Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘history’ Category

516. Stamped by the Empire

In Britain, Childhood, Greece, history, India, Inter/Transnational, places, Politics, postcolonial, Stories on September 20, 2022 at 2:24 am

As a child, first in Greece and then in India, I maintained a stamp collection. I ought to add that I maintained it only after a fashion, since I have never been a particularly well-organized or patient person, so I frequently cut corners on the finer details of systematization, such as putting stamps from different countries on different pages. From 1960 to 1963 I had a steady supply of them thanks to my father’s international set of colleagues at Doxiadis Associates in Athens and our other expatriate friends from all around the world. After we returned to India in 1964 my parents bought me a new album and I continued to build my collection for a few years, waiting almost as avidly for letters from overseas as my mother did for news from her family in England. My zeal waned as I entered my teens and eventually petered out altogether in the 1970s, after we had been in the United States for a couple of years. I still kept the collection, carrying it around with me wherever we moved, but mislaid it for a decade or two and almost gave it up for lost until just recently, when it resurfaced in a box of old papers. Looking at it today, when the body of Queen Elizabeth II has just been laid to rest, I realize what a time capsule it is, since many of the countries represented in it were still colonized by Britain or other European countries or had only recently won their independence. It also reminds me how recently large swaths of the world were under British colonial rule, and brings home to me yet again the historical significance of this moment.

It is indeed the end of an era, as the pundits have been proclaiming ever since the Queen passed away just ten days ago. For her reign coincided with decolonization and she identified herself with that process through her particular interest in the (British) Commonwealth of Nations, over which she presided as the British Head of State. (“British” was removed from its name in the aftermath of India’s independence in 1949, as a gesture toward the idea of free and equal membership.) Those 15 member-states who, as Commonwealth realms, still recognize the British monarch as their head of state will have to replace Queen Elizabeth’s silhouette on their stamps with that of King Charles III, who is already the head of the Commonwealth following a 2018 vote to that effect. Additionally, there are five member-states ruled by other monarchs and 36 more that are republics for whom King Charles’ leadership, like that of his late mother, is merely symbolic. Going forward, it seems likely that other Commonwealth realms will follow the example of Barbados, which became a republic in November, 2021, thereby removing the Queen as their head of state.

Unsurprisingly, the death of the Queen has become an occasion for debate over the function and future of the Commonwealth, and as a scholar of postcolonial literature  I have plenty of opinions on this issue. Though billed as a voluntary association of free and equal nations, the Commonwealth has always been led by Britain. As its direct political control of country after country was lost, the Commonwealth became an instrument of soft power for Britain, uniting former colonies under its cultural mantle to uphold shared humane and democratic principles. English itself has been an important element of that benign leadership, much as, back in the 19th century,  English language and literature were employed in the colonies as Masks of Conquest (discussed brilliantly in Gauri Viswanathan’s 1989 book of the same name). But I will defer further postcolonial critique for the time being, in favor of a selection from my stamp collection of the early 1960s, to commemorate the end of the second Elizabethan era and also to remind us that the colonial era and everything associated with it is still very much in living memory, and in many cases still very raw.

The island of Mauritius, colonized by France in 1715, was taken over by Britain in 1810 and became a plantation-based Crown Colony. Unlike the dodo, which went extinct in 1690, its colonial past ended only recently, in 1968, when independent Mauritius joined the Commonwealth as a republic. 

New Zealand is a Commonwealth realm and a founding member of the Commonwealth. It became a British colony in 1840, gained Dominion status like many of the predominantly white settler colonies in 1907, and remains a constitutional monarchy to this day.

The British took over Hong Kong in 1842 after the first Opium War and gained further ground in 1860, after the second. In 1898 Britain signed a 99-year lease with China for control of the highly lucrative port and surrounding islands, a term that ended in 1997 as Britain relinquished its last economically significant colony. You might be interested in watching these two short videos in which writer Amitav Ghosh talks about about the Opium Wars, waged to force so-called “free trade” on China, and offers some historical background to his gripping Ibis Trilogy.

Australia, a British penal colony that became a federation of British settler colonies, gained independence in 1901 and, further, in the Australia Act of 1986, “formally severed all legal ties with the United Kingdom except for the monarchy”. In 1999 a republic referendum was defeated, maintaining Australia as a Commonwealth realm, at least for the time being.

This page, labelled “Africa,” is not a shining example of my grasp of geography, since the four triangular stamps glued firmly into the bottom row are from Croatia. Furthermore, there is no system of organization of stamps from the various African countries, several of which were not colonized by Britain, and, in the case of Ethiopia, not colonized at all. I see stamps from Rhodesia and Nyasaland, a short-lived British colonial federation of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and Nyasaland (now Malawi).  Zambia and Nyasaland joined the British Commonwealth in 1964. Southern Rhodesia had a rocky road. Originally controlled by the Matabele tribe under Chief Lobengula, it was fought over by the Boers and the British, especially with the discovery of gold in the 1880s, and named Southern Rhodesia after the British imperial adventurer Cecil Rhodes. By 1899 it was governed by the British South Africa Company and was to be incorporated into the Republic of South Africa, but the white settlers of Rhodesia rejected that move and broke off from Britain in 1923. In 1965, Ian Smith’s white racist government issued its Universal Declaration of Independence (UDI), but was not recognized by the Commonwealth. Amidst international disapproval, black Rhodesians organized to fight for independence and won majority rule in 1980 with the formation of Zimbabwe. The country was a Commonwealth member until 2002, when it was first suspended and, a year later, withdrew. A 2018 application to rejoin is currently under review. 

Other former British colonies on my Africa page are Nigeria (independent since October 1, 1960), Uganda (independent since October 9, 1962), and Kenya (independent since December 12, 1963). All three are still members of the Commonwealth, despite the widespread detentions, torture, and killings perpetrated by Britain in Kenya from 1952-1960 during the state of emergency imposed to crush the Mau Mau rebellion. However, in 2013 a lawsuit on behalf of 5,000 survivors managed to wrest some monetary compensation and an expression of regret from the British government.

South Africa also had a long and bloody struggle for independence from colonial rule, starting with Dutch (Boer) settlers and British colonizers fighting each other for control, the Afrikaner government gaining first independence from the Britain and establishing a white-ruled apartheid state violently segregated by race, and then in 1994, a long and hard popular struggle winning independence for the new Republic of South Africa in a free, democratic election participated in by all its citizens. South Africa withdrew from the Commonwealth in 1961 after its membership was opposed by several member states due to its policy of apartheid and rejoined by invitation in 1994, after apartheid had been dismantled.

While most of my stamps feature the image of Queen Elizabeth II, I have a handful from the reign of King George VI and even one from that of King George V. Here’s my messy half-page from Canada, which was officially declared a Dominion in 1926 and remains one of the Commonwealth realms. I’m not sure, but I think that the image on the second row, second from left, is George V. The three to its right feature George VI, Queen Elizabeth’s father.

