“Fashion’s bright lights beckoned me toward New York.”
I’ve come into my own home—But then look how! I’ve brought myself like a guest.—Jagan Nath Azad (Urdu poet, 1918-2004)
Two months before I turned twenty-two, I reached Nana and Nani’s home in Flushing, New York, one evening at the end of a humid, wearisome summer. The A/C hadn’t worked during the five-hour-long bus ride. I arrived at the apartment my grandparents shared just as cars were flicking their headlights on and the humidity of the day was melting off. I’d visited them countless times before with my mother and father and sister, but this time felt strange, different. As if I had something to prove. I told myself this stay would be temporary.
A few weeks after graduating from college, I’d railed to my parents that I was suffocating, and struggling to find a job. I blush when I remember my exact words to them.
“Mera dum ghutta hai! I feel like dying!” I’d lifted the phrase from a pitiful scene from a Hindi film I’d fallen in love with, one that had also become a gay cult classic. My parents may have known I was gay, but they were too timid to broach the topic with me.
Fashion’s bright lights beckoned me toward New York, but I didn’t know how to make a career out of it. I felt too powerless to retreat from my desire, yet too emboldened to refuse myself. When I decided that my best option was to take an unpaid internship at a fashion magazine in New York, my mother called her parents to ask whether I could live with them. I wasn’t made aware of the details of the arrangement. I preferred not to know whether any money was exchanged. Either this made me ungrateful or polite for keeping out of it. But I told myself I wouldn’t be a burden. Even though my stay would be temporary, it was indefinite.
My internship would begin the morning after I arrived in Flushing. I unpacked a few of my best clothes in the bedroom Nana, my mother’s father, had vacated for me at the back of the apartment. Nani and Nana had long slept separately. I’d always assumed they were, after more than fifty years of marriage, practicing the quiet decorum of South Asian intimacy. Without any discussion, Nana decided he’d sleep on the divan in the living room from that night on. His move was soundless. Only later did I realize I’d displaced Nana.
As I laid atop sheets that didn’t smell like anything I knew, the Q17 bus sighed outside my window, heaving through the night. I opened my Grindr app, bathing myself for the next hour in the soft glow of compliments and come-ons. I bared to the mile-long radius of men around me what I kept silent from my family.
On his father’s death, the legendary figure Ranjha left his tribal home in northwest Punjab. He traveled to Jhang, where he fell in love with the maiden Heer, whose father was the chieftain of the Sial clan. Their love was thwarted and Heer was married off. Ranjha became an ascetic, giving up the world in order to win back Heer. After they decided to elope, Heer was poisoned, and Ranjha died upon hearing the news. The Punjabi poet Waris Shah wrote this story in 1766 to understand how we transition through obstacles, and transform through suffering.
My memories of Nana are tied to walking. Measured and determined, Nana’s steps carried him forward with a dignity not even a double knee replacement surgery could take away. Since arriving to New York in 1980, Nana had spent decades learning the city by foot, speaking of it, only affectionately, as “the poor man’s city.” His steps gave form to his resolve. And with inactivity came stiffness, restlessness.
In the weeks since I moved to Flushing, I noticed how little I knew Nana, and began to delight in the surprising details he revealed of himself. Every Saturday, after Nani had lost the strength to stand on her own, Nana would make her a huge pot of Punjabi kadhi—a spicy, tangy yogurt-based curry of the brightest yellow. Each morning, after showering, he spent half an hour reciting Hindu verses from the Bhagavad Gita. He was the only family member I knew who could write and read Urdu, a mark of distinction among Punjabis, made to feel the shame of their own tongue. And yet, his evenings were filled with the shrill sound of hysterical women lamenting their fate on Indian serial programs. Nana never missed an episode, week after week.
During the day, Nana and I bore stuff around the city—he, passports and I, garment samples. He spent his days running documents and visa applications to and from the Indian consulate near Central Park, to and from a travel agency in Jackson Heights.
New York’s frenetic pace energized me. I inherited my infatuation with the city from Nana. For bourgeois nobodies who fled Delhi in the 1970s and 1980s, like my parents and my mother’s parents, migrating to New York was chancy, borne at enormous cost. So they prayed to Ganesh to remove their obstacles, himself the god of opportunity, too.
