The Many Avatars of Fear: Amrita Nandy

Guest Post by AMRITA NANDY

I have recently come to the US for a year. My “settling down” has happened under the viral shadows of the Rose Chasm debates. (See HERE and HERE)

Personally, the online exchanges struck a chord for me because I too, like Rose, am a student who is new in a foreign country and to its culture, trying to feel at home, adjust, mingle, accommodate and, most of all, make sense of some new experiences.

Before you point out that this juxtaposition of Rose’s context with mine is too simplistic and reductive, allow me to say “of course”.

Of course! A comparison, contrast or parallel of our respective experiences is not where I am headed to.

This is merely my account of being an outsider in America. More precisely, this is my attempt to engage with the articulation of fear in its many avatars and contexts.

Yes, fear!

Before I reached the University, cautionary emails had reached my inbox and those of hordes of other students. Sent by the University and its private Police force, they forewarned us about “incidents” in the city (sexual harassment and other violent crimes, thefts, mugging etc.), offered tips on being safe, shared their 24X7 helpline numbers and so on. These emails had an immediate effect: many of us Googled to find out that the city has been consistently notorious for crime, and is one of the more violent places in the country.

On arrival, the orientations too featured warnings about safety, avoiding certain hours and certain areas in the city, keeping smartphones out-of-sight on the streets to avoid “Apple picking” (theft of Apple I-phones) and so on.

A piece of the jigsaw puzzle fell in its place when I saw the campus—one cannot miss the neon-green shirts of the ubiquitous university police officers dotting it. These armed officers patrol the campus on foot, mountain bikes, and in cars equipped with computers and radio communication systems. They have “full powers of law enforcement and arrest”.

Like many other universities in the US, this one also has its own transport. The day time shuttles criss-cross the campus and can be tracked real-time, and the night-long shuttle reaches one within minutes, seven days a week. A Security Officer also acts as a walking escort within the campus.

Despite such safety nets and the insulation from the city – or perhaps because of it? – fear lurks in the minds of many. A European research scholar told me how she decided to forego her post-dinner walks. A male student said he felt threatened walking down deserted streets, often imagining an attack from behind.

Clearly, it is not just me or some of us in the University. One day two male colleagues and I set out to shop for groceries. The stores in our suburban middle/upper-middle class neighbourhood offer neither much choice nor economy. So it turned out that the only other options were the Walmarts at the far edge of the town or in another town altogether. When we inquired from a bus driver if we could board the bus for Walmart, the driver said, “You wanna go to Walmart with the lady? No, no! Not a good idea. I don’t think you should go there this time o’ the day.”

Mind you, it was  noon on a Sunday.

With no food or essentials at home, Walmart was inevitable. We journeyed (crossed a river for detergent and milk!) to Walmart and back. After the bus left the campus, it crossed worn-down ramshackle homes, picking up and dropping and passing largely non-whites. The sights were saddening—the old and the infirm, heavily tattooed young men, the drunk and the wasted in the bus or on the street. By travelling to the outer reaches of the city and beyond, we had had broken the well-maintained town-gown distinction. One of my male colleagues seated with me smiled nervously and whispered something about “feeling scared”.  It did affect me too. I realised what the bus driver implied, and understood the warnings about staying within and around the campus.

The irony is that all three of us were non-whites but clearly from a different class. Those moments in the bus made me acutely conscious of my fear, etching the uncomfortable interplay of racial and class differences deeper.

On another occasion, I was walking down a big, busy, down-town park that is surrounded by traffic. Confused about the direction, I decided to consult a middle-aged woman whom I saw walking towards me. When she saw me approach her, she froze in her tracks, looking frightened. As I told her that I sought a way out of the park, she heaved a sigh of relief, smiled, apologised and said, “Oh no, it’s not you honey…just the place”.  As we chatted, she spoke of her fear of strangers, parks, dusk and so on. A local resident, she mourned how “things have become worse”.

Having grown up in Delhi, the so-called “rape capital” of the country, been molested on the streets, used to the persistent gaze, touched, groped and followed, researched in Delhi’s gritty brothels and so on, I had not naively imagined the US as a safe haven, but neither had I imagined such fear.

It is perhaps the fear that arises out of feeling vulnerable, and is the result of sharp disparities. Nothing unusual for a deeply class and race-divided society, which, like Obama said during his Trayvon Martin speech, “…is a history that does not go away”.

The fear is so palpable. The threat perception looms large and deep, and shapes peoples’ everyday lives in a myriad ways.

As I write this, I also feel uncomfortable, like one does when one speaks of silence. Or, when one returns a firm, condescending gaze.

As I write this, the neighbourhood wears a deserted look, even during a balmy summer that is on its last leg.

It is not safe, but more importantly, it does not feel safe.

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