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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Carstetter

Brown Gaze

Written by Ashwini Gangal

(Twitter: @writerashwini)

“Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.”

― Anita Desai

The chilly gust spawned a sea of goose-pimples on her forearms. Despite the layers she wore – a jacket, a sweater and two t-shirts – her nipples reacted to the wind and strained against the fabric closest to her skin, her favourite maroon t-shirt bra.

It had been five years since she moved to New York, but her tropical skin was still not used to the assault of winter in the northern hemisphere.

The nomenclature of it was in place; she called it home, alright. Part immigrant, part global citizen, part former ‘Mumbaikar’, part skilled labourer – her identity was a concoction of schemas, though.

As she crossed Broadway Street, she inadvertently locked eyes with an Indian woman crossing the road from the other side.

They walked towards one another and time slowed down for a second, no more.

She didn’t notice the takeaway Manon Café cup in the woman’s gloved hand nor did she spot the snowflakes that dotted her purple beanie. All she saw was a person with the same roots as her.

As their gaze lingered for a touch longer than was normal or necessary, their shared history, common ancestry and a porous sense of belonging flashed between them like a movie on a private screen that hung between them, a curtain only they could see.

Both were familiar with the ghosts of 1947 and harboured complicated feelings towards their common colonial past; an Indian who has never actually met a Britisher or a Pakistani, unknowingly consults trans-generational templates when she does, owing to her immediate or inherited experience of the Raj and partition.

Their brains held mysterious neural circuitry created by years of ingesting monosodium glutamate or ‘aginomoto’, abundant in Chinese food in India aka ‘Chindian’ food; they intimately knew the mad joy a steaming heap of schezwan-manchurian fried rice, saturated with spice, salt, oil and food dye, could bring.

They also knew what the heady mix of vacuum-packed preservatives, fat, comfort and nostalgia, found in a yellow packet of Maggi Noodles felt like, especially on a bad day.

Both had experienced the phantasmagorical magic of Shah Rukh Khan and felt like they owned a slice of Engelberg thanks to Yash Chopra.

They were embarrassed about the ugly nuances of present-day Hinduism – Hindutva, Hindu-phobia, contemporary caste politics – and the long shadow of socio-religious divisiveness that followed Indians to foreign shores.

They knew the sense of powerlessness that came when eve teasers broke into a low-pitched Hindi movie song on an Indian street, albeit from a distance, and, in contrast, understood the complete absence of sexual tension when the tiny (somehow, they were always stunted, weren’t they?) neighbourhood darzi wrapped a tape around their hips to measure their girth for a kameez.

They’d seen barber shops, salons, third rate cinema halls and restaurants named New York-something in Indian towns – all collectively aspiring to a stylised Western ideal.

Decades after living abroad, their tongues would roll in the same way while speaking their respective native language, one of over a hundred spoken in India, with an accent that was neither here nor there but belonged to a nebulous nation, located between the amygdala and hippocampus, inhabited by many an NRI.

Whether they were first or second-generation Indians settled in an adopted country didn’t matter; they were bonded by pigmentation.

And this bond was acknowledged in one fleeting moment of eye contact, sometimes accompanied by an imperceptible tug at the end of chapped lips, an incline of the head, a tenth of a nod, a slight softening of the eyes… a silent, ephemeral tribute to the commonalities shared by strangers in a strange land, united by an estranged motherland.

All of it in one flash before it’s over. But it’s enough.


NRI is an acronym for non-residential Indian

darzi is Urdu for tailor, kameez is a long shirt

The story is written in British English

About The Author:

Ashwini Gangal is a media journalist from Mumbai, India, who now lives in California. On most days she's a bumbling migrant desperately looking for her literary voice, her sanity and her own brand of genius. She recently quit her full-time job as managing editor of a business daily to pursue her passion — words, rhymes, stories, poetry, make believe. She’s also passionate about mental health, gender-power dynamics and all animals except humans. She’s an insatiable reader. Empathy is her super-power.

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