The Foreigner

Illustration : Aastha Mittal

YOU ARE an immigrant. You turn on the radio one day and hear a woman’s voice, a voice that is marked by a foreign accent, except the surprise is that she is talking about sex, freely giving advice about orgasm. It is extraordinary, she sounds like Henry Kissinger, the only difference being that this is about making love, not war.

Her name is Dr Ruth. You listen to her on the small black radio in the privacy of your room. She offers advice to her male listeners. Even if they themselves have already climaxed, they can help their female partners achieve orgasm.

— You can just pleasure her.

You who speak in accented English haven’t heard that verb before; you take note of the language and of the lesson that it drags behind it, a shimmering tail of light that trails a pale translucent body that will harden, become succulent, when warmed in a pan.

— And for women out there, a man wants an orgasm. Big deal! Give him an orgasm, it takes two minutes!

What relief! For at least two reasons!

You discover details about her later. Dr Ruth grew up in an orphanage. Her parents perished at Auschwitz. She was so short but she fought in a war. She was a guerrilla in the Haganah. But in this country she is famous on radio, talking about masturbation and penises and vaginas. An extraordinary and busy life. She has been married thrice. Dr Ruth, Dr Ruth, what is your favourite position?

After I met Nina, I would buy magazines like Cosmopolitan from the supermarket if I saw stories with titles like “Ten Hottest Things You Can Say In Bed” or “Seventy Seven Sex Positions”. What did I learn from them? Nothing, nothing. It was like biting on air. I also bought Romance for Dummies. Dr Ruth encouraged you to make noise while having sex. She wrote: while you retain the right to remain silent, perhaps you could speak up a little before your final act. Even a four-letter word. She said you never know how you’ll react unless you give it a try at least one time. I cheered when I came inside Nina that first time, but noticed that she was silent, even thoughtful. I was cheating on Cai Yan and perhaps this was the reason for Nina being so quiet, but later that night she was affectionate with me, smiling at me, and this took away some of my foreboding.

IT WAS early March in Delhi, three days of spring. The year that I left India. We were in my room in the college dorm. An hour earlier, the daughter of the warden had walked past our window on her way to work, her hair still hanging damp on her lemon dupatta. We had quickly run to the end of the corridor to watch her open the little wooden gate on her way to the bus stop. Upon our return, the conversation in the room had meandered with desultory charm.

— 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.

Noni, a Sikh from Patiala, took off his turban and his hair fell over his shoulders.

— You bastards should just 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 her hand and put it on her breast.

He was a priest telling us the correct way to perform puja.

There was the usual silence that greets the utterance of grand truth. 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 a question.

— Has anyone slept with a friend’s mother?

— I have, Bheem said. He was smiling a soft, secret smile.

— Whose mother, Noni asked.

— Yours.

Illustration : Aastha Mittal

I am telling you this in Immigration Court, Your Honour, because I want to assert that I knew about sex, I spoke about sex, I discoursed about sex, prior to my arrival on these shores. I would have a constant conversation in my head with a judge who was asking me who I was before I came to this country and what I had become in the years I had spent here. Sisters and Brothers of America, Swami Vivekananda had said, in Chicago in 1893. He was speaking at the Parliament of the World’s Religions. I thank you in the name of the mother of religions, and I thank you in the name of millions and millions of Hindu people of all classes and sects. But that was a hundred years ago! I arise to thank the Immigration Court for giving me the chance to explain myself. I have chosen to speak in personal terms, the most intimate terms, Your Honour, because it seems to me that it is this crucial part of humanity that is denied to the immigrant. You look at a dark immigrant in that long line in JFK, the new clothes crumpled from the long flight, a ripe smell accompanying him, his eyes look haunted, and you wonder whether he can speak English. It is far from your thoughts and your assumptions to ask whether he has ever spoken soft phrases filled with yearning or, who knows, the dirty words that he utters in his wife’s ear as she laughs and touches him in bed. You look at him and think that he wants your job but not that he just wants to get laid. I thank you in the name of the dark hordes that have nothing to declare but their desire. Noni was my Dr Ruth. And then, 10 years after I left India, I was back once again and discovered one morning a sex advice column in Mumbai Mirror. My drycleaned clothes had been delivered in my hotelroom wrapped in newspaper. My eyes fell on the column.

— My girlfriend kissed the tip of my penis and the next day she suffered from a stomach ache. Could she be pregnant? Should she take some pills?

— She must have had dinner afterwards and that probably led to the stomach ache. Oral sex does not cause pregnancy and she need not take any pills.

— I am a 25-year-old man. Please tell me if regular masturbation can increase the size of one’s butt.

— Just as your nose, fingers and tongue will not increase in size, neither will the butt.

— When it comes to sex, my partner allows me to use only a finger for just a few seconds. Please tell me why. Also, when I hold my bowels for too long, my testicles swell and hurt. What could be the reason for this?

The good doctor, the Sexpert, had once again exercised a grim matter-of-factness, the humour in his eyes hidden under the thick glasses that I could see in his grainy photograph.

