The man from India visits Cayucos

March 27, 2021

Editor’s Note: The following series, “Life in Radically Gentrifying Cayucos by the Sea,” to be posted biweekly includes the notes, thoughts, and opinions of an original American voice: author Dell Franklin. 

Franklin’s memoir, “Life On The Mississippi, 1969,” is currently on Amazon.

By DELL FRANKLIN

I was in my car in the south lot listening to John Coltrane on a very late blustery Saturday afternoon across from Ruddell’s Smokehouse in Cayucos, watching the people and savoring the music, and this fellow around 35 who struck me as middle eastern was walking around on the edge of the lot holding onto a blue paperback book that I surmised was a novel.

Maybe he was a professor at Cal Poly. He was short and wore a heavy beard, and after patrolling the area for a while he caught my eye and nodded, and I nodded back and he smiled and came over to my window and said, “How are you, sir?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “How are you?”

“What a beautiful day it is,” he went on with great enthusiasm in a thick accent. “Why are you not out enjoying the afternoon?”

“There’s too many people out there right now. I prefer sitting in my car.” (A  dusty 2002 Toyota Camry with dents and a missing hubcap.)

“Are you visiting?”

“No. I live here.”

He seemed excited about being here and asked did I have a family, and I told him no and he was surprised and even shocked and asked why not, and I told him I liked being single and wanted no family because raising a family was too much responsibility and stress and I was essentially lazy, which meant unless I was rich I’d have to work nonstop very hard for at least 30 years to be a good provider for kids who never stopped eating and complaining, and the very idea of having to do that made me hate life and, furthermore, I’d felt that way since around the age of 14 when, God bless him, my dad refrained from killing me.

And now I was 77. Mission accomplished.

“Oh,” he said, stumped.

Before he could gather his thoughts and move on, I asked if he had a family and he said no, he didn’t have one yet, so I asked why not and he said Jesus had not yet decided when he should have a bride and raise a family, but that he wanted one but wouldn’t move forward on this desire until Jesus told him to, and he was sure in the near future Jesus would ordain him a wife and family.

I knew I was in trouble now. He asked if I was a Christian and I said no and asked him where he was from and he said San Luis Obispo. So then I asked where he was from originally, and he said Southern India.

I mentioned that India was of a strict caste system and asked was he from the poorest of the poor, and he said yes. Unlike most Indian immigrants coming to America, he had been very poor and his life was rough in India, very hard.

I then mentioned that India was comprised mostly of Hindus and Muslims, and he said yes, but there were Christians too. He went on to claim that Islam was of a false god as was Hinduism. When I asked him about Jews, he said they didn’t observe a messiah, and then he went on a long tangent about the beauty of Christianity and how it had changed his life and made him happy and at peace (he talked as if echoing long, rehearsed sticking points) and on and on. And I thought, “This is unusual, because over the years I can’t think of one Christian pigeon-holing me and trying to either convert or lecture me who wasn’t white.”

So I said, “Look, I’m a nonbeliever. When I have to fill out a form, and they ask for a religion, I write down nonbeliever. But, if I was forced to observe any religion, I think I’d become a Buddhist, because they make a lot of sense to me.”

“No, no, NO!” He was affronted. “It is only Christianity.”

He started in again, and I asked him what he did in San Luis Obispo. He answered, an engineer with a master’s degree. He worked for a small company. Even though he was born dirt poor in the caste system of India, a Catholic organization in India put him through college.

Well, this was when I felt it was time I mentioned that Christians had had their hands in a good share of barbaric and ghastly sinning (I mentioned Rasputin, Crusaders, and Trump). But before I could begin naming off more historically evil Christian villains, he went on a tirade about forgiveness and claimed that no matter what any of them had done or would do in the future, they would be forgiven by Jesus Christ and find redemption. And then he opened the blue paperback and I realized it was the Holy Bible, and he began quoting from it and I said, “I gotta go now, nice talking to you…”

“Wait!” he said, still hovering at my window.

“No, I’ve got to go now. I have a lot of responsibility. I have to feed and walk my dog and cook up the evening meal and decide what to watch on TV tonight. There’s a lot of stress involved, so good bye and good luck, it was good talking to you, my friend.”

