I was a new immigrant, eager to shine, and if self-abuse were to be omitted from the reckoning, pure of body and heart. The letters I sent my parents in India were full of enthusiasm for the marvels of my new life. To those who welcomed me to America, I wanted to say, without even being asked, that E.T. ought to have won the Oscar over Gandhi. I had found the latter insufficiently authentic but more crucially I felt insufficiently authentic myself. Not so much fake as insubstantial. I understood that I needed a suitable narrative to present to the people I was meeting. There was only contempt in my heart for my fellow Indian students who repeated stories about trying to educate ignorant Americans in barbershops who had asked how come they spoke such good English or if they belonged to tribes or grew up among tigers. The nostalgia I had come to treasure was a hypertrophied sense of the past as a place, a place with street signs and a figure atop a staircase that I recognized. This desire had nothing to do with the kinds of claims to civilizational superiority that make men demolish places of worship or want to bomb cities into oblivion. I knew this and yet I was uncertain about my story. I lacked calm self-knowledge. If a woman spoke to me, particularly if she was attractive, I grew excited and talked too much.
I’m talking of what happened more than two decades ago; my first years here and my first loves. But the reality of my becoming who I am now, this evolution, as it were, goes back in time to the monkeys that surrounded me as an infant. This is my own, personal Origin of Species. The red-bottomed monkeys of my childhood would leave the branches of the big tamarind tree and peel the oranges left unattended on the balcony of Lotan Mamaji’s house. This was in Ara, in eastern India, in the late sixties. A war with Pakistan was over and another loomed in the future. Prime Minister Nehru had been dead only a few years. In the language of the history books, the nation was in turmoil.
Lotan Mamaji was my mother’s younger brother. A giant of a man, immense and bearded, paan tucked under one dark cheek like a secret that he didn’t want to share. One winter morning, while everyone on the balcony sat listening to the radio, following the cricket commentary from Eden Gardens, a monkey stole into Mamaji’s room. He climbed on the huge white bed and finding Mamaji’s pistol brandished it—they say—at my cousin who was born two months after me and still in her crib. No one moved. Then, turning the pistol around, the primate mind prompting the opposable thumb to grasp the trigger, the monkey blew his brains out. He was a medium-size young male. Bits of flesh, bone, hair, and gray matter had to be cleaned from the pictures of the long-dead family patriarchs hanging on the wall.
There were so many lies repeated in the family, so many half secrets, I don’t know why I never asked anyone if the monkey story was true. For a long time, it had been lodged in my mind as a baptismal tale that taught me the nature of fear, or maybe provided a lesson about fate. But then the past lost its authority and the meaning of the story changed. I had by then come out of my teen years. The main questions now were about the fiction of the past, the idea I had of myself as a person, and what it meant for me to become a writer.
For so many years, the idea of writing has meant recognizing and even addressing a division in my life: the gap between India, the land of my birth, and the United States, where I arrived as a young adult. If and when I imagine an audience for my writing, it is also a divided one. But the two places are connected, not only by those histories that cultural organizations celebrate through endlessly dull annual gatherings but by millions of individual yearnings, all those stories of consummated or thwarted desire.
Consider the monkeys in Ara, the Rhesus macaques. They were not just visitors to my maternal uncle’s home. They have a place in my imagination because they too were unheralded immigrants in America. A few years ago, I read in a newspaper report that the problem Delhi residents were having with monkeys went back to the early years of Indian independence, when thousands from that region were sent to America for scientific purposes. As many as twenty to fifty thousand monkeys were exported each year. A newly independent India was in need of foreign exchange. The Americans needed middle-aged male monkeys for their experiments. The result of the selective trapping, according to a primatologist interviewed for the report, was the disruption of the ecological balance. The disruption took place because the family unit was broken and the monkey groups entered a process of division that the primatologist termed chaotic fission.
But let’s take a step back from the political and enter the riskier domain of the personal. I want to focus on why monkeys came to mind when I started work on this book. I claim kinship with the monkeys of my childhood because of what I read in a magazine in 2010: Rhesus macaques, who normally are not self-aware, will, following brain surgery, examine their genitals in a mirror. Similar evidence of self-awareness was previously limited to higher primates, dolphins, magpies, and an elephant named Happy (“Findings,” Harper’s Magazine, December 2010, p. 84).
In America, the land of the free and home of the brave, it was possible, figuratively speaking, to discuss genitalia in public.* I discovered this when I turned on the radio one Tuesday night in my university apartment in Morningside Heights and heard a woman’s voice. A foreign accent, except the surprise was that she was talking about sex. She sounded like Henry Kissinger. Her name was Dr. Ruth. Unlike Kissinger, she wanted us to make love, not war.
In India, the only public mentions of sex were the advertisements painted on the walls that ran beside the railway tracks. I read the ads when I traveled from Patna to Delhi for college and was filled with anxiety about what awaited me when, at last, I would experience sex. On the brick walls near the tracks, large white letters in Hindi urged you to call a phone number if you suffered from premature ejaculation or erectile dysfunction or nightly emissions. A nation of silent sufferers! Men with worried brows holding their heads in their offices during the day and, back at home, lying miserably awake beside quiet and disappointed wives in the dark.“In America, the land of the free and home of the brave, it was possible, figuratively speaking, to discuss genitalia in public.”
