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Nonfiction The Upper New Review

Taking Root: A Study of Suburban Life

By Monmita Chakrabarti

“I love these roads where the houses don’t change”- Ella Yelich-O’Connor (Lorde)

Picture a white man dressed in round glasses, Dickies, and a patterned sweater that he always makes a point to say he thrifted. He isn’t wearing a beanie but he certainly owns many. He grew up in New York City and we are having a conversation in his car, a very nice car, as he gives me a ride from my parents’ house in Dublin, OH back to our college an hour away. As we drive through the suburb where I grew up, he tells me that it is terrifying, with its pristine lawns and cookie cutter houses. He calls it a sundown town. Of course, New York City is a melting pot, so he notices these things. As if the part of the city in which he lives isn’t also a product of racial violence and redlining, as if a white man implicating a person of color in a white supremacist project isn’t the pot calling the kettle black. I am allowed to say that Dublin is ugly and racist. I would accept it if another person of color said that it felt hostile towards them, but I was hurt when the statement came from this man. If Dublin is a sundown town, what does it mean that I care about it so much? When I was a child I ran wild through the big lawns and played pretend with the other brown skinned neighborhood children. I was so happy. I hold my nostalgia dear and close, for when I was young enough to ignore the small violences occurring all around me.

***

In 1801, the brothers Peter and Benjamin Sells traveled up the Scioto River to what is now Columbus, Ohio scouting the surrounding area. They purchased 400 acres and named it Sells Town, just two years before Ohio became the seventeenth state of the Union, thirty two years before all Wyandot families in the area but one—the family of Bill Moose—were forcibly removed to reservations, and sixty four years before slavery was abolished. In 1810, Sells Town was named Dublin by John Shields, after his home in Ireland. In 2005, my family moved there.

As per the 2022 census, there are 49,998 people living in Dublin. The median household income in 2021 dollars was $145,828. By racial makeup, it is 72.9% white, 19.6% Asian, and less than 5% of all other racial identities. Only 1.9% of the population lives in poverty. People in Dublin are insistent on maintaining the image that nothing bad ever happens there and nothing bad has ever happened there in the past. They pride themselves in their country clubs and blue-ribbon public schools.

I was sure we lived amongst fairies in our new house, identical to all the other houses in the neighborhood. The street we lived on was called Wisteria, a suburban street name so classic they used it on Desperate Housewives. When I was a child I couldn’t think of a more magical word. It was my favorite word. When I would play pretend I’d invent kingdoms with the name. When I’d write stories in my diary, the fantastical, invented places would be called Wisteria. In a way, I was entering a dreamy universe separate from reality. My parents never fought and my best friends were my neighbors. It was a show on the CW. All the drama that occurred was stylized and short-lived, made for entertainment.

Every summer of our childhood, my neighbors Chirag, Samir, Priya, Arun, and I would stay at each other’s houses in an alternating pattern. All of our parents worked, and they would take turns caring for us when we didn’t have school and were out of summer camp. Chirag, Samir, and I watched the entirety of Avatar: the Last Airbender in the span of three days, sitting on the carpeted floor of their basement. I was always protective of Priya, who is three years younger than me. I would hold her hand and walk her home. When we played Beauty and the Beast (her favorite movie), I would always agree to be the father or the prince, and let her be the princess. I loved them all dearly.

In the woods where the coolest girl from my middle school boasted that she had her first kiss, we built a bridge out of pebbles and small rocks across the creek, changing the current, thinking it was ours to change. There’s a picture somewhere of all of us standing on it and grinning.

***

I first read Middlemarch by George Eliot when I was twenty one, the winter before my Dadu died and my Baba and Ma stopped speaking to each other and I burnt bridges with my most condescending family friend. Middlemarch marked my last winter of optimism.

