Border crossing, migrations, and desire are deeply interconnected. Using a Desi historiography, I trace the entanglement of migration and desire, examining both what is made possible through geopolitical, emotional, and ideological border crossings and what lies in the wreckage of certain crossings. Using the trope of fish doodles, I trace the intractability of desire and highlight how the distortions inherent in migratory experience shatter illusions and innocence, creating a sense of betrayal yet failing to mitigate desire. Drawing on a South Asian sensibility of communal and national insider and outsider positions, I explore the complicated terrain of Desi transnational existence.
It is the late 1980s. Newly arrived in Canada from India, I am 14 years old. My school has some students like me—kids who migrated from many parts of the world. There are also students who look like me, but were actually born in Canada. Mostly, though, it is full of big, tall white boys and girls. To my surprise, I quickly became quite popular with the boys at school.
Until my arrival in Canada, I'd never spoken to a boy. Not unless you count bus conductors, rickshawallahs,1 taxiwallahs, hawkers, or shopkeepers—I didn't. My knowledge of boys and romance came entirely from Hindi movies, like the ones I'd watch with Maa on Saturday afternoons. From these, I knew that if a boy talks to a girl in a school or college environment, the purpose is always romantic: to win her over, go on picturesque dates, and eventually marry, against all odds, including possible family incompatibilities. But sometimes there are plot twists, like in the Hindi film Qyamat se Qyamat Tak where the couple dies in the end, Romeo and Juliet style, because their families do not support their union. When there were love triangles, like in the movie Sagaar, Kamal Hassan died in the end, because Dimple Kapadia loved Rishi Kapoor and not him. What would be the point of Kamal Hassan's life if he couldn't be with his love? It's much simpler for him to be killed off and out of the way so that true love could take its course.
If love triangles are complicated and deadly, you can imagine my despair at finding myself suddenly embroiled in a love pentagon—maybe even a hexagon! According to the Hindi movies, I have at least five boyfriends. Some are white, and the others are Canadian-born Indians or Pakistanis. I know they are my boyfriends because they talk to me almost every day asking for help with their homework in various subjects: chemistry, algebra, biology, trigonometry. We talk for hours. They give me their phone numbers and sometimes call me at home. Some nights I talk to three or four guys for hours, helping them with their homework.
Today Mr. Fink, our biology teacher, ends our class early. Navraj looks at me and asks, “Wanna go to the caf?” I pretend to be carefree, like Juhi Chawla, and say, “Sure.” Navraj Gill is my favorite potential future boyfriend. He is a tall, lean, lanky Punjabi guy who wants to do our biology homework together. We are lab partners, too. Navraj is on the football team, president of the student council; in short, he is popular.
Inside, I burst with joy but remind myself that I will not kiss him. Not until we are engaged at least. I stop to go to the bathroom and tell Nav (yes, he is now Nav to me; we are getting closer, after all) that I will meet him in the cafeteria. The back of my neon green sweater is a bit moist from my nervous sweat as if I am preparing to argue for our love in front of our parents, because they found out that Nav and I were in the cafeteria alone, without supervision, while everyone else was in class.
I adjust the shoulder pads in my sweater and straighten my posture. I wonder if Nav appreciates my new acid-washed jeans, having picked up the fashion trends quickly despite my fresh-off-the-boat (FOB)2 status. I imagine Nav will be my hero, and fight for me too, if my parents forbid me to meet him. Like Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing, he will tell them, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” Then he will pull me from the dark corner where I was hidden from public view, pick me up as if I was light as a feather, and we would break out in a spontaneously synchronized dance and wow everyone. My parents would surely, eventually, come around.
I pat my sweaty forehead with a damp paper towel, reapply my pink lipstick, and fiddle with my voluminous permed hair. Like in the movies, I smile at myself in the mirror and say, “You're so fashionable. How could Nav resist you?”
When I get to the cafeteria, Nav waves at me. It takes everything in my power not to run to him in slow motion to the sound of swelling orchestral music in my head. When I sit beside him, our bodies touch lightly for a minute before I move an inch away. That's what proper girls do.
“Have you thought of where you want to go to university?” Nav asks.
“Yes, sort of.” I have no idea how universities work in Canada, but I try not to sound uncool. “Where would you like to go?” I quickly redirect the question.
“I am thinking U of T,”3 Nav says.
