Archive for the ‘The Politics of Culture’ Category

India has just finished celebrating Republic Day, and as the chests of millions of Indians swelled with pride at the thought of our immense diversity and imagined military prowess, it is well to reflect on what kind of Republic the country has become.  We may begin with some elementary if often forgotten meanings of the word “republic”:  a republican form of government is not merely one in which the head of state is not a hereditary monarch; rather, the modern republic rests on the idea that sovereignty resides in the people, and that the will of the people, as expressed through their representatives, is supreme.

What has, however, been critical to the idea of the ‘republic’ everywhere is the notion of inclusiveness, even if this does not form part of the word’s typical dictionary definition. In this respect, the stories that have been coming out of India in recent years tell a tale that is chilling to the bones, a tale which leaves behind a stench that no amount of sloganeering about ‘swacch Bharat’ or even something more than a symbolic wielding of the broom can eradicate.  If inclusiveness is the touchstone of a Republic, what is characteristic of India today is how increasingly large constituencies are being excluded from the nation. Muslims and Dalits have been hounded, garroted, and lynched; the working class is being trampled upon; the Adivasi is nothing more than an obstacle course for a mining company.  None of this is news, some might argue; perhaps things have only become worse.  Such a view is profoundly mistaken, because whatever India may have been in the past, it has never been, certainly not to the extent it is today, a Republic of Inhospitality.

There are other ways, too, of understanding the pass at which we have arrived.  On his last day of office some months ago, the Vice President, Hamid Ansari, warned that Muslims were feeling increasingly insecure in India and that there was a corrosion of Indian values.  His successor, Venkaiah Naidu, was dismissive of these remarks and shot back, “Some people are saying minorities are insecure. It is a political propaganda. Compared to the entire world, minorities are more safe and secure in India and they get their due.” The Prime Minister, who appears a model of graciousness when he is in the company of foreign dignitaries but has been glaringly contemptuous of political opponents and previous occupants of his office, could not resist taking a dig at Mr. Ansari.  The veteran politician, Mr. Modi suggested, had spent too much time in the company of Muslims—at Aligarh Muslim University, as a member of the Minorities Commission, and as a representative of India to West Asia—and his sympathies did not really lie with India.  One should, of course, not expect anything else from this Prime Minister, What Naidu and the Prime Minister failed to understand was Ansari’s unease at the fact that India no longer seemed a hospitable place to him. India does not even remotely feel like a hospitable place to the Africans who have been set upon by mobs or to those from the Northeast who been humiliated and killed since they seem too much like the Chinese—aliens all.


African students injured in mob attacks in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, April 2017.  Source:  http://www.sikhpa.com/sikh-group-condemns-racist-mob-attack-against-africans-in-india/

More than anything else, India has long been a land of hospitality.  I use the word hospitality with deliberation and with the awareness that our present crop of middle-class Indians who study hotel management and business administration with gusto will assume that I am speaking of the ‘hospitality industry’.  There is a different story to be told here about how some of the richest words in the English language have been hijacked for the narrowest purposes.  I use hospitality in place of tolerance since both the right and the left have demonstrated their intolerance for ‘tolerance’.  To liberals and the left in India, all discussion of Hindu tolerance is merely a conceit and at worst a license to browbeat others into submission.  Surprisingly, but perhaps not, the advocates of Hindutva are equally unenthusiastic about proclaiming the virtues of ‘Hindu tolerance’.  It was Hindu tolerance that, in their view, made the Hindus vulnerable to the depredations of foreign invaders.  ‘Hindu tolerance’ is only for the weak and the effete.



A delegation of students protesting the death of 19-year old Nido Taniam, a student from Arunachal Pradesh killed in the south Delhi colony of Lajpat Nagar.  Photo Source:  Press Trust of India.

What, then, does it mean to speak of the culture of hospitality that has long characterized India and that is eroding before our very eyes, turning this ancient land into a most inhospitable place not only for foreign tourists, African students, and the various people of northeast India, but even for the greater majority of its own citizens?  We may take as illustrative of this culture of hospitality three narratives that are humbling in their complex simplicity.  There is a story that is often told about the coming of the Parsis to India, although some doubt its veracity.  As they fled Iran, so the story goes, they were stopped on the border as they sought to make their way into India.  The Indian king already had far too many people in his dominions and could not accommodate any more refugees.  The cup was full.  The Parsis are said to have responded, ‘We shall be like the sugar that sweetens the cup of milk.’



Parsis outside their Fire Temple, Mumbai.

Those who wish to make the story plausible will offer dates and there may be mention of the political dynasty that prevailed in Western India in the 8th century with whom the first batch of Parsis would have come into contact.  The story may well be apocryphal, though if that is the case it is wholly immaterial:  its persistence suggests something not only about the tenor of those times but the continuing attractiveness of the idea that those who came to India have each, in their own fashion, sweetened the pot and added something to the country.  But there may have been many other registers of hospitality in India, as Tagore sought to explain to his audience on a visit to China.  The Mahsud, a Pathan tribe inhabiting the South Waziristan Agency in what is now the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) in Pakistan, were being bombed from the air.  A plane crash landed in one of the villages; the pilot was desperately trying to extricate himself from the plane which was already on fire.  Though the villagers had been plummeted by this very pilot, they ran to the plane and lifted him out of the cockpit; he was wounded, but they nursed him back to health; and some weeks later he made his way back to England.  It was a culture, indeed an ideal, of hospitality, and their notion of dharma, that made the villagers act as they did; however, as Tagore tellingly adds, their behavior was “the product of centuries of culture” and was “difficult of imitation.”

Though Nehru shepherded the country after independence, it was Mohandas Gandhi more than anyone else who was committed to the constituent idea of the Republic, that is inclusivity and what I have described as hospitality.  It is, therefore, fitting that my last story should end with him.  Gandhi was a staunch vegetarian, but he often had visitors to the ashram who were accustomed to having meat at nearly every meal.  He took it upon himself to ensure that they were served meat; and he also adhered to the view that if he had insisted that they conform to the rules of the ashram and confine themselves to vegetarian food, he would be visiting violence upon them. Although reams and reams have been written upon his notion of ahimsa, little has been said of how hospitality was interwoven into his very notion of nonviolence.  And, yet, it is in this very India that Muslims and Dalits have been killed on the mere suspicion of eating, hoarding, and transporting beef.  On this Republic Day, at least, Indians should ponder on precipitous has been the decline of their country into a Republic of Inhospitality.


[A slightly shorter version of this was published under the same title in the online edition of The Indian Express, 27 January 2018.]


