NEW YORK – It’s easy enough to gauge what a new immigrant gains from living in New York City, as he acclimatizes, assimilates a new life with its myriad complexities, learns bits and pieces of new languages, conforms to the vagaries of a new homeland. But what does he lose in the process?
The loss, or the vestige of loss, is perhaps harder to comprehend, as Kayhan Irani, an Emmy award winning writer, a performer and an ‘artivist’, explained, in a fascinating panel discussion at the Jaipur Literature Festival, held at the Asia Society, in New York, on September 20, 2018.
The process of loss begins, ironically, at the time of assimilation itself, Irani, a Gujarati-origin Indian American, said, at the panel, entitled’ ‘The City of Many Tongues,’ focused on life as New Yorkers.
The panel was moderated by the writer Kanishk Tharoor, the author of the collection of short stories, ‘Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories’, and joined by Alia Malek, Ruchira Gupta and Ross Perlin.
“The forces of assimilation are too strong for me to fight back,” said Irani, talking about how she emigrated to New York City during the Iran hostage crisis. Though she had a name which was linked to a country much despised in America then, she was neither looked upon as an Iranian or an Indian because of her unconventional looks. She was, instead, mistaken in neighborhoods for a Hispanic person, a Puerto Rican, or a Greek, or Jewish – anything but her true self.
In time, Irani explained, she learnt Spanish, a language which she is now more conversant and fluent than the native language that she grew up with in India.
“The loss of language is a beautiful, gradual loss,” said Irani, who poetically explained the dissolution as a ship which slowly drifts further away into the water, disappears over the horizon till only the mast is seen.
Irani was awarded a New York Emmy award for writing ‘We Are New York’ – a TV series created for immigrant New Yorkers to improve their English and learn about city services.
Gupta, a social justice activist, and founder-president of Indian anti-sex-trafficking organization, Apne Aap Women Worldwide, talked about why she loved New York, as it’s the city of “resistance” which people accepted, once they got into the flow of living here.
“Immigrants (in the city) can still talk in their language,” Gupta said of New York City, explaining, how growing up in a strict Gandhian socialist family, in Kolkata, use of English was frowned upon, and she learnt to fluently read and write in Bengali.
New York is also a city derived from “class” structures of its own, Gupta opined, warning against romanticizing the city for its diversity.
“(This city) has a language class. We cannot romanticize it. From accents I can make out who went to boarding school in Connecticut, and who went to public school in Harlem,” Gupta said.
On the hindsight, though, is also the phenomenon of the city subway which negates class, takes people to common destinations.
“Somebody wearing a fur coat can share a seat with a very religious person,” pointed out Malek, a Syrian American journalist, former civil rights lawyer, and writer.
Malek also talked about the divisions in society caused by the Trump travel ban, which targeted some countries with a majority Muslim population.
“The schism between the Arab world and the US world happens most in New York City,” said Malek, the author of ‘A Country Called Amreeka: US History Re-Told Through Arab American Lives, and editor of ‘Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post 9/11 Injustices’. Her narrative nonfiction book, ‘The Home That Was Our Country: A Memoir of Syria’, was released last year. “There have been parallel Americas since 1800s,” she added.
Perlin, a writer and linguist, co-director of the Endangered Language Alliance, said that immigrants were the engine that keeps the city running.
“Immigrants are the real world of New York City,” he said, talking about the landmark year 1965, when the immigration floodgates opened, and immigrants from around the world started to make their way to America, including from India.
“Since 1965, there has been hyper diversity in New York,” he said.
The panelists also talked about the ‘g’ word, gentrification – which is changing the class structure of New York City, how working class people are being forced to live further and further away, with wealthy developers taking over entire neighborhoods to cater to affluent residents.
“There is a pronounced anxiety now (in neighborhoods) how newcomers are different,” said Irani, who delved into the class divide between Manhattanites, from those living in Queens or Brooklyn.
Perlin explained the phenomenon succinctly, terming the five boroughs of New York City, with its demarcated class, and wealth differences – neighborhood to neighborhood, as an “archipelago of villages.”
“These archipelago of villages are connected by the longest tunnels and bridges in the world,” Perlin said.
(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)