s ex-girlfriend’s table. His whiskey glass had etched a faint but visible ring on the surface. “How we are going to teach them good Indian values in this country?” he lamented to no one in particular. “We come to U.S. for good life for children. But they just don’t listen! I don’t know what they learn in the school. Too much imagination. If they keep imagining all the time, how they will learn?! Your son will be fine. He is half-American. How you say? Indian American? But Bittu?! What I am going to do?! Dimple, she is Hey Bhagwaan so dark! Anyone will marry her?” He shook his head, “Poor girl! Bechaari! We made mistake by coming to America. Too much freedom here. Rekha! Arrey, what we can do? Phooti kismat! Bad luck!
Rekha was miraculously missing from this mayhem. I encountered her silhouette on the balcony - tequila, salt and lime. She gave her long black hair a shake and took in the warm mid-Atlantic night. I thought it best to let her enjoy her immigrant experience. Rekha was seeking freedom.
The kids were quiet, watching Star Wars in Hindi. “This is how they will learn language!” Raj wagged an annoyed finger at them. “Kuchh seekho! Learn something!”  His quiet, weary eyes wistfully wandered to his slowly warming whiskey. The very expensive scotch on the rocks had turned into a urine sample with flecks of melting ice. What a bloody waste! 

“Dimple!” He declared suddenly. “Beta, you go roll a six and change your luck!”

1 comment :

  1. Roopali sircar gaurSeptember 7, 2020 at 2:56 PM

    Full of humour yet deeply understanding of the indian immigrant experience. Keen observation of spoken language nuances the story reveals many aspects of human existence in a multicultural milieu where finding a place in the sun is a struggle for all concerned.

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