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Fourth of four parts of “Asian American Studies and Its Futures”

 In the week following the September 11, 2001, bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the non-profit advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), which aims for a “more just and inclusive society in the United States”, recorded 645 hate crimes against South Asians, Sikhs, and Muslims.  The FBI in its annual survey of hate crimes recorded a lower number of “hate crimes” targeting “people of Middle Eastern descent, Muslims, and South Asians”, while conceding that the attacks had spiraled from “just 28” in 2000 to 481 in 2001.  In all likelihood, many more such crimes went unreported.  Not one of the nineteen hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks was of South Asian origin; indeed, fifteen of the hijackers were citizens of just one country, Saudi Arabia.  On the morning of September 15th, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man from Mesa, Arizona, was shot dead in front of his gas station.  His killer, Frank Roque, had reportedly told his friends the previous day that he was “going to go out and shoot some towel-heads.”  As he was being arrested the day following the shooting, Roque shouted, “I am a patriot!  I stand for America all the way!” Roque saw only a bearded and turbaned man in front of him; he “mistook” him for a Middle Easterner, an Osama-look alike.  In a lighter moment, had the outcome not been so tragic, I would have said that Roque reminded me of the man, made famous by the late Oliver Sacks, who mistook his wife for a hat. Sodhi would have the unfortunate distinction of being the first victim in the United States of a retaliatory hate crime after the September 11th bombings, but he would not be the last Sikh who would be at the receiving end of a hate-filled rampage.  In August 2012, the white supremacist and former US army soldier Wade Michael Page would kill six Sikhs before turning the gun upon himself at the Sikh Gurdwara, or house of worship, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

Just weeks into the Presidency of Donald J. Trump, and shortly after an Executive Order popularly dubbed as the ‘Muslim Ban’ was issued, the Indian software engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who worked for a GPS navigation and communications device company, was shot dead at a bar in Olathe, Kansas, by a Navy veteran, Adam W. Purinton.  His companion and fellow Indian, Alok Madasani, escaped with a slight bullet injury.  Kuchibhotla would become the first victim in the country whose death might justly be described as having been precipitated by Trump’s Executive Order, which, among other things, barred the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.  The killer, the New York Times reported, was “tossing ethnic slurs at the two men and suggesting they did not belong in the United States”; more pointedly, according to Madasani, Purinton inquired, most unusually, into their visa status before returning a short time later to shoot at them directly.  Witnesses stated that they heard Purinton shout, “Get out of my country”, before he opened fire on the two Indians.  At an Applebee’s restaurant in nearby Clinton, Missouri, where Purinton would be apprehended some hours after the shooting, he told the bartender, according to a Washington Post article, that he had shot dead two “Middle Eastern” men. At the other end of the world, in India, the Hindustan Times did not hesitate to venture forth with the opinion that “Kuchibhotla is possibly the first casualty of the religious, racial and ethnic divisiveness that has swept the US following the election of President Donald Trump, with minorities such as Jews and Muslims reporting a surge in attacks on them and their institutions.”

Iran, India, Iraq:  they’re all the same anyhow.  Their names sound alike.  The assassin sees no difference.  Three countries that lie east of the Suez Canal, some would be so bold to say east of civilization, and they just seem to elide into each other.  Sunni, Shia, Hindu, Jain, Vaishnava, Shaivite, Buddhist, Nichiren, Parsi, Sufi, Alawite, Sikh:  in the vast archipelago of ignorance, differences are easily smothered.   Some South Asian Americans, in the wake of both the September 11th attacks and the short-lived inception of the “Muslim Ban”, might have been tempted into taking comfort from their identity and assumed that they would not be the targets of white rage. Perhaps many thought that they could be mere bystanders, if unwilling ones, to the slug-fest between Islam and the West.  But they have, time and again, been rudely awoken to the fact that their identity will not be their salvation.  Every brown-skinned person is perforce a Muslim—at least for now. It is not only American Muslims, of course, who have historically had to confront racial discrimination and xenophobic outrage, but Islam perhaps generates anxieties in the Christian West, and in Anglo-Saxon America, that are distinct.  Christianity and Islam are uniquely the two proselytizing religions; they are in competition with each other from the eschatological standpoint, trying to save souls and winning converts.

The Christian West’s anxieties over Islam have now become everyone’s anxieties.  South Asian Americans and Arab Americans; Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs:  they are all subjects of a surveillance regime.  That may be one reason why Muslim Americans should perhaps be welcomed under the ambit of ‘Asian Americans’.  “Within National Security Studies,” Moustafa Bayoumi explains, “we can see the U.S. government is already establishing an infrastructure to study Muslims and Muslim Americans, and I don’t want to be studied solely by the government.  The study of Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, and Arab Americans must be critical work that is decoupled from an exclusive National Security lens, and which ought to be performed primarily by people who have connections to the grassroots and with also a social justice agenda attached.”[vi] I understand the spirit in which Bayoumi asserts that he “doesn’t want to be studied solely by the government”:  he knows for a fact that the likes of him and me will be studied, and if that is to happen, the state and its functionaries should not monopolize the narrative by which both of us are defined.  Of course, as the editor of the Edward Said Reader, Bayoumi cannot but know that the parties that have been complicit in Orientalism—and now there is “National Security Studies”—extend well beyond the state to the academy, experts, policy institutes, the corporatized media, and a great many more people who represent the sinews of power.  Does one want to be studied at all?

Whatever the bizarrely-worded “War on Terror” means, it has necessitated a fundamental reassessment of the assumptions about identity, security, and the state. Bayoumi’s plea that the imperatives of the National Security State should not be permitted to influence the study of Muslim Americans can be justifiably extended to other areas of scholarly inquiry and academic research. That, however, is the subject for a much longer deliberation; but perhaps what can be said is that the implications of his plea and critique need to be pursued in at least one further respect.  Much has been written by scholars about the origins of Asian American Studies and ethnic studies more broadly. It would not be untrue to say that, fifty years after these initiatives were launched, most students and even many mature scholars still derive their politics from their identity. The election of Donald J. Trump to the White House has shown that is unequivocally the case for most white Americans as well, not only for hyphenated-Americans. The American university, unfortunately, has done very little if anything that would enable us to look forward to the day when most students and scholars will derive their identity from their politics.


