| How To
Shop Talk At Austin Airport
“I had been selected for a ‘random’ scan of my hands.”
In July 2014, I finished writing a novel about a marketplace bombing in New Delhi entitled The Association of Small Bombs . The book, which is told from the perspective of the victims and the terrorists, took me five years to write—nearly half of my twenties—and during this time I lived like a secret agent myself: darting back and forth between continents for money, checking out books on explosives and radical Islam from university libraries to fuel my research. Finally, though, I was boarding a plane in Austin, where I was in graduate school, to head to Delhi, where I grew up. I was exhilarated. My agent had asked me to read the book one last time before she sent it off to publishers.
In a celebratory mood, I decided, for the first time in my post-9/11 traveling life, not to defensively shave my beard before going to the airport (a common technique used by brown men to survive security). A part of me even thought, with the profound non-seriousness of a happy person: It’ll be good to experience what some of the innocent Muslim characters in my book experience.
A Hindu with an American passport, I had escaped most of the troubles and indignities suffered by my Muslim friends.
I got to Austin Airport at five in the morning—the sun still hovering behind the dewy fields—and got into line. A blue-uniformed TSA officer came up to me. I had been selected for a “random” scan of my hands. “Just put them out, sir,” the TSA agent, a short, plump African-American man, said. He ran a brush-like sensor over my palms. I stood there, vaguely bemused, dozens of white faces swirling around me. “Wait here,” he said.
A few seconds later, he returned. The sensor, he told me, had beeped. I had tested positive for “explosive traces.”
Suddenly, my mouth dry, I was being escorted through security, with all the agents referring to me as “the guy who set off the sensor,” the whole thing, in my mind, a parody: What could possibly have set off the sensor? Dr. Bronner’s Soap, which I’d lathered myself with in the shower? Then again, as I had learned in my research, it had once been the preferred cosmetic of the Weather Underground; almost everything we use these days is born in the goo of petroleum or the rocket stem of corn—the ingredients of explosives, too.
The blue-gloved TSA agents were careful not to look at me as I complained that my flight to JFK was leaving in twenty minutes and that I had a connecting flight to India. Then I saw my backpack coming out through the X-ray machine. My heart leapt. Inside my bag was a printed-out version of my novel, for proofing. On the front page was emblazoned the title The Association of Small Bombs . In the opening scene, a terrorist blows up a market in Delhi, killing a couple’s children; there follow several chapters from the perspective of the terrorist. Would I have to explain to the TSA officials the difference between autobiography and fiction, the way I had struggled to explain the difference to my enraged family with my first book, Family Planning ?
“This is so humiliating,” I said, my voice cracking as I was led into a room and patted down by two young white men in blue, both correcting each other about the protocol for such pat-downs, one man using the back of his hand to feel my crotch, my mind instinctively going out to the hundreds of Muslims in rooms like this all over the country, rooms just removed from the crowd, with people condemned there first by “random” tests and then by faulty technology. I thought of the plane to India—my connecting flight—and of how I would probably miss it, of the money and time wasted.
Then, suddenly, I was let go. “You’re done, sir,” one of the young agents said.
I went to the X-ray and picked up my backpack, dazed. No one, of course, had looked at my novel. I strolled past the shuttered BBQ restaurants and the flat sunlight coming through the visors of the building, a million times more self-conscious about my skin color than before.
On the plane I tried reading my book, but couldn’t concentrate. In JFK, on the layover to Delhi, in security once again, I was picked out by a TSA worker of Indian origin, for another “random” scan. I noticed only browns and blacks were being picked.
I sweated nervously as the sensor lapped at my hands. It must have worked. This time the test was negative.