Of Elvis and Green Cards

He’s relevant, really. (Wikipedia)

“Excuse me, do you have a light?”

I was asked this while walking around one evening, a month after I came to America. I replied that I didn’t have any matches or lighters. The question was presumptuous because I wasn’t smoking. She was middle-aged and sat on her stoop tapping a cigarette on her pack as I examined my face for wrinkles and wondered if my breathing sounded like emphysema. She regarded me for a few seconds and said nice evening or something. I look Indian enough, and Indians are almost one-sixth of the world’s population, so I allowed myself some annoyance when she asked which part of Pakistan I was from. I corrected her. She apologized, but with a look of close enough.

India has symmetry. And theirs is out of scale, astronomically. (1.bp.blogspot.com)

“What do you do?” she asked.

“I’m a grad student at St. John’s.”

I knew how this dance went. First I say that I study pharmaceutics and then they say, “Oh, pharmacology!” While I was explaining the difference and ignoring the beads of sweat near my ears, I was offered some lemonade. I said no thanks; she shrugged and smiled. Always taught to decline first and relent after persuasion, the withdrawal of her offer seemed sudden to my Indian eyes. But clearly the American way was to state what one wanted, and take others at their word—a little crass, I felt, but refreshingly candid. She wasn’t done being candid.

“When you get your degree, you gonna go back, or stay here and try to get a green card?”

“I’m not sure. Depends on the job-market I guess.”

“If you stay, does that mean your parents are going to move here too?” she asked.

This was 2007—not everybody’s shit had hit the fan—and it was understandable for some Americans to think of their country as a large zero-sum pizza, where more immigrant families meant less for everyone. Actually, I liked her honesty. It’s like America was her teenage daughter, and she wanted to know my intentions. Far more respectful than the oh-we-are-glad-to-have-you-here-if only-American-kids-studied-science-as-much-as-you platitudes. I was honest. I told her that my mother couldn’t see herself leaving India, but my dad was amenable. A half-belch-half-grunt came from inside the house. There was a guy in her living room—I’m guessing, her husband. He didn’t look at me once as he was engrossed in a game I still can’t call football.

How did Americans come up with ‘Get the ball rolling.’ (eslpod.com)

“Looks like he’s engrossed in the game,” I said.

Trust me, when you suffer from an Indian accent, and have to repeat every other word, words with three consonants in a row like engrossed are to be thought, not spoken. America may have a lot of foreigners—you’ll meet most in New York—but you can spot an Indian a mile away. Of course you can, he looks Indian. But he’s also the guy who’s over-pronouncing consonants to wash his accent off, scrubbing harder than Lady Macbeth. You won’t see a Français or a Brit doing this. Their accents are sexy. Why do you think they like to get together with their kind so much? To preserve their accents. Indians in America treat other Indians like rival drug-runners pushing on their corner. (People understand me better now—it’s been five years—but I still pronounce ‘w’ like a German.)

English: Adolf Hitler

Even he sounded better than me. And that’s not fair. (Wikipedia)

“Did you hear a lot about America, in Bombay?” she asked, ignoring my statement.

How do I explain to her what America is to non-Americans? The roads looked so clean in the movies that as a kid, I thought Americans walked barefoot. USA was the Narnia where money grew on trees and everybody sat around a fire chatting about how good they have it—taking breaks to wind their clocks back or forward an hour—and they all talked funny. And their movies had real people kissing instead of the images of actual birds and bees native to 90s Bollywood. And the strangest disposal tools. Whenever my uncle visited India, dad told us to put out a roll of toilet paper for him. Why can’t he use the bidet shower spray, I wondered. Maybe Americans don’t like their asses getting wet. Perhaps dry buttocks were the symbol of Western opulence. But I didn’t want to come on too strong with how enamored I was.

“Sure. We get most of your TV shows, and we like Hollywood movies,” I said.

“And sports? Do you guys play the same stuff we play? I’m a huge football fan.”

“Well, mostly cricket. That’s what most Indians care about. I grew up playing it.”

“What about the skin flute?” the belching grunter asked from inside.

“I’m sorry, what?” I said, as the woman started giggling.

“The skin-flute, I’ve been playing that since the fifth grade,” he said.

“I haven’t heard of it. It’s a musical instrument, right?”

Their laugh still echoes in my head whenever my brain makes the you-are-such-a-loser powerpoint presentation in case I get too optimistic.

“Ignore him. What about music? Do you get our music?”

