Jesse Owens, Mr. Harris, and Me

By NINA McCONIGLEY

This is how my mother tells it. Jesse Owens taught her to run. I am thirteen. I have just come back from track practice. I have no skill at anything athletic. But junior high for me has been a series of attempts to assimilate. That year in the yearbook, there isn’t a club I’m not in—Chess Club, Stamp Collecting, French Club, Honors Society—and because track is the only sport you do not have to try out for, they’ll take anyone, I sit in the front row of the photo, a dark spot in the expanse of white faces.

I have never heard of Jesse Owens. “He won the Olympics,” my mother says. He was black. He came to India. He came to her Anglo-Indian school and taught them to run—a group of Indian girls, all in white dresses and tennis shoes with soles like paper. It was 1955, eight years after India became independent.  He told us to keep our bodies low and our arms swinging. That’s how you run, she said. The next time I go to track practice, I run as she advises. I still come out dead last. I look a bit like a penguin, wings flapping, never taking flight.

Years later, I look up Jesse Owens. He won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, disproving Hitler’s notion of Aryan athletic supremacy. After the Olympics, Owens came back to a segregated America and struggled to make a living. He worked as a sports promoter, in a dry-cleaning business, and as a gas station attendant. At one time, he made money by racing against horses—there are grainy YouTube videos of him running around a field, a horse trailing behind with a jockey bobbing on its back.

Subsequently, he became a goodwill ambassador for the U.S., and  India was one of the first places he was sent. To Delhi, Bombay, and Madras. There is a story in a 1955 LIFE magazine documenting his trip. There are pictures of him having a turban wrapped on his head, and of his arrival in the Delhi airport looking as if he is wearing a thick white turtleneck—the stacks  of garlands that ring his neck.

 

The truth is, I hate running. Growing up in Wyoming, to run at altitudes over a mile-high smarts your lungs. By the time I get to high school, I am desperate to get out of taking PE. It is in the locker room that I feel my difference most keenly. Stripped of clothes, changing into my T-shirt and shorts, my body brown and thin, I feel the white all around me. Leaning over, topless while  I get a scoliosis check in the locker room, I dangle my arms to my sides  while a line of white girls wait behind me. To opt out of PE, you have to run two miles in eighteen minutes. If you can do that, you can skip a semester of swimming, a year of lifting weights, and a winter of running laps indoors.  I cannot run, but fear propels me around the track. I swing my arms as I run loop after loop. I cross the finish line a few seconds past eighteen minutes.  I’ll give it to you, says the track coach. I’ll take it, I say.

 

When I am twenty-three, I go to India for the first time. The first morning, flush with excitement and jet lag, I slip out of the house and walk onto the street. As I stand there, it is the first time in my life, far from Wyoming, that I have not been in the minority. I throw myself into the trip much like my junior-high self. I want to try it all. I want to wear flowers in my hair. I want to ride in an auto rickshaw. I want to wear only salwar kameezes and to wear gold jewelry. I buy a small notebook and write down phrases in Tamil. I eat idlis and want my food spicy. My auntie, who has stocked her house with cornflakes, white bread, and soda, gives me the ultimate compliment: You are so Indian!  I rub coconut oil in my hair at night, and lying in bed, smelling the sweet smell, think I have won. I have won at being Indian. A friend of my aunties registers her surprise when she hears my accent. I thought you were Indian!, she says. I’ll take it, I think.

 

I am reading A Passage to India. I am twenty-eight. There is a small scene, which takes place early in the book, when a character’s car breaks down by the side of the road. The chauffeur is a half-Indian man named Mr. Harris. He appears only in this scene, for less than half a page. He is left with the car while the passengers get another ride:

They sped off, and Mr. Harris, after a reproachful glance, squatted down upon his hams. When English and Indians were both present, he grew self-conscious, because he did not know to whom he belonged. For a little he was vexed by opposite currents in his blood, then they blended, and he belonged to no one but himself.

This is the first time I have met myself on the page, have seen a character like me in fiction. Am I troubled by the two currents in my blood? I am not sure.

 

When I write my book, I think: Here is the way you fix the currents. You write it. If you put it on the page, you are okay. Write about how the first time you learned to put on a sari was when your mother was riddled with cancer and asked you to make sure not to bury her in Western clothes; you practiced for a funeral. How the first time you cooked Indian food was when she stopped eating after weeks of chemo. Write about the time your mother put a sari on a Wyoming man no one knew was a cross-dresser. Write about the times you dressed as a Native American for every Halloween, as your parents, who had not grown up with Halloween in their native countries, often forgot to buy you a costume. You’d make a makeshift headband with a feather and go out to collect your candy. You are Indian! So much of it is putting on and taking off. Maybe that’s all that identity is.

