Monday, January 22, 2018

Good and Evil

Good and Evil
Life is an exam where the syllabus is unknown and question papers are not set. But rest assured, it will teach you unforgettable lessons that no other could ever teach you. Although I wasn’t sure what life was trying to teach me when my husband got an onsite project and we moved to the US with our six-year-old daughter. A strange world beyond the seven seas was suddenly my new home. Like a bird building its nest, we picked what we could and started building our new life around the people, who considered us with their strong predispositions. Having being born in a high caste Hindu family, I was not used to being discriminated. In fact, it took me a long time to peel off my own prejudices about different Indian cultures that were hammered deep into my subconscious. And just when I thought, I had learned my lesson, life decided to throw me into the world where I was the discriminated one. The word ‘unfair’ suddenly began to have a whole new meaning.
At first, it almost seemed stupid that people were discriminated in the US, based on Brown, Black or White skin color. But then in India, they were divided bases on Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Shudra caste. Not much sense in either of the divisions.  Each day we would hear distant news of someone getting killed in the US, based on a prejudice which was only skin deep. It was scary because for the first time we were labeled as victims. But we did what all Indians around us did. We settled near an Indian community and interacted cautiously with people of another color; something that always troubled me. But not everybody that we met was a racist. Apart from few rare rude encounters, most people that we met were nice. We even had some wonderful American families in the neighborhood. They would invite us to their Christmas Eve dinners and we would light crackers with them on Diwali. They would learn our spicy dishes and we would learn their delicacies. My daughter was even friends with some of them in school and would go on playdates to their houses.
 Life was going around happily, when one fine day, the Mackay’s family moved into the neighborhood. They had the son in the same class as my daughter. So I got the fresh basket of my traditional sweets that was hit with the Americans and rang the bell of their home to make acquaintance with my new neighbors.
Mrs. Mackay opened the door and looked at me breathless with shock. She gave a long look at my cotton sari and braided hair, which was in contrast to her sky blue dress and white soft hair.
“Hello,” I said after she just stared at me for a full minute.
“Hi,” She gave me a cautious stare.
“I am Mrs. Chandra, I live in 405. I thought I would welcome you with some of my homemade sweets into the neighborhood” I pulled up the basket with a smile.
“You live in this neighborhood?” She eyed me suspiciously.
“Yes, In fact, we just live opposite to your house” I pointed toward our house which was beyond the yellow picket fence.
“Oh..” She looked puzzled at my house and then at me. Like some kind of math did not make sense in her head.
“Even our kids are in the same school..” I added as a part of my introduction and she gave out a small laugh.
“No no, my David is enrolled into Sandy Hook Elementary school” She spoke almost in denial like I was somehow not eligible to have my kids enrolled in the same school as her.
“I know, “ I said with a clipped smile this time “ My daughter, Akshita studies in the same school”
“Ohh, Aks..” She tried to pronounce the name and then gave up halfway with a small chuckle “I am sorry, I am not used to such long complicated names you people have”.
 More than her snub, the remark ‘you people’ hit me hard. I did not take me long to sense what types of prejudice diseased her about ‘us people’.
 I just managed to keep a frown away and lifted up the sweet basket “I made these for you”
 She looked at it with heavy breath “That must be loads of calories..” She said staring at it.
“And full of sugar and cream and other devilishly delicious things,” I said intentionally adding onto her discomfort. I did not want this lady to have my sweets, which I had labored for hours to make.
“Thank you, but we don’t have that much of a sweet tooth as you people,” she said. Yes, it was clear what ‘you people’ meant now; the brown-skinned, curry gobbling ones.
“No problem, I won’t bother you with their smell then” I turned back immediately and heard an instant bang of the door. I came back home seething with anger, vowing to never talk to that lady again. Why should I have to interact with a person who is so repulsed out by us? In my subconscious mind, it was already a fight between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Oblivious to any of this, my daughter came back from school that day with exciting news.
“Mummy.. I made a new friend today” She declared happily.
“Is that so?” I said trying to put up a happy face for her despite my bad day.
“Yes,” She said clapping her hands “his name is David”
I looked at her for a minute and asked “David Mackay?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed excitedly “He is my best friend”
 I sighed. A sense of pity came over me for my daughter.  I had no doubts that eventually Miss Mackay would ask her son to keep his distance from my daughter. How would I ever explain her any of that? She was just too young to understand any of these things. And even if they remained friends, it would just mean more interaction with Mrs. Mackay. Playdates, birthday parties and god knows what all I would have to endure. Maybe I was just overreacting. At age six, her best friends changed every week.
