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Review of Selling Empire: India in the Making of Britain and America, 1600-1830. By Jonathan Eacott. (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, 2016. xiii, 455 pp. Cloth, ISBN 978-1-4696-2230-9.)

Most narratives of the place of India in the making of America have revolved around a few well-worn themes, commencing with Columbus’ landing in America and his egregious error in supposing that he had arrived in India.  The first truly great milestone in the received narrative touches upon the deep-seated interest in Indian philosophy shared by Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson:  there is now a substantial interest in how India seeped into the thought and writings of the American Transcendentalists, and I myself wrote a Master’s thesis, which remains unpublished, on Emerson and Indian philosophy (Johns Hopkins University, 1982).  Those who are familiar with Thoreau, for instance, may recall the famous indeed inimitable lines in Walden about how the waters of Walden Pond seemed to merge with the waters of the Ganga:

In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta since whose composition years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. 

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Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts, 1 January 1908; photographer:  unknown.  Source:  Wikipedia, in the public domain.

Thoreau would also dedicate the Tuesday chapter of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers largely to a discussion of a few Indian texts from he quoted copiously.  But in all this, he had been, in some respects, anticipated by his mentor (of sorts), Ralph Waldo Emerson—whose first engagement with the ‘idea of India’ may be seen in a long poem called Indian Superstition (1821), which the young student wrote when he was but seventeen years old, and who in his poem Brahma (1856, published in 1857) showed just how far Emerson had traveled in his understanding of Indian philosophy in the intervening 35 years.  But, to return to the main subject, after some tidbits here and there, whereby Hindu mysticism, yoga, and the interest in Sanskrit among some scholars are brought into the picture, and the origins of Indian immigration into the US around 1890 are identified, the narrative of India’s place in the making of the United States generally moves to the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Gandhi nearly became a household word in the United States after the embrace of his ideas of nonviolent resistance by Martin Luther King, Jr. and other stalwarts of the Civil Rights Movement.

The terrain covered by Jonathan Eacott in his meticulously detailed study, Selling Empire, enhances enormously our understanding of how India was configured in the American imagination and economy alike, though his ambition is yet greater as he seeks to place Indian within the global British imperial system.  The backdrop to his book is furnished by a more enhanced conception of the Atlantic world and a newfound interest in Indian Ocean studies; but there is also the stimulus of what these days are called “interconnected histories”.  Scholars of Britain’s possessions in America have seldom been concerned with the second British empire of which India, in the clichéd phrase, was the crown jewel; and, likewise, studies of British India have generally been written with indifference to what was transpiring in Britain’s empire in North America.  Curiously, the two figures who have on occasion surfaced in attempts to write an integrated narrative are altogether missing from Eacott’s study:  Elihu Yale, who amassed a fortune as the Governor of Madras (1684-92) before he was dismissed on charges of venality and went on to become the benefactor of a college that would eventually take his name, and Lord Cornwallis, who, if one had to put it cynically, seems to have been rewarded for his surrender to George Washington at Yorktown (1781) with the Governor-Generalship of India (1786-93).

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Painted and dyed cotton from India, 1625-1685, not for the European market.  Collection:  Victoria & Albert Museum, London.  Source:  http://demodecouture.com/cotton/

Eacott shifts the focus to the 17th and 18th centuries and his history might be described as revolving around two axes.  The question at the outset for traders, mercantilists, and financiers in Britain was:  Could America be a new India?  In what manner could one conceive of a triangular trade between India, Britain, and the American colonies in North America?  Eacott lavishes much attention on the trade in calicoes, and not only because of their immense popularity.  1750-75 banyan, painted & dyed, India (fabric). Designed for European market.

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Indian cotton fabric (banyan), painted & dyed, designed for European market, 1750-1775.  Collection:  Victoria & Albert Museum, London.  Source:  http://demodecouture.com/cotton/

There was much expectation in Britain that eventually consumers in the Americas would support the East India Company and thus support the British empire and the metropole (London) through which everything was funneled.  However, Eacott by no means confines himself to this terrain of cotton, chintzes, calicoes, silk, and woolens:  tea and spices were much in demand both in Britain and North America, but, quite unexpectedly, so were umbrellas and the Indian hookah.  Perhaps a scholar with a greater sense of play, and not so rigidly bound to the idea of what constitutes scholarly work, a scholarly ‘monograph’, and the notion of ‘historical rigor’, may have done wonders with tea and the hookah.  There are precedents, if I may put it this way, both to Starbuck’s marketing of “chai” and the proliferation of hookah bars and restaurants in recent years in American cities.

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The English writer, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), at tea:  a print by by R. Redgrave and H. L. Shenton. Source:  http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/14/398833059/tea-tuesdays-the-evolution-of-tea-sets-from-ancient-legend-to-modern-biometrics

It is, however, Eacott’s discussion of the anxieties generated by ideas of the despotic and effeminate Orient that forms the most arresting part of his book.  Montesquieu is commonly seen as the originary point of European notions of ‘Oriental Despotism’, but the satirical play, Eastward Ho (1605), gave considerable expression to the idea of Asia, “with its great wealth,” as a “place of emasculating luxury” (p. 23).  India’s manufactures, an essay in the American Magazine and Historical Chronicle in 1744 proclaimed, displayed a “gaudy pride” and needed the sobering restraint of Protestant Britain (p. 165). The sensuous, profligate, and colorful Orient is never too far away from the idea of excess.  On both sides of the Atlantic, Eacott notes, reports of Company servants strutting around on horseback and accumulating fortunes “by every method of rapacity” circulated widely (p. 305).

In his unusual attentiveness, thus, to questions both of political economy and of the politics of representation, Eacott opens for historians new possibilities of linking Britain’s first empire to the British Raj.

