An Ode To Ganga

On International Women’s Day, I dedicate this post to one of the most empowered women I know. 70-year-old Ganga has worked for my father, the late Daddykins, for several years. This morning, she strode into the house with a smile staining her betel-soaked teeth: “Hullo, Amma!”

I believe women like Ganga remain a threat to men because they can smell a man’s BS from Mars, a fact that also explained my Daddykins' valet's tendency to taunt her.

“Old Woman, you look like you were born into the English language," he said, "the way you’re addressing my boss in English and all?”

“Sweetheart, you may not know this,” Ganga said, placing her red and black wire bag on the kitchen floor. “But I was born very well.”

“Really?” Vinayagam asked. His scorn went ignored by both the women in the room.

Ganga moseyed up to where I sat cutting up a winter melon. “Like my cousin brother used to be a writer in a bank.”

Vinayagam shut the door of the fridge and turned to her. “You mean he was a peon, Old Woman.”

Ganga didn’t know to read or write. She didn’t know to count the days between March 17 and April 10. But she could speak her mind. She had the right to express herself in the late Daddykins’ home.

“And, you know, my uncle was an attorney,” she said. “A rather big one in the village.”

The young man laughed. “That’s why you’re in and out of a court all the time?” His scornful reference to her litigious streak fazed her the least. “What say, Old Woman?”

Ganga ignored him. A wan smile lifted her cheek. “You know, even though I was born well, I’ve ended up having to wash dishes. But I’m proud about what I do. I do it well. Like…no one dares walk up to Ganga and complain about her poor work ethic.”

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In 1973, I was barely 12 years old and beginning my second year of life in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. One afternoon, right after school, my father, the late Daddykins, dropped me off at the local library. I was returning a book a few days late. I ran into the building and handed the book to the clerk at the counter.

The native Tanzanian rifled through the pages, looking for the tag with due dates. Then he looked up and told me that I was late and that I would need to pay a fine. I was prepared to do that. But I was not prepared for what came out of the man’s mouth right after. “You Indians,” he said, his eyes piercing mine. “You’re all thieves.”

I struggled to make sense of what I’d heard. The reaction of the gentleman to the minor infraction stings even today, four decades later, long after all my positive experiences in Dar in the many years that followed. I remember being frazzled as I got back into the car to tell my father about what had just passed. He was livid. But as he drove out of the parking lot, he told me that I should just let the insult glide off my back, that he simply couldn’t change the world.

Last night I read about the incident on campus at USC. As Rini Sampath—an Indian-American and the first woman student body president—walked back from a friend’s apartment, someone leaned out of a fraternity house and slandered her. "You Indian piece of s—t!" he shouted, tossing his drink in her direction.

Slurs and epithets—whether they come from a place of hurt or anger or misunderstanding—are like boils on the body. They heal, yes, they do, but they pock and pit the skin, leaving scars by which to gauge our place in the world.

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