Josna Rege

Archive for the ‘India’ Category

432. Zero-tolerance Policy

In Family, history, Immigration, India, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on May 3, 2019 at 7:49 pm

(Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. This is the last entry, for the letter Z.

Although I’ve known from the start that Z had to stand for zero-tolerance policy, now that the time has come I can hardly bear to write it. My very worst nightmare was one I had when my son was a baby, only just able to stand. I was standing, with Nikhil clutching my hand, on the crowded Howrah Station in Calcutta (Kolkata), with two million people boarding 617 trains leaving from 23 platforms to points north, south, and west every single day. I must have been distracted for just a minute, but that’s all it took. Suddenly something was wrong with the universe; those warm, chubby little fingers were no longer gripping mine. I looked down: he was gone. I looked around, wildly: I couldn’t see him anywhere. Everywhere I cast my eye, it seemed, I saw a baby, but none of them was mine.

Utter despair ripped through me as I saw, as if in a movie, the endless train of people of people moving inexorably outward from the high-ceilinged central hall to their designated platforms and thence dispersing themselves throughout India. The odds of finding and recovering my helpless, innocent baby, however many years I combed the subcontinent for him, were several millions to one and I had only myself, my irresponsible, inattentive self, to blame. All the dire warnings our parents used to try to frighten us with as children when we travelled from our quiet university campus to the big City—those lurid tales of unscrupulous men who kidnapped and maimed children to make them more lucrative beggars—now came flooding back to my mind, all too late.

That nightmare held me in its grip for hours. Long after I knew intellectually that it had been a dream, a terrible, terrible dream, I couldn’t shake the guilt and the sense of utter devastation. Imagine, then, the parents who had just made the more-than-one thousand-mile trek from Guatemala to the Mexico-U.S. border, on foot, with children, to seek asylum in the United States. But starting on April 6th, 2018 when they finally reached there, bone-weary after weeks of walking, they were arrested and their children taken from them. This was the administration’s new “zero-tolerance” policy at the border. Under this policy, the Department of Justice started criminally prosecuting all adult “aliens” apprehended crossing the border illegally, with no exceptions for asylum-seekers or those with minor children. Since children cannot be held in federal criminal facilities, after 20 days in a family immigration detention center they are taken into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) under the Department of Health and Human Services (DHS).

After the U.S. public got wind of this Draconian policy and large-scale protests ensued, on June 20th, 2018 the Trump Administration issued an executive order “claiming to end family separation but without providing instructions on how DHS should reunify more than 2,300 children with their parents” (Congressional Research Service). A week later, on June 26th,2018, a U.S. district court ruled “that children cannot be separated from their parents and [set] a timeline for reunifying children who have already been separated (younger than 5 years within 14 days, all others within 30 days) unless the parent is unfit, presents a danger to the child or declines to be reunited with the child” (Catholic Legal Immigration Network).

Children sit for breakfast after spending the night sleeping on church pews or the floor in a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, April 25, 2018. (Meghan Dhaliwal/The New York Times)

Unfortunately, as time went on, not only did the DHS fail to meet its court-mandated reunification deadlines, but in January, 2019 it was revealed that thousands more children than initially reported may have been separated from their parents since June 2017, that the government had not kept proper track of where they had been sent, and that many of them could not be located. The Justice Department wanted up to two years to locate the missing children, many of whose parents had been deported without them (Spagat). And on April 28th, 2019, instead of redoubling his efforts to find the missing children, the U.S. President went on the offensive, saying that “ending the practice of separating children from their families at border crossings [had] been ‘a disaster’ that…resulted in a surge of people coming into the country illegally” and that it “had served as an effective ‘disincentive’ for illegal immigration” (The Washington Post). He followed that statement the next day with a quick one-two punch, calling for still-further restrictions on asylum within 90 days, including charging a fee for asylum applications (Horpuch).

(Source: Instagram)

Zero tolerance refers to a policy of “giving the most severe punishment possible to every person who commits a crime or breaks a rule.” The hard-line zero-tolerance policy at the United States’ southern border has criminalized what was formerly a misdemeanor, making the already difficult crossing a nightmare that will haunt many families for life: the loss of one’s children, the very reason one has undertaken the wrenching decision to leave the country of one’s birth in the first place.

As I write this piece, the death of a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy in U.S government custody alone and unaccompanied by parents or family, has been announced, the third such death in the last few months. The first two children, seven-year-old Jakelin Caal Maquin and eight-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonso, had been traveling with their parents and then apprehended. In December, 2018, when the news of little Jakelin’s death broke, then-U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan put the blame for the tragedy squarely where he thought it belonged: on the bereaved family: “‘No one should risk injury, or even death, by crossing our border unlawfully,’ said McAleenan. ‘This is why I asked Congress on Tuesday to change our laws so that the United States is not incentivizing families to take this dangerous path’”(NPR). Incidentally, onApril 11th, 2019, President Trump names Kevin AcAleenan as Acting Secretary of U.S Department of Homeland Security, following the resignation of Kirstjen Nielsen. He still holds the position of CBP Commissioner as well.

As refugee children cry themselves to sleep in converted Walmarts, the nightmare continues. When are we going to wake up? Demand zero tolerance for the real criminals, those who have hijacked American democracy and are violating every principle of human decency!

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431. Y is for Youth

In blogs and blogging, Childhood, Education, Immigration, India, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 30, 2019 at 8:43 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles and today the letter stands for youth.

Youth is an estate from which I would be far removed were it not for my work, which gives me daily contact with undergraduates. As an oldster but a woman, at times I exert less authority than I might like, but most of the time I am grateful for the easy, if somewhat quizzical, familiarity between us.

 first-time voters in Arunachal Pradesh, India’s Easternmost state

But enough of the chit-chat. As I age, along with the world’s population, what role are the youth playing in the current zeitgeist? Where do they stand with respect to immigrants, refugees, and exiles?

