I don’t recall hearing the name Dalip Singh Saund until I was in my 30s, well after I’d left Houston. Nor had I heard of Vaishno Das Bagai or Bhagat Singh Thind. These names were absent from my childhood. It was as if the entire history that preceded my family’s arrival, the messy parts, had been snipped off. The year 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act was amended, was our Year Zero.
My parents arrived in this country in the waning days of 1969. They first settled in Washington, D.C., then moved to Connecticut, and finally put down roots in Texas. In a recent text thread with my two sisters, they recalled the excitement of moving into the Piney Point home—the trees, the serenity. “But I didn’t perceive it at the time as moving up in the world,” Kala wrote. Subconsciously, though, we understood the new rules. We began to demand brand-name clothes—Izod and Polo—something my mother told us, years later, that she regretted giving in to.
In his memoir, my father recounted what he saw as my mother’s evolution, and her awkwardness.
For a girl who grew up without parents, in a laid-back Kerala village with only one street, a big river, and three temples scattered across clusters of ancestral homes, Devi tried her very best to be Americanized. Exchanging her favorite sarees, she made attempts to dress in evening gowns and mink coats and leather boots. From her preciously nourished, long, braided hairstyles with tucked-in jasmine garlands she half-heartedly learned to put up her hair on the top or to the fancy of the stylists.
I called Mom and asked her what she had felt about her adjustments back then. “That’s all Dad’s fancies, you know. I had to go along with it. To have peace. And I thought, These are the things you have to do.” As kids, we had been proud of our mother the tennis star, the woman who taught herself to ride a bike in her 30s. I hadn’t considered the strain placed upon her—by her kids, by her husband, by the world beyond our home—as she attempted to fit herself and her family into this new place.
In many ways, my sisters and I had an exalted childhood. We traveled abroad, to Paris, Lucerne, Venice, and Tokyo, with frequent visits to see our relatives in India. Even as a young brown man, I felt secure. My parents never had to give me “the talk” that many Black teenagers receive. At the same time, I knew better than to expose my family life, even something as simple as the food in our refrigerator, to the judgment of the white world. Some people in that world, I realized, thought we were going to hell, that our food stank, that our customs were freakish.
Recently I looked up the current census data for Piney Point: The city is 85 percent white and 12 percent Asian. The Black population, however, stands at 0.6 percent—virtually nonexistent, as it has been for decades. The historian Uzma Quraishi, who has studied the residential patterns of middle-class Indian and Pakistani immigrants in the Houston area in the 1970s and ’80s, found that they track almost identically with those of white residents who left the central urban area for more affluent neighborhoods on the outskirts, ostensibly so their kids could attend “good schools” but also to distance themselves from Black residents. She calls this process “brown flight.” Those of us with roots in the Indian subcontinent had it drilled into us from an early age that “divide and rule” had been the most potent tool of the colonial power. As immigrants, had we become complicit in this same strategy?