Missive from a Woman in a Room in a City in a Country in a World Not Her Own

“I know there’s no way I can convince you this is not one of their tricks. But I don’t care. I am me.”

—Alan Moore, “Valerie’s Letter,” V for Vendetta (1988)

I started writing this piece in a tiny room in what is possibly the cheapest apartment in Manhattan. I’ve been cooped up here for three months now. The last person who lived in this room only used it for sleeping, but ever since I moved in I’ve gone out fewer than ten times. The only reason I haven’t run out of breath yet is that I am tiny myself—a mere 4’11”, 80 lbs. All my life I have taken up very little space. I curl up and go to sleep on cramped bus or economy airplane seats in which I have to exist for nine/ten hours at a time. I get two full meals out of every portion at American restaurants. I am often invisible, even when I’m physically there. Still, I feel strangled every once in a while.

The thing is, I’m afraid and broke. And heartbroken. There is never any sunlight in my room, and all of winter I spent having Seasonal Affective Disorder and intermittent anxiety attacks. I am supposed to be writing a book—a thesis, stories that an editor back in India is still waiting for. I love writing this book. I started writing it in 2014. I put months of reading and primary research into it. I workshopped the stories at Clarion West and at the MFA where I’m still enrolled. I used to tell the unwritten, half-written stories to friends and strangers I met. But of late I have been reading my drafts again and again, and I just cannot immerse myself in the world I created. I can no longer build new things in it. I seem to have lost faith in the fact that such a world ever could exist.

Let me tell you about these stories. (I used to love telling people these stories!) They took place in a steampunk South Asia—the place where I come from—and they were something close to historical fantasy, except that the historical parts were usually different from what the official history of the region conveys. I was writing about histories and people that are excluded from the schoolbook version of history, in a way that even my Indian friends sometimes couldn’t tell where the history ended and fantasy began. And all the stories were, perhaps somewhat repetitively, about people getting along. When a character met another character unlike anyone they’d known before, they started from a place of suspicion and stereotyping, but always, with shared experiences, moved towards reconciliation, even friendship. Characters let other characters be who or what they were. Characters evolved and became free-er of stereotypes with each other.

All writers have some repetitive themes in their fiction. It displays the vision of the world in which they truly believe. That was mine. As each day rolls by, that vision gets harder and harder for me to access.

This essay is not just about my half-written fictional world. It is about me. I no longer know what to do with myself.

I sometimes joke with my friends (but it is only a half-joke) that I’m a living-breathing minority-scholarship application. The first time I learned the word “intersectionality” I had laughed, because laughter was the only way my brain could process the entirety of that idea. I never manage to write a successful essay about being a minority, because I always have to pick one or two of my affiliations, and drop the rest for the time being. Even writing about being a minority is an act of fitting in, because I just belong to too many, and intersectionality can only achieve so much. Every time I express solidarity for one intersection minority group or another—South Asians in the United States, Dalits in India, queer women of colour—I am standing with a lot of people who would oppress me and others like me (and have done so) in another dimension that they do not share.

I have never written about being female and being queer and being brown in a white-majority country and being Dalit and having an abusive childhood and my physical illnesses and struggling with depression: put all those together and I’m the super-intersectional minority of one.

My Anglophone fantasy-reading taught me that in the Middle Ages, they used to bury witches at crossroads. If you need two roads to intersect to keep down one basic witch, I wonder what level of witch that makes me.

But I’m also the least abrasive person you’ll ever meet. I’m small and polite. I have always shared my toys, my candy, my class notes, my couch, my time, empathy, humour, advice, contacts—any time in life I had those things and someone asked for them. I always dress “for the occasion.” My voice is so low that I have to be asked to speak up, even sometimes with a microphone. I don’t remember the last time I physically hit or screamed at anyone.

And yet, more and more, I find myself turning into an offensive, embarrassing, depressing person to know.

It took me a long time to realize that, sometimes, your mere existence is an offence.

And what do you do with yourself, then?

