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”.

On Hindus who eat beef

Far be it for me to judge anyone’s right to eat or not eat something. There is a vast list of things I find unpalatable, and I too have apologies as to why I eat what I eat. For example, as much as I love most varieties of fish, I feel guilty when I devour any species threatened due to unsustainable fishing. On a much broader scale, I have deep issues with the ethics of killing any animal, even for food, which I have not been able to been come to terms with yet.

But I will leave that discussion for another day, for today I wish to dwell upon Hinduism and the consumption of beef.  In my travels in North America and Europe, I have come across many fellow travellers who identify as Hindus and are uncomfortable with the fact that they eat beef, which of course, according to prevailing custom is verboten. In India at least, they are less likely to get judged for eating venison than for eating beef, even though deer are about the same size as cattle with similar reactions to pain and misery. The difference is of course that cows are holy, while deer are not. Ironically, in India there is hardly any creature that treated as poorly as we treat our bovine beasts of burden!

Relishing flesh that is taboo (and yet enjoyable) with religious expectations can lead to an uneasy reconciliation. Fortunately, the indefatigable human psyche excels at rationalization and I have been told that the sin of eating beef in foreign lands is minimal for various reasons. One person told me that it was fine to eat beef, since he didn’t kill the cow. He did not explain why he felt compelled to provide this apologetic logic for only cows. Another commented that only Indian cows were holy and because American cows weren’t they could be eaten without loss of piety. To accentuate the point, this person pointed out “that the skinny Indian cow with the sensitive large eyes gave him a religious experience, while the American breed of Angus cattle made him crave a juicy cheeseburger.”

We all have our own explanations, but it takes a hero with courage of conviction to stand up for what he or she believes is morally just. One of my favorite books,  Ramtanu Lahiri o Tatkalin Bongosomaj (English translation: Ramtanu Lahiri, Brahman and reformer : a history of the renaissance in Bengal) , tells the story of Ramtanu Lahiri, a stalwart who lived during the Bengal Renaissance of the early eighteen century. The book written by Pandit Shivnath Shastri, which I read during college, recounts the social upheavals of the time such as the abolition of sati (bride burning), the legalization of Hindu widow-marriage, and the reform of familial and educational rights accorded to women. It is perhaps, one of the finest historical biographies ever written in Bangla, and if I may be permitted to use a cliché, a true labor of love on the part of the author. I recently came across a splendid translation of Shastri’s magnum opus by Sir Roper Lethbridge of Oxford University which was published in 1907.

Here is my favorite passage from the entire book. The passage describes the zeal for reform of a section of students of Hindu College (pp 82-83):

War was thus declared between the orthodox and the reformers among the students of the Hindu College; and the question of religion was threshed out, not only in the college, but also within their own homes. Old grandmothers were shocked to hear their grandsons vilifying the gods; and fathers were dismayed to find that their sons, expected to offer cakes and balls of over-boiled rice to their ancestors’ manes, had turned traitors to their ancient faith. There are many instances on record in which guardians, failing to gain their wards over by argument or persuasion, had recourse to bitter persecution; and the latter had often to leave their homes and seek shelter elsewhere. In these family dissensions the young Bengali never lost his temper, but had often recourse to tricks showing how sprightly and humorous he was. Peari Chand Mitra, in his Life of David Hare refers to the many shifts to which some of the students were put. He says: “Many a Brahman lad who had lost faith in the idols, and refused to worship them, was often thrust into the room of the tutelary god of the family, and left there with the hope that his obstinacy would soon yield to the august and awe-inspiring presence of the deity.  “But far from that being the case, the young student would utilize the period of his incarceration by reciting selected portions from Homer’s Iliad. Some there were again whose aversion to the orthodox Hindu was so great, and whose desire to make themselves merry at his expense so strong, that, whenever they met a snanshuddh Brahmin with the sacerdotal mark on his forehead, they danced round him, bawling in his ears, “We eat beef. Listen, we eat beef.”

I will admit that when I first read the passage, the audacity appealed to my rebellious nature. Now, what appeals to me most is that even in 1829 there were a select group of Hindus who were not willing to accept religious customs because it had been passed down to them. Many of these Hindus were ostracized by their families and faced grievous bodily injury.

One can argue that their energy could have been used for other enterprises, or that they failed in their attempt to change the general view of the populace. But through their simple acts of defiance, they made it a lot easier for many of us to get away with questioning the prevailing customs of our own generation.

Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban

“The sum of all of India’s traditions”

I am outraged and maybe for once, not without just cause.

Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Swades is a Hindi film that I’ve mentioned before as one that I enjoyed watching. In this film, a scientist of Indian origin portrayed by Sharukh Khan (Mohan), visits India, builds a small-scale hydroelectric plant and falls in love with the village belle (Geeta). I know it sounds maudlin (and in fact it is, more than it sounds), but it pulls at some desi heartstrings.

Towards the end, as Mohan’s vacation is up, he gets ready to return to the United States. He wants Geeta to come with him, but she refuses. Instead, she gives him a wooden box with all sorts of random seeds, twigs, and spices. For a few minutes, Mohan makes a face like he is going to pass a kidney stone (which is easy for the masterful Shahrukh Khan to do), but then he dutifully goes back to his job at NASA in the US where he then proceeds to stare at the things in the box while a soulful A.R. Rahman song plays in the background.

It is all very tastefully done.

Before Mohan leaves, however, Geeta mentions that this is no ordinary box: the objects in the box are representative of India’s culture.

Here is what she says, translated from the original Hindi:

“I give to you this parting gift which is the sum of all of India’s traditions – the blossoming of our hopes, our fields, our greenery,  our rivers, our culture… This box will keep reminding you of us and maybe compel you to return!”

Well, you can imagine how I felt when I walked into World Market in San Diego today and discovered that they were selling a box of “exquisite spices of India” which looked a lot like the box that Geeta had thoughtfully packed for Mohan. I mean, just reflect on the horror: this was in World Market – the chor bazaar for upwardly mobile American latte liberals!

I am infuriated. Whatever happened to the sanctity of Indian culture?

I’m sure that box wasn’t even made in India. It was probably made in China.

Text: © 2010-2012, Anirban

Walking for a thousand years…

I hopped out of the E Line train I had boarded in midtown Manhattan. Stepping out of the Jackson Heights Subway Station in Queens I was transfixed. It was as if I made the trip across thousands to miles to Sealdah Station in Kolkata. I was in the community of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis in New York City known as Little India – the narrow strip of packed shops on 74th and 73rd streets between 37th and Roosevelt avenues.

Like many men and women of my generation, I left India and crossed the kalapaani on a jumbo jet with only two pieces of baggage (not exceeding 60 kilograms). Over the years, like a long-separated acquaintance, India moved on while I spent my days in self-imposed exile. The television channels rotated. The names of the cricket-players and film-stars changed. Salaries and the prices of commodities rose. Cousins grew up, married, and had children. Relatives tied through invisible bonds passed away while I adamantly refused to acknowledge their passing until the sheer physical emptiness on short trips to the birthland caused a sudden aching release of emotions.

But I felt like a forgotten guest in my own birthland too. No one in my former college knew I had walked down the corridors with the wanton arrogance that befitted youth. When I tried to order in Bangla at a posh Kolkata restaurant, I was replied to in English by the waiter, who was also a Bengali. When I persisted in responding in the language of the non-convent educated second-class citizenry, I was ignored. Had it always been this way?

I changed too, but avoided looking into the mirror.

In America, I found new friends many who shared the experience of the Great Voyage. While in graduate school, on Friday nights, I’d laugh myself silly watching ludicrous Hindi films with Indian and American friends wolfing down carryout from a Bangladeshi-run Indian Chinese restaurant. We would eat the Chicken Manchurian with  Pakistani basmati rice boiled in a cheap rice-cooker.

But I still longed for a home.

On 74th Street, I walked past 22-carat gold jewelers, music stores blaring songs in Hindi, aunties selling calling cards in dingy kiosks, and large grocery stores smelling of cardamom and garam masala.

I walked down 37th and crossed into 73rd Street, the Bangladeshi corner of the neighborhood. The shops all had signs in Bangla, my native language. I entered a bookstore and glanced at a couple of festive editions of literary magazines shipped in from Kolkata for Durga Puja and from Dhaka for Eid. I chatted with the owner about the recent writings of Sunil Gangopadhyay, a Bengali Indian writer and Humayun Ahmed, a Bengali Bangladeshi writer.

After buying a few books which had crossed the oceans in a similar journey to mine, I stepped outside. On the pavement, I saw a rickshaw painted with the bright art so common across so many of our birthlands. It could have been a rickshaw that I had sat on while going to school in my own hometown in India.

By now I was hungry, so I stepped into a crowded Bangladeshi restaurant on 73rd. A chirpy woman greeted me in a Dhakai Bangla accent. I sat down at a table and ordered a number of unknown Bangladeshi dishes most of which were not common in the part of West Bengal I hail from. One was a ilish polao a fragrant pilaf made with hilsa – the fish that Bengalis from both countries swear by. I had never heard of this particular dish, but as I sat at the table and ate, I relished every morsel. It was foreign to me, but not entirely unfamiliar.

