The book “A Beautiful Decay” by Karan Madhok is about Vishnu, a twenty-one-year-old Indian student out drinking in a bar in Washington D.C., who is murdered in a hate crime.
At the moment of his death, Vishnu takes flight and traces the sequence of events that led to his life being extinguished. Speeding through the past, present, and future, his consciousness witnesses the hate and violence on two continents.
As Vishnu looks back on his short life, we see the brutal acts of his father who built an empire in the Hindi heartland of India on the blood and trampled beliefs of others so his family could lead the good life. When Vishnu gets to America, he finds that the detestation and othering that targeted one set of people in his homeland is replaced by more of the same in the country he has landed in, except this time he doesn’t belong to the class of oppressors but that of the oppressed.
Read an excerpt from the book below.
‘Go back to your country,’ Wildhair shouted. Some people spilled their drinks; some froze chewing on their French fries midway. Wildhair held the handgun in front of him, and later, some of the media would report with horror at how easily he was able to carry it into Lucky Luke. Others would marvel with pride that, despite the tragedy that followed, the little weapon worked perfectly, with a firm, comfortable grip allowing the shooter accuracy across the crowded distance of the bar.
Dekho, how his face flushed fiery red. I remembered those red cheeks instantly: fifteen minutes earlier, he had been sitting in my place by the bar table when I returned from the bathroom between the second and third Yuenglings. I had walked into him having an argument with Hamid and Jess. He wore a white sweatshirt, unzipped from the middle to reveal a red T-shirt, and a pair of grey trackpants that looked a couple of sizes too big on him. The red on his T-shirt matched the crimson spread over his pale face. There were rows of creases on his forehead and extra rolls of skin under his chin. He was in his forties, maybe late forties, perhaps even as old as Papa.
He wanted my place.
Hamid said something to him first, which I didn’t hear over the crowd. Jess had a hand on Hamid’s shoulder. If Hamid sounded a little meek in the moment, Jess, of course, was not one to remain quiet.
‘Scuse me, sir,’ she said, and it impressed me how she managed to sound both polite and rude in the same stern voice. There was no fear in her, even if she was dressed—as usual—as the coldest person in the room on a midsummer night, in a full-sleeved, cream-coloured D.C. Tech hoodie. Nahi, nahi, Jess was not a book to be judged by its insulated cover. ‘Our friend has this seat,’ she said. She saw me wading through the crowded bodies. ‘Vishnu,’ she called out.
She had awoken something in Hamid, too, so when Wildhair didn’t budge, Hamid spoke up louder. ‘Yo, you gotta move. That’s my boy’s seat.’
‘Fuck off, Mohammad,’ Wildhair slurred back at him.
Then, a tense stand-off at the bar. Fight or flight. Flight or fight. Fuck off, Mohammad. The words stung us, pricking into our skin. Even if, less than two years ago, President Gaandu-face had snuck into the White House a short drive down the road from us, adding a lot more distasteful masala in these conversations between cultures.
I’m always surprised at the capacity of human instinct; my delicate reaction to this situation was to douse the fucking fire. ‘Guys, suno,’ I said. ‘D…Don’t worry, I…I don’t need a seat. It’s okay.’
Wildhair looked at me and raised a curious eyebrow. It was my accent, I was sure. Between Hamid and me, Wildhair had been addressed by two brown-skinned young men, and they sounded drastically different from each other. Hamid had the extra New York twang when he spoke, a little natural, a little exaggerated, flowing with casual braggadocio to match his dreams of emulating every mid-90s Biggie Smalls record. Mine was closer to the Great Western Fear of that indecipherable foreigner: a pinch of Apu from the Simpsons with shades of ISIS recruitment videos mixed with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria’s almost-polished-but-there-is-still-something-off enunciation. Do not worry, I don’t need a seat, I heard myself say, like a cartoon convenience store clerk.
‘No, Vishnu,’ said Jess. Her voice wavered a bit. She gulped and then continued, ‘This is your seat. Don’t worry. He will move.’
