This anecdote is from an email-blog my friend M sends out on days we are lucky. M is a delight to read, and I want to quote his posts frequently, but my native lassitude gets in the way of all that onerous copying and pasting.
The anecdote he recounted this morning, however, was far too amusing — and terrifying — not to share. Especially since it fulfils the prediction he had made about his return to the US exactly. “If I land in a kurta”, M had said, “I will definitely be pulled out for further questioning”. And he was.
Indices are scary things.
[For reference, M is what is colloquially referred to as ‘white’, and has grown up to a large extent in the United States.]
Reached Boston airport Tuesday evening, walked into the customs hall. The two people on the plane selected for extra enquiries were me and the one brown-skinned man in the crowd. Agents plying the queue swooped on each of us. Mine asked for my documents, then, “Where’d you get that shirt? India? Pakistan?”
“I got it at Gariahat in Kolkata, India.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge.” This is nominally true, as I do hold a visiting appointment there – and trying to explain the whole truth that I recently completed an appointment in India and have an offer from Uni X but have been shortlisted at Uni Y, well, such complexity would only get me into trouble. One of the practical facts that I learnt in India is that the story most consistent with appearances can be more important and more effective than the actual facts – especially when dealing with the authorities.
“I thought it had to be some kind of government work,” said the agent, handing back the passports.
Welcome to America, where if mainstream behaviour isn’t your ambition then there’s something wrong with you, because to be truly democratic is to be truly average.
(I should add here that as a brown woman in jeans and a kurta, I’ve never been held up.)