It’s past midnight. The September air is chilly and crisp. I walk on the deserted sidewalk, mindful of the hum of the garbage disposal van picking up detritus piled next to the road. An NYPD car with personnel lies in wait stealthily amidst other parked cars, like a predator ready to jump on its prey.
I had to drag myself out of my hotel bed. After twenty-eight hours of flight from India with two stopovers, my severely jetlagged body pretends to be indifferent to the call of hunger.
This part of Brooklyn – Brownsville – is unfamiliar to me, although I had lived for seven years in Bed-Sty, a place not very far. I reach the intersection of Rockaway Avenue and Pitkin. On my right, a couple of blocks away, I spot the glowing neon signs of a grill restaurant. From around thousand feet away, I could see movement of people inside.
‘Do you have chicken sandwich?’
A Punjabi boy, his turban the giveaway, barely twenty, in a black t-shirt and shorts, says, ‘Sorry, no chicken breasts in stock now.’
‘How about chicken nuggets and a fry?’
‘Yes, we can make it for you.’
Brownsville in Brooklyn is populated by African-Americans, South Asians, Latinos, and Africans. On most days, the streets throb with an energy that’s almost reminiscent of life in South Asian cities. There are large dollar stores, small utility shops owned mostly by Africans, and the usual corner stores, almost always operated by Yemenis.
I stay in a hotel, which is the local franchise of a national chain, operated by a Gujarati businessman, who also owns several hotels in other cities. The men at the bullet-proof boxed reception are Indians; one of them is from Hyderabad, an Indian city known for its software industries. Sunil is a friendly guy in his mid twenties, with swollen eyes, looking somewhat sleep-deprived. He works at the hotel for five days and drives an Uber cab on weekends. He entered the US with a valid F-1 student visa to study at a college in Virginia. Since he needed to work even as he pursued his studies, he decided to transfer to a college in New Jersey. Within a few months the federal government had busted the college and declared it illegal, rendering hundreds of students, mostly from India, unwanted in the US. Most of his peers returned to India but Sunil decided to apply for asylum. ‘Going back was not option for me. I had taken a bank loan before coming. I applied for asylum because I wanted to work and make some money before I went back. In a few months, I managed to get a work permit. I make $12 an hour.’ When I speak to his colleague in the evening, whose family came as immigrants from Gujarat in India, he tells me, ‘It’s a hell for those who don’t have valid papers. They can never make more than $12 an hour. And they might have to work seven days a week.’
One of the days, I encounter an old man in a long djebba and Muslim cap, selling perfume on the sidewalk. His stringy beard gives him the appearance of a Muslim saint, a peer. As he meticulously arranges his small bottles of perfume on a makeshift table after taking them out of his old, battered car, I stand at a distance and watch, amused at his dexterity. Even as he busies himself, he constantly greets the passersby, ‘Good morning, sister! Have a great day.’ ‘Good morning, brother! God bless.’ And then he notices me and smiles. ‘Do you want something?’ he says. I walk close to the table and ask him, ‘Where are you from?’ His pale complexion makes me feel he could be from one of the Arab countries. He looks confused and says, ‘What do mean? I’m from here. My great-grandmother was brought to this country as a slave.’ We get chatting and once he learns I am a Muslim from India, he tells me how he found Islam at the age of forty, when he was searching for God.
I have an important oral examination in a day and I have forgotten to pack my belt. It’s about ten in the morning. The streets in Brownsville are already noisy with shoppers.
I enter a small utility shop and check out a cheap foam belt. ‘How much for this belt?’
‘Ten bucks,’ says the black guy in the shop that sells everything from backpacks to women’s beauty requirements.
Over the next few days, their shop is my go-to place for any need – from mobile chargers to travel adapters. They seem to have it all. When they aren’t attending to customers, they are hooked to the television set, mounted near the roof in one corner, beaming live football matches.
A clean-shaven black guy hanging around says, ‘Do you follow football?’
‘Of course, I do. I follow mostly La Liga because it features some of my favourite players.’ I explain as I take a second look at him and tell him that I am from India. ‘I’m from Mumbai,’ he says.
Since he doesn’t look Indian at all, I press further. He says, ‘I am from Nigeria. But I love India. Do you know about Nigeria?’
‘Yes, I have read Chinua Achebe and Adichie. And Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was killed in that oil rich region. What’s the name?’ Suddenly, I forget the name of the province.
‘What about Wole Soyinka? Have you read Soyinka?’ He looks at me curiously.
‘Yes, I have.’
‘I was disturbed to read Africans being attacked in India recently.’