 

[A shorter version of this review was first published in the Journal of American History (June 2017), 173-74; doi: 10.1093/jahist/jax024]

 

 

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The Fact of Being Black:  History, Culture, Politics II

’Twas down in Mississippi not so long ago
When a young boy from Chicago town stepped through a Southern door
This boy’s dreadful tragedy I can still remember well
The color of his skin was black and his name was Emmett Till
               -Bob Dylan, “The Death of Emmett Till” (from the Bootleg Series, Vol 9 [1962-64]

 

It was the summer of 1955, in Mississippi. The temperatures can rise to the high 90s, but this state had been burning for another reason.  The previous year, three young civil rights activists, who had been championing racial integration and attempting to register black voters, had disappeared.  Their bodies would be recovered from an earthen dam more than six weeks later.  The head of one of the Ku Klux Klan chapters in the state of Mississippi, who doubled as a preacher, was acquitted by an all-white jury that declared itself unable to convict ‘a man of God’.  Two of the three men were white, and the good old folks of Mississippi doubtless thought of them as race traitors; as for the one black men among them, James Chaney, the only good “Nigger” was a dead one—few white men doubted that.

Fourteen-year old Emmett Till, visiting his cousins in Money, Mississippi from Chicago in the summer of 1955 would have been unaware of much of this.  On August 25th, he reportedly wolf-whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, a local beauty queen who ran a little provisions store.  Three days later, at 2 AM, Bryant’s husband and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett Till from his uncle’s home.  They bludgeoned young Emmett’s body until his face was unrecognizable and then shot him dead; his mutilated body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River, from where it was recovered three days later.

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The Mutilated Body of Emmett Till, with his mother, Mamie Till. Photograph by David Jackson. Copyright: Time Magazine.

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Emmett Till in 1955.

Once again, an all-white and all-male jury acted to preserve the interests of the white race.  Bryant and Milam were acquitted of the charge of murder; the grant jury that convened to discuss kidnapping charges against the two men refused to indict them.  In the town of Sumner, where the trial was held, visitors were greeted with the slogan, “A good place to raise a boy.”

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Mamie Till at the Funeral of Her son, Emmett Till.  Copyright:  New York Times.

Months after the trial, Bryant and Milam confessed to the killing; their story appeared in the January 1956 issue of Look. But they could not be tried again, having been acquitted of that charge.  For their story, they received the tidy if not princely sum of $4000:  murder pays, literally.  Till might well have been forgotten, destined to become another statistic in the log book of white atrocities against black people, but for the fact that his mother, Mamie Till, took the bold step of having her son’s body displayed in an open coffin on September 3. Mourners recoiled at seeing Emmett’s horribly mutilated body; indeed, his body was in such an advanced stage of decomposition that he could only be identified by his initials on a ring on one of his fingers. Photographs of Emmett’s body were reproduced widely and appeared in hundreds of publications.  Mrs. Till, who died in 2003 at the age of 81, did not live long enough to see her son receive justice, but his killing is nevertheless said to have spurred on the civil rights movement.  Most histories of the Civil Rights Movement commence with Rosa Parks’s refusal to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, but Ms. Parks herself would go on record to say, “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back.”  The most influential documentary ever filmed on the Civil Rights Movement, the epic Eyes on the Prize, would open with the story of Emmett Till.

The casket in which Emmett’s body was placed is now displayed in the Smithsonian’s new museum of African American history.  There have been many other developments in the story of Emmett Till:  early this year, Carolyn Bryant, whose whiteness and lies—an ugly pairing that has destroyed many lives, indeed been the undoing of entire cultures—sent Emmett to his ghastly death, confessed that Emmett had made no physical or verbal advances on her.  “That part’s not true”, she told the author of a new book on the Emmett Till case.  But even more recently, Emmett Till is back in the public consciousness, this time with a controversial painting by Dana Schutz entitled “Open Casket” that was exhibited at the Whitney Biennial last month.  Schutz has based her painting on photographs of Till’s body that were published in Jet, the Chicago Defender, and a number of other magazines at that time.  It is not her painting which is controversial as such; rather, according to a number of African American artists, the subject is not Schutz’s to claim.  She is white.

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Diana Schutz, “Open Casket”, exhibited at the Whitney Biennial, March 2017.

The artist Parker Bright positioned himself, over successive days, in front of the painting, sometimes with friends and fellow artists, to block the view.  The words, “Black Death Spectacle”, were splashed across the back of the T-shirt that he was sporting.  A black British artist, in a letter written to the two Asian American curators of the show, Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew, called for the destruction of the painting, arguing that the rights to freedom of speech and expression are “not natural rights” and that Diana Schutz, whose works command considerable sums of money in the art market, stands to profit from Emmett Till’s death.  Schutz has declared that she never intended to sell the painting; in her defense, she admits that she cannot know what it is like to be “black in America but I do know what it is like to be a mother.  Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son.  The thought of anything happening to your child is beyond comprehension.  Their pain is your pain.  My engagement with this image was through empathy with his mother.”

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Protest before Diana Schutz’s painting, “Open Casket”. Photograph: New York Times.

Schutz’s defense does not appear to be implausible, and we should in any case be prepared to believe her both when she says that she never intended to sell her painting and that, as a mother, she can empathize with Emmett Till’s mother.  History is, of course, a profligate narrative of people profiting from the suffering of others, and many others are guilty of much more onerous acts of commission; it isn’t absolutely clear, as well, why, had she intended to sell her painting, Schutz would have been guilty of anything more than bad taste and poor ethical judgment. We may ask why Schutz must be subjected to some imaginary litmus test. It is perhaps also a tad bit unfortunate she chose to summon the “holy” institution of motherhood in her defense: if one intends to elicit some support, the figure of the mother can always be called forth.  But, beyond all this, lie some questions that in their elemental simplicity take us to the heart of the debates surrounding the politics of representation.  Who speaks for whom? With what right? With what notion of entitlement? With what responsibilities? Does one have to earn one’s stripes in order to speak for another—provided that is what Schutz was seeking to do—and just exactly how does one earn these stripes?  Over the span of centuries, many of those whom we accept as voices of conscience have urged upon us the notion that if there is injustice anywhere in the world, it is always a threat to justice; if someone else is without freedom, I cannot be entirely free myself.  Freedom is indivisible—at least some part of us must hold on to this idea.  If there are others who are suffering, wherein is my ‘happiness’? If at all I feel this way, do I not partake of that suffering?

