Art by Kate Shaw
This story was originally published by Jaggery.
Quickly shutting the door of his dad’s old station wagon, Kabir worked the zipper of his hoodie toward his stubbly chin. The wind tore through the parking lot burying itself in the spaces between his shoulders. The afternoon extended through layers of gray. Crossing the parking lot, he kept his eyes fixed on the cracked asphalt, aware of the always-watchful lenses. The streetlights swiveled, peering through the flurries that had already begun to fall. Instinctively, he pulled up his hood to shield him from the cameras. One of the few people outdoors, he knew he was being recorded – the unenviable star of the show.
Despite only a handful of cars outside, Kabir assumed the restaurant would be crowded. Over the past year, Dhaba had become a sanctuary of sorts for the town’s immigrant population. Once a wealthy suburb of the capital, the multi-ethnic area was hit hard during the raids. As he approached, he noticed that the windows were fogged up by the mingling of heat and spice and bodies. Someone had left a handprint in the condensation on the door. Stepping inside, he lingered for a moment, allowing the smells to prickle his nose. Behind the counter, the steam from the kitchen wafted between tables and booths.
He scanned the hand-scrawled items on the blackboard above the counter and noticed that jollof rice, salted fish, and pupusas had made their way on the menu alongside Dhaba’s celebrated biryani and kebabs. Each week it seemed a new dish was being added. As businesses closed, and families like Kabir’s considered leaving the country, Dhaba was one of the few establishments that had weathered the storm. In response to its increasing popularity, the restaurant gave in to the requests of its newest patrons.
Kabir looked around to see that most of the booths were full. In opposite corners of the crowded restaurant, two TVs noisily competed. Bollywood music videos battled live action news. Yet neither were match for the brimming multi-lingual conversations that bounced off the walls. He smiled. The fact that this place still existed felt like a victory in itself.
Weaving through the mix of languages, Kabir let his ears linger on the Hindustani melodies. He closed his eyes and inhaled deeply, remembering his mom’s cooking. It had been nine months since his parents had packed up their things and left for India. He remembered the heated arguments in the weeks leading up to their departure. The resignation that clouded the air in their house. The sadness in his dad’s face when he drove them to the airport and hurriedly said goodbye under the stony gaze of armed riot police and customs officers.
The restaurant that had become his and so many others’ refuge was where he found himself that evening after seeing his parents off. With no desire to eat, he drank cup after cup of steaming chai as he wrapped himself in the surrounding aroma. He still remembered the news report that echoed off the walls that night, blaring from the TV in the corner. The newly-funded Home Defense Force was breaking down doors and rounding up families who had not registered under the America First program. In those days, the raids would only happen at night. While people pretended to be asleep, ignoring the explosions and battering rams that preceded their neighbors’ cries for help. The braver ones would peek from behind their curtains to see entire families being taken away.
Kabir had listened as a group of men argued over who was really behind the terror their neighborhoods were facing. It was widely believed that vigilante groups supported by the Administration were carrying out the raids. It was also believed – at least initially – that they would be temporary; the fulfillment of campaign promises that would soon abate. But it didn’t take long for the Administration to become more emboldened. Now, checkpoints and curfews were the new norm.
“Kabir beta – how are your parents?”
He opened his eyes to see Kiran Aunty, standing in front of him. Whenever they met in public, she would act like they didn’t know each other that well. As if she hadn’t been guiding him all these months.
“They’re good Aunty, I think. Still adjusting.”
“Yes, it’s hard to change worlds like that. I’m sure they miss you.” Her eyes darted back and forth, scanning the room behind him. He vaguely nodded, still contemplating the colorful buffet that lay just behind her. “But we need you here. There’s a lot of work to be done,” she suddenly dropped her voice to a hush.
Kabir met her gaze, searching for some hidden message in her face. “I’m here, Aunty. You know that.”
She sighed. “Your mother would be so proud to know how much you’ve taken on.”