A number of Bangladeshis sat at the next table and smiled at me and I smiled back. Perhaps, at some point in the past, in an undivided India the lives of our ancestors had intersected as ours briefly did through pure accident now. But over sixty years our divergent political, religious, and social legacies were at conflict with some of our culinary, linguistic, and geographic commonalities so that invisible walls separated our tables.

The threats of cross-border militancy, illegal immigration, water disputes, and cultural hegemony that divide our countries of origin are not irrelevant. But the cruelest joke is that they result from a border which was created artificially. If only our countries had been on separate islands!

But I didn’t want to think about that then. As I walked down 73rd Street, I thought I finally understood what Jibanananda Das meant in his poem Banalata Sen about walking the earth for a thousand years.

Not having a home doesn’t have to be a curse.

I suddenly felt buoyant…

Half of the time we’re gone but we don’t know where. And we don’t know where

…the only living boy in New York.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

A non-review of NBC’s new sitcom “Outsourced”

The American television network channel NBC just started airing a television sitcom called Outsourced about a couple of Americans who move to India to run a call-center full of Indians selling novelty items to clients back home in America. I’ve watched the pilot episode and a few others since then.

As you know, I’m a desi. And from my perspective I’ve thought for while about writing a review about the sitcom. But I’d like to perform a simple experiment instead. Read the following sentences on racial and cultural stereotypes and think about them.

Indians don’t have any food. They are dirty. They defecate on the street.

Americans are unemployable. They are materialistic. They deal drugs on the street.

Some Indians and Americans certainly do fit these stereotypes. But definitely not all of them.

So do any of these stereotypes offend you? Are you indifferent to them? Do you just laugh off as ignorant nonsense?

Now look at the cartoon below which I created. You might find it funny as an Indian or as an American. Or as an Indian or as an American you might find it deeply offensive.

I do not know where you’re coming from. Perhaps, your job got shipped to India. Perhaps, you felt insulted when someone treated you differently because of the color of your skin. I am not saying it doesn’t happen. And I can definitely try to empathize with you either way regardless of your nationality or ethnicity.

I also understand your viewpoint if you laugh at others. I admire you if you can laugh at yourself.

But keep repeating the stereotypes you find funny now over and over again. Don’t you find them kind of annoying now? Like uninspired stupor masquerading as humorous banter?

That is my problem with Outsourced.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

A desi rasta tour


Charlotte Amalie


Dronningens Gade, Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

Leisurely stroll through Dronningens Gade, or Main Street in Charlotte Amalie on a day when there are no Caribbean cruise ships docked in the harbor. You’ll see a lot of shuttered shops. You might think you’re in a quaint town in the quiet Virgin Islands… I don’t blame you.

Let us go back a few centuries to when it all began. In 1493, on his second voyage, Christopher Columbus passed by the island of St. John and skirmished with the Carib inhabitants of St. Croix. That is how he discovered the Virgin Islands.

Now, as a child, I was taught – as I’m sure many of you were – that Columbus discovered America.  Of course, it isn’t a secret that Columbus wasn’t a genius at navigation: as any of the native peoples of North and South America, unfortunately lumped together as “Indians” will tell you, Columbus was looking for the real Indies. There is also the minor point of how exactly he discovered continents when people had already been living there for centuries. And even by Eurocentric standards, Columbus flops: he wasn’t even the first European to set foot in the New World.

But back to Columbus in 1493. On seeing what are now called the Virgin Islands, he named them –  Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Virgines after the legend of Saint Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins. I don’t know much about Saint Ursula, but I am pretty sure Columbus wasn’t talking about Ursula Andress. In any case, his catholic act of discovery set the stage for the subsequent enslavement and decimation of the local Arawak tribes on St. Thomas, and the total deforestation of the island.

A few centuries later the Danes decide they want a piece of the pie. Now, I don’t know about you, but normally, I don’t think of the Danes as colonialists capable of atrocities on the same level as the imperial British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Germans, or Belgians. Sorry, Denmark. My mistake. I recently found out that it wasn’t really for any lack of effort.

Interested in the West Indies, the Danes build colossal sugarcane plantations on St. Croix, but failed to grow the crop successfully on St. Thomas because of the hilly terrain. Instead, in 1673 with the arrival of the first ship carrying slaves, Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas becomes the slave capital of the world; and by certain estimates, from 1733-1782, over 123,000 slaves were brought over from West Africa and sold on the island.

In the late 1700s, Charlotte Amalie was “declared a free port for intercolonial trade”. Chew on that statement for a bit. And when you’re done, we will continue.

