My mom screamed, and I jumped to my feet. My grandfather, who was just moments ago, talking to us, had stopped breathing and was slumped over on the couch. My dad called 911 and was instructed to lay my grandfather on the ground, and to rub his feet. My aunt and I helped lower my grandfather onto the carpet, and rubbed as fast and as hard as we could with tears in our eyes. Eventually, the ambulance arrived, and whisked him away. Later, at the hospital, we learned that my grandfather didn’t make it, and when my dad returned to tell everyone, my mom crumbled to her knees, covering her face. As my dad attempted to console her, everyone else sniffled and held hands. I dragged my feet into the kitchen and drank some water, waiting for the numbness to fade.
At the funeral, faces I barely recognized made speeches about my grandfather, expressing how important he was to them. I also took the stage and tried to convey the same. After all, my grandfather was the first one on either side of our family to come to the U.S. Without him, I would not be here. However, the words stumbled, and the memories flooded my senses. My mom helped me to our seats, and held me as I wept.
Although my grandfather passed away a decade ago, I’ve been thinking more about him than I have in recent years, especially since the 2016 presidential election. At the time of his death, my grandfather represented to me the quintessential patriot, someone who paid their taxes, voted on election day, and didn’t dare raise their voice or cause trouble. I think back to the sporadic conversations my grandfather and I had about the U.S., of how much he loved this country, and how I was always annoyed and disgusted at his apparent blindness to the hate and bigotry that surrounded us.
Before the election, I attempted to avoid these memories and move on. However, as fascists have occupied the White House, and the problems I’d seen growing up have only gotten worse, causing me intense levels of anxiety and frustration, I’ve realized that reflecting on my grandfather’s actions and behaviors might reveal lessons on how to survive this political and social apocalypse. I needed to know how my grandfather was able to smile, despite the racist taunts and jeers, despite the white kids who would follow him and smack him across the head, despite working in a neighborhood where he’d see people without money and access to resources. I needed to understand a man I’d barely known, or otherwise, my emotions would eat me alive, leaving me permanently disconnected from the country I must call home.
. . .
My grandfather, Kali K. Ghosal, was born in a small town in West Bengal, India. As one of four, he spent the majority of his time studying and dreaming of a better life.
In 1969, my grandfather immigrated to New York City, where he took a job at a local hospital, sweeping the floors and cleaning. He arrived at a pivotal time, when the country was emerging from a decade of revolutionary fervor, with Jim Crow segregation finally collapsing, and people of color realizing their intellectual and creative potential. However, the establishment proved resilient. Already, figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X had been gunned down, and soon, groups like the Black Panther Party were targeted by law enforcement, with their leaders arrested, harassed, and silenced.
Since high school, I was fascinated by that particular era, enamored by the efforts of the civil rights struggle, and the Black and Brown Power movement trying to create a truly egalitarian society. But whenever I’d try and find out more about what it was like, my grandfather offered very little insight to what happened. It eventually became clear to me he had been focused on his own responsibilities, and after years of toiling as a janitor, and earning his medical license to become a general physician, he opened a private clinic in Corona, Queens in the mid-1970s. Achieving the so-called American Dream, which was his number one priority, was suddenly a reality.
Although his clinic was tiny, tucked between storefronts on a crowded avenue, he was popular among residents. He mostly served South Asian, African American and Latinx, and the majority were low income or working class. Often, he’d purchase the medications with his own money, and pass it onto his patients, and in turn, they’d bring him food as tokens of gratitude, like rice and chicken, or Bengali sweets.
As a young boy, while my mom and dad would shop, they’d drop me off at the clinic, and armed with a spiral notebook, I’d scribble and jot down story ideas while in the cramped waiting room, surrounded by stacks of magazines from months ago. As much as I appreciated the different types of people who would enter, and listened to them express their joy and relief whenever my grandfather would communicate to them in his own broken English that the pills they needed were waiting for them in his office, I was usually very bored, and was ready for my parents to return at any second to take me away.
My grandfather wanted me to be a doctor too. But I knew at a young age that was never going to happen. Anytime I’d see blood, I would immediately panic and cry. Fortunately, my parents noticed how much I liked writing, and even though my first stories were weird versions of my favorite Disney movies (i.e. a talking dog in South Africa named Ashoka who fought off poachers), they would show off my stories to family and friends alike, as if I won the Pulitzer. My grandfather acknowledged my skill as well, but was unable to understand what I was trying to say, and as I grew older, and explored issues of identity and race, of living in a country that still honors slaveowners as its heroes, the miscommunication and gap between us grew.
