Thursday, February 21, 2008

Meelad's nationality

I live in an apartment, but my place isn’t really an apartment in the traditional sense. It’s one of seven independent units in a large, old, and creaking 3-story home. I am on the middle floor, just a little above ground level; my unit is the first that residents encounter when they enter through the porch into the narrow hallway, where the mailboxes are. Because of my location, I tend to frequently run into other tenants: those who live upstairs, and those who live their secret lives – for it does seem that way sometimes – in the dark confines of the basement. To the upstairs people, the basement can be something of a mystery, a place they visit only for laundry and that too fearfully; and to those in the basement, the upstairs units can seem like a distant, sunlit haven, where their darkness-adjusted eyes are sure to instantly blink and shrivel.

I get a glimpse of the people who live in both these worlds. I get to chat with them occasionally even if only briefly, or at least to say hello. And I remember once how, during the course of such chats, an upstairs denizen stirred a pleasant and long-lasting intrigue about the nationality of a basement dweller.

That upstairs tenant was Reza, the Iranian doctor who lives in the unit just above mine. Reza is very curious of things around him; he likes to keep track of happenings in the neighborhood. He said he could provide me intelligence about suspicious activities on our street: why, for instance, the police and paramedic team once visited the house opposite ours; why he fears there could be drug deals going on in our neighborhood. “It might be the black men who rent houses on the street,” Reza said, in his high-pitched voice. “I see them late at night on bicycles. You see, they are unemployed. Not so the Mexicans; they at least work at these pizza and burger places.” (All this in Rochester, Minnesota, easily for its size one of the safest towns in the United States.)

For someone who could infer so much; for someone who claimed he had once psychoanalyzed the perpetrator of an assault crime (a woman who lived across the street: she apparently assaulted in defense), I found it surprising that Reza could not deduce the nationality of the young man who lived in the basement. The young man's name was Meelad Dawlaty – we knew that from the mailbox. The name vexed Reza. It was a tantalizing name, as he once admitted, because it could be Iranian, but not necessarily. The uncertainty appeared to tease and torment him. When I moved in, Reza and Meelad had already lived in the apartment for nearly two years, and yet even a few months after my arrival, they had not talked.

Potentially two Iranians in a small Midwestern town, in the same apartment, yet not a word between them!

“If that’s true, then it’s definitely an odd situation,” Reza solemnly said to me.

But the question remained: Was Meelad Iranian?

Meelad was a quiet, reserved man; he wished me hello every time he saw me but said nothing more. He kept to himself. He was in the twenties; he had features commonly associated with say Iran or Iraq or Central Asia. He was one of those people with whom there is that inexplicable barrier that prevents one from breaking ice easily. Not that he looked forbidding – no, certainly not: he looked a pleasant, normal man. Yet, there was something about him that didn’t engender conversation beyond a hearty hello. That’s the barrier that Reza, too, had been unable to break, and it was heightened further perhaps by the upstairs basement divide I elaborated earlier.

Months passed. The intrigue persisted. Spring came; the days got longer; for the first time, I experienced and was enthralled by the late sunsets. In a celebratory mood, I went every evening to play cricket after work with a group of Indians from Andhra Pradesh, and learned a few words of Telugu, their native tongue. On Saturdays, though, all of us together played a longer and more formal game against Indians from Tamilnadu. There was a slight irony in this: Tamilnadu was where I was from, yet I played against them. I joked often that I could ferret out strategies of the opposing team since I understood Tamil.

But there was a player in the opposing team whose presence far outweighed my little irony. I spotted him one Saturday, and was startled. It was Meelad. He was the standout light-complexioned player among us dark-skinned south Indian guys. He wasn’t that good at cricket but seemed to enjoy the game and gave his best.

I approached him for the first time in ten months, and mustered the sentence I should have said a long time ago:

“Hi, I think we live in the same apartment.”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “I’ve seen you around.”

And, just like that, we connected! I asked him the important question: Where he was from? No symmetric twist in the tale here: Meelad was not from India. He was from Afghanistan, but his family had moved to Islamabad in Pakistan, where growing up in school and watching other kids play cricket, he had picked up the game somewhat. Later his parents had moved to the United States. He was currently doing his PhD in biochemistry, and had been invited by some Indians friends to cricket on Saturdays. Who would have expected I would meet my neighbor, an Afghan, with other Indians at the Saturday game, especially since in Afghanistan, unlike cricket-mad Pakistan and India, the game only has a fledgling presence?

But life is like that; these wonderful coincidences do happen.

Meelad said he cooked on weekends for the whole week. He made chicken curry often, perhaps not as spicy, he felt, as Indian chicken curry. He said he would invite me sometime. That hasn’t happened yet, but whenever I am in the basement on weekends, in the forbidding, dimly lit laundry room – every little fluff of dirt there seems like a grotesquely shaped bug – I comfort myself with the thought that there’s chicken curry simmering slowly on a stove not too far.

And what of Reza? Certainly we can’t end the story without him. It turned out, that he too, about the same time I had ventured boldly to Meelad, had shored up enough determination to talk and ask where Meelad was from. Reza smiled when he said this to me; he seemed relieved to have got his answer.

Reza and Meelad do speak the same language though, Farsi, and it is only the small matter of a border that divides their respective countries. Except that borders aren’t a small matter at all; for better or worse – I suspect it’s the latter – borders determine our strongest allegiances. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be so tickled at the question of Meelad’s nationality, right?


Space Bar said...

hari, totally off topic, but small correction re wainaina's blog on your sidebar: it is Kwani? Blog and not Kwami.

Hari said...

Thanks for pointing that out, Space Bar; I've corrected it now. And thanks also for the link on blogbharati!

Space Bar said...

I realised that mistake must have come from the NYT - that's how they'd spelt it.

Left a comment on a old post of yours. Not sure you read/respond to them. It was on the Naipaul/Adichie post.

Hari said...

Space Bar,
Luckily I did spot your comment on the Adichie post, but usually I don't have any of knowing somebody's commented on old posts! Since my response is slightly long, I've sent you an email instead of posting it.

Sudipta Chatterjee said...

Lovely post!

Hari said...

Thanks, Sudipta!

Iris said...

interesting story...

Shobha said...

Nice story :) I think one's nationality becomes of great importance especially when one is away from home....However one can also notice the how people strongly identify themselves with respect to internal boundaries in India. When I say that, I mean the states which are broadly divided into linguistic barriers. A simple example, I'm a Tamilian and spent all my childhood in B'bay and I know how people would be curious to know where I originally hail from. It's funny how Palakkad becomes such a strong part of my identity without me having never lived there :) Besides, in India caste, community, internal territorial allegiances are also very strong. Sometimes, I think it's the most easiest way to slot people also, no?

Krishnan said...

Nice post. Been visiting your blog for some time and like your articles on history and the like.

Hari said...

Iris - I am glad you found the story interesting; I'd been wanting to write about my neighbors for a while now!

Shobha - Thanks! You're quite right: where you come from, even within a country, especially in a country like India, becomes so important. It's funny, where you are from never really goes away; in some situations it even endures many generations!

Krishnan - Thanks! Do keep visiting!

Ms Taggart said...

Exactly, if all of us thought so broadly, then there would not be any wars. Leave aside wars, but everyone would be friends with everyone without the discrimination of caste and creed!

This is one hell of a good blog. Mind if I blogroll you? :)

日月神教-任我行 said...