In every great social and anti-colonial movement of the last several decades, one common principle has persisted among various differences.  In the women’s movement, the most astute feminists welcomed the participation of men, but on the condition that women would furnish the lead.  The major anti-colonial movements of the 20th century did not disavow the support of sympathetic white liberals; but there was always the awareness that white men, even the best intentioned, often have a tendency to dominate if not hijack a movement.  Mohandas Gandhi never lacked English friends and sympathizers, in India and England alike; but they accepted the idea that they would support the freedom struggle from the side.  This seems to be an unimpeachable idea of social justice, one calculated to lead to a heightened appreciation of the dignity of the struggle itself; and these considerations, too, are not so far apart from the questions that have been raised by the black protest against Diana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till’s “open casket”.  Nevertheless, there is also something profoundly disturbing about the supposition that, as a white artist, the suffering of Emmett Till is not  hers to claim—at least not for purposes of representation.  If there are no “natural laws” that confer an automatic right to freedoms of speech and creative expression, surely there are no “natural rights” which would lead us to believe that blacks know blacks best, or that only women may speak for women?  It would be trivializing the issue if we took the examples of Ben Carson or Clarence Thomas to suggest the difficulties in supposing that racial solidarity trumps every other bond of fellow feeling.  But how long must we persist in the notion, which one would imagine has had its day (though of course one knows otherwise), that politics derives in the first instance from identity? Is the protest over Schutz’s painting anything really much more than this rather procrustean idea?

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Annals of the President-elect Trump Regime V

(Being, a gentle reminder to the reader, a cornucopia of assertions, satire, commentary, interpretation, Trump-comedy, and much else, but always grounded in at least some facts.)

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The Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company, Ohio, founded and shuttered in 1977 on September 19, a remembered in the area as “Black Monday”. Source: http://postindustrialrustbelt.blogspot.com/2014/10/rust-belt.html

Few phrases have done the round as much in this election cycle in the United States as the “Rust Belt”. On Washington’s Beltway, jubilant Republicans and morose Democrats will doubtless be talking about the Rust Belt for a long time, indeed until such time as rust begins to acquire around the idea of the Rust Belt and, like all others phrases that have done their time, this one too becomes a hazy memory. Contrary to received opinion, the phrase “Rust Belt” is not of recent vintage, dating, as is commonly imagined, to around 20-30 years ago, a period which witnessed both NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the emergence of China as a global economic powerhouse.  This is when jobs began leaving the United States, corporations started taking recourse to outsourcing, and the industrial heartland in the Midwest—and especially the area around Pittsburgh and other steel-producing towns—went into decline.

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The Rust Belt of the United States. Source: https://unitedstateshistorylsa.wikispaces.com/Sunbelt+and+Rustbelt

The veracity of this claim is not my concern at this juncture.  However, what is interesting is that though the term “Rust Belt” began to acquire popularity around the late 1980s, similar uses of the term can be dated back much earlier.  The Oxford English Dictionary informs us that the phrase “Rust Belt” was used as early as 1869, when the San Francisco Bulletin stated that “a foreign demand for wheat and barley would set a good many farmers on their pins . . . The demand will not, of course, help those who rented lands within the rust belt.”  More tellingly, a good decade before NAFTA entered into force, well before, as Trump and common wisdom would have it, Mexico, China, India, and other countries began swallowing up well-paying jobs that had sustained decent American families, an Associated Press story, published on 30 November 1982, stated that “unemployment is extremely high in many areas of the so-called ‘Rust Belt’, the heavy industry areas of the Midwest and parts of the Northeast.”  For all the tens of thousands of economists—the anointed ‘queens’ of the social sciences—writing on this subject, the claim that unemployment in the Rust Belt surged following the enactment of NAFTA and the packaging of jobs to China remains largely unexamined.  The rust on the Rust Belt has a longer history than is commonly imagined.

There is a consensus among commentators or “pundits”—proud Indians will doubtless have taken note of this, pointing to it as one of myriad signs of how Indian words have now become normalized in English—that the Rust Belt states won Trump his Presidency.  It is Hillary Clinton’s neglect of these states, and her presumption that the working-class was in her pocket, that is supposed to have sunk her bid for the presidency.  Of course, as scholars in particular are wont to say, such a claim is “problematic”, since even many outside the Rust Belt voted for Trump.  A majority of white women, 53% to be precise, appear to have voted for Trump, notwithstanding the fact that well over a dozen white women stepped forward with allegations of being sexually abused and assaulted by him; similarly, though Trump reeks of racism, fewer black people voted for Hillary Clinton than did for Barack Obama.  One could easily multiply such facts, but there is nevertheless a widespread and credible view that the Rust Belt states proved critically important and perhaps decisive in Trump’s victory.

So much for the view from the Rust Belt.  India’s much derided (or vaunted, by some) ‘Cow Belt’ furnishes us another perspective on the US Elections in myriad ways about which I shall be only tantalizingly suggestive.  Both India and the US are what may be called ‘bovine’ countries:  the cow is venerated in India among the Hindus and devoured in the US; in the Midwest, especially, beef jerky is a delicacy.  But let me not venture forth, for fear of being targeted by the internet gau rakshaks, on the numerous delectable ways in which India and the US, joined at the hip as the world’s two largest democracies, are bovine-minded.  The Cow Belt, which some view as a derogatory term, refers to India’s Gangetic heartland from where Narendra Modi drew his strongest supporters in 2014.  It is sometimes called the ‘Saffron Belt’:  in either case, it is in this densely populated part of the country that Hindu nationalism has its widest appeal and where gangs of young men have organized themselves into vigilante groups that terrorize Muslims and “pseudo-secularists” (as they are described by the advocates of Hindutva) who do not pay obeisance to the cow.

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Four young Dalit men stripped and beaten with belts, allegedly for transporting beef–not a crime under any Indian law, but a heinous offense to the Motherland and to Gau Mata from the standpoint of self-appointed Guardians of the Cow. The incident took place in July 2016 and was video-taped. Source: India Today.