I had to be careful. Admitting that I owned two Backstreet Boys CDs had gotten me picked on for an hour the other day—by a girl. I had saved myself, not convincingly, by blaming my sister. Just like I blamed the France ’98 for my liking Ricky Martin (The cup of life, ole ole ole…nobody?). Next trip to India, I’m dumping them along with the Spice Girls albums. (Seriously, who am I to ridicule the Bieber/Perry/Swift fanboys and fangirls.) I decided to stay vague.

Elvis Presley, 1973 Aloha From Hawaii televisi...

Hunka hunka burning green card (Wikipedia)

“Sure. American music is popular in India; mostly in cities.”

“What about Elvis? Do you like Elvis?”

“Sure. My dad’s the fan though. He likes Elvis and Englebert and Neil Diamond.”

She got excited and proclaimed, “If you like Elvis, you’re cool.”

By that scale, I guess I’m kind of cool. Amazing huh? Getting a full scholarship to grad school is great, but as far as assimilation goes, it pales in front of a man in a jump-suit who liked prescription drugs. Whatever works, I guess.

“Actually, I’d love some of that lemonade.”

The ruthless pardoner

I remember it as clear as day, which is a strange thing to say as the memory itself is of nighttime. It was raining heavily that night. Heavy was how it did: the rain in Mumbai. A bolt of lightning shot through the sky presenting the scene around me like a photographic flash not invented yet. The rumbling had become my background score. The sweet sound of raindrops hitting the surfaces of puddles somehow held its own against seemingly heavier opponents.

I loved watching the angles of the rain drops. Drops so large and forceful, they could dent cars if they tried hard enough all night. They came down in bullying rage, but with a decorum of obliqueness, parallel to each other, yet at odds with everything else: a law unto themselves.

The fourth floor apartment window I patronized overlooked the abandoned garden. Untamed shrubbery and grass amidst the trees were in tireless negotiations with the howling wind. I still remember that bench. The one bench that was close enough to a streetlight. I could see it so clearly. I’d be able to sculpt the mosaic from memory, textured like a face with years of wisdom and character. That bench was probably never cleaned, save for the all-forgiving showers. On rainy nights, it looked like it probably had the day it was created.

I still don’t understand why that mental picture means so much to me. I haven’t seen rain like that much in over four years, about the same time since I looked hard at that bench. I could make some half-baked joke about my crippling laziness, and how a bench would represent my ultimate life-goals, or I could make my readers gag by suggesting that this recurring image is some inspiration to stay firm in unfavorable circumstances, while using the adversity to develop and grow. That most certainly isn’t it.

I remember, as a teenager that my feelings of vulnerability rose whenever it rained. I supposed my subconscious had convinced me that worst case, I’d have to live on the streets, where I’d totally survive, as long as it didn’t rain. Somehow, rain represented adversity, a question to the answer of shelter. I always have enormous respect for my parents’ achievements, but none so clear as when it poured in Bombay.

Proportional responses

Whenever I write on a serious issue, I usually start by quoting an article written by a better writer and paraphrasing some of it before segueing into my own thoughts on the subject. What can I say, I’m a slave to routine: Here is the article by Kanchan Gupta on a topic that most people are passionate about, as it involves life and death. Our lives and the deaths of those who will not sit still until they decimate us.

Let me preface by saying that terrorism is never and can never be justifiable. Nothing, no kind of torture or enslavement, or infringement of any right whatever, gives one the right to kill innocent people. We have reached a point in evolution where we must be above killing someone’s loved ones to motivate or deter them. This, seems so obvious right?

What we face today is something no one has imagined before. Sure, the developed and developing world has faced threats to its life from various organizations before. The Nazis, the imperialist British juggernaut, and various separatist revolutions of individual nations come to mind. Many of such threats involved people who believed they were martyring themselves for a cause, for freedom, for independence or a life without persecution.

The extremist Muslim fundamentalist threat we face today is completely new. Before I go further, let me clarify some words and their meanings.

  • Fundamentalism refers to a belief in a strict adherence to specific set of theological doctrines typically in reaction against what are perceived as modern heresies of secularism
  • Extremism is a term used to describe the actions or ideologies of individuals or groups outside the perceived political center of a society; or otherwise claimed to violate common moral standards.

Both definitions are from Wikipedia, so you’re free to criticize their correctness, but I am including them here to indicate what I mean when I use these words.

