A Hindu’s impression of the United States in 1917.

One of the benefits of having the archives of the New York Times available for downloading from the convenience of a home is that there is a vast collection of news articles of cultural and historical significance easily available.

Today, I came across a book review of Lajpat Rai’s The United States of America: A Hindu’s Impressions and a Study which was published in the newspaper on January 21, 1917. It is a fascinating account of a major American newspaper’s critique of a famous Indian’s account of the United States. I haven’t read the book, but if the New York Times was as stingy with praise then as it is now, then the review is remarkably sympathetic.

“The Hindu scholar has no purpose of writing a book for the purpose of contrasting the East and the West. What he does is to see the United States, a great and growing nation, on the threshold of imperialism, to find her problems unique and difficult, to behold her as something complex and interesting in the present and full of strange promise and portent for the future, to study her thus as a thing worth studying.”

Lajpat Rai summarizes up the challenges and opportunities as he sees them:

To sum up: the United States stands today with the promise (or curse) of imperialism ahead of her, with the tremendous problems of Government ownership of public utilities, with an imminent war between capitalism and labor, with race problems, and with the question of women’s suffrage. It is truly “the melting pot” of the different nations of the world, of its social, political, and economic problems, and its past and future history is well worth watching.

A reader today immediately sees the strides made in certain spheres nearly a century later, especially with respect to the rights of women and minorities. But some of the economic problems outlined such as the disparity between workers and management are still unresolved.

Rai also commends the United States on putting emphasis on education and creating coeducational facilities and it is with this facet that he is most full of praise go so far as to say of America that “her educational system is her saving… Well might the other communities of the world take a leaf out of her book if they want to improve the intelligence, the morals, and the physique of their people.”

The New York Times is somewhat ambivalent on Rai not sharing the irrational exuberance (to use a phrase coined by a modern-day pundit) for unbridled free-market capitalism. It states:

The Hindu’s observations on civilization remain Oriental, and somewhat depressing for Occidental readers. He finds the world, in this country and in Europe, given over to the pursuit of material things, conquering natural obstacles, it is true, but struggling for vanities. The majority lives to provide the pleasures of the few. Hankering after the good things of the world is the ruling passion of life. And is the world better, or happier?

But this is trivial. I share that ambivalence and so do most others reading on their iPads in “India Shining”.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s