00 First Child
I am not wearing white.
Everyone else is in ivory, alabaster: my mother, my aunts, relations who claim to have met me at birth—how familiar you are, Sonali, they say, as I try in vain to disguise my five-year-old bewilderment—everyone but me, it seemed, was dressed in white. Although my mother’s reasoning had been sound—I am clumsy, the clothes would be destroyed by color and dust and my own inclination toward mud—her logical accuracy had isolated me, at my first-ever Holi festival, in a muddled tangerine-colored dress.
Feeling rather sorry for myself, I sulked outside of the white tent to a group of barrels, each much taller than I, looming and ominous, filled with dyed liquid that celebrants were using to play Holi. My fingers traced their hard, plastic edges; I hadn’t been enjoying this part, either. The colored water stained everyone’s white clothing marvelously.
Sullen as I gaze at the tubs of liquid, a sharp scream! punctuates my reverie. I startle toward the clamor, and I see them: two boys, erect, unaware of my gaze as they restrain the arms of a younger girl. Their cool posture supplemented only by pressed, Western-style collared shirts. They smirk at each other as a third, whom I’ve just now noticed, shorter and clothed in a white kurta, eager to prove himself, laughs and, nonchalant, smashes a fluid-filled sack over her head.
Rivers of green rushed down her face. Stop! Please! She spluttered, stretching her body away from her sinewy limbs. As she opened her mouth to scream again, I watched her inhale purple-brown streams, cough colored rain. Smirking, the boys reveled in her discomfort.
Determined, I marched over to the boys and, in my young righteousness, gave one a vicious poke.
She said to stop!
They giggled at me. I persisted, elbowing my way in, wedging myself between her and them. I was incessant, indignant, quite irritating—Leave her alone!—until they abruptly relented, releasing her. I smiled, triumphant—I had won! The beginning of my sardarni warriorhood, as a young Sikh girl, was realized—when I noticed that their attention had turned to me.
The self-satisfaction wiped from my face, I froze, gripped with fear, as the boys took hold of my arms and hoisted me overhead. A barrel of darkly hued water leered beneath my dangling legs; one, two, three and I was gone—the world turned blue. I felt another pair of arms grab hold of me, and a gasp of air broke through my surface. I choked on it, spluttering indigo. A strangely familiar young face smiled, as I lay on the ground blinking blue from my eyes. I got you out of there, she said, triumphantly. My name is Sonali, she said, it’s such a shame, your pretty orange dress is stained so blue.
I smiled, wide, dye-ridden teeth, not minding in the slightest.
01 Philly Is 108.1 Miles from Ground Zero
Don’t tell your brother, my mother begged, he’s afraid.
The television was on, the news exploding across the screen; I stared transfixed at a clip of an airplane flying low and fast, colliding with a looming building, and combusting, as it played over and over and over again.
We weren’t able to mention the words “death” or “dying” around my little brother at the time. It seemed that he, at the age of five, had developed an emergent midlife crisis. Upon the subject of death, he would panic, terrified at the thought of ceasing to exist. I was only a year older and a daughter, perceptive, aware. I asked too many questions, but I held my fear.
My mother sat, surrounded by a sea of crumpled Kleenex; she had seen me, flustered at the foot of the stairs. In this state of confusion, unable to process the situation at hand, I registered one thing: my father was not home. He was flying that day.
Terror crept through my arms and into my chest. As I watched this horrible film replay itself on screen, I realized what my mother was asking. She was hoping that I could hold myself together for her son, although she couldn’t do the same for me.
In the year that followed, a suitcase remained packed, by the door, in case they came for us. We Sikhs knew, in whispers since World War II; after all, we were farming people. We had cared for, protected, the California land owned by our Japanese-American neighbors when they were taken, in desperate hope for its owners’ return. They will come for us, too; we will be surveilled, persecuted, beaten bloody in the streets, turbans and clothing torn off—insidious retaliation for events we did not cause.
It begins that day for my father. His flight is grounded in suspicion, in fear of him, his turban. Aggressively questioned, he is ejected from the airport when no evidence of wrongdoing is found, dogged by choice swear words and shoves. A gentle giant, his heart lurches as pedestrians run from him in the street, accusing eyes tracking his every move. No rental car agency allows him to set foot in the door. But he is alive.
When he finally returned to us that night, in a salvaged vehicle bludgeoned by baseball bats, punched by pale fists as he drove, I dissolved into the tears that I had withheld while he was gone. We had survived this day, our American family—but we would not survive what our country would become.
Mom, I was scared, too. I was afraid.
02 Pennsylvania Baby
She had locked us in the bathroom. I panicked as my mother squatted on the ground before me, echoing a single phrase.
Yell at me, Sonali.
My brother and I, for months, had been tormented at school. On the blue, private bus ride home, classmates would punch our backsides, kick at our feet, as we arose to meet our chunni-wearing grandmother, our regally turbaned grandfather at the stop. What even are you people? they accused.
I opened my mouth to tell them, but the words refused to speak. I knew the answer, though, I did. My people were protectors—Sikhs always had been—and I, too, stood up for others, but I struggled to wield my impassioned voice for myself. I would step in the way of a shove meant for Neil—it hurt too much to see my younger brother cry—but I let myself be brought hard to the ground every time.
After weeks of coming home in tears, with skinned knees and rumpled notes, my mother was taking matters into her own hands, locking the two of us into the bathroom indefinitely. She was a headstrong woman, and would be damned if her child wouldn’t grow into one too, one strong enough to take care of myself first, though she would forgo the same for herself. You are my son, she would say and also my daughter. My first baby.
