The Joys Of Crying

I cry easily; so I cry a lot. Many, many things set me off: movies, songs, talking about my parents, a sportsman’s death, showing my daughter music videos of songs that I listened to as a teenager, Saturn V liftoffs, the misfortune of others in the world’s ‘disaster zones,’ witnessing random acts of kindness on the subway, a busker hitting all the right notes, political disaster–the list goes on, and it doesn’t seem to settle into a coherent pattern. Nostalgia features prominently here; as does a new-found vulnerability and fearfulness made vividly manifest after my daughter’s entry into this world. I’m an immigrant and adult orphan, so memories are especially precious; and I suspect they color my perception of most things I encounter on my daily journeys through work and parenting and the usual reading and writing. (A beautiful turn of phrase, a fictional character’s terrible, tragic fate can also get the tear glands working overtime.)

As I wrote here a while ago:

I’ve become a better, not worse, crier over the years. Growing up hasn’t made me cry less, now that I’m all ‘grown-up’ and a really big boy. Au contraire, I cry–roughly defined as ‘tears in the eyes’ or ‘lumps in the throat which leave me incapable of speech’ even if not ‘sobbing’–more. There is more to cry about now, more to get the tear glands working overtime: more memories, more days gone by, more nostalgia, more regrets, more friends gone, never to return, more evidence of this world’s implacable indifference to our hopes and desires–for ourselves and ours. I cry in company–sometimes, when I’m trying to tell a story and realize I cannot proceed; I cry when I’m alone. I cry on my couch when watching a movie. And just to make sure I’m a genuine New Yorker, I’ve cried on the subway.

Truth is, crying feels good. It is actually intensely pleasurable; to cry is to feel alive, powerfully so. I am not jaded and cynical, impervious to things that should hurt or feel good; crying tells me I’m still capable of powerful emotional responses, that I have not become blasé to this world’s offerings.  Crying slows things down; for its duration, there is an intense concentration on the engendered emotion. All else falls away; in a world of eternal distraction, in which time has sped up, where all is a whirl, crying is a blessing.

But crying isn’t just a reaction to an external event or stimulus; it’s an act of communication with oneself. Crying is informative, a message from self to self. It tells me what hurts, what feels good, what I remember, who I miss, what got under my skin, and stayed there. It informs others too, of course, about who I am, but that is not its most important function. That honor is reserved for the self-knowledge it makes possible, the picture it completes of me, the reminder it provides that I’m many things and many people, spread out over time and space, still trying to hang together.

A Mere Taste Of The Refugee’s Desperation

In 1990, my visa status in the US changed from ‘student’ to ‘skilled worker’; in the alphanumeric soup of visa designations, I went from being F-1 to H-1. This was occasion to celebrate; I could now legally work in the US, and earn more than the minimum hourly wage. There was a glitch though: the F-1 was a ‘multiple-entry’ visa; I could come and go from the US freely for its duration. The H-1 was a ‘single-entry’ visa; if I left the US, I would have to apply for a visa renewal to gain reentry. Such renewals were not guaranteed. Very soon, a tale of disaster made the rounds. A friend went home to Bombay to attend his sister’s wedding; when he applied for a renewal, his visa was denied. Despite repeated entreaties from his employer (and from my then graduate adviser who wrote in support of his personal qualities and work ethic) he was ‘stuck’ in Bombay. There he stayed.

Very soon, H-1 visa holders began to devise a ‘work-around’ to this problem: departures from the US to Canada or Mexico, which lasted less than a week, were counted as ‘non-significant departures.’ If so, you could leave the US, visit an American consulate in Canada or Mexico, and then apply for a new multiple-entry H-1 visa there. If you were successful, all was well; if not, well, you just went back to the US, and planned something else, perhaps a trip to another consulate somewhere else in Canada or Mexico. (On the grapevine, news spread of so-called ‘easy’ or ‘hard’ consulates; those who were lenient at granting renewals, and those who weren’t.) One reason given for asking for a renewal during a so-called ‘significant departure’ was that the applicant was soon going to be making a business trip overseas for his employer; the length of the trip would be too short to allow the time to apply for a renewal while traveling. This tall tale was supported by a letter from the employer (almost all of whom, quite naturally, supported their employees’ attempts to return to their jobs.)

