April 24, 2001
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The Rediff US Special/Suleman Din

Strangers in the Night

It was near midnight, and I was standing in the middle of Uptown Manhattan, lost.

I had finally found my photo assignment (a restaurant) waiting for me near a dark alley, surrounded by graffiti. Twice, police cars blared by, startling me, their flashers strobing brightly in the night. I had been questioned by a few curious passer-by as to why I was there taking photos.

I was also harassed at least once: "Someone get shot here?" the borinqua asked, her girlfriend looking me up and down.

I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. I took my pictures and headed for the subway, but to my dismay, I learned the trains had stopped running. I was directed by a police officer to another station 12 blocks away. He described the numbers of trains and streets in a fashion that only a New Yorker would comprehend.

"I'm not from around here," I said, "Hell, I'm not even from New York."

Some other would-be passengers were listening in. "Woooooh," I heard from behind. I turned; some Mexican women were looking at me as if I was a condemned man.

The policeman shrugged, and left me to the dark streets. I passed boarded up 'dollar shops,' liquor stores and couples leaning against graffiti-laden walls in my search for the station.

I called my wife's home in New Jersey. My father-in-law picked up the phone. I explained to him my predicament. He told me not to get worried, and to hail a cab.

Of course. I just had to find one.

Another 10 minutes of walking around aimlessly was rewarded at last with the spotting of NYC's famous yellow cabs. I approached the banged-up Chevrolet, and noticed the driver was apna bandhay. But as I got close, he flashed the 'off-duty' sign on his roof.

He already was moving when I got to the passenger-side window. "Look, it's a big fare," I told him. But he wouldn't listen, pointing to the street ahead. I swore at him in Punjabi as he left me at the curbside.

Suddenly I became aware of an African-American woman watching me. "Are you lost?" she asked. I told her my predicament. "Oh, I was coming from the other station too," she said. Relieved, I asked if I could join her, and she said, yes.

Her name was Shenoya, and she'd lived in New York for all her life. I told her that I was from San Jose, California, and she laughed, and asked me what I was doing in down-and-out Washington Heights. I wished she could have asked my editors that same question.

After walking for another 15 minutes, we reached the train station. I sat down with her on a bench, and we kept talking. The conversation turned to travel. She told me about her trips to South America, and the Caribbean. I told her that I had been to India and Pakistan, among other places.

"Oh, I'd like to go to Bangladesh," she said innocently enough. "Maybe next year."

I was intrigued. "Why Bangladesh?" I asked.

"My husband is from Bangladesh," she said.


I was astounded. I would expect a Bangla bride for a Bangla man. But a street-smart woman like this, born and raised in New York? I wondered who her husband was.

"His name is Saleh," she said.

For a second, the image of a green-card hunting immigrant, thin with a moustache, ready to marry any American, came to mind. I took a look at Shenoya again. Dressed in a slick red leather jacket and tight cobalt-blue jeans, she wouldn't be the type to get married to someone 'fresh off the boat'. Maybe her Bangladeshi man grew up in New York too, and was a 'hoody' desi, with baggy FUBU jeans, gold front teeth and the like.

"How long have you been married to him now?" I asked.

"Since December," she said.

"Oh, newlyweds, congratulations."

She stayed quiet, and stared at the tracks with her eyebrows pointing up.

"I want a divorce now," she said.

"Oh," I said, caught off-guard. "I'm sorry to hear that."

"Hah. You're sorry? I'm sorry myself for marrying him!"

I didn't know what to consider more strange, the fact that I was having a personal conversation with a complete stranger in a New York subway station at the dead of night, or that an African-American woman was telling me how Bangladeshi men were lousy husbands.

"What's the matter with him," I asked, relying on some stereotypes of desi men. "He doesn't let you have your freedom?"

"That's right," she said. "He doesn't like me going out with my friends, but he never comes out with me. He gives me drama about how I come home late, and I tell him, I'm gonna come home when I feel like it."

"Does he expect you to cook for him when he gets home?"

"I got no problems with cooking," she said. "I love to cook. It's just that you can't tell me to cook and expect me to just stay at home all the time too."

Our train finally came, and we boarded it alone, and talked about New York life. Saleh didn't come up again until we got off to transfer to another line. Shenoya was explaining how little time she had as a medical student at NYU.

"You're studying medicine?" I asked. "I'm sure Saleh likes that."

"Yeah, he likes it enough to pay for it," she said with a chuckle.

She told me that Saleh owned a gas station. I asked her how she met him. She told me that she grew up knowing him. "When I was a little girl, he used to pat me on the head, and tell me that one day I would be his wife," she said with a smirk. "Well, I did ..."

"How old is Saleh?" I asked.

"Oh, he's 56, I think," she said. "About 30 years older than me."

I tried to hide my astonishment again. Not a new immigrant, not a hoodlum desi. An Uncle, khuda deh vaastai. She married an Uncle, a man old enough to be her father.

And then she became glum again. "He's never been married, never had children. And now he wants to have children, but I'm not ready for that yet. I'm studying, and I'm working long hours in the hospital. I have no time for children right now, and I told him that."

You can't blame him for wanting to have some children, I said. He's old enough to be a grandfather now.

"Well, I don't know," she said. "He can always get married to someone else now."

We were silent, and I took that moment to consider the strange relationship between this young African-American woman, and her old, Bangladeshi husband. I was searching for a way home, and on the way, found a new twist, forged in the melting pot of America, of what 'home' could now be for me and every desi who comes to this county.

She smiled as the lights from the oncoming train in the tunnel became brighter and the rumble from the tracks became louder.

"I'm going to go to Bangladesh to meet his parents," she said. "I want to meet them. I don't care if they don't like me, I don't care even if they don't want to meet me. I'm going to go."

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