Subway Diaries

Subway diaries

 

As a bookaholic, I always carry a book on my daily commute but sometimes, I find myself unable to get a seat making the act of juggling bag, book and balance a bit ungainly. That’s when I get the chance to observe my co-passengers. Of particular interest is desi watching. As a writer I enjoy contemplating their life story.

I was on a Path train from Jersey City when it stopped at Journal square and even before I could turn around, I knew it was a desi. Comes from having well-developed olfactory glands. I discreetly observed the young couple. From the whiff of coconut oil, I guessed South Indian. Techies presumably. The body language gave them away as newly married. I wonder what their story was? Were they in the country to study? Or part of an Indian team providing technical support to a US company? Maybe they married without permission and were escaping parental wrath? Asking them would ruin my imagination. I left them behind when I reached my stop. And was glad to escape the unique fragrance.

Another day and I was waiting for a NJ transit train at Newark station. A smartly dressed desi woman boarded the train. We smiled and she got busy with her Mac. From her nails I could see she was not into grooming. The polish was slightly chipped and the hands looked work-rough. She must have been a working mum who spends her time at home cooking, doing house-work and making her kids do home-work. Her husband probably does not help much at home. I imagine she gets into bed exhausted and catches up on office work during her daily commute. Her clothes are smart because appearances are important but unfortunately she does not have the time or maybe the inclination for small details like her nails.

Once a desi man boarded my subway compartment. He was pulling a suitcase and wore his jeans around his hips. An I-phone was blaring all the current radio hits. But there was something about him that did not fit the mold. He was trying too hard to blend in. I was confused. What was his story? Suddenly he slid across to me and I knew as soon as the first words slipped out? “Excuse me does this train go to Queens?” He was fresh off the boat and his gear was thanks to US based movies and television shows. His accent gave him away. He was one of those fresh off the plane dudes, enroute to stay with family in Queens. I could sense his hunger and ambition to capitalize on every opportunity.

Another train, another day and I came across this uber confident desi. One glance is enough to tell me this girl has been born and raised in this country or has lived here for most of her life. The tattoo, the confidence, the swagger. She did not bother glancing my way and was busy fiddling with her phone. Young. Probably in media. She had the attitude of the know it all youth of this country.

Not all of my desis are on the train. I glimpse them as I walk down the street, there is eye-contact at restaurants and even at my work place.

I entered the bathroom at work a couple of weeks ago. Two women were wrinkling their nose as they continued with washing hands and applying lipstick. I was not puzzled because I too was assailed by an instantly recognizable smell of body odour. My first thought ‘desi.’ The bathrooms were all occupied so there was no way of knowing. Suddenly a door opened and you guessed it, a young desi girl in her late twenties walked out. She smiled sweetly at me. As I passed her to enter the bathroom, I smelt it. And had to stop from gagging when I shut the bathroom door. It reeked. Luckily the bathroom has air-freshener so I sprayed it all over the bathroom before leaving. I did not want to bump into anyone entering and have them think I was the cause of the BO.

I have encountered this young girl a few times since that day; on my floor and again in the bathroom. Each time I smell the BO. She dresses well, has lipstick and seems like a hardworking young girl. I do not understand the body odour. Why have her work colleagues not said anything? This politically correct environment is taking a toll on my nasal passage. I barely know this girl but I may accost her one day and explain to her the need for using under-arm deodorant. She is probably from a small town in India and has no idea. I was guilty of this when I first came to this country in the 80’s. In India, we used Ponds Dream flower talcum powder to dust down our body so I was clueless about deo until my cousin explained the concept to me. Now, me and my deo can never be separated.

At work I see many young start-up desis wandering around. Some stroll around in casual shorts and talk with an American twang. I immediately guess them to have been raised in this county. There are the sweet sincere types, who wear jeans and have a pony tail but they never fail to smile and say hello. In conversation with one of them, I discovered he is from India working for a company offering tech-support. These young chaps miss desi food and their tiffins carry appetizing aroma of Shanta ben’s cooking because most of them stay in areas such as Queens and have a local Indian lady cooking meals for them.

Then there are desis who have made it. This is a confusing paradox. Friendly older folks who came here during the boom and even earlier as far back as the 60’s and 70’s. They are Indophiles and still have an India connect either through philanthropic activities, promoting cultural activities or even covert political ambitions. Indians who came in the mid-nineties and later come across as snooty. They probably still believe in the old school network of India and prefer to mix with like-minded Indians from back home. The younger Indian-Americans are open, friendly and have no hesitation in embracing Indians from India but there is a cultural divide because desis raised in this country are totally different from desis raised in India. Some are more desi than people from India while others are so un-Indian there is no common ground except for physical appearances.

The opportunities for this voyeuristic pleasure of mine is limitless so be warned, this is not the end of my rants and praise. It’s just a question of collecting more ammunition to be unleashed.

Stay tuned for more.

Monique Patel

Monique Patel

Monika Patel – Monique to her friends – is now a permanent resident of New York City, but her heart is permanently in Pune, her home for 28 years.
Monique Patel

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