“I can’t stand this,” I muttered, while watching TV with him. I was about to begin my first year as a freshman at Rutgers, and all I did prior to the start of the semester was watch updates about the Iraq War on the news.
Although my grandfather was a life-long Democrat (according to my mom, he hated Reagan and Giuliani), he didn’t like to talk about politics. But this time, my grandfather, while lying on the couch, legs stretched out, asked if I was planning to join the growing anti-war protests.
I arched an eyebrow at him, even though he was still facing the screen. By then, my grandfather had finally retired at age 83. He had undergone heart surgery, and due to complications, was always coughing, and had trouble swallowing and eating. His body was falling apart, and I didn’t want to increase his level of stress.
I cautiously explained that I needed to. He then asked me if I was writing about the war in my work, and I repeated what I said, emphasizing, “I need to. It’s important.”
Expecting our conversation to be over, I intended to go back to my room. But before I could set my feet on the carpet, he turned his head, creases under his eyes, his skin pale, and said that it was best to not to attract unwarranted attention to myself.
“American,” he said to me in a mix of Bengali and English, “Try and write something happy. Everyone likes happy.”
American was his nickname for me, since I was the first one born in the U.S. I was not a fan, since it sounded so generic. As if all that made me special or unique was the fact that I so happened to be conceived in a place called the United States of America, it’s red, white, and blue hovering over me, like a dark cloud. I became angry, but resisted the urge to argue, and instead, did my best to explain that if I wrote what only made people happy, I would simply blend in with the crowd. He stared at me, not saying a word. Eventually, he smiled, and responded, “American, everyone likes happy. It’s ok to be happy.”
I didn’t know what else to do but glare at the TV. I did everything in my power not to remind him about all the reasons that should’ve made him feel anything but happiness, and which represented the real America that we lived in. An America where white kids teased him and would creep up behind him when walking to work to slap him across the head, as if he was nobody. An America where after 9/11, they threw bricks at our home in Queens, condemning us as “terrorists.” An America that shoots and kills Black and Brown bodies daily, that chooses to let the poor suffer and starve. Then again, repeating all this to him wouldn’t have made a difference. He was present, or at least, aware of all these incidences that took place, and each time, my grandfather never complained, and calmly went about his routine like nothing happened. Waking up each morning with a smile on his face, drinking his coffee at the dinner table, cracking jokes with my mom, his eldest daughter, as if delusional, and hiding from reality’s grip.
. . .
Since my grandfather’s funeral, I dove into the deep-end of political organizing and writing. I attended protests during my undergrad and collaborated with fellow Asian American activists, and while earning my Master’s degree in journalism at D.C., I’d often join the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and participate in discussions about the intersections of race, class and gender. It was liberating to be around people who saw the same America that I saw, and knew that this country was fucked up.
It was exhilarating as well, to have articles of mine published by the papers and websites I interned and worked for, my name suddenly known to strangers and to people who might appreciate what I had to say. The first time a paper posted my article, I texted everyone I knew, and called my mom. Although it was for a local D.C.-based outlet, and the article itself wasn’t investigative or breaking news, I couldn’t contain the excitement, and soon, friends and family were sharing my article across social media.
For a while, I felt unstoppable, believing that in a few years, I’d be working for The New York Times, which was my dream. Our family name, Bhattacharya, would be stamped into the American consciousness, like the Kennedys. But, after countless hours hunched over my laptop, skipping meals to finish stories on deadline, and people commenting without reading a single word, I could sense the momentum draining from me.
Even as I started working at local newspapers, the allure of being a journalist was fading. The newsrooms were nearly all white, and as the only person of color on staff, I’d feel alone and distant from everyone else, including those I interviewed.
“You’re one of the good ones,” a man said to me once, while interviewing him for an article about his mother turning 100.
I hesitated, and forced a smile, explaining slowly about why he shouldn’t say that. Still, I knew he’d forget, socialized in a world that made it alright for him and his friends to view the rest of us with contempt, or through an awkward paternal gaze.
While working for a newspaper in upstate New York, spotting Confederate flags at county fairs became a natural part of my environment. The first time I saw them, hung up at a pavilion, I confronted the man selling them, and was told the symbol was part of their local culture. I was livid, and returned to the office, determined to challenge the white residents in the area, including liberals, for turning a blind eye to how dangerous and violent the Confederacy really was. But once at my desk, I realized that as a reporter, it would be difficult to explain this to my editors, since journalists in my position weren’t encouraged to express our “personal views.” I suspected it was the fear of alienating their mostly old and white readership that prevented the newspapers from taking on important issues, like why the Confederacy was utter trash.