I cried at my own chagrin. I could not fathom yelling at her, disputing her faux-insults as if we were equals. I was torn—stubborn, like her, I held close a deep interdependence, deference to others at my own expense, as I had seen from my mother, her sisters, and every woman I known before.
If I call you an elephant, does that make you an elephant? she said.
Confused at the metaphor, my voice cracked, No?
She thought of herself in Delhi, a gawky teenager with braces that wrapped all the way around her head. Her dusty knees knocked together as her uncle remarked, You are such an elephant, Sabina. No one will marry you.
My mother screamed at me, Of course not!
In that moment, though I knew it not, her memory unlocked the door to my anger. My voice. I yelled,
and wouldn’t stop,
until she opened the door; we collapsed onto the floor in each other’s arms, exhausted. My emotions were an activating force, I would learn, to push for change, and anger one to use with prudence. Lest I risk that dangerous label, in my womanhood.
In the future, I would push too hard. We would fight bitterly—my newfound agency pitted against tradition. At times, during a heated argument between the two of us, I wonder if she regrets that day, locked in the bathroom, forcing me to fight back.
03 The Main Line, a Tightrope
I squinted at the brownness of my arms in the shadows of the middle row of seats in my parents’ newly bought, secondhand tan Toyota Sienna. I pulled at my skin with two fingers, prodded it like I had seen the girls at school do to their sunburns; mine, unlike theirs, did not relinquish its color. I scratched at it—it persisted, staring back at me in tawny depth.
I had just started classes in a local all-girls school. My mother had had enough of my dejected parroting, telling her that the boys in my prior class didn’t want to work with me because girls aren’t good at math, Mom. She never told me that, for years, I had been the top of my class, lest we draw the evil eye, lest my head grow too big.
I was a specimen in this new place—one brown face, long dark hair, a gleaming gold kara around a brown wrist, reflected sun circling like a lighthouse in a sea of white, an alarm. I examined myself on the way home as I listened to my mother’s swift alternations between Avril Lavigne on B101 radio and my grandfather’s cassette-tape recordings of mournful Sikh hymns.
Earlier that day, I had been in line for the bathroom, crossing my legs as many times as I could to remain patient. I hummed the catchy tune of a song from Shrek, and the blonde girl with a button nose in front of me giggled, started to sing along, She was looking kind of dumb with a finger and a thumb in the shape of an L on her forehead. I mimicked the lyrics with my hands, goofily placed in the center of my face, L for loser. It drew another laugh.
A teacher had had her eyes on me, and was waiting. She grabbed my wrist, kara squeezed tight against my arm, and yanked me out of the line. I winced.
We don’t make gun signs at this school, Sonali, she hissed.
Shocked, I stammered, But it’s not . . . It’s a s- s- son . . . !
No excuses! We don’t need inner-city trash influencing our girls. Don’t let me see you doing that again. You need to learn the rules of this place.
My shoulders slumped and my face grew hot with shame. I squeezed my own wrist, hoping it too would turn white, my kara would vanish into the dent this teacher had left on my body. My truth had come forth, but wouldn’t be believed.
You look different, her eyes told me, I will never trust you.
In the backseat, I didn’t want to hear the radio, and I was angry at my brown.
I didn’t realize the words had spoken themselves until the car screeched to a halt. My mother had pulled over, and turned around to the back seat in disbelief.
04 Go Back to Your Country
Though they had escaped the persecution of being born Punjabi Sikhs in India, my parents had decided to try again, to return—to leave the city of my birth.
Why are we here, my mother pleaded, when this country doesn’t want us? When Sonali tries so hard to peel off her golden skin that there are still bloodstains in the back seat? So my father accepted a two-year assignment in India, the year after my mother relinquished her Indian citizenship, for the official title of American.
Our flight had just landed in New Delhi. It was nighttime, chilly for June. The sudden bite of cold reminded me of home, its brisk Philadelphia winters, and for the first time since we had uprooted, I found myself happy. Barely able to contain my excitement. I swung my mother’s hand as I skipped, stashing my gloves in my red fleece jacket’s pocket. I wasn’t cold enough to wear them, and I enjoyed the feeling of my skirt around my legs and the air flowing through my carefree, bare hands.
I saw the man before it happened. I should have been more careful, more contained. Instead, I was eight.
He wore a skullcap, pulled low on his head. His stance was slightly slouched, his hands tense, unmoving, and carefully kept to his sides as he approached. Suddenly, I was roughly jostled, hit hard by this man, and something happened, something awful and wrong and inexplicable, I sensed, even then.
I stopped in my tracks as it happened, my mother yanked back by the connection of my hand. He let go, and I felt nauseous. I turned rapidly to watch as that man disappeared into the nameless throng behind me. When I looked up, I noticed my mother’s eyes fixed on the portion of the crowd in which he had vanished.
Later, when we were alone, I related to her what had occurred, showed her what he had done. As I spoke, head lowered, she grew angry; shaken, overwhelmed by instinct, she began to cry.
I would have broken his hands, she repeated, I would have gone back and broken that bastard’s hands.
That night, fighting sleep, I overheard her recount it on the phone to her sisters. Eve-teasing, I heard her say. And their comforts—
She was lucky, Didi. It could have been so much worse.
My naivete hadn’t been completely taken from me, they said, and it hadn’t happened before; it was bound to, at some point, I would have to learn, sooner or later. Sabina cried, wishing she could take this onto herself, lift the experience from her young daughter like transfer on a charcoal sheet. But she couldn’t, and it had stained me.
I feigned sleep and held myself, clutching my own body together in desperation. If this was what it meant to grow up, it was painful and abstruse, and I didn’t like it. It felt like I had been growing up forever.
Don’t touch me, I thought. Don’t touch me.