To her credit, the name listed on her Tinder profile was her middle name, Anita. And to mine, Anita was every queer girl’s dream. She looked like she just walked out of an audition for Eliza Dushku’s part in Bring It On. Dark, deep eyes that I drowned in; lush, wavy hair that made me itch to run my hands through it; and an easy smile—or rather smirk—that cut as quickly as it enticed. She flashed it enough over the first few rounds at my local that I thought, Yeah, this is a vibe.
Our thighs touched purposefully under the bar as we talked about our loved ones. Hers were hippies; they ran away together on a backpacking trip to Asia from which they emerged spiritually reformed, and pregnant. Lo and behold the magnificent creature sitting before me: brilliant (law school), driven (specializing in immigration law), and genuinely curious about people who don’t look or sound like her (she asked why her palak paneer recipe was shit in such a heartbroken manner). I couldn’t focus on anything except kissing her, so what caught my attention next was not what she said but the demure and self-deprecating way she said it. “They, uh, they actually named me India,” she said to me with a blush I would have found delightful had it not been accompanied by those words. “I was dreading telling you ’cause, God, it’s truly terrible. I’m pretty sure I was conceived there.”
I can’t think of anything worse than knowing exactly when and where your parents fucked—expect maybe being reminded of it every time someone tries to get your attention. But sympathy isn’t what flooded my mind. Neither was empathy, though if anyone deserved it, it was Anita. As I sat there slack-jawed, she stumbled all over herself to reassure me that her parents are the only people who call her India and that she was truly embarrassed by the obvious (micro? macro? just right?) aggression that this naming represented. Of the many pitfalls of being a queer desi woman swiping through Tinder, I never expected to find myself getting trashed in a bar trying to forget that I was on a date with a white girl named India. I knew they existed out there in the post-Commonwealth world, especially one that worshipped pilgrimages to find oneself à la the Beatles or Elizabeth Gilbert. But it never occurred to me that I’d meet one in the wilds of Brooklyn. Though it certainly should have.
I swallowed a million questions with my next sip of mescal—questions not for Anita but for Anita’s parents. In what possible world is your connection to India deep enough for you to name your firstborn after the country? Did you live there for any extended period of time? Did you contribute in any measurable way to its economy, its society? Did you think about the dark and terrifying centuries of English rule that Indians only emancipated themselves from as recently as 1947? Did you consider how naming a white baby who embodies the platonic ideal of India’s colonizers would make actual Indian people feel?
For two white folks who claim to love India, it’s clear they never thought of it as more than a backdrop to their own story. The meandering path of Anita’s parents might not have been paved with money or ease in the way we think of Wes Anderson’s or Rudyard Kipling’s, but it is undoubtedly a relationship that took more from the culture than it gave. No child should be punished for the sins of the parent, and yet there was no possible way for me to hear her good Christian name as anything but.
After that I stopped thinking about kissing her. Anita was still brilliant and beautiful and charming as all hell; her thigh still pressed up against mine in the booth. But I retreated into my own head, my own glass, and my own worries. She was the second, maybe third, woman I had ever been on a date with and the first after I had been outed to my deeply religious mother. What was supposed to be an evening to help me forget that my life was falling apart had turned into a blatant reminder of that fact. I hadn’t spoken to my mother for more than a tense minute at a time in roughly two months.
Alerted by a fairly benign Facebook post promoting that I’d be a speaker at a queer Comic-Con panel, she called me in the middle of a workday. I leapt to answer because the only reason for off-hour calls from my family is to announce the death of a loved one halfway around the world. Granted they normally come in the middle of the night rather than the middle of the day, but still, fear gripped me. Skipping the hello, she cut straight to the point. “Why am I seeing a post on Facebook for a … queer event … that you’re tagged in?” The word “queer” sounded especially so coming from my mother’s mouth. It made me sick to hear it in the shaky tone I knew meant she was close to tears. First and foremost, I was furious that a woman I still consider the kindest person I know could show so much ignorance and fear about a group of people who had never done anything to wrong her. But in the silence between her question and my answer, it was shame that overwhelmed me.
My mother and I have always had a contentious, and fairly stereotypical, relationship. A deeply religious Indian mother, who never expected to leave the culture, customs, and city she had grown up in, she spent most of my childhood trying to protect me from being indoctrinated into Western ideals that, to her, screamed danger at every turn. No dating, no going out with my friends unless it was to a school-sanctioned event. I wasn’t even allowed to pick out my own clothes for school until I was 13. I spent a lot of time lying to her. I used to sneak clothes into my backpack to change into at school. I’d tell her I was at my best friend’s house when I was really just getting picked up from there by my illicit boyfriend. I was at a study group that met solely to dissect The Matrix Revolutions at the movies.