For Part I, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/asian-american-studies-and-its-futures/

For Part II, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/islam-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part III:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/indian-muslims-what-place-for-them-in-political-discourse-and-asian-american-studies/

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Part Two of “Asian American Studies and Its Futures”


I suggested in the first part of this blog piece that the place of Indians and more broadly South Asians within the fabric of Asian America Studies remains uncertain.  How, then, should we deliberate over Moustafa Bayoumi’s call for a conception of Asian American Studies that is still more inclusive and responsive to the increasing presence of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans?  “The complexity of the Muslim American experience”, he avers, “is something that Asian American studies has never really grappled with, I believe.” One can hardly disagree, except to ask if there is any other field of study, or discipline, that has “grappled with” the “complexity of the Muslim American experience”?  And this notwithstanding the fact that the academic industry around Islam and Muslim societies has shown a phenomenal increase:  the study of Hinduism, by contrast, falls under the ambit of a very small number of scholars.  The American university is chock full of courses on Islam, Muslim societies, Middle Eastern history, and the contemporary politics of the Middle East.  The Middle East Studies Association (MESA), which has 60 institutional members, testifies to the growth of Middle East and Near East studies departments at American universities.  There are, of course, a good many reasons for these developments, which extend from American political and economic interests in the Middle East to the archaeological interest in the Fertile Crescent and the kinship that Islam shares with Judaism and Christianity as an ‘Abrahamic’ religion.  It is during the time of George H. W. Bush that one heard the remark that if Iraq—and obviously the same holds true for the area as a whole—was broccoli-rich rather than oil-rich, saving Iraq from itself and ‘securing’ the roots of democracy in this part of the world would never have struck the Americans as a desirable objective.  All this is apart from the consideration whether Western scholarly attention has been good for countries in the Middle East; nor am I, at present, inquiring into the politics of knowledge which has long enabled the study of the rest of the world by the West.

Sadly, as the remarks that follow will suggest, even Islamic Studies programs in the American academy do little to reflect the “complexity of the Muslim American experience”, judging at least from the narrow conception of Islam peddled by such programs.  Whatever the shortcomings of Asian American Studies, and there are many, they may be less egregious than the sins of omission and commission with which Islamic Studies programs and other sectors of the American academy have engaged Muslim Americans.  At least some Asian American scholars will balk at Bayoumi’s suggestion that their field encompass the histories and experience of Muslim Americans, even if one takes to heart his plea that “Asian American Studies is not about the geography of Asia, really, but about the ways in which people are interpellated and organized and come together within the United States as different types of ‘Asians.’” He means to say that the place where one is has no necessary or even any relationship to geographical determinism:  that place is really a function of the psychogeography to which one has habituated oneself.  Yet, the geographical coordinates are not altogether indeterminate, and so we find Bayoumi suggesting, in contradiction to his previous avowal that “Asian American Studies is not about the geography of Asia”, that Asian American Studies should “at least include those Arab Americans who hail from West Asia and those Muslim Americans who hail from Asia generally”.  It thus appears that Asian American Studies both is and is not incipiently about “the geography of Asia”.

Before we speak of Muslim Americans, whether they be Arabs, North Africans, or South Asians—all candidates, it seems, for being viewed as “Asian American”, no doubt alongside Muslim Americans with origins from Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and elsewhere—it would be fruitful to advert to the problems that inhere in speaking of Islam as such.  In the United States, especially, the Middle East, or what is otherwise called West Asia, is assumed to be the ‘natural’ and ‘authentic’ home of Islam. It comes as a surprise to most Americans to be told that South Asia is home to the largest Muslim population in the world, and that India, where fewer than 15% of the people are Muslims, and Pakistan, which is overwhelmingly a Muslim-majority state, each have around 180-200 million Muslims.  Demography has its own politics; but numbers aside, by far the more germane consideration is that Islam developed in South Asia over a course of a millennium along considerably different trajectories than in West Asia.  The tendency in the West, noticeable even in the works of distinguished scholars of Islam such as Ernest Gellner and Stephen Humphreys, has been to altogether ignore Islamic South Asia.  The tacitly held view is that Islam in South Asia is something of a deviant form, an inauthentic and bastardized version of the true faith housed in the Arab world.  When the “Islamic World” is referenced, it is at once the Middle East that is being called into attention—and then Indonesia, North Africa, and other Muslim-majority societies. As an experiment, I invite the reader to put “map of Islam” into the Google search engine:  what it brought up at once was “the Islamic world”, which is defined as the 57 countries that belong to the “Organization of the Islamic Conference.”  This is the default view of Islam in the West, replicated in thousands of books, web sites, media platforms, and in the opinion pages of journalists, policy makers, and so-called experts.

The consequence of this disposition is not merely that one becomes oblivious to what we might call the varieties of Islam.  The more disturbing implications of such ignorance become apparent when one turns to an assessment of the turn that Islam has taken in Pakistan since the late 1970s.  Pakistan is assuredly a part of the Muslim world, but it is as much, however difficult it may be for orthodox Muslims in Pakistan to concede this, a part of the Indic world.  Over the course of the second millennium CE, the Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis that was forged in the Indian sub-continent led to the brilliant efflorescence of music, architecture, cuisine, art, literature, and religious expression.  Moreover, contrary to the commonplace view, Muslim-majority Pakistan was not explicitly forged as an Islamic state—which is not the same thing as a Muslim-majority state—when it was carved out of India in 1947.  But Pakistani Muslims have increasingly been drilled with the idea, most particularly following the Islamicization policies of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, President of Pakistan from 1978-1988, that their practices of Islam have been contaminated through centuries of close proximity to Hinduism, and that in turning their gaze westward, towards the historic homeland of the Prophet Muhammad, they will be liberating themselves from the cunning tyranny of effete Hindus.  It is not even remotely surprising that the Islamic terrorists who have been wreaking havoc on the streets of Pakistan have been targeting not just religious minorities but also, just as ominously, those Muslims who in various ways have defied the creeping drumbeat of a Wahhabi-infused Islam which has now taken a vise-like grip over growing arenas of Pakistani society.  One of the most prominent victims of the extremists last year was the great exponent of Sufi music, Amjad Sabri, killed in broad daylight after being accused of blasphemy—effectively a death sentence.

(To be continued)

For Part I, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/24/asian-american-studies-and-its-futures/

For Part III:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/indian-muslims-what-place-for-them-in-political-discourse-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part IV:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/south-asians-muslim-americans-and-the-politics-of-identity/

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(First of several parts; scroll down to the bottom for a note to readers on this series of articles)

Part One: “Asian American” and “Indians”:  Some Vignettes of an Uncertain History

Just a little over a decade ago, the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA, perhaps the first center of its kind in the United States, published my book, The Other Indians:  A Cultural and Political History of South Asians in America.  (A separate hardcover Indian edition was published months later by HarperCollins.)  The main title of the book alluded, in part, to the difficulties inherent in speaking of South Asian “Indians” in the US:  growing up in India, the only Indians that I knew of in “the land of the free and home of the brave” were those who had been mowed down by the white man.  We called them “Red Indians”, if only because they were so described in the American comics that were to be found in lending libraries. I recall that my late father, though he was a highly educated man (especially for his times, and considering the circumstances under which he had grown up in Multan in undivided India), persisted in calling them Red Indians even if I tried many times to steer him towards a different vocabulary.  However, his usage of “Red Indians” did not at all appear to me to be inspired by racist usage, unlike the deployment of this term in dominant white narratives of the ‘settling’ and ‘taming’ of America.  If anything, my father might even have looked at somewhat sympathetically at Red Indians as somehow related to his own kinsmen.

