It's 9 p.m. here in Lubbock and unusually cold for Texas. A passing blizzard, and the usually sunburnt town has draped itself in a cocoon of snow. People rushed dutifully to grocery stores like the Walking Dead coming to life. I went, too, despite the late hour. My fingers are numb and struggle to hold the key as I try to unlock my apartment door.
Once my husband and I move to Baltimore, I doubt I will go out like this to get gas or buy groceries once it turns dark — or for any reason other than a dire emergency. Or so advises the Internet's chorus on Mobtown.
My husband recently "matched" with a Johns Hopkins postdoctoral fellowship program. As we prepare to pack our dreams, among other breakable and not-so-breakable stuff, and move to Baltimore, I realize that there is a distinction between being a part of Hopkins and being a resident of the city. While Johns Hopkins raises feelings of aspiration, Baltimore City triggers apprehension. I have tucked these two thoughts in a corner of my mind, like the items I've carefully placed in a VIP bag I brought from India when I got married. Most of our tangible stuff, we intend to sell. But is there a bazaar for fear?
We still have some time before we move, but fear of the city is already living within us. Is Baltimore really "Chaos Theory incarnate," as a foreword to David Simon's book "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets" suggests? Is this nagging feeling a fear of the unknown: a new city that has a reputation for the worst of the worst that could possibly happen to a human being? Or a fear too well known to be said out loud: the fear of a young black man gone astray lurking around the corner, a man who might mug me and stab me or shoot me in the process? But isn't he himself living in a constant state of fear? Doesn't he fear the policeman lurking around the corner? Or harbor a fear of what Ta Nehisi Coates calls losing his body? How strange is it that my imaginary tormentor and I must be united in one thing, and that is a deep, dark, chilling dread of not existing the next moment. Maybe this is a form of the Melvillian universal thump that everybody bears. Maybe not.
So how do I look at my future home? Do I look at it as a city of death where homicides are a norm, a headline in a forlorn corner of a newspaper that surprises no one? Or do I look at it as a city as dangerous and treacherous as any in the world? Something like my hometown of Shimla, which writers romanticize and tourists litter; where overcrowded local buses trudge their way through serpentine roads, buses in which I used to carry a geometric compass to protect myself against gropers — the usual uncle jis who must go home to wives twice my age and daughters almost the same age as me. But in Baltimore, it's a whole different ballgame. These men won't be scared away by geometric compasses, I am told.
Torn by fear and confounded by uncertainty, I browse for Indian communities in Baltimore. The Internet asks me if I am looking for Native American neighborhoods in Baltimore. I say no. I am looking for Indian Indian neighborhoods. The India that Columbus initially set out to discover. Another search throws up Desi neighborhoods in Baltimore. But all it talks about is south Indian culture and Bollywood. I don't belong to south India. I come from the Himalayan Mountains, where gods are believed to have abodes in the icy coldness of the last extant glaciers. The Indians in Baltimore appear to be as foreign as Americans. They don't even speak Hindi. I have lost track of what I am exactly looking for. What makes me think that my husband, our unborn child, and yet un-adopted dog will be safe in an Indian neighborhood? How painfully ironic that we leave India for greener pastures and end up looking for India abroad!
Confusion lingers on my fingers and they dawdle on the keyboard as I wonder what to search next. Maybe I'll just stop. Stop searching, stop wondering, and stop fearing. Maybe I'll just prepare myself to discover the real Baltimore. Was it Livy who said "we fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them?"