By Indu Subaiya
Los Angeles, California, November 7, 2016, the day before the election
At the kindergarten parent-teacher conference, Mrs. Perez says Nikolai is doing fine, but if it’s ok with us, she’d like to tell us about herself today. She’s scared about the election because her husband was deported once for a crime he didn’t commit, a case of mistaken identity that took two years to correct. By the time he was allowed back in the U.S., he’d missed his daughter’s entire babyhood. They saw him on short trips to Mexico during that time, but her daughter, who’s the same age as Nikolai, still suffers from anxiety attacks whenever her dad leaves the room. And now, with the election looming, they’re afraid he’ll be sent away again.
November 9, 2016, the day after the election
The first thing Nikolai said this morning was, “Who is president?” It’s not a good answer, I told him. “Donald Trump?” he asked. I nodded, then added (I had to add something), “But you know he said he would try really hard to be a good president and try to help everybody—“. Nikolai interrupts, “Well just make sure it’s not like when Liz left the goldfish bowl at Jon’s because she went on vacation and Jon said to Garfield, Don’t eat the fish. And Garfield said, I won’t. Then Odie started barking and Garfield said, Quiet Odie, I’m trying to tell a lie.”
I had held up almost perfectly through the bloodletting of last night at Public House where we watched the returns come in. Even as the elderly volunteer-trainer from the phone bank in Pasadena a few weekends ago starting shouting uncontrollably in between spells of drinking quietly. But now, alone, making coffee, it was as if my whole body cried. I felt something besides a personal pain. It was like the pain of others running through me, over me, a fast train, the bottomless fears, the crumpled, folded hearts across this country.
Fragments of a battle anthem wrote themselves in my head. Today is the day I become a partisan. We don’t need to listen. We don’t need to validate. We need to excise and excommunicate.
San Francisco, California, Thanksgiving, 2016
I launch a website I’ve spent days and days working on called letsgoaction.com. It’s a table of contents of all the domains of social life I believe are under attack and for each, a curated list of organizations and resources people can turn to to take action. The subtitle says “Turn (dis)belief into action. We are all activists now.” I struggle through HTML placing each category on the site: reproductive rights, immigration, the environment, LGBQT rights, and with every word and phrase, I’m intentionally abstracting and disaggregating myself, in an effort to support the efforts of others.
Salem, Oregon, December 11, 2016
We are in my brother’s living room rearranging furniture to create a makeshift altar. My brother and his fiancé have chosen to have their legal wedding explicitly before inauguration; they jokingly call it their protest wedding. The couple, a beautiful young Indian man and a blond-haired, green-eyed midwestern beauty stand in front of an Obama Hope poster as their friend, a tall African-American man with a fantastic mustache deserving of its own museum marries them. It’s just the immediate family and a bunch dogs on a wintry day in suburban Oregon, but it feels like millions around the country are cheering this union.
Christmas Eve, 2016, Long Island, New York
I’m back on Long Island, my first stop in America, the place I moved to from India when I was 9, after my mother died, and my father remarried. It was a place I didn’t inhabit by choice and perhaps a little unfairly, the child snob in me sentenced it to a kind of purgatory. Having neither the warmth and colors of India, nor the intellectual appeal of Manhattan, it was the empty middle, a place where immigrants got stuck on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; the requirement for food and shelter had been met and now you needn’t be ashamed of a lifetime of study of the perfect golf stroke.
Long Island this time of year looks barely there. The leafless trees create a transparency, a thinness to the landscape. Without the foliage, entirely new views reveal themselves. Like Shelter Rock, a granite hunk 55-feet-high and 35-feet-wide deposited by a glacier more than 10,000 years ago that’s only now visible over the fence along the road for which it’s named. It’s a “glacial erratic,” a piece of rock that differs from the size and type of rock native to the area in which it rests.
We’re driving down Shelter Rock Road to Christ Church. For most of my years growing up, we were the only family at Christ Church that wasn’t white, and not just white, but a specific Anglican white. Families whose ancestors were buried outside with headstones from the 1700s, who still looked English. And now we were a caravan of an extended family, Indian, Jewish, Muslim, Filipino and Italian. In church we will take up two colorful pews.
“Be not afraid,” the young priest begins. “The shepherds lived in fear that as a nomadic, poor people, in a single moment, all could be lost. What is the message for us today? Be not afraid, that Christ is able to dwell among us, that he knows us in our humanity. There is nothing to be afraid of. Be not afraid.”