Much later, I was brought to the awareness that those whom we knew as Indians are variously described as indigenous people, Native Americans, American Indians, and Amerindians, although as something of a student of their histories I have come to recognize that scholars generally just describe them as “Indians” and that many of the Indians themselves are not averse to being described as such.  It was, as we know, an accident of history, one of many such ill-fated accidents in European adventurism that shaped the world, that would lead to the characterization of the indigenous people of the Americas as “Indians”.  There remains a considerable amount of uncertainty about how best the indigenous people of America might be characterized.

What, then, of the ‘other’ Indians?  Transitioning to the category of “Asian American” was no easy matter either for what the US census now recognizes as “Asian Indians”.  In Britain, the term “Asian” indexes most often Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis—among them Indians who sometimes knew nothing of India and had only arrived in Britain in the wake of their expulsion from East Africa.  Rozina Visram commences her study, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain 1700-1947 (London:  Pluto Press, 1986), thus: “This book traces the history of Asian settlement in Britain from 1700 to 1947. . . .  The term ‘Asian’ as used here refers to the people from the Indian subcontinent.  I have used the terms ‘Asian’ and ‘Indian’ interchangeably; I use ‘black’ in a political sense to refer to peoples of Afro-Caribbean and Asian origin” (vii).  The Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Koreans in Britain are something of an afterthought; the “Asians”, on the other hand, were instantiations of what postcolonial scholars and anti-colonial activists wistfully characterized as “the Empire striking back”.

We’re here because you were there, the Asians told the whites. The Asian in England had become so ubiquitous by the early 1980s, as the inheritor of the proverbial corner shop, that “Mr Patel” could even find a place in Godfrey Smith’s admittedly “idiosyncratic” companion to England and Englishness [see The English Companion: An Idiosyncratic A-Z of England and Englishness, 1984).  A joke that I heard recently resonates marvelously in this connection:  the reason why the British Gujarati can never excel at soccer or make it to the English soccer team is that, no sooner is he awarded a corner, he sets up a corner shop.  The corner shop is the quintessential space in the English imagination; the Gujarati has cornered that.  In the US, contrariwise, Indians had seemed for a long time to have no place in that umbrella grouping known as “Asian American”, and this not only because at least the Chinese and Japanese had a foothold in the US many years before Indians first made their presence known on the west coast around 1890.  The ‘Orient’ may have signified mainly India to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the chief progenitors of American Transcendentalism in the 19th century, but to the other literati and in the common imagination it brought to mind the Far East, or China and Japan.  Then there was the matter that Indians had tried, though not with any success, to pass as Caucasian and thus white. The impulse to grant Indians a place within the family of “Asian Americans” was not altogether palpable.

It is thus that Indians in the US for a long time complained of their ‘invisibility’. India is a very large country, and Indian Americans are frequently heard to say with evident if misplaced pride that the US and India are the world’s two largest democracies; and yet among them the feeling persists that India is generally ignored, generally making it to the news as the site of religious killings, endemic poverty, severely malnutritioned children, and more recently, such phenomena as uncontrollable pollution and the gang rape of women.  Indian Americans are not the only ethnic group, and certainly not the only community among Asian Americans, who have complained of their invisibility, or of whom it can be said, in the words of Alex Wagner’s 2016 article in the Atlantic, that they “remain mostly invisible in the American political debate” (September 12). But, from the perspective of Indian Americans, their invisibility reflects India’s marginality to global geopolitics; and such invisibility is also the more glaring and indeed alarming when placed alongside the indisputable fact that Indian Americans are disproportionately well-educated and, on that very questionable view, should be deserving of more attention. The matter is still more complex:  the preponderant number of Indian Americans are Hindus; but Hinduism, argue the young professionals behind the advocacy group, Hindu American Foundation, remains shrouded in mystery to the vast majority of Americans—when, that is, it is not simply caricatured as the religion of monkey gods, (fraudulent) holy men, or, as in Reza Aslan’s recent story, cannibalistic yogis.

There is, then, a pervasive anxiety of influence among Indian Americans. I have addressed this issue at considerable length in some of my published work, including The Other Indians, and therefore my remarks at this juncture shall be brief.  As in India, where the most militant adherents of Hinduism secretly admire Islam as a rational, monotheistic, muscular, simple and highly organized faith while they publicly berate it as an intolerant, puritan, and terrorist-driven religion, so in the United States Indian Americans are envious of the extraordinary media coverage that Islam has been receiving over the last two decades.  I know that many Indian Americans and nationalist Indians will chafe at this characterization, but the nationalist Hindu has long been a secret admirer of Islam—not, let me be clear, for its doctrines, but rather because these Hindus pine for a Hindu Mecca, a Hindu Koran, a Hindu Allah, a Hindu Haj.  Instead of all this, what one (thankfully) has in Hinduism is a bewildering variety, a mosaic of untold number of gods and goddesses, a revealed text (the Rig Veda) that no one reads, multiple sources of doctrinal authority, a God who frolics on the green—endless confusion, really, to those whose idea of a religion has been shaped by Protestant Christianity, though of course they scarcely realize it.

So, back to Islam:  it may be largely bad press, especially these days, but it is press nevertheless: as T. S. Eliot had written admiringly of Dante, recognition in hell is better than being consigned to limbo, to that state of in-betweenness where one is deserving of neither praise nor blame. Indian Americans have long craved for recognition, a goal that, if the hate crimes to which they have been subjected since the September 11 attacks are any guide, remains not merely elusive but is intertwined with the necessary ‘misrecognition’ that marks their very presence in the US.  Similarly, though the practitioners of Asian American Studies may have become more accommodating in the last decade, many in the Indian community have asked me whether Asian American Studies is really any more ecumenical than it was in the past.  Is it any less dominated today than it has been since its inception by Chinese-Americans or Japanese-Americans?  Whose ‘Asia’ is being invoked, to what end, and what are the parameters and contours of the Asia embedded in ‘Asian American Studies’?