In the spring of 1992, I desperately wanted to return home to visit my family; I had been away from ‘home’ for almost five years; in that period of time, I had only managed to make one trip home; it had lasted three weeks. Three weeks in five years seemed awfully slim pickings. But if I wanted to make a trip back to India, I’d have to go through the ‘traveling for a new H-1’ runaround. So I did.

In May 1992, armed with my visa application papers and a supporting letter from my employer, I drove to Montreal, to apply for a H-1 renewal. A Canadian friend offered crash space, which I gratefully accepted. I had managed to take a day off from work with some difficulty; I would drive up on a Thursday, apply for the visa on Friday, spend a day in Montreal on Saturday and then drive back on Sunday to resume work on Monday.

The best laid plans of man, etc.

On Friday morning, I submitted my application to the consular officer, and went to wait. A short while later, I was summoned by the consular officer and informed that I would have to return on Monday to find out the fate of my application. (Apparently, Montreal residents got priority, and would be served the same day.) I stared at him dumbfounded; consulates always processed visas on the same day; I could not possibly take another day off from work; this policy seemed exactly backwards for surely Montreal residents could easily return next week while out of town applicants could not. I asked for accommodation; I explained my case and said that I had to return to the US to go back to work; my employer would not let me take another day off; surely Montreal residents could come back on Monday to pick up their visas? And so on.

All to no avail. I was speaking to a bureaucrat, frozen, unblinking, uncaring. As our conversation stumbled into another zone of futility, my vision began to cloud. I wanted to see my mother and my brother and my sister-in-law; I wanted to see my infant nephew and hold him in my arms; I’d only been home for three weeks in five years and now this automaton was trampling callously on those barely expressible desires.

I snapped, and raged; I loudly proclaimed the stupidity of this policy. The consular officer had had enough and called security to remove me. I shook them off and walked out of my own accord, cursing as I went.  Back in my truck, I crumbled, sinking into a teary despondency. I was ‘stuck’ in the US; I would not be allowed to see my family after all.

Compared to the refugees now seeking entry to the US, I was a vastly, monumentally, privileged and fortunate person. I was able to apply again for a visa. (A month later, I made another road-trip; this time, to Quebec City. My visa application was successful and I traveled to India in August 1992 for four weeks.) I was able to visit my family and play with my little nephew, take long walks with my mother, share a drink with my brother, enjoy my sister-in-law’s cooking. The problem I faced at the US consulate in Montreal was a relatively minor one; I could have tried for an extension of my vacation, and after all, I was able to afford another trip to Canada relatively quickly. But that sensation, that sick feeling of being denied contact with one’s family, a kind of refuge–thanks to an impervious bureaucracy–has always stayed with me; it was a peculiar kind of nausea and fear and hopelessness. I can only imagine–very dimly–what those must be feeling who have been denied entry to the US over the past day or so because of Donald Trump’s racist executive order. This one cuts quite deep, quite personally. I’m united–through my differences–with all immigrants, all refugees.

Note: As a reminder: the stay order issued by the Federal Court only applies to those refugees who have already traveled to the US and were denied entry at US ports; those who had not started their journey yet remain in limbo, as so do those who now wait at detention centers at airports, waiting for their cases to be processed.

The Endless Surprises Of Memory

Memory is a truly wondrous thing. A couple of weeks ago, I met an old friend’s younger brother for lunch in midtown Manhattan; we were meeting after over thirty years. We ordered food, grabbed our trays, and headed to a table, our conversation already picking up pace as we did so. We talked about our high school days (his brother and I had been in the same class; the ‘kid’ had been a year junior); I asked about his sister, whose home in Delaware I had visited a few times during my first years in the United States; we laughed uproariously, as all those who reunite seem to do, when recounting tales of days gone by, which now suddenly seem more peculiar, more distinctive, with their ever-increasing vintage; and of course, we talked about my friend, now physically absent, but who loomed larger than life as the reason which had brought our two lives together. In the course of our conversation, I made note of how I  used to walk over to my friends’ home in New Delhi; the section of town I lived in was about a mile or so away, and walking and biking roads offered an easy connection. As I offered up this little recollection, a thought went through my mind; my friend’s house, like all those in planned ‘residential colonies’ in New Delhi, had an alphanumeric address consisting of a ‘block’ letter and a number; it seemed to me I could remember it. (Mine was S-333; the three hundred and thirty-third residential ‘plot’ in ‘S’ Block. Quite obviously, I remembered this address; only a nihilist cannot remember his childhood home’s location.)