She is probably scared of your intentions — pregnancy or an infection. Why not ask her? And, do you mean ‘balls’? ‘Bowels’ refers to the intestines. Why would you want to hold them? Please explain.

I HAD enrolled in a film seminar. Nina was also taking that course. She had short-cropped hair, large brown eyes and full lips. Her movements were full of allure. Even when she was not moving, just sitting in the dark watching the films that were screened for us, I was always aware of the outline of her face. Sometimes, instead of keeping my eyes on the screen, I’d look at the light fluctuating on her face. One day, during a break in the screening of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon, I saw her at the water fountain. She raised her face, her mouth still wet.

— I wanted to ask you something, I said to her.

— You want to know whether I’m fertile?

She laughed and looked at me.

I laughed too but for a moment I didn’t know what to say.

— Is it possible that you are ovulating?

— As a matter of fact, I am.

She said this and walked away.

I saw her in the gym two days later and said hello. Nina asked me if I was going to watch the game that night. Which game? I didn’t know, but I said yes. At Sharkey’s, she asked. Sharkey’s? Yes, I said, but when I went there at seven, she wasn’t there. Next time I saw her in class, I said I looked for her at Sharkey’s. I looked for her here, I looked for her there, I looked for her everywhere. I was using what I considered my immigrant voice, which in my mind was a language like Turkish. Many years later, when I heard Orhan Pamuk being interviewed on the radio, I was surprised that he didn’t at all sound like me.

The following week, in the film class, we were discussing Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses. The professor, a small Frenchwoman whose face and neck would get covered in hives if you asked uncomfortable questions, had put the film on pause. An Italian girl was engaged in a long discussion with her about Japanese cinema; she had recently watched a film about a nuclear explosion on Mt Fuji. Nina was sitting in the chair next to me. I don’t know what possessed me but I passed a scrap of paper to her. On it I had written:

Wet moss between your thighs


Rains on Mount Fuji.

She surprised me by putting a small tongue out as if she was licking ice cream.

A semester ended, a new semester started. Nina and I enrolled in a class on documentary filmmaking.

The tale of my courtship is exhilarating and sordid, dear reader. We went to India together to shoot at a folk fair near my hometown in Bihar. I was unkind to the woman I was dating at that time, a Chinese classmate called Cai Yan; even I could see that Cai Yan was hurt, and after drifting away, she quickly decided it was over between us. She went to India, too, a few months after Nina and I had been there, to conduct research on Maoists. I find it depressing to talk about the events of those months. Maybe I can tell you about all that another day. Allow me to bury my shame and move on.

Illustration : Aastha Mittal

I WAS in love with Nina; but I was also angry that I was always waiting for her, to write to me or call me. An objective viewer might have thought I was obsessed with her. Who knows, maybe Nina thought that too, and decided to prolong my misery and make me suffer.

For several weeks that first summer, she was in a shack on the beach somewhere in Cape Cod. Her parents didn’t have a phone there; I waited for her letters. They came in envelopes that sometimes had pictures stuck on them and, once, a section of a map showing what could have been a field or a swamp. Inside were messages that just because they were addressed to me felt as real as food to me. I thought of food as crumbs that fed a hunger and left me famished. She would write: What I have to say about what you have called your situation is this. I want your constant hand on my back, your unwaged agricultural labour in the grassfields of my hometown, your dreams, your unimagined image. I want your back pressed into my front, your warm Brazil and shy Tierra del Fuegos. I want your cumspattered shirts and your baby, baby.

Another time she wrote: Today I’ve got something which I’ve never had before which is laryngitis, I can scarcely make a sound. Today I could whisper sweet filth in your ear, have you ever wanted to fuck a mute, honey?

I didn’t discuss this thought with her but later, while listening to a radio report about a wolf hunting sheep, an image came to me, of a wolf with its bite ravishing the sheep. And behind that image was surely this question, indeed this idea, which Nina had planted in my mind with her startling query: Have you ever wanted to fuck a mute, honey?


Your Honour, I have entered the body of America. I have spoken filth in the ear of one of your fair citizens when I was inside her. Your Honour, this was something new for me. She was hospitable in the extreme, meeting me with laughter. Her laughter alone saved me from my self-ridicule. Or what I imagined as the world’s ridicule. Your Honour, when I was on the phone with her I spoke in a high British accent, having stooped to using words used by Prince Charles in his conversation with Camilla Parker Bowles. (I was a boy in school when Charles kissed Diana on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. A decade was to pass before I read of his long, continuing affair with the aforementioned Parker Bowles who had approached him at a polo match with an unforgettable proposition: “My great-grandmother was the mistress of your great-grandfather — so how about it?”) Such has been my pathetic, unsentimental education! I have relied in my games of seduction on words plucked from the airwaves by a scanner and published by British tabloids for laughs.

— The trouble is I need you several times a week. Oh, God. I’ll just live inside your trousers or something. It would be much easier…

— (in a falsetto) What are you going to turn into, a pair of knickers?

— Or, God forbid, a Tampax.

— (shrieking) Oh, darling!

AMITAVA KUMAR’s latest book, A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb, received the Best Non-Fiction of 2010 Award from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.


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