Magazine article The New Yorker

Butter

Magazine article The New Yorker

Butter

Article excerpt

BUTTER

BY AKHIL SHARMA

The most important thing was loyalty. My older brother had been brain-damaged in a swimming accident and was unable to move or talk. We took him home from the hospital and started caring for him ourselves. This was awful, but loyalty required us to pretend that it was not.

My mother packed my school lunches in the white plastic bags in which my brother's medical supplies arrived. The bags were printed with the pharmacy's name and a list of items they might contain, such as urinary catheters, irrigation trays, liquid suppositories. Sitting in the cafeteria, I worried that someone would notice the bags and I would have to explain. I could have asked my mother to send my lunches in ordinary paper bags. But doing so would have lessened my misery and felt disloyal, because, if my brother and my parents were suffering, I should be, too.

We had moved to the United States, from Delhi, when I was eight, settling first in Queens and then in New Jersey. There weren't many other Indians in my middle school. Those of us who brought Indian food from home all sat at the same table in the cafeteria. Boys would wander by our table and sing, "Shiiit. I smell shiiit." They would lean over our shoulders, look at our food--spicy potatoes, okra, bitter gourd--and gag. Things became worse a few years later, when "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" came out: the movie shows Indians eating snakes and monkey brains. At lunch one day, a black boy asked me what I was eating, and I said snake. "Snake!" he began yelling. He sounded both happy and proud. Soon I was surrounded by a crowd. I wanted to fit in, of course, but even more I wanted to lash out.

My family ate non-Indian food only when relatives were in town. We had some relatives in Virginia who would visit us at Thanksgiving. They were cheerful people. When they came, they stayed up late, playing cards with other Indians who lived in our neighborhood, and they teased my mother for her religiosity by burping loudly and crying, "Brahma speaks!" Our relatives were willing to spend money in a way that we were not. They went to Pizza Hut. This was stressful, because periodically we had to treat.

Pizza Hut, with its strange roof, like a paper boat turned upside down and worn as a hat, seemed European and glamorous. …

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