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It was my worst fear come true. I had moved from Silicon Valley to join the company CD in Atlanta in 2008. I had been out of a job two and a half years, trying to do my own thing first and then trying to find a job as a venture capitalist specializing in clean energy, a space in which I had built a big business. True to vulture capital form, I was called to a number of “interviews” but actually they were just opportunities for the venture capitalists to pick my brain, so I was getting fed up of it all and getting ready to move to India. I was 38, recently-divorced and thought I could start life afresh in India. In addition, along with my mother and siblings, I owned considerable property in Delhi. I got along great with mom.
In 2009, in a company meeting, my boss, the vice president of the division, stated that unemployment was supposed to soar to 10 percent by the end of the year. Oh my gosh I thought, not a time to be on the street. I would do anything to stay on in the job. But not everything. The vice president of human resources of the division, Maria, had invited me for the interviews to Atlanta. She was a glamorous, attractive Midwesterner who wore her neckline low. I had a hard time talking to her without staring at her breasts.
Virginia Highlands is an upscale neighborhood in Atlanta. Maria lived there. At our first meeting after I joined the company, Maria told me she wanted me to live in Virginia Highlands. I really didn’t understand the import of her meaning, but since I knew no part of Atlanta better than any other, went there to explore. Wow, that place was so white. How was a dark-skinned person like me going to fit in? I guess like so many other dark-skinned people in the South have fit in for centuries. I was used to a certain diversity in Silicon Valley. There was no way in hell that I was going to Virginia Highlands.
But Maria insisted. And my boss, the VP of the division, insisted that I listen to Maria. I still didn’t get it until Maria’s subordinate told me that she wanted to hang with me. Aha, hang with me!
The company had assigned me a realtor, a kind Southern woman of 65, to find me an apartment. I went to a complex in Virginia Highlands. Ah, now, the leasing agent there, I wanted to hang with her. She did not have a Southern twang. I asked her how she had got rid of it. She said that many Southerners, especially the younger generation, gain the Yankee accent because they are made to feel backward if they speak with a Southern accent. I didn’t care for the complex though. My realtor found me a newer complex in Virginia Highlands. Off I went one day at lunch to see the place. Atlanta has many one-lane winding roads because the roads were made over horse-carriage rails. The drive to the apartment complex took me half an hour.
Inside I was greeted by two women. They took my driver’s license, and then both accompanied me to show me an apartment. Strange, where was the need for two women, especially after keeping my license, but I kept my counsel? I liked the apartment, paid the deposit of $400 and left. I checked out of my hotel the following day in the expectation that I would get keys to my apartment that very day. The complex closed at 6pm. Work held me until 5pm, but with an expected half-hour drive, I thought I had ample time. I hadn’t bargained for Atlanta’s rush hour traffic. It snakes and snakes, ever so slowly. Silicon Valley rush hour traffic is bad, but nothing like Atlanta’s.
I was panicking now. It was getting late. If the complex closed before I reached it, I would have to find a hotel. A hotel in a strange city, a city that I had been told was not entirely safe. Oh Lord, please let me reach the complex on time. I reached there precisely at three minutes to six. Mercifully the office was still open. There were five women workers inside. I went to the one who had signed me up. She told me to go away, that the required paperwork would take an hour, and that she didn’t have the time to do it that day. Her boss, the manager of the complex, told her to give me the key so that I could spend the night there. I could do the paperwork the following day. She overruled her own boss. I left and stood outside the office. All five women traipsed behind me, and then kept looking back at me and laughing. I felt miserable there, standing in my suit. It was one of the lowest days in my life. My mom called from India. I didn’t tell her anything about what had transpired. But, whoa, welcome to the South.
The realtor told me immediately the next morning that this was a case of discrimination. She said that as long as the office was open when you walked in, they had to let you in. I didn’t want to make any “discrimination” waves in my company and told her that as long as they promptly returned my $400, I wouldn’t take any action. She called the manager of the complex. The manager practically fell off her chair. Oh my god, I could lose my job over this, she cried. This is one of the many things I don’t understand about the South. They are part of the union, but many don’t want to follow federal laws. Second, many Southerners would like to leave the union (still), but they like the benefits of staying in the union.