George VI also appears on my only stamp from Aden, which became a British Protectorate in 1839 and was a Crown Colony from 1937-1963. South Yemen was under British rule until 1967, when the British finally withdrew after a bloody struggle. Aden was the only Arab territory to have been a British colony. I remember docking there as a child when traveling by ship to and from India. It was the location of the port on this important shipping route that gave it such strategic importance for Britain.

My last stamp featuring King George VI is a rare one from the Indian princely state of Gwalior during the British colonial period. Since India was a republic, the 16 princely states were abolished in 1947, with the holdouts removed  by the Indian army. (But the erstwhile rajas and ranis were provided with princely pensions that put quite a strain on the newly independent nation.)

By now you will have recognized the outsize power and presence of the British Empire as recently as the 1960s. I will leave you with stamps from four countries that are dear to my heart, all of which are members of the Commonwealth but only one of which features a British monarch’s image: India, Ghana, Jamaica, and Britain itself.

India (an independent dominion since August 15th, 1947 and a republic since January 26, 1950):

Ghana (independent since March 6th, 1957):

Jamaica (independent since August 6th, 1962 and one of the 15 Commonwealth realms):

The United Kingdom (itself a Commonwealth realm and not yet free of its colonial complex):

In closing, here is Jawaharlal Nehru, first Prime Minister of Independent India (from 1947 until his death in 1964), and founder of the non-aligned nations which refused to be stamped by either superpower in the Cold War.

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494. Britishisms

In blogs and blogging, Britain, Childhood, culture, Education, Family, history, Stories, Words & phrases on April 2, 2021 at 10:57 pm

This is the second entry in a month-long series, Anachronidioms, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Of course one can’t generalize about a country’s idioms. What figures in one’s speech depends on class background, education, geographical region, and age, and a whole host of other variables. Although I only lived in England for short periods of time when I was very young, I also attended the British Embassy School when we lived in Athens, and my parents insisted on my speaking Standard English (along with Received Pronunciation, or RP) at home. So, ironically, my speech was more “English” than many of my British peers who had never left the country.

In school at age 9 I was learning not only decimals—centimetres, metres, and kilometres, grams and kilograms—and British measures: inches, feet, and yards, ounces and pounds; but also, for good measure, hundredweight (cwt) and tons, pecks and bushels. And, of course, until 1971, there was still the good old LSD (pounds (£), shillings(s), and pence(d)). (By the time I returned to India at age 9½  we already had the decimal system of 100 np (naya, or new, paise) to the rupee, but we still used the old system of 16 annas to the rupee as well, so that four annas were equivalent to 25 np.)

Here’s the kind of problem we might have had to solve in my British maths class:

Find the total cost of 2 ½ cwt. of metal at £2 3s. 6d. per cwt., plus a total charge of 4s. 6d. for cartage.

Cartage, I ask you!

But I’m digressing. I was supposed to be talking about anachronistic Britishisms. I ask you (meaning, Isn’t that ridiculous?) is probably one of them.  

Apropos of archaisms, back in the 1960s we were still saying, Give him a inch and he’ll take an ell, and learning what an ell was, just in case, even though “mile” had replaced “ell” by 1900, more than half a century earlier.

Having come from a working-class background—dire poverty, if truth be told— my mother and her siblings were possessed of an acute class consciousness and a strong sense of working-class pride. As such, they also had a nose for anyone putting on airs. When my imposing Aunty Bette put on her best fur coat and sailed out on the town with her head held high, Mum would call her beautiful elder sister “Lady Dunabunk” (though not to her face; she would never have dared). Apparently the more common expression was Lady Muck, with the scoundrel Lord Dunabunk as her male counterpart. The expression dated from the era of the Great War, which is about right, since Aunty Bette was born in 1919. The matriarch of the family, she died just over a year ago, going on 100, on the eve of the first COVID-19 lockdown.

On a lighter note, but speaking of contagious diseases, a Britishism that became popular in the year of my birth, but whose origin is lost in the mists of time is the dreaded lurgi (or “lurgy”). It refers melodramatically to any disease that’s catching but not fatal. My cousins Jacky and Carol used it and must have learnt it from their father, my Uncle Ted. I had rather assumed that it was a family joke, until I looked it up just recently and found that it had been popularized on The Goon Show, in Series 5, Episode 7 (November 1954), Lurgi Strikes Britain. That zany BBC radio comedy show (1951-1960) with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, and others inspired Monty Python and a whole generation of British comedians and artists—including John Lennon. The dreaded lurgy is still in circulation in the U.K. (along with a contagious disease that is, sadly, a lot more fatal), but British readers will have to tell me whether you think it’s becoming archaic.

This journey through obscure and anachronistic Britishisms has been scattershot and highly idiosyncratic, but what else could it have been? It’s sad to think that the expressions of our parents’ generation are falling out of use, and yet it’s delightful when they crop up unexpectedly in the strangest places. I miss the expressions that only Mum would use, such as calling someone “slomocky” or a “Slomocky Maureen.” I never asked her to define it but to the best of my understanding it referred to someone who was slatternly, slovenly, unkempt, or uncoordinated. It can be found sporadically in newspapers and books dating from the 1890s to the 1920s, so I think it’s safe to say that it’s well on the way out.  

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492. Notting Hill Bedsitter, 1950s

In Britain, Family, history, Immigration, Music, Stories, Words & phrases on February 13, 2021 at 10:30 pm

Notting Hill Gate, 1956 (Dave Walker, The Library Time Machine)

One day in the last year or so of his life, Dad told me about digs he’d shared in Notting Hill while he was living in London. I was surprised, because although Notting Hill, a district of West London, was known for its bedsitters, I hadn’t realized until then that Dad had ever lived there. This would have been before the Notting Hill riots of 1958 and well before the start of the Notting Hill Carnivalsound stages, masquerades, revelry—held on the streets defiantly, joyfully, triumphantly, every year since 1966, on August bank holiday weekend.

Notting Hill Carnival: Our History (

I knew that the district had been home to many West Indian immigrants after the War, but was not aware that Irish, Asian Indians, and Africans new to England had also found lodgings there. As for my father, I had thought that when he was in England as a young man he had always lived in North London, in and around Belsize Park, near Hampstead, the favorite haunt of my mother and her siblings, and Kentish Town, where Mum was born and lived until she and Dad got married.   

Anyway, Dad’s Notting Hill flatmate was a nice enough fellow, but not someone Dad knew well, not a personal friend and neither a fellow-architect nor a fellow-Indian. He was, however, a heavy drinker. Apparently, no sooner had he finished off one bottle of booze than he would open another, and the empties were all stacked along the walls of the bachelor pad.

