Story 24: Stand by me
The stench of hot tar jolted Leela’s lungs as she lay face down on the sidewalk. Hands tied behind her back. Stay still, said a voice within. Be calm. Do not think of the worst. But how? The murder of George Floyd had shaken all of America and its belief in fairness and justice. And at this moment, she was living proof of it.
“I am with the press” she spluttered, reaching for the identity card in her back pocket.
A moment earlier, she had been following a crowd of protestors, as they raised fists, and slogans. #BlackLivesMatters, they chanted, with a smattering of whites in the crowd. Like vanilla sprinkles on a chocolate cake. No desis, no sir. We were all too busy keeping out of ‘other people’s business’. Besides, we were brown-skinned too…
But that was different from being black. Leela had argued this, many a time, with her mom and dad. India is the most racist country of all, she said. Look how much importance we give to fair skin. Fairness creams. Fair brides. In a country which got so much sun, all that people did was hide from it. And now, they had to consume vitamin D tablets!
Mom just shook her head – this was a difficult child. Not like her sister Geeta, who was so sensible. A normal high IQ desi who went to medical school and was now completing her residency. Someone we can proudly talk about at potluck dinners, where the most important sharing is not the food but our children, and their achievements.
“Mom, dad, I want to switch my major,” Leela had announced, in her junior year at UC Berkeley.
Yes, all her life she’d dreamt of becoming an engineer but college had changed her. All the ‘side stuff’ she had dabbled in – Anthropology, Sociology, Gender Studies – suddenly seemed so much more fascinating. A stint with the campus newspaper convinced Leela that her calling lay with words, and not algorithms.
Of course, no one at home could understand. Dad just turned his face away and sat in silence. As if not acknowledging the facts – or her feelings – would make them go away. Mom laid on the guilt thick, like Amul butter on toast. This is not the future we imagined for our kids, when we migrated to America in 1986…
I know, everything you did, you did it for our good. But who decides ‘what is good’? You didn’t let me be a normal American teenager. No matter how hard I tried, I never fit in. There were too many unwritten rules. Like, dating is allowed once you are in college. With a nice Indian boy, if possible. But under no circumstances, should you fall for one of *those people*.
“I wonder where Raymond is today…” thought Leela. Her boyfriend for 7 months, while in college.
He was tall, dark and handsome and pursuing an engineering degree. But the look on her parents’ face when she introduced him, was of complete shock and disappointment. That look haunted her for weeks, and anyway, it was a college romance. Why let it get serious. They broke up before graduating and had not been in touch since.
Leela’s reverie was broken by a man in uniform, bending over, taking off the handcuffs.
“We are really sorry, miss, you are from the press. This was a mistake…” said Officer Delpatrick.
Leela blinked and looked around. Scores of protesters were still on the ground, their hands restrained with plastic zip-ties. For there were not enough handcuffs.
No force in the world strong enough, to perpetuate The Lie.
The 2022 Pulitzer Prize winners in 15 Journalism and seven other categories were announced online last night. A Special Citation was also awarded.
“Leelavathi Natarajan: For her outstanding and courageous reporting on #BlackLivesMatter.”
That afternoon, there was a ‘friend request’ on Facebook. Raymond Samson, lead engineer at Google – looking handsome as ever. And still single…
As she clicked ‘accept’, Leela felt her heart beating faster. After a long, long time.
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