When I was in Class V or VI, back in Calcutta, I scored 100 out of 100 marks in the school maths examination, and in celebration my father bought me a Sony Walkman. Sitting in this squalid room in Manhattan, more than a decade and a half later, my mind keeps reverting to that shiny silver slab of awesomeness. I have gadgets now that are slimmer, shinier, and perform more tasks, but I have never been so completely happy, so excited about the possibilities of the world, all of them waiting for me to reach out and grasp them. That Walkman made me feel as if I was winning.

I was an academically bright child in a school in Calcutta, and back then, that was all it took to win. Or to believe that you were going to.

You see, for a super-intersectional minority person, I had a completely “normal” childhood. And more and more I realize that I was an anomaly; that place and those times were an anomaly, that there is hardly any phase in history in which people who are so completely, unquestionably minority as me—people with zero affiliation with any group of power at all—have been allowed to live with dignity and without fear.

For the majority, India is a rabidly casteist, religiously intolerant, misogynist, homophobic country, and over the past couple of years, it has pendulumed into the worst of its intolerant right-wing swing. Professors and students of liberal English departments—the kind of English department where I studied—are being dragged out into the streets and beaten up by strongmen supported, if not directly recruited, by the government. Progressive, Westernized women—the kind of woman I am—are being sexually abused without mercy or the fear of justice. In the smaller towns and villages, Dalits are being physically abused, raped, lynched, their bodies left in the public for display—and these are the people whose castes I share. A doctoral student of my caste at a prestigious state university committed suicide in January last year, and another at a different prestigious state university hanged himself a couple of weeks ago, in March. In both cases, the government wrote them off as “psychologically disturbed” young men who had never faced any oppression. (His name was Rohith Vemula; his name was J. Muthukrishnan—let me never forget or stop repeating, even if I can do little else.)

I am afraid to go back to India now, just as afraid, if not more, than I am to be in the United States.

Especially because, when I was a child, my parents didn’t teach me to be a minority. The mid-to-late 1990s, when I grew up, was one of the relatively less brutal phases in the recent history of the world. It’s not that oppression and biases did not exist; it’s not that the decade did not witness war in Iraq or the Babri Masjid demolition in India; but at least there was a general thrust toward a more liberal, more equal world in public conversation. The people who held biases did not get on stage nakedly proclaiming those biases to the support of millions of followers; they tried to mask or justify their biases as other interests. There was no “alt-right.” Police officers in India did not go on record saying the women who got raped in public places late at night got what was coming for them for being sluts like that. People with proven criminal records did not get elected to public offices, not despite but actually because of having committed those crimes, because their supporters no longer even bothered to pretend that they did not wish death or worse to the people they did not care for.

Charmed by that short-lived spurt of liberalism, my ordinary, middle-class parents in India felt they could get away with not teaching their children why they might be considered inferior to some other children around them, because maybe by the time we grew up, no one but a few redundant, regressive people would still hold on to those divisions. My parents taught me that people were essentially good at heart, and if I treated them with generosity and respect, I would receive the same in return. That had not been their own experience in life, but they taught me to believe it nevertheless, with the naïve faith that the world would keep getting better for people like us. Moderately educated people with only a limited grasp of the relationship (and distance) between signifier and signified, my parents knew only one meaning of “progress”—it did not occur to them the linear progress of time was not intrinsically the same as social progress, and would not always be. They did not ponder the fact history is often circular; that we were living in a tiny oasis of safety and privilege, a bubble, an anomaly, and the rest of the world and the future were something else altogether.

I was the only one among my friends who had a Walkman for a while, and it felt correct, because I was the only one of them who had scored 100 out of 100 in maths.

Why does anyone immigrate? Why leave the place where you were born and brought up, whose language(s) you speak, whose roads you know, whose history is in your blood, whose climate your body is accustomed to, whose food brings you comfort? Why wrench yourself away from parents, family, friends, loved ones to start all over again at a far-away place where you will always stand out as different, secondary, at a place that doesn’t even want you?

Is it because we are greedy? Really, what does that even mean?