One day, Dad invited a friend from work over. As soon as his workmate stepped into the flat, his eyes fell on the enormous pile of empty liquor bottles. He couldn’t help but burst out, in utter astonishment,

“Cor blimey, stone the crows!”

Since Mum was a Londoner, of course I knew the origin of cor blimey, but I had to look up stone the crows. I’m sorry for the eponymous crows, but I think he was just terribly surprised. Sixty years later, and Dad had never forgotten his words. 

I should have asked Dad more about his life in London in the 1940s and 1950s. He was making history, a history which I now study with a more than scholarly passion.

                                     Stone the Crows (

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On the 2020 A-to-Z Challenge: Fifty Years in the United States

In blogs and blogging, history, Immigration, Media, Notes, Politics, postcolonial, United States, writing on May 4, 2020 at 1:17 am

February 2020 marked the 50th anniversary of my arrival in the United States as a new immigrant. Fifty years seemed momentous, and prompted reflection. Encouraged by Kristin of Finding Eliza (whom I met way back in 2013 during our first Blogging from A to Z April Challenge), I decided to participate in the 2020 Challenge with a theme of the past fifty years in the United States from the perspective of an immigrant–at least, of this immigrant.

Here’s a hyperlinked and annotated list of the month’s posts, from A to Z. Fellow-bloggers, please scroll down for my reflections on the Challenge.

The Theme:
Fifty Years in the United States (an Immigrant’s Perspective)

Fifty years after arriving in this country, I try to speak truthfully about what “America” evokes in me, and why.

In which I recount the terrible events in 1970 that led to the birth of Bangladesh, and the response of the United States

Prompted by recollections of my happy time in a co-op house as an undergraduate, I sing the praises of cooperation rather than competition.

Dual Identities
Back in the 1970s, before multiculturalism, you were one thing or another; I was both: what to do?

The Eighties
In which I reminisce and reflect on the nineteen eighties, the decade dominated by President Reagan but momentous for me for happier personal reasons.

Living on a small farm for nine years in the 1980s made us acutely aware of the state of American farming.

Graduate School
From the late eighties to the mid-nineties I was engrossed in graduate studies. What was that all about?

In which I think back on what it was to be a householder, as that stage in life is moving into the rearview mirror

Memories of being an immigrant in the Eighties

John Prine
In the aftermath of John Prine’s death by COVID-19, I play his songs and think of all he has meant to me over the years, including what he has meant to me as an immigrant.

The Kuwait Phenomenon
In which I remember the first Gulf War

Love, Longing, and Living in the Moment
Even when migrants choose to leave the countries of their birth, they cannot help longing for beloved people and places left behind. I reflect upon this love and longing, and its impact on the present.

Middle Age
As I move out of middle age, I remember moving into it and consider both external and internal perceptions of that stage in life, particularly for women.

New England and New Mexico
The two regions of the country in which I’ve lived are deeply shaped by Native American history, struggles, and continued presence.

Originals and Adaptations
In which I explore the cultural angst over lost originals as the new millennium approached.

In which I explain my objections to the term and describe the climate for Arab and Muslim Americans, South Asians, and Others in general in the aftermath of that tragic event.

This word was used in 2003 to describe the anticipated outcome if the United States were to invade and occupy Iraq, Sadly, those fears and much worse ones were borne out.

In which I reflect on the real and imagined, voluntary or forced, temporary or permanent returns of immigrants to their countries of origin.

Social Media
I document, starting in the 1990s and exploding in the 2000s, how rapidly the internet and various forms of social media changed the way we spent our time and interacted with others.

A piece of doggerel about the 45th POTUS

Under Pressure
In which I remember the the 44th POTUS and the pressures under which he had to perform.

United States society is shaped by violence and becoming increasingly militarized.

Water Protectors
In which I document the shocking statistics on the availability and affordability of running water in the United States, and showcase those–often the hardest-hit–who have taken a stand to protect our water as a basic human right.

XR — Extinction Rebellion US
This new, largely youth-led organization demands a rapid and thoroughgoing response to the climate emergency, in the face of government and corporate denial. I discuss the apparent split in the US branch on the urgent issue of environmental justice.

Youth (and Age) in a Changing America
A reflection on the growing diversity of youth in the United States and the most productive and satisfying relationship between youth and age.

After this panoramic sweep of the past half-century I zoom back in, back to myself in the present.

The Swift River (photo: Josna Rege)

A-to-Z Reflection: Since, as we well know, March 2020 was the month when the U.S., like the rest of the world, was under stay-at-home and social distancing orders due to COVID-19, the enforced solitude prompted further introspection, not only about my own life but about the condition of the country as a whole.

The disruption and general dis-ease meant that I had not decided in advance what my topics would be, so every day was a bit of a scramble and some of the posts reflect that lack of forethought. Looking back, my mood may well have influenced the gloomy tone that crept into some of them, but I think that the facts warranted it. There may not be as many personal reminiscences as I had initially thought there would be and there are definitely more hyperlinks to supporting documents than I had anticipated, but I hope that overall there’s enough of a balance between public and private, between documentation of events and reflection on them, and enough optimism to inspire first, tentative steps into the uncertain future.

This year I decided at the outset to visit a small group of fellow-participants regularly, and to reciprocate when people visited and comment on my posts. It turned out that technical difficulties prevented me from commenting on blogspot and some other platforms, a problem I solved eventually but by then it was the end of the month.

Thanks to the fellow-bloggers whose posts and comments informed, inspired, and delighted me throughout:
Finding Eliza (My family in the Twenties)
QP & Eye (adventures in the Coddiwomple)
The Curry Apple Orchard (Taking the Hard Road–serialized fiction. I was soon hooked!)
aliceinbloggingland (past, future, and present in time of corona)
Panorama of the Mountains (two challenges: reviews of documentares and favorite movies)
All Things Must Pass (personal and philosophical reflections)
Sharon Cathcart (Facts about Pompei)
United States Hypocrisy (examples of same)
To My Recollection (Haikus and other short poems)
365 Days (a daily photographs)

Apologies to Time and Tide (My Favorite Things to Counter COVID-19 Stress) The Old Shelter (Living the Twenties), and My Ordinary Moments (childhood and grandfather’s garden) for missing you due to difficulties posting comments. I hope to return and catch up in the weeks to come, as also with late-in-the-month finds: Discovering Mom (Remembering the author’s late mother) and Sonia’s Musings (Laugh in the Time of Corona: on Indian stand-up comedians and comedy channels).

Thanks to fellow-bloggers who visited despite not participating in the Challenge this year: Calmgrove (prolific and inspiring book reviews), and Epiphany (doing an A-Z of her own in May); to Anna and Marianne, dear friends who visited and commented faithfully; and to Andrew for his proofreading and forbearance. (All lapses, both in language and in judgement, are of course mine.) And Congratulations to J Lenni Dorner and the whole A-to-Z Challenge team for your hard work, good energy, and a great ride!

