On November 8, my great aunt passed away. She was born on a tea plantation in Sibsagar, Assam, on September 11, 1925, the eldest daughter of a successful industrialist and Indian independence activist. She earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Benares Hindu University, and in 1945 married a man who’d served with the U.S. military in Burma during the World War II. After they married, they traveled by army transport to the United States, where she became a naturalized citizen. My great uncle earned his doctorate at Notre Dame, and in 1955 they settled in the Boston area, where she pursued a master’s degree in education at Boston University.
She loved gardening and tennis, even co-founding a tennis club with my great uncle in 1959. She devoted her life to education, teaching the third and fourth grade, along with a computer applications class, until her retirement. She was the mother of two, doctors, both, grandmother of five, and great-grandmother of three.
“I couldn’t shake the feeling that, suddenly, her entire narrative had been repudiated by what had just occurred.”
I learned of her death (of heart failure) on the morning of November 9, the day after the election of Donald Trump. I couldn’t shake the feeling that, suddenly, her entire narrative had been repudiated by what had just occurred. That the arc of history no longer bent towards acceptance, but that it had simply course corrected back to an immoral center of rejectionism.
I only met my great aunt a few times. On each occasion, I was newly shocked at the idea of an older relative, my grandmother’s contemporary, so thoroughly Americanized. No women of this generation that I’d encountered wore pants, talked so freely of their career, cracked jokes with such crackling, mischievous irony. Her voice lacked any discernible trace of accent, her daily wardrobe, any mekhela chador — none that I saw, anyway.
My great aunt and grandmother grew up together, spending countless days at the old tea house in Sibsagar, with its grand porches, high ceilings, creaky, haunting-yet-charmed stairways, and vast lawn, used as a campground by the Allied forces during World War II. At the age of nine, she met Gandhi at the house. Perhaps, as a teenager, she saw a union between the spirit of patriotism coursing through pre-independent India, and the rejection of fascism the soldiers embodied, knowing then that America (not Britain, of course), was in her future.
Those endless summer days, running across the plantations, scanning the tea fields worked by imported laborers, wondering whether all of this, any of this, was strange or sad. I wonder, too, about her meeting a man animated by the energies of victory over unequivocal evil; we talk, now, of the loss of a post-war liberal world order. For him, then, that nascent order surely meant boundless opportunity and a place in a boundless, if harsh, world.
I imagine the shock of arrival in South Bend: Endless, blinding fields of yellow, the ritualistic rigors of a Catholic institution and community — she knew missionaries, but seeing them up close and personal in their laboratories of faith surely allowed her to pull back the curtain on their mystical, severe ways. Then, New England, with all its attendant mythologies. Marinating in the brine of the American creation myth, assimilating gradually, year by year.
“Someone had done all this before: The arriving, the adapting, the creating of an identity and a family.”
The image of a young brown family coming up in middle-class, 1950s New England always provided me with a certain measure of comfort. Someone had done all this before: The arriving, the adapting, the creating of an identity and a family. My great aunt’s career decisions paid homage to my family’s tradition in education and civic betterment. There was a history there worth honoring and carrying forward. She and my great uncle would have children and give them American names, and come to know of the venerable Kennedys and the bright shining future they suggested.
In her story, there is possibility, the courage of someone forging ahead into the ominous and strange, only to be greeted on the other end as an equally ominous, strange, exotic artifact of an older, browner, yellower, mysterious world that had supposedly seen its best moments come and go. America took in the teeming Asiatic masses because, Why not, let’s see where all this goes?
Not long after her arrival in America, Washington would wise up to the realities of appearing like a horrifically, proudly racist empire, enacting changes to our immigration laws that ushered in waves of young engineering students, aspiring doctors, entrepreneurs from Asia — folks who, more often than not, kept their heads down, completed graduate school, found quiet, unobtrusive ways to insinuate themselves into the American fabric. They’d accustom themselves to being the curiosity, the diligent foreign-born who asked no questions, who kept to themselves, who reasoned that a certain kind of soft assimilation was the best way to quietly but assertively take what America had to offer.
I’ve lived my life assuming that stories like my great aunts were a thing of beauty. A confused journey, weighted with contradictions and sacrifice and pain. But a thing of beauty, universally agreed upon. Now, I know this not to be true.
We took it all too lightly. We believed that the machine of progress that brought us here, that allowed us to ensconce ourselves in prosperity, detached from the exigencies of civic life, would simply keep on keeping on. There had been enough struggle, just getting this far. Why push harder? Settling into our enclaves, encasing ourselves in the familiar.
Our story could perhaps exist in parallel with the tremors shaking the world loose from its foundations, from the collapse of American industry, to the good times-are-here-again-ism of Reagan, to the utopian, capitalist triumphs of the Clinton years. We came to think of ourselves as untouched and untouchable by the rancid forces that sought to pull it apart. We were indispensable. We would vote, when moved to do so; prosper, and insulate ourselves from history. We had that luxury.
“What you are fighting for is not just the right to be present and counted for, but the very right to have a story.”
Of course, complacency is the brush that tars most all of us who are the comfortable and relatively unafflicted, immigrant or not (the joke being that the latter, of course, doesn’t really exist). For the former category, I wonder how quickly the realization has set in that no ideal of progress is ever safe or guaranteed. You must always fight. Remarkably, however, what you are fighting for is not just the right to be present and counted for, but the very right to have a story. After all, what you represent, in your very presence here, is a break with history, a cataclysmic disruption to a world order that, as far as you’ve ever known, will find a way to tolerate you. The extent of that promise now feels uncertain.
My confidence that her story, and all the stories that came after it, still have a place here has been shaken. Not beyond repair, I should say. There are still many who see us not as a disruption, but as a logical outgrowth of everything this country has to offer. But my heart bursts, if only a little bit, with rage.
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The original version of this essay appeared on https://siddharthamahanta.wordpress.com. Siddhartha Mahanta is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C.