It was late one afternoon, and I was in Schenectady, reporting on a shooting. It was meant to be a short article, and I was trying my best to find witnesses to explain what happened. Schenectady, like many other cities and towns in what is known as the “capital region”, suffered from intense deindustrialization, which left countless folks without jobs, and young people without a sense of hope. I usually wrote and spoke to residents from Amsterdam, a few miles away from Schenectady and Albany, where abandoned houses loomed, and the downtown district was deserted. However, that day, while speaking with the residents and promising them anonymity, I realized how many of them were African American, or Indo-Guyanese, with some hanging portraits of Ganesh on their doors. The reality of their lives seeped into my own psyche.
I had to stop and take a breath. While watching the police enter the house where the shooting had occurred, the yellow tape serving as a quasi-barrier between me and the truth, I wanted to fall to my knees, and disappear into the asphalt. To merge with the black and white lines. I did manage to compile the quotes and traces of information and submit it to our editors, but while sitting in my car, dragging in air through my mouth, my lungs feeling like someone’s hand was squeezing them, I wondered, if instead of making a difference, I had become another faceless reporter, who was now stuck covering county fairs, and reproducing sensationalist stories about communities of color and crime.
I was 26 years old, with little to no savings of my own, my body broken from days travelling up and down city blocks in my attempt to get to know everyone in the community, and from late evenings spent writing and updating articles with my eyes barely able to stay open due to another crushing headache. Apart from my parents and close friends responding to what I wrote, especially on the few occasions I could narrate on what concerned me the most, such as our broken immigration system, or, the perspective of Native Americans on the racist Washington team logo, I didn’t feel heard, or appreciated by the readers, editors, or anyone else for that matter. Accepting that working for The New York Times was no longer realistic, I internalized the shame, and accepted a fellowship position at a New Jersey newspaper for significantly lower pay, and moved back home.
. . .
“It was a symptom of how bitterly weary I was of wandering, how I hoped to find a resting place, reconciliation, in the land where I was born,” James Baldwin observed in No Name in the Street, adding, “But everything that might have charmed me merely reminded me of how many were excluded, how many were suffering and groaning and dying, not far from a paradise which was itself but another circle of hell.”
No Name in the Street, like the Fire Next Time, is a collection of essays by Baldwin, meditating on the American social landscape, from his insights on the insidious nature of whiteness to his experiences as a black man. Personally, I enjoyed No Name in the Street more so than his more famous Fire Next Time, not only because Baldwin speaks more vividly about the people in his life, but also, because it was written during an era that resembles our own.
“For, in the generality, as social and moral and political and sexual entities, white Americans are probably the sickest and certainly the most dangerous people, of any color, to be found in the world today,” he expressed.
One perhaps would recoil at such a statement. However, one should understand the emotions that must have been boiling within. Reacting to the assassinations of Dr. King Jr. and close friend Malcolm X, and the growing power of Richard Nixon, driven by support among white Americans, Baldwin was right to feel incensed and frustrated.
In fact, it is that kind of raw honesty that I’ve craved, especially in times like these, when much of what is happening now, from the disturbing increase in hate crimes to the parasitic influence of the far-right, echoes what Baldwin witnessed in the late 1960s/early 1970s. In No Name in the Street, I sympathize with Baldwin’s pain and his sense of heartache and disappointment.
I continued to protest after moving back to New Jersey, and joined the PhD program in Political Science at Rutgers with the goal of learning new theories of liberation, and lessons on how to effectively tackle white supremacy and capitalism.
But, the self-doubt festered, and my frustrations kept growing. The emotional confusion reached its peak after a rally that was held last month to support an undergrad at our university, who was undocumented, and was called in by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for an interview at their state headquarters. We feared that it was a ploy by ICE to bring her in and detain her.
Hundreds of students, professors, and concerned citizens took buses, rode the train, and drove to Newark, to chant and protest on the front steps of the ICE building in Newark. Fortunately, the student was let go, and was grateful for everyone, and briefly, I was relieved. Yet, while returning to campus, I couldn’t stop thinking about what some of the speakers had said earlier at the event, citing the countless others who were already detained by ICE, and who would soon be deported, their lives torn apart forever. Once at my apartment, I had to sit down on the edge of my bed, my legs and my heart feeling heavy.
