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An Excerpt from Lunch With a Bigot

Soon, it became clear that Mr. Barotia was going to buy me lunch. We walked to an Indian diner about a ten minutes’ walk away in Jackson Heights. Mr. Barotia behaved like a friendly host and, urging me to try the different dishes, put bits of warm naan on my plate. He also ate with gusto, refilling his plate several times, and as I looked at him, his shirt-front flecked with the food he had dropped there, I saw him as a contented, slightly tired old man who was perhaps getting ready to take an afternoon nap. Earlier, Mr. Barotia had told me that because the Hindus had killed so many Muslims earlier that year in Gujarat, a change had come about. “We have created fear,” he boasted. “Yeh garmi jo hai, main India mein phaila doonga. This heat that is there, I will spread it in India. And those who write against us, their fingers will be cut.” But, for now, he was quietly stuffing pakoras into his mouth: a retired immigrant worker eating in a cheap immigrant restaurant.

Mr. Barotia had told me earlier that day that it was in 1972 that he had arrived in America. For twenty-five years he had worked as a legal secretary in New York City—the bjp man in the restaurant the previous week had told me that Mr. Barotia had been “a typist,” and I had seen from the gesture of his hand that he was being dismissive. Mr. Barotia was also aware of this dismissal in a general way, and he had tried weakly to suggest to me that he had achieved more than he actually had: he said that he had gotten along well with his colleagues at work and they treated him as “a partner in the firm,” and one of them had even called him after the attacks of 9/11 to say: “Jagdish, we thought you were obsessed with Muslims. But you were right.”

After our lunch, one other matter of business remained. Mr. Barotia was going to give me newspaper cuttings and booklets. We walked back to the apartment through the crowded streets of Jackson Heights, and the exercise brought Mr. Barotia back to life. His home is in a locality where Indians and Pakistanis immigrants live together, and, indeed, Elmhurst is said to be the most diverse zip-code area in the whole of United States. I asked Mr. Barotia about his experience of living in this part of the city, and he looked at the Muslims milling around us, the men with beards and caps, women with headscarves, and he spat out abuse. They harass our women, he said, and there is a lot of tension here. Then, suddenly, he began to talk of my wife, whom he has never met. We were passing in front of the Indian grocery and jewelry stores packed together, and Mr. Barotia turned to me and said: “It is okay. You fuck her. And you tell everyone that she is Muslim, and that you keep fucking her! And through her, you keep fucking Islam!”

“What did you do when he said that?” This is what Mona, my wife, asked me when she heard the story. I had called from a public phone near Mr. Barotia’s apartment. Above me was a large sign with black letters painted on a white board: “learn english aprenda ingles.” There was a pause before I replied to Mona’s question. I said that I had done nothing. Wordlessly, I had kept walking beside Mr. Barotia. It would have been more accurate to say that I had made a mental note of what he had said. I had told myself that I needed to write down his words in my notebook as soon as I was back on the train. And that is what I did. Sitting in the train, with three men on the seat opposite me, each one of them wearing identical yellow jerseys and holding aluminum crutches against their knees, I took down notes about what Mr. Barotia had said during our walk back from the lunch. The strange thing is, although perhaps it is not strange at all, that later Mr. Barotia’s words crossed my mind, just when my wife and I had finished having breakfast in our kitchen and there, next to the sink with the empty bowl of cereals, I had begun to kiss her.

Excerpt courtesy of Duke University Press 2015