Resident alienation

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on April 25, 2021

It’s been ten months since I left my private little bunker in Elsewhere — but today, I’m in my sister’s beautiful home in Connecticut. Listening to the birds, watching the marauding squirrels’ antics at the bird feeders, enjoying the mild sunshine. My daily struggle is to avoid gorging continuously. Chocolate, chocolate everywhere! And every meal, a seduction of flavours and abundance.

For the last couple of days, we have been watching a series called Resident Alien. It focuses on a bug-eyed, multi-limbed and highly intelligent creature who is forced to assume human form in a small town in Colorado. The human form he assumes is played by Alan Tudyk, an actor who can make his face look like animated plasticine even when he’s not an alien in disguise. But why was the alien visiting our planet in the first place? Answer: In order to wipe human beings out of existence.

Ha-ha! Yes! Some extra-terrestrials really are monstrous, terrifying beings! The series is funny-bizarre. All the characters have complicated backstories. The racial-gender mix is such that the audience is forced to recognise how truly unusual it is to see more than just one token non-mainstream character. The Sheriff is a tall black man. His much smarter deputy is a short, plump, blond woman. The lead female character is Native American. The Mayor is unnaturally handsome in the way that I have come to associate with onscreen gay men — but this one is straight and so self-effacing that his wife bullies him. The cute-smart child-hero has a cute-smart Muslim girl-buddy. The government agent assigned to hunt down aliens is a sweet-faced female sociopath. And so on.

In this show, we’re made conscious of “otherness” in the US. But I was reminded of the way that, all through my life, I too have been an “other”. Growing up away from India had made me different from other Indians. The very first time I met Indian children was in Karachi, when I was five years old. But they sneered at me and said I didn’t belong amongst them. Why? Because I didn’t speak Hindi or sing the Indian national anthem. Luckily for me, I was impervious to being shunned. I had decided very early on that if I was different then — hoorah! It was the best way to be.

As for the show, I don’t know to what extent it’s self-aware. Is it really intended to be a sly commentary about the fears of US citizens regarding real life “resident aliens” in their midst? Is it reminding viewers that some aliens maybe DO have violent hidden agendas? Is it stoking fears? Or is it merely poking fun at the many flavours of otherness in our world?

By the end of the season, everyone on the show appears to be thoroughly alien. Maybe that’s the ultimate message: depending on who’s looking, we’re all weird! Get over it! And let’s all eat some pizza.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on April 25, 2021

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