A few days later, I was home with my parents, eating dinner, dipping naan into thick gravy and doing my best to appear engaged with the meal. While I chewed, however, my mom, who had been watching the news (our TV is in front of our dining room table), turned to me and asked about the rally. I told her what she needed to know, and she replied, “I’m glad the girl is okay. It’s not right what she has to go through.”
“Yes, it’s like what you said, that this is a sign of European settler colonialism,” my dad added, as he casually scooped chickpeas onto his plate.
I stared. My mouth hung open.
The following weekend, I met close friends for dinner, and once we sat down for some seafood, they immediately began asking questions about anti-blackness, a subject I tackle in my essays. One of them asked about whose work he should read to learn more. Trying not to let the excitement overwhelm me, I took a deep breath and calmly said he should explore writings by Baldwin, and watched in astonishment as my friend typed the name into his phone.
Over the past few weeks, my perspective has begun to shift. I’ve taken a step back, and focused more on the smaller moments swirling around me, such as a friend sharing their impressions of their first protest, posting pictures of it over Facebook, or others I grew up with informing me about progressive candidates they are campaigning for. Or, family members who now push back against the ignorance of others, whether at work or at our own family gatherings.
I’ve wondered if I am beginning to see the side of America that my grandfather had always assumed was the norm. The America where people did care about their communities and who wanted life to be better for everyone.
Perhaps his love for this country stemmed from the love and empathy he saw expressed by the people closest to him, from his patients to family and friends. Some can call this myopic. I, on the other hand, think this was his method of staying sane in a nation filled with daily indignities and hardship. Clinging to the America he saw in his community offered him a reason to smile, and hence, to keep going.
Even Baldwin, as much as he railed against the establishment, was wedded to the notion that someday, the values he saw exhibited among young radicals and those he grew up with in his neighborhood, of community and sacrificing for others, would spread.
“An old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born. This birth will not be easy, and many of us are doomed to discover that we are exceedingly clumsy midwives. No matter, so long as we accept that our responsibility is to the newborn: the acceptance of responsibility contains the key to the necessarily evolving skill.”
Of course, it would be dishonest of me to pretend that I’ve completely accepted my grandfather’s worldview, or am optimistic about where the country is headed. However, I am prepared to say, that if patriotism means to defend these values of empathy and community and to honor the vision that Baldwin and my grandfather had of the U.S., then I am prepared to keep writing, to keep speaking out, and to keep fighting for that version of America they believed in.
. . .
A prominent memory of mine which keeps reappearing whenever I’m reflecting has been the time I visited my grandfather’s clinic after school on a particular afternoon.
My mom and dad dropped me off as usual, and I grudgingly sat in the waiting room. A couple arrived with a baby. They spoke in Bengali with my grandpa, who led them inside his office down the hall. For some reason, I followed.
I observed as he spoke to them, and explained the medicine their baby needed. Once they realized he had paid for it, they both promised to pay him back, but he simply reiterated the directions written in English on the side of the bottle. Again, they were emphatic, expressing how they’d return the favor. My grandfather simply reminded them of their next appointment.
Once they left, it was just me and him in the office. I read one of my Garfield books (I had bad taste as a kid), while my grandfather resumed cleaning the office, removing paper from piles, and organizing them. At one point, my grandfather sat down to gather his breath, and looked across the desk at me.
“American, what did you think of the people who showed up?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I dunno. Do they come here a lot?”
“No. They’re new.”
There was a pause. I struggled to think of something else to say.
Fortunately, my grandfather added, “They looked scared. But, they’ll be fine. I told them an old joke in Bengali.” He then proceeded to repeat it to me.
He smiled as I sat there, not responding.
“American, be happy,” he finally said, “It’s okay to be happy.”
I grinned, and kept reading, as he returned to organizing the office.
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Sudip Bhattacharya is a PhD student in Political Science at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where he focuses on race and identity in American politics. He formerly worked at AsAm news, and is now a staff writer at The Aerogram which focuses on the experiences of South Asian Americans.
Before, he worked as a full-time journalist, writing articles for CNN Politics, the Washington City Paper, Lancaster Newspapers, The Daily Gazette (Schenectady), the Jersey Journal, and The Aerogram (a website dedicated to South Asian American issues). You can reach him @ResistRun on Twitter.
Categories: Sudip Bhattacharya