It is here that a person might get beaten to pulp on the mere suspicion of eating beef or transporting dead cows to the slaughter-house.  In both countries, the narrative takes on the same hue, registering the disaffection of the ‘majority’ in the ‘heartland’ who are bereft of jobs and hobbled by some form of political correctness.  White racism in the United States, of course by no means confined to the ‘Rust Belt’, meets its match in Hindu chauvinism in the ‘Cow Belt’.

But there is seemingly another obvious reference when we speak of the perspective from the ‘Cow Belt’ on the US Elections.  Many commentators have pointed to the ‘strong man’ who seems to be trending worldwide today and have suggested, as did Pankaj Mishra in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, that Narendra Modi, with his boasts about his 56-inch chest, may have set the example.  Trump’s all but explicit remarks about the shriveled penis of one of his opponents in the Republican primary might seem to bolster such a view.  But it is doubtful that Trump emulates anyone except himself:  he has an equally long history both of boasts and of parading his own masculinity. Moreover, was there ever a time in the politics of the last two to three decades when the ‘strong man’ did not reign?  Have we forgotten Manuel Noriega? Or Saddam Hussein? Commentators would have been more on the mark if they had been sensitive to the shifts in the register of masculinity among ‘strong men’, shifts which portend what I would call an incredulous masculinity.  What could be more fantastic, for example, then the fact that Rodrigo Duterte, now President of the Philippines, as a candidate promised that if he were elected President he would gun down drug users and traffickers and, as President, would immediately exercise his privileges in granting himself immunity from charges of murder!  Whatever one may say of Modi, he lacks this kind of devilish humor and ingenuity.

There is also the matter, finally, of the Chastity Belt. chastitybelt American feminists and women’s organizations have rightfully expressed alarm at the looming erosion of women’s rights, and in particular women’s reproductive freedoms, under a Trump Presidency.  The sexual profligacy of Donald Trump, who even hinted that he would have made a stab at his daughter if she were not his daughter, should at once remove the slightest suspicion that anyone might have that the President-elect would like women to be decorous.  He may like, one suspects, women to be the playthings of men, but he is no advocate of the view that women should be chaste.  The same cannot be said of his Republican allies in Congress, whose views on abortion I discussed in a previous blog and who, it would not be too much to say, certainly think that some women—black women, Latinas, poor women, working-class women, Muslim women—should regulate their sexuality.  The metaphor of the ‘chastity belt’, nowadays a sex toy but in its heyday an instrument for ensuring that women did not step out of bounds and remained available to their husbands, was brought home to me when I stumbled upon this gem from Sarah Palin, another wondrous specimen of American political comedy:

With so many belts to go around, I wonder if we might not all want to make a lunge for the lungi:

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In 1974, the young but already acclaimed German director, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, released a remarkable new film, Fear Eats the Soul [Angst essen Seele auf; also known as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul], which was as daring as it was prescient in its treatment of the reception of foreigners and particularly Muslims in Germany.  The film features an unusual relationship that develops between Ali, a Moroccan guest worker in his late 30s, and a 60-year old white German widow from a working-class community by the name of Emmi.  A chance meeting between the two blossoms into love, but, as lovers have often found out for themselves, others won’t let them live in peace.  A younger man with a much older woman is a phenomenon that continues to be rare in most societies; some people are even likely to find such a relationship abominable.  However, what most offends Emmi’s daughter, son-in-law, friends, and co-workers is that she shares her bed with a Moroccan immigrant.  The canard that foreign workers—many, though by no means all, of them Muslims—are “dirty” is repeated in Elli’s former circle of friends and workers; and, as societies are wont to do with women who show any degree of sexual independence, Elli is soon condemned as a “whore”.

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Rainer Werner Fassbinder

In Germany, given the enormous burden of its history, the question of xenophobia is of paramount importance.  Germans have striven over the years to contend with their past, and it is certainly unnecessary to recount their myriad efforts to acknowledge, and atone for, what transpired under National Socialism and the country’s transformation into a totalitarian state.  In recent years, even as most European countries have been shockingly indifferent to the fate of refugees who have attempted to made their way into Europe from Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, Germany has been generous in opening its arms to this—as it sometimes represented—flotsam and jetsam of a surging humanity.  In comparison with every other country, in and out of Europe, Germany has certainly been salutary in its reception of refugees.  Nevertheless, the anti-immigrant sentiment that is now openly voiced in most countries of Europe, and that has taken the form of virulent forms of racism and discrimination, is now being heard in Germany as well.  Far-right parties had been making inroads in Germany over the last twenty years, but their sentiments have thus far not been shared, at least not in public, by the majority of Germans.  However, yesterday morning’s newspapers carried a report that, perhaps in submission to growing public animosity towards Muslims, whose otherness is symbolized to many people most distinctly by the veiling practiced by many Muslim women, Chancellor Angela Merkel had indicated that the use of the hijab in Germany will henceforth be severely curtailed.

Quite apropos, then, of all this, it is perhaps fitting that last evening I should have had occasion to see Fassbinder’s comparatively little-known film, Katzelmacher, released as part of a set of five DVDs of his early films in Criterion’s Eclipse series.  Fassbinder shot this film, in black & white, over a period of nine days in August 1969 and was able to release it just two months later.  The word, “Katzelmacher”, is said to be Bavarian slang for “foreigner”, though the word has also been rendered as “trouble-maker”; and Fassbinder himself is said to have elaborated upon it thus: “a foreigner, especially someone from the South, who is supposed to enjoy great sexual potency.”  The film centers on a group of young friends in one of Munich’s neighborhoods who appear to have largely aimless lives:  their conversation centers on financial woes and gossip about who is sleeping with whom.  There isn’t much camera movement:  the film moves between a few different locations, among them a street where they gather for conversation, a run-down restaurant, and a few “domestic” apartment interiors. In keeping with this bare-bones cinematic minimalism, necessitated to some degree by the small budget with which Fassbinder was working, is the use of recurring tracking shots of pairs of the principal characters strolling down a street where they are the only pedestrians. The men are abusive to their female sexual partners, slapping and hitting them at will as it seems, and it would be far too much to speak of men having respect for women; indeed, scarcely anyone seems to have any respect for anyone else, and the women bitch about each other.  There is no laughter, no joy, no humor.  One woman, Rosy, engages in a form of prostitution, charging even her boyfriend for sexual favors.