It depends, of course, where they stand. Refugees and asylum-seekers are getting younger, with children making up 52% of the world’s refugee population in 2017, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). White supremacist groups and ISIS alike woo alienated youth, hoping to recruit impulsive young people seeking a sense of belonging. As instability and economic crisis increases, youth unemployment and despair rises, and the average age of suicide bombers and child soldiers falls, as groups like Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram forcibly recruit younger and younger children. In the United States, aging Baby Boomers, now in their sixties, decry the apathy of the youth, who are much less likely to engage in electoral politics than their elders. But leaders can rise and fall based on the youth turnout. In India’s 2019 general election, now underway, out of 900 million eligible voters, 84.3 million youth are eligible to cast their ballots for the first time, including 15 million who are 18-19 years old.

While it is easy, as one slides into senescence, to bemoan “the youth of today,” in fact many of these youth are showing us the way forward. In the United States, in contrast with the sensational media images of young men joining white nationalist groups in droves, there is the quieter evidence in opinion polls that on the whole, young people are much more liberal and open-minded than their parents and grandparents. In a heartening January 2019 report from the Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans polled said that immigrants strengthened the country, but while only 44% of the “Silent Generation” (born 1928-1945) agreed, a whopping 75% of Millennials (born 1981-1996) weighed in with a Yes. In a Spring 2016 Global Attitudes Survey also conducted by Pew Research, the young were much less likely than the old to say that birthplace was very important to national identity. In the U.S., only 21% of 18-24 year-olds felt that it was important to have been born in the country to truly belong, as against 40% of those 50 and older. The poll revealed an even greater generational difference when the respondents were asked about the importance of observing national customs and traditions to national belonging. Among the Americans, only 28% of the 18-24 age group thought that “sharing such cultural elements was important to being truly American”, in contrast with 55% of those age 50 and older.

Increasingly, as ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the Border Patrol (CBP) are ramping up detentions and deportations of children and more aggressively separating children and their parents, as the current administration is attempting to do away with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) making it harder and harder for undocumented immigrant youth to get access to an education or a decent job, the youth are mobilizing to fight back. As evidence and inspiration, I give you SIM, Student Immigrant Movement, the dynamic Massachusetts-based immigrant youth-led organization. Go to their website: it is a happening place.

SIM’s mission: We fight for the liberation of the undocumented community through the development of a network of immigrant youth organizers in high-density immigrant communities. We organize youth, ages 13-30, and provide political education, leadership training, protection, guidance, mentorship, and safe healing spaces.

SIM’s vision: Our vision is that all immigrant students have equal access to higher education, are not discriminated against based on their immigration status, collectively realize their full potential, define their own identity and become fully engaged in every aspect of society that affects their lives.

Join SIM today as a youth (ages 13-26), an ally/supporter, an immigrant or refugee (temporary or permanent, documented or undocumented). You can also become a monthly DREAM sustainer to help immigrant youth protect their communities. Just looking at a group of SIM youth gets my mojo and my metabolism working. When youth are at the leading edge of positive change, the only thing to do is to work with them.

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426. S is for Stranger

In blogs and blogging, Books, history, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories, storytelling, United States, Words & phrases, writing on April 23, 2019 at 9:38 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter is for stranger.

The stranger is said to be the quintessentially, existentially modern figure. So many twentieth-century
works give us that romantic anti-hero, the angry, alienated man (strange, he always seems to be a man), at odds with society, a stranger to himself. But if the modern era is the era of migration, then its quintessential figure is that of the migrant, the refugee, the exile—stranger in a strange land, a long way from home.

It is dead lonely to be a stranger, and not in the least romantic. The newly arrived immigrant is a complete unknown; but unlike in the song, he is not like a rolling stone who keeps movin’ on. Instead, he tries hard to settle and put down roots, but still remains a stranger.

Although the words “stranger” and “outsider” are often used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings. Apparently, a stranger is a person one doesn’t know, while an outsider is someone who is not part of a community or organization. But the modern stranger, the one recognized by immigrants and refugees, is both. In an influential 1908 essay, German sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel:

James Baldwin (“Stranger in the Village”)

differentiates the stranger both from the “outsider” who has no specific relation to a group and from the “wanderer” who comes today and leaves tomorrow. The stranger, he says, comes today and stays tomorrow. The stranger is a member of the group in which he lives and participates and yet remains distant from other–“native”–members of the group. In comparison to other forms of social distance and difference (such as class, gender, and even ethnicity) the distance of the stranger has to do with his “origins.” The stranger is perceived as extraneous to the group and even though he is in constant relation to other group members; his “distance” is more emphasized than his “nearness.”As one subsequent interpreter of the concept put it, the stranger is perceived as being in the group but not of the group. (The Stranger—sociology)

In the United States, Simmel’s stranger became Chicago school of sociology Robert Ezra Park’s marginal man. First discussed in his 1928 essay, “Human Migration and the Marginal Man” he was a hybrid figure who, like the newly arrived African Americans from the American South, like the pre-WWI wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, lived cheek-by-jowl with others in the new society, and yet “was not quite accepted due to racial prejudice” (Goldberg 201). Richard Wright, a migrant to Chicago in 1927, credited Park with having influenced his thinking in his novel Native Son, while Park credited the black writers of the American South with helping him understand how human civilizations advanced (Warren).

How many years does a person have to live in a land, how many generations of his or her kinfolk have to die there, before they are no longer strangers?

Here are three songs that make me feel less of a stranger, and at the same time remind me that strangeness is part of being human.

