“There are a few things to remember in this country”, said my cousin. We were walking along the banks of the Mississippi. I had risen in the morning, the effects of jet lag if any, didn’t show on me. We had an omelet for brunch. The onion, that I sliced, looked intimidating. I had never seen one so big in my life. It was evening now, and we had set out for a walk. “First”, he said, “never put your arms around another guy’s shoulder as you do back home. Your sexual preferences are very often judged by that gesture. A fag is not a cigarette, so if you are a smoker, don’t ask for a light to get started on your fag. If a girl smiles at you, she is just smiling, don’t let yourself be deluded that she is interested in you. And, oh, a rubber is not what you use for erasing, ask for an eraser. Never ask your friend in class if you can borrow a “rubber” from him”. I let the information sink in. My first words of wisdom in the US. We walked along a bicycle path, the air was nippy. I had donned my new sweater, my cousin was in his shirt. Even though he was from Bombay, he was hardened enough. We talked of the old times and his stay in the US, of his experiences. “Be wary, chose your friends carefully”, he said, “you could be easily misled”.
It was getting dark and my stomach was rumbling. “Let’s go to Vic’s house for dinner,” he said. A car drove by and the driver pulled down the window shook a fist at us and yelled “Fucking Indians!”. Dutch courage, my cousin explained. “A rare case, not everyone is like that”. Stories of racial discrimination gnawed in my mind. Vic turned out to be Vikram. I was to learn that it was cool to shorten your name and give it an American ring. Or maybe, our names were just hard to pronounce. Chakravarthi became “Chuck”, Sreenivasan became “Siri”, Devdas became “Dave”. A movie was on as we entered the house. It was a Friday night special. On the screen, the dentist seemed to be engrossed in parts of the anatomy which were far from the general area in which he was trained to operate on. The voluptuous lady in the chair seemed to be writhing in agony, or was it ecstasy? Her moans reverberated over the hum of the drill which now hung limply on the end of the wire. What was she wearing? Wow! It must be hot in the clinic! “Go, baby, go! uh huh!” yelled a guy on the couch excitedly with a beer in his hand. “Shit!” said Vic as he changed channels, “Same old movie”. My cousin took it upon himself to satisfy my gastronomic rumblings. The chicken curry was excellent. “What would you like to have? Budweiser, Busch, Coors or Corona?” asked Vic. “Beer, please” I muttered. They gave me strange looks. “Oh he is a freshie from India”, explained my cousin. They seemed to be satisfied with the explanation and I found myself sipping my first beer in the US. The conversation centered around the job situation. I was content to sit back. I had two years to go before I had to worry about such things.
Let’s stop at Mahesh’s place before we return home”, said my cousin. I followed him into an apartment. The cigarette smoke hit me as I entered. Pizza boxes were strewn all over the place, empty cans of beer had found their way everywhere. My cousin introduced me. I lost track of names after the fifth one. Somebody pushed a beer into my hand. “Vage or non-vage?” asked the guy sitting across me. I had no trouble guessing which part of India he was from. My protests that I was full were drowned and I found myself eating a pepperoni pizza. “It’s Friday night”, my cousin explained, “everybody parties on Friday night!”. The conversation was varied. We bid adieu at two in the morning. As I turned in for the night, I reflected on my first day in the US. I had been cursed at, I had watched snippets of my first soft-porn movie, drank my first US beer and of course, had my first slice of pizza, containing beef. It was an unlikely start to my scholarly pursuits. And yes, I had called up Clemson University that morning and decided to switch schools to Clemson from LSU.
A photography session was in progress. It was a rather cloudy afternoon. Murali, the photography enthusiast, had mounted the sophisticated-looking camera on a tripod. His subject, Salim, sat close to a glass door for light. “A close-up of the face, ok?” said Murali. I was sipping on some Corona which had a slice of lemon floating in it. “Mexican beer, boss”, said Jaggi, “very potent stuff boss, just like the Mexican women”. Not having experience with either one, I could only nod my head as I stored the information in my rapidly growing data bank. The session had now shifted to the bedroom. A red towel had been thrown on the table lamp to impart a reddish glow. Murali seemed to be very professional. His discourses on shutter speeds and lighting conditions floated over my head. The Corona was comforting. It was the body shoot now. The subject had changed and Vijay was sitting in a chair with his shirt off. He seemed to coax his muscles to bulge. “A wet sheen will look good”, said Murali. Somebody returned with a canister and sprayed water on Vijay’s face, hair and chest. It did have the desired effect but Vijay went into a coughing spasm. I read the label on the canister. “Fantastic” it said. Somebody had forgotten to rinse the canister before filling it with water. It was a rather watery-eyed Vijay who posed for the pictures.
We were heading to the mall. I had heard many stories about them. They seemed to be so big that you could get anything in them, well almost anything. A Jagjit Singh ghazal was playing on the car stereo. The mall was brightly illuminated. I felt like a schoolboy left alone in a large toy shop, well almost!. I was sure I would get lost if I didn’t hang around my cousin and his friends. We stopped at a studio to get the photographs developed. I was struck by the apparent lack of security. Most of the stores seemed to have glass doors, sprawling expanses with no sales person breathing down my neck. “It is a combination of a sophisticated security system and an implicit trust in the customer”, my cousin explained. I was impressed. We stopped to have tacos. I liked them, they were pretty spicy. We picked the photographs on our way home. They had come out pretty good.
We made a trip to the campus again. It was huge, unlike my school back home. I was surprised to bump into a number of Indians in school. “Sunday is just another day in the week”, my cousin explained. He had interesting anecdotes to relate about a number of guys we met, too interesting to mention out here.
Monday morning found us heading towards New Orleans. I had to board the New York-bound Amtrak at New Orleans and disembark at Clemson. We reached New Orleans at 6 am. We had an hour to go before the train departed. We made our way to the French Quarter’s famed Bourbon Street. I was regaled with stories about Mardi Gras. Apparently, it was an event that the desi bachelors looked forward to with much anticipation. I could imagine them flinging their passions with the beads. We stopped by at a cafe for breakfast. I had my first taste of beignets.
I was boarding the train now. I was explicitly warned about the dangers of trying to get off the train at stations. The train journey was uneventful. I lunched on the tuna salad sandwiches that my cousin had packed for me. We passed through Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia before entering South Carolina. A wet reception greeted me at Clemson. This would be my home for the next couple of years.
This was written as an unemployed grad in 1994. You might want to read Part 1 if you haven’t already.