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Katzelmacher: Aimless Lives of the Young.

What disrupts this pattern of living is the sudden appearance of Jorgos (played by Fassbinder himself), a Greek guest-worker who takes up residence in the apartment of Elisabeth, which she shares, though not with any great pleasure, with her live-in boyfriend, Peter.  By the late 1960s, when Katzelmacher was released, there were over two million foreign guest-workers in West Germany, from countries such as Turkey, Greece, Italy, and Morocco.  As in the case of Japan, the wartime machinery in West Germany was in the aftermath of the war diverted to industrial production, and by the late 1950s the economic resurgence of West Germany was such as to generate a huge demand for foreign workers. Jorgos is first taken for an Italian; he is then discovered to be “a Greek from Greece”.  Soon, the rumor is circulating that Elisabeth is sleeping with Jorgos; though the rumor is without any foundation, the implication in part is that Jorgos is without any morals.  Any such insinuation, as Fassbinder suggests, would be comical if it were not (as it eventually turns out) dangerous, considering that none of the other characters can even remotely be viewed as a paragon of the virtuous and morally upright human being.  Peter, who does not take kindly to being reminded by Elizabeth of his sheer worthlessness as a man capable of any degree of financial autonomy, loses no time in suggesting to this motley group of rather pitiful specimens of bourgeois middle-class life that the Greek is muscular, of better built, and larger than any of them—more particularly, in the region of the genitals.

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Beating Up on Imigrants: Jorgos is set upon by the young men of the neighborhood, in a scene from “Katzelmacher”.

Some might suppose that it is sexual envy that feeds the anger and resentment of this circle of young friends.  However, though anti-immigrant feeling may feed on predictable anxieties, such as the notion, now being widely trumpeted in Trump’s America, that immigrants “steal” jobs, xenophobia needs no such rationale and can live off a great many others rumors and anxieties.  For the young women and men in Katzelmacher, vindictiveness towards immigrants is something like a sport; for no apparent reason, Jorgos is constantly taunted as a “communist”.  Greece, in fact, was under the rule of a military junta from 1967-1974, and thousands of communists were hounded, killed, and exiled to remote Greek islands.  The only person who stands by Jorgos is Marie, whose boyfriend, Erich, is a particularly vicious and violent hoodlum of sorts; but her affection for Jorgos, far from saving him, makes him a target of attack by Erich, Peter, and others.  Jorgos is beaten up badly; he is tempted into returning to Greece.

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Jorgos and Marie stroll down a street: from “Katzelmacher”, directed by Fassbinder.

The film ends with Marie and her friend Gunda strolling down a street, hands held together, and exchanging these words:

Marie:  In the summer, he’s taking me to Greece.

Gunda:  And his wife?

Marie:  It doesn’t matter. In Greece everything’s different.

The anti-immigrant narrative now sweeping through the US and much of Europe has nowhere to hide and nothing to say for itself:  it is pathetic, farcical, and tragic as much for immigrants and refugees as it is for wealthy host societies who have apparently still not learned to live with difference and understand what constitutes hospitality and ecumenism.  The bold minimalism of Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher brings us closer to the emptiness that lies at the heart of anti-immigrant sentiments.

 

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 The gifted Indian writer Raja Rao, in introducing Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay’s memoirs, Inner Recesses Outer Spaces (1986), did Kamaladevi (3 April 1903-29 October 1988) the unusual honor of describing her as “perhaps the most august woman on the Indian scene today.  Firmly Indian and therefore universal, highly sophisticated both in sensibility and intelligence, she walks with everyone, in city and country with utter simplicity.”

Portrait of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

Portrait of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

We shall not linger on what exactly Raja Rao may have intended to convey when he suggested that she was firmly Indian and “therefore” universal, for surely not everything Indian is universal, nor does India, whatever the conceit of those who always applaud it as the “greatest” or oldest civilization, have a monopoly on the “universal”.  The greater puzzle is why Kamaladevi, who left behind the impress of her intelligence, insights, and remarkable energy on everything that she touched, and whose contributions to so many diverse fields of human activity are such as to stagger the imagination, is so little remembered today in India and is virtually unknown outside the country.

Born into a Saraswat Brahmin family in Mangalore, Kamaladevi was initiated into politics at an early age.  Her memoirs are scanty on early dates and details:  she lost her father, who had not written a will, when she was but seven years old, and the family wealth and properties all went to a stepbrother with whom there was little contact.   At a stroke, Kamaladevi and her mother were left disinherited.  This dim awareness of the precariousness of women’s lives would, in time, lead to the recognition that, as she wrote in her memoirs, “women had no rights”.  At the home of her maternal uncle, Kamaladevi received another kind of political education:  he was a notable social reformer and visitors to the home included eminent lawyers, political luminaries, and public figures, among them Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Srinivas Sastri, Pandita Ramabai, and Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru.  Throughout, however, Kamaladevi’s mother and grandmother left the deepest impression on her.  Both women were educated, ecumenical in their interests, and enterprising, and it is from them that Kamaladevi inherited her own love of books.

Kamaladevi

Like many educated upper-caste Hindu women of her generation, Kamaladevi was brought into the political life of the nation in the 1920s and 1930s by the ascendancy of Gandhi and his insistence on adhering to a nonviolent struggle.  Kamaladevi’s relationship to Gandhi, whom she acknowledged as a titan without peers, is a vast and complex subject.  By 1923, she had fallen under his spell and she enrolled herself in the nationalist struggle as a member of the Congress party.  Three years later, she had the unique distinction of being the first woman in India to run for political office.  Kamaladevi competed for a seat in the Madras Legislative Assembly and lost by a mere 55 votes.  Along with the rest of the nation, she was completely captivated by the Salt Satyagraha, but she differed with Gandhi’s decision to exclude women among the initial group of marchers.  Though Kamaladevi was charged with violation of the salt laws and sentenced to a prison term, the most dramatic moment that brought her to the nation’s attention occurred when, in a scuffle over the Congress flag, she clung to it tenaciously.