The novel opens in a place and time far away from the town of Middlemarch with Saint Theresa, whose “passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life.” However, the prelude states that Saint Theresa was certainly not the last of her kind. Eliot then turns to Dorothea Brooke, a religious young woman who is framed as an unsung Saint Theresa. She is extremely righteous and set in her beliefs, seeking an unattainable goodness. The story is about many things, but primarily what it means to be a good person in a largely bad world: “Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life…perhaps only a life of mistakes…perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion.” Middlemarch is a book that champions small change, a love letter to all the people who make the world better in unremembered acts of kindness. The book’s argument that our purpose in life is to make it just a little better for our neighbors filtered through my mind and changed the color of my thoughts.

Two summers after I read Middlemarch, I embarked on a failed crusade to remove the name “Indian Run” from all the properties that held it in Dublin. This includes an elementary school, a methodist church, and a waterfall. I attended a city hall meeting in a sterile glass building. Behind the mahogany desk sat five white council members. There are no Asians in the council despite the large population of them in Dublin. At the door was a police officer scrolling through his phone. They asked if anyone wanted to make any comments, but I couldn’t muster the courage to raise my hand. I knew these people wouldn’t be receptive to my ideas. I sent them an email from my car after the meeting ended, saying what I was too scared to say in the moment—that the name “Indian Run” utilized an offensive term for Indigenous people and that it evoked a genocide. The word “run” is sinister. As in, they better run or look at them run.

A couple days later I received an email back from a city employee, who I saw sitting and taking notes at the meeting. Her hair was thick, straight, and blonde, and her big blue eyes crinkled when she smiled. She told me that the name was chosen by a child named John Shonkwiler in the 1960s. That it evoked a rich history and wasn’t intended to offend anyone. It was exactly the kind of polite but dismissive response you would expect. So I wrote an op-ed and sent it to The Columbus Dispatch, a newspaper named after a city and a man who initiated the genocide against Indigenous people. This irony is not lost on me. They published it, but it didn’t do anything but invoke rage amongst defenders of the name. I tried to get people to send letters to the Dublin City Council advocating for a name change, but that didn’t happen either. There are no Indigenous groups remaining in Dublin, but when I attempted to contact the Wyandot Nation in Oklahoma they didn’t respond. I can’t blame them. They don’t live in Dublin anymore and fixing the wrongs of the past is not their responsibility. Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio sent me a kind note back, saying they supported my efforts, but were (understandably) too busy with their land back initiatives to get involved in this fight.

***

Indian Run Methodist Church is a speed trap. There is often a police car stopped menacingly in front of the sign for the church, the words “INDIAN RUN” screaming large, United Methodist Church written tiny beneath it. I think of what the City of Dublin said to me when I brought up the racist nature of Indian Run: “It is not intended to offend anyone.” We assure you we do not mean this maliciousness in any malicious way.

The thing about Dublin is it doesn’t change. It feels like the too-clean place you go in your mind when you dissociate. There are developments. More cookie-cutter neighborhoods are built, but when buildings pop up it feels as if they’ve been there all along. The same violence underlines their existence. I lived in this suburb long enough to remember when there were unhoused people standing outside the shopping center and at the intersections, and also to remember when the city’s signs went up urging residents not to give to them. Soon after, these people disappeared so casually it didn’t feel like anything cruel happened.

***

There is a long history of Asian immigrants in Dublin. In 1979, Shige Yoshida, who had big plans for small-town Ohio and a distaste for unions, opened the Honda Marysville Auto Plant just half an hour from my childhood home. The plant hired 55 white workers and 11 Japanese workers, which eventually grew into a large Japanese community. This community chose to settle in Dublin instead of Marysville because Dublin quickly established a strong cultural support system for Japanese residents, including a Saturday school to assist families with assimilation, a fate preferable to ostracization. Local businesses and the rest of the community expanded to cater to this population, drawing even more people here. Now, Dublin is home to the largest Japanese community in Ohio. In a 2015 article by Sarah McQuaide about the Japanese population in Dublin, Hidekazu Kogure stated, “My favorite part about living here is that it is safe.”