Stay safe, everyone, and keep writing!

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467. “Post-9/11”

In 2000s, blogs and blogging, history, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 20, 2020 at 12:33 am

This is the sixteenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.


Why do I put this tiny but explosive phrase in quotation marks? Because I object to it. I don’t like the way this tragic event has been packaged and sold, and what has been done in its name over the past nearly-nineteen years. I don’t want to be a part of its perpetuation in this form. Why, then do I devote an entry to it? Because if I am documenting my experience as an immigrant to the U.S. over the past 50 years, however impressionistically, I cannot possibly fail to mention the terrorist attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City on September the 11th, 2001.

First, a few words on the buzzword, “9/11”: I must irritate my students no end every time I query their use of “9/11” in an essay, asking them instead, at least at the first mention of it, to name the event to which this shorthand is gesturing. They probably think I’m being pedantic, that everybody knows what is being referred to, but they don’t ask me why. I tell them anyway.

The bombing of La Moneda on 11 September 1973 by the Chilean Armed Forces

Do you know, I say to them, most of the world would refer to September the 11th as 11/9, not 9/11. When writing a date in numbers people from most countries put the day of the month first, then the month. That’s the first assumption you cannot make about your readers understanding you. More importantly, you cannot assume that the date, however it is written, will mean the same thing to all readers. In Chile, for example, the Eleventh of September, 11/9, refers to a day in 1973 that is branded into the collective memory of all Chileans: the day when the military overthrew the democratically-elected President Salvador Allende and began a reign of terror under the rule of General Agusto Pinochet, that lasted until March 11, 1990—nearly seventeen years. The United States supported Allende’s opponents and was quick to recognize the military junta. It is estimated that under that regime, more than 3,000 people were killed or went missing, tens of thousands were tortured, and 200,000 were driven into exile. The point is, if you want the rest of the world to know what you mean by “9/11”, and more importantly, to care about what you mean by 9/11, then have the humility to recognize that they may already have their own, different associations with that date.

Sadly, people in the rest of the world do know what the U.S. means by “9/11,” and that is because, post-9/11, directly or indirectly, they have suffered the consequences of those terrorist attacks on U.S. soil many times over. The Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute has been keeping track of the data, measured in dollars and human lives, for a decade. You can read their extensive findings and watch an introductory video (made in 2016) on their site, but some of their summary data are as follows

    • Over 801,000 people have died due to direct war violence, and several times as many indirectly
    • Over 335,000 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting
    • 21 million — the number of war refugees and displaced persons
    • The US federal price tag for the post-9/11 wars is over $6.4 trillion dollars
    • The US government is conducting counterterror activities in 80 countries

So, yes, the world knows what Americans mean when we say “9/11”; how it feels about it is another matter.

Post-9/11, Arab and Muslim Americans came under intense scrutiny, and the profiling they underwent made them deeply insecure about their place in this country, creating a state of “homeland insecurity,” as one study’s author Louise Cainkar put it. Their personal stories are heartbreaking. It wasn’t only Arab Americans who were targeted, but also Americans from a host of other countries in West and South Asia, from Turkey to Bangladesh and everywhere in-between, as well as a number of Americans from Central and South America. The early post-9/11 period was a nightmare for them, because overnight, anyone who looked even vaguely as if they might be “one of Them” was suspect, and to many of their fellow-Americans, the enemy.

Post-9/11, businesses run by Arabs, Asians, and Muslims of all ethnicities and national orogins were shunned. My sister told me that about a month after the attacks she went into one of her favorite restaurants to order some quick take-out food. The place was completely empty, despite a huge American flag and “United We Stand” sign on the door, and the proprietor, a Pakistani Muslim, told her that she was his first customer in a month.

In this Aug. 19, 2016 photo, Indian Sikh immigrant Rana Singh Sodhi kneels next to a memorial in Mesa, Ariz., for his murdered brother, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was gunned down at this site four days after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by a man who mistook him for a Muslim because of his turban and beard. Sodhi has preached a message of peace and tolerance in hopes of helping others better understand the Sikh religion, the fifth largest in the world with some 25 million adherents including a half-million in the United States. (AP Photo/ Ross D. Franklin)

Hate crimes against anyone with brown skin went through the roof. Sikh men, many of whom wear turbans, were particular targets. According to the Sikh Coalition, there were more than 300 documented hate crimes against Sikhs in the month after 9/11 and on September 15th, a Sikh American, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who worked in a gas station in Arizona was profiled as an Arab Muslim and murdered.

Few Americans are aware that in the immediate post-9/11 period, “thousands of men, mostly of Arab and South Asian origin. . .were rounded up and held in secretive federal custody for weeks and months.” Even their families didn’t know where they were. Some were even “held for additional months even after a court ordered their immediate release” (Penn State Law). One of the casualties of 9/11 was the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In 2002 the INS was abolished and subsumed into the newly-formed cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security. The experience of immigration and naturalization has been much more punitive ever since (Penn State Law 4).

Although I was not as vulnerable as many others, I wasn’t entirely exempt. Immediately after 9/11 I was asked to speak at a forum being organized at my college with the title, “Why Do They Hate Us?” The title alone was all wrong. The “they” and the “us” made me wonder which category the no-doubt-well-meaning organizers saw me in. Nonetheless, I did speak, and tried to explain, complicating the question, as any good postcolonial critic would do. A makeshift border patrol checkpoint was set up on the highway of my weekly commute, and I was regularly stopped and asked for identification as I was driving home exhausted at the end of a teaching week. The first time I didn’t have my Alien card with me and was taken out of the car and into a small trailer set up in a highway rest area while they checked my details on multiple databases and gave me a threatening warning.

As a result of the post-9/11 climate—when, as I recall, the then-President of Harvard suggested that it was a time for professors to show loyalty to their country—I decided, at the repeated urging of my husband, that it was time for me to apply for naturalized citizenship. Nearly two decades later, in February 2020, I notice that the current administration has set up a Denaturalization Section under the aegis of the Department of Justice. Homeland insecurity indeed.

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466. Originals and Adaptations

In 1990s, 2000s, blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, Media, postcolonial, Stories, storytelling, United States on April 18, 2020 at 7:16 pm

This is the fifteenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Originals and Adaptations.

There was a while in the 1990s and early 2000s when it seemed that every other book was a contemporary rewriting of another book and every film either an adaptation of a book or a remake of an earlier film. Whether or not this was a new phenomenon, it was something everyone seemed to be talking about and, increasingly, a cause for concern. It was as if we were afraid that we’d run out of things to say, and that all we could do was to recycle old stories in new guises.