Nana had begun spinning fashion’s allure within my mind from a young age. My mother, sister, and I spent our vacation with Nana and Nani one icy, grey February week in 1996. Nana took a day off work and treated us to an afternoon in Manhattan. At Main Street, before we boarded the 7 train to bring us to Midtown, Nana bought me a bright mustard scarf I’d chosen from a stall, a scarf the same color as kadhi. His generous indulgence touched me. I’m embarrassed whenever I think back on that color, and the matching beret I asked him to buy me the next day. There’s a photograph of me in an album wearing the coordinating set, beaming and naïve. I strove to appear stylish—I just didn’t know how to do it.
Nana insisted the day he proudly led us to Manhattan that I’d enjoy seeing Seventh Avenue, the historic center of the American fashion industry. The Garment District housed the headquarters of all the brands I wanted to wear. That same year, I’d written a paper comparing two labels, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, using a Macy’s sales associate as my key informant.
As we sat in a coffee shop, Nana asked me what I thought of the Garment District. I had only a vague understanding of the shape of my desire. Looking out onto a crowded sidewalk, Seventh Avenue was a grey expanse of slush and hunched pedestrians wearing drab coats. I’d hoped to glimpse the inner sanctums of these designers’ ateliers—feel the sensuousness of the fabrics, hear the whirring of sewing machines, see the ramps and runways on which Earth’s most statuesque creatures stomped. Too shy to articulate my yearning—and too naïve to know Nana couldn’t access these spaces for me—we set out toward the subway. At the turnstiles, Nana reminded my mother how to get back to the apartment—he still had work to finish in Manhattan.
Years later, I developed a sharpness for navigating New York’s subways. As a fashion intern, on swift feet, I schlepped garment bags stuffed with samples from designers’ glamorous showrooms, ferrying them into the magazine’s fashion closet or direct to the set of a shoot. I was being granted access to those mirrored and well-lit altars of the fashion industry, a select few editors ruled on aesthetic decisions about what was worth featuring. I always arrived at my destination beaming with a strange sense of pride, as if I was somehow qualified to weigh in. I was no more important to the magazine than a trafficker was to a drug lord.
The magazine’s editors showered the intelligent, responsible brown boy with endless praise, the one they could use for free. I ignored the fact that the publication was too cheap—too unethical—to provide me a travel or lunch stipend, so I skipped meals. I was stuck on the media carousel, drunk on glamour and seduced by a vainglorious industry. I forgot those pangs of hunger. Fashion made me starve and it made me full.
In his philosophical treatise, “De Rerum Natura,” the Roman poet Lucretius suggests “our eyes are impeded by the lights.” It was up to me to realize just how encumbered my eyes were. He composed this line in dactylic hexameter: “lumina luminibus quia nobis praepediuntur.” Stylistically, Lucretius repeats the same word to suggest disparate meanings—in Latin, lumen is both “eye” and “light.” Light, the Romans believed, emanated from within us and flashed outward. It was up to me to realize what was inside me that illuminated the world.
Holding out for the job the fashion magazine dangled in front of me, I took it as long as I could. And men on Grindr asked me to spread my legs for them. “Where you from—your so beautiful. Wanna cum over?” I took it as long as I could.
Each time I slinked down into a dark, thumping basement, dropping my boss’s name to gain entry to a fashion-industry event, I got seduced—and betrayed. I wasn’t of this world, merely posing and posturing, ingratiating myself hard enough to fit into this class of elegant waifs. As arbiters of taste, they were discerning and discriminating—both words share the same Latin root, a verb meaning “to sift.” Taste has always been a tool those in power wield to regulate, to separate the wheat from the chaff.
“How was your weekend?” they would ask me as they sipped vodka-rocks. I’d spent it writing cover letters at the Queens Public Library’s computers for the maximum hour-limit allotted, before stopping at C-Town for Nana and Nani’s groceries, charging everything on their food stamp card. I still remember the PIN, 0-8-0-2.
I always lied, saying I’d visited a bar whose name I circled in last week’s New Yorker. “Yours?” Invitations to these events made me nervous, sick, the smell of privilege choking me.
“Traffic leaving the Hamptons this weekend was a nightmare. I love that jacket. Who makes it?” These editors’ eyes were keenly attuned to the nuances of fit and fabric. My clothes hung well on my slender frame, but the fabrics divulged their mean origins. I cut out all the labels, in case anyone tugged at my neck to discover the brand. But “Made in India” was the tag I couldn’t snip out.
My parents knew I wasn’t writing for the publication. They wondered how the labor I was performing for the editors I gave so much power to was even a job someone did. I’d spent ten years mastering Latin to become a courier. I was bearing things—not words. Their weight made me sweat. The pride I derived rang hollow. Fatigued and tipsy after these events, I thumbed through Grindr on the train home, every five hundred feet revealing a new array of men. Everything I desired, it seemed, was a shifting target.