People are Strange (The Doors)

I Was a Stranger (Doc Watson)

Wayfaring Stranger (Rhiannon Giddens)

 

I can’t resist one more S word: S is for SAADA, the South Asian American Digital Archive. By collecting the histories of South Asians in the United States, it makes us less strange, our stories more fully a part of the many-stranded history of this country. Of its many initiatives, its First Days Project collects the moving first-person accounts of people’s arrival in the United States, before they found their feet and got over the initial culture shock. Supporting SAADA tells our stories, fights hate and helps to build a more inclusive future where no one is a stranger.

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423. P is for Passport

In blogs and blogging, Britain, Family, history, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 20, 2019 at 7:02 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today, the letter P is for Passport.

Although my family had been on the move since I was six months old, it was not until I was nearly seventeen, little more than a year after we had immigrated to the United States, that I needed to apply for a passport, since I was taking my first international trip alone. Before then, as a minor, I had travelled on my mother’s British passport. Because I had not yet lived in the U.S. for the five years required to apply for naturalized citizenship, my first passport was a British one. (I learned too late that I would have been eligible to apply for both a British and an Indian passport at that point, and have always regretted that I didn’t.)

my first passport

My father became a naturalized U.S. citizen as soon as he possibly could, because the security of his job depended on it, but my mother kept renewing her British passport for the rest of her life. First she swore that she wouldn’t become a citizen while there was a Republican President in office, then, while there was a Democrat in the White House, she kept missing the window of opportunity to apply—accidentally or on purpose, I never quite knew.

Although for centuries, depending on whose domain they wished to enter, world travelers have had to obtain letters granting them safe passage, the passport as we know it is barely a hundred years old. None of those millions of immigrants from various parts of Europe who travelled by ship across the Atlantic in the late 19th Century had a passport. They were simply held for a time while they were processed and then let loose in the new land. According to the American Immigration Council,

Until the late 19th century, there was very little federal regulation of immigration—there were virtually no laws to break. A growing, increasingly industrialized nation needed workers, and immigration was “encouraged and virtually unfettered.” Immigrants would simply arrive at ports of entry (such as Ellis Island) where they were inspected and allowed into the country …The vast majority of people who arrived at a port of entry were allowed to enter; the Immigration Service excluded only 1 percent of the 25 million immigrants from Europe who arrived at Ellis Island between 1880 and World War I.

Of course, there were categories of people who were excluded from the U.S. even then, because they had contagious diseases, were insane, illiterate, criminal, or political radicals. But many people simply lied about their status and were allowed in. Racially based exclusion was much more rigidly enforced, starting with the exclusion of Chinese immigrants after 1882 and extending to almost all Asians after 1924.

(Courtesy Library of Congress)

As Guilia Pines tells us in The Contentious History of the Passport, it was not until 1920, in the aftermath of the First World War that the League of Nations began talking about the idea of an international passport system. From the outset, it was designed to give freedom of movement to some people, and to control and restrict the free movement of others. Cooked up by a Western-centric organization trying to get a handle on a post-war world, the passport was almost destined to be an object of freedom for the advantaged, and a burden for others. Pines further reveals that critics of the 1920 League of Nations  resolution argued that the purpose of the proposed passport system was “less about creating a more democratic society of world travelers than it was about control, even within a country’s own borders.” And so it proved to be.

Even today, most people in the world have never held a passport. Either they do not have the wherewithal to travel abroad, or they lack the motivation to do so. If one’s family has never moved out of the country in which one was born, unless there are powerful “push” factors at work, such as unemployment, starvation, persecution, or war, it is unlikely that one will attempt to do so either. In the United States very few people held passports until very recently; most Americans didn’t feel the need or the desire to do so. In 1990, only 4% of Americans held passports—an astonishingly low figure; in 2007, only 27%; but by 2017, that percentage had risen to 42 percent. The principal reason for the increase was the change in U.S. law, in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, requiring a passport for travel to Mexico, Canada, South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda. In Britain, 76% of the population holds a passport. Perhaps this is partly because Britain is such a small island that the British would get stir-crazy without going abroad.

You never miss your water till your well runs dry. You take it for granted if you have never had any trouble obtaining or renewing a passport. But in this world of heavily policed borders, if you have no travel documents at all, you are a refugee or a stateless person; and that is a terrifying condition. The Refugee Convention of 1951 and the Stateless Convention of 1954 gave refugees and stateless persons the right to a Convention Travel Document (named after the Conventions that granted this right) in their State of lawful stay. Nevertheless, it is estimated that only 20% of refugees worldwide have access to Convention Travel Documents. And although stateless people have the same right to such documents as do refugees, while 73 States now issue ICAO-compliant Convention Travel Documents to refugees, only 30 States issue such documents to stateless persons. If a person has no such documentation, they cannot travel outside their country for any reason, even temporarily, whether for work, reuniting with their family, education, or even life-saving medical treatment. This forces them to attempt to do so illegally and puts them at the mercy of human traffickers and smugglers.

Guilia Pines closes her article on the history and politics of the passport by bringing us to the present moment: “As other nations join the new U.S. administration in toying with the idea of closed borders, it is worth meditating once again on the passport’s essential arbitrariness.” We can do so by reminding ourselves how relatively new the concept of the passport is, and how restrictive. The value of Free Trade—free movement of goods and services, free passage across international borders for corporate entities—is continually being touted; but the same people who promote it refuse to consider the free movement of human beings in this world of ours.

Imagine there’s no countriesTo end on a Utopian note, the World Government of World Citizens issues a World Passport. Citing Article 2 of the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, according to which “no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs,” they argue that the passport and visa system violates this clause:

Being exclusive political units, all nations collude in the frontier system, i.e., the division of the planet into separate political units. At the same time, they all agree through the United Nations Charter to “observe and respect fundamental human rights.” Through the national passport and visa system imposed on the world citizenry they deny and thus violate their pledged confirmation of human rights.

The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, tells us that there are 25.4 million refugees, 3.1 million asylum seekers, and 10 million stateless people in the world today. But if you are eligible for a passport and can afford to apply for one, you are a fortunate person indeed, and I strongly recommend doing so and renewing it promptly before it expires. Why restrict your mobility if you can help it?