Kanchan Gupta starts with exploring the meaning of targeted killing, and how legitimate they are. He swats like a fly the argument of apparent immorality of killing a terrorist by saying, “…since terrorism is neither morally right nor a legal expression of dissent…” Very well said. I would like to elaborate on this point more.

We cannot go eye for an eye against Islamic extremists. They believe they are in a cosmic war between good and evil, and their book tells them they’re on the good side. As Reza Aslan says (I don’t agree with him on most points, but I do on this one), “We cannot legitimize this viewpoint. We are not going to out-fanaticize these fanatics.”

That is what I say to all those who tell me that the correct response to Islamic terrorism is to go there and rampantly kill their civilians, show the wrath of the world, show what happens when the civilized world gets uncivilized. It won’t work. It might make us feel good, assuage our outrage when we see television footage of some Arab village getting blown up as our wounds of 9/11, 7/11, 26/11 are still raw. In reality, all it will do is motivate the ones remaining against us even further.

Let’s not forget that this is not a group willing to give its life for the betterment of the remaining members alone: it is a group that believes that they will be honored in the afterlife for every non-believer they kill. So, they aren’t just willing to die for their cause, they’re eager to.

We cannot use fear to motivate them; they have none. They want to die and take with them as many of us as possible. There is only one way to truly control this problem. Treat it as an infestation.

Taking a leaf out of Israel’s book

As and when terrorist groups are formed, we must find ways to kill their leaders. This will prevent them getting organized. Kanchan Gupta cites the example of the assassination of a Hamas leader in the end of his article. It is widely believed to be a Mossad operation (as intelligence agencies go, they are probably the best). The agents entered Dubai 24 hours before the leader reached there to make an arms deal. They checked into the room opposite his, choked him when they got the opportunity, and left the country that very afternoon. Amazing.

Remember Operation Wrath of God? A Palestinian terrorist outfit called Black September had killed 11 Israeli athletes after hijacking their plane. The Israeli Prime Minister had apparently said, “Send forth the boys.” A small group of agents were sent out to kill key leaders of the group. David Kimche, the former deputy head of Mossad said, “The aim was not so much revenge but mainly to make them [the militant Palestinians] frightened. We wanted to make them look over their shoulders and feel that we are upon them. And therefore we tried not to do things by just shooting a guy in the street – that’s easy … fairly.” The idea was to kill them in places where they felt most secure. What makes this approach brilliant is the clinical nature of it. There was a reason for every action. This wasn’t murder motivated by revenge or an animal desire for blood, but a surgical move based on cause and effect. They wanted to kill certain people, important people, the absence of whom would set a terrorist organization back and hence reduce the danger from them.

India Vs. The government of Pakistan

No one really doubts that our northwestern neighbor is sympathetic to the terrorists’ interests. The ISI has been linked to many groups responsible for acts of terrorism in India.

I titled this post based on an episode of The West Wing I had seen a long time ago. The newly elected Democrat president is required to authorize an American response to an act of Syrian terrorism. The president (in the show) is supposed to be a democrat and hence is afraid of being perceived as soft-on-terrorism, which is compounded by the fact that one of the American casualties was his own personal physician (who had a small baby at home). Martin Sheen, who plays the president, says, “Let the word go forth, from this time and place, gentlemen – you kill an American, any American, we don’t come back with a proportional response. We come back with total disaster!” Of course, in the show, he actually cools down and decides to adopt a proportional response, realizing that his earlier outrage was more personal than presidential.

We all go through that cycle. When the 26-11 happened, I wanted the Indian government to bomb Pakistan just like the US started bombing Afghanistan after 9-11. That was my belligerent knee-jerk response. After sobering up a little, and with more clear thinking, I realized that if we don’t maintain a clear distinction between us and those groups based on what we won’t stoop to no matter what, we will soon end up blurring the line between good and evil. Under no circumstances should we formulate a war plan that revolves around killing civilians. It is not worth it. It is a Pyrrhic victory at best and will germinate more terrorism at worst.

The youth

When Ahmadinejad visited Columbia University in 2007, the President of the university, Lee Bollinger, in his introduction, flamed the man so much that pundits predicted that it would end up endearing him to the youth of Iran. The young students and adults of Iran were impressionable, and introducing them to social liberalism would have been a much better idea, as it would have helped them distance themselves from the Islamic rule of the Shah and Ahmadinejad. Instead, the president of Columbia University, as well as a lot of the American people, insulted Ahmadinejad categorically and ended up insulting the pride of every Iranian. That is sooo not the way to approach this.