This fact, of my being able to remember my friend’s old address, caused me some astonishment; I sought confirmation of this remarkable feat. I asked my friend for some; he supplied it. I had remembered his childhood home’s address–I-1805–clearly and distinctly. I had not thought about this alphanumeric combination for over thirty years now; and yet, somehow, by dint of being placed into a context in which it was relevant, I had been able to summon up its details with little difficulty. Other details came flooding back too, unprompted and unbidden. I felt an older self within me stir; amnesia fell away.

I will freely admit–as an immigrant who lost his parents a very long time ago–to being obsessed with memory and nostalgia and recollection. (I am surprised that I did not do more academic work on memory, given my interests in the philosophy of mind and the conceptual foundations of artificial intelligence; I am unsurprised that I was deeply fascinated by the work my friend John Sutton did in the same field.)  Here again, was another instance of why this particular human capacity captivated me endlessly. And I could not but wonder yet again about the nature of my self, and of the interactions of memory with it: how much remained, ‘locked away,’ in the recesses of my cranial stories, merely awaiting for the right contextual cue to be reinvigorated; are there other discoveries and understandings of myself possible as a result?

On Surviving A Police Stop (Unlike Terence Crutcher)

One morning in the winter of 1989, after finishing up a short trip to Binghamton, NY with a pair of friends, I was driving back to my home in New Jersey. Rather, I was dozing in the front passenger seat after having performed my share of driving duties. I was jolted out of my slumbers by the awareness that we had come to an abrupt halt; some excitement seemed afoot. On groggily inquiring into the reasons for our stopping, I learned we had been pulled over by a state trooper for speeding. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘now we’re going to have to go through that old driver’s-licence-registration-insurance bullshit; but at least it won’t be me getting a ticket and two points on my driving record.’ I settled back drowsily in my car as the trooper walked over, asked for the windows to be rolled down, demanded our papers, and walked back to his car to run the appropriate checks.

A few seconds later, I was jolted out of my complacency. The trooper was now standing next to his car, pointing a gun at ours, while loudly yelling for us to get out of the car with our hands up. We stared at each other dumbfounded, a collective what-the-fuck informing our facial expressions. Even as we asked each other what the problem could be, we scrambled out of the car. It was December in upstate New York; we were wearing thin sweatshirts, and in the haste, forgot to put on our jackets. Our hands held high, shivering instantly as our formerly protected bodies encountered the freezing air, we stood next to the car, a large-caliber handgun pointed at our heads. The trooper ordered the three of us to turn around and put our hands on the car. We complied again even as the freezing metal made our fingers and hands almost instantly numb. I was scared and confused; we all were. Why was a state trooper pointing a gun at us? What had we done wrong? Our panic steadily mounted. We were frightened and freezing, an armed man was threatening to shoot us if we did not follow his orders precisely.

Suddenly, the trooper yelled, “Keep your hands in sight!”As he did so, my roommate, standing next to me, frantically pushed his hands inside the car window. As he did so, the trooper screamed again, “Keep your hands in sight!” Turning slightly, with my hands still raised, I whispered, “Take your hands out!” He complied. A few minutes later, two more trooper cars arrived; we were handcuffed, pushed into the back of the squad car, and hauled off to the local precinct station. The car rental agency had reported our rental stolen, having made the clerical error of not having taken the car off the ‘overdue’ list even though it had been returned by the previous truant client. A few hours later, we were released. An embarrassing fiasco, you will agree. We considered ourselves unlucky and aggrieved; we could have sued for the distress and discomfort caused us.

But in point of fact, we had been lucky, very lucky. We were brown men; we spoke English in accents. We hadn’t been black. Had we been, I wonder if my roommate, who had misheard the troopers directives, and I, who spoke to him–out of turn–during his misunderstanding, would have made it out alive.

Terence Crutcher was a black man. His car broke down on the road. The police showed up. He expected help; they shot him dead. He didn’t get lucky. Just like too many other black men when they encounter the police.

A Bedtime Story About ‘Immigration And Separation’

Last week, as is our custom at home, I read to my daughter before I put her to bed. (We pick a mix of ‘long stories’ and ‘short stories’ and settle on a number beforehand, one which has to be conformed to by a ‘promise.’) On this particular night, the ‘long story’ was Edwidge Danticat‘s Mama’s Nightingale; I did not know what the book’s contents were and only picked it up because, well, the author was Edwidge Danticat. That’s not entirely accurate: the subtitle did say A Story of Immigration and Separation but I presumed it was about an immigrant child feeling homesick for the home she has left behind. Perhaps, subconsciously, I had hoped to be able to tell my daughter about my migration to the US, my occasional nostalgia for an older ‘home.’