As the sun dipped, the Flushing apartment would darken. Whether Nana or I returned home first, we’d see Nani sitting in a chair at the dining table. Nana liked that. Her head would be bowed, her elbows resting on her knees, back hunched forward. After the aide had left—she’d been sent to care for Nani during the day while Nana and I were out—and before we returned home, I wondered how she spent her days, and whether she talked to the air. Sometimes she’d lie in her bedroom, which Nana didn’t like. She would focus on the single bulb on the ceiling above her. One of Nani’s eyes was cloudy from glaucoma, induced by diabetes. Her ears sensed the comings and goings of men she could only trace out in the evening’s faint light.
Turning the key in the door, Nana or I would throw all the lights on, scattering a few bugs across the kitchen countertops. His ankles were always swollen, and his knees stiffened from hours of pacing the concrete pavements. I was tired, but I saw how unforgiving New York was to old men from foreign countries. Yet he pressed on. Nana, the quiet go-between who guaranteed Indians’ safe passage home, taught me how to keep moving, keep enduring.
Dinnertime was never much of a collective affair. Nana would bring takeout from Jackson Heights—kebabs, tandoori chicken, anything he thought I’d enjoy—and eat as he gorged on melodramatic Hindi TV serials. Nani took her meals throughout the day in the form of snacks—potato chips, glucose biscuits out of plastic packets, and the occasional hard-boiled egg—so that by the time Nana and I came home around eight, she wasn’t hungry. Chai was her favorite—all she asked of me was that I know how to make her a good cup of tea. She would set the foam cup down and refuse to drink it if I’d smuggled in Sweet’N Low instead of sugar.
Despite strict orders from the nursing agency to prepare only simple meals, Nani wrangled her aides into making a lunch or dinner of lentils and rice, or a vegetable like cauliflower or green beans, plus extra helpings for Nana and me. She wasn’t afraid to violate the rules of a government agency. Nani’s heart was like that—stubborn, nurturing. Her body was weak, yet she found strength in knowing she fed her family.
One wintry evening, I came home to find Nani standing over an open flame on the gas stove. She was trying to make whole-wheat rotis that she’d strong-armed the aide into kneading and rolling with her earlier that day. A film of flour covered the clear vinyl sheath that protected the dining table. I dropped my bag to the floor when I opened the apartment door, and screamed and vowed from that day to call her before I left work.
Nana yelled at Nani that night. He stood over her as he checked her blood sugar with a prick that no longer hurt her. Nani sat in a chair, gaze to the floor, while Nana scolded her for her willfulness. She stroked her eyebrows in consideration and wiped her face with a crumpled tissue that she kept in the front pocket of the nightgowns my mother stitched for her.
“Rajat was hungry,” Nani responded, after a long pause. Her sugar was 256 mg/dl, and Nana noted this in the journal, writing and underlining HIGH.
“He wanted rotis. Rajat! Did you have milk? It will give you good sleep,” said Nani. She asked me this on cue every night before bed. I didn’t need rotis, or milk. I’d never asked for anything. And her request was so small.
I refused to drink a glass before I went to sleep. I would open the fridge and pretend to pour myself some. Or I would lie and say I’d already had a glass. I couldn’t stomach it before bed. I wasn’t a farmer from her birthplace of Sialkot, a Pakistani city Partition had divested from India. My distance from Punjabi culture left a bad taste in my mouth and I loathed her custom.
Among Punjabis like Nana and Nani, who experienced the tearing apart of their homeland in 1947, Partition evokes a sense of birha, the longing for union with the divine, or the desire to reunite with a loved one. In the folk tradition of Punjab, the ferryman Luddan carries the distraught and lovesick Ranjha, cast out of our tribal home, across the deep, dangerous river Chenab. Ranjha has to meet his darling Heer, who belongs to a rival clan. Ranjha plays the sad-sweet song of birha on his flute and moves Luddan, entranced, to take pity on him. But not before Luddan questions and contests him on his intentions.
“It is best that those in trouble should die. They are happy who do not quit their homes,” says Luddan. Ranjha would’ve crossed the Chenab to reach Heer with or without Luddan.
For the two years I lived in Flushing, my bedroom had a gap in the brick exterior wall where an old A/C unit hung defunct. The crack let in a stream of winter air as the radiator hissed nearby and I often lay awake wondering if that glass of milk would ease my restlessness.