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421. N is for Nationalists and Nationalisms

In blogs and blogging, Britain, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, poetry, Politics, postcolonial, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 18, 2019 at 10:17 pm

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Today the letter N stands for nationalists and nationalisms.

Nationalists are walking contradictions; I speak from experience as a recovering nationalist myself. Nationalists believe that their nation’s identity is pure and ancient; but nationalist ideology is mongrel and modern. Nationalists believe that they are united in a warm security blanket of belonging; but their cozy togetherness is predicated on the unbelonging of others. Nationalists believe that their ideas and values make them unique; but nationalisms all have a family resemblance: one is very like another.

Bharat Mata (Mother India)

Of course, there are different brands of nationalism: anti-colonial nationalism and imperial nationalism, for example, two halves of the same coin, for one would not exist without the other. Then there’s inclusive and exclusive nationalism. The former welcomes all sorts in under its big tent, emphasizing common ground, while the latter defines its boundaries more strictly and goes for purity rather than pluralism. And as for the purists, there are the big three: linguistic, racial, and religious nationalism.

I forgot about cultural nationalisms; we literary types specialize in them. Writers imagine nations, fire up readers with romantic, righteous wrath, and then fan the flames of nationalist zeal.

A funny thing about nationalists; they each believe that their nation is unquestionably superior to all others. And if they are religious nationalists, then they are doubly in the right, since God is on their side. What happens, by the way, when two armies of religious nationalists duke it out? Is God two-timing them? Are they each appealing to a different God? Or are they both dead wrong? They’re likely to end up dead anyway, because nationalism is a hawkish ideology, and nationalists make good cannon fodder because they will walk willingly into the crossfire—for the good of the Nation.

Britannia

Nationalism is an abstract idea, but it gives its followers a warm fuzzy feeling; that’s because the Nation always figures itself as a family. There’s the Motherland, whose children fight to the death to preserve her honor; or the Fatherland, whose grim-faced children goose-step in defense of his domain. Except for the black sheep, the traitors, who must be held up as an object lesson to others, lest they get any ideas. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Make no mistake, nationalism is a patriarchal affair, even if it does put its mother figures on a pedestal.

Nationalists are deeply ambivalent creatures, yet they will fight you to the death to prove that
they are loyal to a fault. Back in the 1970s, the Scottish political theorist Tom Nairn called nationalism “the modern Janus” because it looked both forward and backward like that Roman god of beginnings, endings, and transitions who is usually depicted as having two faces looking opposite ways, one toward the future and the other toward the past. So nationalism is both a progressive and a regressive force. That is probably why, however ardent a believer one might be most of the time, one is bound to have periodic paroxysms of doubt, when the dearly beloved nation inspires and incites periodic orgies of bloodletting.

New immigrants must prove their loyalty, and of course the ultimate sacrifice is to lay down their very lives for their new nation. It’s only natural that immigrants will have love for their country of origin as well as their newly adopted home. But nations are jealous gods, and from time to time they demand that their subjects undergo a trial by fire to prove their loyalty.

Speaking of trials by fire,  many Americans are unaware of how many immigrants are serving in the U.S. armed forces—in 2015 there were 65,000, or about five percent of all active-duty personnel (An Unheralded Contribution, 5). Just three days ago I read of the bereaved husband of a U.S soldier killed in action in Afghanistan who was taken into custody by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deported to Mexico, leaving his 12-year-old American-born daughter alone in Phoenix, Arizona. It was only after media coverage of the case that he was allowed to re-enter the United States and rejoin his daughter. He has no criminal record. “After his wife was killed in Afghanistan, [he] was granted what is known as parole in place, which allows immigrants in the country illegally to remain in the U.S. without the threat of deportation” (U.S. deports spouse of fallen soldier). ICE went ahead and deported him anyway.

One of the saddest things I have read recently is the granting of posthumous citizenship to noncitizens killed in combat. As of 2016, “more than 100 noncitizens have been granted posthumous citizenship after dying in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan” (Veterans for New Americans Factsheet). They made the ultimate sacrifice to prove their loyalty to their adoptive nation. But their reward came too late for them to enjoy it.

In 1917, while the poet and WWI soldier Wilfred Owen was recovering from shell-shock in a psychiatric hospital, he wrote the poem Dulce et Decorum Est. Owen was returned to the front when he was deemed well enough, only to be killed exactly a week before the end of the war at the tender age of twenty-five. Dulce et Decorum Est, which recalls in nightmare the ghastly victim of a gas attack, was published posthumously. The Latin phrase by the Roman poet Horace that is completed at the end of the poem translates as: “It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”

Below is the last stanza, and here, the whole poem.

 

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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419. Three Ks: Kamala Markandaya, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Kamila Shamsie

In blogs and blogging, Books, Britain, Immigration, India, Inter/Transnational, postcolonial, reading, Stories, Words & phrases, writing on April 15, 2019 at 4:29 am

My theme for this year’s Blogging from A-to-Z Challenge is Migrants, Refugees, and Exiles. Arriving at the letter K, I refuse even to utter the name of, let alone consider naming a blog post after the abhorrent white supremacist organization that thrusts itself forward rudely, seeking my attention. The only three Ks that come to mind are names of world writers who are themselves migrants, whose works have migrated, and who—among other things, for they cannot be pigeon-holed—have explored the experiences of people displaced or marginalized in a changing world: Kamala Markandaya, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Kamila Shamsie.

Kamala Markandaya was the pen name of Kamala Purnaiya Taylor (1924-2004), a novelist and journalist who was active in the Indian independence movement and then moved to England in 1948, after Independence. She published 10 novels between 1954 and her death in 2004 (with one additional work discovered and published posthumously). However, she is remembered by her very first novel, Nectar in a Sieve (1954), an international best-seller and probably the best-known and most widely-taught work of Indian literature outside of India until Salman Rushdie came along in 1982 with Midnight’s Children.

