The Internet Personified: Americana
G is for guest
Most Esteemed Painted Storks,
There was a period in the ‘90s where everyone’s summer holiday seemed to be set in stone. You’d ask your classmate what they were doing over the break and they’d casually mention either going to see a Chacha Abroad or having Abroad Chacha come and see them. You’d nod wisely, you too had similar plans that holiday, one or the other of your family’s NRI relatives would be coming to visit, coming to stay, and that would occupy much of your time, between taking them out and showing them things or eating at restaurants they missed or even going on regular summer road trips to Agra or Jaipur, staring at the beautiful monuments that had grown so monotonous for you, you swear you could recite the guide’s patter by heart every time you turned a corner of the Taj Mahal.
Depending on where you were from, that’s where your foreign returned guests would be from in correlation. The Reddys, my mother’s family, tended towards the States so firmly, like a tree grown slanting towards the sun, that it shocked me later that other people could live in other places that weren’t either India or “somewhere in America.” On my father’s side, I only know my uncle and aunt and two cousins who live in London but they moved around a lot, so London never came up in my imaginings as much as the US did. Ours was a close familial relationship broken in two halves: my mother and one of her sisters stayed in India, their two older sisters emigrated to America in their 20s and raised American children with strong Hyderabadi roots.
In my extended family, America was #GOALS. It was expected that we would all one day wind up there, whether by education or work. Surprisingly, apart from the actual Americans, my cousins and their parents, none of us made the move, choosing India instead. But then India also evolved in ways we couldn’t have foretold when America was being held up in front of us as the only way to live a good life. If you are a certain kind of Indian (rich, I mean, and relatively rich, I mean, in comparision to everyone else, and upper caste and class which is also something you should think about) then you can have a better life here than you would in America with your same circumstances and your same name. At least, that’s what we thought in our twenties. The things we want out of life now—freedom of speech and the press and effecient systems and proper justice and clean air—all those things might be easier somewhere else? What do I know, I’ve only ever known here.
I remember once my grandmother offering me this new pack of undies, they were this horrible brown and very unattractive, and so I said, “No” and she said, “But they’re from America” and ok, I was running low on underwear just then so I took them and true to promise, those ugly brown underpants lasted several years without even fraying slightly.
I encountered America through these cousins and aunts and suitcases way before I actually thought of it as a country. The suitcases, usually three or four, in shiny colours, clean as could be, released this spicy, foreign smell, so exotic, whenever they were opened. The smell clung to everything they owned, from their underwear to their toothpaste, everything was a bit shinier, a bit more colourful, a bit better because it all smelt like Far Away. Years later, on my own holiday, I came home and unzipped my suitcase and there it was, that Abroad Smell. I decided then that it must come on through the cargo hold of the plane, something about being in the air for so long? This does not explain why the same smell doesn’t happen when you go on a domestic flight, so maybe it’s just the international air.
First would come out the presents. There were small presents: fun sized chocolate, mostly Snickers, but sometimes cookies like Chips Ahoy or Oreo. Bags and bags of Cheerios in ziplock containers. Then larger presents: clothes usually, t-shirts and jeans, when I was very small, I got party dresses, when I was older, I received long sleeved scooped neck tops (still use those!) and lots of tights. My oldest cousins went off to college and came back with gifts too, my favourite were a (short-lived) pair of Nikes, before Nike came to India, which my dog, a mongrel I’d never fully succeeded in training, decided to demolish almost instantly, as though she had taken a personal hatred to these shoes. I hadn’t even bothered to lock them away because by then she was two years old and had outgrown chewing on our shoes ages ago. I suppose it was the smell that drove her wild.
After the presents, the chocolate that we ate sparingly, one a day so they would last weeks, my foreign relatives would leave in a storm of detritus, leaving behind them shampoo and conditioner, sometimes toothpaste, striped toothpaste, that tasted so much better than the red Close Up my family had been buying for years, as though no other brand existed.
A few years later, I discovered Archie comics. I remember being aware of them as early as eight or nine, but the year I turned ten, they entered my life in a big way. Every summer we’d take a train to Hyderabad, to spend some time with my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins, and I’d buy two Archie comics as a treat at a stall in New Delhi Railway Station. Then, carefully, because I knew the train time table, I’d finish each one before our next long stop. Nagpur meant oranges, Nagpur meant a longer stop where I hopped out and exchanged my read comics for new ones at half the price at the book stall there. And so on, all the way till we reached Hyderabad the next day and we’d see the anxious, waiting faces of our relatives on the platform.