In 2009, following my fashion internship, I began working in the press office of a prestigious luxury brand. I found myself deeper inside the temple of the industry I served. And I envied and strove to emulate the brand’s well-heeled, poised custodians. Within a month, my first paycheck landed on my office desk—following an inane bureaucratic error that HR should have caught—and a wave of gratitude flooded my hollows.
As is South Asian custom, you present your first paycheck to your parents as a show of thanks. Since I was living with Nana and Nani, however, I offered the paltry sum to them without a second thought. And as is custom, your elders refuse the offer. Nana and Nani recognized how significant this moment was for me. The pride I felt, however, came up against my embarrassment that I still wasn’t making enough to rent a room in Manhattan. So I didn’t tell my new colleagues where I lived, or with whom. Dating was just as secret. I never hosted men in my bedroom, always traveling to meet them at their place instead.
The sound of my shoes turning the corner into Nani’s bedroom would surprise her.
“I’m leaving.” My conversations with Nani were heavy with gaps—the inability to communicate across history. Too embarrassed to practice my shoddy Hindi, I’d make Nani bend to the demands of English and its strangeness. On my departure—usually after dinner, or earlier, if my date wasn’t too cheap—I’d go to the closet, its top shelf consecrated with images of the Hindu pantheon and littered with crumpled dollar bills, bugs scurrying when they sensed my hand feeling around their dark lair. I’d bring Nani a small steel bowl of prasad—golden raisins she offered to the shrine—and let her feed me a few. The cloying send-off would mingle with my fresh toothpaste and I’d gag. That her gods would protect me from the dangerous embraces of bad men was the tiny indulgence I’d let her have.
I sipped tequila-rocks in bars and let boys I didn’t like put their tongues in my mouth. On winged heels I took to New York at night, like Majnun the madman, wandering grimy alleyways, fleeing only when I grew tired of letting strangers disappoint me. As the wheels of the 7 train lurched beneath my seat, I knew Nani was worrying about me, lingering in her half-sleep. On my way home, I faced Manhattan’s skyscrapers, unsure why their windows were still lit, and unable to face the unfashionable neighborhood I was returning to. Nana would leave the chain off. I tiptoed past his divan, down the corridor, past Nani’s bedroom. Even at four in the morning, her light was on.
The ancient Romans developed a sophisticated understanding of optics, even if it was wrong. The poet Catullus writes of the effect his girlfriend Lesbia has on his eyesight: “My eyes are dimmed by night.” Lumen isn’t just “eye” or “light,” however, but also a light source, the instrument that produces, emits, or transfers light. Lamps and torches. City lights. Office windows that stay on all night. The windows through which light passes. In medical terminology, lumina are the empty spaces inside our bodies, the hollows that need filling. But the most beautiful extension of lumen is the metonym for the source of a person’s vision. Light originates in the eyes and bursts outward in a desirous search to land on something, someone.
Nani’s eyesight made her world dim. As she sat at the dining table, Nani would request to hear a song she’d been humming to herself all day. YouTube would bring up the black-and-white songs she admired from India’s golden age of cinema. I’d turn up the volume and hand her my iPhone, flashing with celluloid images from her memory. She’d squint, bringing the screen so close to her eyes, I thought the light would blind her.
I’d ask Nani to tell me about Punjab, a land I’ve never tasted or smelled.
“Rajat, tell your papa to take you to India.”
“He’ll never take us, Nani. Will you tell me about Somalia?”
“In 1945, Nana took a posting as a civil officer. Your mother was born in Hargeisa.”
Nani raised her family in this lonely corner of the setting British Empire. They lived among other cultured expatriates in a privileged outpost. At dinner parties, they served goat that their maidservant had procured that morning, and eyed from their verandahs packs of hyenas on the moonlit grounds behind their bungalow.
As Nana sat in the living room, only a few steps away from us, I never asked Nani what she thought of Somalia. Now, except for medical appointments, Nani’s world was confined to the apartment. She was both a stranger to the outside, and to sleep, for her anxiety and her concoction of medications made it difficult to find peace.
In the glare of morning, I sipped Gatorade, trying to decide whether my late night just a few hours earlier made me reckless or restless. The smell of incense from Nana’s morning prayer, and Nani’s Vicks VapoRub piqued my nostrils—Nani believed the ointment to be a panacea. Her bookshelf was lined with photo albums from Somalia and India. Next to them lay single-subject notebooks, their curled pages bearing a single character in neat little rows down the entire page: ॐ. “Om”—the primordial sound of the universe. When we concentrate on a single word, repeating it until it feels strange, without shape, the word loses its meaning. Nani would meditate on the open, boundless sound, writing it over and over as if she were in detention.