I think often about what safety means—what it sacrifices. Many members of the Asian community in Dublin are in America because they received L1-A Visas for intercompany transfers—including my parents—who were able to move to Seattle for my Baba’s job. This is arguably the most privileged class of Asian immigrants, for whom the economic uncertainty of immigration is minimized. They are able to move to the suburbs as an exception, deemed to be safe where most people of color are deemed unsafe. In this way, they benefit from white supremacy. There is a tangible, economic advantage to being a model minority, different from the “bad ones.”

When I was sixteen I worked as a counselor for a summer camp in Dublin where the majority of the children attending were Japanese. Many could understand English, but opted to speak in Japanese to each other because it was their first language, and they could speak it without fear of punishment or ridicule. The ones who understood English translated for those who didn’t. They protected each other. The majority of my friends from grade school, the ones with whom I stay in touch, are South Asian. We protect each other too. We understood that our inclusion in this community would always be conditional, so we were each other’s safety net.

***

Though she lived long before me, Dorothea is also constantly thinking about her relationship to the place she inhabits. She is dissatisfied with her privileged life in Tipton Grange and far more interested in the lives of her uncle’s working class tenants, in addition to the happenings in the nearby town of Middlemarch. Dorothea tries to do good by the people who know her. She states that she cannot appreciate the beauty of art because of the suffering and poverty all around her—as well as the fact that not everyone has access to it. She is an idealistic character, but winds up never amounting to any of her great ideas. Instead, they are filtered into other characters, making them better. From her husband Will Ladislaw, who becomes a member of Parliament, enacting the change Dorothea wanted to enact herself, to Rosamund Vincy Lydgate, a selfish character who only experiences remorse after hurting Dorothea. She is not particularly likeable, with her extreme piousness and eccentricities, but she is loveable. To love a person or a place, but not particularly like them, is a feeling I am becoming deeply familiar with.

***

I first heard the phrase shocking, but not surprising in conversation with my old gender studies professor, Gilda, over coffee. I told her about how the op-ed I wrote advocating for the name change of Indian Run drew the attention of alt-right neo-nazis who proceeded to harass me online. I said I should have expected this with the nature of the internet today. Twitter is a cesspool of racism and bigotry. The readership of The Columbus Dispatch, at least the reply guys, are mostly conservative. Their reaction to my words was expected, run of the mill even. Hatred is utterly uncreative and their vitriol wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before, but I still spent a day in the fetal position. I was still scared I’d run into them at the grocery store. Gilda, a professional feminist for whom contending with insults and threats from overly sensitive men is part of the job description, told me, “even when things like this happen and you expect them, you still feel it in your body. It’s like when a man gropes you at a club or catcalls you. It’s not particularly surprising behavior, but it still sends a shock through your system. Something can still affect you when you see it coming.”

***

When I learned that my Dadu used to beat my Didu, I was shocked but not surprised. Didu pulled me close when we were alone in her room. She was in her nightie, white with tiny blue flowers, and had already taken her teeth out for the night. “He used to pull my hair, like this.” She tugged her own graying hair. “He would fly into rages and the children were so scared of him. They would come hug me for protection. He never lay a finger on them though. I never let him. I was the only one he hurt.”

He had already passed when she told me. We couldn’t go to India for the funeral that summer because the Delta variant of COVID was so bad there. People were dying in the parking lots of hospitals because there were no more beds. After he went, people in America kept asking me if he died of COVID and I kept responding as if that was an okay question to ask someone. No, a heart attack.

Ma blames what Didu said to me on her deteriorating memory. She would rather believe that her mother wasn’t in her right mind than her father, who was a rigidly moral man, one who believed in fairness and justice, could pull his wife’s hair, scream at her, and lock her out of the house all night when she came home too late. This was the man who used his status as a brahmin for good, to officiate the marriage between his sister in law and a lower caste man. He didn’t hesitate to do this for a second. Didu’s parents attended the wedding, even after swearing they wouldn’t, and her mother, my great grandmother, cried the whole time. I wanted to tell this story at the wake we held for him in Ohio, but I didn’t because I was too emotional. That day is a blur. The only thing I remember clearly is the white locals who made themselves tourists, who stomped through the temple without taking their shoes off, taking pictures of Ganesh thakur on their phones while we mourned on the other side of the room. Later, Ma and I knelt in front of these thakurs, both our foreheads touching the ground, and we prayed for Dadu.

