A Storyteller, Unbecoming

On showing, telling, and finding one’s way as a literary writer of color.

Namrata Poddar | Longreads | March 2018 | 14 minutes (3,636 words)


I remember writing workshops and story gods — firm believers in the real, in an alabaster universal and unhappy endings.

I remember hearing for the nth time from story gods: do not write about writing. I would nod. Of course. Last thing the world needed was another writer staring deep into their navel.

I remember visiting a Thai restaurant with my cousins once. They ordered jasmine rice with red, green, or Panang curry. I ordered coconut rice, as usual. A cousin snapped shut the menu and said, “You had to be different again?”

I remember writing workshops and lessons from story gods — no adjectives, no adverbs, no prepositions, no over-thinking, no over-remembering, no over-feeling, less interiority, more action, the usual elements of white male style.

I remember looking for a story goddess in workshops, one with chai skin and a foreign accent.

I remember Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov, and Ernest Hemingway.

I remember Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver, Raymond Carver, John Updike, and John Cheever. When it was time to be diverse, there was Grace Paley and James Baldwin. When it was time to be radical, there was Bob Dylan.

I remember growing up in a city once called Bombay and the carrot halva cake Ma had made in the shape of a human heart for my fifth birthday. I was wearing an overused Jinny & Johnny dress discarded by one of my rich cousins. I bent over the candle, squinched my eyes, and made a wish: please please please Krishna, let Mumma and Papa be here for my next birthday too.

I remember Bombay years and Papa singing, always singing aloud with whoever was playing on our red National cassette player. Unlike Ma or Didi, my older sister, I was the one to hover around him. As he ironed his cotton shirts for hours, I would sit cross-legged on the floor next to him, pored over my drawing book with Camel crayons. Once done ironing, he would introduce me to classical North Indian, to devotional and ghazal singers, to Bollywood stars. I must have been 6 or 7 then and my parents had yet to call it quits. I don’t recall every name, but I remember Ravi Shankar, Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Mohammed Rafi, Kishori Amonkar, Nargis, Meena Kumari. I told Papa I liked Madhubala the most — she had a Colgate smile. Nargis and Meena Kumari cried too much.

When Ma and Papa called it quits, I remember looking for another model of that red National cassette player in electronic stores for years. I never found it.

I remember looking for a story goddess in workshops, one with chai skin and a foreign accent.
I remember Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov, and Ernest Hemingway.

I remember summer vacations when my parents hadn’t exactly called it quits. Papa was no longer living with us in Bombay and had moved back with my grandparents in Calcutta. For several summers, we visited Papa, Dadu, and Dadi at the Poddar house in Bara Bazar. A typical May afternoon in Calcutta, thunderstorms and pounding rain, followed days of homicidal heat. Didi was busy playing Ludo with my older cousins in our room upstairs, but I wanted to watch rain fall on Bara Bazar streets. I hopped down to the gaddi on the first floor where Dadu was chitchatting with the neighbors passing by. He was perched on his rocking chair in his usual outfit — a silk beige kurta and a white muslin dhoti — with one of his English dictionaries in hand. Chambers Dictionary of Etymology was his favorite, but I don’t remember the edition he was reading that day. I pulled his kurta and dragged him to the main door so we could watch the rain. “What nice smell, Dadu!” I clutched his walking stick, as tall as me, and watched the parched street exhale fumes as if Aladdin’s lamp had been rubbed and a genie might appear any moment. Dadu removed his Gandhian glasses and inhaled theatrically. “Petrichor,” he said. When I asked him to repeat the word, he opened his dictionary and raised my index finger to a page starting with P. I stood on tiptoes to see the word clearly and nodded each time I repeated, pet-ree-chaur.

I remember standing on tiptoes to touch Papa’s sitar, enthroned above a bookshelf with locked glass doors. I’d started reciting The Daffodils from my English textbook; reading poetry in Hindi, Marathi, French, Spanish, or Creole would come later in life. Reading in my mother tongue may never happen; Marwari is a space of my heart, of family, music, dance, and a part of me wants to protect us from texts. That day, though, as I tried to reach Papa’s sitar, I remember squashing the tip of my nose against the glass door and staring at the hieroglyphics on Papa’s hardcovers — voluptuous curves in black ink extending in all directions and connected by a horizontal line.

I remember recounting the story of Romeo and Juliet to Dadi when she visited us from Calcutta to help Ma who’d taken a third job since we didn’t have Papa or his income around anymore. I must have been 8 or 9 and I parroted every word Betsy Miss taught me at school that day. “Shayspeare wrote the world’s most famous love story. The world remembers it even after 500 years.” I stood against the lime-washed wall of our one-bedroom flat in Bombay, locked my palms, and brought them closer to my chest, as we did in the elocution period at school. When I was done, Dadi continued shelling peas and discarding the pods into a circular cane basket. “Dying because you can’t live without your beloved?” She lowered her glasses and gave me the grandma look. “But that’s desperation, beta. Not love.”