There was Michael Cunningham’s 1998 novel, The Hours, each of whose three interwoven subplots engaged differently with Virginia Woolf’s brilliant 1925 novel, Mrs. Dalloway. One imaginatively follows the struggle of the author herself, another explores the inner emptiness of a 1949 version of Clarissa Dalloway, and a third focuses on a New York woman’s party preparations in the 1990s for a friend dying of AIDS. The Hours was wildly successful, winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and later being made into a 2002 Oscar -winning film, starring Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Meryl Streep. (Incidentally, Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite novels of all time and happens to be a favorite of readers in coronavirus quarantine.)

Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone (2001), billed as an “unauthorized parody” of Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 blockbuster novel, Gone with the Wind, challenged the powerful myth of a pre-civil-war good life among Southern white people, and got into legal trouble with Mitchell’s estate. Unfortunately, although the novel importantly addressed matters that were regularly swept under the rug (in this case the mixed-race children born of white slaveholders’ unwelcome dalliances with black women), the rewrite was unable to challenge the seductive nostalgia of the self-justifying original.

Aladdin was criticised for its Orientalist stereotypes of the Middle East and Asia (Credit: Alamy)

Disney’s blockbuster, Aladdin (1992), was a heavily Disneyfied cartoon adaptation of that oft-retold Arabian Nights tale. I must confess that I refused to watch it on principle, much as I adore Robin Williams, who did the voiceover for the genie, because of the Orientalist stereotyping in the movie’s representations and song lyrics. Sophia Smith Galer, on Dr. Jack Shaheen’s successful campaign to change some of them, noted “The original lyric in the first verse of the song “Arabian Nights” described Arabia as [a place where] ‘Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face.’” This was changed; however, many of the crude stereotypes remained.

A well-known 1990s example of a contemporary movie based on a classic novel is Clueless, the 1995 remake of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, Emma, set in the wealthy city of Beverly Hills, bordering Los Angeles and Hollywood  instead of among the landed gentry in the countryside around London, and spoiled, self-involved valley girl Cher (Alicia Silverstone) playing the Emma character. It’s not clear whether the audience of the movie were spurred to read the novel, or even how many of them made the link between the two. However, viewers of Clueless do make the link to Autumn DeWilde’s Emma (2020), yet another more direct movie adaptation of Austen’s beloved novel (which—another confession–my mother presented to me when I was about ten, but I didn’t actually read until I was well into adulthood).

Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) was just one of numerous film adaptations of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel going all the way back to James Whale’s 1931 sci fi horror film. Branagh’s adaptation, also a horror film, made much of its faithfulness to Shelley’s plot, just as he signaled in the title itself. And this is the point I want to make here regarding the relationship of an adaptation to the original. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein protested too much, anxious to bill itself as closer to the original than many of its predecessors, and indeed it was, at least, as far as the plot went. But the overall effect was merely gruesome. Consequently, I don’t remember much of the film except for the blood and gothic horror of some of the scenes featuring Helena Bonham Carter as Elizabeth.

In different ways, both the theorists Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard point to a post-modern nostalgia in late twentieth-century works that signal the “loss of the real,” that is, the lost ability to distinguish between the real and the reality-effect, or simulation. Hence Branagh’s anxiety to point to his film as authentic because of its faithfulness to the original. I don’t know if either Jameson or Baudrillard would have said this, but I wonder if our need to link fictional works to the authors’ actual lives, as in Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, or the effort to make an adaptation “relevant” by setting it in the present moment, also bespeak this anxious need for “authenticity”?

Postmodern works are particularly known for the self-reflexive “metacommentary”, that is, their tendency to dramatize and draw attention to what they are trying to do, instead of just doing it. The 2002  Adaptation was the epitome of this genre, a “meta-film” that drew attention to the anxiety of adaptation, with one brother writing an adaptation of a novel while the other brother is working on an original screenplay.

Back in the 1990s I was decidedly old-school. Having been raised amidst books and hardly having seen any film or television until I came to the U.S. as a teenager, I was a snob about literature, the literary, and the value of originals over adaptations. I never ceased to be horrified whenever my students hailed Disney’s Jungle Book as a classic, whereas I winced every time I heard Baloo the bear mispronounced. Had they never heard of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book and All the Mowgli Stories? I would ask in scandalized tones, remembering my father lovingly reading them to us at bedtime. But they hadn’t, and their warm fuzzy feelings were routinely reserved for films that made me shudder.

However, the times have changed and so have I. Now I believe that a well-made film adaptation of a novel can actually improve on the original (case in point,  director Mira Nair’s film of The Namesake over Jhumpa Lahiri’s original novel of the same name). I also argue against the very idea of an original. For example, can we ever reach back to an original of the much-travelled, much-translated Arabian Nights, which has always been a compilation of disparate tales, loosely connected by a frame story? Even my beloved Jungle Book—how authentic could it be, springing out of the nostalgic imagination of an Englishman full of contradictions, desperate to recover the beloved India of his childhood but known for his jingoistic nationalism and justification of British colonial rule? Nowadays I suspend my judgement a little and just set out to enjoy the novel or film. Whether it is faithful to a supposedly authentic original is no longer so much of an issue for me; I’m more interested in how and why it speaks to me now, in this moment.

Of course, as an immigrant and a postcolonial critic I’m attentive to whose story a given work tells and from what perspective, and how the different characters are represented. Postcolonial literature is known for challenging dominant elite and colonialist representations and for privileging the voices and stories of the marginalized.

If Baudrillard and other critics were warning us of the Loss of the Real in the late twentieth century, the manufacture and marketing of fake news on social media today has taken it to the nth degree. The press briefing is the reality show, with avid fans following the conversation on Twitter after the show. In this post-truth era, it doesn’t seem to matter whether or not the powerful are telling the truth, as long as what they say confirms the pre-existing beliefs of their target audience (confirmation bias).

In the current COVID-19 pandemic, the reality is so terrible that it is certainly understandable why one might want to deny or soften it, but unfortunately things will get a lot worse if it is not faced-head-on. Nowadays references to originals and adaptations are returning to earlier outbreaks and pandemics, such as the yellow fever outbreaks in Louisiana that kept recurring in the mid-19th Century; or the global flu pandemic in 1918, that followed hard upon the (First) World War and killed at least 50 million people worldwide; or, much closer to the present, how some countries have responded more effectively than others. Returning to these old stories is valuable if it teaches us how to avoid the mistakes of the past. Whether or not COVID-19 is like other coronaviruses or entirely different from them is for the scientists to determine. It doesn’t matter much whether it’s an original or an adaptation; what matters is how we respond to the crisis, how we learn from the experience, and how we protect the most vulnerable among us.

