It’s the dogs that keep me awake. Otherwise, I can stand the heat, and the rumblings of traffic that pass from time to time. But it’s the dogs. They bark and bark, aimlessly, for the sake of complaint, or so it sounds. I toss and turn, and pretend it doesn’t bother me. And as though it knows, one will always respond to my attempted nonchalance by stretching its bark long, melodiously like it is the end of its ballad, burning and grazing its call into a mournful low.
We amble on the dirt-road outside our compound, waiting for the call-taxi to find us. My room mate – a French-German political science intern – has flagged down a boy from the street to explain where we are to the driver. He is probably not more than 18 years old, as guessed from the younglings of a moustache sprouting above his lip. He starts walking up to the main road and we follow him. His red polyester track pants shine radiantly against the bland dirt road. Every so often he turns his head backwards as he is talking and glances at me, curious. I am familiar with this gaze, though I do note that the gaze is for me, not my fair-skinned room mate. The twins from the compound keep tailing me until I reach the car, their small gold drops dangling by their buzz-cut bobs: ‘Aunty! Your pant is torn!’.
I know, I want to tell them. I spent $190 on these jeans.
The driver pulls up, mildly irate from not being able to find us. He unloads his navigational complaints on the boy and clocks me with a passing flick of his eye as I climb in. But once we start moving, he turns back and has a proper look. There it is again. That curious gaze.
It occurs to me then, that my tall-haired French-German room mate standing on the road in full salwar kameese is a sight that the locals can blink away. The possible narrative arcs of her presence – and others who appear like her – are well-known, predictable, and accepted without threat. But I am a subtler discrepancy. As I’ve been told before, the styling of my thin glossy hair, the shape of my eyebrows, the gleam of my skin and my sartorial preferences are more difficult to reconcile once noticed. Perhaps because, for all intents and purposes, I am Indian. For what reason, then, could I appear this way?
I imagine myself lean over and touch him gently on the shoulder, my chubby-faced driver with his headphones in. I imagine saying: it’s okay. It’s okay that you can’t understand what I am. It’s okay, really. Look again, and let’s both accept it.
It must be strange for you.
She says it sincerely, looking up at me from the day-bed after the seller-women have passed. They heckle all of us to buy beads and sarongs, but when I say ‘no, thanks Ma’am’, they give up sooner, though their gaze upon me trails on behind their steps.
It is. I reply. It’s like, I’m definitely not one of them, but I’m not fully Australian either, you know? On both ends, I am…exotic, or strange… something. I float between the two spaces, like bubbles at the top of a soda.
She is silent, but I feel her nod in understanding. We look up towards the water, letting the thought rest. I unfurl my legs and splay out on the day bed, opening my Kindle and sipping a Coke.
Thamizh pesuvela?: Do you speak Tamil?
I always ask eagerly. I am glad when the back of his head nods in response. Thamizha?
That’s right. I am Tamil.
It is late afternoon and the auto rolls and grinds through Bangalore’s nightmarish after-work traffic. The driver, Samir, pleather-clad with the dark-lined doe-eyes of so many Muslim boys in the district, drops in questions as they come to him.
Where are you from? What do you do? Do you like Bangalore? What’s it like to live in Australia? Is it hot like this? Is the traffic like this? Do you have a husband? Was it a love marriage? What art do you make? Could I live in Australia?
We talk and I titter happily as he compliments my fluency and laughs along with what I tell him. He stops several times to check the route (I have no address, only a hotel name to give him), but he is young and earnest and assures me we will get there somehow. I think to myself that I will tip him for all this effort.
But there is no need for me to make such considerations.
40 minutes later I will walk into the hotel, stuffing my notes into my purse, flustered and upset. I will retrace the steps of our conversation, trying to sift authenticity from our communication. I will berate myself for assuming foreign rules of politeness in engagement. I will block out that moment where his tone changed to begin his bidding, the moment I realised my Tamil lacked the vocabulary to fight back. I will quietly be reminded that I am a foreigner in sheep’s clothing. And I will give him 170 rupees.