I locked my palms tighter into each other. “Betsy Miss said Shayspeare wrote the most famous love story!”

I remember Bombay years and singing with my teenage sister who’d started learning French: Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques, Dormez-vous? I didn’t understand the language but I loved feeling my tongue around those foreign words; I enjoyed their familiar tune, too. I knew then I would learn French on growing up. What I didn’t know was how hard I’d fall in my love of the different.

I remember undergraduate years of Business School in Bombay and repeating to my uncles and aunties for the nth time that I did not want to get married to their Marwari friend’s brother’s cousin-in-law’s nephew whom they were proposing as the brightest possible future for me, a divorcee’s daughter. I did not care to pursue an MBA, IAS, IFS, CFA, or software engineering after marriage should my future husband allow me either. Instead, I wanted to pursue my love for French and an education in the Arts — now.

“MA in French literature?” one of my uncles said. “What next, M.A.D. in Swedish cake baking? Soon, you’ll go mad, child. Mad!”

“Oho, whose salvation vill your degrees achieve anyvay?” my aunt added, sipping the last of her chai.

I remember undergrad years in Bombay and my first class of Yoga — a casual curiosity, a cheap opportunity. After practicing asanas for an hour, we moved on to a lesson in meditation. I remember the boredom I felt after the first few minutes of staring into the candle’s flame, a way to steer the mind into stillness. What I didn’t know then was how hard I’d fall in my love for Yoga, a worldview rooted in union, and at the other end of my love of the different, a worldview rooted in separation.

I remember begging Brahmin professors at a university in Mumbai to let me in their Masters program in comparative literature. I remember being told that they couldn’t lower the program standards by enrolling baniya Business Majors.

“I mean, Marwaris are good at making money, but culture?” a professor said with her oxbridge drawl, stressing the “w” and “r” instead of the local pronunciation, Marvaadee.

I remember daydreaming day after day about my escape to America, the most hospitable land for immigrants (I believed media stories at that age), the best way I knew to escape a life that would be imposed on me in the name of family and love. I worked hard with my books and won a fellowship for a PhD in French in one of those private American schools that paid a stipend for summer months too.

I remember grad school years in the U.S. and white colleagues suggesting I take lessons in American English, more than once. When my brown colleague — we’ll call her Oshun — found out about this, she put her foot down for us foreign students. Over the years, Oshun taught me how books could save — and kill — but that day, she simply told our white colleague, “Will you cut the racist crap? Indian English is English.”

I remember story gods on a very long reading list whose mastery would allow me to continue a PhD in French literature — Montaigne, Racine, Rousseau, Balzac, Zola, Stendhal, Hugo, Baudelaire, Michaux, Perec, the usual suspects. I remember pleading with the one in charge to replace a few on the list with gods and goddesses closer to my home by the Arabian Sea — once an archipelago of seven islands, my home. I wanted to add black and brown writers who wrote in French. “From the Indian Ocean? Like, who?” the one in charge asked.

I remember visiting Montreal from Philadelphia over Christmas because winter break was too short and the fare to Mumbai five times higher. At the Trudeau International Airport immigration desk, the red-haired officer asked me about my student status in the U.S., then continued his interrogation in French. As he opened a fresh page to stamp my passport, he said, “You speak very good French.”

“Thanks, you too,” I replied.

He stamped my passport over a lingering silence and raised his hand to summon the next traveler.

Uprootedness felt strongest in those early immigrant years when I knew so little about walking the xenophobic labyrinths of a liberal First World.

I remember census survey forms. One day, when applying for a job, I was filling out a form online. My buddy Elijah was visiting me in Philly from London and watching a Woody Allen movie on TV. He sat on the couch beside my desk with a bag of pretzels.

“What would you pick for me, bud? Asian, Indian, Pakistani, Black, Other?” I read aloud the relevant options and didn’t need to explain how ridiculous they read.

“Caucasian,” Eli said, eyes fixed on the screen, as he popped another pretzel into his mouth. “Aren’t you guys the real Aryan deal?”

I remember the 20s and their ceaseless game of hellos and goodbyes, a game of switching homes across the planet. Dadu passed away and Papa’s singing was becoming a distant memory since I migrated to the U.S. Uprootedness felt strongest in those early immigrant years when I knew so little about walking the xenophobic labyrinths of a liberal First World. I remember a constant longing for home and seeking it in the bodies of men, hoping that lust would lead me to love and love would lead me home.

