Stories from the Diaspora: So this is what being a ‘washerman’s dog’ feels like, huh? ~ by Ashwini Gangal

Dhobi ka Kutta
Dhobi ka Kutta
Ashwini Gangal
Ashwini Gangal

My first trip back to Mumbai after moving to California a year ago, helped me define the newfound plurality of my immigrant identity.

Just before I sat down to write this, a quasi-column on my thoughts about my first trip back to India after having spent a year away, I slathered Parachute coconut oil all over my parched face, the only efficacious remedy for the weird dryness of California. This sort of grease-fest in a humid place like Mumbai, my home for over three and a half decades, is unthinkable. 

“So, what’s it like living in America?” my friends and family kept asking me, after the mandatory opening comments on how much weight I’d gained since they last saw me around 12 months ago. And I didn’t know where to begin. The first trip back home is a lot of things. I hardly felt like Jasmine on a magic carpet singing “A whole new world” while struggling to adjust to life in the US. So when my flight touched the tarmac at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, I felt like I could finally breathe again. Then when I de-boarded, the shockingly high AQI hit me and I had a my first ‘NRI moment’.

Ashwini with her husband in Bay Area, California
Ashwini with her husband in Bay Area, California

Now, that acronym is more than just slang to berate “foreign returned” people who walk around with Bisleri bottles in India. It’s formal nomenclature used by the Indian banking system to classify Indians who have lived outside India for over six months of a given financial year. I’m a cross between a non-resident alien in America and a non-residential Indian back home. I am now officially a newly minted ‘dhobi ka kutta’.

While in Mumbai, I went to watch Rajkumar Hirani’s ‘Dunki’ at an overpriced PVR. The movie, as you may know, is about a bunch of visa-starved, small-town Punjabis, desperate enough to take the illegal and dangerous — aka ‘donkey’ — route to England, via Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. For me, the experience was cinematically underwhelming. But it really made me think about the way Indians — proverbially and literally, as is the case in the movie — die to go abroad. 

Dunki Movie
A still from movie: "Dunki" by Indian Director Rajkumar Hirani

Besides, unlike their counterparts from the previous generation, today youngsters in India are not envious of the friend or cousin who went abroad. In the era of social media memes — especially of the ‘what my friends think I’m doing versus what I’m actually doing’ kind — there’s really nowhere to hide. No one thinks I’m chilling on a yacht under the Golden Gate Bridge. Everyone knows I’m doing jhadu-pocha. Many in my circles think my life in California is a downgraded version of the one I had in Mumbai. To be fair, the desperation to leave has a lot to do with one’s class, caste, religion, education, level of oppression faced in society and in general, one’s station in life, professional and personal. For those keen to escape, dreams and wings await.

Ashini doing Jhaadu Pocha

Anyway, I’m not asking why we do it. The answer to that is obvious, long and complicated; there’s the whole “better education, more opportunities, amazing salary, corruption-free systems…” argument. This essay is not about those sorts of big, serious things. It’s more about the little things that add up and start making our whole lived experience in America feel like a desi version of the Faustian bargain. Partly to blame is our tendency to compare the worst of India with the best of the US — and when we feel homesick, vice versa. An example of the former is cursing the ridiculous traffic jams in any Indian metropolis during those three sleepless weeks we call our annual vacation. The latter would include missing the warmth of Indian hospitality while navigating a more detached form of social life in America; I can’t imagine ‘inviting myself’ to someone’s house here, oh no.

But not all comparisons are about declaring what’s better as much as they are about deciding what parts of the familiar we’re okay letting go of. And who knows this better than a journalist oscillating between the AP Stylebook and the Oxford comma? My feelings towards MM/DD/YYYY went from passionate frustration to detached amusement to quiet resignation. I’m sure healthy acceptance is around the corner. There are less stages involved in getting over a bad breakup.

It was months after brandishing my byline in Bay Area newspapers that I started typing ‘color’ without having to delete the ‘u’ and ‘organization’ without having to replace ’s’ with ‘z’. I still say “zed” and not “zee” though. And I still speak centigrade, so I picture the devil stirring hellfires every time someone says it’s 70 degrees. 

Author, Ashwini Gangal

One of the more entertaining aspects of the adjustment process has been making a list of out-of-sync words: match versus game, signal versus light, footpath versus sidewalk, dustbin versus trashcan, torch versus flashlight, lorry versus truck, petrol pump versus gas station, dickie and bonnet versus boot and hood, glasses versus spectacles, sunglasses versus goggles …although, I suspect the last two have more to do with me being a Marathi aji bai at heart than an Indian immigrant in the US. Anyway, I am sure negotiating with the American idiom is an ongoing process, one I may come to enjoy.

Of all the things that comprise my observations of the diaspora, usage of the phrase “back home” has been the most endearing. Not a day goes by without either saying it or hearing it. “Oh back home we drive on the other side of the road…”, “Most people speak at least three languages back home…”, “I’m going back home around November…” — those two words are all around us. The best part is, even people who’ve spent more than half their lives in the US, some of whom hold American passports, say “back home” in reference to India. It’s the latest addition to my vocabulary too.

It’s true that moving to the States today is not as extreme a decision as it was back in the ’80s, when Pankaj Udhas serenaded sons of the soil back to their motherland with his hit song ‘Chitthi Aayi Hai’ (Naam, 1986). In the age of WhatsApp and FaceTime, no one is sitting by the landline waiting for me to call.

But it’s also true that I feel like a bit of a hoodwinker each time I finish shopping for groceries in Sunnyvale, get behind the wheel and allow Google Maps to think it’s taking me home.

Okay, wrapping this up lest I grease my keyboard with coconut oil.

This article “So That’s What Being A Washerman’s Dog Feels Like” was first published on India Currents.

Ashwini Gangal Ashwini Gangal is a fiction writer based in San Francisco, who has published stories and poems in literary magazines in the UK and Croatia.



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