“Yes, me too. What do you want to study?”
“I want to be a doctor. My parents would like that.”
“Yes, me too.” We have so much in common!
“Well, you'd make a great doctor.” Nav smiles as he continues, “Look how smart you are. I wouldn't have made it through biology if it weren't for you.”
My heart melts. I am definitely his partner, helping him fulfill his dreams. I know it. He knows it.
“Oh, it's nothing,” I say shyly. “You'd do the same for me, I'm sure.”
“Only if I was as smart as you,” Nav says, patting my arm lightly. It's as if I am his wife already. Okay, maybe not wife, but girlfriend … or at least his soon-to-be girlfriend, but I'm definitely a girl-crush. I'm certain of it.
“Don't look at his lips, Kakali. Don't you dare look at his lips,” I remind myself silently. I panic, thinking that Navraj Gill, the football player, the student council president, might lean in to kiss me. He does not. Phew! Crisis averted. I am still cool. I didn't embarrass myself during talk of our future dreams.
That night, pretending to do my homework, using my fancy micro-tipped colored pens, I write “Kakali Gill” in all my notebooks, except for my biology notebook. I can't take the chance that he'll see my romance-filled name when I sit next to him in biology class. Instead, I write my first name and draw a fish next to it to symbolize Gill. There are big fish, little fish, fat fish, skinny fish in all colors—blue, red, purple, pink, black, and green. I've turned my notebook into an aquarium in honor of our impending matrimony.
I've decided that since we'll both study to be doctors, our parents will eventually come around. We don't have to die tragically for our love. I imagine we will live in one of those castle-like houses in Mississauga, leading a perfect life. We will have smart children, and go on family trips to the Marineland amusement park.
But then there are also Kamal Syed, Neil Hartley, Andrew Suri, and Shobhodeep, who goes by just Deep. He is not all that deep, though. They all talk to me. I like them all. Each has his own charms and attractions. Whoever I choose, I have to consider the risk of breaking the hearts of the others. Why have I been cursed with being so popular? I decide to be patient and wait until the school dance to choose.
On the day of the dance, I wear the extra-nice blue silk dress with a giant bow that I got from Square One Mall. I apply blue and green eye shadow in rainbow strokes all the way to my eyebrows, because it was on sale, “Two for one,” at Shoppers Drug Mart and the lady behind the counter said, “It would look really good on your skin.” Maa drives me to the dance and reminds me to call her by 10:30 p.m. for a ride home.
I am 30 minutes late so that my potential boyfriends will long for my arrival. I enter the dark auditorium with a flickering disco ball overhead. At the back of the hall on a long rectangular table is a large bowl with a red drink. They call it “punch.” Why, I don't know. How can a drink punch anyone? Around the table are the newly arrived immigrants, who I am friends with. No one is dancing with them, so they are busying themselves with pouring red punch into clear plastic glasses.
To free myself from my love hexagon, I search for my potential boyfriends to say hello, maybe run into their arms, or slow dance the way Canadians do—which is not dancing at all, just two people hugging and swaying together. I am shocked to see that every one of my potential boyfriends is with another girl. Betrayal! Deep is with Noreen. Kamal is dancing with a girl whose name I don't know. In the back corner I see Andrew hugging some girl while her back is pushed against the wall. Neil has a girl sitting on his lap. And Navraj—my Nav—is slowly swaying with his arms around Sobia!
How is this possible? Suddenly, instead of worrying about risking the lives of my rejected lovers, I'm the rejected one—five times over! By Hindi movie logic, I am certainly fated to die tragically, and probably soon. I stand in a corner, behind a table, trying to figure out my next move.
As the song ends, Nav and Sobia sit at a table in front of me, without seeing me. I can clearly hear their conversation. Sobia asks, “Kakali is just your tutor?”
“Yes, Janu. What else would she be?”
“Well, you spend a lot of time with her,” Sobia says.
“For homework only. I have to get my grades up for uni admission and med school. I have nothing else to do with that FOB.” Each word feels like a nail in my heart. Still not noticing me, Nav puts his arm around Sobia and continues, “Have you seen how she dresses? My God, someone should pull her aside and tell her that she is an entire circus by herself. Total freak show. I only talk to her in class, or privately, so no one sees me with her.” Nav leans over and kisses Sobia.