The somewhat more astute members of the Indian-American community—and to speak of it in the singular is to deliberately ignore, since it is less pertinent to my present, everything that divides one Indian from another—have other objections, not always transparent to those outside the academy or even to Asian American scholars whose interests seldom if ever touch upon the history of South Asia.  What, they ask, is the politics of deploying the term ‘South Asian’?  What are termed “progressive” scholars and activists have insisted that the political and socio-cultural realities of the Indian sub-continent are best captured by speaking of “South Asia” as a single entity; better still, to signify the possibilities of solidarity among Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Indians, their shared histories, and their common subjection to racism and discrimination in the United States, they deploy the term ‘desis’ (from ‘desh’, country, or, more tellingly, ‘mother country’).  But most Indian Americans from the community are not in the least keen on having India lumped, and thus confused, with Pakistan.  They point to the fact that Pakistan has often been described, by the United States and commentators around the world, as a “failed state”; but if this may appear to characterize a good many countries, they call attention to the common branding of Pakistan as the breeding ground for Muslim extremists.  The point here is not to call into question the authenticity of such claims, which is easily done, but rather to suggest that forging a South Asian American identity is fraught with numerous perils.

(To be continued)


A Note to Readers:  A shorter version of this piece (taken together with the two or three parts that will follow) was written as a consequence of an invitation to respond to, or reflect on, an article by Moustafa Bayoumi published as “Asian American Studies, the War on Terror, and the Changing University:  A Call to Respond”, CUNY Forum 5, no. 1 (2017).  My article only adverts to Bayoumi’s piece now and then, and for the most part can essentially be read independent of it.  Bayoumi’s piece, my own reflection, and contributions from some 25 other scholars and writers have been collected together in a recently published book, Asian American Matters:  A New York Anthology, edited by Russell C. Leong (November 2017).

For Part II:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/islam-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part III:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/indian-muslims-what-place-for-them-in-political-discourse-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part IV:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/south-asians-muslim-americans-and-the-politics-of-identity/

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Part III of North Korea and the Threat of Nuclear Annihilation


he dividing line between North and South: United Nations forces are seen retreating from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, in 1950, across the 38th parallel.  Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4454820/When-America-went-war-Korea-time.html#ixzz51JHYydbZ 

The commonplace narrative of the Korean War renders the North’s surprise attack on the South on 25 June 1960 as a desperate attempt at land-grabbing and unification by a ruthless dictatorship.  Such accounts obfuscate a number of critical developments between 1945 and 1950. The Russians quit North Korea in late 1948; the Americans did likewise, leaving South Korea around the same time.  Forces from both Koreas frequently violated the border, and a series of incursions into North Korea from the South preceded the North’s invasion of June 25th.  Thoughts of unification were ever present among political leaders both in the South and the North:  as Kim il-Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un and the founding father of the country’s political dynasty, wrote in January 1950 to the Soviet Ambassador to his country, “Lately I do not sleep at night, thinking about how to resolve the question of the unification of the whole country.” [See John Gaddis, We Now Know, 1998: 73]


Enter a captionUS Marines guarding three captured North Koreans in a picture believed to have been taken in 1950.  Source: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4454820/When-America-went-war-Korea-time.html#ixzz51JITdQjk 

South Korea, for its part, was determined to seek unification on its own terms.  More importantly, the allegedly democratic regime installed in South Korea was scarcely less dictatorial than the one in the North.  The leading American historian of the Korean War, Bruce Cummings, speaks of the ferocity of anti-Communist sentiment and “an orgy of state violence” in the South, suggesting that “between 100,000 and 200,000 people died as a result of political violence before June 1950, at the hands of either of the South Korean government or the US occupation forces.” “In short,” he has written in a recent issue of the London Review of Books (18 May 2017), “the Republic of Korea was one of the bloodiest dictatorships of the early Cold War period; many of the perpetrators of the massacres had served the Japanese in their dirty work—and were then put back into the power by the Americans.” It is not difficult to understand, however opaque such considerations may be to successive American administrations, why North Korea fears the axis of South Korea-Japan-United States, and why the Kim dictatorship appears to the subjects of the North Korean state as the heroic champion of revolutionary nationalism that slayed the dragon of Japanese imperialism.

If much in occluded in the commonplace narratives of Korea’s history between 1945-50, the pulverization of North Korea from the air during the war constitutes perhaps the most gruesome chapter in the global history of aerial bombing.  The “U.S. dropped 635,000 tons of explosives on North Korea, including 32,557 tons of napalm”; in comparison, 503,000 tons of bombs were dropped by the US in the Pacific Theatre, an area vastly greater than North Korea, in four years during World War II.  On “an average good day”, according to an US Eighth Army chemical officer quoted in a recent study of napalm by Robert M. Neer, American pilots dropped 70,000 gallons of napalm, which US Marines cheerfully nicknamed “cooking oil”, over North Korea (see Napalm:  An American Biography [Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 2013]). The sadistic Curtis Le May, one of the architects of the American fire-bombing of Japan and the head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, quite casually admitted some years later, “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off—what—20 percent of the population” (New Yorker, 19 June 1994).  Secretary of State Dean Rusk described what may be thought of as the formula that the United States put into practice in choosing targets: “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” According to the North Koreans, as reported by one historian, “by the end of the war” there were “only two modern buildings” that “remained standing in Pyongyang”, and by the fall of 1952 “every significant town, city and industrial area in North Korea had already been bombed.” [See Charles K. Armstrong, “The Destruction and Reconstruction of North Korea, 1950-1960”, The Asia-Pacific Journal 7 (16 March 2009), 1-9.]


Pyongyang in 1953, after the sustained aerial bombing by Americans.



An elderly woman and her grandchild walk among the debris of their home in Pyongyang, in the aftermath of sustained aerial bombing by the Americans.   Source:  Keystone/Getty Images; see:  https://theintercept.com/2017/05/03/why-do-north-koreans-hate-us-one-reason-they-remember-the-korean-war/

The ‘forgotten’ war, when it is at all remembered, still remains in the American imagination a ‘limited’ war.  North Korea, however, experienced it as a ‘total’ war, a war of genocidal intent.  A handful of journalists and scholars have mustered the courage to speak of American war crimes in Korea, but no one has thought that the Kim dynasty in any manner stands exonerated of its own unspeakable crimes in North Korea.  Indeed, a recognition of the American role in killing close to three million civilians, the greater majority of them in North Korea, in wiping out the industrial base in North Korea, and in making impossible for some years agricultural production beyond subsistence levels, should not preclude one from recognizing the stranglehold that the Kim family dictatorship exercises over the lives of common people.  No defense of the brutal dictatorship of North Korea, which has obliterated thousands of lives and sent millions more into poverty while a handful of elites, led by the comical “Great Leader”, squander the country’s wealth to indulge in unspeakable luxuries, is implied in any criticism of American foreign policy.  What is transparently clear is that political discussions in the United States around Korea remain spectacularly oblivious both of the psychological effects of the war that persist into the seventh decade after its end and the purchase—in political, social, cultural, and educational terms—that the North Korean regime continues to derive from its masterful deployment of history and propaganda to keep in power and run the state itself as little more than a concentration camp.