I found out in coming weeks that I wasn’t overreacting, because every time that I went to drop my daughter at the school, she would wait for David to show up and then go inside holding hands. That meant that I had to inevitable meet Mrs. Mackay every day while she came to drop her son. The boy himself was lovely and would always greet me with his big innocent smile, but Mrs. Mackay and I would never meet the eyes. She would stand at the extreme west of the compound and I would stand at the extreme east; the distance and directions ironically symbolizing our cultural differences. We would never even acknowledge each other’s presence leave alone share a simple greeting, Which I was thankful for since I had no intention of engaging with the person who categorized me as ‘you people’.
The only place I found it extremely difficult to avoid her was at Mrs. Reilley’s Book club get-together. It was a small gathering at one of our most friendly neighbor, Mrs. Reilley, where some ladies would gather after dropping their kids to school and basically would just chat and have tea. Most of the ladies would carpool that day from the school to Mrs. Reilley’s house, but I and Mrs. Mackay would never do that. Even though I walked back from school, and she drove her son in the car, she never offered a ride and I never asked for one.  It was a courtesy that we both intuitively agreed not to abide by.
In every of our book club meeting, she would begin to draw a comparison between American culture and some other one in a more criticizing tone, always stressing how superior American culture was. Not everybody was comfortable with her analysis, but bound by the decency they remained quiet and so did I. One day the topic turned towards the food and inevitable happened.
  “You know what I just read in some book last night” Mrs. Mackay remarked just as Mrs. Reilly served us snacks in one of her best china plates “There are still some cultures in the world where people eat on banana leaf with their hands” She twitched her nose in disgust “ And to think that such people are coming to our country on H1b visa and taking away our jobs is just unbelievable” She smirked and looked at Mrs. Reilly for support, who then just smiled weakly feeling embarrassed. There was no doubt in anybody’s mind which exact culture she was targeting when she said h1b visa. It was being aired quite frequently on news , about how Indians coming on the h1b visa was taking away American jobs.  So obviously I felt compelled to address her concerns.
 “The truth is that America does not have enough IT talent to fulfill their market demand. If H1-b visas are to go scarce, US economy would just plummet down and most probably bring down the whole global market as well” I responded politely.
I could see that she had no clue of what I had just stated so she added another senseless logic “Yes, but H1b Visas families also bring with them the smelly houses. I mean at lunchtime I cannot even open my windows due to an overwhelming waft of spices” She laughed to now visibly uncomfortable Mrs. Reilly who was caught in our crossfire. Other ladies feigned to be engrossed in their own conversations, clearly unwilling to get into the middle of a spat between two neighbors.
 “At least it’s healthy” I added this time looking directly at Mrs. Mackay. Mrs. Reilly seemed relieved and thankful for letting her escape from our personal tiff.
“Please! With all that oil it can hardly be healthy.” She responded with a snub.
“You clearly do not know that America is number one in Obesity” There was no use of being subtle now, so I dropped my smile and looked at her somberly. It was now an open confrontation that was long coming. And if it means that I have to fight with every white lady in here, so be it. But co-incidentally they seemed to be busy on their cell phones suddenly.
“Oh ya.. Go on and defend everything Indian” Mrs. Mackay scoffed “Like why you dress so sloppily and worship cows in your culture”
That was it.  I was holding back on so many of her senseless comments that this last one just did it for me. I responded now agitated “Why should we eat and worship to please people who really are just Ignorant because let’s face the fact, there is really no cure for stupidity”
 I knew exactly who I was dealing with; An Arrogant Racist. Even I was never like this despite all my orthodox and rigid upbringing. I had met few arrogant people here in the US earlier but never engaged with them for the fear of some kind of bitter retaliation. But today something had just ticked inside of me.
I could see Mrs. Mackay gearing up for her counterstatement when suddenly phones in the room began to buzz at the same time and everyone got up in alarm. My first thought was that it was a fire alarm going off in the room. But then I saw everyone looking at their phone, with their eyes wide open in horror.
Even before I could check my phone to see what the matter was, Mrs. Reilly said in a low voice “There has been a report of shooting in Sandy Hook school”.