But not in America, where Dr. Ruth was talking to you cheerfully on the airwaves. I had no accurate idea of what epiglottis and guttural really meant, but those words vibrated in my mind when I listened to Dr. Ruth. Her voice on the small black radio in the privacy of my room offering advice to the males among her audience. Even if they themselves had already climaxed, they could help their female partners achieve orgasm.
–You can just pleasure her.
I hadn’t heard that word used as a verb before. I also spoke in an accented English; I wondered if Dr. Ruth’s usage was correct.
–And for women out there, a man wants an orgasm. Big deal! Give him an orgasm, it takes two minutes!
Such relief. For more than one reason.
There were details about her that I discovered later. Dr. Ruth grew up in an orphanage. Her parents perished at Auschwitz. She was very short but had fought in a war. She was once a guerrilla in the Haganah, and now, in this country, she was famous for talking about masturbation and penises and vaginas on the radio. She was on her third marriage.
Listening to Dr. Ruth on the radio that Tuesday night in upper Manhattan I was transported in my mind back to a morning in Delhi earlier that year when we were enjoying three days of spring. The year I left, 1990. My friends were in my room in the college dorm. The daughter of the warden walked past the window on her way to work, her hair still hanging damp on her yellow dupatta. She was a postdoc in history and would become a lecturer soon. And then we were running to the end of the corridor to watch the warden’s daughter open the little wooden gate on her way to the bus stop. Her prepossessing calm, her very indifference to the existence of gawking others, was an incitement to collective lust. She was soon gone, and still excited but also somewhat let down, the group returned to my small room with its dirty, whitewashed walls.
–There is nothing purer than the love for your landlord’s daughter, said Bheem.
–No, said Santosh, after an appropriate pause. If you are looking for innocence, the purest gangajal, you have to be in love with your teacher’s wife.
As if to sort out the matter, we looked at Noni, a Sikh from Patiala. He was the only one among us who wasn’t a virgin.
Noni took off his turban and his long hair fell over his shoulders.
–You bastards should stop pretending. The only true love, true first love, is the love for your maidservant.
This was duly appreciated. But Noni was not done yet.
–She has to be older than you, though not by too much, and while it’s not necessary for you to have fucked her, it is important that she take your hand in hers and put it on her breast.
There was the usual silence that greets the utterance of grand truth. Three of us were sprawled next to each other on the bed, our heads pillowed against the wall. Dark, oily smudges behind us indicated where other heads had pressed in the past. Then someone started laughing.
–You are a bunch of pussies, Noni said, to dismiss the laughing. When you went back home during the winter, did any one of you get laid?
He smiled and announced his own success with another question.
–Has anyone slept with a friend’s mother?
–I have, Bheem said. He had light-colored eyes. He was smiling a soft, secret smile.
–Whose mother? Noni asked.
Noni was my Dr. Ruth before Dr. Ruth. My naïveté was the price of admission I paid for his tutorials. Noni had discovered that the medical definition of a kiss was the anatomical juxtaposition of two orbicularis oris muscles in a state of contraction. This made the unfamiliar even more unfamiliar. He told me that the word fuck was an acronym derived from for unlawful carnal knowledge; this terminology was itself a rewriting, Noni said, of the medieval rule to which fuck owed its origins, fornication under consent of the King. Noni was completely wrong; at that time, however, I marveled at his knowledge of sex.
Until I met Noni in Delhi, my familiarity with sex was limited to what I had learned from the censored movies screened on Saturdays in Patna. I’d be sitting with others in the dark, the air warm, the smell of sweat around me, and somewhere a cigarette being smoked. There were probably two hundred others in the theater, almost all men and most of them older than me. In the local paper the theater advertised itself as “air-cooled,” but what you breathed was the effluvia of restless groins being shifted in fixed seats that had coir stuffing poking out of torn imitation-leather covers. It was no doubt cooler in the apartment in Prague where the on-screen action was taking place. A middle-aged man had unclasped the hook on the bra that an impossibly young woman was wearing. She turned to face him, her breasts milk white, with pale pink drowsy nipples. There was a cut and a jump in the film there—the duo now in an open car on an empty road, driving under leafy trees, in bright sunlight.
But a child had started crying in the audience near me.
–Scene dikha, baccha ro raha hai, a man shouted from a further seat, wanting us to return to the bedroom. “Show a breast. Because if you don’t, the baby will cry.” The rough remark bewildering at that time, soon lost its confusing aspect: glinting like mica in a piece of granite, it sat for a while in the nostalgic narrative about my late teenage years.
*Bill Clinton on President Obama’s reelection: He’s luckier than a dog with two dicks. Of course, Bill Clinton deserves a footnote in any book on love. My writing notebook also has this quote in it: I—but you know, love can mean different things, too, Mr. Bittman. I have—there are a lot of women with whom I have never had any inappropriate conduct who are friends of mine, who will say from time to time, “I love you.” And I know that they don’t mean anything wrong by that.—Bill Clinton, testimony before grand jury
From Immigrant, Montana. Used with permission of Knopf. Copyright © 2018 by Amitava Kumar.