“Good luck to you, my friend,” he said, waving the book at me, nodding, smiling, a very nice person I assume. But dear God, it is too late to convert me. “It was good talking to you also.”


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F.A.H.

From the little I have read of your articles, Dell, you strike me as someone who likes to be informed about the world. So please take these comments as constructive criticism and with an open mind, as all writers must be willing to do. As an immigrant, I found this article problematic for several reasons.


First, your explanation about caste was reductive, particularly when Whitesplaining Indian culture back to an Indian (“I mentioned that India was of a strict caste system…”, “I then mentioned that India was comprised mostly of Hindus and Muslims…”). Caste is an extremely complex phenomenon and is particularly so for Christians who left the Hindu faith, with much variation in experience between Indians of Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox faiths. But I’m not writing to give you a lecture on the complexities of caste.


Nor am here to speak on behalf of this man you met, but to explain the parts that were offensive. When you asked this man where he was from, he said San Luis Obispo. On the basis of his “thick accent” and because he visually “struck [you] as Middle Eastern,” that answer did not satisfy you and so you asked him “where he was from originally.” Then you got the answer that you wanted to hear. Asking someone where they are “from originally” after they have told you where they are from (SLO) is rude and alienating because it can make the person feel like an outsider no matter how long they have lived in a certain place—where they have built a life and a community, pay taxes, and contribute to society, and which they personally identify as home. And your eagerness to know his ethnicity even before you spoke to him demonstrates that you were not interested in him as a person but as an ‘Other.’ You identify that “India [is] of a strict caste system,” but you do not see that immigrants in the US are also constantly reminded of our place in the racial and cultural hierarchy by such questions. He has an accent, so to you he must be a recent immigrant, “originally from” somewhere else, and therefore not from here: not from SLO, not from the United States. But each and every single one of us, even you, has an accent when we speak. By pointing out that he had a “thick accent,” you meant that his accent was different from yours and from what you perceive to be the standard accent one has (or should have) as an American, once again identifying him as an ‘Other.’


Once his Indian identity was confirmed, you then went on to stereotype this man by assuming that he was from “the poorest of the poor” in India. Never mind that he is an engineer who identifies as being from SLO. You not only made him an outsider in the United States but also a presumed “outsider” in India (assuming him to be a Dalit, commonly referred to as an “untouchable”—what you meant by “the poorest of the poor”). Whether or not he was from the Dalit caste is not the point; the stereotypes with which you approached this man are.


On that note, why did you simultaneously assume that he was a Cal Poly professor? Because he was a brown man with a book in his hand? Because brown men don’t otherwise read unless they are professors? If he were a Black man, would you assume that he was a student athlete from Cal Poly? Oh wait, you already pushed that stereotype in your 9/7/2020 article “Cayucos’ lone, measly, little BLM sign,” when you said that SLO was a “very white town that does have some black athletes from Cal Poly”—implying that the only way a Black student can get into Cal Poly is as an athlete. Maybe you didn’t mean to be so, but implicit bias is a form of racism.


You may refute all this by saying that you are genuinely interested in other people’s cultures which is why you asked him these questions, but as an immigrant I would just like to say that we are not here to satisfy your curiosity at the expense of our dignity. Rather than prioritizing your curiosity, please pause to consider whether what you ask someone may be hurtful or alienating to them. Maybe this particular man was not offended (we will never know what he felt as this conversation has been filtered through your lens), but the next person might be. As was I…for the above reasons, and for the fact that you felt the compulsion to use this man’s voice and religiosity as a foil for your own sanctimonious, self-congratulatory life choices. I too am an atheist who has chosen to not have children, but as a writer I can articulate my views and my choices without denigrating those of others as a crutch.


Camus Redux

‘Whitesplaining’ is reductive and offensive too but I understand what you were trying to say. Let me ask you this. Say, I’d recently read the Mahabharata (I actually did – an abridged version of course) and I’d been dying to meet someone who could discuss with me this beautiful ancient text but safely assuming that few white Americans probably even know what it is, and that probably just about every Indian learns what it is as a child, and has read at least parts of it, would I be wrong, upon noticing dark Indian skin, or a thick Indian accent or even an “Indian-sounding” last name, would I be wrong to bring up the Mahabharata to this person? (I recently did this, too, to two different people and neither seemed to mind). Would it be wrong, for the sake of an intellectual discussion and an exchange of knowledge between cultures?