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465. New England and New Mexico

In blogs and blogging, history, Immigration, places, Stories, United States on April 18, 2020 at 6:42 am

This is the fourteenth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

New England and New Mexico.

In the fifty years since my family moved to the United States, I have lived in only two regions of the country, New England in the Northeast (mostly in Massachusetts, but also, for a time, in New Hampshire and Vermont) and, for a little short of a year, New Mexico in the Southwest. In 1620 a British royal charter established the Plymouth Council for New England allowing British settlers “to colonize and govern the region” for Britain. New Mexico–Nuévo Mexico–was similarly claimed by and for Spain in 1610. It became part of Mexico in 1821 after Mexico won its independence from Spain, but most of it was acquired by the U.S. in 1848, as a result of the Mexican War, and the rest in the 1853 Gadsden Purchase.

My stay in New Mexico, however, made it very clear to me that this whole continent is Indian Country. It was colonized and ravaged by European settlers, but not without a fight. Although schoolchildren are taught that Native American culture is dead, just look around, it is everywhere, even in the Northeast, where the population of indigenous people is small. Native American tribes in Massachusetts were the Mahicans, Massachusett, Nauset, Nipmuc, Pannacook, Pocomtuc, and Wampanoag. The Census of 2010 records 37,000 Native Americans still living in the state. The people are still here and they will always be here.

Just look at the place names. In Massachusetts alone, for every Boston or Plymouth there is a Mattapan or Mashpee; Natick, Nahant, Nantasket Beach; Scituate, Seekonk, and Swampscott.  So many mountains, rivers, lakes, islands: Mounts Greylock, Wachusett, and Watatic; the Assabet, Connecticut, and Merrimack Rivers; Lakes Cochituate, Quinsigamond, and Monomonac; Chappaquiddick and Nantucket Islands.

 United American Indians of New England (UAINE)

It’s not only geography that carries the memory and the spirit of Native American persistence, but history, the history of resistance, also persists. On my first Thanksgiving in the United States I attended what turned out to be the first Native American Day of Mourning, held in 1970 in Plymouth, Massachusetts (see TMA #84, Feasting or Fasting?). It has been held every year since, with November 28, 2019 marking the 50th anniversary. The biggest rock in Winchendon, where we lived for seven years, was King Philip’s Rock, said to be a place where Metacomet, the Wampanoag Chief (also known as King Philip), once held a meeting during King Philip’s war, or the First Indian War (1675-1678). The struggle continues, as the Trump Administration, in its latest land grab, has just announced the revocation of reservation status for the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe.

New Mexico was saturated with Mexican and Native American cultures. Much of the Mexican American–Chicano/Chicana–culture is itself indigenous. In New Mexico, 48% of the population is Hispanic and nearly 10% Native American, from twenty-three tribes of the Pueblo, Apache, and Navajo. Anglos, as English-speaking people of European origin were called (a descriptive term for non-Hispanics, not an insult), were in the minority; what a difference that made! As an immigrant I felt so much more at ease in New Mexico. The state constitution proclaims New Mexico as a bilingual state, with one out of three families speaking Spanish at home. I found that multilingual atmosphere congenial as well, as people spoke in either language or both, without any sense of inadequacy or the shame bilingual children are made to feel in an English-only climate.

Speaking of shame, the Massachusetts state flag bears the image of a Native man with a star above his right hand and an arm wielding a sword over his head—symbols of dominance, both. The name of the tribe is retained, but the relationship is quite clear. There have been initiatives to change the image, so far unsuccessful. The New Mexico state flag bears the symbol of the Zia, a sacred sun symbol, and was designed to highlight both the state’s Native American and Hispanic roots.

Although I lived in New Mexico a little short of a year, it has exerted a lasting influence on me, and on my view of America. It is aptly named Land of Enchantment.

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462. The Kuwait Phenomenon

In 1990s, blogs and blogging, history, Media, Politics, Stories, United States on April 14, 2020 at 10:11 pm

This is the eleventh entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

The Kuwait Phenomenon.

President George HW Bush and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, 1990. (Doug Mills/ AP)

George H.W. Bush was inaugurated President on January 20th, 1989, and, with Dick Cheney as his Secretary of Defense, wasted no time in giving the world a taste of things to come. On December 20, 1989, a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bush launched the invasion of Panama to depose President Noriega. No other countries were informed in advance of this illegal action that completely disregarded the then-hallowed principle of national sovereignty. As Greg Grandin wrote in Mother Jones at the 25th anniversary of the invasion, “it was George H.W. Bush’s invasion of that small, poor country . . . that inaugurated the age of preemptive unilateralism, using ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom; as both justifications for war and a branding opportunity.”

This did not bode well for the 1990s.

On August 2, 1990, the day that Iraq occupied and later annexed Kuwait in an oil dispute between the two countries, President Bush launched Operation Desert Shield, followed, on 17th January 1991, by the  military offensive, Operation Desert Storm. By 28th February 1991, after a remotely conducted bombing campaign and a brief but gruesome ground war, Iraqi forces had been decimated and the United States, announcing the liberation of Kuwait, proclaimed victory in what would come to be known, ominously, as the First Gulf War. On December 26, 1991, almost simultaneously with the onslaught of Operation Desert Storm, the fall of the U.S.S.R. made the U.S.A. the world’s sole superpower, advancing the neoconservative agenda of a New World Order in which the United States would be the uncontested world leader, able to take unilateral action against any other nation.

What do I mean by the Kuwait Phenomenon? To start with, I mean that this global superpower has a habit of invading small countries which its own citizens cannot even point to on a map. When I began to write this I thought that perhaps when the United States invaded a country it would at least motivate Americans, notorious for their ignorance of geography, to find out where it was located. In fact, a 2017 survey of Americans on North Korea, which the Trump Administration was threatening to bomb at the time, suggested that those Americans  who could identify North Korea correctly on a map were more likely to prefer diplomacy, and conversely, those Americans who could not identify North Korea on a map were more likely to support bombing it. Perhaps our ignorance suits the war hawks just fine.

To me, the Kuwait Phenomenon also refers to the way in which the United States uses the media to sell the American people on a given war. Not only were most Americans completely ignorant of Kuwait, a wealthy, authoritarian, oil-rich nation—in fact, the fourth-richest country in the world, but they were completely uninterested in it. This posed a problem for the Bush Administration, which was planning to launch a war against Iraq with the ostensible goal of liberating Kuwait, since people were unlikely to want to risk American lives to liberate a country they had no fellow-feeling for. Joshua Holland has written a devastating article about how the First Gulf War was sold to the American public on “a mountain of war propaganda,” including the utter falsehood, first reported by Scott Peterson in the Christian Science Monitor, that Iraq was engaged in a troop build-up to invade Saudi Arabia next and, in a campaign dreamed up by an expensive public relations firm, the fabrication that Iraqi occupying forces in Kuwait had ripped scores of babies out of incubators. In fact, the primary reason for the war was that the United States could not countenance the idea of Iraq controlling more than twenty percent of the world’s oil supply.