My dad makes large crisp crepe-like pancakes called dosas, but he has a spin on them, he makes egg dosas. This is worthy of a serious street food critic. Opening presents goes long as our ritual of overdoing it is observed once again. And we have Nikolai and the in-laws to be, which add to the ceremony. After presents, we sit down to Christmas lunch with an Indian turkey, potatoes, lentils, dad’s green chili and tomato curry, basmati rice, and puffy Indian bread called puri.
No one’s political position seems clear. Sebastian, my sister’s fiancé, says he changed from Green Party to Democratic party just to vote in the primaries this year. My stepmother proclaims she wants to switch from Democratic to Independent. And my father, a registered Republican, anti-Hillary, is unspoken yet on Trump.
“Oh my god” Blake says to his phone, “George Michael just died.” Remember “Last Christmas?” We listen as he reads the news. This is the year we also lost Prince and David Bowie. And on a faraway coast, Princess Leia lies in a coma. She was taking an ordinary flight when she lost consciousness, nothing compared to travel at light-speed.
January 21, 2017, Inaugural Women’s March, Day 1 of Trump’s presidency
Thousands upon thousands of women converge on DC in preparation for the historic Women’s March. I’m in the company of females aged 6 to 76. We’re buoyant, but on TV there’s footage of riots and tear gas. My father texts me from New York, “Where are u.” I call back and say, “It’s me, I’m the one throwing bricks into windows. I hope you have enough bail money.” He laughs one of those laughs where he tears up at the end, going from terrified to amused to relieved in a nanosecond, and that makes his heart release. After I reassure him I’m safe, he hands the phone to my stepmother who says, “Didn’t Melania look beautiful?” and there it is. The puncture in my buoyancy. Is it an innocent comment? Is it a political endorsement? I manage to say something marginally diplomatic about the election results, how we’ll have to see, and now that he’s president I hope he does what’s best, and I should go. I am gasping for air.
Maybe it’s being in the company of all these generations of women, but that puncture lets in another grief. My mother, who I’ve been in the midst of mourning in an unexpected and vastly delayed reaction to her death more than 40 years ago, would never have thought Melania looked beautiful. My mother never wore makeup. My mother would have been at the march with me, fighting at my side. My mother isn’t getting to see any of this. Yet it validates everything she worked for and believed.
I like to think she would have consoled me as we watched the inauguration speech. But where is she? The sadnesses, personal, political, familial, have finally met and need time to mingle.
Los Angeles, Saturday, January 28, 2017, Day 8
I wake to news of detainees in JFK. I join a bunch of on-the-fly Facebook groups and suggest all drivers on the exit roads out of JFK turn off their engines in peaceful resistance.
I march at 300 North Los Angeles, the federal building downtown. No ban, no wall, and Deport Trump – I write this on a page ripped out of a journal in thin pen. It’s awkward but I get cheered on as Blake drops me off and I join the crowd. I redo the sign on a paper plate with big thick markers a family brought to share.
My father is at JFK that day picking my brother up at the airport. He tells me he didn’t see much, there wasn’t a big protest or anything, the news is exaggerating. Was he there at a different time? What did he mean by “see”?
Sunday, January 29, 2017, Day 9
My brother finds out from a cousin that my father voted for Trump. I have been feeling for a while that my stepmother did, too. The news is shocking in that it doesn’t shock me. I call my parents, without asking whether it is true or not. They seem ambivalent, quiet, torn. I want to say to my parents, it’s ok, I forgive you. You were taken advantage of. You haven’t studied the same history. But I choose silence. We talk briefly, awkwardly, at the edges of the topic. I speak to my brother. I tell him I want you to know that I don’t want who anyone voted for to come between us. He asks, “But how could they have come to the wedding – my protest wedding? I don’t get it.” It feels like the first time he’s confronting something truly challenging, maybe even momentarily unlikeable about our parents. But my sister and I have had practice.
Monday, January 30, 2017, Day 10
I’ve never been openly political in my professional role at Health 2.0, and no one else seems willing to talk about the implications of this new president. I write an Op/Ed opposing Tom Price for Health and Human Services Secretary on the grounds he’ll be bad for patients and bad for the health innovation economy. The Senate is meeting for a vote. I ask my friend Karuna to print out the OpEd and courier it over to Capitol Hill. I am fine harboring the delusion they’ll read my letter before making a decision.
Tuesday, January 31, 2017, Day 11
Senate Finance Committee Dems boycott the committee vote. Bobby Gladd’s blog picks up my op-ed and and folks with large followings like Lygeia and Matthew share it. Family from all corners of the globe send me sweet messages. My cousin, my aunt. It feels good. Bobby titles my piece “The Price is Not Right. Indu Subaiya Speaks Out.”