F.A.H.

Speaking as someone with part Indian heritage, I would say that it would only be wrong to assume that all Indians have read the Mahabharata (particularly Indians of diverse religions)! But to tell someone of Indian descent that you read and were inspired by it, and to ask if they had too in the hopes that they might be willing to discuss it with you, is a perfectly acceptable form of intellectual exchange. When people are excited to discuss aspects of my culture with me like literature or food or history or politics (or whatever else!), I feel appreciated for the diversity I bring to our community. But when people ask me where I am “really” or “originally” from, or make assumptions about my own personal identity based on crude cultural stereotypes (like caste), their curiosity serves only to remind me that as an immigrant many people will only ever really see me as “different.” Even if it is without malicious intent, it feels hurtful and alienating. If you want to avoid making someone feel that way, the best approach to take is to first consider whether the thing you are about to say or ask someone will reduce them from a person to a cultural object (even if it is an object of your fascination rather than revulsion). “You have an Indian accent so you must have read the Mahabharata” makes the person a cultural object. Having a conversation with someone and discovering in the course of that conversation that they are of Indian descent and then asking if they have read the Mahabharata as you’ve been dying to discuss it with someone, is treating them like a person. It may seem like a subtle difference, but it is a very meaningful one. Anyway, I appreciate that you took the time to ask about this and I hope this was a useful response!


And point taken on Whitesplaining!


Camus Redux

The Christians are dangling free educations out there, now? Wow, used to be just a bowl of rice and a new pair of shoes. No wonder this poor Indian joined up. The Christians probably wooed him with a nice creation story and afterlife delusion (leaving out their murderous history of course) and he said a prayer and now he’s an engineer and has a cheery place to go after death. Well, guys like me and Franklin don’t fall for it. We look the uncertainty in the face and say “bring it on”. We don’t have time for such nonsense. Our existence is short and screwy talk gives us the creeps.


F.A.H.

To link this comment to your response to my comment above, why are you so comfortable snubbing one sacred religious text, the Bible, while glorifying another, the Mahabharata? Is it perhaps because the latter seems more exotic, less generic? This feels somewhat contradictory to me and is another form of racial stereotyping referred to as Orientalism (for elaboration: http://reappropriate.co/2014/04/what-is-orientalism-and-how-is-it-also-racism/). You may be interested to learn that the text you find so fascinating and are eager to discuss is also unfortunately used by Hindu right-wing nationalists to marginalize and oppress minority groups in India: https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/india-modi-culture/.


blackjack

Dell, you should grab a copy of Dianetics to keep under the seat and pull out on encounters like this. Nothing scares people off like a nice dose of L Ron .


Camus Redux

Not much goofier than the Bible when you read it.


commonsenseguy

Sorry to hear you ran from a tremendous new life Dale. The young Christian man was spot on with what he said to you. It sounds like this man has had the true gospel of Jesus Christ shared with him. I’m sure he prayed for you and your salvation after your own conviction scared you away.


It’s also sad to hear your own selfish words regarding children. What a great blessing it has been to be a father. But then again, from your own words, it’s probably better your not a parent due to the fact you say your lazy, irresponsible, can’t handle the stress of life. We already have enough kids out there with your poor qualities. We see the results of those poor values all around us.


It’s refreshing to hear that there are others out there like this young man from India desiring to share the true gospel with all those in need including lost souls like you. May you remember this man and the blessing he was to you. My thoughts of what kind of man you are, were confirmed by your own words in the latest tower of babble writing.


Camus Redux

“Latest tower of babble writing”? Not very Christianlike.


aye-caramba

This encounter sounded authentic. Why do you think he took notice of you in your car? What made you standout? Why would an Indian from a poor family in India feel the need to reach out proclaim his faith to a guy in a beat up car? I’d be interested in the “why”.


Camus Redux

Because he’s an evangelical. That’s what they do. They look for souls to snatch.


Laughlines

Dear Mr. Franklin:

Stop already. Please.


Wildrnes

Dell, thanks for writing about your chance uneventful encounter with a mysterious stranger.