Sadly, the rest of Markandaya’s writing career was a casualty of Nectar in a Sieve’s success. Global publishers and readers alike wanted more of its desperately poor, stereotypically fatalistic peasants, eternal victims (note the representations of Rukmani, the Indian heroine, on the covers of 1956 and 1982 U.S. mass-market paperback editions of the novel); but Markandaya’s subject matter did not oblige. In Feminize Your Canon: Kamala Markandaya, Emma Garman discusses the currency of her 1972 novel, The Nowhere Man, set in the 1968 of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech. But it was a flop; it wasn’t exotically Indian, and the English weren’t ready for Indian colonial subjects to tell them what was wrong with their country.

I taught Nectar in a Sieve once or twice while I was in graduate school. But I was enamored of Midnight’s Children by then. Nectar was already old-fashioned to me, and I can’t teach novels if I have too many reservations about them. I did read Markandaya’s second novel, Some Inner Fury, and her fourth, Possession (A.S. Byatt, your Booker Prize-winning title was already taken), but there my familiarity with her work ends. Such was Markandaya’s fate. After that early success, she lived a quiet life in England, out of the limelight; but despite sickness, despite being lost in literary oblivion, as Manu S. Pillai discusses, she kept on writing. Eleven novels, not counting her early stories and her journalism; nothing to sneeze at.

Coincidentally, Kamala Markandaya was born in 1924, the same year as my father, and travelled to England in 1948, the very same year he did. I must seek out The Nowhere Man, belatedly, and return to Nectar In a Sieve with fresh eyes. Perhaps in the nativist climate of post-Brexit England Markandaya’s work will receive belated recognition.

(photo: David Levene for the Observer)

While Kamala Markandaya was my father’s contemporary, Kazuo Ishiguro (b. 1954) is mine. He was born in Nagasaki, Japan, of Japanese parents, who moved with him to England when he was 5 years old. To date he is the author of seven novels and one short-story collection, as well as some screenplays. He won the Booker Prize in 1989 for his third novel, the quietly devastating masterpiece, The Remains of the Day; and, in 2017, the Nobel Prize for Literature (here’s his Nobel lecture). I jumped for joy when I heard the news, since I was teaching The Remains of the Day at the time. Apparently Ishiguro himself, unassuming as he was, thought at first that it was a hoax.

The Nobel Committee said of Ishiguro that: “in novels of great emotional force, [he] has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” I confess that although I have almost all of his novels in my possession, I have only read The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go: knock-outs, both. Why I haven’t yet read them all is inexplicable; but in the last year of his life my father read, one after the other, just about all of Ishiguro’s works, including his most recent, The Buried Giant.

If you’ve read anything by Kazuo Ishiguro, you’ve probably read The Remains of the Day, so anything I say about itis likely to be redundant. But if you’ve read P.G. Wodehouse, and know, or think you know, the consummate Gentleman’s Personal Gentleman through his character Jeeves, then check out Ishiguro’s Stevens, and see what you think of his inner life. As Salman Rushdie said, of the novel, contrasting it to the Downton Abbey genre, The Remains of the Day, in its quiet, almost stealthy way, demolishes the value system of the whole upstairs-downstairs world. You may know the 1993 Merchant-Ivory film production starring Anthony Hopkins as Stevens and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton. I must confess that I fell asleep during the movie, but the novel I was riveted to throughout.

Kamila Shamsie (b. 1973) is the youngest of my three K’s, born in 1973, nearly two decades after Ishiguro (and me). Born in Karachi, Pakistan, educated in Pakistan and the United States, and now living in London, Shamsie has already published seven novels and one book of non-fiction. She has worked to uphold the rights of free speech for writers at risk and has contributed to Refugee Tales II, in which poets and novelists  interview and retell the stories of asylum-seekers in Britain being held in indefinite detention. In November, 2018 she delivered the 2018 Orwell Lecture, Unbecoming British: Citizenship, Migration and the Transformation of Rights into Privileges.It is well worth watching in its entirety.

It was with Kamila Shamsie’s fifth novel Burnt Shadows that I fell in love with her work. It is a novel of epic scope that starts out in Nagasaki just before the dropping of the atomic bomb, travels to India on the eve of Partition, to Pakistan in the 1980s during the period when the United States was providing covert aid to Afghan resistance fighters (or mujahideen) against the Soviets, to a training camp in Afghanistan, and to New York City in 2001, in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. How it links them all together is brilliant and beautiful.

Shamsie’s latest novel, Home Fire (2016), has become her most highly acclaimed. Home Fire is a contemporary reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone, but also an almost-prescient story that seems to anticipate the rise of British Asian Conservative MP Sajid Javid to the position of British Home Minister and, most recently, his controversial act of stripping a British subject of her passport. Life imitating art indeed. If you are moved to read the novel, I wonder whether you will be moved to empathize with a number of wildly differing characters, some of whom you could have sworn you would never feel for in your wildest dreams. But that is what great art does; and the works of these three postcolonial writers make us empathize with characters on the wrong side of wealth, power, and geopolitics.

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406. Of Piercings, Pain, and Authenticity

In Books, culture, Family, Immigration, India, Stories, United States, women & gender on January 7, 2018 at 2:27 pm

(from indiaparenting.com)

For the past nine days and counting it has been a low-grade irritation at best; at worst, almost as excruciating as the opening scene in Senegalese writer Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s novel, Ambiguous Adventure (L’Aventure Ambiguë, 1961), in which the young protagonist’s teacher, to drive his Qur’anic lessons home more deeply, grips Samba Diallo’s tender earlobe between the nails of his thumb and forefinger and pierces right through it. As the tenth day dawns, my dwindling hopes are at vanishing point, and there is no consolation. What else did I expect?