His mom’s friendship with Kiran Aunty was a sudden and strange occurrence. Then again, with the raids and arguments and plans being made to leave, nothing was normal. It was during those months of upheaval that they had become close. Kabir’s mom and Kiran Aunty would spend hours out together. And when they weren’t together, they constantly kept in touch, always texting back and forth.
When Kabir’s parents’ departure was imminent, his mom made him promise to help Kiran Aunty. He was defiant. “If you want to help her so bad, why don’t you stay and do it yourself?”
“We all have to walk our own path, Kabir. Just remember we never walk alone,” she would say.
Kiran Aunty called Kabir frequently in the weeks after his parents had left. And that’s when he started putting the puzzle pieces together. In the beginning Kiran Aunty would simply ask him to join her for tea. During these meetings their discussion would inevitably turn to the deteriorating state of affairs – as most conversations did. It was in these moments that he felt like he was being tested. He wasn’t sure what to make of Kiran Aunty, but he found himself wanting her approval. He began to look forward to their meetings. They became a reason to get out of the house and shake off the gloom that came to cloud his days. It wasn’t long before Kiran Aunty asked him to accompany her on her appointments.
They would visit families who recently had relatives detained or deported. Kabir often stayed quiet during these meetings, listening as Kiran Aunty comforted those whose lives had been overtaken with fear. He was impressed to see the bits and pieces of various languages she had picked up. The universal signs of respect she would give that went beyond words.
During these visits, she arranged for whatever support families needed, and was always furiously taking notes on a small spiral pad that she took in and out of her handbag. Watching her, he was surprised. He never knew the aunties and uncles he grew up with to be close with people outside of their own tight-knit community.
After their visits, she would ask him to do some follow up with the family they had just left. Sometimes this was as simple as helping with grocery shopping when people were too afraid to step outside. But other times, he connected them with lawyers or took down their statements to be used in later campaigns.
At first, Kabir would follow Kiran Aunty’s instructions as if he was simply going through the motions. Since his parents left, there was no one providing him with any direction. But he was quick to recognize the similarities between what had befallen his family and what was happening to others. He couldn’t help but see his parents’ faces in their searching eyes and nervous questions.
More recently, Kabir had joined Kiran Aunty at a workshop to address the increasing requirements for documentation from immigrants. At the event he witnessed a heated debate between those who said people should boycott filling out any documents part of the registry program and others who wanted volunteers to assist with the process. Since the registry was announced, there was increasingly onerous paperwork being forced upon immigrants to keep their jobs, homes, and bank accounts. That day he stayed till nearly midnight, helping people fill out forms and plan for an uncertain future.
“They say we’re supposed to get quite a bit of snow,” Kiran Aunty continued as the restaurant buzzed around them. “Even so, we will be having our community meeting tomorrow. Same place, same time.” She nodded her head towards the kitchen. “I hope you can come early and help set up.”
“Sure thing, Aunty. But I hear it’s going to be pretty bad. I don’t know if my car will –”
“Ah, a little snow can’t stop us, right?” she cut him off. “Anyway, I hope you stay warm.” She leaned forward. “And stay safe. I know it feels like they’re forever watching, but you may be getting some extra attention,” she whispered in his ear. “Don’t worry, I have someone keeping an eye on your house. If it ever gets too dangerous, we’ll give you a sign. You’ll know what to do when the time comes,” she paused. “If you can make it through the night, we will be there for you in the morning.”
Kabir stared blankly at her as she threw her scarf around her shoulder and walked out the door. He remembered those were the same words his mom had left him with when she hugged him goodbye at the airport. At the time, he was too flustered to take note of the bizarre advice. Now he replayed that cryptic assurance again in his mind.
“Thank you, Aunty,” he said to no one in particular, approaching the counter.