Riverdale became more familiar to me than anything I’d read in a Tinkle comic or an Amar Chitra Katha. Tinkle was fun, but not funny, and filled with stories about kids who talked in an odd, stilted fashion, not like I did. Amar Chitra Katha was stories from the epics, and so thin, that they were hardly value for money, I’d be done with them by the time we pulled out of the station. Even now, all these years later, I can remember what it felt like to open a new Archie Double Digest, thick, sixty page comics, full of coloured illustrations, smelling so new and rich, the paper nice enough to stay in shape, even when you left it face down on your seat. I was devoted to them, to Archie, with his two quiffs of red hair and freckles across his nose, to Betty and Veronica who looked identical if you covered their hair with one finger, wondering why Archie was so torn, when it seemed clear that Betty was the better person. Reggie, I wondered why everyone was friends with, Jughead was the only one with individuality, forever eating, despite his skinny physique, Moose who loved Midge, who tried to get away from him for the more sophisticated Reggie. Mr Lodge, Hiram, and Mrs Lodge, Hermione. (I have tried to watch the Netflix adaptation of Riverdale, but find it too Gossip Girl, too New Age Teen Show to agree with my memories.) (When in 1990, the made-for-TV movie To Riverdale And Back Again finally came out on video in India, that was much more my speed, to watch everyone grown up but still with the same essence that made up my love for the comic books. I remember discussing the movie right before we watched it with one of my mum’s friends, and I said, “Maybe Moose and Midge won’t even be together” and she said, “Oh no, Moose and Midge are definitely married” and I remember being so surprised that an adult knew the dynamics of the Moose/Midge relationship.)
But what fascinated me the most about Archie comics was how they portrayed America. This was a slice-of-life we were getting way before cable TV (1992) or the internet properly (1994/5?). Sure, we had watched the movies before but that was Hollywood. Archie comics were real America, we were told. Their concerns were just like every other American teen. Mostly, I was wonderstruck at the dating. How they dated, how their parents were apparently chill with all this dating, how boys and girls hung out together at Pop’s Diner, how they seemed so independent of little things like asking for permission or coming home at a certain time. My own teen years were so far away from me at this point, I could imagine living in Riverdale easier than I could imagine being sixteen or seventeen. America, I decided, was where teenagers could have boyfriends and girlfriends, as normally as they had a glass of milk in the morning.
I have been to the US three times in my life. Once was when I was very small, I was only two, and I have no memories of this trip, but there are so many photographs I might as well have been there. The next time, the trip I actually remember and count as my first was when I was eleven. At the time, my mother was working at a news bureau that sent her to all sorts of amazing places for work. This was a great gig, and one I envy to this day. That summer, 1993, she was in Brazil and it was decided that I should meet up with her at my aunt’s house in New Hampshire—which by the way is a state that comes up a lot during my recent watch of The West Wing so I’m delighted that I actually went somewhere they show on TV. Meeting up with her there meant travelling alone, and while I had been travelling alone practically my whole life—whenever she went on one of these foreign junkets she put me on a plan to Hyderabad so I was an old hand at airports and being what they called an “unaccompanied minor”—this was the longest flight I’d ever had all by myself. I remember not much of the flight except that everyone was very nice to me, the pilots let me into the cockpit before we took off. (ah, those pre-9/11 days!) (as a matter of fact, I have not returned to America since 9/11, I last went when I finished high school in 2000, so I imagine all my memories are soft focused and fuzzy.)
I got a little goody bag from the flight, including pilot wings and some other things I considered myself too old for. It was all surprisingly well-organised, I wasn’t alone for a minute, and as soon as we touched down for my changing flights, another flight attendent or someone took over. I had very short hair then, and people kept asking the lady in charge of me whether I was a boy or a girl, which is… weird? what a strange question, and finally, the woman said she was going to hold up a sign that said, “It’s a girl!” to stop people asking, which is also strange and not very PC in this day and age, but those were the Days of Long Ago, friends, and so I just smiled nervously, and at the other end was my aunt and two cousins come to pick me up.
Of course, everything in America in 1993 was so different from India that we may as well have been on different planets. We went to Disney-one of them, the one in Florida. I shook hands with cartoon characters. I won a large stuffed Bart Simpson at a local fair. I made the family come with me on a trip to Louisa May Alcott’s house where as the youngest reader of Little Women, they took me up to the attic, still in renovation, so I could see where “the real Jo” worked. Everything was very large and spread apart, and things tasted different, even Indian food made at home. I sat at a Burger King, all three of us, me and my two younger cousins with paper crowns on our heads that they gave children, and I stared at a couple making out, just going at it, in one booth, because I had never seen anything like that before, never, not in my whole life, and the boy of the couple detached and gave me a very hard stare until I got the hint and looked away. I visited my six-year-old cousin’s first grade class and gave a little talk and passed out little clay figurines from Cottage Emporium, and someone asked me about elephants and someone else asked me about the “little dots on their foreheads” and the teacher asked me who the prime minister was, which answer I actually remembered, and then they asked if I’d like to hang out with my peer group all day and I saw the sixth graders, who were huge, they were so tall and double my height and so fast and I just felt small and strange so I hung out with the six year olds and felt far more at home. I even went on their class trip with them and even though there were two Indian girls next door, thirteen and ten, they asked me immediately whether I had a boyfriend and my aunt overheard and they were not fit company for me any more.