Sobia nods and seems pleased. “I don't get her accent. I'm embarrassed to talk to her in front of the goras.4 I ignore her most of the time, so they don't think I am like her in any way.”
“Good girl.” Nav pats Sobia's back.
I want to run away and hide, but Kamal sees me just at that moment. He comes up and introduces me to his girlfriend. Nav and Sobia turn around.
“Oh, hi Kakali,” Nav says, like nothing happened. He introduces Sobia to me as his girlfriend.
“Pleased to meet you.” I mutter, but I am not pleased at all. I am hurt, confused, angry, and crushed, and I could die any moment. But all of this seems lost on my would-be suitors. One by one, each of my not-boyfriends sees me, smiles, and waves. A couple try to engage me in small talk: “Kakali, how are you? Good to see you. Are you with someone, or did you come on your own?”
I do everything I can not to burst into tears. I rush from the auditorium and lock myself in the phone booth outside. It is only 8:30 p.m. I cannot call Maa yet, especially not after I told her tales of my popularity with the boys, so I could warm her up for my eventual marriage to Navraj. How will I explain to her that she will never have any Punjabi-Bengali grandkids from our union, in spite of her prejudice against us?
I hear people coming my way. I panic and to save what little dignity I have left, I quickly dial the number on the front page of the phone book for 24-hour weather updates so it would look like I am talking to someone on the phone. When my peers pass me by to go to the bathroom, I pretend to have a conversation:
me: Yes, of course, I would love it.
weatherchannel: Monday, Considerable cloudiness with occasional rain showers. High 13 degrees Celsius. Winds northwest at 15 to 25 kilometers per hour. Chance of rain 50 percent.
me: Fantastic. I am happy to hear it.
By about 9:00 p.m., I cannot carry on anymore. I call Maa and ask her to please come pick me up. She comes within 15 minutes.
“How was it?” Maa asks.
“It was okay,” I say quietly, unable to hide the heartbreak in my voice.
“Be patient. It will take some time to adjust to this culture,” Maa says. I turn and look through the window, at the passing city lights, as if they could soothe me, but the tears come rolling down anyway.
Weeks later, I'm still seated next to Nav in biology. I'm stuck beside him for the whole semester. I try to act like everything is fine. Of course, I knew I was just his tutor, and there was nothing more than that between us.
While Mr. Fink is diagramming DNA and nucleotides on the chalkboard, Nav leans over and asks, “What's the deal with all the fish doodles in your notebook?”
I shrug it off, replying, “Oh, I was just bored.”
To this day, of all my doodles, my fish doodles are still the best.
A-DESHI, B-DESHI MIGRATIONS AND DISTORTIONS
Desh (in Bangla) and Des (in Hindi) refer to one's homeland. Over the years, the term Desi has been coined to identify people whose heritage is connected to any of several South Asian countries, including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and the Maldives.5 In Bangla, my native language, Bideshi (pronounced B-Deshi) refers to someone who is not of the Desh, the homeland. Bideshi, then, is a foreigner. Conversely, the term Adeshi (pronounced A-Deshi) refers to a person with Desi heritage. To inquire about an individual's identity, one might ask, “Adeshi or Bideshi?” (a fellow native or foreigner)?
In this essay, I play with the migratory effects and distortions surrounding the notions of A-Deshi and B-Deshi using the trope of a fish doodle. I write these words with hyphens not only because of their pronunciation, but also to indicate movement, shuttling, being both here and there, belonging and not belonging to a land, moving between cultural identification, assimilation, exile, and distortion.
A hierarchical relationship characterizes the designations A-Deshi and B-Deshi, with A-Deshi as the desired form of identity and B-Deshi as the Other. The letters A and B, in our anglo-cultural training, also reinforce such a preference. Yet the narrative I presented blurs and distorts the orientation to and sensibility of these terms. In this narrative, the original migration and border crossing is geopolitical, yet it also occurs across the complicated terrain of A-Deshi and B-Deshi.
