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Mad country, p.23

Mad Country, page 23


Mad Country

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  This was all too exaggerated, of course. There were moments of inactivity at the gas station, especially after ten at night, and Biks’s mind went off on a spin. He got off around midnight, walked back to the apartment and curled into bed. He slept until noon, woke up depressed, then drank some cheap beer.

  One day Purushottam Uncle showed up at the gas station, and there was a mild argument as Biks served customers. Purushottam Uncle said that Biks was ruining his life, and Biks said that he was an adult and didn’t care for Purushottam Uncle’s guidance. Purushottam Uncle appeared hurt. “Your mother,” he said, “has faith in me, that I’d keep an eye out for your well-being. How can I fulfill my duty if you don’t even talk to me?” Finally Biks promised him that he’d keep him updated, and that he’d also call his mother regularly. In return, Purushottam Uncle sadly and reluctantly agreed not to inform Biks’s mother that he was now an illegal.

  In October, Ferguson exploded around him. It was on the news all the time. Of course, of course, he thought. This has been going on for centuries.

  “This country is hopeless,” he said once at a Nepali party. His beard had grown so much that Saurav now called him a bushman. The gas station owner had asked him to at least trim his beard so that the customers wouldn’t think he was a terrorist. “Arre, dada, you’re looking more and more like Osama bin Laden,” the owner said.

  Go fuck yourself, thought Biks. A type of recklessness had come over him. These days when he crossed the street, he did it slowly, causing irate drivers to honk at him. Once he was taking his time crossing the street on his way to work when a group of young white men with crew-cut hair—possibly frat boys—shouted, “Move it, nigger,” and sped past, laughing.

  At home, when he caught his reflection in the mirror, he didn’t recognize himself. You look scary, nigger. He wondered what Seema would think of him now. He imagined her running her fingers through his beard, saying, “So sexy, Biks.”

  As November rolled in, everyone was discussing what the grand jury decision would be for Darren Wilson. It’s a white man’s world, was the refrain among his black customers. “That white cop was acquitted even before he shot Michael Brown,” one customer said.

  In the apartment, it was exactly the opposite. “That habsi robbed a cigar store,” Saurav said one Saturday. He was rocking the baby in his arms. “You don’t think that’s relevant?”

  “Yes, he was no angel himself,” Biks said. “But did he have to die? If he were a white boy, he’d have spent a night in jail, then let go. But no, a black man has to be put down. We’re all niggers. That’s how this system is. This is the history of colonialism. Coolies. In India, in Africa. That’s what this uproar is all about.”

  Lisa came from the kitchen, shaking a baby bottle. “Do you know how dangerous these blacks are?” she said. “My uncle was a cop in Memphis. Every time he went into a black neighborhood, he didn’t know if he’d come back out alive.”

  Biks was going to respond, but now Lisa had taken the baby and was trying to feed her. The baby was gurgling and squirming in her arms, and it seemed wrong to have such a heated discussion with a mother feeding a hungry baby. But it was Lisa herself who continued railing against blacks, or “African’ts,” as she derisively put it. She blamed affirmative action, which she said discriminated against whites. She said that she had attended a mostly black school in Gary and had been constantly harassed and taunted for her skin color. “By the time I graduated, I hated who I was,” she said as she rocked back and forth to calm the baby. “It wasn’t until I went to college that I finally came to terms with being fucking white.” She pointed a finger at Biks. “You’re speaking out of your ass.” The baby, mouth and throat moving as she sucked the milk, was watching her mother intently. “You didn’t grow up here. You’re clueless.”

  “And you’re an ignorant white—” Biks stopped himself before he could complete the sentence.

  “White what? White what?” The baby still in her arms, the bottle still in the baby’s mouth, Lisa moved toward him threateningly. “Spit it out, motherfucker.”

  “Lisa,” Saurav said.

  “You say one word defending him,” she told Saurav, “and I’ll kick both your asses out of this house.”

  Biks went to his room and shut the door.

