I haven’t been to Edison, New Jersey, and frankly, I never intend to. But I have recently been to Jackson Heights, New York. So what I say may come across as crass and as politically incorrect as referring to a female dog as a biyatch or calling a pile of egg shells in the dustbin White Trash. But just by having walked around Jackson Heights on a May afternoon, I totally understand what poor Time magazine columnist Joel Stein — by now probably locked inside an 8 ft by 5 ft cell shared by a paedophilic Ku Klux Klansman — meant by bemoaning the fate of his hometown, Edison, New Jersey.
Stein wrote in the July 5 issue of the American edition of Time (the column wasn’t carried in the magazine’s Asia edition, perhaps fearing the wrath of family members of Newsweek editor Fareed Zakaria living in India) about how, on going back to his old hometown, he found it completely unrecognisable. “The Pizza Hut where my busboy friends stole pies for our drunken parties is now an Indian sweets shop with a completely inappropriate roof. The A&P I shoplifted from is now an Indian grocery. The multiplex where we snuck into R-rated movies now shows only Bollywood films and serves samosas.”
Now this kind of feeling — of leaving a place in your early manhood because you couldn’t bear to live there any more, but moaning when you drop by for a nostalgia trip to find it completely changed — must be familiar to many more people than just Stein and me. That hideous mall or high rise must have been so mindlessly built on that old overgrown-with-weeds patch where once those bucolic mosquitoes spawned and where, while retrieving the cricket ball, you would step randomly on human turd. Capitalism crushing the remnants of our youths! Stein felt it too and wrote about it.
But that’s, of course, not why everyone’s so pissed off with Stein, Time magazine, America, White people, the two male members in Abba — not necessarily in that order. And that’s certainly not why Kal Penn — oops, did I just say Kalpen Suren Modi? — Indian-American thespian, acting in roles like Taj Badalandabad in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder: Rise of Taj — turned green and gigantic and made Time print an apology for running Stein’s column, as well as ensure that the supremacist magazine runs nasty profiles of Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley — Republicans who turned their backs on their culture of origin by installing western-style toilets in their homes.
But coming back to Jackson Heights. Coming out of the subway and trying to find my way to my friends’ house — Jewish American husband and Chinese American wife — I had to pass through a smorgasbord shacktown that was part-Sylhet, part-Rameshwaram and overbearingly small-town subcontinental. Among the signs in Bengali and Tamil was a replication of South Asian kitsch. No whiff of Lakshmi Mittal and Co. or anything 2010 New Delhi or Mumbai here. The bitter gourd truth was that I was embarrassed to see such a crummy advertisement of ‘India’ where you couldn’t hide it from ‘prying eyes’.
Later that evening, over dinner, my hosts asked me enthusiastically — and innocently — whether I saw “a bit of home” a few blocks down the road. It’s one thing to bad mouth your own kind among your own kind. It’s quite another, even for a flag-burning type like me, to be a honest hombre before outsiders. But there I was, explaining how Indians in Jackson Heights were stuck in a stasis that every big city in India has either got out of or wants to get out of.
But Stein’s column was, according to my forever mangled judgment, rip-roaringly funny — the sort that’s set up to make people react to it and to make you prolong the laughter by following the reactions. “...in the 1980s, the [Indian] doctors and engineers brought over their merchant cousins, and we were no longer so sure about the genius thing,” something that I could have tipped him off about only if he had asked me, considering I knew a few chaps who were desperate to go to America — so that they could have sex whenever they wanted, with whomever they wanted. “In the 1990s, the not-as-brilliant merchants,” wrote Stern, “brought their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.” (And, to the quiet relief of many in India, Operation Drain Brain was finally proving to be a success.)
I always end up with snapshots of Russians and Israelis in my head when I hear stories from locals and ex-locals about Goa and Manali. All because of the influx of egg shells in the dustbin in those two places down the years.
As a Jewish wise man once said, “This business of being funny is far too serious.” Stein should have listened to Groucho’s advice and kept his mouth shut about cross-cultural angst. As I’ve done since I ran away from Jackson Heights, New York.