There has been a spate of xenophobic attacks against Africans recently, exposing India’s suppressed racial bias, which often manifests itself in murderous assaults against its lower caste population. In India, there were some protests from the liberal quarters against these attacks on Africans but I was not very sure how the world saw these attacks. When the Nigerian man speaks of the assaults, I realize how quickly the news of xenophobia spreads in an interconnected, globalized world.
‘Give me two slices of pizza.’
The man at the counter looks at me intently. ‘Are you a Punjabi?’ he asks.
‘No, I am a Bengali.’
‘So, you know Bangla?’
‘Yes, of course.’
He looks uncertain. To assure him, I say, ‘Aapnar bari kothai? (Where are you from?’
‘Noakhali in Bangladesh. Do you know Noakhali?’
‘I have never visited Noakhali. But I have been to Dhaka. And Noakhali is (in)famous for the riots just before the Partition of India.’
He wears a wry smile as he hands me the pizza. I pay for the pizza and head to a table in the spacious soul food restaurant. This is a busy restaurant where buffet lunch is sold by weight, $5.49 for a pound.
After a while, the man, Muneer, comes and stands next to me. I am curious to know when he came to the US.
‘Eight years ago. But I am working in this restaurant since last year.’
Muneer, a short, stocky man, with a black baseball cap, looks to be in his late forties. Once he takes off his cap, I see his balding head, which pushes his age up on the other side of fifty. He speaks with a particular Bangladeshi accent, which becomes difficult for me to follow if I am not attentive enough.
‘Do you visit Bangladesh often?’
‘I haven’t been home since I came here.’
‘Really? Don’t you have a family back home? Don’t you miss home?’
‘Yes, I do. But I can’t go home. I don’t have the papers.’
‘Then how you did come here without papers?’
‘That’s a long story. I came via South America and the Mexico border.’
As I press him to narrate his journey from Bangladesh to the US, he promises to tell me another day. Muneer starts wiping the floor of the restaurant.
After a couple of days, I return to the grill restaurant I had visited on my first night in Brownsville. I see the turbaned Punjabi boy, Parminder, grilling meat and unpacking bags of processed potato into hot oil. A chubby youngster in a black T-shirt mans the cash counter. A third guy, who is of similar age, wipes the floor. They all look to be in their late teens or early twenties. At this hour of the night, the guys are busy preparing the food and taking orders over the phone. I listen to them converse in Punjabi as I wait to place my order.
Since Muneer told me of his journey from Bangladesh to the US without papers, I am curious to know how these boys travelled to New York City. But I am too conscious to ask them if they too are migrants without papers or ‘undocumented’ as the official parlance goes. I ask the chubby boy at the cash counter, ‘When did you come to the US?’ He tells me he arrived three years ago after he completed his eleventh grade because of some ‘family problems’. His father was a police official in Haryana and he never faced any financial difficulties. He never explains the problems that might have compelled him to migrate at such a young age. He gets paid $12 an hour, a slightly higher wage than the other guys because he is more like a supervisor. However, you can’t tell the hierarchy between the guys from their easy banter.
I stand across the counter and watch Parminder grilling meat. We have already started conversing in Hindi and I tell him I want my chicken over rice to be spicy. He chops the meat to fine pieces and adds dollops of MDH spices, an Indian brand. Once he knows I am from West Bengal, he starts calling me ‘Dada’, elder brother in Bengali. I sense a chance of asking him about his journey to the US but he continues to be shifty and focuses his attention on the meat.
‘I heard from another guy that he came to the US through the Mexico border. And how did you come?’
Without looking at me, Parminder says, ‘I too crossed the Mexico border without papers.’
‘Was it difficult to cross the border?’
Leaving the grill behind, he comes and stands near me across the counter. The meat simmers on the grill. ‘It was not easy. From India, I boarded a flight to Moscow and then flew to Amsterdam. From there I took another flight to Mexico City. I didn’t have a visa for Mexico. The immigration officials arrested me and put me in jail.’
‘How long did you spend in jail?’
‘Six months. I had to pay a lot of money for my release. After six months, when I came out of jail, the man in India, who had organized my migration, arranged for a local guy who brought me to the border.’
‘Did you have difficulty crossing the border?’
‘We crossed at night. Although there were strict layers of security, the smugglers knew the route well. Once I crossed into the US, I was arrested again by the US immigration. However, this time I could engage an immigration lawyer, who helped me seek asylum. I had to shell out quite a lot of money. I was sent to a Hispanic family in New York City after my release, who adopted me for a while.’
My food is ready. Before leaving, I order a New York style cheesecake with strawberry. The third guy, a bespectacled young man, who looks somewhat out of sorts in the restaurant, says, ‘There are many ‘undocumented’ people around here.’ When I ask him if he studies in New York City, he tells me he is attending an accountancy course and learning Spanish in the evenings. I ask him, ‘What does ‘salida’ mean in Spanish?’