 

This winter, I go to India for two book festivals. I arrive in Chennai and almost immediately head to the festival. Around me are the people I want to connect with. Writers, thinkers, artists. And yet I don’t talk to any of them. I lurk on the periphery, watching them. Before my first panel, I sit in the coolness of the “Authors’ Lounge” by myself. All around me I can hear people having smart conversations about Modi, about the role of censorship in India. What could I add to the conversation? That I am a small-town girl from Wyoming who wanted to understand her Indianness? It felt so small, so clichéd. During the first panel, I say so little, as if my own head keeps playing a tape: You are not Indian enough to be here. One of the organizers of the festival admits to me that when she saw my name on the list of authors she was confused. “But now you are here! And I can see you are one of us!” she exclaims. I want to hug her, remembering how, in my panel, I kept starting every sentence with “As an American…,” as if that gave me some sort of pass to be confused. I skip the authors’ dinner; I don’t want to explain myself. In Wyoming, it’s always What are you? and No, where are you from, really? I can’t bear to explain it in India.

 

When the festival ends, I have two days in Chennai on my own. I go back to my auntie’s house. She no longer keeps any cornflakes, but instead has  a big bowl of dosa batter ready to go in the fridge. She also keeps liter jugs of Pepsi, just in case I miss America. The morning after the festival, I take an auto rickshaw to the Kilpauk Cemetery. My grandparents are buried there.  Outside the cemetery, I buy two garlands of flowers. Then I go inside. There is a group of women who work in the cemetery. When you come in, they fill a pot with water, and will wash the gravestone for you. Every trip I make to India, I always do this—come to see the graves and to pay my respects. I lived in India for a year, years ago, and came often. So there is one woman, Nagama, who knows me. That day, I ask for her, and after a few minutes, she comes out with her pot of water. We talk a bit, and she sets to work cleaning the flat stone surfaces of the graves with her stick broom and water. She leaves me, and it is there in that cemetery, talking to the graves of my grandparents, whom I never met, that I crack. I’m sorry, I say to both of them. They both died long before I ever existed. In the few photos I’ve seen of my grandmother, she is always unsmiling, looking serious and beautiful. My grandfather, who worked in education, also looks solemn in most photos. I’m sorry I didn’t speak better yesterday. I’m sorry I didn’t have a good comeback when a woman sneered when I said I considered myself an Indian writer. I’m sorry I can’t wear a sari well. I’m sorry that I am not married. I’m sorry that I write this all down. I squat down next to their graves and run my fingers through the grooves of their engraved names: Rajah Jesudasan Swamidoss, Gloria Lilavathi Swamidoss. I am sorry I am not better at being Indian. And then I put the flowers on each stone and leave.

Being in India to me begins to feel like running. And I am not necessarily good at it. Every subsequent trip I take to India is like a lap. I log the miles; I cover the distance. I work on my form: I can wear all the saris I like, eat curry, and stumble through in broken Tamil, but I still feel like that girl running around the track, trying desperately to run in the right amount of time. Mr. Harris belongs to no one. But when I am in India, I want to belong with everyone. I recognize the absurdity of my anxiousness. It is only me who is noticing the ways in which I fail to speak properly, the way the sounds of horns make me long for the silence of the prairie. What do I want, really?  To fit securely between two places, much like the hyphen poised between Indian and American.

 

When Jesse Owens came back to America after winning his medals at the Olympics, a ticker-tape parade was held in his honor in New York City. Afterward there was a reception commending him at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. He had to take the freight elevator to his own reception. He knew about two worlds. I travel without restriction between two, but I still think of Jesse Owens, and my mother. Keep your body low and your arms swinging.  Mr. Harris also keeps his body low. He squats down on his hams and belongs to only himself.

 

I’ll tell you how to do it, they seem to say. I wish I could take it, I say back.

Nina McConigley was born in Singapore and grew up in Wyoming. She is the author of the story collection Cowboys and East Indians, winner of the PEN Open Book Award. She teaches at the University of Wyoming.

[Purchase your copy of Issue 09 here.]

 

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