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No,” I said—the truth. Yet I felt myself slipping farther away. I sat at the edge of her bed as she nibbled glucose biscuits. I swatted my hand at a bug crawling along the crevices of her sheets. That Nani cherished these chats hurt the most. In the dark moments of their separation, when Ranjha yearned for his cherished Heer, he in fact desired a more humane future for them—a future that troubled him in its unattainability.
Early in 2010, I met a man whose intelligence and sincerity charmed me. Months of trekking the hour-long journey to his place at the far north corner of Manhattan, several times a week, made me want room of my own, on the island, to share my nights with him.
Like some petulant child, I began to punish Nana and Nani for their honest, humble life. I spent whole weekends outside the apartment, coming home Monday morning to change my clothes before work. I scoured Craigslist for a room to rent at hundreds of dollars beyond my budget. Eventually I found a studio I could afford. But weeks earlier, Nani had suffered a stroke. I’d already handed over first and last month’s rent for the apartment, and a security deposit.
That fall, my boyfriend rented an Escalade and moved me out of my bedroom. I thought my new address, a few blocks from Central Park, proved to everyone in the shiny office where I was working that I deserved a place on their Olympus. My boxes were piled high in the quiet apartment the day I left—I’d said goodbye to them at the hospital, where Nani was recovering. I’d accumulated, among my things, runway samples given to my editors, re-gifted to me, and fashion magazines that felt like deadweight. I’d also amassed a deeper intimacy with Nana and Nani, one that made me see them as queer elders who taught me how to feel loss. I hauled out of that apartment more stuff than I’d brought the summer I arrived, two years earlier. How did Ranjha, pining to be reunited with Heer, forsake the world dressed as an ascetic? How did he renounce all pleasure and attachment, when I was leaving another home in search of new ones?
For years after, I kept running toward fashion blindly, erasing the desires I couldn’t see within me. Restlessness for muscular boys with fair skin, for sophisticated parties where I twirled and drowned myself, for the beauty of a world far from provincialism—I needed all this when I left my parents’ home. José Esteban Muñoz writes of queers as “migrant souls,” but it’s Ranjha’s words that echo in my heart today: “They are happy who do not quit their homes.”
Last year, when my mother was recovering from knee replacement surgery in Boston, I took a bus after my visit, back to New York. I chose a seat that faced backward, instead of the typical forward-looking ones. Casting my sights at the landscape as it receded before me, I confronted my little family’s mortality, not through a rearview mirror, but rather, with my back toward my destination. In this moment, I finally began to understand all the queer histories of walking, fleeing, and running that characterize our family.
I remembered how, one grey December morning in 2011, a van making an unflinching left turn, directly into the rays of the sun, struck Nana and he fell to the street. Nani had, by then, lost her ability to walk, following a series of strokes, and she was living in a nursing home, blocks from the apartment we’d shared not long before. That morning, Nana had just left Nani’s bedside, and was a block from her building on his way toward the 7 train. The van was swift. Nana left the nursing home moments before he left the world. The van was merciful. Nana wouldn’t have to live without the freedom to walk.
I remembered how, over the years, Nani had become less mobile. Her inability to walk on her own intimated to me a life in which getting out and moving on seemed impossible. The day before she died, I caressed the hand on the side of her body she could still, after her stroke, move. She felt my touch. I let her go. I’d inherited her anxiety, and she’d taught me to be restless. But I realized the less I worried about her, the less anxious she’d be about leaving us.
I remembered how, hours before I boarded the bus, the five hundred feet my mother took from her room, down the rehabilitation center’s hallway, unsettled me. I recalled Nani pushing a walker through the old apartment. I shuddered at Nani leaning on her elbows and flipping rotis at the stove. I stiffened at Nani asking me about all the nights I didn’t come home.
Gazing at my reflection in the glass of the window, I faced what I’d been running from. I realized I’d punished a generation of elders who had themselves quit many homes during their lifetimes. I’d been cruel to them, callous and unappreciative. They took me in and asked for nothing in return—not love, not rent, not even an explanation. They never resented me for quitting their home.
Rajat Singh is a writer living in New York. He is working on a collection of essays on queer melancholy.