  A couple of hours later Saurav knocked on Biks’s door and asked him if he wanted to go to The Thirst. At first Biks said no, but Saurav persisted, and the two friends went to the bar. After a couple of beers, Biks asked Saurav what attracted him to Lisa.

  “Come on, let it go, yaar,” Saurav said.

  “No, no, I’m just curious, that’s all.” And it was true: Biks had often wondered about it. Saurav the physicist, who with his advisor had co-authored an article for the American Journal of Physics, who was referred to as “brilliant” by many, both Nepalis and Americans. And Lisa, who had barely passed high school, whose idea of reading was flipping through Vogue magazine, who called Obama a Kenyan, a Muslim, a communist, a community organizer, always referring to him by his full name, “Barack Hussein Obama,” with a long hiss on Hussein. She listened to Rush Limbaugh on the radio in the afternoon, volume high, more often after Ferguson, more often now as if to taunt Biks.

  “Tell it like it is, Rush,” Saurav sometimes said more out of amusement than any conviction as Limbaugh’s hectoring voice filled the house. One time, when Limbaugh made a derogatory comment about a caller with a pronounced Indian accent, Saurav laughed and, when Lisa was out of earshot, said to Biks, “Isn’t he such an idiot? Maharushi!”

  “Lisa’s easy to be with,” Saurav said now. “I don’t have to prove myself with her.”

  “Prove what?”

  “Prove anything.”

  “What are you going to say to your parents? To your uncles?”

  “About what?”

  “About Lisa.”

  “I’m not going to say anything.”

  “You’re going to keep her hidden?”

  Saurav laughed.

  “For how long?”

  “As long as I can.”

  “And? Once it’s out in the open?”

  “Dekha jayega.”

  “You’re going to declare your love for her?” Biks asked.

  “I’ll have her do pranam to my family, like this.” Saurav put his palms together in obeisance and bowed. “Pranam, Pitaji. Pranam, Mataji.”

  “I can’t see Lisa doing that,” Biks said. “She’s too . . .” Biks sucked in his breath.

  “Too what? White trash?” Saurav laughed.

  Biks kept quiet.

  “She is foul-mouthed, but I like her. I like her honesty.” Saurav studied him. “What about you, muji? You’re always judging me and Lisa. What about you?”

  “What about me?”

  “Are you going to sit around moping, saying, ‘My Seema, my Seema, why hast thou forsaken me?’” He was quite drunk by now, glassy-eyed, swaying a bit on the barstool. “Or are you going to call her and tell her you don’t need her? Call her and say, ‘Timijasta ketita yoh americama katti katti. Fairer than you, prettier than you.’ Tell her that.”

  Yes, I might, Biks thought. I might tell her that there’s plenty of fish in the American sea.

  Later, as they made their way drunkenly out of the bar, Saurav slapped Biks on the back and said, “I’ll ask Lisa to find someone for you. A whitey. Raaaamri, ok? Goooori, okay? Someone just like Lisa. That’ll serve you right.”

  Biks started drinking right before he walked to work. Two or three beers, and he’d feel all right. You’re all right now, he’d tell himself. He was especially chatty with his black customers. “Hey, brothah,” he’d say. “Whaz happenin’?” The black women and girls who came in for a purchase he referred to as “sistahs.”

  Some of his black customers talked, some were surly, some gave him quizzical or bemused looks. One man in John Lennon
glasses and tight jeans and a goatee, who Biks learned was a professor, paused with the change he’d received from Biks in his hand and asked tensely, “Am I your brother because we have the same mother, or am I your brother because you’re African American?” Then he laughed and said he was just giving Biks a hard time.

  One afternoon two white cops came into the gas station, and Biks heard them talk near the toilet. They were speaking in low voices, but he could tell that they were discussing Ferguson and he heard the word “Negro,” which made him alert (Who says “Negro” these days? he thought); then he realized that it was said sarcastically. “The Negroes are up in arms,” then a chuckle. The cop who said it happened to look toward Biks, and their eyes met. When the cop held his eyes, Biks looked away, heart hammering, convinced that his illegal status was about to be uncovered.