Kamaladevi Leading a Flag Procession, 1930.

Kamaladevi Leading a Flag Procession, 1930.

While Kamaladevi’s admiration for Gandhi never wavered, and the ideals to which he aspired became her own, she occasionally felt stifled by the authoritarian strands within his personality and felt restless at the slow pace of change.  She had been slowly drifting towards the socialist wing of the Congress party and in 1936 she took over leadership of the Congress Socialist Party.  Meanwhile, Kamaladevi had been establishing extraordinary networks of political solidarity within and outside India.  In 1926 she met the Irish-Indian suffragette Margaret Cousins, who founded the All India Women’s Conference and remained its President until Kamaladevi assumed that role in 1936.  Kamaladevi’s first writings on the rights of women in India date to 1929; one of her last books, Indian Women’s Battle for Freedom, was published in 1982.  Over a period of some five decades, Kamaladevi articulated in dozens of writings and speeches a distinct position, one that was mindful of the liabilities faced by Indian women that were both peculiar to them and common to women everywhere.  While she became an advocate of positions that are now commonplace to women’s movements all over the world, such as equal pay for equal work, she also resisted the idea that the experience of the West was to furnish the template for women’s movements in India.

Kamaladevi was, however, also a key figure in the international socialist feminist movement.  From the late 1920s to the 1940s and beyond, Kamaladevi became not only an emissary and spokesperson for Indian women and political independence, but for larger transnational causes, such as the emancipation of colored people around the world from colonial rule and political and economic equity between nations.  She attended the “International Alliance of Women in Berlin” in 1929, only to become aware of how race and national boundaries might become obstacles to the solidarity of women:  it was a “misnomer” to call it “International”, she says, as the only non-Western representatives were from Egypt and India.  At the International Session of the League Against Imperialism in Frankfurt, Kamaladevi could discuss problems encountered in common by colonized peoples in West Africa, North Africa, Indochina, the American south, and elsewhere.  Though this has never been recognized as such, Kamaladevi facilitated India’s emergence as the leader of the non-aligned movement and the crafting of the Bandung Declaration of 1956 which was nothing other than a clarion call for a fundamental reordering of the world order.

Kamaladevi was a prolific writer, and her twenty odd books furnish unimpeachable evidence of the wide array of her intellectual and political interests, and a global outlook which shunned alike a narrow nationalism and a superficial cosmopolitanism.  She traveled to Nanjing and Chongqing and met with resistance leaders during the country’s occupation under Japanese rule:  from this resulted a small book, In war-torn China (1944).  Yet, given her spirit of inquiry, she also took it upon herself to visit Japan and came to the conclusion, in Japan:  Its Weakness and Strength (1944), that the Japanese, who had sought to be the vanguard of a pan-Asianism, had bloodied their hands with the most virulent strands of materialism and imperialism.  She is also among a handful of people in India in the 1930s-1950s who wrote widely on the US.  In Uncle Sam’s Empire (1944) and America:  The Land of Superlatives (1946), she reverses the gaze.  Reams and reams have been written of the saffron robe-clad monk, known to the world as Swami Vivekananda, visiting Chicago in 1993 and thereby bringing Hinduism to the New World; and yet we know little of the sari-clad Kamaladevi wandering around the United States, making her way into prisons, union meetings, political conventions, black neighborhoods, and American homes, and leaving behind the distinct impressions of an Indian feminist with strong nationalist and socialist inclinations of the possibilities and limitations of the experiment with democracy.

Kamaladevi was arguably the best traveled Indian woman of her generation, and built up a resume of foreign trips that enabled her to enhance remarkably international networks of political solidarity; yet, as her work in social, political, and cultural domains amply showed, she remained solidly grounded in the ethos of Indian life.  The lives of common people were of abiding interest to her. The city of Faridabad today has a population of around 1.5 million; but hardly anyone is aware of the fact that Kamaladevi played the critical role in giving birth to this industrial township, a flagship project that she undertook as the founding leader of the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU) to resettle nearly 50,000 Pathans from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in the wake of the post-partition migrations.

Kamaladevi with Nehru.

Kamaladevi with Nehru.

The Kamaladevi that most Indians are familiar with is a figure who, above all, revived Indian handicrafts, became the country’s most well-known expert on carpets, puppets, and its thousands of craft traditions, and nurtured the greater majority of the country’s national institutions charged with the promotion of dance, drama, art, theatre, music, and puppetry.  It must seem strange to those acquainted with the first half of her life that someone who was so intensely political should have eschewed every political office in independent India.

Breaking Ground for the Establishment of the India International Centre, Delhi.  Kamaladevi was part of the founding committee that charted the course for this influential landmark in the social and intellectual landscape of Delhi.

Breaking Ground for the Establishment of the India International Centre, Delhi. Kamaladevi was part of the founding committee that charted the course for this influential landmark in the social and intellectual landscape of Delhi.

Did she abandon “the political center” as she acquired prominence as an authority on India’s craft traditions and the country’s tribal populations?   Greatly disillusioned by the partition, Kamaladevi had come to recognize that India was not going to even remotely take the shape that she had envisioned at the dawn of freedom.  However, it may be a mistake to partition her life in this fashion.  Her life offers many cues about the intersection of politics and aesthetics and in her resolute insistence on autonomy and the integrity of every life we find the threads that enable us to fold the various Kamaladevis into one majestic figure.

[The Plural Universe of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, co-edited by Ellen DuBois and Vinay Lal, will be published by Zubaan Books, New Delhi, in 2016.]

