Vartanama, Jan '18
When I was asked to write the Varta editorial for this month, I was in a fix. How does one write about yet another year ending and another beginning? Should I write about the alarming levels of air pollution in Kolkata or my horror stories from USA or something syrupy about navigating different worlds across scales and so on?
It does rile me up to see even as the West Bengal government continues to administer anaesthetics of festivities to its people and the state’s middle classes happily move from selfie zones of Park Street to the next festival, apart from a media article here and there, nobody is really talking about the horrors of the Kolkata skies.
Indeed, it was ironic for me to feel thankful for the clear skies of Minneapolis even as I intensely hate coming back to USA each time. This last sentence is particularly dedicated to many of my American friends who believe that a better life awaits them if they can manage to leave the capitalist empire. There are multiple empires across the world. There is no Eden anywhere. Yet, we build and nurture perceptions of an elsewhere. Do they give us hope? Hope at what cost? What are the histories of such closely held perceptions?
I came back to these questions recently on my flight back to USA. Thankfully, this was one of the shorter flights among the many transits – Kolkata to Delhi. Here’s presenting some excerpts from an overheard conversation between a middle aged Indian man and two elderly white American women just seated behind me:
Man (henceforth M): “Where are you going?”
Woman 1 (henceforth W1): “Going back home.”
M: “Where is home?”
Woman 2 (W2): “US.”
M: “Oh great! I was in the US for two months in 2015.”
M: “So you came here for work?”
W1: “No, we are tourists.”
M: “What did you see in Kolkata?”
W1: “An old museum, a marble monument . . .”
M: “Victoria Memorial?”
W2: “Yes, that one.”
M: “What else did you see?”
W1: “We were here for only two days. We also went to Jaipur.”
M: “Didn’t you see our Kali temple?”
M: “That is really nice. See it next time.”
(Silence for a while)
M: “I was in Florida for my nephew’s marriage. Such lovely weather. So much discipline. Cars not honking. Clean water. Beautiful. So nice. I hope to go back again.”
W1: “You liked it?”
M: “Yes. Yes. So good. Your country is a great country. It faced one unfortunate incident. But it is so nice.”
W2: “Which incident?”
M: “Oh, when the terrorists attacked World Trade Center and killed so many innocents. It was horrible.”
W1: “Yeah . . .”
Where does one even begin to unpack this conversation? Indian fascination with white skin or the way the man was salivating at the idea of USA? Much has been written about both.
That India is deeply racist and casteist is not really news. From skin lightening creams and matrimonial ads to the troubling history of the blackface in Bollywood (think of that famous Mehmood song or the ‘savage’ Black man in a cage salivating at Helen or any Sajid Khan film), or to the skin tone of asur, casteism and racism run deep here.
Would the man on the plane have been so eager to befriend his co-travellers had they been Black American? Once, an Indian friend had posted an article written by a white historian who wrote some Orientalist garbage about sexuality and the East. When I responded saying the article was racist, the friend poked fun at my ‘hypocrisy’. If I had so many problems with white people, why was I studying in USA?
My friend’s statement goes into the very heart of all that is troubling with the conversation on that flight. What perceptions have we built of USA? What histories of USA are we taught or we choose to learn? What makes us forget the transatlantic slave trade when we think of USA? Or the loot of Native American lands and cultures and bodies? These are not rhetorical questions. However, this editorial is not USA history 101.
Even as the US police state continues to shoot Black and other people of colour, even as several Indians were shot dead post Trump’s election (shootings that were hardly reported in the US media), even as USA continues its expansionist war on Native Americans, the man on the flight could only recount 9/11. I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard him say how Trump is a great President just like many Indian Americans can’t stop worshipping Modi.
However, between the two extremes of racist love are some radical Indian Americans who speak about South Asian-Black solidarity and white supremacy but have no idea of caste and the privileges they have that allows them to speak the language of rights. I see them feeling nostalgic about the homes they left behind, the multiple borders they crossed to be here in USA. To them, this New Year, I would like to gift a bit of the dusty Kolkata sky.
Hope this New Year, we read a little more, think a little more about the here and the now, and how the elsewhere is not anywhere else but in the very here. The question is how do we build that elsewhere in the here?
About the main photo: Image from the 2009 film Eden Is West (Eden à l'ouest) directed by Greek-French filmmaker Costa Gavras. The film is a drama centred around the undocumented immigrants living in the European Union. The image has been used in a representational sense here. Photo courtesy: Google Images