I have certainly never fantasized about lurking in a tomblike room for months, debating whether to stab myself with a pen while it snowed for days outside. I have never been excited about applying for jobs far below my skill level, and getting rejected from even those, because an immigrant is only hired if there is no citizen available to do the same job at the same compensation. I have never dreamed about rationing my meals from gnawing, unbearable hunger and to the next gnawing, unbearable hunger, instead of eating four daily meals like the average person. (This, and I’m not even an illegal immigrant. Not even an unskilled immigrant. Not even an immigrant who can’t speak the host country’s language or understand its culture.) Why do we tear our hearts out, swallow our pride, risk bullets, strip searches, evictions, and discrimination at every step in life, to come to these countries?

Because sometimes it’s even more unsustainable to keep living where we were born. Because we did not choose the places where we were born, and we certainly did not choose to be unwelcome in those places. I continue to be heart-wrenchingly attached to India—the kind of tortured love that wakes you up in the middle of the night in a tomblike room at the other side of the world, sobbing into your pillow—but the India I know and love feels like it belongs to a parallel dimension. The history and essence of India are being vigorously rewritten, so I no longer recognize even the part of the past that I was actually alive to experience.

These days, I feel more and more like I was plunged through a portal into a parallel dimension, and the portal has closed behind me. I’m in 2017, but it’s a different 2017 than it should’ve been in a linear progression from my past, and now the past also turns out to be something else. I get anxiety attacks when I listen to the speeches of the current US president or the Indian prime minister, because… nothing in them computes. When was India an upper-caste Hindu nation? What period does the “again” in the make-America-great project refer to? Do all these people—all these millions of people who democratically vote these leaders and their visions to victory—really belong to the same dimension as me?

I’m an immigrant in America, sure, but I also feel like an immigrant in India. I feel like an immigrant to this version of history altogether. In this version of history, someone who is female, queer, dark-skinned, Dalit, neuro-diverse cannot also be smart, well-educated, imaginative, reliable, worthy of respect, trust or love—and yet here I am, still trying to stake my claim to all those things, so surely I must be a piece of fiction, right?

This is where my attempt to write historical fantasy breaks down, because to spin off history is to depart from a reference point, assuming that the reference point is static. Or, let me try again: to write historical fantasy is to overwrite history with your imagination, and the writer themselves are a static point in the equation—the writer is unquestionably real. How do you write historical fantasy when history itself is overwriting you, when you yourself are no longer a part of history, when your own existence is the speculative element in the narrative? Someone matching everything Mimi Mondal claims to be could possibly exist in a parallel world where events and society unfolded differently, but in the present timeline this person clearly cannot exist. She’s not a demographic. She doesn’t belong to a number. She’s not entirely representative of any community. She’s an exception to rules that aren’t allowed to have exceptions. The only way she could exist in this reality is if you assume that some of the identities/adjectives she claims for herself are lies.

This piece I am writing is a generic anomaly in its own—it’s a nonfiction essay commissioned by a speculative fiction magazine. This publication does not require references, which is the only way this piece can exist, because a lot of things I wrote about cannot be referenced. (My parents forgot to take out a Scheduled Caste certificate for me, so in India I cannot “officially” claim to be Dalit, even though I receive all the discriminations. I don’t take psychiatric medication, so my depression and suicidal urges aren’t officially documented either. My last few romantic relationships have all been with cisgender men, so my queerness is open to challenge. I haven’t published an entire book yet, so some people even refuse to acknowledge that I’m a “real” writer. I have no data or rubric to support my claim that the 1990s were a happier or more moral decade than today.) You can read this piece as nonfiction but you can also read it as fantasy, and with every passing day, it will probably become less of the former and more of the latter. Maybe, in the distant future, speculative fiction magazines will be the only places where people like me will be found. For that, if not for anything else, I am glad that they exist.

Mimi Mondal

Mimi Mondal was born and raised in Calcutta, India. In various incarnations, she has been an editor with Penguin India, a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of Stirling, Scotland, and an Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholar at the Clarion West Writing Workshop 2015. Her stories, poetry and social commentary have appeared in The Book Smugglers, Daily Science Fiction, Podcastle, Scroll.in, Muse India, Kindle Magazine, and elsewhere. She is the co-editor of Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler, forthcoming in June 2017 from Twelfth Planet Press. Her first collection of stories is also forthcoming in India from Juggernaut Books. Mimi almost always enjoys the company of monsters.

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