by Tashan Mehta
Moe turns to me then, and the spotlight is there, without warning.
“That must be annoying, mustn’t it?”— And he is truly empathetic. — “Your parents not leaving.”
It is the third day after arrivals weekend and the first time I have met him. When I reply, it comes out sounding, unintentionally, offended.
Then, to soften it: “I like my parents.”
He is taken aback.
“That’s alright then.” He recovers. “It’s just that —”
He turns and the spotlight moves on.
“It’s just that Asian parents are clingy with their children. They’re not used to them leaving home. My sister, she stayed home till she got married at twenty-five. British parents don’t really care, they’re like ‘fuck off’: well,” — the table, predominantly British, laughs— “not fuck off, but you know what I mean? Asian mothers, they’ll make a scene, cry and stuff. That’s why I wouldn’t let my mother drop me to Uni. She wanted to, but I was like, ‘Mom.’ ”
He stares sternly/matter of fact into space and I see his mother sitting in front of us, weeping hysterically at the thought of losing him.
“ ‘You know you’re just going to cry. Why do you want to cry?’ ” Snap back to present. “It’s just too much drama for me.”
And I — back to my silent role— nod with everyone else, even as I partially refute everything he is saying, even as I partially accept the grain of truth in it— but that’s just traditional Indian families. Isn’t it? — even as I think to myself, baffled: but I’m not Asian. I’m Indian.
There is a thud down my corridor.
It is one am and I am in bed, watching Bridget Jones’ Diary, because the Internet here is fantastic and because I am feeling alone. I have failed to buy a ticket for the Fresher’s Ball (“£22 = 2200 rupees. For a party. And I don’t even like partying, mom.”) and have had to take group pictures instead, of my flatmates dolled up with neon paint, bright pink socks and smiles just as glaring. They left an hour ago. It is far too early for them to be back.
I hesitate, fidgeting under my duvet. There is another thud, then whispering. I hear, “Priya, man…” and more indistinct sounds.
I stay in bed because this is none of my business. They will do fine without me, as usual. I won’t be much help anyway.
There is a third thud, and the voices get louder. Coaxing. Giggling, and then something that sounds like an apology.
“The problem with you, my love, is that you don’t try.” My mom is staring at me, unusually hard hearted, as I am silently crying about a petrifying interview at Cambridge, about the difficulty in understanding anyone’s accents, about the ‘looks’. “You expect everyone to come to you, to make the effort. Why? Why not you?”
Bridget Jones is now kissing Colin Firth in the snow. I sweep back the duvet and open my door.
Priya is collapsed against the wall, her heeled feet no long holding her up. They look curved, like jelly. She is very drunk. Moe is live acting as prop for her. He is trying to convince her to get to her room, so she can sleep. Ronak, a London Asian, is trying to cheer her up. It is partly working. She is apologising, crying and laughing, all slurred.
“It’s fine,” says Moe, jovially. “Don’t worry man, we’ve got her. Go back to sleep.”
“Is she alright?”
“Yeah, yeah,” says Ronak. “Don’t worry, we’ve got this.” This is first time I am interacting with him. I’ve seen him down corridors, talking to people, talking to people who I am with. He seems sedate. Reserved.
“Can I help?”
“No don’t worry about it,“ says Ronak. “It’s fine.”
“Just go back sleep, yeah,” says Moe, again.
I close my door and disappear.
“Are you serious?”
He is incredulous, but in a flattering way. He cannot believe he has placed me wrong, this London Asian, normally so perceptive of the difference between a British Asian and an international student. “ Are you really an international student? Hey Moe—,” as Moe pushes open his bedroom door. “Did you know she was fresh?”
“Freshie,” explains Moe. “People from India and Pakistan that haven’t lived in England at all, who’ve come straight from the ‘mother land’.” He lifts his hands to place it in inverted commas.
“Fresh off the boat,” says Ronak, grinning.
Gayatri Patel, who lives three doors down the corridor, an international student, studied at Dhirubai Ambani International School, polished, going to France with her friends on vacation, visiting USA for the fiftieth time, carrying Mango bags and wearing Jimmy Choo shoes, impeccable English (of course) and I cannot see how she can be fresh, how she can be associated with the traditional Indian at all with her parties, her liberal western outlook and her superior education, let alone someone who has just stepped off the boat, hungry and tired, smelling of fish, trying to immigrate to England as the land of dreams.
