The Iowa Review
MEENAKSHI GIGI DURHAM
Hunger Pangs, Part 3
My sole income then was my graduate teaching assistantship, which totaled $3,500 a semester; it came to about $625 a month. My rent was about half of that sum, and I also had to pay in-state tuition and student fees, as well as buy books and so on. If you do the math, you will see that very little money remained after those necessary expenses. Fortunately, the institution I was attending was located in a warm place—Gainesville, Florida—so clothes were not an issue, and I bought a bicycle for $35 at a campus auction, which was sufficient for trundling about the town.
I lived in a tenement called The Starlight, across the tracks from a crack house, whose ragged denizens often wandered into our parking lot and foraged in our dumpster. I was afraid of them, yet I felt a weird affinity for them, too, recognizing their condition as kindred to mine. There were bars on the windows of The Starlight's grubby flats, and the police patrolled often. I did not linger outside my door, and I brought my bicycle indoors rather than risking its dismantlement by jonesing addicts looking to sell parts, a thriving industry in Gainesville.
The nearest source of food was a gas station on the main drag—University Avenue—that offered shriveled hot dogs and radioactively bright cheese puffs, as such places are wont to do. There was no nearby grocery store. This did not really matter to me or to the crack addicts, as in some sense groceries were immaterial at that point in our lives. Nonetheless, we were denizens of what sociologists now call a "food desert," a geographical area without access to fresh and nutritious food. These deserts are First-World phenomena. Their boundaries are those of urban slums, of housing projects, of barrios, of student ghettos. Basic foods—milk, fruit, bread—are available only at thievingly high convenience-store prices in these neighborhoods. So, like me, most people who live there learn to get by without such luxuries, subsisting instead on instant soups and candy bars and Funyuns (or Schedule-One drugs, which also kill the appetite. Whatever works).
In retrospect, I wonder why no one noticed; and I am also glad that no one noticed. My poverty and resultant starvation were ignominious secrets that I wanted no one to discern. At social gatherings in restaurants or bars I often refused to eat or drink, hoping that I would not then have to contribute to the bill. Sometimes this happened; someone would notice and say kindly, "She shouldn't have to put in anything—she didn't eat." But at other times, I would be asked to chip in regardless of my consumption, and I would pony up, parting with my precious five or ten dollars, money that represented perhaps a fortnight's grocery budget, secretly agonized by the unfairness of the situation, yet unwilling to protest it and call attention to my penury. My hunger demanded dignity.
At this point, you may wonder why I did not take out a student loan or get a Pell Grant or use some other such subsidy to supplement my meager income. I could have qualified for food stamps, surely. But here we come to the crux of the matter. I was a foreign student. Although my parents had immigrated to the United States and then to Canada when I was a baby, they had returned to India to live during my adolescence, and I had retained Indian citizenship despite our various relocations. They were living in India at the time I entered the PhD program at the University of Florida. Despite their relatively affluent lives on the subcontinent, they could not afford to finance my education, as the exchange rates were then abysmal: the rupee was worth some pitiful sub-fraction of a dollar. As a foreign citizen—an "alien," as the INS puts it—I was not eligible for loans or grants or even for paid off-campus work. I was, then, restricted to my $625-per-month income. It was not something I questioned, as I had left India voluntarily and was determined not to return until I had achieved fame and fortune in America. If living on a pittance was what it took, I would do it. Besides, I had many romanticized visions of artists and writers who had starved in garrets on their way to greatness. I saw myself as a Dylan Thomas or a Picasso; dreams, I knew, often had to be paid for with suffering.
It is ironic to me now that I left the Third World healthy and happy, perhaps even a little too plump. For Indians who can afford it, the subcontinent is an omnivore's dreamworld—its welter of cultures and castes and topographies has yielded a cuisine that is delectably varied and infinitely interesting. Throughout my adolescence, I gorged on sweet-and-sour chaat from street vendors' smoky stalls and crisp masala dosais in corner cafés, savored freshly roasted coffee with syrupy sweetmeats, dawdled for hours in bakeries redolent with curry puffs and rainbow cupcakes. My mother's kitchen was a cornucopia of South Indian delights. And my parents, even on their Third-World salaries, had taken us on jaunts to Europe, where we had tried pastas with kinky-sounding names ("Venus's bellybuttons" in Bologna, "pumpkinheads" in Abruzzo), mille-feuilles in Paris and Weiner schnitzel in Köln. I had loved food, as I love it now; I had never known what it was like to go without it.
It was only in the First World that I learned what it meant to be destitute and hungry.
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MEENAKSHI GIGI DURHAM
Meenakshi Gigi Durham's essays and short fiction have appeared in a variety of publications, including the Chronicle of Higher Education and Harvard Review. A former newspaper and magazine journalist, she is now a professor in the University of Iowa's School of Journalism and Mass Communication and an Associate Dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her essay "Grieving" was selected for inclusion in Best American Essays 2011.
"Hunger Pangs" originally appeared in The Iowa Review Volume 42, Issue 2 (2012). This is Part 3 of 4.
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