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I am an Indian man in New York

June 18, 2013 21:20 IST

The author Aseem Chhabra in New York'I come from a country of colours. India is one of the most colourful countries in the world and that was true long before the Incredible India campaigns designed to entice Western tourists to India,' says Aseem Chhabra.

Last year, a friend got married in New Jersey. It was a hot summer day and I decided against wearing a suit. Instead I pulled out a red cotton kurta I had bought during an earlier trip to India.

On my way I rode the number 7 train in Queens, switching to a G, heading to Brooklyn. I was supposed to meet another friend in Brooklyn who would drive me in his car to New Jersey.

I was somewhat conscious wearing such a bright coloured outfit. The thought crossed my mind that my kurta would make me stand out, but nobody in the train looked at me even once.

I often joke that the number 7 train is the United Nations of subways with passengers from just about every nationality in the world. People wear many different national outfits in that train, and so obviously my red kurta was no surprise to anyone.

Soon the words of Sting were playing in my head, although a bit modified. I am an alien/I am a legal alien/ I am an Indian man in New York.

I am sure if I were somewhere in the middle of Nebraska or Oklahoma, my kurta from FabIndia would have made me an anomaly. There is a bland, dull American way for men to dress -- suits, plain shirts, pants or jeans.

There is rarely any colour in what most Americans men wear, especially not in the flat lands of middle America. And red is certainly not a colour that is associated with men. That is a colour of choice for Republican women attending Presidential conventions.

Having lived in the US for more than three decades I have seen myself conforming to the American dress code for men. For many years I worked in corporate environments wearing dark suits, light shirts, black shoes.

If there was any colour in my clothes that would appear in my ties, but it had to be subtle, not too loud.

The colour of my skin would set me aside but in all other ways I conformed to the accepted norm. But after a while it gets tiring to be just one of the hundreds of thousands of men in midtown Manhattan, all dressed pretty much identically.

So I much rather not conform anymore. I rarely wear suits now, not even to formal events and weddings.

New York has the unique quality, being a city of immigrants that even now is the Mecca of New Arrivals from far away lands. New York encourages our different-ness. There may have been times -- immediately after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when this different-ness was not an asset.

But New York also has the quality to forget and to move on, to thrive in the different ethnicities of its citizens.

That is the reason why I continue to make this city my home.

Plus I come from a country of colours. India is one of the most colourful countries in the world and that was true long before the Incredible India campaigns designed to entice Western tourists to India.

My red kurta did not make much of an impression at the Indian wedding in New Jersey. But riding in the number 7 train, I almost felt I was making a statement with the outfit of my choice.

It was like I wanted to celebrate the desi in me. It was my way of saying to the other riders of the train -- this is the different me.

I was born in India and brought up in that country. I carry my upbringing, my thought process with me everyday. I am unique like the rest of you. I often think in my mother tongue, but then I speak in our common language -- English.

We talk with different accents and it is okay for us to also sometimes dress differently.

That is what makes New York a special place, a melting pot of so many cultures, foods, languages and clothes.

And there is a room for a desi, and an Indian man in New York to fit in as well, in the red kurta or otherwise.

Aseem Chhabra, programming director for the New York India Film Festival, lives in Sunnyside, Queens, New York. Photograph: Paresh Gandhi/India Abroad

Aseem Chhabra