Kabir’s parents left before the raids intensified. When the travel ban was announced, thousands of people had shown up at airports across the country to protest the Administration’s attempts to close the borders. For one week, they parents watched as people camped out demanding travelers be let through, providing hugs and legal support for those in need. The travel ban was being challenged in the courts. And despite the near-nightly reports of violence, they had hope that things would get better.
But when the registry for all immigrants from non-essential backgrounds, countries, and heritage was announced, Mr. Chaudhary knew it was the beginning of the end. After twenty-six years, they were moving back to India.
“This country is a sinking ship,” Mr. Chaudhary used to declare in those early days after the election. “The whole damn thing was built by immigrants, now they want to change their story?”
“No one is asking you to leave, Baba,” Kabir would say gently. “You are citizens. Your home is here.”
“Home? They say it’s time to reclaim their home. Sure, we can stay now, but who’s to say we aren’t next? No, I’d rather walk out than be thrown out.”
It was true that even naturalized citizens like Mr. and Mrs. Chaudhry were being stopped and having their immigration status questioned. In a few instances, people were being stripped of their legal status under the Blood and Soil Act before being deported to places they hadn’t been to in decades. Mr. Chaudhry wasn’t willing to wait for that to happen.
From his dad’s tirades, Kabir knew it was a mix of pride and fear that fueled their decision to leave. Kabir still had vague memories of his grandparents’ stories of braving riots and mobs to cross suddenly-drawn borders when the Subcontinent was partitioned. While their own parents may have had to depart in the middle of the night, leaving behind their homes and possessions to pass over imaginary lines, Mr. and Mrs. Chaudhary would not wait to become refugees.
In the end, Kabir drove his parents to the airport and told them he would visit once things settled down. But no one was sure when that would be. Despite being born in the country, it was clear that Kabir had to be extra careful. If he left, even to visit his family, would they allow him back in? Unlike his parents, he had no other home to claim as his own. India was a place of past summer vacations and scary train stations. But it was in this new world that he had found his voice, despite losing his family. He knew that no matter how bad things would get, he did not have the luxury to seek other shores. He would have to make his own way.
Nodding to the Nigerian family coming through the door, Kabir briskly walked to his car. He placed the steaming dal, chholle, and pilau on the passenger seat. Outside, fat flakes had begun to fall. On the radio they were calling for more than half a foot of snow. School was already cancelled for the next day, and children were abound building snowmen and dragging sleds before darkness would usher in curfew. The generous portion Saleem Chacha had provided would save him from the madness unfolding across the street. The grocery store was mobbed with people pouring in and out to stock up on whatever limited supplies they could get the day before a storm. On the other side, he could see the line going out of the liquor store.
Ravenous, he was eager to get home. He still had half a bottle of his dad’s favorite whiskey to see him through the snowstorm. Coaxing the engine to start, Kabir let out a sigh of anticipation. He remembered snow days when he was a kid. He and his friends would spend hours outside, immune to the cold. When they were older, they would go sledding at night with stolen beers and poorly rolled joints to accompany them down icy hills. He smiled at these thoughts before they sharpened and pricked his heart. Nowadays, most of his friends kept to themselves, too worried about their own families.
Climbing up the incline, he thought about what Kiran Aunty had said. The cryptic message from her and his mom had been the same. Why wouldn’t he make it through the night? Who was going to be there for him? And more curiously, why was she watching his house? Kabir had quickly learned that Kiran Aunty told him only as much as she felt he could handle. He had come to expect it, and, more and more, to trust her.
Gliding down the hill, he swerved to avoid the patches of ice that had quickly formed on the road. He remembered the checkpoint two seconds too late. The flash of light in his rearview mirror blinded him for a moment before he let out a string of curses. The speed camera had caught him. Once it flashed, the car was no longer in his control. With the motions of the wheel not responding to his hands, he let go, releasing a deep growl. The car coasted another fifty feet forward before pulling itself over on the side of the road.