A third element of the Kuwait Phenomenon is the sad spectacle of U.S. might arrayed against any country in the world, given the global pre-eminence of the American military; in particular, the obscenely uneven death toll. Political scientist Steve Yetiv called the First Gulf War one of history’s most lopsided victories. U.S. aerial bombing of Baghdad killed approximately 3,500 Iraqi civilians and it is further estimated that 150,000 or more civilians died in the aftermath of the war due to the destruction of the electrical generating system. On the other side, Iraqi occupying forces are estimated to have killed more than 1,000 Kuwaiti civilians; no U.S. or coalition civilians were killed.

 Highway of Death

Comparing combatant casualties, it is estimated that “at least 65,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed”, most of the killing taking place during the brutal ground war, on the so-called Highway of Death, where retreating soldiers were bombed with a neat device known as a ‘fuel-air explosive.’ In contrast, 378 coalition troops were killed, only 190 of whom were killed by Iraqi combatants, the rest in “friendly fire” or accidents. A 1991 United Nations report described the effect of the U.S. bombing campaign on Iraq as ‘near apocalyptic’ (The New York Times, cited in Gulf War/Iraqi Casualties). To Americans, who saw the bombing on cable news as surgical strikes from computers at a sanitized distance, the war was like a video game. Iraqis, on the other hand, bore the brunt of the strikes on the ground.

For 42 consecutive days and nights, the coalition forces subjected Iraq to one of the most intensive air bombardments in military history. The coalition flew over 100,000 sorties, dropping 88,500 tonnes of bombs, and widely destroying military and civilian infrastructure. (The Gulf War Air Campaign)

Tens of thousands in San Francisco, Saturday, Jan. 19, 1991, protesting the United States attack on Iraq and Kuwait.  (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

We opposed the war, of course, as did so many other Americans, and even more people around the world. Nikhil, in kindergarten at the time, seemed to draw bigger and more menacing fighter planes every day, as warplanes from nearby Westover Air Force Base flew low and loud overhead several times a day.

The nineties had not got off to a good start.

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456. The Eighties

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, Family, history, Nature, parenting, Stories, United States on April 6, 2020 at 11:53 pm

This is the fifth entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

The Eighties. 

We human beings like to find ways to order and keep track of the passage of time, as if by packaging and labeling it we can convince ourselves that we are in control of it. So it is when we carve time into decades and then slap a label on each one, a label that is almost inariably a gross oversimplification. But in the United States the Eighties are an exception to this rule; they are known as the Reagan Years, referring to the two-term presidency of Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), and Reagan’s policies really did not only span the decade but came to define it. Andrew and I lived a thrifty life throughout the Eighties, working very hard and making very little, but since we were largely removed from the mainstream economy, Reaganomics, as it was called then, or neoliberalism, as it came to be known, didn’t do the damage to our lives that it did to so many others.

Reaganomics, simply defined, was “the set of economic ideas followed by Ronald Reagan when he was US President in the 1980s, [which] included lower taxes and spending on public services, and less government control of the economy.” Here’s a short video that states in a fairly balanced way why Reaganomics was so controversial, and here’s a longer article, Reagan’s Real Legacy,  that doesn’t mince words about its devastating long-term damage. Back in 2011, the centenary of his birth, those of us who remembered the terrible Reagan years were outraged by the way politicians of all stripes were trying to outdo each other with praise for him; the man was practically being canonized. It’s important to set the record straight–and don’t worry, I’m not going to do so here except to highlight a couple of features of the Reagan era that bear remembering.

This was the era of the so-called War on Drugs, when heroin and crack cocaine trafficking and addiction ravaged the cities and destroyed the lives of millions of African Americans in particular. In this war, as War on Drugs–or War on Blacks? argues, black people were seen as the enemy, not the victims, and as Reaganomics cut social programs, including funding for public education, it ramped up policing and incarceration, targeting and prosecuting blacks disproportionately, and slamming them with heavier sentences.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, there is a preponderance of evidence showing that a drug trafficking cartel that was operating in Los Angeles in the 1980s was funneling its profits to the contras in Central America–the U.S. funded mercenaries whose mission it was to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Reagan’s administration was heavily involved with funding, training, and arming the contras, just how heavily they were doing so came out in the Iran-Contra Affairs, leading to a long-running Congressional investigation in which National Security Council staff member Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver (Ollie) Norththe White House official most directly involved in secretly aiding the contras, selling arms to Iran, and diverting Iran arms sales proceeds to the contras, testified–and lied repeatedly under oath–to the joint congressional committee.

Funnily enough, during the 1980s, this era of privatization when public-sector entities were sold off to private companies, when unions were systematically smashed, when social security was slashed and welfare and other programs cut right back, privatization was happening on a personal level in my own life. This was the decade when Andrew and I started our own small job printing business, first as a partnership with his sister Eve, and then as a sole proprietorship. It was the decade in which we were married, after which I took Andrew back with me to India in my first return visit since I had left in 1968. Also during this time we moved out of the Boston area with three friends to a hardscrabble farm in the arctic corridor of North-Central Massachusetts, where our son Nikhil was born and where we lived until 1990, just before he was due to start kindergarten. During that time we cultivated a large home garden, canned our own food, made our own maple syrup, watched hundreds of VHS movies on those long winter nights, changed a whole lot of cloth diapers, and shoveled a whole lot of snow. I became a householder and a mother, in some of the happiest and most all-absorbing years of my life. Later in the decade, I began a course of graduate study and, almost accidentally, found myself on an entirely new trajectory. I will write about some of the highlights of these years–my Eighties–in the next few entries.

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453. Bangladesh

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, India, postcolonial, Stories, United States on April 2, 2020 at 11:48 pm

This is the second entry in a month-long series, Fifty years in the United States: An immigrant’s perspective, as part of the annual Blogging from A to Z Challenge.


We had been in the United States for little more than a year when the news from the subcontinent started to get dire. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of the Awami League had won the regional elections in East Pakistan (as it was called in 1947 after the British Partition of India), previously Eastern Bengal (after the British Partition of Bengal in 1905), previously still part of an undivided Bengal, but the Pakistani military ruler General Yahya Khan had refused to recognize the results of the election. Instead, he launched Operation Searchlight, a brutal military campaign of mass killings and rape designed to crush the resistance and resolve of the people of East Pakistan, a campaign that many, including the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, declared to be a genocide. The Awami League’s popular movement for recognition and then for autonomy had turned into a full-fledged war of independence as West Pakistan refused to acquiesce to any of its demands, and on March 26th, 1971, it declared its independence from Pakistan and a nine-month war of liberation ensued.

