BY SWETA SRIVASTAVA VIKRAM
One of the things I looked most forward to after being sworn in as an American citizen: to serve on a jury. Partially inspired by the show Law & Order SVU; and, partially by the philosophy: Innocent until proven guilty.
The day finally arrived when I got summoned for jury duty. It was spring of 2012. I woke up before sunrise. Prepared. Focused. Determined. It was like I was back in my boarding school on the day of basketball tryouts.
When I got to the court house in Kew Gardens, Queens, to submit my ticket, there was a long line. Worse than what you see at a Black Friday sale. People were grumbling and giving reasons for wanting to excuse themselves. Was I the only one praying hard to get selected? I picked up my ticket and walked across to the Queens County Criminal Courts Building.
Even though I grew in a family of lawyers and judges, I had never seen the inside of a courthouse. I felt like I was on the sets of Law & Order SVU. High ceilings. X-ray machines to scan handbags. Metal detectors. Police officers everywhere.
I had to wait for my number to be called out. Along with a group of other potential jurors, I walked into the courtroom and sat in an assigned seat. Just like in Law & Order SVU, we all stood up when the judge walked in. Questions were rolled out at the jurors by the district attorney and the prosecutor. "Have you ever been a victim of a crime?" Over 90% of the people raised their arms. "Do you think a person is guilty because they have been accused of a crime?" Law & Order SVU had taught me that these were strategies used by the defense and prosecution to sieve out the "weakest link." Okay, maybe I exaggerate. This was the time when people, whose responses didn’t align with the belief system of either the DA or the prosecution, were tossed out. I was determined to be on the jury. I measured each word. I put a lid on my writerly, social issues advocate’s opinions. Answered honestly but used minimal words. I made the cut.
I looked around at the team of selected jurors. We did it, guys. Did anyone else want to high-five? I saw one South Asian looking man the same age as me. You know how you meet someone and you feel like you know them? Well, this wasn’t one of those moments. This guy sat next to me and looked miserable, so I reached out.
"Hi, You OK?"
He introduced himself as "Baburao."
"I am Sweta."
He continued complaining about being on the jury and having to spend time away from his family. He and his wife ran a day care center out of their house in Queens. And with him being away, the pressure was all on her.
"I can imagine." I shook my head like a pendulum.
"What do you mean?" He arched his eyebrow.
"My husband travels a fair bit for work. He tells me how he feels guilty about not always being there. I am sure your wife too appreciates that you don’t take her for granted."
"I guess." He wore his gloves.
My brother teases that I am the one person he knows, who even if marooned on an island will still manage to make a friend. My random friendship that sparked with Baburao kind of proved my brother’s point.
Next day when I saw Baburao, I asked if his wife and the daycare were okay. Over the next few days, during breaks, Baburao and I hung out together in the courthouse. We weren’t allowed to discuss the case. So, we talked about family. While Baburao was born in America, his ancestors lived in India at one point until they were brought to Guyana as slaves by the British to work on the plantations. My family lived in North Africa for 15 years. Migration and grandma’s food showed up in our conversations.
A day or two into the case, I can’t remember whether the prosecution or the defense raised an objection, but the judge ordered a recess. He told us to reconvene later that very afternoon.
"This sucks! What are we supposed to do with this time off?" Baburao flung his arms.
"Can’t you go home?" I picked up my purse.
"I’ll waste too much time commuting. Plus, it’s close to the kids’ naptime. I will disturb them." Baburao continued to complain as we zipped up our jackets.
I turned to him, "You want to come to my place? I can make tea, and you can relax at my place. My husband is traveling…" Even before I could complete my sentence, Baburao walked out. He didn’t say a bye. He didn’t bother to explain himself.
I thought that was odd. I stepped out and got myself some chai. I hadn’t been rude to Baburao. If anything, I had offered to help him and his wife out.
When the court recess ended, I saw Baburao in the room where all the jurors gathered. I waved at him; Baburao looked away. As per routine, an officer of the court escorted us all inside the courtroom when it was time. Even though we were assigned seats next to each other, Baburao didn’t say a word. Eventually as, we, the members of the jury reached a verdict and the judge announced his decision, we were free to go. Baburao spoke with everyone in the room but didn’t even make eye contact with me, forget saying a bye. I couldn’t understand the erratic change in his behavior.