I go for a walk for the first time in a long while. After a long and tired hibernation. The Silverlake meadow is dazzling. Everything light yellow and green and damp and the birds are out and the wind so still the Japanese lanterns hanging from a tree near my car don’t move, at least not to the human eye.
February 24, 2017, Day 35
I write to my parents: Enough is Enough. If you love your kids, drop Trump. This article shows the climate this administration has cause in this country. Two indian men, engineers, young, with families, hindus where shot in a bar in Kansas City by a white navy vet who yelled “go back to your country.” Please read and please open your eyes – i have respect for the republican party but this is not the republican party, this is a climate of hate that is getting out of hand.
My stepmother writes back immediately, “you’re right.” It’s a small victory, and I appreciate her generosity, but it cannot bring back Srinivas and it cannot turn back this election. In this moment, I blame the election for his death. And I feel useless doing so.
April 5, 2017, Day 75
Paul Davis trains us on “birddogging” – a way of questioning elected officials publicly that forces them to answer in a such a way that you get them to either make a commitment you can hold them to, or to reveal a weakness in their position for all the world to see. He wears his hair long, dredded, full, in a ponytail, but in the back is a bald spot he seems too young for. Like there’s a road weariness to his journey. He’s been in more than 30 cities in three weeks, training people in this technique. As we prepare for the session, he asks me, “Have you ever been poor?” I’m stumped. We didn’t have much in the way of material things in India, but no, I never felt poor. His family has been in Georgia for generations, and as far back as he can remember, he’s wanted “to extract things from bad men.”
Berlin, June 23, 2017, Day 155
At dinner last night in Berlin, a reporter for the left wing German paper “Jungle World” said there’s been discussion about what German cities can learn from US sanctuary cities on immigration and refugee issues. I’m stunned that no matter how badly we mess up as a country, the rest of the world still looks to us as a model.
Paris, July 1, 2017, Day 163
I take a photo across the tracks at the Place Saint-Michel subway station. People from so many countries, so much color. This is Paris, beautiful in its history and made more beautiful by its present-day diversity.
Amsterdam, July 3, Day 165
Our room has a view of the canals in Amsterdam, but this morning I’m meditating on a feeling I can’t quite put my finger on, that I decide to eventually call “that American kindness.” I write about this in a Facebook post and link to a few stories for the 4th of July that made me cry. I add, “We love this country because it is made of us, imperfect dreamers with big hearts who never give up.”
Adam Driver delivers surprise scholarship to military family.
Strangers buy car for Texas man who walked miles to work.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to defy Trump Immigrant Executive Order.
San Francisco, Thanksgiving Day, Day 307
Over Thanksgiving, we disobey the rules of discussing politics with family. What could go wrong? With my husband’s family, we were all on team blue. But a few glasses of wine in and I’m in an argument about religion with my in-laws who are proud atheists. “But don’t you believe in the soul,” I ask? Have you ever lost someone you love?” And then the conversation cleaves, “And how can you believe so single-mindedly in one political party – isn’t that a kind of religion?” My friend Angeline starts crying because her father, a conservative from Texas is starting to show signs of dementia. She’s struggled with their political differences but now what she cares about is whether he’ll be able to understand how much she loves him and whether she’ll ever know if he’s truly proud of her.
New York City, November 27, 2017, Day 312
I call my father from JFK en route to Helsinki. “Guess where I am for just an hour?” I say. He laughs just like I knew he would. It’s his affectionate, you got me, laugh – the kind he’d use when telling stories with a surprising twist at the end, he’d laugh to himself first before giving away the punchline, which made it less funny to everyone, but no less charming. He hasn’t fully absorbed the talk on the future of healthcare that I”m giving at Slush. “I’m going to be hanging out with Al Gore,” I joke. “Al Gore,” he states more than asks. “So is this about the environment?” The question has a rising tension, I hear it as if it’s getting louder. “No, no,” I diffuse,” it’s a tech conference. I’m speaking in front of 12,000 people.” “Oh my god,” he says drawing out the god. “12,000 people?” “Yup, it’s the largest tech conference in Finland, they want me to speak about healthcare.” A pause. “You know, you should really…why don’t you be a politician next?” Because I’m starting a bag company next, I laugh. He laughs back, “right, how’s that going?” We banter through the end of the conversation. I don’t add: and also, you wouldn’t like my politics.
