A postcard from India

Published : Apr 01, 2000 00:00 IST


INDIAN newspapers lavished a great deal of attention on how much Bill Clinton had loved the mango ice cream he was served during a banquet in New Delhi. I learned this, oddly enough, from The New York Times.

As for me, living in Florida, when Peter Jennings broadcast on the ABC television network the first of his several reports on Clinton's visit to India, I settled down in front of the television set with curry chicken on my plate.

Jennings focussed that night on India's wars with Pakistan over Kashmir. We were shown footage of the conflict in Kargil which had claimed more than a thousand lives last summer. For a few moments, we saw the glaciers of Siachen where the Indian and Paki stani armies routinely exchange fire at freezing altitudes.

As the camera picked out the soldiers trudging in the immense, snowy wastes, it was difficult to know whether they were Indians or Pakistanis.

The slow-moving figures seemed to be dwarfed as much by the Himalayan peaks as by a meaningless cause that had somehow become so much bigger than them.

In his book Countdown, the writer Amitav Ghosh mentions that the military effort in Siachen costs India $20 million every day. The cost for Pakistan, although lower, is also substantial and therefore devastating to its national economy. Ghosh writes: "If the money spent on the glacier were to be divided up and handed out to the people of India and Pakistan, every household in both countries would be able to go out and buy a new cooking stove or a bicycle."

At one point during the ABC broadcast, I saw Indian women at a rally holding a cloth banner whose odd diction caught my eye. It read: "We Proud On Our Nuclear Tests."

I am often called upon to "explain" the Indian reality to my students or colleagues. But, in that misplaced syntax of the banner - a result of the transposition of the rules of Hindi grammar onto the words of English - I saw a way for emblematising the c ondition of contemporary Indian politics. The BJP's ultranationalist ideology has its roots in the non-English-speaking middle class, in India's small towns and its metropolitan petty bourgeois sections. It is in that broad group that the ruling right-wi ng party finds its support.

Consequently, in Indian politics, it is the liberal elites and the downtrodden poor and minorities that are left to give voice to another, alternative ideology. Thus, we get to witness the Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy courting arrest alongsi de the tribal men and women who will be displaced by the building of the mega dam on the Narmada river in central India. This latter group of the aggrieved elite and the terminally tormented was not party to the dialogues with Clinton during his visit. I n fact, party to Clinton's entourage were executives from the Ogden Energy group who signed an agreement with S. Kumars (for the Maheshwar dam in Madhya Pradesh), thereby hurting the campaign against big dams.

It is entirely possible, however, that given the prejudice of my own class and my profession, I might be reading too much into the simple message of the banner about the bomb. But, in such circumstances, it is difficult to know when one is reading too mu ch or too little. The signs of culture often challenge and baffle the critic. For example, in the ethnic Indian press here in the U.S., I recently came across an Indian beer company which in its new advertisement campaign enjoins Indian customers to beco me serious drinkers, with the slogan: "Vices can get you far. Look where it got Clinton."

Vices or not, Clinton certainly got to go as far as India.

The New York Times, among the numerous photographs it printed of the American President in the Indian subcontinent, also carried one which showed Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea, posing in front of the beautiful Taj Mahal. On seeing that photogr aph, I was reminded of another, also taken in front of the Taj, which showed Chelsea smiling for the cameras with her mother, Hillary Clinton. That picture had been taken during the pair's visit to Indiadia in 1995.

I was then living in an Arab section of New York City. The Oklahoma City bombing had taken place only a few days before. The U.S. media had raged about Arab terrorists. Then they discovered that the bomber was a white American, Timothy McVeigh, and he lo oked, as a mediawatch analyst described it, more like a midwestern frat-boy than like the Mujahideen.

One morning, I walked into a store near my apartment to buy bread. The Yemeni store-owner had put on the wall behind him the photograph he had cut out of a newspaper. It showed Hillary and Chelsea Clinton seated together in front of the Taj Mahal in Agra . I asked the Yemeni man why he had pasted that picture.

He began to answer me and then anger overwhelmed him. He stopped. He had started by saying, "I wanted to show how proud people feel when they're not Muslim..." Then, his voice choked with emotion and he fell silent.

What was he trying to tell me? I will never know.

Maybe he was saying that the beauty of the Taj Mahal, which could of course be described as an example of Islamic architecture, was here being appreciated by people who, in some indirect way, were responsible for the death of a million Muslims in Iraq.

I cannot say for sure.

But whatever name we give to that emotion, I could see that it was a pain mixed with rage that made the store-owner silent.

Maybe it was the fact that the smiling women in the photograph, sitting in front of a mausoleum and with a mosque on the side, looked so happy? And so very different from that pregnant Arab woman who, hiding alone in her bathroom, suffered a miscarriage because a mob in a midwestern American town surrounded and threw stones at her home. All because someone of her faith had quickly been assumed to be the one who had planted the bomb in Oklahoma City.

That is the memory to which my mind returned when I saw the picture of Clinton standing in the sun in front of the marble Taj.

I want to think of this memory as a postcard that the American President sent me from his vacation in the country of my birth.

Amitava Kumar is the author of

, coming out next month from the University of California Press.

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