Beyond all this, however, is the one unpalatable truth that is not recognized in the laws and conventions that govern relations between states and shows how much further international law still has to evolve if the notion of being ‘civilized’ is not to remain a sham.  To threaten a sovereign state with genocide and nuclear annihilation, and that too under the roof of the United Nations, should itself be construed as a crime against humanity.  It is an indubitable fact that the United States has on several occasions, since the end of World War II, contemplated the use of nuclear weapons.  In November 1950, President Truman had revealed at a press conference that the use of nuclear weapons in Korea had always been “under consideration”.  Ever since, North Korea has lived under the shadow of that threat, and numerous American politicians have called for the nuking of the country: it is an intolerable burden for any country to shoulder.  There is but no question that the calls for dialogue and negotiation must be heeded, but the admission that constructive conversation, or whatever other anodyne term one prefers, is an indispensable requirement for ensuring that the Korean peninsula is not engulfed in unquenchable flames may not have much traction in the years ahead unless the notion that no country has a legitimate interest in nuclear weapons is seriously entertained.  Nuclear weapons ought not to be a matter of inheritance; if countries insist on that privilege, that alone should be enough to render them into pariahs.


[A slightly shorter version of this 3-part piece was first published as a single article as “North Korea and the Threat of Nuclear Annihilation”, Economic and Political Weekly (Mumbai), Vol 52, no. 45 (11 November 2017), pp. 20-223.]


For Part 1, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/13/north-korea-and-the-threat-of-nuclear-annihilation/

For Part 2, see:  https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/14/the-present-iteration-of-a-long-simmering-war/


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Journeys in the Deep South V:  Money & Glendora, off the Blues Highway

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

“Till’s death received international attention and is widely credited with sparking the American Civil Rights Movement.”

  • Plaque installed at “Bryant’s Grocery” store, on the 50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides


Did the murder of a 14-year old boy launch the Civil Rights Movement?  It sounds absurd, but perhaps no more or less absurd than the view that was conventionally held about, say, the Indian Rebellion of 1857-58 [formerly known as the “Sepoy Mutiny”], which was said to be have been triggered by the effrontery that Muslim and Hindu soldiers in the Bengal army of the East India Company experienced when they had to chew on pork and beef fat, respectively, in order to be able to load the cartridges in the rifles that had been issued to them.  Historians and scholars are likely to be wary of a question such as this one, but it continues to excite the popular imagination.  And even the officially-sanctioned narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, for instance in the state of Mississippi, has sometimes come close to adopting this view.


The plaque outside Bryant’s Grocery Store.  Photograph:  Vinay Lal, Sept. 2017.

Some months ago, on this blog, I wrote on Emmett Till without taking up this query.  That was before my journey to the Deep South.  A number of books and scores of articles have been written on Emmett Till, who left Chicago to visit his relatives in the Mississippi Delta in the summer of 1955 and never returned home.  His horribly mangled body was found in the Tallahatchie River; the face was mutilated beyond recognition. His mother, consumed by grief at her loss and equally daring his murderers to reveal themselves, insisted that young Emmett’s body should be on open display at his funeral.  Her emotional strength was at first not equal to her mental resolve; at his funeral, she fainted before finally coming back to her feet.  Mourners went by Emmett’s body, almost in a daze, their silence a mark both of their rage and respect; elsewhere in America, some must have asked what had provoked the unbridled fury and hatred of white men.


Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, at his funeral in 1955.  Photographs of her son can be seen on the casket cover.  Source:  Chicago Sun-Times/Getty Images.

My daughter and I veered off the Blues Highway in quest of Money.  On August 21st, 1955, Emmett and his cousin, Wheeler Parker, reached this tiny and non-descript town on a visit to relatives.  Three days later, sometime in the earlier part of the day, the 14-year old Emmett and his cousins arrived at Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market to buy some candy.  The story was being manned by Carolyn Bryant, a 21-year old white woman who lived above the store with her husband, Roy, and their two children.  Apparently, Emmett, who had spent little or no time in the South, had been told that he was in no way to infringe the codes of etiquette and honor that had characterized white plantation society and still dominated relations between blacks and whites.  These codes didn’t merely demand that, nearly a century after the abolition of slavery, black people were always to address white men as “Sir” and white women, when at all they were addressed, as “Ma’am”, no doubt with an explicit show of deference.  (That the entire South, black and white, is down to the present day infused with a touch of such politeness came as a surprise to me: a not inconsiderable difference between the South and the rest of the country.)  The codes were altogether stringent on one point:  white women were untouchable.  Emmett wouldn’t have known about the Cult of Confederate Women and the aura of the sacred: white slave-owners’ version, shall we say for the present, of the Goddess traditions that have informed religiosity in some parts of the world.


Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, Money, Mississippi, c. 1955.  The date of this photograph has, however, not been identified.  Source:  http://usslave.blogspot.com/2011/07/preserving-historic-emmett-till.html


The plaque outside this store & gas station identifies it as the site of Bryant’s Grocery store, which, notwithstanding efforts to save it as a crucial site in the history of the civil rights movement, was torn down a few years ago.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Carolyn Bryant alleged, at any rate, that the young Emmett flirted with her; and in court she stated, implausibly, that he grabbed her around the waist.  She was something of a beauty—even a “beauty queen”, according to newspaper reports, though what kind in miserable Mississippi we cannot say. Her good looks aggravated the offense, whatever it may have been:  perhaps he had made a lewd suggestion; on some accounts—rumors were thick in the air—Emmett let loose a “wolf whistle”.  Emmett’s cousins were terrified; the boys scrambled and drove off in a jiffy.  The hours passed; sunset would have been around 8:00 PM at that time of the year. They must have tossed and turned in bed, sweating profusely, the terror amplified by the stillness of a hot and humid night:  the slightest sound—the creak of a door, the gentle rustling of leaves, the faint screech of a distant owl—probably sent the boys, and especially Emmett, diving under the covers.


Money, Mississippi, was never much of a town; it has a dilapidated look about it even today. Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Whatever one’s fears, the sun rises: tomorrow, Emerson said, is the dawn of a new day. That has been described by his detractors as the sunny optimism of a New England man of letters. Nothing had happened.  Another night passed.  And yet another night.  Perhaps the old South, where the lynchings of black males was common sport and entertainment for Sunday picnics, had changed.  Emmett was most likely sleeping better.  And so yet another night passed—almost.  And then, in the wee morning hours of August 28th, they came.  Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett at gun-point and brought him to Milam’s home.  They set about torturing the boy: he was pistol-whipped, stripped naked, bludgeoned, and then shot through the head with a .45-caliber Colt automatic.  Milam’s home no longer stands, but the site is recalled by—what else—a plaque, placed in the midst of a flowery shrub that stands in an expanse of not quite verdant green.