I remember landing at LAX with Philly years packed in two suitcases. I was excited about a job that would bring free weekends, warmer weather, and new people into my life. I’d said goodbye to my Philly boyfriend, and realized, as one often does after grieving via denial, that I needed to fill my weekends with something other than men. I’d been amassing volumes of personal diaries — another attempt at finding home — but I hadn’t taken my desire for creative writing seriously. Wasn’t that kind of literary life a gora luxury for those who eat, pray, love, and indulge their muse? It never occurred to me that an artist’s life could be in harmony with my life.

The new job offered me enrollment discounts so I signed up eventually for a creative writing workshop. One day, when reworking a story draft at Peet’s, I remember my fingertips tingle and a bubble of silence expand around me as it drowned rush-hour traffic outside and the barista’s calling out the names of clients awaiting their cappuccinos, Americanos, peppermint white mochas, and holiday spice lattes.

I remember a blond friend from Connecticut (or was she from New Jersey? Or Pennsylvania?) pulling me aside at a writing conference in Vermont once. “Now I know how much you love your In-dia, but can you teach me how to pronounce Amy-Tuh-Vaah Gosh? He’s my favorite writer,” she said. Her gray-eyed biracial bestie from Connecticut (or was she from New Jersey? Or Pennsylvania?) faked a cough.

I remember meeting the friends of a new date at a bar in Beverly Hills. Halloween was approaching and ideas on potential costumes for the next party were being exchanged over dirty martinis. One couple settled on Red Riding Hood and the wolf, another couple settled on cop and prisoner, and yet another, on doctor and nurse. When my date and I were quiet, the desi American lawyer, most talkative of them all, suggested we dress as Cowboy and Indian. I wanted to be liked by my date’s buddies so I decided to play sport, almost. When my date and I went to the party, the lawyer complemented the feathers on my outfit and asked me, what kind of Indian wears bindis on her forehead?

“The thoroughly confused kind.” I winked.

I remember the first visit to my ancestral house in Shekhawati region of India’s Thar desert. The blooming cacti of Southern Californian streets and those first road trips across Death Valley made me miss my grandparents and the stories of their desert past I’d grown up hearing. I remembered family lore and endless variations on how our town was founded by one ancient Poddar family, how Marwari merchants once commissioned artists to paint their homes with the latest trends in the visual arts, how Shekhawati is the world’s biggest open-air gallery.

I called my sister in Mumbai one day, booked our flights, and made my first visit to the ancestors in Ramgarh, one of the richest towns of 19th-century India, a ghost town now that trade routes had moved from the Thar desert to the Indian Ocean ports. Rumor spread fast in the small Rajasthani town that Poddar girls from Mumbai and LA were visiting.

For years, I’d not spoken to Papa. For years, I’d kept deliberate distance from Papa’s family — Dadi, Dadu, cousins, uncles, aunts — as if they were not my own. For years, I’d declared myself a nomad, uninspired by bourgeois, nationalist ideals like roots. For years, I pretended I’d no memory of the letters I wrote to Papa as a child, week after week after week: Papa please come back, Papa I miss you, Papa you promised last summer, Papa I’m still waiting, Mumma doesn’t tell me why you left, Dadi doesn’t tell me why you left too, yesterday I heard that Kishori Amonkar song on TV, today I saw Guru Dutt’s poster in a store, do you know Tina’s papa plays the sitar too?, why you left us Papa?

For years, I believed my father had read my letters, because at 7, you believe what the elders in your family tell you, and because at 7, you just goddamn believe.

Walking around Ramgarh, our tour guide showed us Poddar houses, Poddar temples, Poddar cenotaphs, all covered in some of the region’s best preserved frescoes, what pride in roots! The guide took us next to our ancestral house, the Poddar house where Dadu and Dadi regularly spent their winters. He gave us a tour: here, a flour mill made of stone in the former kitchen, there, the outer courtyard where our forefathers traded in spices, wool, and cotton with the passing caravans of the Silk Road, and out there, in the alcove, the bookkeeper’s cabin, across from the main door, so he could check out the visitors before letting them in. I was playing the fresh-off-American-Airlines tourist, taking pictures faster than I could breathe, when Didi sauntered to the gaddi’s corner and picked up a scroll with a thick bed of dust on it.

“What language is this?” my sister asked the guide as she opened the pages with a script that resembled long lists, each line ending with numbers in parentheses. I lowered my camera and walked toward the scroll. The script resembled Urdu as each line started from the right side of the page. Or did it? Neither of us could tell. Like other Bombay Marwaris from Shekhawati region, Didi and I were fluent in Hindi, Marathi, and English. We spoke Marwari with our grandparents, a pure version of Hindi, English, or Hinglish with our parents, and a creolized Bombay Hinglish between the two of us. We used to speak Bengali during our Calcutta summers in childhood too; Didi is more fluent in Indian languages as she lives in the motherland. Yet we felt no shame in not reading our mother tongue. Marwaris I know are seldom nationalistic in the same way as Europeans, Bengalis, or Marathis. As migrant desert folk, we believe in adapting wherever we are — a survival mechanism born from harsh weather and scarce resources.