Let me start at the beginning. It’s about ear-piercing. In India, at least in Dad’s generation, ears were pierced at birth, during infancy or in early childhood, boys and girls alike. But mine were not done, and for some reason I can’t remember, I wasn’t inclined to get them done when I came of age. As I grew older, I came to consider it a barbaric practice, or so I retorted loudly whenever someone asked me why my ears weren’t pierced. For was ear-piercing different from any other form of ritual or cosmetic body-modification? Why would one want to violate the body’s integrity by piercing and scarring it?

Then I started getting earrings for presents. Dad returned from his first trip to India after our immigration to the States with beautiful silver necklace-and-earring sets, of which I could only wear the necklaces. And when Andrew and I went to India after our marriage, various relations wanted to present me with earrings fashioned from family gold, and were downright annoyed with me for not having pierced ears. What Indian woman didn’t have her ears pierced? Just more evidence of my cultural inauthenticity.

After dear Leela-kaki in Pune presented me with a pair of custom-made gold post earrings, my cousin Kalyani, with her characteristic no-nonsense efficiency, took me out into the alley behind the jeweller’s, where they did the job unceremoniously over an open flame. We continued on our travels with my newly-pierced ears, in the heat of May.

The outcome was predictable, I suppose. It was impossible to care for my ears properly while on the move, and they became infected. I can’t remember when I took out the earrings, but I kept them in until the situation was untenable. Upon returning to the U.S., I made the mistake of not leaving them in permanently, so every time I put on a pair of earrings, my ears would bleed afresh. Eventually I gave it up as a bad job and decided to let the hole seal up.

Ten, fifteen years went by. After Nikhil graduated from university he started going to India quite often and bringing back beautiful earrings for me, so I decided to try again. But when I got to the ear-piercing place at the local mall with my gold studs from India in hand, I found that they wanted you to purchase special earrings from them, and so I changed my mind and came away with nothing to show for it.

Fast forward another decade and my dear friend Marianne presented me with beautiful silver earrings, expecting me to put them on right away. Like everyone else, she had simply assumed that my ears were pierced: whose weren’t? I determined then and there that I would get the deed done this time, come what may, as a Christmas present to myself. Well, I did, and “what may” has now come to pass.

On my first free day after Christmas I set out for the mall, resolute. When I got to Claire’s, recommended because they regularly pierced children’s ears, I saw a pre-teen girl perched on the high stool waiting, her mother by her side, supporting her in this small coming-of-age ritual. Slim and leggy, like a young deer, she was shivering with equal parts eager and anxious anticipation, anticipation of the piercing itself, to be sure, but also of the solemnity of the occasion, of the adulthood into which it was initiating her, and all that it signaled, both pleasure and pain. I told her that I was nervous about my own coming ordeal, and was watching her carefully. If she cried, I would run a mile. She giggled, shivered again, and came through the ordeal sporting pretty pearl ear studs. Wreathed in smiles, she leaped off the stool to join her mother in shopping for new earrings. Her life was all ahead of her; what was I thinking, undergoing this ritual at my age? But now I was trapped: it was my turn.

It was a straightforward procedure, except for the numerous forms I had to sign releasing Claire’s from legal responsibility for anything and everything that might possibly go wrong. Besides whether to stay or to run a mile, there was just one choice to make: which one of their selection of post earrings I wanted put in my ear while the piercing healed. But I made the wrong choice.

I was all set to go ahead with a low-priced pair featuring gold clasps and a clear shiny stone of no particular value when the manager arrived and came on strong with a recommendation of the diamond earrings. They were “only” 40-odd dollars more, but they were smaller, sat closer to the ear, and came with a full replacement warranty should they break or get lost. Best of all, they were nice enough for me to wear them all the time as my default pair. Stupidly, I relented. After all, this had been a long time coming; why economize now?

But from the second that I heard the click of the hole punch, the problems began. One side felt relatively normal after the initial sharp pain of the piercing, but the other one felt wrong from the start. Both ears were soon red and swollen, accompanied by a persistent dull throb. I followed the cleaning and care instructions religiously for several days, but to no avail; things only got worse, to the extent that the sharp diamond studs were actually starting to get absorbed into my ear. I looked it up and found that it was called embedding; now that was truly frightening. A week out, I went to my doctor, who took one look at the studs and told me that they were on too tight. The problem, we soon discovered when we went to loosen them, was that the posts were too short and they were already on their loosest setting. She prescribed an antibiotic and recommended adding a saline wash and a thrice-daily heat pack  to the treatment regimen—if I didn’t want them taken out, that is. She said there was only a slim chance that things would improve, but that it was up to me how to proceed. So here I am four days later, and things aren’t appreciably better, although I keep telling myself that there is a slight improvement and I’ll give it just one more day.

Why didn’t I simply ask the doctor to remove the earrings and be done with it ? It was because I would have to give up on wearing earrings for the rest of my life (not to mention leaving scars from two failed attempts on my earlobes). But why was this such a daunting prospect? After all, I haven’t worn them all these years and here I am in my sixties. Was it because deciding to let go of the idea of piercing my ears once and for all would force me to accept that the time of self-adornment was over for me? Or because now, all those earrings lovingly given to me as presents would never be worn? Or was it because I would have to acknowledge one more sign of my ethnic inauthenticity? All of the above, I think, but there’s something more.

