My, Here Comes a New Challenger

The 90s

There he stands, the 5 foot 9” ascetic, staring back at me with dead eyes. A terrifying string of yellow skulls adorn his neck, a not-so-subtle reminder that mercy would not be shown nor expected. I clench my fists, remember my training, and take a deep breath. 3…2…1…Fight.

“If you spent half as much time on your studies as you did on Street Fighter II, you wouldn’t have gotten a B in economics.”

“Mom, you’re in the way,” I shout, squirming and stretching the cord to its limit to get a decent vantage point.

“What is this violent rubbish and why are you punching and kicking that sickly old Indian man?”

“His name is Dhalsim, mom. And that B I got was in Home Economics. I burnt pound cake. Can’t really study that any better.

“And what is that behind you two?” she said looking at the TV and ignoring me. “Hey bhagvan,” her face pallid. “It’s God.”

She was right. A massive Ganesh portrait hung proudly at the center of Dhalsim’s stage. Long silk scarves arched to the left and right, buttressed with two large elephants on either side of the screen. An occasional limp movement of their trunks reminding us of their pixelated majesty.

“What’s the problem?” I squeaked nervously. I had paused the game and, for a moment, thought the game setting had worked on her as well. She said nothing, then sat next to me, eerily calm, and watched me play the rest of the game.

As we traveled the globe, meeting one world warrior after the next, she saw the perfectly chiseled features of the game’s main character, Ryu, then, not one, but two blonde Americans, and what can best be described as a slutty Chinese school girl. No Jesus or Buddha or Allah adorned any other stages. And, if it wasn’t for a green beast from South America, Dhalsim was clearly the most disturbing-looking ghoul of the bunch. She left in a huff swearing she would be writing to Capcom.

It was flattering, I thought, to have one of the only 8 characters actually be from India. I didn’t understand what had made her so mad. 10 years later, I did.

New York City, 2006

My first year out of college, I had two goals I ran towards single-mindedly, well, double-mindedly. One was to make lots and lots of money and the other was to meet Kal Penn. Both dreams have always been just out of reach but there was a time when I got real close to one.

My dad’s brother has worked in Bollywood for most of his career. This year, he surprised me by coming to the United States for work. “There’s this movie premiere for The Namesake. Maybe you, me, and Kirti (my mom) can go to it or we can just hang out at home.”

I hadn’t heard of it—you see, this was a time before I read books for fun. But I googled it and my jaw dropped. There, right on the cover of the movie poster, was Kal Penn.

The next day I found myself on a red carpet. Like a complete fanboy, I approached every actor I recognized and tried to make smooth small talk. “So, Will,” I said effortlessly to Willem Dafoe, “what kind of character do you play in the movie?”

“I’m not in the movie,” he replied, giving me a disapproving look and walking away before I could recover.

“Whatever, Hobgoblin,” I mutter under my breath.

This pattern would continue with other stars arriving, culminating in Steve Buscemi saying sarcastically, “OMG! What character do YOU play in this movie?” Touché, Steve. We all go into the theater.

I won’t go into too much detail about The Namesake, but suffice to say my mom and I had to make several rotating trips to the bathroom for toilet paper—as we had already sobbed through all of her limited supply of tissues.

The after party was extravagant. Long silken dupattas in iridescent blues, purples, and deep reds cascaded down from the 30 foot ceilings and were tied around beautiful stone elephants. Portraits of Hindu gods lined the walls.

“It’s so beautiful,” mom said, lost in a conversation with Mira Nair. “Everything is just so beautiful.” I try not to point out that the décor looks strikingly similar to Dhalsim’s stage. But it’s my turn to speak to the legendary director, so I muster up some courage and ask … “Is Kal Penn here?”

“Oh, no! He had to be in New Orleans, filming Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle 2.” My heart stops. I won’t see him today. But, I do become the first of my friends to know that there will be a sequel to my favorite movie, a timeless allegory of an immigrant’s struggle for self-identity bookended, of course, by a lot of weed and the relentless pursuit of cheeseburgers.

The rest of the party, I stuff my face and drink wine, trying to avoid eye contact with all of the white actors that had made it very clear to me earlier that they were not in the Namesake. The evening ends and we all pour out into the cold night air and assemble into an informal line.

“What an amazing evening, na?” mom asks. I nod in a blissful, cab sauv haze. “Maybe you can write a story like that one day.” Mom had met Jhumpa Lahiri and her humble, unassuming parents earlier that evening. She now believes the difference between Jhumpa and me is just some time in front of a computer keyboard.

“What is that?!” Her attention is diverted. Someone has walked past us and started to hail a cab from the end of the block, effectively bypassing hundreds of Indians waiting patiently in line. Mom starts walking briskly towards the man in the distance. I start to follow in a not-so-straight line, not really sure of how I’d provide support if things go south. The man is wearing a long leather coat that has an air of the familiar. Mom’s posture is resolute. I realize in that indivisible moment: my mom is about to get into a fight with Steve Buscemi.

“Hey.”

“What is it lady?”

“Did you not see the line?”

“Yea, so?”

“If you want to get in a cab, get in line with the rest of us.”

I’ve caught up to them now. The street lights cut through the night cover just so, making Steve look like a psychopath.

“What’s the big deal?”

“What’s the big deal about not standing in line like a human being?”

“I’m not breaking the law.”

“But you’re crossing the line,” mom spits back. I look at her stunned, though kind of impressed at the pun.

Her hair looks wild and her eyes look electric. It reminds me of something. She looks like Blanca from Brasil about to sizzle its foe. As her hands gesticulate wildly making her points about rules and civility, the blur is similar to E. Honda’s 1,000 palm hand slap move. And every time her mouth opens with pursed lips, I think actual fire is about to come out and leave nothing but ash where a once proud Steve Buscemi stood—his last memory being the sound of “yoga flame.”

Steve is at a loss for words, frustrated and exhausted.

“Where are you two going?”

“Penn Station,” I shout proudly, finally having something to contribute. Mom’s eyes shoot me a barb.

“I’m going uptown, how about we split a cab? I’ll pay for it.”

For what seemed like an eternity, there we were. Me behind the driver and mom behind Steve Buscemi. Everyone in complete silence. It felt surreal. I could barely stand it.

“Bye Steve!” I said as we got out of the cab. Some kind of guttural noise would be the last I heard from him. We sat on the train and mom stared directly in front of her. I was starting to doze off around Newark when she said, “Don’t let anyone make you feel small. Be proud of who you are.” She went back to staring ahead.

I felt around our gift bags and noticed they had given us copies of the Namesake. If I was ever going to start writing, I probably should start reading. As I opened up to page one, I looked up. It all made sense.

There she was. The world warrior. Remover of all obstacles. My literal Street Fighter.

Happy Mother’s Day, mom.

P.S. I wondered if she ever wrote that letter. What I do know is: when the next game in the series came out, no Ganesh.

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