Sunday, September 18, 2011

The price we pay

Over the last few days following the Shoshana Hebshi incident (about which I wrote this blog) I've been musing over what, if anything, it teaches us.

Hebshi's own blog webpage provided a starting point for this train of thought. She has bravely kept her comments section unmoderated and her famous article now has more than 3000 comments. Trawling through them I found that a significant majority of them are fairly brief and say something like "As an American, I'm sorry and ashamed about what's happened". Many attempt to console Shoshana and some advise her to fight a legal case for wrongful detention. Many also point out that the US has changed for the worse since 9/11, becoming more of a police state and thereby handing a win to the terrorists. Some remark that the founding fathers of the United States would be turning over in their graves and quote Benjamin Franklin's resonant observation that "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither".

However a rather significant percentage of comments on her blog (maybe one in four or even more) basically defend what happened, saying that the possibility of wrongful detention is the price everyone has to pay for increased security. Many of these people go on to say something like "America didn't start this, the terrorists started it on 9/11 and our government and security forces have reacted as well as they can". They cite the absence of major incidents in the US since 9/11 as "proof" that the security efforts are working well. Others add their fervent belief that the US only wants peace and has been unwillingly propelled into a warlike situation by evil external forces. These are the relatively polite commentators within this segment. Others are much more blunt and go out of their way to support profiling based on race and appearance, and some of these are explicitly abusive to Ms Hebshi.

So what do we learn at the end of everything? The premise that history started on 9/11 when warlike people attacked the hitherto peace-loving US will make a lot of history buffs gasp. Even the less grandiose theory that security efforts of the type recently undertaken on Shoshana and two nameless Indians make the US safer is rather dubious and can be, I feel, taken apart in a few lines (this kind of security is designed to convince the public that "things are being done" and has almost no relation to any meaningful thing actually being done. It's even been defended by saying this kind of action is "what the public wants to see", particularly surprising because the government is obliged to follow the Constitution rather than what people allegedly "want to see".) And yet, Americans are the most likely, I believe, of any people on earth to put a noble spin on the actions of their government and to ignore (or forget, or never bother to find out about) past history. Some of the most indefensible actions of their government abroad over a century, including military interventions, coups and assassinations, are generously sought to be defended (a professor in Princeton actually assured me that US foreign policy has always been sincerely in the best interests of the world at large!). And now apparently even the shrinking of human rights internally to the country is the "the price we pay" for security.

It's not my point that Americans are somehow dumb. The "idea of America" that has been communicated to its people over a long period, and occasionally modified at will by very clever politicans, is rather intoxicating and engaging. It enunciates the concept of a nation with a noble mission (under the watchful eye of an approving God) offering a dignified but strong and wrathful reply to outsiders bent on undermining this mission. Occasionally this story rings hollow in public (recall that during the Vietnam war a US major famously said 'It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,' (from Communism)) but for the most part it provides imagery that is seductive and easy to buy into.

Now this kind of ideology has been gaining ground in a part of India too for some time, and in the last few days it seems it has finally ripened. Almost exactly like Americans, Gujaratis have been seduced to put a noble spin on what their government and particularly their Chief Minister says and does. He has nourished on behalf of himself and his state the exact sense of nobility combined with victimhood that has made Americans focus on the (very genuine) positive aspects of their culture and society and ignore its occasionally destructive actions. As I've pointed out previously on this blog, Mr Modi is simultaneously a very competent administrator and a person whose credentials in respect to basic human rights are highly suspect (I must mention here that despite his recent attempts to imply the opposite, no court has yet exonerated him of some very serious charges).

One scenario that I think delights some people is that Mr Modi will take over India as a whole, maybe as soon as three years from now. From that day, if it comes, India will no doubt be infused with a seductive idea of its own nobility and unique mission under God. Far from criticising our government, as we now do daily, we will learn to spin its every action into a worthy one. The little sacrifices made by some of its (conveniently selected) citizens will be worth the price.

I can't resist pointing out that once this happens, we won't be entitled to criticise America any more...