Here stood Milam’s House, where Milam and Roy Bryant admitted to the journalist William Bradford Huie that they had murdered Emmett Till.  Glendora, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

The devil’s work is never done.  Slavery may have been a thing of the past, but why should the implements associated with the slave not be put to use? Another chapter in the iconography of the cotton gin fan had yet to be written. From nearby Glendora, Messrs Bryant and Milam lifted an old metal fan that had been used for ginning cotton. They barb-wired Emmett’s body to the seventy-four-pound gin.


The fan cotton gin which was barb-wired to the dead body of Emmett Till was taken from this site in Glendora, Mississippi.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.


The fan cotton gin that was introduced as evidence in the trial of Emmett’s murderers subsequently disappeared and has never been found.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, Sept. 2017.

Emmett’s body was then dumped into the Tallahatchie River. It would be some days before it was recovered.


The Tallahatchie River, where Emmett Till’s barb-wired body was dumped before being found three days later.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

The story takes on different hues of the gruesome as it proceeds down to our day.  Early this year, Carolyn Bryant, in a rare interview, confessed that she had made up the part of her testimony where she had claimed that he had grabbed her and made sexual advances.  But let us return to the story, bare bones only:  just days after Emmett was murdered, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam were apprehended on charges of murder. They would be brought to trial. An all-white male jury took little time to acquit them of the charges; photographs from their acquittal show friends milling around them in the courtroom after the verdict was pronounced, the whole lot of them grinning from one ear to another.

The story could not be complete, not in America where money is the bitch-goddess, and certainly not in the town of Money without a transaction to sanctify the holy deed.  Bryant and Milam sold their story to Look magazine for the tidy sum of $3,150, perhaps a bit more: safeguarded by the Constitutional protection against double jeopardy, they openly and unashamedly confessed to the crime that everyone knew that they had committed.  This part of the story, too, is now part of the record; what is less recognized is the aftermath which fueled more deaths.  Less than 200 meters from where stood the house of Milam, on the night of December 3, a white cotton gin operator by the name of Elmer Otis Kimball drew up in a car at a gas station.  He was driving the automobile owned by J. W. Milam; the gas station attendant was a black man, Clinton Melton.  They got into something of a heated argument; Kimball drove off in a rush, returned to the gas station with a shotgun, and blew Melton away in the presence of the gas station owner and several other witnesses.


Here in Glendora stood the gas station where Clinton Menton was killed by Elmer Otis Kimball.  Photo:  Vinay Lal, September 2017.

Another all-white jury of respectable townsmen deliberated for four hours and found Kimball not guilty. Beulah Melton, Clinton’s wife, did not live to see this outcome: as she was driving her car the day before the trial, she was forced off the road. Her car fell into the bayou; her death was deemed “an accident”.

My daughter and I were headed for Money when we stumbled upon Emmett’s trail.  Emmett’s story is now the stuff of history books; the young boy was pronounced a martyr years ago. The road that brings one close to Money is called the Emmett Till Memorial Highway. But I suspect that many elements of this epic tale have not yet been fathomed by those who are operating only within the vortex of ‘history’.  Emmett had to be sacrificed: in this Biblical land, certainly as the slave-owners and their descendants understood it, perpetrators of crimes and their victims both partake of this language and mythos.  Emmett never returned home; neither did slaves.  The exile continues—the exile not from Africa, but the exile from the very notion of the human. Slavery’s afterlives make sacrificial victims of black people. The ocean gobbled up so many lives during the Middle Passage; bodies were thrown overboard.  No slave died a ‘natural death’, or else the insurance companies would not pay up: here, too, the bitch-goddess. Emmett’s body was thrown into the Tallahatchie River; Beulah drowned in the bayou.

The water, the water, bottomless, fathomless, cruel.  But it is not without its trail . . .

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Yes, I do know that Tom Alter, the gifted film and television actor and theater artist who died in Mumbai


Tom Alter.  Source:  Indian Express.

a little more than two weeks ago, was not an Englishman but rather an American.  I doubt, however, that most people in India knew that he was an American:  he was a firangi (“foreigner”, of foreign origins), and the firangi, when all is said and done, is an Englishman—at least in India.  Jawaharlal Nehru once described himself in a conversation with John Kenneth Galbraith, the American Ambassador to India—and others too have said this of him—as the “last Englishman” in India.  He had not reckoned with Tom Alter, who, in his love for cricket, was thoroughly English—and Indian.

Tom Alter was born in India to American parents.  He attended Woodstock School in Mussoorie, and I suspect that his attachment to Mussoorie remained throughout his life.  His parents moved to Rajpur, a small town which is 25 kilometers from Mussoorie on the road to Dehradun, when he was 14 years old, but it is in Landour, which is but a few kilometers from Mussoorie and can be reached by foot in a little more than half an hour to those who are familiar with the terrain, that he chose to get married to a fellow Woodstock student, Carol Evans.  They were married at St. Paul’s Church in Char Dukan, literally “Four Shops”, which is more than a charming little place where many people engage in guftagoo.  And “guftagoo”, the art of conversation, is something of which Tom Alter, from what I have heard, was a keen and admirable exponent.

I never had the good fortune of meeting Tom Alter.   I wish it had been otherwise.  He had a few hundred roles in Indian films and was the actor of choice for those Indian film directors, working mainly though not exclusively in Hindi, who were looking to cast a role for a white man.  But Tom, let it be clear, did not take on only the role of a firangi, or white man; he could easily pass himself off as Indian.  In a long interview that he gave recently for Rajya Sabha TV, Alter described how he came to love Indian cinema.  The films of Rajesh Khanna got him hooked to mainstream Hindi movies; as he put it in an interview in 2009, “I still dream of being Rajesh Khanna. For me, in the early 1970s, he was the only hero — romantic to the core, not larger than life, so Indian and real — he was my hero; the reason I came into films and he still is.”  This may be thought of as an unusual confession:  of course, Rajesh Khanna had an extraordinarily large following, particularly in his heyday, and the stories of young Indian women swooning over him are legion.  I have some recollection of his visit to Indonesia in the early 1970s when I was living there and of the absolute crush of young women who had gathered at the airport to receive him.  Where Khanna went, pandemonium followed.  Rajesh Khanna not Amitabh Bachchan was the first superstar of Bollywood, even if that is not known to those in the present generation.