The opening passages of Danticat’s story soon dispelled these hopes:

When Mama goes away, what I miss most is the sound of her voice….For the last three months, Mama has been at Sunshine Correctional, a prison for women without papers….Every night after he makes dinner for us and helps me with my homework, Papa sits at the kitchen table and writes letters to the judges who send people without papers to jail. He also writes to our mayor and congresswoman and all the newspapers and television reporters he’s heard of. No one ever writes him back.

I’ll admit to hesitating when I read the bit about an imprisoned mother; I was reading to a not-quite-four-year-old after all. But I pressed on. My daughter’s curiosity about why this girl had been separated from her mother was not easily satisfied; I did the best I could to explain the surrounding context.

Danticat’s story is ultimately one with a happy ending–a family reunification–in which the young girl who is the subject of the story plays an empowered and leading role. I read–with some relish–those parts of the book in which the young daughter of the imprisoned mother is able to intervene in her mother’s case; there was ample opportunity here for my daughter to find behavior and attitudes worth emulating.

My story reading over, I noticed the book carried a postscript by Danticat, which I read aloud as well. In it, Danticat notes that she is the child of parents who migrated to the US before she could, that she was unable to join them because they were ‘without papers,’ a notion which fascinated her then and resulted in her writing this current story. And then at the end, there was a straightforward recitation of some grim numbers, an accounting of the tens of thousands of who have been ‘returned’ or ‘removed’ from the US–thus splitting many, many families asunder–by the Obama administration.

I have heard of, and read, those statistics many times; they have featured in many political debates I have participated in. But my relationship to them, despite being an immigrant myself, has always been a rather peripheral one. Not on that night, not with my daughter sitting on my lap. As I tried to finish reading Danticat’s postscript, my daughter looked at me in some surprise: my voice had caught in my throat, and I was unable to continue reading aloud. I tucked her in just a little more affectionately that night.

The Implausible Immigrants Of ‘The Night Of’

In HBO’s The Night Of a young Pakistani-American, Nasir Khan, has a bad night out: he ‘borrows’ his father’s cab for a joyride, picks up a mysterious and beautiful stranger, parties with her, and wakes up in her apartment to find her dead, and himself accused of murder. Things look bad, very bad. And so we’re off, probing into the subterranean nooks and crannies of the criminal justice system. Meanwhile, on the ‘outside,’ his stunned and bemused parents, convinced of his innocence–remain stunned and bemused, fumbling about, accepting help as and when it is given to them by strangers. This depiction of their plight and their reaction to it reveal this show’s understanding of immigrant life to be a very superficial one.

Immigrants don’t sit around, waiting for help to fall into their laps. The fact that they left their homelands to seek a better life is a prima facie indication they don’t do so. Here is what a pair of real-life Mr. and Mrs. Khans, living in the US for long enough for their son to have been born and brought up here, would have done had their son been picked up by the police and thrown behind bars: they would have started working the phones, calling every single one of their friends and family members who could help. They would have put the word out; they would have hustled, desperately and frantically, in a  manner quite familiar to them. The would have worked every ‘angle’ available to them. Perhaps a friend knows a friend who knows a criminal lawyer (“Let me call Hanif, his friend Syed used to work with a lawyer once”); perhaps someone knows a local Congressman who could help (“Do you think we should call Rizwan to see if he can put in a good word for us?”).  The Khans are shown living in Queens; their precise neighborhood is never named, but one can guess the show’s makers had Jackson Heights–where a large Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi community resides–in mind. If the Khans had been living there for any length of time, they would have built up, as all immigrants do, a rich network of connections who would have enabled and facilitated many aspects of their life in New York City. Nasir’s father, Mr. Khan, is shown as being successful enough to have a part-share in a cab; he did not get to that point without: a) displaying considerable drive and b) cultivating partnerships and relationships.