We don’t make friends with Freshies, yeah?” Ronak, in his half joking way. He is trying to explain the status quo to me, the difference, and I don’t get it.
I frown. “I’m a freshie.”
He smiles at that, sensing the pride. “Yeah, but you don’t seem like it.”
And I am pleased. Pleased to be befriend-able, approved, singled out. Not that I get it. What makes you seem like one?
Our interaction is sporadic. They are in a different kitchen from me, just down the hall, but different. I can hear them, laughing and sharing inside jokes. They are tight, the way all students want to be when they join university. Someone’s best friend. A person that somebody will miss, will ask after, will knock on their door to seek out.
They would miss each other. They would remember each other. And they would re-tell the stories— “Mate, you won’t believe what Ronak did last night.”— so each of them could be there, every experience a communal one.
I have heard the stories. They spend their days together, missing lectures, just hanging out in each other’s rooms, and talking or watching a movie. Often they fall asleep on the same bed. Friends— no, closer. “Like brothers and sister,” says Priya. “Moe calls me his younger sister all the time.” They have their own language almost, taken from London— things like “allow” and “safe”. They play cricket with a paper plate and pink stuffed pig.
I am not a cricket fan. I am learning, in these two weeks, that there are a lot of things I am not. A good cook, for one. Or half as knowledgeable as I thought (EastEnders? Cheryl Cole? X Factor?). My accent— which I have always classified as neutral and international— is definitely Indian and definitely hard to understand. When I say ‘can’t’, it can sound like ‘cunt’. I am authority on all things Indian. I am a lot better at being silent.
“Come and play pool with us tonight.”
Moe and Ronak are standing in the corridor, on their way back from Tesco. I am going back to my room.
“I’ve never played pool before.”
“We’ll teach you,” says Moe.
“We haven’t seen you in ages, Mehta. You can’t say no.” Ronak is smiling.
I smile back. “Alright. Yeah, that would be nice.”
I go back to my room and close the door, and wonder what I am going to tell Jenny Hellesy— fair skinned, blue eyed, loud laughing, boisterous Jenny. She has been trying to be their friends for weeks now, staying up late at night to play cards in their kitchen, knocking individually on their doors, exchanging history, lives and stories. Nothing.
And I get an invitation to pool. Because I’m Indian.
“It’s not a question of her race or anything.”
Moe Abad, talking about Jenny as we sit in Ronak’s room and I ask him why he doesn’t like her: she obviously likes him; she’s just trying to be friendly; trying to get to know them better. And Ronak is shushing me to keep silent lest she is outside the door and wants to hang out and we hear a knock, tentative, and then another one, louder, and we all — we all— keep as silent as mice.
“It’s just a question of who we get along with.”
“Ah,” he says and leans back against the table so that I have to lean forward, tottering on my high heels, to catch what he is saying, “You’re a coconut, aren’t you?”
I think I have heard wrong. This is my third night out with them and I am at the bar, in an overly crowded Asian club, hip-hop music blaring (I have discovered that I cannot dance), trying to find my bearings. But that is what he said, a coconut, this boy I barely know (and who barely knows me) – a course friend of Priya’s, this our first conversation and I am a coconut: what the hell is a coconut?
“Brown on the outside but white on the inside. Asian in your skin colour, white in everything else.”
“Tashan,” Ronak pushing the kitchen door as I lean the chair back, happy, confident, drunk. “Would you sleep with someone before you’re married?”
His eyes widen. “Are you serious? What would your parents say?”
My mother, on the broken line of skype: “Look, love, you’re there now. And it’s an ideal opportunity for you to experiment. If you felt cloistered here because you felt people knew you and you had a certain image: all that is gone. Go, make-out in nightclubs if that’s what they do. Have a fling with a random boy if that’s what you feel like doing— just make sure you’re safe. But, what I’m trying to say, is just go with the flow.”
“It’s not something that would bother them.”
“Mate,” Ronal, glancing at Moe, a little incredulous, “My parents would kill me if they thought I’d had sex before marriage.”
Ronak, Hindu, a charmer in an odd sort of way, picking his girls out carefully, kissing Priya over the Oceanic counter for the fun of it, pulling up tops and flirting, classily, with the pretty girls, only Asian though, always only Asian. Maybe Chinese.
“Maybe.” He smiles a little. “If I found the right one.”