With mock seriousness, he says, ‘Sali? I’m not married yet and I don’t have a Sali (sister-in-law in Hindi).’
Others join in the laughter. As I exit, the chubby guy at the cash counter tells me that he is considering moving to construction because that pays better. ‘Also, it will help me cut down my flab,’ he adds.
In 2009, when I, along with my partner, first arrived in New York City as a graduate student, our priority was to find a cheap place. Since I depended completely on a doctoral fellowship, we avoided places such as Park Slope and Williamsburg, places where rent was comparatively higher and where many of my peers lived. When our broker showed us a studio apartment in Bed-Sty, near Fulton Park, we decided on it primarily because of its affordability and proximity to the subway station. However, Bed-Sty had its reputation as a violent place those days and most of my peers at the university would ask, ‘You live in Bed-Sty?!’ Their tone indicated that it was not a place where respectable, bourgeois university-going students lived.
Things changed in a couple of years as Bed-Sty started becoming gentrified and more white tenants moved into the area, displacing black inhabitants. When we first moved in, our neighbour was an elusive black girl, whom we sometimes encountered on our way in or out. Then one fine morning, we saw our landlord dumping her belongings on the sidewalk. When we peered out to see what was happening, he said, ‘She has defaulted on her rent for a couple of months. Do you want this lampshade? Otherwise, I will have to dispose of it.’ We kept the lampshade more as a reminder of what awaited us if we were to default.
As more white tenants, who couldn’t afford the prohibitive rent of a Manhattan apartment owing to recession, moved in, the rent in the area went up considerably. Despite becoming a more mixed neighbourhood with a couple of swanky coffee shops and restaurants, the place was predominantly populated by African-Americans, who organized loud block-parties. Our janitor, who also acted as a DJ occasionally in some of these parties, hung out with us on the steps of our brownstone late into the night, where we sat and drank beer.
After leaving Bed-Sty in October, 2016, I returned to New York City in July, 2017 for a week. This time I put up in my partner’s apartment on 110th Street, Manhattan, close to Columbia University. On one side of the apartment building lay the Riverside Drive, bordering the Hudson River. It was a green, sanitised, ordered space in complete contrast to the barrack-like monotony of Bed-Sty brownstones. On most mornings, I could pick up a coffee from the Starbucks and walk down the Riverside Drive to the edge of Hudson, where morning walkers congregated and parents brought children to play on swings. Then I remembered how not too long ago, when I was taking a course at Columbia as part of doctoral consortium, I had waited at the same Starbucks to buy a cappuccino. The place was crowded and I had to wait a bit in line. Suddenly a middle aged white man had come up from behind and said to me, ‘Go back to your fu**ing country’. Even before I could respond, he had left, leaving me shocked. An old white lady standing behind me had asked, ‘Are you alright?’ My smile could barely hide my humiliation that day.
Compared to Manhattan and Bed-Sty, Brownsville was like an outpost, where the color divide of New York City felt most accentuated as I didn’t see a single white man or woman in the streets. Very early on during my stay, the Indian guys manning the reception warned me not to venture out late into the night. One of them showed me a video clip on his phone, downloaded from the recordings of the hotel CCTV camera. A young guy had walked into the lobby of the hotel one night and kicked open the door to the room where the receptionist sat. As the receptionist dialled 911, the guy smashed the phone on the floor. Then he opened the cash counter and walked away with around $900. I asked the receptionist if the guy was ever caught. ‘Yes, the call to 911 had actually reached. The police arrived soon after and caught the guy. The case is still on. He will probably spend five to seven years in jail.’
The warnings from the hotel staff, however, didn’t deter my nocturnal wanderings. Many a night I returned to my hotel past midnight from Manhattan. Contrary to what I was told, Brownsville radiated a particular kind of warmth, which I hadn’t felt even during my stay in Bed-Sty. I would occasionally bump into a Yemeni guy from a corner store, whom I had met earlier, or a cook, who had made me a sandwich in the morning, or an acquaintance whom I had spoken to before. They all seemed eager to speak to me, to know more about my stay, how I was doing, and when I planned to return to India. It was an uninhibited intimacy that we are more used to seeing in an Indian city, than in a western metropolis.
