Review: How May I Help You by Deepak Singh | books | reviews | Hindustan Times
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Review: How May I Help You by Deepak Singh

A book on “an immigrant’s journey from MBA to minimum wage” is insightful and engrossing

books Updated: Feb 02, 2018 22:38 IST
Manjula Narayan
Strange fruit: An Indian in the US, 1971.
Strange fruit: An Indian in the US, 1971. (National Geographic/Getty Images)

As a post graduate student, a long time ago, I won a scholarship to attend a short course at the University of Edinburgh. It was the first time I went abroad. I worked at odd jobs in restaurants and backpacked across Britain. It was the best education I had. How May I Help You by Deepak Singh reminded me of all that I had learned about India by leaving it.

Unlike me, though, Singh followed his white American wife, a Fullbright scholar, whom he had met and fallen in love with in Lucknow, to Charlottesville, USA. This immediately gave him an insider-outsider status and its own concerns, setting in relief some of his typical Indian-middle-class-man preoccupations, including raging jealousy, an all-consuming angst at not immediately landing a corporate job to match his MBA, followed by much status anxiety when he starts work as a ‘lowly’ salesman at an electronics showroom:

I had been on the sales floor for only a few minutes when I saw a middle-aged Indian couple walking in. My heart jumped. I took off my nametag, out of impulse, and slipped it into my shirt pocket. I tried to not be the first one to talk to them, and I pretended to look like a shopper myself. I was embarrassed to be talking to another Indian as a salesman…

And then there are his sometimes fraught interactions with his American colleagues:

The pizza delivery guy had a stack of six large Papa John’s pizza boxes… Everyone gathered around the pizza boxes.. .and picked a slice of their choice. We realized Ron wasn’t there. He was still on the sales floor, scanning items. Jackie said to me, “Deepak, tell that black ass to come and eat.” I had a pizza slice in my hand, and I was about to put it in my mouth.

I stopped and yelled over the loud music, “Hey, you black ass, come eat,” and bit into my chicken pizza slice. As I munched on the thick bread crust… I watched everyone’s faces become serious – they almost stopped eating, like something had left a bad taste in their mouths... Everyone watched me in a strange manner. Ron came in, dragging his feet...

Later in the car park Ron tells Singh: “It’s alright for a black person to call another black man a nigger but not you, because you ain’t black. You getting my point? He said as I looked on. “I just wanted you to know this because, it’s alright with me since I’m your friend and a colleague, but if you did that to someone you didn’t know you’d end up with a broken nose, if not shot.”

Deepak Singh (Courtesy Penguin)

How May I Help You is brimming with scenarios like this which give you, the Indian reader, an insight into American culture, stuff that you could only guess at but never know. More importantly though, this is a book that allows you to view India refracted through the American experience, to actually ‘see’ our stark inequalities – ones that middle class ‘savarna’ Indians don’t even notice. Singh’s understanding of Ron’s life, one filled with disappointments, ill health and instability, and his own insecurity about being a brown man in an alien land bereft of all the invisible but very real markers of Hindu upper caste existence in India leads him to develop a deeper empathy for the domestic help in his parent’s home, for his regular chaiwallah in Lucknow, and for a friendly young salesman at an electronics showroom in his home town. The looming skeleton of caste and class that had been obscured, rendered invisible, by his upbringing was slowly revealed to him by his own experience as the ‘other’ in an alien land and as a member of the underclass.

*

“Do you take it black?” I asked as I poured the coffee.
“Sometimes,” he said fixing me with his green eyes. His friend giggled.

Somehow I didn’t think the man I was serving at the Indian restaurant – I don’t remember if it was called The Taj Mahal or New Delhi – was referring to his coffee. I fought the urge to fling the cup in his face.
*
Reading How May I Help You brought back that long-ago incident. But Deepak Singh’s problems were much larger than mine. He wasn’t a tourist in America and though he had family back home in India, he had, by following his wife to an alien land, cut the umbilical cord.

Really, all Indians belonging to the more privileged castes and classes (still the same thing in most cases) should be sent out into predominantly Caucasian countries to labour at ‘menial’ jobs. The experience will inoculate them against petty caste pride and push them to develop a greater understanding of the entrenched inequalities that hold back so many of our countrymen.

Read more: Sujatha Gidla at JLF 2018: Hinduism is a religion tailor-made for caste

How May I Help You? is a rewarding read, not just because of the insight it provides into American culture but because of the many real insights it provides into our own.