Los Angeles, December 5, 2017, Day 319
My Uber driver and I talk about the wildfires in Ventura. “I’m born and brought up in LA.” Did you have wildfires when you were growing up, I ask. “Yes, we did. But maybe one a year. And that’s it. Not like this. My sister, she works in 911. She could go home everyday. But now they put beds in there and she has to stay the night. They’re fighting 3 or 4 at the same time. It’s people you know.” People? “People start them. People don’t realize. But most of them are started on purpose.” Why, I ask. “Oh, they’ll say it started in a homeless encampment. But that’s just to throw them off the trail, so the guy that did it thinks okay, I’m off the hook. But they know what they’re doing and they find them.” Really? “All the time. My sister sees it.” But why? “They say it’s like a sexual thing. Like…uh…like they have to.” I’m embarrassed and I don’t try and help him out. “Like they have to release some sexual energy. The fire when it burns, it gets them off. Look at that, saved you 14 minutes, took this other route. I know this city. I’m from here.”
The melting icecaps near Finland are directly linked to California’s droughts. As the northern icecaps melt, patterns of warm air create new currents and walls of air pressure build. One of these walls is only getting stronger around California and blocks off the coast entirely, pushing storms up to the Pacific Northwest. Projections have it that this will only get more severe and we will see drastic change in just 30 years. We are all arsonists.
December 9, 2017, Day 323
At a dinner party in a renovated mid-century modern house in Highland Park, a friend of mine pushes through the guests to introduce me to Yosi. He stands out from the dressed-up-for-Christmas crowd, wearing a plaid, flannel shirt and sporting a beard. His work centers at the intersection of art, culture, communications, and social justice. So, for example? I ask. “For example, I commissioned the Hope poster from Shepard Fairey. It’s bringing artists to the table, not just to get the word out about a policy after the fact. But to be part of designing policy in the first place. The only way change happens is cultural change.” So how do you change culture? “You use culture to change culture. Foundations have supported this work at a million dollars plus each year under the past administration, but now, it’s unclear.” I can hear the fear in his voice. People like Yosi had been heroes for eight years, welcomed and celebrated at the White House. This year they’ve seemed lost, waiting, wondering about their status.
Los Angeles, 5th night of Hanukkah, 2017, Day 330
My father-in-law sings the Hanukkah prayer and lights the menorah on our mantle crowded with photos of our family from all corners of the world. The boys wear odd things to cover their heads, a too-tight Christmas cap from Chuck E. Cheese, a woman’s fedora.
At dinner, the women gathered talk about our mothers and stepmothers. We notice that all of us have mothers whose politics differ from our own. Older women, Midwestern, Southern, Eastern, immigrant, Jewish, Christian, Hindu. All of us daughters are on the west coast now but we are not estranged from these women; we are unwilling to give up one set of bonds for another. Among us we are studio execs, therapists, writers and visual artists. We note that the Women’s March a year ago made it seem like all of us around the world were rising up together. How is it then that we felt so far apart from women in our own families? Maybe we should interview our moms, we brainstorm, half jokingly. But I sense we’re hoping that maybe that will be a way to make sense of it all.
I remember how, on the flight back from the Women’s March in D.C. nearly a year ago, the black woman next to me said many of her friends didn’t feel connected to the march. And how another social media connection whose politics are liberal says she’s not going to the Women’s march this year because they’re still excluding women who are pro-life; she believes this is harmful to the cause. I remember how my friend and I changed the landing page of my activist site www.letsgoaction.com to a graphical image of a woman and the slogan, Accept our Existence or Face Resistance. I haven’t updated the site since then. It lies suspended.
As we talk more about our families I think about how this year had turned private spaces inside out and forced us to internalize public spaces. And in the mixing of these dislocations, will there be combustion or a more perfect recombination?
Marsian, the avante guard puppet artist, posts a video of himself doing a handstand in front of a yoga studio in slow motion. The world is upside down. I wonder about the Women’s March of the coming year. I wonder what it will really be the anniversary of.
Tulum, Mexico, December 21, 2017, Day 335
It’s the winter solstice. I walk onto the beach with my cup of coffee and draw the numbers 1- 6 in the sand as I leave an offering to the ocean of intentions for the new year. None of them are accomplishments or deliverables. This is not a checklist. I tell myself these are more like oscillations around a central tension. On the one hand, to explore. On the other hand, to reconcile. I walk around the numbers, reciting in my mind the words that stand out to me about each. My footprints create a kind of woven wreath around them. Demarcating and protecting them temporarily till the waves dissolve their boundaries.
Later we climb the tallest remaining Mayan pyramid in Coba. After January 1, 2018 the pyramid will be closed off to climbing. Nikolai scrambles up ahead of me and as I follow him, I realize that I’m looking into a heady, vertiginous fear. The steps are slippery, other climbers are careless and old, carrying large packs that could easily bump a small person if they aren’t looking. I feel fear dissolve my pelvis, my lower abdomen. I’m above the tree line to my left and to my right, there are no markers but the clouds. I’m suspended in an unconscious, waking prayer; there is no way out but up, toward Nikolai. One mistake and it will be instant death. I can do nothing to protect my child. We make it up and then down again and midway I stop to tell myself: I conquered my fear. But it isn’t a victorious feeling. There is no victory in not dying.