As a result, by the time I moved away to college, my mother and I had no real idea of who the other was. To me, she was simply the personification of overprotectiveness, someone who kept me from fully understanding and engaging in the world around me. To her, I was my father’s daughter: brash, loud, intelligent, and far too questioning of authority to lead myself into anything but destruction. We loved each other deeply, but we didn’t understand each other. When I was on my own in New York City, the burden of this barrier eased. I could filter my life for my parents, and while I presented anecdotes that cast me as in control of my life and making only good choices, all those anecdotes were still true. Their trust in me grew each time I conquered a new adult challenge. Steadily employed and also interning while acing a full course load? Check. Graduated with a job offer? Check. Found and paid for my first shared apartment in the city? Check. Successfully changed careers and landed at a prestigious media outlet? Check. Negotiated a significant pay raise? Check.
Somewhere along the line it felt like my parents had stopped waiting breathlessly for me to fail. I had a handle on things. My mother in particular seemed to have had a weight lifted off her shoulders. She could rest assured that she had raised me well, and despite all the fighting in my teenage years, I was headed in the right direction. America hadn’t corrupted me. Rather than use our phone conversations to grade my life progress, she started to talk to me in ways that implied she was simply interested in what I had to say. As she began to see me as a person, I began to see her as the same. And I began to realize that while I’ve always loved her, I also actually liked her as her own person, beyond her identity as my mother.
This is what I was thinking about in the seconds of silence that ticked by on the phone after she asked me about the Facebook notification. I had a choice here: I could lie, as I had done for most of my childhood, and tell her the panel was just a work thing, or I could just come out and be honest about this huge part of myself I had been struggling with as a grown-ass adult. I came out. She broke down in tears. For the first time in my entire life, she hung up the phone without saying “I love you.” Doing the right thing left me bereft. I felt unmoored, adrift, alone like I never had before. Later that night on the phone with my dad, he assured me that she’d come around, that she just didn’t have the context or understanding to think of my bisexuality right now. Months later, she would tell me she just knew it was something she did, or said, that must have made me this way. She was afraid that other people in our tiny, gossipy community would think she was a bad mother. My queerness was somehow her greatest failure.
It was the most devastating moment of my 26 years on this earth, that phone call. And yet there’s something perverse about the way I enjoyed the lightness of being hollowed out, because at least I had been honest, and despite the fact that I didn’t fully have the support of my loved ones, I was at least free to live my life. So I did. I drank, I dated, I fucked, and I enjoyed summer in the city—as long as I could repress the thought that perhaps I would have to learn to do all this without the support of my mother ever again. The moments when the thought of life without my mother overwhelmed me happened mostly in private, when I wasn’t surrounded by the unconditional love of my friends. I wasn’t expecting these feelings to well up in a bar next to someone who, on paper, was my dream girl. We were simply getting to know each other, but I had already skipped ahead eight months to meeting the parents and couldn’t picture anything but my dad apologizing for the fact that my mother wasn’t there.
There was no future here without my mother’s tolerance.
There was no future here without my mother’s tolerance. After another half hour of awkward first-date chatter, during which I was so distracted I asked her to repeat everything twice, Anita called it a night. It was a rare case in which we were both disappointed by how the evening went, and I knew that was solely my fault. As I expected, she generously extended an invitation to try the whole thing again when I had less on my mind. And like every asshole I’ve cussed out in the group text, I ghosted her. I fell into a deep depression that barely allowed me to get out of bed for work in the morning, forget about dating. In my darkest hours over the next several months, I questioned whether it had even been worth it to come out, seeing as marrying a man was still a definite possibility. My half life had been filled with things that make me happy, and I’d had the love of my mom. I thought maybe that should have been enough.
It would take repeated strained phone calls, months of therapy for both me and her, and the gentle urging of my dad before we were able to have an honest conversation again without screaming at each other. Minute by precious minute, my mother and I returned to our weekly half-hour kikis. Tension still lurked in each call, but after a while, thanks to support groups and therapy, she could bring herself to ask questions about my life again. Our implicit deal had become explicit: Be honest with me, and I promise to trust you to handle your own life no matter how much it scares me. I’ve never been prouder of her than when she tentatively asked me if I was seeing anyone. I was not, but I had been, so I offered up Anita as a noncontroversial anecdote that would not lead us into the territory of sex.
She mirrored my silence from our initial bombshell conversation. I held my breath and hoped she felt the weight of the small victories that had brought us to this unprecedented transparency.
She started to laugh.
“Kruthu … are you serious? A gora girl named India?”
Exhale. Rinse. Repeat. I delved into details, embellishing whenever I could in a hammy way that I learned from my dad to make her laugh. When we hung up that day, she was still chuckling at the antics of white folks, the great unifier of Brown people everywhere. But more important, she told me she loved me. And when I said it back, we both knew we meant it. We didn’t understand each other, but we wanted to try.
Excerpted from The Good Immigrant: 26 Writers Reflect on America. Copyright © 2019 edited by Nikesh Shukla and Chimene Suleyman. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.