Back to the street in Charlotte Amalie which the Danes called Dronningens Gade. We are near Market Square on the west end.  Here under the shade of the portico, on days when there are no ships in the harbor, it is pretty quiet. You may meet a dreadlocked Antiguan Rastafarian selling sugarcane juice. Other migrants from islands such Granada or Barbados may be playing dominoes or cards. As part of the American Virgin Islands, with its relatively strong economy, St. Thomas attracts immigrants from all over the Caribbean. And Market Square today is certainly a quiet peaceful setting. Nothing unusual about ragamuffins sitting around. But a few centuries ago at the same spot was the largest slave market in the Caribbean. Thousands of tourists pass through without knowing.

Walking east on Dronningens Gade, you’ll find numerous shops selling electronics, cheap liquor, and jewelry. This is the heart of the town and the reason why most tourists visit the city. St Thomas has no sales tax and  these shops are also packed when cruise ships are in port.

It is all just a matter of numbers. The island houses approximately 52,000 all-season inhabitants. When cruise ships are in town, the total number of people on the island can swell by a whopping 10,000.

The local economy on the island relies on these tourists. The islands also rely on the sale of the rum, Cruzan, which is made on St Croix. Consequently, a 375 mL bottle of the booze costs less than a gallon of milk. Oh and by the way, the milk is recombined from skim milk powder, butter, and water because apparently there isn’t a single dairy cow on the island.

If you visit the island, you’ll also learn about “island time”. I’ve heard all the jokes about Indian Standard Time. But let me give you an example of “island time”. The first permanent establishment of the Danish West Indies presence is Fort Christian just off of Dronningens Gade. There is a sign saying that it is temporarily closed for restoration until Summer 2006. The building is fenced off. No one has taken down or changed the sign. It is there in 2010.

In any case, as a desi, I found myself smiling when I noticed that almost all the jewelry shops on Dronningens Gade were run by diasporic desis. From what I could tell, some of these shopkeepers were Trinidadians, but many others came from India via the continental United States.  (St. Thomas is, after all, a part of the U.S. Virgin Islands and has been since 1917 when along with St. John, and St. Croix it passed from Danish into American hands for the princely sum of 25 million dollars).

Back on Dronningens Gade, you’ll also notice many alleyways heading towards the harbor. Most of the buildings in the alleyways running perpendicular to the main street are over a hundred years. Some of these used to be warehouses of pirates.

Now, look around at the peaceful settings. In the same buildings where pirates hoarded stolen loot, desi shopkeepers sell fashionable wristwatches. Where slave-traders used to walk and sell human cargo, predominantly white credit-card carrying day-trippers buy tee-shirts from black vendors.

Somewhere Bob Marley is having the last laugh.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

The Hariome Project

Biologists can be pretty annoying when they’re trying hard to come up with cutesy names. I mean did you guys really have to name a gene required for mammalian development sonic hedgehog after the Sega icon? I mean what comes next? A gene influencing cranial tensile strength named after a pudgy Nintendo chap?

But you know what really bugs me? It is this lame idea that you can stick the suffix -ome to any and every collection of biological objects to create a new field of study which you can tout as the corresponding –omics. I’ve got no beef with the common ones like genomics, which is the total of genes in a particular set or proteomics, which is the sum of all the proteins in a given set. But as I’ve mentioned before, there are just so many –omic neologisms created each month that to compile the complete set of all these fields, an omeome (if you will), would be a daunting task. It would also be pointless, but that is not my point.

You know what would be useful? A collection of all the names of each of the Hindu deities complied into a universally-accessible database.

Confused? Hear me out for a bit.

This is what I envisage as the Hariome Project – an online database which would provide an easy way check the different names and relationships of various mythological entities.

For example, in the hariome, I’d be able to find out more about the original Hari through a search-engine which would direct me to the Vishnu portal. I’d be able to navigate through nodes for each of the ten avatars of Vishnu. If I clicked on the Krishna node on this portal, I’d get to see a network map with all 108 popular names.  If I clicked on the Buddha node, another incarnation of Vishnu, I’d be able surf through all of his incarnations from the Jataka tales and other sources.

This type of tool would be useful, because it really can get pretty confusing. Durga is an incarnation of the mother goddess, but according to some sources so are her daughters Saraswati and Lakshmi. What we need is a comprehensive set of ontologies.

Of course there will be versioning issues and regional disputes (Ma Sherawali v. Debi Durga immediately comes to mind). And you’ll need some serious computing muscle to create a seamless database with the 330 million gods with their various manifestations.

But implementation isn’t my concern. I only come up with ideas.

© Text: Anirban