  “Hey, boy,” the cop shouted. “Don’t you carry Minute Maid juice?”

  Biks shook his head.

  “This brand you got here sucks,” the cop said. “Tell your manager. Or whoever the fuck is in charge.”

  “His dad,” the other cop said, and they left.

  Only after they left did it occur to Biks that the cop had called him a “boy,” and he didn’t know whether to feel angry about it or relieved that he’d not been taken away and deported.

  Biks usually brought up Ferguson with his black customers. “This is outrageous,” he said. “Look at that Darren Wilson’s face. He was itching to kill a black man that day.”

  His customers usually nodded. Some said, “Yeah, post-racial America.” Some eyed him warily, as if they thought he was trying to trap them.

  He struck up a friendship with a black man named Jacob who delivered soft drinks in a van at night. After Jacob restocked the drinks, the two stepped outside to smoke. Jacob was getting married in a couple of months and was eager to start a family. “I love kids, man,” he said. He hadn’t finished college but was into philosophy and was familiar with Hinduism and Buddhism. He listened attentively when Biks described Nepal to him. “I’d love to go see them temples,” Jacob said and recited the names of Hindu gods: “Sheeva, Vaishnu, Ganyesh. Maybe you’ll invite me when you get married?” He punched Biks on the shoulder. “You got a girl back in Naples, man?”

  “Nepal,” Biks corrected him.

  “Yes, yes, Nepal. Well, do you? Have a girl?”

  Biks smiled. “Maybe.”

  “Look at you, all smiling and shit. What’s her name?”


  “Seema,” Jacob said dreamily. “Is she hot?”

  “Very hot. Boiling hot.”

  “I bet. Indian women are so sexy.”

  “I’m not from India. I’m from Nepal.” Biks pointed a stern finger at Jacob. “Don’t ever, ever call a Nepali man Indian. We were never colonized by the British.”

  “No kidding!”

  “And don’t ever tell a Nepali man that Buddha was born in India. Unless you want to be lynched.”

  Biks cursed himself for saying “lynched,” but Jacob laughed. “All right. You’re funny, man.” He asked if Biks had a photo of his “fiancée.”

  Cigarette in mouth, Biks took out his phone and showed Jacob Seema’s photo. He had taken it in a café long before he boarded the plane to America, long before things went wrong between them. It showed her flashing a V with her fingers, looking with a half smile at the camera, her dark hair cascading down to her waist.

  “Damn!” Jacob said and, looking away, stomped his feet. Then he grabbed the phone from Biks’s hand and peered at the photo closely. “You’re one lucky dog,” he said. With an embarrassed but pleased smile, Biks snatched his phone back.

  “You’re bringing her over here?”

  Biks nodded.

  “You should get married here so I can come to the wedding.”

  A customer pulled up in her car, so Biks had to go into the store to attend to her. The conversation with Jacob had strangely buoyed him up, and he sported a silly grin.

  He showed Seema’s photo to new people he met at Nepali parties, saying she would soon be joining him. He did so when Purushottam Uncle wasn’t around. One time, around mid-November, he and Saurav had taken a couple of new arrivals from Nepal, Jivan and Umesh, to the Indian district in Devon. They were sitting in Sukhadia, drinking tea. Saurav had gone to the bathroom when Biks, out of the blue, showed Seema’s photo to Jivan and Umesh. They oohed and aahed. He told them that he was bringing her to America and they’d be married in the Hindu temple in Lemont.

  When Saurav returned to the table, Biks changed the topic and began talking about the great sweets that Sukhadia had. “They taste better than Aangan in Kathmandu,” he informed the newbies.

  Later, when the four of them went to Navy Pier for an evening stroll, Umesh ended up mentioning Biks’s soon-to-be-bride coming over from Nepal.

  “There’s no bride,” Saurav said. “I’m trying to find a white dulahi for him here.”

  “But he showed us the photo in the restaurant.”

  “What photo?”

  Biks took out his phone and showed Seema to Saurav. “This one, nigger.”