My month long trip to New York City is coming to an end and I am eager to listen to Muneer’s story of migration. This time I carry my tab, the map of South America already open in offline mode. I want Muneer to walk me through his cartography of migration from the point of arrival to the moment of entry into the US. He brings his lunch and sits across me at the table. As I show the map to him, he seems eager to trace his journey across South America, the entry point for most ‘undocumented’ migrants to America. Since Bangladesh didn’t have any embassy for South American countries, he had to first come to India, where he obtained a visa for Brazil. Muneer flew to Brazil via Europe and then headed to Santiago, Chile. It is not clear from his narration if he had a valid visa for Chile. The man organizing his migration, along with those of others, was another Bangladeshi, who lived in England and was in regular touch with his handlers in South America.
As I expand the map, Muneer taps his finger on the touch screen to trace his journey across countries which are no more than dots in his mental map. ‘From Chile, we no longer flew. We travelled by vehicles arranged by the handlers. We crossed into Peru and from there we landed in Quito, Ecuador. For some reason, our handlers left us there. But we travelled farther south and ended up at the coastal city of Guayaquil.’
‘But why did you go down south if you wanted to travel up north to reach Mexico?’
‘Since our handlers left us there, we were not very sure of our route. I lived in Guayaquil for nine months. I picked up a bit of Spanish there. A Punjabi man, who was in the business of hauling timber, promised to give me work. But it never happened. After nine months, I decided to start my journey again.’
‘Did you like Guayaquil?’
‘It is a very nice place by the sea. There are a lot of American tourists because Ecuador is so cheap. Some of them live there for a long time in rented houses.’
Once he decided to leave Guayaquil, the journey took him up north, finally reaching Turbo, the port city in Colombia, where he journeyed on a ramshackle boat that took him across the Gulf of Uraba. After reaching the small town of Capurgana, often used by migrants as an entry point into the treacherous Darien Gap, a sixty mile area of dense rain forest, their team was accosted by Colombian coyotes, smugglers who helped them navigate the forest. He walked through the forest for eight days. Muneer says, ‘It’s the most terrifying thing I have ever experienced. We walked for days without knowing where we were going. When we felt exhausted, we slept in the open. We ate whatever little we carried in our backpack. Death appeared always close. I saw an African woman, who couldn’t keep up with her group and was left behind. Her skin was almost coming off her legs. I thought she would die. We gave her some water to drink.’
Across the Darien Gap, he was intercepted by the Panamanian authorities, who took him to a jail in Panama City, where he spent twenty-five days. He was finally allowed to go without paying any money. All this while his organizer in England kept in touch with handlers in Panama, who took him across Mexico to the US border. All the ‘undocumented’ migrants into the US I spoke to said that they crossed the border at the dead of night, when the patrolling guards seemed not to notice. Muneer too crossed over at around 3 AM with his handler, who was regularly communicating with his counterpart on the American side of the border. A Bangladeshi cleaner at my university, who had crossed into the US through the Mexico border in the early eighties, had narrated his experience of crossing the border earlier, ‘Our handlers took us at night through the gaps in Tijuana International Airport and we had crossed over to San Diego. These handlers knew all the gaps like the back of their hands.’ Muneer entered through the Texas border and, fortunately, he was not intercepted by the American officials.
My lunch of brown rice, jerk chicken, okra, and salad is almost over. Muneer hands me his mobile phone for me to have a look at his granddaughter, his eldest daughter’s child, whom he has never seen since her birth. His eldest daughter and son-in-law are visiting Calcutta, my city, from Bangladesh and he is happy to share this bit of news with me. As he flips through his family photos, his eyes look wistful and moist. He has last seen his youngest child, when she was born. I ask him what his plans are for the next few years. ‘My two younger children are studying in private English medium schools. I want them well settled. My family lives in a rented apartment in Noakhali now. I want to build my own house. Then I want to say goodbye to this country,’ he adds.
‘Do you fear of getting hauled up for being ‘undocumented’ after Trump’s announcement of deporting illegal migrants?’
‘No, as long as I live in New York City, I am not scared. Bill de Blasio will never allow something like this to happen.’
The day before I leave Brownsville, I go out to buy a coffee at a corner store. It is close to ten at night and most of the shops are already closed. From far, I see what looks like two guys hauling a carton across Pitkin Avenue. As I come close, I see one of the guys, a scrawny man, running across the road, almost getting hit by a vehicle. Soon I gather that they were not hauling a carton but were grappling with it because the scrawny guy was trying to run away with the carton. The man had gone to supply medicines to a corner store across the street and his car door was left open. Sensing a chance, the scrawny guy had opened the car door and was trying to steal the medicines packed in a carton.
As he picks up the medicines scattered on the street, the man looks visibly shaken. In the course of our conversation, I come to know that he is from Delhi and he has been living in the US for five years. I can’t, however, gather enough courage to ask him if he too is ‘undocumented’ in Trump’s America.
Names in the article have been changed to protect identity. I would like to thank Mary Ann Chacko for her useful comments and suggestions on the piece.