When I stepped out of the courthouse, I called up my husband who was in California on work. He could tell from my voice that something was up. "Are you OK?"
I told him about what had transpired over the past few days. How I thought I had made a good friend and then lost the friend without any reason. I’d hoped that we could meet up with Baburao and his wife for dinner or we could invite them over for a home cooked meal. "But Baburao didn’t even say a bye before leaving. And I’m not sure why."
My husband laughed. "I might know why, babe."
"Genius, care to share?" I rolled my eyes.
"It sounds like you asked Baburao out."
My face turned red. I stomped Queens Boulevard. "What rubbish! Eww! Yuck. I did no such thing. I have no such interest in any of this nonsense." I didn’t care that the people on the street were looking at me.
"I know," my husband lowered his voice to a tone where it sounded like he wasn’t teasing me any longer. "You didn’t mean to, I know." He paused. "Babe, if anything, Baburao seems like a decent guy. He thought you were hitting on him, so he backed off. He respected that you are both married."
I went for a long walk and replayed my last conversation with Baburao inside my head. "Come home. You can relax at my place. My husband is traveling." I covered my face. Ugh, I had never felt stupider or more embarrassed. All I wanted to do was be a helpful friend, so Baburao and his wife weren’t inconvenienced. Isn’t that what friends do—look out for each other?
It’s an Indian thing to invite people home even if you have just met. We once attended a lavish Thanksgiving dinner in New Jersey because we happened to run into the host at the Ikea in Elizabeth when we were out furniture shopping. When I had moved to the US in 1999, one of the older ladies working behind the cash register at a Rite Aid in my neighborhood invited me over for lunch. Those were the days when there were no cellphones. My husband couldn’t contact me, and I couldn’t Google Map my way out of an awkward place. But I didn’t mistrust her even once. I was new to the country, hated the 4 pm sunsets, and didn’t have other friends. So, I went to this woman’s place for lunch. She cooked me a delicious South Indian meal of Idli-sambar (savory rice cake served with lentil soup and veggies). We had a great time discussing Bollywood movies. It felt homely.
I didn’t have Baburao’s phone number. Or email. I figured we’d exchange it on the last day. Frankly, even if I did have his contact information, I wouldn’t have called him up. What would I have said? "Hi, Baburao. Um, wanted you to know that I wasn’t hitting on you. I am a happily married grownup woman clueless about double entendres or any dating lingo. Sorry if I made you uncomfortable."
Honestly, I didn’t know anything about dating. I grew up between North Africa and a boarding school in the Indian Himalayas in the 80s and 90s. There were rules around dating in my home. And I didn’t break rules. Guys in school and college gave some of the girls red roses on Valentine’s Day. We gushed and blushed but threw them out the next day. Sure, I had a lot of guy friends in college, but we didn’t date each other. They are like family to me. I met my husband when I had just turned twenty-three. And that was about it. Maybe when you aren’t looking for a partner or romantic liaison, your brain processes words differently? I don’t know.
As a writer, the only way I can apologize and mock my naivety is through self-deprecatory writing.
Sweta Srivastava Vikram featured by Asian Fusion as "one of the most influential Asians of our time," is a best-selling author of 12 books, five-times Pushcart Prize nominee, mindfulness writing coach, and social issues advocate. Louisiana Catch is her debut U.S. It’s the #1 new release on Amazon under women’s divorce fiction and featured on U.K.'s list of "Books to Read in 2018." Born in India, Sweta spent her formative years between the Indian Himalayas, North Africa, and the United States collecting and sharing stories. She writes about women, multiculturalism, wellness, and identity. Sweta, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, amongst other publications, across nine countries on three continents, is an award-winning writer and graduate of Columbia University. She lives in New York City with her husband and in her spare time, teaches yoga to female survivors of rape and domestic violence. She is also the CEO-Founder of NimmiLife, a holistic wellness company, which helps people lead creative, productive, and healthier lives using the healing sciences of yoga and Ayurveda lifestyle counseling. You can find her in these online spaces: Twitter (@swetavikram), Instagram (@swetavikram), and Facebook.