The family down the street has purchased a Saint Bernard. It is monstrously large and chained up in the front verandah, ogling strangers and no doubt keeping local dogs away from the chickens. There are other special breeds around too: Chow Chows and glossy Cocker Spaniels are walked by familial servants in white half-sleeved shirts. The strays don’t go near these dogs when their minders are around. Looking at them, you can see in the sheen of their coats that all they know is the care and luxury of high-class domestic living.
The waiters at the Taj mostly stand in a semi-bow, a state of cat-like readiness should they need to greet their patrons with practiced servitude. My friend’s partner, an Indian expat himself, attempts to joke with them, but they receive his humour as reflecting dissatisfaction and, apologetically, only work harder to please.
Neatly dressed Indians, expats and foreigners alike are arrayed across the settees, ordering grossly overpriced food and cocktails with careless flicks of the hand. I realise that I receive no curious gazes here. Instead, an unbreakable hierarchy is at play between guests and staff; it is impolite, insulting even, to try and interfere with its order. It is articulated at all times between wait staff and patrons by a measured distance of standing. It recalls its own caste system, reminding me of my last trip to a temple in Chennai where a “low caste” man humbled himself to the ground for nearly bumping into an Iyer priest.
We eat dinner and the bill comes to Rs.6400.
My earlier folly begins to sink in and I quietly acknowledge Samir and his bidding.
I am too engrossed in typing to look him in the face, and frankly, he doesn’t give a shit. I am the only Indian-looking person at this place, and I have to accept what that makes me; or is it what I am? Whatever the case I resume my focus and order a soda water to pass the time. I am a patron at this beach side restaurant in Goa, and that’s all I need to be.
The bikini-clad Europeans tanning on the sun beds barely flinch as the local seller girls walk up to them. One woman asks to take a photo and the two Goan girls pose for the camera, before resuming their bidding. I see them shaking hands and smiling. A good price for my friend.
Down by the shore a stout middle-aged caucasian man plays soccer with the local boys. His skin is sun-drenched, camouflaging him momentarily, but he can’t be missed, carefree in play as his dirty white jocks jiggle their wares.
Occasionally, men high on bang and whatever-else stream down from further up the shore, trying to ‘befriend’ the tourists sun-baking in their petit two-pieces. For a culture submerged in principles of modesty, this is an overwhelming feast for the eyes. But the lifeguards come down from their post to shoo them away, as burly Russian men raise from their tanning to bark their disdain.
When I was younger, my relatives in Chennai would lend me their children’s clothes, and I would fade into the background of 40th street in Nanganallur. Except when I would beckon a stray puppy to follow me home, or a calf at our gate would bring me running from the verandah, calling for a banana to slip onto its sandpaper tongue. The women of the street peering down from their balconies would smirk, bemused, as they combed their long oily hair. She’s Lakshmi’s girl: my Aunty would call. Australia lenthu vandirka.
She says, Don’t stretch your hand to him, as I move towards Gundu, opening my palm. He is barking and trembling, fiery eyed.
He used to be a stray before we adopted him. When you offer him your hand, it triggers some sort of trauma for him.
I coo at him naively, but withdraw my hand and back away as he watches me wearily.
At some point I have to give up. Give up attempting to know the unknowable systems and spaces that I inhabit here. For all of it’s difference, my status as an anomaly – as the bubble rising to the top of the glass, neither part of the water nor the air – is shared across millions in our diaspora. These small unfoldings I observe are but the fractured splays of colonisation, immigration and capitalism. It’s not something I can reconcile, although I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me sometimes.
When he saunters up to our table and looks at us wary, I let my partner offer his fair-skinned hand first. The pup smells it tentatively, before slipping his thin scalp under it for a pat. Seeing this, I too offer my hand, and he comes to nose my palm.
He looks at me wistful, receiving my rub. Eventually, he settles himself at the foot of my chair.
A young Nepali boy, smiling, brings us our meal.