The automatic checkpoints were installed before the raids had become a regular terror. Each had the ability to connect with a communicative responder mandated to be installed in every vehicle. The fact that the checkpoints were largely concentrated in minority areas didn’t seem like a coincidence to Kabir – or to most of his neighbors. Over a decade of surveillance and data collection had made it easy to track people’s movements. But with facial recognition technology, each checkpoint could identify the driver and passengers of every vehicle on the road.
“Kabir Chaudhary,” the automated system boomed through his car speakers, the pronunciation of his name piercing his eardrums. “You have exceeded the allotted speed limit and are now subject to a random search. By renewing your driver’s license, you have provided your consent to this search. Please step –”
“I don’t consent to shit,” Kabir muttered angrily.
“By renewing your driver’s license, you have provided your consent to this search,” the robotic voice repeated. “Please step out of your car to allow for the necessary documentation.”
He grudgingly undid his seatbelt and opened the front door. The wind whipped at his face. He heard the whirring before he saw it. The winged archangel of the State appeared promptly, descending to Kabir’s shoulders. Circling the station wagon, the drone flashed, scanned, and photographed every square inch of the vehicle. Shivering, Kabir watched as the steam from his food escaped through the door.
“Kabir Chaudhary you are being charged for speeding. As part of the America First program, you will need to report to district court within the next seven days. Failure to appear will trigger a warrant for your immediate arrest. Do you understand these notifications?”
“Do you understand deez nuts?” Kabir murmured under his breath, climbing back into his car. The snow had covered it in a blanket of white.
Forty-five minutes later than he planned, he pulled into his driveway. Grabbing his food – now cold – he slammed the car door shut. Taking one last look around in the fading light, he shook his head. The snow had accumulated significantly. What had happened to the suburban dream he had lived as a kid? It wasn’t so long ago that a day like this would be cause for celebration. Now, his parents were gone. Checkpoints marked the streets on which he had grown up. And drones were taking his picture. He watched as his breath dissipated in the freezing air.
Walking into the house, Pangaea greeted him. “Meow to you,” Kabir cooed, momentarily forgetting his rage. Pangaea slinked between his legs, rubbing her chin alongside his calf. Kabir picked the cat up, feeling the vibrations of her purring through her abundant coat. “Someone’s hungry, isn’t she?”
Pangaea’s unexpected appearance in Kabir’s life had eased some of the loneliness from his parents’ absence. It was after an Independence Day protest organized by Kiran Aunty in front of the capitol building that he had stealthily navigated the city to find old friends debating what the Fourth of July meant to them. In a cloudy room, they traded stories about a country of vanishing dreams. Sometime after three in the morning, he found himself arriving back at his house, an incessant whimpering emanating from the side gutter. Following the cries in the dark, he discovered a kitten howling in hunger, the bushy fur on her back knotted with grime. Clumsily he dropped the cat on the kitchen table in front of a bowl of milk – a sight that would have made his mom cringe had she been there. From then on, he was convinced that Pangaea was a sign of cosmic protection from worse things to come.
He slipped off his shoes, and the pair made straight for the kitchen. After scooping Pangaea’s food into her bowl, he dumped his own out onto a plate. While the whirr of the microwave made assurances to bring his dinner back to life, Kabir pried open the wooden door of his parents’ armoire. His dad had left a few bottles of scotch at the back that Kabir had been steadily working through over the past months. The snowy night and spicy meal promised redemption from the day’s earlier disaster.
The food was good, but he knew better. It just wasn’t the same re-heated. He preferred it straight off the fire – piping hot. Polishing off the last of the chholle with the extra naan that Saleem Chacha had packed, Kabir looked around to see the clutter of his daily life. Since his parents’ exodus, the house had lost a fair share of its former luster. The kitchen table had been overtaken by flyers and case files, a testament to Kiran Aunty’s determination. The stove was a color palette of spilled masala sprinkles due to Kabir’s attempts at re-creating the flavors he desperately craved.