***

I protect the people I love. I once chased my friend’s cheating ex boyfriend out of his own apartment and I would do it again. Helplessness does not sit well with me. It always builds into a roaring anger. I fear this instinct towards rage in me is the same thing that lives in the men in my family. An anger that hurts the women around them.

The summer Dadu died, Ma and Baba got in a fight because he made a joke about her to my cousin that Ma was hurt by. When she confronted him about it on their evening walk, he yelled at her so loud I heard him clearly from inside the house. Ma was mortified because all the neighbors must have heard. They only started speaking again after I told Baba that Dadu was on the brink of death. This, in addition to the time he lost his temper at me over dinner for asking him a goading question about why he never apologized for anything, then gave me the silent treatment for weeks, showed me that my parents never fought in my supposedly idealistic childhood because Ma would be careful to not ever criticize Baba, in case she injured his fragile ego. I protected her the best way I could by antagonizing him, refusing to let him be close to me anymore. I couldn’t protect Didu from Dadu though. The reason I’m here at all is her tolerance of his abuse.

***

My attempt to change the name of Indian Run was an act of protection for the marginalized people in Dublin. A statement of love towards the place I know better than any other place, a place that is nonetheless hostile to me. A violent place. It was a plea to be cared for and accepted that was ignored. I don’t want to stop fighting to make the places I love kinder. I don’t want to lose my sharp edges, but I already feel myself getting tumbled like rose quartz. Defanged and declawed, backed into a corner, snarling at no one.

***

The subtitle of Middlemarch is “A Study of Provincial Life.” Like the lines running across the palm of your hand, people are interconnected in a complex web, one person leading to another. The world is much bigger and more confusing now than in Middlemarch. The budding industrial economy and colonization that Eliot observed has grown into a more complicated monster. They aren’t in front of us, so it is easy to forget we affect the labor of people in far away places who grow the out-of-season fruit bought in Dublin’s grocery stores. The working conditions of the people who make clothes for cheap in global south sweatshops are as pressing to us as those of the people who drive through our neighborhoods to deliver our mail. Dorothea optimistically says, “I believe that people are almost always better than their neighbors think they are.” In this age, the whole world is our neighborhood. No town can be studied in isolation anymore. It is impossible to think about Dublin without thinking about the official desegregation of Columbus City Schools in 1977, when white families rushed to the suburbs, leaving the schools in the city underfunded, causing many of them to shut down. In the decade before that, interstate highways were built. The government tore down homes in racially marginalized communities for these roads, demolishing some communities entirely, while opting to leave white neighborhoods untouched.

I understand what attracted my parents to Dublin. They wanted me to go to well-funded public schools. They were comforted by the fact that Indians lived in all the surrounding houses but one. It feels like nothing bad can ever happen there, distinctly American Dream-esque. Any eyesore suffering is smoothly covered up, stifled like the panhandlers who disappeared one day. It is a place where you can live a comfortable and untroubled life. It is easy to imagine that some people are just meant to suffer from rising sea levels and scorching heat, from food deserts and police violence, from war and poverty. Some people are meant to suffer, but you don’t have to see it here.