Upon entering Canada, I was neither A-Deshi with white Canadians nor with my Canadian-born Desi peers—at least not from their perspective, identifying as Canadians who happened to be Desi. This is a coping mechanism common among minoritized groups, who assimilate in hopes of mitigating the harm they might suffer as Others. Thus, I was B-Deshi (foreigner) to both my Desi and non-Desi peers, undesirable due to my fresh-off-the-boat status. The expectations I carried to Canada along with my two suitcases felt like a weighty burden that, when enacted, delivered a heavy blow. I expected intimacies to form with Desi peers in my school, given the time we spent together and my misguided notions of romance. When these expectations revealed the illusions of my desire, I felt betrayed, and the new narrative that emerged forced me to leave behind some of my innocence. This enacted expectation felt painful, paralyzing me into a tearful conversation with an automated recording in a phone booth, placing me in a sort of exile from my environment and peers. This exile felt like punishment for my ignorance of how I was being translated and how I translated A-Deshi/B-Deshi sensibilities.
These migratory possibilities and distortions created a sense of vulnerability, of being in an unknown space without understanding the rules of engagement. Discovering my differences from my Desi peers in a B-Deshi6 country was shocking. It was akin to discovering a long-held secret: that my country, my heritage, and my desirability are constructed in the B-Deshi (read: white) imagination by my Desi peers, who themselves experience B-Deshi oppression. Perhaps this oppression leads them to seek assimilation to whiteness so as to be barely recognizable as Desis, and thereby enjoy a version of A-Deshi (native) status in Canada. Perhaps my Desi peers wanted to engage in A-Deshi status recognition with their white peers, to avoid facing the discrimination and Othering confronting B-Deshis in predominantly white spaces in southern Ontario. I imagine my Desi peers witnessed such harm enacted toward their parents and wanted something different/better for themselves. Besides, what teenager does not want to fit in? Yet, that night at the school dance, I caught a glimpse of these rules of engagement. I discovered that survival in the migratory land required either a full-blown attempt to approximate the B-Deshi (read: white) culture to camouflage our A-Deshi identity, or resignation to the status of Other in a foreign land.
My geopolitical migration, and the consequent dislocation caused by shifting A-Deshi and B-Deshi sensibilities, distorted how I made sense of my roots and routes. On the one hand, I was naive and heteronormative in my understanding of gendered relations. I thought I had migrated into popularity with my high school peers, but I was unaware of the boundaries around my role as a tutor and nothing more. I had no access to any other space, and therefore any sense of migrating into spaces of acceptance with people who looked like me was purely illusory and eventually shattered. In some ways love triangles (or hexagons) did cause a death (or metamorphosis) of a version of myself.
On the other hand, I was also uninformed as to why my romantic desirability was minimized. I eventually learned that such minimization came from the B-Deshi gaze on me, from my Desi and non-Desi peers who dismissed me as fresh-off-the-boat, and therefore backward and uncool. This severity of migratory distortion and displacement became indelibly etched on my consciousness.
How could I want to be considered similar to B-Deshis, when I was considered a B-Deshi by my white peers and an embarrassing Other by my Desi peers? My desire to be anything other than who I was implied an inadequacy, a need to traverse the restrictive borders drawn around me to enter a space that never really offered acceptance, resonance, and/or community. In waiting for that border crossing (which never happened), I migrated to some other (third) liminal space without any understanding of the rules of engagement, prompting my performative act of a fake phone call to the Weather Channel.
That fake conversation was both a negotiation of a felt betrayal and death of an illusion to metamorphose into a different version of me who needed to accept that it was unlikely that she would ever achieve A-Deshi status with her Desi or B-Deshi peers. It marked the recognition that I might forever be exiled to a liminal third space or other unknown spaces. It captured my acknowledgment that perhaps, with some good fortune, I would find the only entry point possible for me: one of service, of helping with homework and thereby using my labor to support my Desi and B-Deshi contemporaries in achieving their desires without any access to my own imagined, desired space of acceptance.
I term this migratory tracing—with all its epic desires, undulations, un/groupings, isolations, oppressions, and imaginations—Desi historiography. Those who identify as Desis tell ourselves and each other stories of our border crossings: geopolitical, emotional, spiritual, psychological, linguistic, and ideological. We speak of where we were and where we are now, the gains and losses of these journeys, and who we have become as a result of such movements.
These stories create a disorderly historical arc, without elegant synthesizing of data, narratives, or events, with which we must contend daily. If we are ever to make peace with this messy arc, on a good day we might notice that amid the wreckage of our expectations, among the ruins of betrayals, shattered illusions, and cultural erasures, the resiliency of our desires remains alive.