 For a minute, everyone stood there confused. The words did not make any sense. We all had just dropped our kids at school some time back. How can there be a shooting suddenly? This did not make any sense.
“Yes, I read it online too; there was some kind of shooting there”. And then suddenly the sky was falling.
“I am going to school now,” One lady said as she looked around the room unsure of what she was doing.
“Me too,” Another lady said and they dashed out. I realized in a panic that I did not have a car to reach school fast enough.
“I don’t have a car” I shrieked not sure what to expect. I still could not fully comprehend the news.
“Come with me,” Mrs. Mackay said promptly and sprinted out. I followed her blindly and sat in her car in trance. I did not even carry my purse or phone. I just came out.
“It’s probably nothing” I heard Mrs. Mackay speaking to herself “Just a rumor. I am sure” She said pressing hard against the accelerator.
“Yes of course” I responded affirming her claims “That is what it is. Just a stupid rumor”
“This Must be a prank….you know how idiotic some students are, Just trying to have some fun,” She said even as her hands trembled on the steering wheel.
“Yes, that is true… absolutely true. That must be it” I was shaking my head in agreement and could not bring it to stop.
She brought her car to a hard stop near the school gate. A huge crowd of parents and police vans had converged on it and were blocking the view. We leaped from the car and ran in different direction screaming for our kid’s names. I pushed my way through and saw some of the teachers and children being carried off into an ambulance. The reality was now spinning around me. The news of the shooting was true. I could hear kids crying everywhere but could not see Akshita. I kept screaming her name, remembering her small hands and innocent eyes. My throat was tight with tears so I closed my eyes for a second, got my composure and started calling again for her. Suddenly I felt someone running towards me and clutch my legs with their dear life. I looked down to find David hugging me. He had somehow spotted me in the crowd and ran towards me. A small sense of relief touched me. I picked him up in my arms instantly. He did not say anything but just buried his face into my shoulder.
“Have you seen Akshita?” I tried to ask him but he looked too stunned to respond to anything. I carried him around screaming for Akshita when suddenly I heard her cry. She was alive. I looked around to find her wrapped around Mrs. Mackay’s arms. She tried to leap off her but Mrs. Mackay held onto her tightly until she reached me. I gave her David and I picked up Akshita. We were told to clear the place as quickly as possible, so we came back into the car. I held the two kids near me in the back seat while Mrs. Mackay dropped me at my home and then drove back to hers. My husband had already rushed back from office and was trying to reach me out on the phone that was left out at Mrs. Reilly’s. I told him all that I knew but we got some clarity on the incident only at 3:15 pm that day when President Obama addressed the nation on Television. The flags were ordered to be flown at half-staff that day. In next coming weeks, the heinous story of the killing in Sandy hook elementary school aired on every channel. A deranged twenty-year-old had opened fire inside the school killing 20 children. Many things happened in the following days as the shock and mourning took over our town. We did not know what to say to our kids or how to even console ourselves. An interfaith vigil was organized where President Obama was to address the people. We decided to go, for we felt helpless for the families who lost their kids and with the fact that my daughter could easily have been one of the victims. We reached the vigil and sat there silently looking at all the faces blank with tragedy. An air of melancholy had surrounded us.  I suddenly felt a hand on my shoulders as somebody took a seat next to me. Mrs. Mackay had come with her husband to the vigil.
“How are you?” She asked placing her hands on mine.
“I don’t know yet” I replied honestly. She nodded her head understandingly. We sat there quietly in the company of each other as the various people offered their prayer. As the vigil came to end and Mrs. Mackay was about to go I realized I had never thanked her for the ride that day.
So I walked up to her and said “Thanks for the car ride that day…” For some reason, I felt extremely shameful for expressing my gratitude, like I did not consider her human enough to help someone in such dire situation.  She had not only given me a ride that day but had held my daughter into her arms with the same fierce protection that I had held her son.
She looked at me with her brave face and tear-filled eye “Anytime dear, Anytime..” She went out. In that moment I knew, that no matter how big our disagreements be or how big our fights be, I could always count on Mrs. Mackay and she can always count on me.

I do not wish that life puts anybody to such an ultimate test or pain of this extent. But what I learned from that despicable incident is that differences do not dictate who is good and who is evil among us. The wars across the history are a testimony to the fact that people rise above their prejudice to fight off evil. Because evil is not affiliated with any religion, caste or color and nor is the good.