MY FRIEND says his cousin’s wedding has been called off. The wedding invitations had already been printed, but the bride got cold feet. She lives in India, the groom in the United States. She’d decided she did not want to move there any more.
Once upon a time a bridegroom in the United States, an engineer or a banker, would have been a prize catch. This time his location was a handicap. Parents ask worriedly: ‘Is it safe? The things we are hearing…’ The same friend says his sister in Mumbai was planning to visit him this summer but has decided to put it off. An American friend travelling in the northern Indian city of Amritsar says she keeps meeting people who say they want to visit America — ‘but not right now.’
They are not dreaming of America the way they used to in India — and this was happening even before Srinivas Kuchibhotla was gunned down in that bar in Kansas last week.
When I first arrived from India as a student in the early 1990s, America felt terribly alien. On my first night, I stared at the rows of car dealerships lining the main street of my small university town in Southern Illinois. They were closed yet brightly lit, with red, white and blue balloons drifting lazily above the gleaming cars. It was surreal, but it confirmed my idea of America — a country that always seemed open for business.
America was a confusing place. I did not realize that those friendly white-haired ladies inviting lonely students like me to church dinners were also trying to save my heathen soul. I did not understand how dishwashers worked. I could not drive a car. I could barely change a light bulb. I felt singularly ill equipped, but eager to explore.
I saw the exhilarating promise of America in the oddest places — the friendly drag queen with her Long Island iced tea at Two Hearts, the local gay bar; the dollar classics night at the campus movie theatre where I watched ‘Back to the Future’; my messy attempt at a tandoori marinade to jazz up a Thanksgiving turkey. The American dream was not about striking it rich. It was about savouring the possibility of reinvention.
Several years later, I left a career in software engineering to become a writer. I do not think I would have had the courage to do that in India. In America, a profligate waste of an education did not seem so outlandish.
America was where I lived alone for the first time, in a little studio apartment with a cracked bathtub. America was a place, far away from the watchful eyes of aunts, uncles and neighbours, where it was possible to indulge in curious passions — bartending classes, poetry groups, quail hunting, sex. There were slurs and snide comments about smelling like curry, but it never crossed my mind that America needed to be made great again, because I had already been seduced by its own conviction in its greatness. Its projection of greatness had always been its most successful export.
Now that is changing. The country that taught me the meaning of privacy is considering demanding Facebook passwords at the border. From the outside it feels less like a darker country than like a more sullen one — one half of it apologetic, the other half suspicious. I am almost nostalgic for the naïve innocence of that other America I knew, where pleasant middle-aged women would tell me about a Dr. Patel from Mumbai and ask if I knew him. That America came with a sense of curiosity. The America I see now is shrunken, scared of its own shadow despite its bluster.
Growing up in India, we didn’t question the brain drain of our best and brightest (and even our second- and third-bests) to America. It was the natural order of things. President Trump’s new vision for America is suddenly forcing us to reconsider that assumption.
It’s too late for Srinivas Kuchibhotla, but somewhere out there young men like him are wondering if the American dream itself can be outsourced. Mr. Kuchibhotla’s mother has told reporters she does not want to let her younger son return to America. The father of Alok Madasani, his friend who was wounded in the shooting, said, ‘I appeal to all parents in India not to send their children to the US in the present circumstances.’
Perhaps an unwelcoming America is not such a bad thing for the rest of the world. Now an Iranian can stand at the Oscars ceremony and lecture the United States on human rights. And a bride in India can snub her Indian-American husband-to-be. Five years ago, when I moved back to India, nobody understood why I would do such a thing. These days they nod understandingly.
But I still remember wistfully my first night in America, that car lot with its red, white and blue balloons and the American dream unspooling in front of me with such limitless abandon into the fluorescent night.
New York Times, February 28. Sandip Roy is the author of the novel Don’t Let Him Know.
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