Diamond Bar, California, Christmas Day, 2017, Day 344
Adrian Mathias, a distant relative, as all Mangalorean Catholics are to each other, tells me the reason there’s a higher incidence of coronary artery disease in the community is we store fats because of vast stretches of famine in our part of India. It is an evolutionary benefit no longer needed. “But then what happens when we ourselves are no longer needed?” on a turn he’s stretched our conversation into outer space. He’s telling me about his friend’s Tesla, “it practically takes the exit for you. You come to a party, it goes looking for parking. This is not something in the future. This is today, their cheapest model. 35 thousand bucks.” I can feel his awe and fear of obsolescence at the same time.
This Christmas my parents, siblings and I don’t gather in a big and colorful immigrant huddle. We spend it apart. Logistics, the fatigue of travel, we tell each other. But maybe we seek the expanse of a whole country between us. The ability to define family in a smaller and quieter circumference while trusting we are still part of a whole. Resistance both within our family and in the outside world had felt claustrophobic at times. Like space was contracting. The fear, rational or not, that life itself could be stamped out. But as the year ends, there is neither the yielding nor the implosion we feared, nor the relief from suspension we’d hoped for. Could this feeling be something else, the confidence that we don’t have to aggregate to stabilize: an expansion.
January 18, 2018, Two days before the anniversary of inauguration
I walk around the reservoir on the phone with my father who is giving me advice on navigating my new corporate role. Over the year he’s been an enthusiastic advisor on this topic, a surprising master at office politics! He’s said things like “always end emails with a question.” He’s said, tell him “if you want me to move over here, I might miss the ball over there; I need more resources.” Today it’s another of his famous English-as-a-second-language attempts at modifying American proverbs, “What good is it to know which side of the bread is buttered if you don’t know how to lick it?” Indeed, I nod. I feel closest to my father in these conversations. We both enjoy strategy, reading people, finding the best way through human mazes. “But mostly beta (child),” he continues, “in the depths of your heart, believe he is a good person. That what he is doing is for the good of the company. In your heart, you must believe he is good.”
Sacramento, California, January 20th, 2018, The Anniversary of Inauguration, one day before the anniversary of the Women’s March
I’m holed up in a ballroom in the Embassy Suites next to the Golden Bridge in Sacramento with about 40 other constituents to discuss a roadmap for the Single Payer movement in California. As the Women’s March walked by a few blocks away we stayed indoors, though many of us had been part of last year’s event. This year we wanted to do more than resist; we wanted results.
The Senator from District 2 – that it takes six hours to drive across, that’s an even mix of conservatives and progressives – says , “we know we want healthcare for all, but we can’t raise taxes and we don’t have the cooperation of our federal government. And we don’t have a plan for how it will actually work.” With every reason for gridlock given, I feel more boxed in.
But as I look to my right, I see student leaders from Chico State and UCSB, UCSD and Berkeley representing a diverse set of communities; their faces just look like California. On my left are people who’ve supported the movement for longer than the right side of the room has been alive. By complete accident, I’m sitting in the middle. I’m not alone. I know something about this space. And it’s only January.
January 31, 2018
We’re firmly in the New Year now and I’m circling the Silverlake reservoir again. My father’s advice has sometimes hit sideways and stunned me; repeating itself in my head for many years as I see examples of what he means. I wonder, was his vote for Trump about self-serving denial, a kind of Stockholm syndrome among Indians who’d lived through centuries of colonial rationalizing, or was it a complicated but genuine belief in the goodness of this administration’s intentions; an immigrant’s defiant need to hope? As I turned the corner where the walking path curves steeply uphill, I chose to make room for this to be true. Also.
In your heart, you must believe he is good. And maybe that last bit wasn’t about my boss, or code for how he felt about Trump. Maybe it was actually for me, for us.
About the writer
Indu Subaiya is a writer, filmmaker and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles by way of Bangalore, India. She wrote and directed the short film, “The Apartment” which won jury recognition at the Indian World Film Festival and the World International Music and Film Festival. She’s working on a collection of essays about the role of the maternal in her journey as an immigrant, activist and mother. She is a physician by training and the co-founder of Health 2.0, a health technology conference company.
If you would like to respond to Indu’s piece, please send it to I.firstname.lastname@example.org, and make sure to put Indu’s name in the subject line.