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Azaadi

Sep. 19, 2016
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2007

In a game of Atlas, Anamika ends up with the letter L. Her friends already used Lucknow, Ladakh, and London, so she has to think of a different place. It’s difficult—the only places she has been to have been a few hours away from her hometown. Most of India is a mystery to her, but she's encountered it in her friends’ stories and on the pages of her dusty Geography textbook; a world outside is unimaginable. Still, she thinks of Los Angeles. From her knowledgeable source (the TV show, 90210), she knows LA is glamorous. The girls all wear short dresses and wax everywhere and have boyfriends with perfect bodies and abs who they kiss them and say things like “I love you”. She looks at the springy hair on her arms and her bitten nails and thinks of the Hindi word for freedom, azaadi. She always liked the sound of azaadi: when she rolls the word around on her tongue, it feels like flying. 

2015

“Bless the weather forecast,” Anamika says as she puts on her jacket. After getting caught in a rain shower during her first week in LA, she had learnt the importance of following the weather forecasts the hard way. 

The people around her aren’t donning layers of clothing, but most are clad in jeans instead of shorts. Anamika fights back a yawn as she marches towards her French class. Registering for a 9 a.m. class that met four days a week with mandatory attendance hadn't been one of her brightest ideas. 

During the class, she alternates between paying attention to the teaching assistant and admiring the girl sitting next to her. She watches the girl tuck locks of brown hair behind her ear and wonders if the mole above the girl’s right eyebrow is actually circular. 

As embarrassing as it is for her to admit, Anamika has spent a significant amount of time (three weeks, her friend Marion likes to remind her) trying to talk to the girl in her French class. 

She tells herself that today is the day she will finally talk to her (it’s not like she says this every week only to chicken out and flee from the class as quickly as humanly possible). She ignores the sweat blooming on her palms and turns to the girl.

“Sorry if this sounds strange and stalker-y but do you do poetry slam at Union?” Anamika asks, trying to sound nonchalant but not too nonchalant. (For once, she doesn't just ask the question in her head.) 

The girl gets up from her seat. She’s wearing a light blue crop top over loose black pants. Her pants are splattered with white and purple flowers—the kind of ethnic Indian print that has recently become fashionable here.  

“Yeah, I try to perform weekly!” The girl responds. Anamika follows the girl out of class, walking slower than usual to match her steps with the girl’s. 

“Oh, that’s dope,” Anamika remembers the angry tone of her poetry; it seems incongruent with her sunny demeanor. 

“Do you perform?” The girl stops to adjust the strap of her bag. Her bag is purple in color and covered with numerous black and white elephants. Anamika knows she could find similar bags by the dozen on street sides in India, and probably for one-tenth of the price. 

“No, I’m just an…admirer, I guess.” 

“I don’t believe that.” 

“I mean…I kind of write but I don't have the courage to perform.”

“I KNEW it! You have the look!” The girl smiles widely. “I remember I was a nervous wreck my first time. I can help you out if you want!” 

“Thanks, that’s really kind! I might just take you up on that.” 

“You should! Drop by after slam next time. I’ll show you the ropes.” She winks (without looking like she’s blinking rapidly, Anamika enviously notes). 

She says she’s done with class for the day and offers to drop Anamika to her next class, which is on the other end of the campus. Anamika learns that the girl’s name is Sristhi. Before moving to LA, she had lived in Switzerland all her life. She wanted to major in Astrophysics but decided to switch to English after taking an interesting class on Postcolonialism.

“Of course, she likes you!” Marion later affirms. 

“Are you sure you’re not projecting your own liking on her?” Her friend, Lana, counters.

“I don’t KNOW. It’s so difficult to tell with girls. Like was she just being nice or was she flirting with me?” 

“Play it by the ear. She invited you to meet her after the open mic,” Lana suggests, but not without adding, “I wouldn't be too hopeful.” 

As a result, Anamika isn't too optimistic when she goes to the open mic three days later. She had seen Sristhi during French that day but they hadn't communicated beyond hellos. Anamika is ready to move on and tell Lana her gaydar is spot on, when Sristhi beckons her from stage after her performance. 

“Hey, that was really good!” Anamika means it. The poem had a similar theme as Sristhi’s previous poems, which married heavy-handed concepts of appropriation with objects like bindis and yoga. Even so, Anamika had enjoyed the extended chai metaphor in this one. 

“Thanks! I’m glad you liked it,” Sristhi gives her a superscript version of her usual smile. 

After an awkward beat, she adds, “Do you want to get coffee?” 

Anamika laughs, pleasantly surprised by the invitation. “Did the chai metaphor make you thirsty?” 

“Something like that,” Sristhi punches her shoulder jokingly. 

They go to an indie coffee shop with no charging points. Sristhi orders a latte, giving the barista specific instructions, and Anamika orders a hot chocolate. They frequent the coffee shop four more times and develop a routine of sorts. 

After their latest outing, Anamika drops Sristhi back to her dorm. Sristhi is leaning on the doorway and Anamika knows that the way her eyes linger on Anamika is not a product of her imagination. Please be gay please please please

She leans in to kiss her. 

Sristhi pulls away. 

Oh.” 

Anamika is ready to follow the script: ohmygodImsosorryImisinterpretedIshouldhaveknownbetter

Only Sristhi speaks before she can spit it out. 

“I’m sorry—that took me by surprise. Can we go in?” Anamika nods, unable to speak. 

“I’m sorry I pulled away. I just didn't expect it to happen in the hallway with people.” Anamika starts to protest, not sure what to say first (so what if it’s a hallway so what there are people so what) but she's interrupted. Sristhi pulls her towards her and kisses her. 

They stand close together, their breath and words colliding. 

“Did you think about it…before?” “I thought about it during French. You would mouth along with your notes and I…” “I can't believe I waited this long” “Is this really happening?”

Anamika laughs into Sristhi’s mouth. She kisses and kisses and kisses her. 

In the next month, Anamika learns more about Sristhi. They spend as much time together as possible, planning around each other’s schedules. In between meetings and jobs, they spend their weekdays in the library. They capitalize on weekends—they go hiking (Sristhi loves the great outdoors), sample different cuisines (Anamika is a huge foodie) and watch movies in bed (Anamika introduces Sristhi to the genius of Miyazaki, Sristhi tries to change Anamika’s opinion of Wes Anderson). 

One night, they decide to break the mould and watch The Namesake

“I’ve never been to India but it still feels like home. I couldn't relate to Gogol at all,” Sristhi comments after the movie. 

Anamika thinks of all the Indian Student Association events Sristhi cajoles her into attending. She thinks of the fundraisers, for distant Indian villages neither of them have been to, that Sristhi organizes. She thinks of Sristhi’s poems on appropriation. Anamika wants to resent Sristhi for loving a country she's never seen and a culture she's never experienced, but all she feels is envy. 

Anamika spent the majority of her youth in India, unconsciously being a part of the culture. She spent the next years traveling to other countries and adapting to their culture. When she returned to India, everything seemed amplified. The streets were too narrow, the music too loud, the food too spicy, the clothes too garish, and the words too serrated. 

Anamika wants to vocalize her emotions, but it feels like treachery to admit that India doesn't feel like home. She chooses instead to rest her head on Sristhi’s shoulder, trying to find comfort in her familiarity. Her scent and her touch offer little solace. The distance between them seems to stretch like elastic.


Cover Image by Jodeci Zimmerman