Bengalis fleeing for a safe refuge. PHOTO: (Mark Godfret/Muktijuddho e-Archive)

By the summer of 1971, millions of Bangladeshis had fled from the East into neighboring India,, which had been forced to set up dozens of makeshift refugee camps. Rape was deliberately used as major weapon of the war, and West Pakistani troops were under orders to rape Bangladeshi women. It is estimated that more than 200,000 women were held in rape camps by the West Pakistani army. On December 3rd India stepped into the conflict and fought a short and decisive war, forcing the West Pakistani Army to surrender in Dhaka on December 16th, 1971, which today is celebrated in Bangladesh as Bijoy Dibas, or Victory Day.

But why does the bloody formation of Bangladesh loom large in the year after my immigration to the United States? For three main reasons: as preoccupied as I was with my own teenage concerns: my boyfriend, graduation from high school and the imminent start of university, a growing feminist consciousness sparked by the women’s liberation movement, and the movement against the U.S. war in Vietnam, I was also aware that a war was raging in my part of the world, among people who spoke the same language as our Indian state of West Bengal, but that no one in the United States seemed to know or care. As the situation grew to crisis proportions, an even more disturbing truth emerged: the United States was supporting West Pakistan, building up its military and entirely complicit in the genocidal war. Why? For strategic Cold War purposes, to strengthen Pakistan’s hand and, through Pakistan, to build a diplomatic relationship with the People’s Republic of China. And then there was the Concert for Bangladesh.

Ravi Shankar, the internationally renowned sitar player under whom George Harrison had studied and who had famously performed at both the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California and the 1969 Woodstock music festival in upstate New York, approached George Harrison for his help in raising awareness of and funds for the refugee crisis in Bengal, where there were some 10 million refugees from the terror of Operation Searchlight. George, who had not played in public since the Beatles had broken up, galvanized into action, called in favors from friends, and in a matter of weeks, put on the first-ever big fundraising rock concert on August 1st, 1971, with a star-studded line-up including Ravi Shankar and sarod master Ali Akbar Khan, Bob Dylan, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, George Harrison himself and Ringo Starr, formerly of the Beatles, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton. A three-album boxed set was released just on December 20th, 1971, and I’m pretty sure it was my big Christmas present that year. I have it to this day, its outer box battered and well-used, but the vinyl discs inside still scratch-free.

To tell you the truth, the only three tracks I listen to again and again on that album are Ravi Shankar’s heartbreakingly beautiful Bangla Dhun, George Harrison’s call for empathy with Bangladesh (and though I could not feel the pain I knew I had to try), and his moving rendition of While My Guitar Gently Weeps. The Concert for Bangladesh made Ravi Shankar the only artist to have performed at every one of the big three rock festivals. The clueless crowd cheered rapturously after the Indian musicians had finished their tuning, to which Ravi Shankar famously quipped, barely hiding his annoyance, “If you appreciate the tuning so much, I hope you’ll enjoy the music more.” When I listen to old interviews and recordings now, I can never help cringing at what seems to me to be a willful mispronunciation of Ravi Shankar’s name, global superstar as he was, when there was no excuse not to know better. None of the musicians save George, few among the crowds who bought the records or cheered wildly through the tuning at the concert, knew or cared about Bangladesh; it was only George and his rock-star friends they wanted. But as Ravi Shankar noted, at least by the end of the concert they recognized the name.

As I was starting to write this piece, I remembered that I still had the October 31st, 1971 issue of the New York Times Magazine, with its cover story about Bangladesh and what became an iconic cover that I had kept all these years, but had somehow never read. Amazingly, I was able to lay my hands on it in pretty short order, and there was the cover photograph, of a young Bangladeshi woman in a refugee camp nursing her baby, that was and remains so painful to look at that it felt, still feels like a violation; in fact, a second violation when the viewer knew from the evening news that this young woman was a rape survivor, her baby born of repeated acts of war upon her body. Here she was blown up, mass-produced, and exposed to the American gaze, as she had been to the perpetrators of Operation Searchlight before it. And this was the country that had systematically built up the Pakistani military for its own strategic purposes ever since Independence in 1947, precipitating between the two neighbors so recently one country, a devastating arms race which still shows no signs of abating.

I read the cover story, by none other than the liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, close friend of John F. Kennedy, and his Ambassador to India (see what he writes about the U.S. role in the military build-up between India and Pakistan). It is necessary here to recall the role of then-President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Bangladesh war, discussed in The Genocide the U.S. Can’t Remember, But Bangladesh Can’t Forget. Nixon had supported Pakistan throughout Operation Searchlight, in the midst of a world outcry and against all advice, even from his own appointees. After Nixon left office ignominiously in the wake of the Watergate break-in and subsequent cover-up, the notorious White House tapes that had revealed his guilt also revealed  a conversation between him and Kissinger at the time of the Concert for Bangladesh. In Unholy Alliances: Nixon, Kissinger, and the Bangladesh Genocide, journalist Pankaj Mishra describes Nixon shrugging off the mounting criticism of Pakistan’s military operation and the humanitarian concerns for the Bangladeshi refugees that were being inspired by the concert and by Ted Kennedy’s visit to the refugee camps in India as follows: “Biafra [the civil war in Nigeria] stirred up a few Catholics, … But you know, I think Biafra stirred people up more than Pakistan, because Pakistan, they’re just a bunch of brown goddamn Muslims.”

In contrast to the crude racism of Nixon and Kissinger, the piece of writing that has moved me the most about the Bangladesh war was a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri that captures poignantly the feelings shared by South Asians in the U.S. at that time. Funnily enough, “When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” my favorite story in Lahiri’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1999 collection, Interpreter of Maladies, is set at Halloween in 1971, the exact publication date of the New York Times Magazine I have kept all these years. It is narrated by a girl much younger than I was at the time, but old enough to sense that her Indian Bengali immigrant parents bond closely with their Bangladeshi dinner guest, Mr. Pirzada, who is a visiting professor stranded in Boston while his wife and family are in the midst of the violence unspooling in his country. Timidly joking, he says to his Indian hosts, “Another refugee, I’m afraid, on Indian territory.” Every night the narrator’s parents and Mr. Pirzada are glued to the television, anxiously waiting for news of home, a place which nobody in their neighborhood or in her school knows or cares of. While carefree Americans roam the neighborhood in the dark wearing menacing masks, Mr. Pirzada’s helpless fear for his family back home comes out in his concern for the little girl’s safety among the trick-or-treaters, and she in turn feels protective of him. Everything in that gem of a story is understated, but as a 16-year-old I shared the same tender feelings for Bangladesh, the other half of the Bengal I had grown up in, and followed it whenever it was on the news, keenly aware that most Americans didn’t know or care to know its name.

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