Leaving an old life in one’s home and starting a new one elsewhere take energy and initiative, the kind conspicuously absent in The Night Of’s depiction of an immigrant family’s responses to a personal catastrophe. The networks of ‘connections’ and ‘contacts’ immigrants rely on to replace the comfortable social structures of the past are what make their lives in this new land possible; an immigrant who did not instinctively rely on such forms of aid, and who did not display sufficient initiative to draw on them, would not last too long in this unforgiving land. Mr. and Mrs. Khan do a good job of looking like shocked parents; they don’t do such a good job of looking like immigrant parents who have brought up their child away from ‘home. ‘

An Unforgettable Image, Appropriately Contextualized

In the summer of 1992, I traveled to India to visit my family: my mother, my brother, his wife (my sister-in-law), and my little, then barely six months old nephew. The monsoon lay around the corner, promising mixed relief from the brutal heat of the North Indian plains; the humidity would still oppress, but evenings and nights promised to be cooler. My days at my brother’s air force base passed quickly: morning teas with my mother, playing with my nephew, indulgent afternoon beers, a lazy nap, then a long walk with my mother through the leafy, broad-avenued cantonment, and finally, at night, an old Indian favorite, several whiskies with club soda to accompany a hearty meal. It remains, to date, the most treasured of my many trips back ‘home’ since migrating to the US in 1987. Much was to change after that trip; those few weeks marked the end of an era of sorts.

Among the many pleasantly nostalgic vignettes of that trip that I can summon up quite effortlessly in my mind’s eye, one particular afternoon stands out clearly. That day, my mother and I returned to my brother’s residence on base from a brief train trip to meet some family in Central India. On arriving, my brother asked if we had had lunch, and on hearing we had not, suggested we get some take-out from the local market. My ears perked up, and I suggested we sample the wares of a local shop, which specialized in making the North Indian snack called kachori; this establishment’s products were known far and wide for their lip-smacking taste, and every daily batch produced by the cooks sold out in a few minutes. My brother looked at the time, saw it was just about that hour when the kachoris were to go on sale, and suggested we bust a move if we wanted to get lucky. I complied. We scored, picking up two dozen of the savory, spicy snacks. A dozen were to be consumed that afternoon itself; the remaining would have to bide their time till the evening. On the way back, I suggested to my brother that it would be a shame to not wash down our meal with a cold beer. He agreed, and we stopped off at a local shop to pick up a few three-quarter-litre bottles.

As we rode home on my brother’s motorbike, we noticed an unusually powerful afternoon monsoon shower brewing: grey rainclouds coalesced rapidly into gigantic black thunderheads building and lifting ominously as the winds picked up and little dust devils began dancing by the roadside. We arrived home, placed the food on the dining table to be sorted out into plates, opened our chilled bottles of beer, and stepped out into the lawn to watch the show being put on for our pleasure. As I drank the beer, its cold wetness in my gullet bringing relief from the heat, I felt exhilarated; the buzz was kicking in. All was well; I was at home with those I loved, beauty was all around me, good food awaited.

As we watched the storm brewing, my sister-in-law, a painter and artist, standing next to me, spoke softly: ‘Look at that; my most favorite vision of all, white birds flying with the black rainclouds as backdrop.’ I looked up; there they were, ivory-white wings silhouetted against the now-almost-ebony-black clouds, a stark and stunning contrast. It was, without doubt, one of the most startling and striking visions I had ever had of nature; it remains so to this day. And I knew, even at that instant, that my assessment of the beauty of the image presented to me, was directly and immediately affected by my placement (an air force base my father had flown out of many years ago), my company–those I missed so acutely once I had crossed the black water, my sense of belonging in a space that felt familiar, the love I could feel around me (and perhaps the beer too.) Without those accompaniments, I would not have seen what I did.

Note: In The Analyst and the Mystic: Psychoanalytic Reflections on Religion and Mysticism, his psychoanalytic study of the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Sudhir Kakar writes:

The artistic streak in Ramakrishna was strongly developed, and it seems appropriate that his first ecstasy was evoked by the welling up of aesthetic emotion; an episode of ‘nature’ mysticism, it was the consequence of an aesthetically transcendent feeling: “I was following a narrow path between the rice fields. I raised my eyes to the sky as I munched my rice. I saw a great black cloud spreading rapidly till it covered the heavens. Suddenly at the edge of the cloud a flight of snow white cranes passed over my head. The contrast was so beautiful that my spirit wandered far away. I lost consciousness and fell to the ground. The puffed rice was scattered. Somebody picked me up and carried me home in his arms. An access [sic] of joy and emotion overcame me….This was the first time I was seized with ecstasy.”