(from india24)

As postcolonial theorist R. Radhakrishnan concluded in an early essay, “Is the Ethnic ‘Authentic’ in the Diaspora?”, the answer is inevitably Yes: the culture and consciousness of those living outside of their country of origin are bound to depart from its norms. Migrants, minoritized and marginalized in their new environment, often cling all the more to their ethnic identities unquestioningly, frequently shoring up outdated identities in the process. We can all think of examples of ethnic  subcultures in the New World preserving beliefs, practices, and cultural forms (including language) that have long been obsolete in their home countries. But is that the point? After all, people who have never left their country of origin also flout its cultural—and its political—norms. One can be out of touch and uninformed no matter where one lives; conversely, one can remain current with and critically informed about one’s country and culture no matter where one lives. But what does any of this have to do with my inflamed ears?

Going back to the young Samba Diallo in Ambiguous Adventure, one can safely say that the painful corporal punishment meted out to the boy in his religious tradition was extreme, even barbaric. However, in that powerful and haunting novel, the pain that Samba Diallo was to encounter later, as a young man, was far more excruciating—the pain of cultural alienation. Realizing that in order to survive under French colonialism, they would have to adopt the tools of their new masters, his family made the decision to give their beloved son a French education, and with it came the wrenching loss of everything he held dear, alienating him from all that made him who and what he was. I suppose that, deep down, I fear that loss for myself, even though I know that true authenticity is not something worn on one’s sleeve—or my case, in one’s ear—but something deep and inward.

In my heart of hearts, I believe that my ears are inflamed simply because I am allergic to earrings. My body reacts violently to any foreign object piercing holes in it, even if it is made of pure gold. I can keep delaying the inevitable, loth to relinquish that last flicker of hope that my system will finally accept the intruders; but in the end, I will have to accept what I knew all along: that this will never happen, and being authentic, being true to myself, means acknowledging and accepting this fact.

In the meantime, I will continue with the treatment regimen three times a day, continuing to kid myself until I can do so no longer. And when that time comes, there will be no consolation; what else did I expect?

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393. Flying those Flags

In Britain, India, Music, Politics, Stories, United States on December 4, 2016 at 3:25 am
Eddie Izzard's Do You Have a Flag?

Eddie Izzard’s Do You Have a Flag?

I’ll try to keep this brief, because to me it’s cut-and-dried. Hampshire College has folded, following a firestorm of protests and threats, and has re-flown the American flag on its campus. I have not followed the controversy closely, but I want to make one observation: private colleges in the United States are not required to display the national flag.

As a student of nationalism, I feel compelled to note that although pennants and flags have long been used as signals (as in semaphore) and to identify armies in battle, national flags are very recent developments in world history, only dating back to the late eighteenth century, and not becoming universal until the 19th century. Rectangular pieces of fabric bearing national insignia, they have become potent patriotic symbols that often carry strong military associations, but it is important to remember that they are just that, symbols, displayed on bits of cloth and mounted on poles—or, in one of my favorite songs, printed on plastic and plastered on cars.

Allow me, and yourself, a little levity: watch Eddie Izzard’s classic sketch, “Do You have a Flag?” performed here by the comedian himself, and here by Lego men. Now treat yourself to John Prine’s classic song from his first album, Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore. Back in 1971, he was referring to the Vietnam War when he said, in the next line, “It’s already overcrowded from your dirty little war”; but unfortunately it’s all the more resonant in this brave new world of perpetual war.

I recall with sadness the great Indian philosopher poet, Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote Jana Gana Mana, the song that has become the nation’s national anthem. (He also wrote Amar Sonar Bangla, the song that became the national anthem of Bangladesh.) I can’t hear Jana Gana Mana without getting overcome by nostalgia—love for India, the aspirations of the–then newly independent nation, and memories of singing it at the top of my ten-year-old voice every time I went to the cinema with my father (the flag billowing on the screen for 52 seconds just before the running of the birth control advertisements: do ya teen—bas!). Tagore was a great patriot with a deep love for his country. But as he grew older, and began to understand what horrors nationalism was capable of wreaking, he came to see it as a modern scourge, and spoke out strongly and insistently against it. For this he was attacked and vilified by many of his compatriots, just as those who dare to question the military adventures of the United Statestoday are attacked and vilified as anti-national. As Tagore said in 1908, “I will never allow nationalism to triumph over humanity as long as I live.” For both yesterday and today, his words warn us of the danger and the travesty of bestowing upon a state apparatus and its symbols the love best reserved for our fellow human beings, the reverence best reserved for all things sacred.

While the British once paraded their flag with overblown pomp and ceremony as a symbol of their imperial power, now their erstwhile colonial subjects, rather than turning away from such vainglorious displays of worldly power, seek to reproduce them with a vengeance.

The Indian Supreme Court has just ruled that the national flag must be displayed in all movie theaters, and the national anthem played to a standing audience before film screenings. While in my childhood innocence I sprang to my feet and sang with all my heart, now it chills me to see that ritual made mandatory by the highest court in the land.

I opened with a reminder that private colleges—and indeed, private individuals—are not required to fly the national flag. In closing, permit me another reminder: the last time I checked, the United States was a free country, whose constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech included the freedom to question such symbols of military might. To the extent that the flag stands for freedom for us all, long may it wave! But to the extent that it stands for Might over Right, I must say, like Rabindranath Tagore, that it does not stand for me.

Oh, and another song: U.S. Blues.

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391. buying up the whole store

In Family, Food, Immigration, India, parenting, United States on October 23, 2016 at 6:26 pm
Birthday haul from the Indian store

Birthday haul from the Indian store

Dad was never one to cocoon himself in the comfort of “his own people,” however one might define one’s own. In his teens he left his small hometown on the Konkan coast of India for the big city of Bombay, where he apprenticed himself to an accomplished watercolorist for a year, then took a diploma in architecture from the Sir J. J. School of Art. Soon afterwards he boarded a steamship for London, where he was to stay for 5 years, studying, working, and befriending and sharing digs with Indians and Britishers alike. He met and married an Englishwoman (soon to become my mother), withstanding and wearing down the opposition from his bewildered family. Back in India, at I.I.T. Kharagpur, my parents’ friends included Indians, some mixed couples like themselves, and a few visiting foreigners. Later, in Athens, their friends included many Greeks and a cosmopolitan crowd including Australians, Austrians, Americans, Britishers, Germans, Indians, and Pakistanis. And when Mum and Dad moved to the United States, at a time when there were still very few Indians in the country, their closest friends here in New England were both American and Indian.