“Must be Marwari, no?” I said, my desert pride shaky then.

“They call it Moody tongue,” the tour guide said. “A cryptic language written in lists. Men used them to conduct business.” When we asked questions on Moody language, the tour guide said he didn’t know the answers; his ancestors weren’t traders. On returning to America, I googled Marwari merchants from Shekhawati and Moody tongue, and didn’t find much. After a while, I willfully quit; there’s only so much I desired in my indulgence of roots.

Yet I remember that mysterious ancestral script written in lists. And upon my return to LA, I remember calling Dadi in Kolkata after over a decade. We talked nonstop for two hours.

I remember November 2016 and a sudden awakening to resistance, to the personal as political among pale American liberal artists.

I remember telling stories to my niece before she went to bed every night I saw her when I visited my family in Mumbai from California. This was my way of making up for becoming her American Masi, making up for the childhood I had missed witnessing: her first birthday, her first walk, her first haircut, her first day of school, her first prize in dance. This was my way of making up to her for the childhood I’d always wanted, one with stories told to me in bed by my parents. I would read to my niece the stories of Shiva, Uma, Laxmi, Ganesha, Arjuna, Aladdin, Ali Baba, stopping often to embellish the story with imagined details, and when my niece would fall asleep, I would whisper in her ear my favorite line from the world of stories: “Tomorrow little one, I’ll tell you a more entertaining story if the King lets me live.”

I remember November 2016 and a sudden awakening to resistance, to the personal as political among pale American liberal artists. The liberals organized conferences, workshops, retreats, seminars, symposia, colloquia, caucuses, tea clubs, Boba clubs, chai hours, coffee hours, happy hours, unhappy hours, and advertised these on social media with the image of a raised alabaster fist. The liberals loved to talk. They talked about Art, they talked about Culture, they talked about History, they talked about Science, they talked about Climate Change Capitalism Democracy Refugees Border-crossing Social Justice Gender Justice Reproductive Justice Environmental Justice, and raised their alabaster fists in the air. The liberals were angry, the liberals were earnest, the liberals were determined to make America great again through Art. Above all, the liberals were funny, always funny. And slow on irony.

I remember Bombay years, the April heat, and the anticipation of story books after final-exam days at elementary school. Ma would take me to the raddi wallah, Ramu Uncle, whose “store” across from our residential building was tucked between Good Luck, the stationery store, and Amul, the dairy store. Ma would buy fruits and vegetables from the street vendors nearby while I would sit, yoga style — as I learned to call it in America — on a heap of old newspapers, sifting my favorites from piles of used books and magazines: copies of Suppandi, Chacha Chaudhary, Tin Tin, Malory Towers, St. Clare’s. Issues of Amar Chitra Katha were always my favorite find — or did narrative drive create this memory in its need to inject order and meaning into a fragmented past?

I remember the parcel my grandma sent me from Kolkata as a housewarming gift when I moved from Los Angeles to Huntington Beach with a boyfriend I’d eventually marry — a resplendent lehenga from her wedding trousseau, covered with handmade zardosi embroidery in real silver threads that had survived decades of coastal Indian humidity; not one thread has turned dark. Gopis in different Kathak positions stand on each of the 39 pleats that frame the lehenga’s central-front pleat, where a pale-skinned Krishna stands on one knee, plays the flute, and looks deferentially at a blue-skinned Radha, his Shakti, who dances in joyous oblivion. Hindu mythology is complex and I’m learning to decode the deeper layers of meaning to this androgynous union, portrayed through a reversal of the couple’s skin color.

Each time I open the saree cover that encloses Dadi’s lehenga, the first thing I do is bury my head in it. I inhale slowly the combination of rose, naphthalene balls, and a musty, woody smell I associate with almirahs of Calcutta summers, and I hear Papa playing his sitar, I hear Calcutta rains with Dadu, I hear my Dadi’s laughter as she pickles dates after soaking them in lemon juice for days, and I remember the letter she sent with her parcel: “This one tells a love story too, beta. A story of union and non-possession that goras don’t get. But first, you learn to read.”

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Namrata Poddar writes fiction and non-fiction, and serves as Interviews Editor for Kweli, where she curates a series on Race, Power, and Storytelling. Her work has appeared in The Margins, Transition, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, among others. She holds a Ph.D. in French Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA in Fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars. She has lived in different parts of the world and currently calls Huntington Beach home.

Editor: Ben Huberman