Rajesh Khanna serenading his lady love, in Aradhana.

Rajesh Khanna’s following, however, was overwhelmingly young women—or at least that is the impression one received from television, newspapers, and popular film magazines.  The popular film magazine Stardust had been launched in 1971, and scandal and gossip, always a characteristic feature of Bollywood and Hollywood, received a new boost.  One early Stardust cover had this headline, “Is Rajesh Khanna married?”  Now Alter may not have thought of himself as an intellectual, but in some circles it would be something of an embarrassment to admit that one had a weakness for Rajesh Khanna, that “evergreen” star who, with his trademark tilt of the head and cherubic countenance, seemed positively silly; when he ran around trees in the gentle pursuit of women, he looked, even more so than other actors, hilariously comical. Rajesh Khanna’s following seemed to be comprised largely of those very women who entertained ideas of romance derived entirely from Mills & Boon novels, if perhaps a notch below in their class background.  So there is something unquestionably something charming, even disarming, in hearing Alter speak of his unbound affection for Rajesh Khanna.

Alter’s first role in a Hindi film was in 1976; the following year, in one of his most memorable roles, he played Captain Weston, the aide-de-camp to General Outram, the British Resident at the court of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Awadh, in Satyajit Ray’s film, Shatranj ke Khilari (“The Chess Players”, 1977), itself based on a short story by Munshi Premchand.  I saw the film a year later, in late 1978, and the scene is memorably etched in my mind.  Weston is summoned by Outram, who in his own fashion attempts to fathom the mind of the inscrutable Oriental Despot.  Outram has heard that Wajid Ali Shah is a poet—well, whoever heard of a king who fancied himself a poet.  “Tell me, Weston, you know the language, you know the people here—I mean, what kind of poet is the King? Is he any good, or is it simply because he’s the King they say he’s good?”  “I think he’s rather good, sir.” “You do, eh?”  So Weston is asked to recite a poem; he complies with the request, if reluctantly.  When he’s done, and has rendered the poem in translation as well, Outram—who has pronounced himself not much of a “poetry man”—pompously declares, “Doesn’t strike me a great flight of fancy.”


Tom Alter as Capt. Weston, aide-de-camp to General Outram, Resident of Lucknow, in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khilari (“The Chess Players”), 1977.

Alter was known to aficionados of Indian cinema and theater lovers as someone with an enviable command over both Hindi and Urdu.  He delivers the lines in Shatranj ke Khilari, as well as in other films where he appeared, with absolute ease and comfort; indeed, it was pointed out that his interlocutors, many of them native speakers of Hindustani, often resorted to English words when Alter didn’t. In his love for Hindustani, for Hindi and Urdu alike, for Urdu literature and the everydayness of Indian life, Alter showed that it was possible to repudiate the idea of exclusive loyalties.  Perhaps, as an Englishman born of American parents in India, he could be singularly free of the virulent disease of nationalism.

It is no surprise that in recent years Tom Alter was called upon to play the role of Maulana Azad more than once, most recently in a TV series on the Indian Constitution (“Samvidhaan”), and that he did so with brilliance. In fact, it could not be otherwise in many respects.  If Alter was celebrated for his chaste Urdu, much more so was the case with Maulana Azad, whose mastery of Urdu has been commented upon by those who are familiar with the language.  But we may say that Tom Alter stands in for the figure of Maulana Azad in yet more touching ways.  Though Alter was born in India three years after partition, it is his American grandparents who had first made their way to India in November 1916, settling down in Lahore.  Alter’s father was born in Sialkot; at the time of partition, Tom’s grandparents elected to stay in what became Pakistan, while his parents opted for India.  One doesn’t ever think of English families in undivided India that were divided by the partition:  that is another story in the making.  Maulana Azad famously stayed behind in India, and he remained firmly committed as a secular and practicing nationalist Muslim to the idea of India.  Maulana Azad was too fine a match—as a thinker, writer, scholar, and principled man—for Muhammad Ali Jinnah, but that, too, is another story.


Tom Alter as Maulana Azad.  YouTube Screen Grab.

Alter’s life is interesting and salutary, above all else, not only for his affection for India and his understanding of the country, but because as an “Englishman” he had the liberty of putting forth views which Indian secularists and liberals have eschewed and often vigorously attacked.  Over a decade ago I published a very long scholarly article on the trajectory of the word ‘tolerance’ in contemporary Indian political discourse.  The Hindu nationalists no longer want to hear anything about the much-touted “Hindu tolerance”, since in their view “Hindu tolerance” has over the centuries made Hindus vulnerable to rapacious foreigners and especially Muslim conquerors.  The idea of Hindu tolerance, on this reading, has been the graveyard of Hinduism.  The left, however, repudiates the idea of Hindu tolerance for altogether different reasons.  Some argue that it is a complete fiction; others find it a mockery, pointing, for instance, to centuries of caste oppression.  The idea of “Hindu tolerance”, they argue, is nothing but a frightful and bloated conceit.  This is what I termed “intolerance for ‘Hindu tolerance’”.

Alter had a different reading of what India has stood for and, notwithstanding the tremendous assaults on Indian pluralism of the last few years, still embodies to those who can recognize India for what it is.  In the aforementioned hour-long interview that he gave to Rajya Sabha TV in August 2016, he speaks about the time of partition and the aftermath [start at 58:30].  The killings and the bitterness would not preclude the Constitution of India from stating that every Indian had every right to be a Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian, or the practitioner of any other faith.  Alter speaks of his father who unhesitatingly described himself and other Christians as living in a land between the Ganga and the Yamuna:  it is a Christian father who recognizes that to Hindus this land is holy, pure (“pak”).  This is a Christian father saying this; for Christians these are not holy rivers; but “crores” (tens of millions) of people believe that they are holy rivers, and there is a force in that belief.  That, to the mind of Tom Alter, was secularism in practice.  In India, Alter noted, there has never been a point of view which dictated, ‘My path alone is right, yours is wrong’.  It is doubtful, Alter said, that there is anywhere in the world another country where such a worldview, such a sensibility of tolerance, has prevailed for such a lengthy stretch of time.

Alter feared that this delicate fabric which has been stitched over time is beginning to tear apart.  But he had no difficulty in characterizing what he saw as a wondrously unique culture of tolerance that had defined India.  Alter, in his interview, appears with a bandaged thumb.  His thumb had to be amputated, as melanoma tore into his body.  The cancerous rise of militant Hindu nationalism, if Indians are not watchful, will lead to the amputation of India.

Alter’s grandparents had come to India as Christian missionaries.  It is fitting that Tom Alter should have departed this life as a missionary for an unheralded India.









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