by Sanjay Agnihotri
Issue #236 • December 28, 2017
Vikram dropped onto his knees and prayed to the goddess Lakshmi for a cash windfall. In less than six months, his only daughter, Heena, was getting married in Baroda, India, and he didn’t have money for the plane ticket home, let alone the wedding spread. If anyone should understand his desperation, it was the goddess of prosperity, and so—in the Balaji temple in Parsippany, New Jersey—Vikram bent down and prayed like he used to when he was a boy, when he believed the gods could deliver anything.
Vikram hadn’t come to the Balaji temple alone. He’d brought along one of his roommates, the ex-con and cook Sethi. Sethi, a lapsed Sikh, waited outside, claiming the eyeless statues of gods and goddesses spooked him. He leaned against a lamppost, smoking cigarettes and ogling the Hindu girls as they made their way across the parking lot to the temple for the free Prasad dinner.
For a couple of weeks now, Vikram had been investing in prayer, but tonight, when dollars didn’t fall from the temple ceiling, he grabbed the old Brahmin priest and pronounced the goddess Lakshmi a whore. The priest, who was accompanying a youth group, passed off his heavy load of Sanskrit texts, adjusted his cotton dhoti, and pushed Vikram out the temple doors.
Sanjay Agnihotri was born in Queens, New York City, and raised in New Jersey, India, England, and Saudi Arabia. He is the publisher of Local Knowledge, a literary and art journal, as well as the programmer and host of its long-running reading series in Manhattan. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and daughter. This is his first published story.
Will Allison on Guerrilla Marketing
Representations of South Asians in American culture have come a long way since Apu, the Kwik-E-Mart clerk on The Simpsons, first manned the cash register in 1990. Back then, there were few Indians in American fiction, film, or TV; they were usually relegated to supporting roles; and they tended to be convenience store workers, taxi drivers, or doctors. Today, however, actors of Indian descent—from Mindy Kaling and Priyanka Chopra to Aziz Ansari and Dev Patel—can be seen in a range of prominent, non-stereotypical, starring roles, and fiction writers such as Akhil Sharma, Kiran Desai, and Jhumpa Lahiri have reached a broad audience with their books.
Even so, I’d never encountered an Indian character quite like Vikram, the protagonist of Sanjay Agnihotri’s first published story, “Guerrilla Marketing.” Vikram is a 57-year-old former accountant from Baroda, India, who is struggling to survive as an immigrant worker in Parsippany, New Jersey. In American culture, the sort of suffering and exploitation Vikram endures is perhaps more commonly associated with undocumented workers from Mexico and South America—but in the case of Vikram and his peers, the exploitation comes not at the hands of white Americans but from other Indian immigrants who are higher up the food chain.
As Agnihotri acknowledges in his author interview, it’s a troubling story that risks sentimentality. Luckily for us readers, Agnihotri resisted the temptation to portray Vikram as a noble, suffering immigrant. Instead, Vikram is more of a sad sack, a guy with his own raft of bad habits, delusions, prejudices, misguided ambitions, and conflicting desires. In other words, he’s a real person on the page. We are excited to present another One Story debut, and we hope you find Vikram and his story as unforgettable as we did.
Q&A by Will Allison
When I was a kid living in Saudi Arabia as part of the American ex-pat community, I witnessed firsthand the terrible living conditions of the migrant workers there, many of whom were from India, Pakistan, and southeast Asia. Their situation basically amounted to slavery. One day when I was maybe thirteen years old, I was riding my bike in a very remote area of Yanbu (where I should not have been) and came across a worker camp. I watched one of the migrants almost get beaten to death by the mutaween, the religious police in Saudi Arabia.
One morning many years later in New Jersey, I saw a group of Indian men—Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sikhs—standing outside a shithole house in the town of East Hanover, dozens of men, some dressed as waiters, others as gas station attendants or limo drivers. There was no way that many men should have been living in that house. Most of them were no doubt illegals, and I knew then that I wanted to write about them, their lives, their struggles. I just didn’t know how, or what form it would take.
Seeing them reminded me of the migrants in Saudi Arabia—the desolation and brutality of their lives, the exploitation. I started going out of my way to talk to guys like that, to learn their stories. Some are educated like Vikram, but most are not. Some are ex-cons with minor offenses. They are struggling, sending money home, trying to educate themselves, trying to survive.
When it comes to Vikram, I don’t think he’s so different from many of us, to some degree—the self-deception, the lying, the superstitious thinking. Sure, he wants to pay for his daughter’s wedding, but really his dream is to become like the guys who are exploiting him. He wants to hang with Ginger and Bhatti. He tries to rationalize everything, even when he knows he’s being screwed over. He’s stuck, caught in the trap, like all of us.