It wasn’t like Dhaba was his only source for spice. Most families he visited would insist he stay and eat with them. The community meetings Kiran Aunty organized would usually end with a meal brought by one family or another featuring flavors from a different corner of the world. For Kabir, there was hope in these moments.
Returning to the armoire, Kabir reached down for the nearly empty bottle when he spied a cardboard box in the corner. He was certain he had never seen it before. He had grown up in this house and figured by now he had explored every angle of it. He dropped to his knees and opened the box.
On top were photos from his parents’ last weeks in the country. There they stood amongst their friends, bidding final farewells at elaborate dinner parties. Digging through the pile, he found papers upon papers covered in his mom’s handwriting. Some were her notes from home visits with Kiran Aunty. Between sips, he read the harrowing details of a mother sent to a detention center to await deportation proceedings while her children were divided up and placed in group homes run by the State. By now these accounts had become all too familiar to Kabir. But he was shocked to see how his own mother had set the groundwork for the very tasks he had taken up.
Other entries read more like memoirs, Mrs. Chaudhary’s parting thoughts on her life as an immigrant in a land of broken promises. In page after page she recounted her experiences of learning how to drive on the other side of the road, attend back-to-school nights, and ward off telemarketers. Kabir saw his own upbringing through his mom’s eyes. How she insisted that his teachers pronounce his name properly and accepted that her son would speak a form of English that would always sound foreign to her.
He found one entry entitled “Immigrant Defense Fund.” It was a proposal for an emergency bank account. At the end of the page were various serial numbers. Maybe that’s why she had been so focused before they had left, he thought.
As preparations for departure were being made, Mrs. Chaudhary’s time with Kiran Mazumdar had a noticeable impact on her demeanor. While her husband railed against the reality that was ushering him out, she strode around the house with purpose, making decisions on what was to stay with Kabir, be donated, and accompany them back. She also started spending increasing time away from her family. For a few weeks, no one really knew where she was going. When asked, she simply replied, “Oh, doing social service with Kiran. After all these years here, we must give back to those less fortunate.”
“Give back? They’re trying to throw us out and you want to show charity?!” Mr. Chaudhary roared back.
When Mrs. Chaudhary wasn’t spending time with Kiran, she busied herself with the process of saying goodbye. Weekend after weekend, their house would fill with friends. They were mostly other immigrant families, Kabir’s adopted aunties and uncles who had similarly left their homelands many years ago, embracing new accents and vocabularies in the process.
Kabir remembered that during these parties the house would feel lighter. Mr. Chaudhary would encourage their guests to have one more drink or sing one more ghazal, and for a while, things went back to normal. With the lights dimmed, the laughter and music would soften the perpetual anxiety that had come to linger over their lives. Towards the end of each of these evenings, Mrs. Chaudhary would begin to have more hushed conversations with her friends. She would make the case that even though they were leaving, they had to think of the future. After all, Kabir wasn’t going anywhere. It was in these moments when she would make her pitch and start to accumulate the money to fund Kiran’s clandestine movement. Money that would eventually be used to organize rallies, circulate petitions, and bail people out of jail.
It was after one of those parties that Mr. Chaudhary called his son into the garage. He was wearing a pair of dusty, worn boxing gloves. “These were from my high school days in Bombay. I brought them all the way here and they’ve sat in this garage,” he laughed. Turning to his son, suddenly serious, “Boxing taught me a lot. I had to know myself when I fought. In that ring I wasn’t just facing another man. I was facing my fear, my anger. I had to be sure of every move I made.”
Mr. Chaudhary’s face had grown steely and intense. “If you know who you are, you can be completely present. If you don’t, the past will pull you back. Don’t let these people decide for you who you are or where you belong. Whatever you do, Kabir, remember you don’t win the fight with your first attack. Stick with it and leave your mark on this world. Just like Ali did.”
“So, what about staying and fighting here?”