I benefited from The Dream. I attended a small private college and majored in something unprofitable. I started picking up the gestures and speech of the much wealthier people around me. I would talk in a breathy, detached voice and allude to literature I didn’t even like that much, like Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, just to prove I read it. I had cultural capital. I spoke to my South Asian neighbors like I was better than them in a way that makes me cringe to remember. I wanted them to feel awed at how cultured and worldly I had become, without even leaving Ohio. I graduated with debt and lived at home for a year after, working for a morally noble reproductive justice nonprofit that paid me an unlivable wage as I tried to pull my life together and do something practical for once. Dorothea does not allow herself what she perceives as frivolous pleasures. When her sister Celia requests they look through their late mother’s jewelry, Dorothea says, driven by Puritan values of scarcity, “we should never wear them, you know,” then tries to justify her appreciation of their beauty by combining it with “religious joy.” When I wear my Didu’s gold, I think about the workers who burned their hands retrieving it from deep within mines. Like Dorothea Brooke, I have an urgent need to do good, but no real idea of what that means.

***

Chirag returned to Dublin in the summer and we braved the hot weather to catch up on my parents’ porch. He told me he was proud of me for writing the op-ed, saying it made him think. The wealthy Cincinnati neighborhood he lives in now, with his biomedical engineer salary, is called “Indian Hills.” He accepted this without questioning the violence of the name, like we are supposed to. I told him I think something’s wrong with me because we’ve been taught to love prestige and safety, but I’ve been unhappy with every elite institution I’ve been a part of. I’m always going into things trying to fix them and failing. “It has made me very pessimistic.” I say. He shrugs, “you’re not pessimistic Ruhie, just sensitive.” My neighbors are part of the few people besides my family who call me by my dak nam. This is the affectionate nickname my parents gave me. My “second name” as per Bengali custom, which only the people who knew me as a child still use. When Chirag calls me Ruhie, I finally feel the glow of belonging. Is this what they mean by immigrant loneliness? When most people can’t know the full version of you? In Bengal, even people who didn’t call me by my dak nam would know at least that I had one. Would this make me less lonely? The simple act of not having to explain it? I don’t think it would. I think I would have different reasons to feel the same way, maybe rooted in being queer or terrible at math. These are the reasons I feel isolated in our Bengali community in Ohio, and everyone in that community calls me Ruhie. It is useless to wonder about who I would be if I grew up in Bengal instead of Dublin, how differently oppression and privilege would operate on my body, but I still think about it all the time.

Sometimes when I look at Chirag he has this expression on his face like he wants to ruffle my hair, but he never does and I’m grateful. I am a year younger than him, but even when we were children I hated when he treated me like a child. Chirag is happy and comfortable wherever he goes. He is liked—even by people who politically should hate him—like our middle aged Trump loving neighbor, who disliked me since I was a child because I was too bossy and demanding, and my family let our lawn grow out for too long without cutting it (he was also the president of the neighborhood HOA). Chirag was voted prom king in high school and it’s easy to understand why. He’s the kind of laid back, gentle person that people just like. I always thought he fit better in Dublin than I did, but he’s the one who left first. I lingered here for much longer.

***

Dublin, OH is a nice place to live. Nice like the men that get away with sexual assault and domestic abuse because they’re “such nice guys.” Nice like the city’s appearance after continuing to mow its plethora of lawns with gas guzzling lawn mowers in the summer of Canada’s wildfires, despite scientists warning people not to do this. Nice like the cleancut lines of girlhood in the friends I went to school with, what I had before it was confused by major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder and ADHD and bisexuality and an influx of nonbinary feelings.

Bridge Park is the nicest part of an already nice place. It is named after the foot bridge that goes over the Scioto river, adjacent to downtown Dublin. It is rapidly expanding into Sawmill Road, beyond which many people of color who can’t afford to pay Dublin’s high taxes live so they are in the Dublin City Schools attendance zone in hope that their children can attend Scioto High School, which I once overheard a white boy from my high school refer to as the “hood.” Scioto High School is situated on Hard Road, on the other side of the Scioto river from the high schools of Dublin Jerome and Dublin Coffman. It is 15.4% Hispanic and 13.8% Black, an overrepresentative number compared to the rest of Dublin, which is only 3.8% Hispanic and 2.3% is Black.