In the year 2000, I was far less shy but still not completely confident. I was staying briefly with a cousin in her college dorm, and I remember jet lag laying me low, and also making a trip by myself to New York City and then us two going to watch The Phantom of the Opera from the standing row seats, and I remember being passed on, relative to relative, like a parcel, across the United States. In each place, I was made welcome, and in each place, I did a little exploring on my own, and then rejoined my host family. In Maryland, my DC stop, I was surprised that they ate plain salted Pringles like papad on the side of their sambhar-rice. In Los Angeles, I put my hand into Marilyn Monroe’s, and went on a studio tour. We visited Harvard, and I bought myself a t-shirt and a book from the bookstore. We went whale watching and to the San Diego zoo. My family was only on the coasts so I saw nothing in the middle, but I remember taking the train and taking a bus, where was I going, I don’t remember, but I remember sitting in so much public transport. To send an eighteen-year-old off by herself is perhaps the biggest mark of trust adults can put on you. My whole life I was sheltered, but not so sheltered that I couldn’t think to find a pay phone and make a call when I was going to be late.
This was supposed to be a newsletter about having guests and instead it became one about being one. Be a good guest though, it doesn’t take too much work. Tidy up after yourself. Stick to the hours you promised, and if you don’t, make sure your hosts have plenty of notice. I was too young and too Indian to offer to help out with any of the housework, but do that also, don’t wait for someone to ask you. To be a good guest, you must be accommodating and delighted with treats organised for you, and tell good stories over a bottle of wine, and be no trouble. I was always a little sad to see our house guests go, though it had been several weeks of people sleeping on mattresses on the floor, several weeks of eating out and whirlwind tours of Delhi in the heat of the day, when everyone sensible is taking a nap with the cooler on.
I haven’t been back to the Taj Mahal since those guest filled summer holidays, I kind of miss it now. “And then,” the guide would always say, sticking out one arm to gesture, “Shah Jahan planned to build his own tomb, completely in black marble, across the river so the two of them could rest together. Alas, he died before he could begin.” This turned out to be a myth like all stories that are too good to be true, but it’s a nice thought, like Riverdale being America, like the smell of foreign suitcases, like seeing the inside of a cockpit once, like people being kind for the most part.
WELL. Having meandered more than is my usual wont, let me make up for not being able to tell a straight story this fortnight by giving you links that definitely stick to the point.
Previously in the alphabet series: A, B, C, D, E and F.
Weird stories that are definitely… something.
The bestselling author Sara Gruen apparently lost most of her savings and her health trying to get someone she didn’t even know off death row.
This man says he has the largest penis in the world.
This white professor pretended to be black her whole adult life.
CRIME AND BLOOD
Murrrderrrr on the Appalachian trail.
Rich people problems
This whole marvelous paragraph and more to mock from here.
DELIGHTFUL stories probably featuring animals
The crow whisperer.
What if all the humans vanished?
The slow gentrification of the god Shiva.
The strange undeath of middlebrow.
Tana French and houses.
That’s ten links, I have more but I feel like ten is about the maximum amount of tabs you can open from one email, so we’ll save some for next time.
Have a great week, despite recent lockdown rules making a lot of us across the country have to stay in from 10 pm to 5 am. Do I still need to say “be safe” for you to magically be safe? Very well then: be safe.
Where am I? The Internet Personified! A mostly weekly collection of things I did/thought/read/saw that week.
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
Follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. (Plus my book recommendation Instagram!)
Got sent this newsletter? Sign up here to subscribe!
Forward to your friends if you liked this and to that one NRI uncle who insists on random tradition when he’s back in India despite his very modern life abroad if you didn’t.
Also, write back to me! I love to hear from you.
Awesome vignettes. It is both a bit of a relief and and a disappointment that stuff brought over from relatives in Amrika has lost its glorified place on the pedestal. Like you point out in such a relatable way, they had a certain something to them that just was not the case with stuff available in the Kirana or your stationery store - Snickers, Jolly Ranchers, $1 Paper Mate pens, random notepads, the obligatory T shirts with some random US city name, cheap digital watches, desktop calendars and the like. In hindsight, all of it was probably stuff from the neighborhood dollar store that looked special and nice to have. It was probably picked a couple of hours before the relatives boarded the flight as they said to themselves "pick any damn thing as long as it is not available in India, is shiny and has snob value." Great writing!