Illustration: Paul Aitchison
Illustration: Paul Aitchison


Does Vijay Prashad’s Uncle Swami do justice to the US ‘desi’ identity?

Weekends in our US suburb, the immigrant who lived next door would hunch on a rigid wooden chair in his garage and absently watch a 13-inch colour television whose thin antennae barely mustered the berserk picture on its screen. He would smoke upwards of a pack of cigarettes a day and down a case of Heineken deliberately, quietly, without apology. Beyond this, his only task those afternoons away from shifts at the ironworks was to mow the lawn, and he happily devoted a clattering hour or two each weekend to manicuring the grass around his wife's flower beds. In spite of what seemed his obvious affection for lawn care, whenever he would see me sent out by my father to mow our own lawn, he would offer a scrunched smile, untangle his Bavarian tongue, and call cheerfully in accented English, "When you finish, Jas, you come over and cut my grass too!" This became his recurring joke, and he had a variation of it no matter what the season. When I trudged out to corral the leaves of autumn, I would be greeted by the immigrant grinning and calling me over to clear his already tidy yard. In winter, when I would be sent to shovel snow from our driveway, he would already have tossed most of it from his own, but through the chiselling wind he would grin and shout, "When you finish, Jas, you come over and clean my driveway too!"

We'd befriended the immigrant and his family only a few months after moving into the house just north of Chicago. My mother would invite them all – the immigrant and his wife, her elderly aunt, and the grown son who lived with them – over for samosas, for stewed lamb, for dahl or aloo gobi. They would invite us over for steak fillets wrapped in bacon, for slaw, mashed potatoes and gravy, for pastries that should have been sold for dollars an ounce in a European bakery. Depending on which household was grilling burgers on a given summer day, meat patties wrapped in aluminium foil would be delivered in one direction or the other over the short chainlink fence between our gardens.

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Himal Southasian