Third, many of them say that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. That it was all about economics. Are they so dense not to believe that even a foreigner like me gets that slavery was tied, intrinsically, to economics? And fourth, I can’t even count how many times children in the South, as well as parents of children in the South, have told me that kids there are taught in school by their teachers that the South won the Civil War. Now, that, that is a real joke, that one.
I had been assigned a secretary, LoAnne. She was 60, originally from Florida but had lived in Atlanta 30 years. She was not happy with her job, and would share her insecurities with me. I, being new had no choice but to be polite and listen to her. The next day she asked me if I had finally found a place to live. I mumbled, no, they didn’t seem to want me. She said, I am sure they must have been black. I laughed inward and went inside my office. Black people generally don’t have a problem living with Indians.
The VP of human resources was getting more and more insistent. I just had to find a place to stay in her neighborhood. But I had exhausted all the places there. At my first Christmas party, I noticed her, half-drunk. She came up to the cloak counter just as I was standing there. She apologized for interrupting me and ordered that her car be brought up. The valet was good-looking. She screamed at him, come home with me, I am still single. Had I dodged a bullet or what? Apart from hanging out with a semi-alcoholic, I would also be having sex with a slut.
My father was alcoholic. My ex used to have a wine glass in the bath tub. I told her, if we get married, you will have to get rid of this wine glass-a-day habit. One sits on the porch, one opens a bottle of wine to have a glass, then one says why not finish the bottle otherwise we would have to throw it away. And then one bottle becomes two then three, and both partners become utter alcoholics.
But I had not dodged a bullet. I had made a mortal enemy. At a company like CD, your work was considered secondary. It was important whose protection you had. The VP of HR had been there her entire life. She knew everybody. Everybody knew her. If I had started seeing her, it’s possible that I might have been a VP there myself today. But I had had an office romance before that hadn’t gone well for me. I was determined not to repeat another.
I am Indian, dark-skinned, six feet tall. Some women find me good-looking. But with so much emphasis on color everywhere in the world, including in India and in the U.S., I don’t regard myself as anything exceptional. In middle school in India, I was hazed mercilessly for being dark. I was called kaalu, which means blackie in Hindi. I started buying fairness creams. I would show my arteries that shown green through my arms to my teachers to prove that I was not black. Even the teachers would burst out laughing when my classmates hazed me. I internalized everything and never told anyone at home. But the inferiority complex of being dark remained and still has vestiges, a lot, left of it.
One day, LoAnne blithely walked into my office and said, Fuck me. Wow, I was getting really popular. I protested, LoAnne, how could you, you have a husband. But she was completely insouciant. She didn’t have a care in the world. I didn’t find LoAnne attractive at all. In addition, for the aforementioned reasons of a relationship with her being an office romance, I would not have touched her.
The company had hired a manager from Detroit, a black woman, whose seniority was the same as mine. Since my whole day would go in meetings, I would work late. Anna would work late too. She started visiting my office around 8pm. The problem with that was that there was only one place to eat near my office, a Fuddruckers, and they would close at 9. I had to make sure that I got my obligatory daily burger from there before they closed, otherwise I would go hungry the whole night.
Anna would talk and talk about how to bring improvements to the company. I had to listen, but then I realized that she was only pushing the time to late at night and waiting for me to make a move. But I was not going to make a move, so she did. She asked me out over the weekend to the Georgia Aquarium. I realized what she wanted and punted the invitation to the following week. She didn’t take kindly to my duck.
White or black, they were coming at me fast and furious. William Congreve wrote that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. In my case, I had scorned three. Around the time Anna was trying to court me, I took a cab to the airport. The driver was Indian, and that too from my part of the world. I told him about Anna.