Gingerly, Hamid moved an inch closer to Wildhair, and I realized how physically imposing my friend could look to an unsuspecting stranger. He was the same height as Wildhair. Both of them loomed two or three inches over me, and I was almost six feet tall myself. Wildhair’s nose flared, and his eyes were firm and deep blue, and his eyebrows were a rich shade of blonde, so blonde that they almost disappeared in camouflage against his forehead, a combination of light object on light background that would have been an instant sin if I had designed it for an interface myself. I looked closer to see that the hair on his arms was bleach blonde, too, as he stood with those arms and his muscles tense. But Hamid was still bigger, wider, and even if it was all baby fat, those loose T-shirts gave an impression of greater strength.
‘Please move,’ Hamid said. Jess nudged close to him, and he used the support to speak out with extra confidence. ‘Please move, sir.’
Wildhair took a deep breath and then exhaled ‘Fucking Mohammads’ under his breath. He took a few extra seconds to make his decision, a dramatic desi soap opera of emotional pauses, until he grunted ‘Urghh!’ and bounced up, lifted his beer off of my coaster, and left my seat.
‘So, who was that wild-haired guy?’ I sat back down.
Jess breathed a sigh of relief. Hamid had the casual swagger in his pose again. ‘Urghh!’ he impersonated Wildhair’s final grunt. We saw him leave. Soon, he was swallowed up by the hordes of cheering crowds as the second half of the game began on the TV. We ordered another round of drinks. I asked the bartender to put it on my credit card tab.
That card, that credit card; it remained with the bartender. That silver and blue beautiful swiping sliding swishing sustenance for my existence abroad. The bartender never gave it back, so when the shot went off, that card was somewhere behind the bar, either sliding through a machine or waiting for my signature in a thin, black receipt book. That would be fine; someone would find it, someone would get it back to Hamid, and in a few days, Hamid would cancel it. I had lost the card before, of course: at a karaoke bar in Chinatown and at a concert in Alexandria. A few hundred dollars went missing each time, which annoyed Papa, but it always made its way back.
That card. It paid for cold sandwiches and Cheetos and cases of beer from Safeway and it linked with my apps to buy new T-shirts and jeans and the iWatch for Jess on her last birthday and my new Nikes, too. It worked in healthy tandem with my other card—the debit card—that made the wonderful fluff-fluff-fluff sound as money revved up inside ATM machines until the crisp, fresh-smelling faces of famous dead white presidents stared sombrely back at me.
I preferred the card over cash. It was light, simple, eternal. There were no numbers that came back around to me every time I swiped and paid and flashed and plugged it in. A couple of oceans and a few extra continents away, from a bank somewhere in South Delhi, a bill was mailed a few hundred more kilometres east to Varanasi, and the credit was fataak se settled and paid, and a bank account somehow topped up, and I didn’t ask questions because the answers were too complicated, or too boring, and Papa just took care of things.
The last time my credit card had gone missing, however, on that night in April at the karaoke bar, I made a long-distance call home to ask Papa for a new one. He missed my call, and then, I missed his callback. The next morning, I waited for the inevitable, my heartbeat racing because I knew what he thought of me. Absent-minded chootia. I dreaded his voice. ‘What happened?’ he asked when we finally spoke. I tried to sound as sad as I could, and I knew he wasn’t convinced, but kasam se, he was ready to call the bank in Delhi immediately. He told me to wait, to check again, to retrace my steps. ‘Where have you been drinking Vishnu?’
‘You shouldn’t be drinking too much, Vishnu,’ came my mother’s voice. I sighed, because I thought she should instead invest her concerns complaining to Papa about the same thing, but that was another issue for another time.
You know, the mind is capable of unbelievable things, and even the haziest of nights can sometimes get clearer with conversation, and later that day, I spoke to Tapiwa the African Prince in our kitchen, while he ate Froot Loops without milk, and after I made yet another phone call, there it was—yes!—safe in the hands of another bartender in another corner of D.C. That silver and blue, limitless swiping relief. I had it back.