The Dublin City Schools website states, “more than 40% of DCS’ students reside outside of the City of Dublin.” The attendance zone for Scioto extends past West Case Road, which is by the Ohio State Airport, all the way to West Henderson Road. These are less economically prosperous, inner-ring suburbs that are in Columbus proper, about a half hour drive away from the school. The high cost of living apartments that Dublin is building in what used to be negatively referred to as the “other side of the river” will undoubtedly attract more wealth, and racial homogeneity to the area. The apartments are modern and boxy, in various shades of brown and gray. Many of the trendy restaurants from downtown Columbus are building second locations there so its residents don’t have to venture from their bubble of wealth.

Union County, the area adjacent to my neighborhood, is also rapidly developing. They are building large houses with low property taxes in previously rural lands that fall under the Dublin City Schools attendance zone. Jerome Township has seen a 108% increase in population between the 2010 and 2020 census. In Dublin Jerome High School as of 2023, 68% of students have Dublin addresses, while 27% have Plain City (in Union County) addresses, and 5% have Powell Addresses. The influx of cheaper housing attracted a large number of Asian and South Asian students to my high school, including some of my closest friends. In 2019, the elementary school built in Jerome Village was named Abraham Depp Elementary, after a Black farmer who created a safe haven for his community in this area in 1835. Meanwhile, students on the other side of Dublin’s attendance zone live in neighborhoods that have been depleted of wealth. They are being pushed out rather than drawn in, existing on the edges of the community.

***

In 2020, after the police murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor triggered widespread protests against police brutality, there was a large protest led by mostly South Asian and white high school students in Dublin. During this protest, there were speeches. Some spoke movingly about the impact of racism and police brutality. The white girl who initiated the protest stated repeatedly that she was the one who organized it (hold for applause) and implied that cops were racist because they were poor. At one point, a Black boy and a police officer hugged before speaking about police reform. The police officer said that he was proud of the students for organizing the protest and wanted to make sure that they were safe. There was no sense that we were breaking any rules. We stayed on the sidewalk and when we crossed the street, the police escorted us. The organizers of the protest said that it was okay for signs to have pro-Black slogans, but nothing that was antagonistic towards the police, like ACAB. The wealthy parents of the kids marching would not be happy if these protesters were tear gassed or shot at with rubber bullets. They might even sue the city. Ma was just relieved that I didn’t come home beat to shit that day.

I should be more like Dorothea and see the good in my neighbors. My community is my community, even when I am cynical about it. There are things I love about Dublin. I love the local library. I love the bike paths. I love the school teachers who believed in me. I love it when I see little kids running around their backyards. I love my childhood friends. I love how safe I feel there, despite myself.

***

Dorothea Brooke was right when she said that “it must be very difficult to do anything good.” It has stopped surprising me when my suburb, built on the principle of excluding entire groups of people, is hostile to those people, but it will never stop shocking me, stop making my stomach drop.

When I was in 6th grade, I wrote an angsty poem about weeds. I thought it was the deepest thing anyone had ever come up with. The poem was about unwanted plants being yanked from the ground so lawns could be picturesque, but beneath the surface it was about how I felt unwanted—out of place. The boys I had crushes on played soccer and had spiky blonde hair and the girls had big blue eyes. I didn’t know how to say it yet, but I knew they belonged there with their peaceful, slow lives. I was too thorny and awkward amongst them, a different kind of plant, but I’d already taken root, never to be fully removed. Never to stop showering this place in unremembered acts of love.


About the Author

Monmita Chakrabarti

Monmita Chakrabarti is a writer from Dublin, Ohio by way of Bengal, currently completing their MFA at Washington University in St Louis. Their work can be found in Joyland Magazine, Bending Genres, and The Audacity, and is forthcoming in Passages North.

Monmita’s home watershed (HUC) is Schoenberger Creek-Mississippi River (071401010403). This means she is a continental creator.

By The Upper New Review

The Upper New Review is an environmental literary arts magazine based in the Upper New River basin, which intersects the states of North Carolina and Virginia in the United States of America in present-day North America. We are seeking out place-based creative works from all over the globe.