She is crying in my bed. In my mind’s eye, I see them kissing, merging over Oceania’s counter, one second apart, now welded together by their mouths, swaying, blocking other customers. But it doesn’t matter now, he has told her it was all just a bit of fun and her heart is broken. Worse: toyed with.
“Tashan,” she asks hesitantly, “Do you think I’ve done something wrong?”
Jenny, in our kitchen, drunk, eating nutella out of the bottle, turning as I come in. “I got with someone today.”
“Oh wow! Who?”
She shrugs, “No idea. Standard.” and spoons more nutella in. And I laugh, because it is.
“Because you kissed him?” I cannot reconcile this.
“No. Yes.” She stares at her hands. “I don’t know. The kind of decisions I’ve made Tash: I slept in his bed that night. I’ve never done anything like that: I wouldn’t have dreamed of it back home.”
And I cannot reconcile this. Priya Hemandani, seven years in England (moving from India) to date, not conservative at all. She knows more than me sexually, she can match gossip for gossip: educated, beautiful, sassy, confident.
“Hemandani, you liked a guy and you kissed him because you thought he liked you back. You slept in his bed – just slept — that’s all.”
“But it isn’t though, is it? We don’t act like that: it’s a question of dignity. It’s different for us.” A tear runs down her cheek and she wipes it off to look at me. “Isn’t it?”
I walk into my kitchen and they are there, fifteen something of them. The Freshies.
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
Even to me, this apology sounds ridiculous. It is my kitchen; there is no need to apologise. They smile at me, politely, awkwardly. They have been having a party of sorts. The table is littered with food: Kurkure, Maggi, banana chips. It has been so long since I’ve had banana chips.
“How are you?” says Gayatri, polite, breaking the ice.
I haven’t seen them for five weeks, not since the international orientation back in Mumbai. They have spent their time in Warwick together. Days and often nights; I’ve seen them carrying their sleeping bags to Gayatri’s room. They have explored the country, like tourists, visiting places they’ve never seen and their friends that are scattered in other universities. They gamble instead of going out.
“I’m good. You? How is your course?”
We exchange the regular Fresher week questions. How are you? Where do you live? How is your course? How are your course mates? And your flatmates? The rest of the group stays silent as we talk and I get the impression she is answering in the collective, one person for all. When I ask about her flatmates she says “Good” like a platitude and I know it is a silly question. All the friends she needs are sitting right here.
After five minutes, I take my nutella and leave. I have nothing to say to them.
Both Priya and Ronak are seriously religious: Priya believing in her God, fasting for him, an active and valued member of her church; and Ronak, not really caring but going to the Ganesh Temple every week when home, wearing the golden Om around his neck, believing because it is a part of him, because
“It’s who we are.” says Priya.
And there are religious and non-religious people in India and there are agnostics and atheists, the whole lot of them, loving, ignoring, or bearing religion and it never occurs to me as a part of identity, just as clingy Asian parents don’t, or being sheltered, or innocence, or dignity, but here, here it is tied up with
“But you’re not really Indian, are you?” Priya, not meaning to be rude, just saying it like it is, like she sees it. “You’re too westernized.”
There are no international students, Asians, British Asians or Indians down my corridor. Just the British, a Scotsman (because it is not the same thing) and a low jean wearing Dane. To them, my friends, I am just Tashan. Tashan who is Asian, and international, but Tashan first.
I am sitting in Sarah’s room, listening as they re-hash last night for my benefit. I am laughing as they explain all the antics and all the alcohol (and the copious amount of falling down).
“Was there anyone else we know?” I say, after the conversation has dwindled down.
“Just A-Soc,” says Sarah.
The Warwick Asian Society? This is odd. How does Sarah know them (or any of their members) considering she can’t be a part of it?
“Oh no,” Jenny laughs, “A-soc is the name we gave to the Asians down the corridor because they only ever hang out with themselves– and other Asians.”
I shrug, “I hang out with you guys.”
“Yeah but you’re different.” Jenny is dismissive.
Sarah, who is applying cream in the mirror, adds, “And you’re not part of A-soc.”
“I am Asian, though. Technically, apart from Priya,” and I am piqued now, at the labels the British Asians are denying me with their behaviour, at the act of labelling at all, “the only one who has actually lived in India.”
“Yeah no, we know.” Jenny, nodding. Sarah turns and flashes a wide smile at me. “But you’re our Asian.”
This story was shortlisted for the Newcastle Centre for the Literary Arts International Student Short Story Competition 2012.