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Shock and awe

This hasn't been reported too widely in the Indian press, but just a few days ago on September 11, three passengers on a commercial flight in the US (two of whom were apparently of Indian origin) were handcuffed and arrested from their seats upon landing and questioned in jail cells before being released without charges. Apparently this happened because the Indian passengers got up to use the toilets on the plane and a fellow-passenger reported that they were taking a suspiciously long time.

A beautiful blog account by the third arrested passenger, an American of mixed Saudi and Jewish decent called Shoshana Hebshi, describes her ordeal. It's titled "Shock and awe: Racially profiled and cuffed in Detroit". You should definitely read it here. The posting has already received over 2000 comments, many of which raise the issue of whether heightened threat-perception justifies what appears to be a constitutional violation (as per Wikipedia, the 4th amendment "guards against unreasonable searches and seizures, along with requiring any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause").

I simply couldn't read all 2000+ comments but just a few of them were sufficient to highlight the conflict here. Do Americans demand a liberal society and individual freedom and accept the risks this entails, or accept a monitored society with curtailed freedom in order to (possibly) reduce these risks? Opinions are sharply divided. I find it particularly fascinating that right-wingers, allegedly champions of individual liberty and government non-interference, are the ones who most strongly support random arrests and strip-searches as "the price one has to pay" to be secure.

The very same people oppose medical care being provided by the government to the poor and sick. Apparently in this case the "price one has to pay" is not worth paying? A particularly telling comment on this matter can be found in this article and video on the speech of presidential candidate Rick Perry, whose Tea-Party supporters recently cheered the idea that society should just let sick people die if they hadn't - for whatever reason - bought medical insurance.

I lived in the US during an era when right-wing activists were gunning down doctors who performed abortions - supposedly these were "pro-life" activists!! I realise I don't appreciate right-wing philosophy, but isn't it required to at least be internally consistent?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The prophet at home

Yesterday was my father's 35th death anniversary. Time has somehow not managed to erase all the memories, and yesterday I could almost see him thumping the dining table (this happened a lot in his lifetime) and exclaiming "Therefore what??". This would be his usual reaction to any suggestive comment that lacked a clear and precise implication. He detested innuendo, among a lot of other things including humbug, flattery and dishonesty.

In his youth he had annoyed his parents with his characteristic bluntness. When partition was imminent, he had warned his father that the family should plan to liquidate its assets in Hyderabad (Sind) and move to what would become post-partition India. My grandfather reacted badly and failed to follow this advice, resulting in the loss of his property. Years later in 1958, by which time my parents were settled in Bombay and I was two, my father vented his resentment with uncharacteristic subtlety and indirectness in a small article for the Times of India. Disguised as a humour piece, it's titled "The prophet at home". I'm lucky to have the original clipping in my possession, with the date on the right side in my father's own handwriting. A scan is provided below (click to read). It says more about him than I possibly could, and I hope you enjoy it.

P.S. The son referred to in the article is not me but my elder brother.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The show must go on

As today's cute Google Doodle reminds us, it's the birthday of the late Freddy Mercury, the flamboyant queen of the rock band Queen, a musician who changed the world and whose untimely passing affected me deeply. I'd assumed he had this effect on everyone, but recently I came across a colleague who had never heard of Freddy - so such people do exist! Whether you're one of them or not, you may want to read the Wikipedia entry linked above and then wade through each of the 15 Queen albums spanning over two decades. Or just read on.

I first heard the music of Queen when I went to the US as a graduate student in 1976. At the time they had a cult following and enjoyed the status of an "alternative" British hard rock band whose lead vocalist was flamboyant, outrageously effeminate and inclined to operatic outbursts. By then Queen had already released their masterwork, Bohemian Rhapsody, a song that successfully blended hard rock with opera, but it was too long and complex for the limited attention span of radio listeners and so remained restricted to connoisseurs. It surfaced every so often on WPLR 99.1 Classic Rock, my constant companion over five years at Stony Brook, which was among the few radio stations that dared to play longer and more complex songs. I came to enjoy Bohemian Rhapsody but it baffled me and I might not then have voted it one of the greatest rock songs ever (as I would today, without hesitation).

The lyrics are memorable, which means I can quote them from memory:

Is this the real life, is this just fantasy, 
caught in a landslide, no escape from reality.

