A Situation for Mrs. Biswas
When I received the call I was in a store in Missoula, Montana. A store stocked with sparkling ephemera: glass fauna, tiny belfry bulbs, winter white birch and stump-lamps brandishing light cones, little shelves and branches hung with drops of ice and round silver baubles. I loved the store: it was cavernous, dark with wood and burlap, a ruddy brick loft with lithographs and monographs on birds or bracelets. The store-owner, Fran, was away that day otherwise I would have stayed in there a little longer. She was a comforting friend— she had impeccable taste, manifested in her put-together garments, she also had a warming patient smile. I didn't stay long, I didn't linger; though linger is absolutely the wrong word, more like I didn't stumble around there for hours. (I would stumble around in that store for a full year.) If she had been behind the counter I would have turned to her in bewilderment. ~ You see I had picked up my ringing cell phone while browsing (I usually keep it off in stores), and my father said, there's something I have to tell you. I don't want you to find out any other way. I am leaving my job. They want me to resign. Fran had met my father the week before— he wanted to see downtown, the campus, get to know Montana— he had done research on the education opportunities. He was interested in outreach. People all over met him and found him to be a kindhearted man. I had set up meetings, he was here to meet educators, mathematicians— more spirited people—I told him—than Bostonians. I told him the West was a magical place. He agreed. Later he would tell me that this was his last best day, a strange pun on the Last Best Place. Little did we know we would have to fight a very public battle. And apparently from the rumors and from the strange treatment he received prior to his termination, there was a plot in place. We, as a family, felt the public ridicule. And as an Asian family, we felt the acute Asian shame. It was a dark, disastrous cloud hanging, hanging, hanging. My father would be would be publicly shamed and we were shocked at the racist narratives— allegations—a greedy brown man— mismanaging, mismanaging, mismanaging One public interest story to release venom— to tease out real feelings from strangers. Blog comments were aggressive: the Indian was a con, a snake-oil man. You just have to give them a scenario in which they can invest—in which to place those hard-to-place feelings. White people bury their resentments beneath their liberalism. We knew he hadn't done anything wrong—we knew this was bogus. Like I said, I was getting ready for the holidays, I played hooky that Tuesday excited to wrap gifts; I wanted to decorate the house. This was my first house. My husband was out looking at Christmas trees. Albeit I am a Hindu, trees are an awful lot of fun. And this planning was quickly thwarted with the difficult— my family was falling apart— the droop in my life felt permanent. I was more than 2,000 miles from my father, but the way he spoke at the moment of the call becalmed me— I felt anchored to his side— I will stay there for as long as it takes. Before this moment I was in a terrific mood. I wanted to don the table with the kind of candles that beckoned, pulling you into an aesthetic presence fully-fabricated and lit, and yet looked like it came from snow. I had been in Missoula for many months, I had come from Brooklyn, where I had lived for twelve years. Now I was ready to escape. Having been born and raised outside of Boston, without the opportunities say someone like Robert Lowell had. I knew I was not of that ilk nor was my father—we now realize. Boston was indeed for the rich—with its stodgy colonial identity, with its ridiculous Brahmans— its oddly cultureless stance even with Harvard as its mirror. (Even with Cal as front & center literati.) Even so, I was pleased, I was unhurried in my new life, I was, I was. I could feel how I stood, I could feel the rising happiness—of the belly, not the gut. I was consumed with the bliss of poetry, so much poetry around me, everything with poetry. I said and understood, the workshop will be my ideology, my intentional community, front and center—with bells. My family was overjoyed with the way our lives were working together— my father was comfortable, my mother pleased, a professorship and presidential position at a college, he was the first South-Asian president. He had come to America with very little and now had something. As you can see, there is an immigrant narrative here. When he first arrived, he made very little money as a visiting professor so he worked security at night at the Museum of Fine Arts. He kept thinking his colleague, Bruce, was calling him bastard, when he was calling him buster. It took him months to realize this. He first had to confront Bruce. The sequence of his first major purchases and acquisitions, which took several months: a suitcase and a rug, then he found a dentist's chair for the living room. He bought the Bob Dylan album that had "Blowing in the Wind," because it really sounded Hindu—it sounded like it came from the Rig Veda. For many years I would say he was a model minority—he aspired to being rewarded for his good work by white people. We agreed, all was well— I had made my way to where I had wanted to be, living a poet's life and it felt extraordinary— all of the birch-stump lamps lighting up inside, this was a kind of bliss. I had arrived where I loved in absolute terms. Where I could love the poetics of if, then & thou. The luminous… And yet poetry haunts with its suggestion that terrible things are true and stick, as Rilke says: I am much too small in this world, yet not small enough/to be to you just object and thing/dark and smart. ~ The sun was hidden behind the darkest cloud. I said what is happening to my father? In response, my husband's back gave out, he could not walk without whimpering, there was whimpering in the night and I wasn't sure which one of us it was. What was happening to my ableness? We had failure, heaps of failure in our hands. The world had recast itself in such a way that I had to address the power behind it. I kept saying strange things to people like no one is exempt from suffering. I felt like a tiny bird with sinking feet. There are assertions about difference That I had not wanted to make in the past, but now did. Where was I? Who was I? My father was told he had to watch his back and then they took everything away from him. To take away his dignity with so many untruths. Do I have to watch my back too? What did I think I could have? I wasn't even sure if I had it here. People hadn't seen me as me, I started to feel it. Those glass birds and the birch lamps were a kind of privilege only others could have—not "others" in the sense in which I was other. I started to see how money worked the room: when we had it, when we didn't. Imagine, we were so close to the soaring sky, and imagine how we fell. How we knew falling wouldn't end us, fall right here, fall right there, cry out, oh blustering self, it can't be as bad as you think. I said let's remember how to do it so it won't hurt this time or the next. But I had to say the branches extended their arms, there was a house attached to them— we found ourselves languishing, then needing to rebuild. It was the turning of the year and then another one. And the showy, extravagant people capped themselves on the tops of mountain ash— we came out to clear them away.
Copyright © 2010 by Prageeta Sharma. Used by permission of the author.