I bet the youth of these countries are interested in free speech, the right to do what one wants as long as he is not encroaching on others, the rights of women, the right not to be cruelly and unusually punished. We can engage them in friendly dialogue and develop lasting harmonious relationships with them. Of course, this is hard when you’re bombing their families to hell and back.

Conclusion

Islamic terrorism is unlike any enemy encountered before. They cannot be intimidated, or blackmailed. The only way to control them is to keep trimming their groups. The militant groups need to be spied upon more efficiently, and their leaders need to be neutralized as soon as possible. If they elect new leaders, they should be sanctioned promptly. As Dumbledore said to Harry about Voldemort in The Philosopher’s Stone, “[W]hile you may only have delayed his return to power, it will merely take someone else who is prepared to fight what seems a losing battle next time – and if he is delayed again, and again, why, he may never return to power.”

This only seems like a losing battle. If every member of society put his two cents each time, and keeps doing so, we might be able to get a world as peaceful as possible.

DISCLAIMERS:

  1. While I think this goes without saying, let me make extremely clear the pain I feel for most of the Muslims in this world, who, like the rest of us, want peace more than anything else, and are unnecessary maligned by the few who use this religion to do harm. I apologize to any and all such non-violent Muslims for any affront they might have felt while reading this post.
  2. I must also make it clear that while all the evidence I have seen leads me to believe that the establishment in Pakistan is sympathetic to terrorism, I don’t believe for one moment that the entire population of Pakistan supports it. I am sure most of Pakistan is like most of India: people who want to go to work, make their money, enjoy their life, and mean something to the people who mean something to them.

 

 

I left the perfect city


I am a Mumbaikar. Through and through. So heat and humidity, pollution and noise..bring it on. Crowds are most welcome. I guess with India progressing at such a demonic rate, crowds, noise and other forms of pollution are a given in most cities. There is something about Mumbai, though. Be it the roadside food vendors, or the oft complained about but most adored train service, this city is so embedded in our DNA that it has an effect, or rather a controlling interest in our daily lives.

No matter where we are.

New York City is an amazing place, and to a Mumbaikar, life in NYC is finding a mistress who looks like your wife, but is more attractive for the sheer thrill of a new catch. Having said that, all it does is seem like a shadow of the city of dreams. They call NYC the city that never sleeps, but I call Bombay the city that breathes. It breathes and has a heartbeat and a pulse, which is resonant with every instinct we possess. It is more than a dwelling, or even a place of fun. It is a feeling, which is so organic to our being that, it has a vitality that even NYC pales in comparison to.

The mornings in Bombay were philosophical. It was truly a city where people came with little, and it absorbed them, lovingly and without condition. The morning symbolized, no wait, it inspired, no no wait some more, it engendered hope. I have been through a lot in my life, ok not a lot but it always seemed like a lot when it happened to me. The Mumbai morning, however, bleached me with the sunrays, scolding me for my negative thoughts, showing me the less fortunate but more determined: The paper boy who grew up parallel to me, who distributed papers and fresh flowers to pay for his admission in a municipality like school, the maidservant whose children starved literally, but she never came to work with anything but a smile, were my teachers in the meaning of determination. They have raised the bar so high and set such an example for me: an example I am doing a lousy job living up to.

Anything can happen in this city. This was the city torn asunder by four strategically placed bombs in trains of the western railway, and the same city which was humbled by a deluge we like to know as 26/7. This was the same city declared by Reader’s Digest as the “rudest city in the world.” And you know what, we are guilty as charged.

To hell with politeness, we have no time in Mumbai. The 7:30am bus, if missed meant that I would miss my 8:11am train, which made me cranky for my 9:30am class, because I have just taken a crowded train exchanging little beads with of perspiration with total strangers. If someone met me on the warpath at such a time, they would be predisposed to thinking we are the rude inhabitants of a city.

I love Bombay, unconditionally and truly, right from Gateway of India to Thane Creek (read large gutter), right from Marine Drive to the rat infested Dadar station, right from yakking obese ladies forming the video of the video-coach that we fought to get into to the fat sweaty paper reader with enough oil in his hair to solve the world’s energy problems.

I miss Bombay, more than anything else, and I am going there soon. I hope it accepts me, with grudging love and some anger quite akin to the wife who forgives her adulterous but penitent husband.