The singer goes on to recount his recent exploits:

Mamma, I just killed a man, 
put a gun against his head, 
pulled my trigger now he's dead, 
Mamma, life had just begun, 
and now I've gone and thrown it all away.... 

But then this storyline turns out to be allegorical: there's a staccato piano interlude and Freddy recites, in his trademark camp, operatic style:

I see a little silhouetto of a man, 
Scaramouche, Scaramouche will you do the fandango

followed by cries of "Mamma mia", "Galileo", "Figaro" and remarkably "Bismillah, we will not let you go". Then it ends in a defiant blaze of hard rock, followed by a melancholy "nothing really matters to me" and the faint sound of a gong.

This "Bismillah" seems to be one of the few references in Freddie's music to his  Eastern roots: he was an Indian Parsi after all, and studied at - where else - my school, St. Mary's, at Mazgaon in Bombay, before his parents migrated to England. The only other reference to Eastern/Persian roots that I can recall is the opening track, Mustapha, of Queen's 1978 album "Jazz" which mystifyingly begins "Ibrahim, Ibrahim, Allah Allah Allah will pray for you". Apparently the lyrics are a mix of Arabic and Farsi, besides English -- if you know all three languages you can judge for yourself here.

There was a fresh Persian connection after Freddie's death: apparently a compilation of Queen's hit songs was officially released in Iran in 2004. This collection included Bohemian Rhapsody but excluded the love songs (I can't imagine the Iranian censors swaying to the Elvis-like "Crazy Little Thing Called Love", and forget about "Fat Bottomed Girls"!!). Moreover the package contained Farsi translations of the lyrics, as well as an explanation of Bohemian Rhapsody: it's about a man who has accidentally killed someone and loses his soul to Shaitan (I assume the genuine Satan, not the US government...). Before he is executed he regains his soul from Satan by appealing to God with several "Bismillah"'s. I found it hard to believe this entire story about the release in Iran, but you can read a BBC report about it.

The year after I reached Stony Brook, Queen's status in America changed suddenly with the release of a pair of very short and powerful songs: "We Will Rock You" and "We Are The Champions". The foot-stomping rhythm of the first one quickly propelled it to the status of baseball anthem, and the second song, very moving and lyrical, fitted that theme perfectly... So then Queen became as American as peanut butter. But the songs are eternal and global: just today during a phone call, my friend Vishwanath sang me a short draft of "We Will Rock You" set by him to a Carnatic raga (Shree, apparently) and in my view this works very well too!

It's fair to say the other members of Queen were very important to the music, particularly Brian May about whom let me say a few words. To my knowledge he is the first and only rock guitarist to have a published paper in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society even before embarking on a stage career. Not only that, he completed his Ph.D. in astrophysics at Imperial College around the time I was visiting there, three years ago! That's not all that can be said about Brian: his guitar style was supremely original, and within Queen it also became an echo of Freddy's voice: fluid, bubbly, eloquent and occasionally hysterical. I do wish other astrophysicists I know sounded so good :-)

One of the two Queen songs that had the most powerful impact on me personally was "Play The Game":

Open up your mind and let me step inside
Rest your weary head and let your heart decide
It's so easy when you know the rules
It's so easy all you have to do
Is fall in love
Play the game

The other was "The Show Must Go On" which was written and performed when Freddie was seriously ill with AIDS. It has a haunting theme of optimism in the face of tragedy. Thinly disguised as the story of a stage musician putting on a brave face in a time of intense emotional heartbreak, it's obviously something a little different: the courageous, desperate outburst of a dying man. Opening with:

Empty spaces - what are we living for?
Abandoned places - I guess we know the score.
On and on, Does anybody know what we are looking for?

it touchingly reveals the internal turmoil of the singer:

Inside my heart is breaking, 
My make-up may be flaking,
But my smile still stays on...

and closes with Freddy, our own Farrokh Bulsara, the Parsi kid from St. Mary's school with the protruding teeth, at the end of a short life lived to the full, screaming his lungs out:

I'll top the bill!
I'll overkill!
I have to find the will to carry on!

The show must go on...