Thursday, July 23, 2009

Thinking American Exceptionalism in India

Almost तन वीक थई गया. There's a hundred thoughts/ideas floating through my head. Much that I could write about, पन एतली patience ने ताकत नथी. पन आजे कई थयू, that sort of brought together much of what I've been thinking/observing during my while back home.

हूँ जोर्थी आवीच, तोर्थी मोरू computer नथी चाली र्हेइयू. So आजे finally I could go pick it up. Incidentally, it's still under warranty until September, which wouldn't have meant much had there not been authorized Apple dealers and servicers around. Almost आखू नवू computer free मा मली गयू. Yay for globalization and free-markets?! Damn.

In any case, on my way back home, we drove past Arthur Road Jail today. The Jail is Bombay's largest, and "houses" many members of Bombay's various gangs. The Jail is located right in the city, off a very busy road (as if any road in the city isn't busy). As a kid, I used to recognize the Jail by the smell of what I thought was कोपरा पाक. Following the 1992 Bombay riots, Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt has been in and out of Arthur Road Jail for his alleged involvement in the riots.

As we drove past today, one side of the street had been blocked off to allow for the numerous T.V. cameras covering the trial of Ajmal Amir Kasab, the only surviving member of the group of 10 who attacked Bombay on November 26, 2008. (He is also only one of two attackers to be caught on camera during the course of the attacks.) He has been in the news the past few days because he confessed, and plead guilty, to various acts of violence committed during the attacks. Apparently, this confession caught most by surprise, especially since he had thus far plead not guilty to the various charge brought him. It wasn't until today though that I realized, at least consciously, that Kasab was being held right here, in the heart of the city.

Which made me think about the absurd हल्ला-गुल्ला being created in the U.S. over the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to the mainland. Just one more way in which U.S. exceptionalism comes into play. The idea that the security of Americans is so precious, so sacred, that they cannot even share the same landmass as a hodge-podge of "evildoers." I am willing to bet that security at the several maximum-security prisons in the U.S. is way better than that at Arthur Road. And that the U.S. has the resources and the "expertise" to imprison the several thousand detainees at Guantanamo. The difference though is that the U.S. has "options." If enough people say "not in my backyard," so long as they're not black and brown folks, the U.S. can borrow, lease, buy, annex some one else's backyard. And it's not like any precious, sacred lives will be at stake elsewhere!

In any case, if anything, it is the lives of those imprisoned that are perhaps truly in danger. As in the case of Kasab, the high security provided him is not to prevent him from escaping, but to protect him from getting killed by prison gangs. And in the case of most of detainees - those who aren't particularly high profile opertives, their flight risk is in fact minimal. Even if they are members of, or trained by, various militant groups, most of them are expendable resources. I doubt anyone's going to be trying to break them out of prison, or provide them the means/ability to escape, any time soon.

Most of the recruits are targeted because they already exist in desperate, highly vulnerable conditions. They are mere tools deployed for the execution of a larger mission, a mission who's gains they (i.e. the recruits) are very unlikely to experience themselves. Once their task is done, dead or alive, I doubt that the "system" really gives a damn about them. Just one of the many ways in which militant groups function like the military. (oooh heresy!)

Talking about the military and American exceptionalism, Hillary Clinton was in town this past weekend. She did the usual stuff... meet with corporate big shots (she asked specifically that women be part of the group... how we have advanced!), pledged to help India in its fight against terrorism, pledge co-operation in implimenting the Indio-US Nuclear deal, met with membres of SEWA (an NGO for "poor, self-employed women workers") and sat for a televised interview with Aamir Khan, who is the ambassador of the Teach India program... the latter two events I am not making light of, they are significant and worthwhile.

Here are a couple clips from the interview. More available on Youtube.




(I knew there was a reason I am an Aamir Khan fan!!)



The reason I mention Clinton's visit is not because I have much to say about it, at least beyond my person reaction to it. I have to admit that being here during her visit felt a little weird. Ever since I've been back home, I've been struggling a lot with how disconnected my two worlds, my two lives, are. I've felt this for a few years now, but each time I visit, the disconnect feels more intense, more disconcerting. The first week back I realized that anytime I spoke about "my life," "what I'd been upto," it was like I was talking about someone else. None of things that were so important, so central to my existence, in the States, felt real anymore - not intellectually or emotionally. Those who have experienced this would know how emotionally raw and drained you feel when trying to find someway to connect your existence, to translate one world in terms of another when the means, the symbols that allow for translation really do not exist. I think that is why I am always so eager for my friends from the States to visit me here, and vice-versa... for they'd be my means of translantion, my connection. My first week here, each time I came back from a visit with friends, I'd burst into tears. That degree of emotional turmoil has now dissapated... although the disconnect still very much exists, is very palpable... but I'm settled more comfortably into my life here.

So, in any case, given that Clinton signifies my life over there, the idea of her being present over here, was a little jarring.

That said, it was funny the ways in which traffic jams were suddenly spoken of - where's Clinton supposed to be at this hour? Ah, no wonder we're stuck... although we're 20 miles away from wherever she may be. It reminded me of her visit to India in 1998, or 1999, with Bill and Chelsea Clinton. All the roads along which they were to ply were re-tarred... something they couldn't do for Hillary's recent visit since she gave us Mumbaikers such sort notice. For shame!

Back then, I was in my first year of engineering school. I recall my friends and I wondering whether our private tuitions for mechanics would be canceled because the Clintons' were to arrive that evening. I remember joking that if they were, we should line the streets, waving our little paper Indian flags. (Un)fortunately, we still had our class... but I like mechanics, it is still one of the things I miss from my past-life, so no complaints. And finally, I remember a huge deal being made about them dining at a restaurant called Cafe Royale. It really isn't that fancy a place... but, if I recall correctly, it was a friend-of-a-friend kind of deal, for which a part of the city had to come to temporary standstill.

वाह रे वाह! Bombay, at a standstill for Americans...

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