  “What is this nigger-nigger?” Jivan asked. “Isn’t that a bad word? Used for kaleys?”

  “We’re all niggers,” Biks said. He pointed at Jivan. “You’re a nigger.” Then at Umesh. “And you’re a nigger.” At Saurav. “And this one is a full-time nigger. But he thinks he’s white.”

  “Why?” asked Umesh. “Because he’s shacking up with a white girl?”

  That evening in the apartment Saurav confronted Biks. “What was all that about?”


  “That I think I’m white.”

  Biks said nothing. He felt bad about what he’d said earlier in front of Jivan and Umesh but wasn’t ready to take it back.

  “It’s not good, Biks, it’s not good,” Saurav said. Looking at the carpet, he shook his head as if he were contemplating a crop that had gone bad. “You think you’re so progressive, enlightened, but you’re no different.” Lisa was in the next room with the baby, so he lowered his voice. “I know you don’t like her, but you have to understand you’re a guest here, and she is the host.”

  “I don’t give a fuck who is a guest or who is a host. You think I give a fuck?”

  Saurav watched him in dismay. “What’s the matter with you? You’ve become so aggressive these days.”

  Biks waved his hand imperially in the air.

  “And what is this nigger business? Why are you going around calling everyone nigger? One day these kaleys will beat the crap out of you.”

  “Chances are,” Biks said, “I’ll get shot by a white cop.”

  Saurav shook his head slowly, sadly.

  “Yes, I can see myself getting shot by a white cop,” Biks said. “Will they shoot me because I’m a black nigger or because I’m a Nepali nigger? Or perhaps”—he caressed his beard—“a Muslim nigger? A terrorist, perhaps?”

  On the evening it was announced that the grand jury had decided not to indict Darren Wilson, a group of high school-aged white boys dawdled by the counter at the gas station, using the word Apu in every sentence as they inquired of one another what they should buy.

  “What about Starbursts, Apu?” one said.

  “We need some Doritos, Apu,” said another.

  “Apu, Apu, what should we do tonight? Should we go to Steve’s place, Apu?”

  “Apu, what’s your wife’s name again? The one with the large eyes and the dot on her forehead?”

  The boys were clearly making fun of him, but Biks couldn’t tell how. The name Apu sounded familiar. A tune coursed through his head, then the singsong-y “The Simpsons” popped into his head, and it clicked. Apu, the Indian store owner with the pronounced Indian accent.

  The boys—there were four of them—had put their purchases on t
he counter for Biks to ring up, but Biks pushed them to the side and said, “Sorry, you can’t buy here.”


  “I can’t sell you those.”

  The boys turned quiet. Then one of them laughed and said, “Dude, you’re not refusing to sell us things, are you? Why? Because we’re white?”

  Biks was feeling hot and cold at the same time. “You’re disrupting the peace,” he said, then immediately felt foolish. He felt like he could no longer speak English.

  “Disrupting the peace?” They were doubling up with laughter.

  “You fucking crackers!” he said. He didn’t know where the word came from; he didn’t know he even knew that word.

  “Crackers?” one said.

  “You mean honkeys?” another said.

  They were laughing, jabbing one another.

  “Oh, I’m so offended,” one said. “Who you calling honkey, Mr. Curry Breath?”

  “Where are you from?” another said. “Afghanistan?”

  “He’s Taliban,” another said. “The beard. It’s a dead giveaway.”

  Biks had a vision of himself coming out from behind the counter and fighting with these boys. He’d taken some karate in Nepal, and he wondered if the moves would come to him. But it was all so ridiculous. They were barely past their teens, even though all of them were bigger than Biks.

  He rang up their items, and they paid him, not letting up on their mockery. “Thank you, Apu,” they said. One of them put his palms together, bowed, and said, “Arigato, sensei.”

  After they left, he bolted the door from the inside and put up the closed sign. He grabbed a beer from the cooler and sat on the floor, drinking, hidden from the door. Every now and then he was aware of customers jiggling the doorknob, then voices. “Why is it fucking closed?” he heard a man say.

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