(Originally published in the Indian Express, Sunday Magazine (The Eye), 25 October 2015, as “A Beautiful Mind:  Looking Back at the Life of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay”

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Jeremy Seabrook, an independent writer, journalist, and chronicler of the human condition who has long had an interest in South Asia, probing especially the lives of those who inhabit India’s slums and Muslim ghettos, turns his attention in his most recent book to the workers of Bangladesh’s garment industries who clothe the world but, like the weavers of Bengal in colonial India, barely have enough to cover their own nakedness. The book takes its title from Thomas Hood’s elegy on the women workers in Lancashire’s textile mills, “The Song of the Shirt” (1843):  working “in poverty, hunger, and dirt,” moving their fingers to the command of “Stich! Stich! Stich!”, they sowed at once, “with a double thread, A Shroud as well as a Shirt.”

 

If Bangladesh has emerged at all in the news in recent years, it is on account of the disasters that have befallen its garment industry, none as calamitous as the collapse of the Rana Plaza commercial building under whose debris over 1,100 people were left dead.  Seabrook’s book is a searing indictment of the callousness of factory owners and others in the global system of the circulation of capital who are complicit in creating miserable working conditions for those employed in Bangladesh’s largest and most profitable industrial venture.  Yet it is also an extraordinary tribute to the workers who pile into Dhaka and other centers of the garment industry from all corners of the country.  Their lives are sketched not so much in detail as in poignantly suggestive prose.  Do people flee to that “washed out concrete jungle” that is called Dhaka, which Seabrook unflinchingly describes as one of the world’s ugliest cities, to escape the narrowing of human possibilities that Marx sought to capture in his brutal condemnation of the “idiocy of the rural countryside”?  One might suppose that it is the aspiration to become something in life, or merely to earn a livelihood, that brings people to the city from the interior, but what would then make the story of Bangladesh so distinct?

 

Rana Plaza Building Collapse, Dhaka

Rana Plaza Building Collapse, Dhaka

The recent migrants coming into Dhaka “bring the sincerity and artlessness of rural life—qualities ripe for transformation into exploitable labour” (37); yet the city where they arrive with such hope becomes another prison, reduced as they are to 12-hour working days in window-less rooms and under the watchful eyes of cruel taskmasters.  But the specificity of their stories is to be derived from the particular conditions which push them to the city—the loss of ancestral land, the inability to feed too many mouths, the need for money to secure a dowry for a sister, and so on.  Perhaps more than anything else, Bangladesh is a land dense with rivers and scarred by cyclones.  The rivers are teeming with fish but the river is also “thieving” and “hungry”; when the Meghna overflows, its ravenous maw swallows up whole houses, agricultural land, and people (105-9).

 

Garment Factory in the Mohakhali area of Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 2010.  Credit:  Clean Clothes Campaign.

Garment Factory in the Mohakhali area of Dhaka, Bangladesh, March 2010. Credit: Clean Clothes Campaign.

In this short yet compelling book, Seabrook skillfully weaves together tales of peasants with stories of weavers, moving back and forth between the village and the city, water and land, lush green fields and the ramshackle appearance of South Asia’s urban patches, even the poetic and the idioms of history.  He is versed in historical sources but not burdened by them; and only someone with the sensibility of a poet can ruminate on the strange interplay of fire and water that has shaped the contours of the lives of his subjects.  Water, in the form of “tidal surges, cyclones and floods”, has “always been the most usual element that brings death to Bangladesh” (29); the villagers flee this menace to arrive as laborers in the city’s garment factories, often to be consumed by the fires that have time and again struck the garment industry’s ill-regulated factories and warehouses.  One might have thought that water fights fire, but in Bangladesh the two often collude—as if the poor did not have enough wretchedness in their lives.  There are other desultory facts, almost poetic bits, that take the breath away:  who would have thought that Murshidabad, once the world centre of silk weaving and now a haunted culture, perhaps once accounted for “5 percent” of the world’s total product (176-77)?

 

The Song of the Shirt, writes Seabrook, “is a reflection on the mutability of progress.”  The dominant narrative of human progress presupposes “a deterministic and linear process,” but Seabrook insistently reminds us that “experience in the clothing and fabric industry suggests certain areas of the world are liable to periods of industrialization, but equally to de-industrialization” (17).  The most ambitious aspect of Seabrook’s intellectual enterprise, and not surprisingly the one that is most fraught with hazards of interpretation, is his attempt to suggest the various ways in which Bengal and Lancashire offer a mirror image of each other.  The demise of the weaving industry in Bengal under colonial rule “coincided with the rise of the mechanized production of cotton goods” in the greater Manchester area; even as Dhaka became a ghost town, “Manchester became the centre of intense economic dynamism”.  Lancashire is now utterly denuded of its textile mills, and Manchester has lost population; but, in “a ghostly replay of traffic in the other direction” of “the machine-made clothing” that wiped out Bengal’s famed spinners and weavers (17), Dhaka with its 2500 garment factories has become nearly the epicentre of the world’s manufactured clothing.  Seabrook invests much in this comparison, constantly suggesting similarities between 19th century Britain and contemporary Bangladesh with respect to the lives of the workers, the nexus between the state and manufacturers, working conditions, and much else.

 

One might be moved, by Seabrook’s comparisons, to accept that widely quoted French expression, “the more things change, the more they remain the same”.  But this temptation must be resisted, if only because a sensitivity to the politics of knowledge should introduce some caution in comparisons between Europe’s past and the global South’s present.  Nevertheless, in Song of the Shirt, Seabrook has accomplished the enviable task of rendering naked the social processes which have helped to clothe the world and disguise some unpalatable truths about the treacherousness of what is usually celebrated as entrepreneurial capitalism.

 

[Review of Jeremy Seabrook, The Song of the SpiritCheap Clothes Across Continents and Centuries (New Delhi:  Navayana, 2014;  ISBN:  9788189059644; 288 pp.  Rs 495), first published as “The Textile Jungle”, The Indian Express (18 October 2014).