Mr. Chaudhary gave his son a sad smile. “You know we don’t want to leave. In so many ways, this place has become more of a home than anything else we have known. But it is not safe anymore.”
“Then why go?” Kabir’s voice raised, hot with rage. “It’s not like things are any better over there!”
“Kabir, your Nanaji and Nanima are not getting any younger. If anything were to happen to us, who would take care of them? We all have our responsibilities. Yours are here.”
“And what about leaving your mark?”
“My mark?” He paused, taking off the gloves. “Well, I am leaving that behind.”
It was midnight when Kabir had finished going through the box. Looking at his parents’ faces, reading his mom’s words, he could see they never wanted to leave. Even in her last days, she had believed this place was worth fighting for. But when they did depart, it wasn’t because they had accepted defeat. They had left behind their chance at victory.
Warmed from within, Kabir slowly got off the living room floor, leaving behind a montage of pictures and papers strewn about. He methodically dressed for the snow. An extra sweater, boots, a woolen hat his Nanima had knitted, gloves, a scarf to cover his face, and his hoodie. Exiting the house from the back, he kneeled to loosen a jagged stone from the family’s forgotten vegetable garden.
The streets were deserted. It had been a few hours since any truck had tried to plow. A slow and steady stream of snowflakes continued to float through the air. He couldn’t tell if this was just the wind blowing about what was already on the ground or more blessings from above. Trudging through snow that almost reached his knees, he wasn’t worried about being seen. Visibility was already low, and with the wind, even the drones wouldn’t be able to operate.
He couldn’t see the tire marks from where the car had been previously pulled over. The snow had successfully covered up his earlier encounter. The light from the street lamps cast an orange glow which reflected off the frozen landscape. Walking behind the metal box, Kabir was deliberate with it. In one fluid movement, he gripped the sharp stone, tore it from his pocket, and reached around to hit the camera as hard he could. The jagged edge sent shattered glass flying. Kabir furtively glanced around before he doubled back home. There wasn’t a car in sight.
As he entered the house through the back door, Kabir could feel a dull ache creep across every muscle. His body was a tightly wound rope. Pulling off his hat, his hair damp with sweat, he collapsed to the ground, immediately shedding layers. Tearing his wet clothes off, he caught his breath. The thought of sleep couldn’t be any sweeter.
Pangaea was already in his bed when he laid down. With a smile on his face and the echo of glass breaking in his ears, Kabir fell asleep instantly.
It couldn’t have been more than a couple of hours when Pangaea suddenly leapt out of bed and started meowing loudly. Kabir stirred at the cat’s conversation. But as soon as he heard the thumping at the front door, he was wide awake. Three steady bangs. He hadn’t imagined it. Clearly, neither had Pangaea. His heart was pounding as he quietly got out of bed. A dull soreness clung to his muscles, while a thin film of fear suddenly covered him. The first light had begun to filter through the window, as Kabir leaned over to see who – or what – was outside.
There were no cars other than his own. Whoever was at the door had come by foot. He hastily packed his backpack with his laptop and extra clothes. He picked up Pangaea and zipped her up in the biggest section of the bag, leaving only enough room for her head to extend. Kabir could feel the heat from her thick fur against his back.
As he gingerly tiptoed past the front door a folded piece of paper came shooting underneath. Even upside down, he recognized the familiar font announcing new lunch specials. Leaning forward, he could barely make out the outline of a message written in thick marker over the menu. Unsure whether he should read it or run, Kabir saw the note fall open: If you can make it through the night, we will be there for you in the morning.
His heart banged against his chest, rattling his ribs and threatening to smash through his sternum. He took a deep breath and gripped the handle of the door. His heartbeat continued to ricochet off his eardrums. Steadying himself, Kabir swiveled his head one last time to look at his parents’ home before turning the knob.
Gaurav Madan is a writer and activist based in Washington, DC. His non-fiction writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, Vice, and Hindustan Times.