This Desi historiography is one of a failed romance. I wanted someone romantically. I found people who appeared to be offering me romance. They fit the narrative I carried with me across time, distance, and oceans. I attached myself to this desire and carried it with me, after watching it play out repeatedly in Hindi movie scenes. I told myself that building relationships with my Desi and B-Deshi peers would give me what I wanted.
And then, one day, I realized I was wrong. The relationships did not give me what I wanted. I remained in deficit, my desires unfulfilled. My failure did not produce any consequent actions to mitigate my feelings of loss and betrayal. My peers did not recognize the betrayal or the breach of innocence. They did not inspire my peers to rush to correct my interpretation or build closeness. And I lacked the skills, polish, and access to develop proximity to my Desi and B-Deshi peers. Yet part of me still nourished the desire, storing it in the back of my mind, like placing one earring for safekeeping in a jewelry box, hoping one day to find its missing mate.
I stare at the intricate fish doodle I created at our last three-hour-long department meeting at my university. For decades, this doodled fish has migrated with me, crossing borders of time, dreams, memories, distance, and desires. Teenage years are easily marked as time of metamorphosis, crushing innocence under the heavy cleat of character development. The fish doodle has now become a tracing device of my Desi historiography upon which I map the ways the intractability of my desires showed up as I crossed geopolitical, emotional, spiritual, psychological, linguistic, and ideological borders. Being desperate to preserve some dignity while accepting the death of a former version of myself who imagined a nonexistent popularity, I participated in a performative fake conversation standing amidst the wreckage of my shattered illusion. Now, decades later, I mourn for the girl-child whose innocence was breached, whose Brownness was not good enough for cultural insiders or outsiders, and whose sadness was mapped onto the dots, curves, and patterns in fish doodles. The fish doodles are not performative, nor would they have any meaning for anyone else, other than just a picture to look at. But for me, the doodles take me back to those nights when I happily drew them in my biology notebook and the nights later, when they instinctively emerged out of my pen, as a haunted memory. And with the death (metamorphosis) of the version of me who believed in an illusion, the fish doodling today allows me to hold on to an innocence, despite its displaced, distorted, and dislocated characteristics.
Patterns of my migration, embedded in the fish doodle, remind me to feel something, to recalibrate my fantasies, desires, to reimagine new proposals, and to keep a promise to the girl-child I left behind in the dance hall—that I will never let the sheer force of my desire or metamorphosis incite me into fake performativity, but rather incentivize a need for embracing the messy, raw vulnerability of pain that change brings forward. This promise implies being in exile and lacking access to desired spaces.
Perhaps the B-Deshi culture rewarded my Desi peers for their assimilationist moves. They gained access to spaces I could not enter: the football team, cheerleading squad, student council, and, of course, the cool kids’ parties. When an FOB like me came along, scandalizing their coolness through my craving to be wanted, my Desi peers had a vested interest in regarding me as an embarrassing Other, unlike them, a B-Deshi (read: cultural outsider) of the most uncivilized, unaware, and undesired kind.
This is how xenophobia, the internalization of dominant colonizing narratives, breeds. We begin to believe the B-Deshi narratives about ourselves and discipline each other when we fail to approximate B-Deshi ways of being and knowing. We stash away those parts of ourselves connected to our roots, labeling them undesirable or unacceptable. But those parts never really go away. Deep in our unconscious, they send steady signals, if we really listen, reminding us how we have fragmented ourselves to mitigate the pain of being Othered and framed new performative identities as smoke screens. The call to think about identities in these spaces, then, becomes an analysis of adept masquerade. Without an antidote, it produces isolation, separation, and a prolonged and permanently deferred exile.
My desire to belong to a group, a community, or a circle of like-minded spirits is a staggering one and I am too stubborn to surrender that desire despite the risk of multiple, painful metamorphoses. Yet, within the ruins of multiple metamorphoses lie beautiful old stories that remind me of what would life be like if I didn't have the desire to want, to want more, and to want things that came without any assurance that I could have them, if at all. Just like my biology notebook became an aquarium with colored fish doodles, my desire to want something that I may never have has become untamable. No longer am I informed by rationality, sensemaking, or prior history of failure. Instead, I trace the tentacles of the force of my desire and find the ways they make patterns in this world as my pen doodles a school of fish migrating to their own desired locations.