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In his recently concluded visit to the United States, where he addressed a jubilant crowd of around 19,000 people, Narendra Modi all but dedicated his government to the Non-resident Indians gathered to celebrate his triumph.  “You have given me a lot of love”, he told his admirers:  “This kind of love has never been given to any Indian leader, ever.  I’m very grateful to you.  And I will repay that loan by forming the India of your dreams.”  This was music to the ears of his devoted listeners, whose achievements Modi has promised to teach his countrymen and women to emulate:  “I want to duplicate your success.  What do we do to duplicate that success?”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Madison Square Garden, 28 September 2014.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Madison Square Garden, 28 September 2014.

 

The members of the Indian Civil Service who governed India after it became a Crown Colony were described as, and believed themselves to be, “heaven-born”.  Many Indian Americans similarly believe themselves to be not merely fortunate and hard-working but as the vanguard of what may be described as a post-industrial Vedic civilization.  To understand what it is that enables Indian Americans, and mainly the Hindus among them, to think of themselves both as immensely spiritually gifted, as the true inheritors of a Vedic civilization, and as the ideal representatives of the world’s most advanced material culture, certain aspects of the history of Indian Americans must be revisited.  Though they are today the most educated and affluent of any ethnic group in the United States, they have long bemoaned their fate as an ‘invisible minority’.  Five decades ago, the Punjabi American farmer Dilip Singh Saund served three terms (1957-63) in the House of Representatives.   Until very recently, however, Indian Americans have scarcely made any other dent in politics.  But it is other forms of invisibility that touch a raw nerve:  as the savvy and yet aggressive young professionals who form part of the comparatively new Hindu American Foundation often point out, Hinduism is barely understood in the US and is, from their standpoint, unjustly maligned as a bizarre religion of false gods, demi-gods, demons, and such strange figures as Hanuman and Kali.

 

Hindus everywhere are inclined to believe that their religion, characterized by the notion of Vasudhaiva kutumbakam (‘the earth is one family’), uniquely fosters tolerance, but Hindus in the United States see themselves as especially blessed and charged with the dual mission of rejuvenating India and helping America fulfill its destiny as the mecca of multicultural democracy.  The formal dedication of many Hindu temples in the US, such as the Rama Shrine of the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago, has taken place on July 4th, which marks the anniversary of American independence.  Hindus thus signify their acceptance of the idea that they share in the blessings of American “freedom”, while at the same time conveying to Americans that Hinduism permits a richer and more spiritual conception of freedom centered on the notion of self-realization.  The secular American formula, E Pluribus Unum, ‘From Many, One’, is countered by, and complemented with, the Vedic affirmation of idea that ‘Truth is One; Sages Name It Variously’ (‘Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti’; Rig Veda 1.164.46).

 

Now A Rock Star:  The New York Times was one among many newspapers that described the reception Narendra Modi received at Madison Square Garden as befitting a rock star

Now A Rock Star: The New York Times was one among many newspapers that described the reception Narendra Modi received at Madison Square Garden as befitting a rock star

Indian American Hindus are exceedingly astute in their understanding of how discourses of multiculturalism might be deployed in the US to their advantage.  Several years ago, a number of Hindu organizations rallied together in a concerted attempt to force alterations in history textbooks used in California schools.  They objected, for example, to the fact that such textbooks characterized Hinduism as a polytheistic rather than monotheistic faith, or that women in ancient India were described as having fewer rights than men.  American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD) almost serves as a vigilante group, observing a hawk-like look-out for those who offend against Hindu sentiments.   However, their support of “multiculturalism” in India, where the religious, linguistic, and cultural diversity dwarfs anything seen in the US, is remarkably muted.  Apparently, on their world view, multiculturalism is much to be admired in the US even as it may safely be ignored in India.  Indeed, many Hindus in the US adhere to the view that the practice of their faith is not hobbled by the constraints that a pseudo-secular Indian state has imposed upon Hindus in their homeland.

 

There is a remarkable convergence in the worldview of the NRI—and the model of the successful NRI is the Indian American—and Narendra Modi.  The political ascendancy of a former tea vendor reminds Indian Americans of the opportunities made available to them in the supposed land of milk and honey, though such a narrative obscures the fact that many of the immigrant Indians who have done exceedingly well in the US already came from advantaged backgrounds.   NRIs and Modi alike crave to see a new, resplendent India that can take its place as a great power, but India in its present state is an embarrassment to them.  Its faults—the appalling poverty, the ramshackle appearance of every town, the indescribable filth in public spaces, widespread evidence of malnutrition and open defecation, and much else—need not be rehearsed at length, and Modi has signaled his attempt to meet such objections by launching the Swachch Bharat Mission.  But there are more compelling parts of the story and the anxiety of influence extends much further.  The Indian middle classes and the non-resident Indians have long agonized over the fact that India, as a friend once remarked to me, is ‘the largest most unimportant country in the world’, and that the same Indians who flounder in their homeland yet make something significant of themselves outside India.

 

Modi at Madison Square Garden:  A Who's Who of Indian American corporate types

Modi at Madison Square Garden: A Who’s Who of Indian American corporate types

It is under these circumstances that Modi has appeared, to the Indian middle classes and to NRIs, as the appointed one.  The well-to-do physicians, software engineers, scientists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and other professionals in the Indian American community have long hankered for an Indian leader who would be imposing and decisive, and they are convinced that India requires a strong dose of authoritarian leadership if it is to prosper.  They are much more hospitable to the idea of a prosperous authoritarian state than they are to the idea of an India that is flaunted as a democracy but registers poor growth and continues to be an insignificant player in world politics.  Modi’s concentration of power is calculated to furnish, from their standpoint, some of the advantages found in the Presidential system of government.  Yet Modi also stands for what they view as ‘spiritual India’, a land synonymous with great yogis, teachers of spiritual renown, and sacred rivers that are personified as goddesses.  Thus, in the figure of Narendra Modi, Indian Americans see the possibilities of a prosperous yet spiritual India which they believe is already embodied in their own life histories.

 

(First published in OUTLOOK [Print and Web editions], 20 October 2014, as ‘The Prophet of Boom Times’].

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