But despite his diverse circle of friends and acquaintances, in the last few years of his life Dad admitted, almost guiltily, that he pined for Indian faces. He looked forward eagerly to the local Indian association’s annual Diwali event, when they laid on a catered Indian feast and everyone took out their gold ornaments and dressed up in the silks that lay folded in boxes all year. Dad would put on his best Indian woolen jacket and Irish tweed hat and pace the front hall for hours in advance, while I fussed anxiously over the draping of my sari. Funnily enough, though, once he was surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a lively, multigenerational, multilingual Indian crowd, he wasn’t much interested in interacting with anyone; he was content to eat, take pleasure in the sights and sounds, bask in the warmth of the organized chaos, and just be.

We don’t live in an area with a high concentration of Indian Americans, so the nearest Indian grocery store is in Springfield, about twenty miles away, and we usually managed to get there only a couple of times a year, when Dad had an eye doctor’s appointment. Last year we paid them a special visit on his birthday and came away with a highly satisfying haul that would last us until the next time. Just looking at all the choices made us ravenously hungry, so we always bought a fresh samosa each and ate it in the car on the way home, with Dad pronouncing it “Delicious.”

Our last visit to the Indian store, back in late May or June, had been delayed due to Dad’s second hospitalization of the year. He was now having to be on supplemental oxygen day and night, trundling a small oxygen tank in front of him in a little three-wheeled walker wherever he went.  On this visit, he put the oxygen tank in a shopping cart and pushed that around the store instead. We oohed and aahed at everything we saw: packets of savory snacks of every description (“munchies”, Dad called them); tins of pure ghee; frozen chapatis from Malaysia that tasted almost as good as home-made; heaps of fresh curry leaves, dhaniya-patta (cilantro), and green chillies; sweets of all kinds by the pound, driven up from New York; several varieties of  mangoes, sold by the box; blocks of jaggery made in Kolhapur, right near Dad’s hometown of Ratnagiri; cans of mango pulp made in Ratnagiri itself; and, of course, a myriad varieties of rice, tea, and spices.

As the clerk rang up our order and we began to maneuver our cart out to the car, Dad said wistfully, “one feels like buying up the whole store.”

The next month, the day after his 92nd birthday, we had to call an ambulance for what turned out to be Dad’s final hospitalization. Most of the Kohlapuri jaggery and the pure ghee still sits here at home, looking as lonely and bereft as we feel. Diwali approaches again, but this year it will be a quiet one. We will simply be content to attend the function and to be surrounded by Indians for a while.

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389. Exposing Whose Perversity?

In 1960s, 2010s, Britain, clothing, India, Inter/Transnational, Politics, Stories, women & gender on August 29, 2016 at 12:37 am

3d57c1d7d0a94e46a4d6a300c1dbaf4dYoung people are bound to set and follow fashions as they shape and explore an identity that distinguishes them from their elders. Back in the mid-Sixties when I was at boarding school in India, the Thai boys, who were always ahead of us in India when it came to fashion, arrived for the new school year sporting bell-bottomed trousers, or flares. But bell-bottoms weren’t regulation, and their flares were duly measured to determine whether they were in excess of some official width (that I suspect was invented on the spot). Our Thai guys’ wings were clipped as they were returned to the population. But though their style was cramped and trousers narrowed, they were always and forever our fearless fashion vanguard.

Ironic, isn’t it, that less than a decade earlier the cool guys had been sporting drainpipes. No doubt their trouser legs were also measured and found wanting—too narrow by half. The truth is, clothing is a marker of identity, and therefore must be controlled by those who are in the business of social control. And as long as the authorities seek that control, there will be acts of rebellion to wrest it away from them, whether out in the open or undercover.

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As teenage girls in late-Sixties England, our mild act of suburban rebellion was to surreptitiously fold over the waistbands of our sensible school-uniform skirts as we left home in the morning, instantly shortening them by a couple of inches and giving us that critical edge that our mothers just couldn’t understand. Of course, the authorities had to intervene; but the way they chose to do so backfired hilariously.

We got to school one day to find the prefects awaiting us officiously, armed with tape measures and unable to control their smirks. Apparently acting under orders from the very top, they ordered us girls to kneel in turn, while they measured the length of our skirts from the ground up. For those of us under 5’ 2’, that distance could not exceed six inches, while I think the taller girls were held to seven.

They reckoned without the press: the spectacle was a bonanza for them. The next day, photos of school-uniformed girls on their knees and tape-measure-wielding male prefects (curiously, they were all male that day) bending over them gleefully made several national papers as well as the local ones. How I wish I still had one of those cuttings!

In our case, the prefects were senior boys.

  (In our case, the prefects caught in the act were Senior boys.)

But while purporting to safeguard female modesty, the school authorities only exposed their own perversity with those lascivious images. Their ridiculous efforts to nip our wayward tendencies in the bud only redoubled our rebelliousness, while revealing that the indecency lay, not in our innocent hearts, but in their male gaze.

photo: Vantage

photo: Vantage

A similar fiasco is unfolding in France today with the ill-conceived burkini ban. While purportedly upholding France’s hallowed tradition of secularism, armed police were snapped standing over a woman on a Nice beach in the act of making her strip off her clothing. Far from challenging the control of religious extremists and modeling French social permissiveness, they only exposed their own need for social control. And as we schoolgirls did back in the Sixties, women are resisting. It’s a sales bonanza for burkinis and a warning to any authorities who seek to regulate what people choose to wear: banning will backfire on you.

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